U.N. Security Council Discusses Cameroon’s Anglophone-Francophone Conflict

On December 13, the United Nations Security Council heard reports from two U.N. officials about various issues in the Central African Region, including the Anglophone-Francophone conflict in Cameroon. Two of the 15 Council members (the United States and the United Kingdom) expressed the strongest concern about that conflict; eight others had varying degrees of alarm (Sweden, Netherlands, France, Côte d’Ivoire, Equatorial Guinea, Poland, Kuwait and Bolivia). Only one (Russia) had hostile or skeptical remarks while four others () apparently had nothing to say on the matter. [1]

U.N. Officials’ Reports

François Louncény Fall, Special Representative of the Secretary‑General and Head of the United Nations Regional Office for Central Africa (UNOCA), expressed “concern over the situation in the north-west and south-west regions of Cameroon.” He said that “violence has not diminished and there are reports of alleged human rights violations by all sides.” Recalling his November visit to Cameroon and his meetings with key Government officials, he encouraged the national authorities to address the root causes of the crisis, including by accelerating decentralization.

Reena Ghelani, Director of the Operations and Advocacy Division in the Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA), noted  that internal displacement has tripled in Cameroon’s south‑west and north‑west regions in the past six months and that the situation amounts to one of the fastest growing displacement crises in Africa.  Noting with great concern the deteriorating protection of civilians in those regions, she said humanitarian partners are scaling up their presence despite limited access.  However, severe underfunding has a significant impact on their ability to respond, she added, pointing out that every single humanitarian response plan in Central Africa was funded at less than the global average in 2018, Cameroon being the least funded.  Calling upon Member States for support, she stressed that the situation must change for the humanitarian response to be fully effective.

Ms. Ghelani emphasized the majority of the internally displaced Cameroonians “are hiding in dense forests, without adequate shelter and lacking food, water and basic services. Schools and markets are also disrupted and there are alarming health needs.” She also expressed “great concern [over] the deteriorating situation with respect to the protection of civilians, including reported killings, burning of homes and villages, extortion and kidnappings in the South West and North West regions [along with ]multiple attacks on schools and threats to students and teachers.”

Council Members’ Strongest Statements,of Concern About Cameroon

The two strongest statement of concern over the Anglophone-Francophone dispute at this session of the Council came from U.S. Ambassador Jonathan Cohen, the U.S. Deputy Permanent Representative to the United Nations, and U.K. Ambassador Jonathan Allen, the .U.K. Deputy Permanent Representative to the U.N.

U.S. Ambassador Cohen’s Statement

“The security and humanitarian conditions in Cameroon’s northwest and southwest regions have significantly deteriorated since the last UNOCA briefing to the Security Council in June. Violence continues to escalate, obstructing vital humanitarian aid delivery to over 430,000 IDPs [Internally Displaced Persons] and blocking health and education services to rural children.”

“October was the most violent month on record in Cameroon in recent years, and judging from anecdotal reports, we fear that November will surpass October as the bloodiest month on record. We don’t want to see that horrible trend continue again this month, December. The violence must stop now.”

“Violence between government and Anglophone separatists has resulted in killings and abductions of civilians, including a U.S. missionary who was killed on October 30. Faced with mounting insecurity, tens of thousands of Cameroonians have fled to neighboring Nigeria, as we’ve heard, while hundreds of thousands have been internally displaced and need humanitarian assistance.”

“The stakes in Cameroon are too high for this crisis to continue unaddressed. Cameroon remains an essential security partner in the fight against Boko Haram and the Islamic State in West Africa, including as a member of the Multi-National Joint Task Force. The continuing crisis threatens to detract from our mutual security objectives in the Lake Chad Basin.”

The “United States calls for an immediate and broad-based reconciliatory dialogue, without pre-conditions, between the Government of Cameroon and separatists in the Northwest and Southwest Regions. We urge all sides to forswear violence, to restore peace, and to resolve their grievances through political dialogue.”

“We note that in his inaugural address on November 6, President Biya expressed confidence that ‘there is an honorable way out in everyone’s interest.’  We encourage President Biya to make good on his commitment to accelerate the decentralization process and adopt the recommendations of the Cameroonian Commission on Bilingualism and Multiculturalism.”

“The creation of a government-led humanitarian assistance coordination center is a promising development. However, the government has done little to address concerns over its own lack of respect for humanitarian principles of neutrality and impartiality and the guarantees of unhindered access to conflict-affected populations. We urge the Government of Cameroon to prioritize respect for humanitarian principles and to ensure unobstructed access for UN agencies and humanitarian NGOs assisting conflict-affected populations.”

The ”United States believes that UNOCA – through the good offices of Special Representative Fall – could provide technical assistance and mediation support to facilitate a broad-based reconciliatory dialogue without pre-conditions. We hope that ECCAS [Economic Community of Central African States], the [African Union (AU’s] Peace and Security Council, and the AU Commission will enhance their efforts to support the peace process, and we encourage them to coordinate with UNOCA in this effort.”

“A peaceful and stable Cameroon is critical to regional stability in Central Africa and both deserves and requires the continued and close attention of this Council. As noted by our Assistant Secretary of State for African Affairs last week, the last thing we need, given the challenges in the region, is for a disproportionate response by security forces to result in the growing radicalization and hardening of separatist groups.”[2]

U.K. Ambassador Allen’s Statement

The “United Kingdom recognises the many positive contributions Cameroon is making to stability in the region, including their continued commitment to the fight against Boko Haram and the sanctuary that Cameroon offers to refugees from Nigeria and the Central African Republic. However, we are concerned by the reality of the rapidly deteriorating security and humanitarian situation in the Northwest and Southwest regions of Cameroon.”

“In particular, we are concerned about high levels of displacement and take very seriously Reena Ghelani’s warning that this is now one of the fastest growing displacement crises in Africa and reports of human rights violations and abuses perpetrated by armed separatist groups and Government forces, including extra-judicial killings, other killings, abductions, restrictions of movement and access to health and education as described in the Secretary-General’s report. We must always be alert, colleagues, to the risk that the situation escalates, affecting the broader peace and stability of the Central African region, and we have already seen over 30,000 Cameroonians flee into Nigeria. If grievances are not addressed, tensions are likely to increase further.”

“[These] concerns are not new – I raised them in the Council’s discussions in March, as did others. Unfortunately, we have not seen the action needed to address the situation and since March, it has deteriorated further.”

  • “We welcome President Biya’s recent pledge to address the situation but words alone will not improve things. We strongly urge the Government of Cameroon to take urgent action, including by:actively addressing the situation through inclusive dialogue with the Anglophone leadership to address the underlying issues;
  • undertaking confidence-building measures in order to diffuse tensions and build conditions for dialogue. This includes the release of political detainees, and implementing the Government’s own commitments on decentralisation, and the recommendations of the Commission on Bilingualism;
  • allowing full humanitarian access and access to human rights monitors to all parts of the country – and I would also hope and expect that our own SRSG would have access wherever he wanted to go; and
  • ensuring accountability for all those responsible for human rights violations and abuses.”

“And clearly . . . we also call on the armed groups involved to cease their attacks on civilians, allow full humanitarian access, and access to human rights monitors, and to engage with the Government on these issues.”

“The UK, for its part, is committed to supporting Cameroon and I am pleased to announce today that the United Kingdom is contributing $3.1 million to the UN’s response in the Anglophone regions – that’s equivalent to 20% of this year’s flash appeal for the Anglophone crisis – to address immediate humanitarian and medical needs. We strongly encourage other Member States to fund this as an important part of the conflict prevention effort. Preventing a crisis costs significantly less than resolving one.”

“[We] have raised our concerns quietly so far and directly with the Government and we are committed to working with the Government of Cameroon in every way we can to help resolve this situation. But I fear, unless action is taken and the situation improves, concern over the situation in Cameroon is likely to increase amongst Security Council Members and become a more prominent part of our discussions.

Other Council Members’ Statements of Concern About the Cameroon Conflict

Olof Skoog (Sweden) “deplored the acute humanitarian situation [in Cameroon] and the massive displacement in the north‑west and south‑west regions, noting reports of abductions and extrajudicial killings.  The crisis may drive regional instability, affecting the fight against terrorism in the Lake Chad Basin and peace-building in the Central African Republic, he warned, urging all parties to end the violence immediately.  He encouraged the Government of Cameroon to seek support from the United Nations and regional actors.

Lise Gregoire Van Haaren (Netherlands) noted that indiscriminate violence by the army and armed groups in Cameroon has displaced more than 437,000 people and risks spilling over into the wider region.  Expressing support for the country’s territorial integrity, she called upon the Government of Cameroon to begin meaningful, inclusive dialogue with all parties, including female representatives.  Human rights violations by all parties must be investigated and perpetrators held to account, she emphasized.

Anne Gueguen (France) expressed alarm at the situation in parts of Cameroon and pledged further efforts to encourage the Government to foster dialogue, decentralize power and hold violators of human rights accountable.  However, the U.N. summary did not indicate any comments by France directed at the actions of the Francophone majority in Cameroon.

Kacou Houadja Lkéon Adom (Côte d’Ivoire, a former French colony)), Council President for December, discussed the threat of Boko Haram and its devastating repercussions, especially for children and women in Cameroon, Chad and Niger. He apparently said nothing about the Anglophone-Francophone conflict.

Anatolio Ndong Mba (Equatorial Guinea) appealed for greater international support for dialogue and political stability in neighboring Cameroon.

Pawel Radomski (Poland) called upon the authorities in Cameroon to engage mediation efforts and resolve the crisis in its western region.

Mansour Ayyad Sh. A. Alotaibi (Kuwait) expressed concern about the deteriorating humanitarian situation in Cameroon.

Verónica Cordova Soria (Bolivia) affirmed [Cameroon] Government’s primary role in tackling challenges through inclusive dialogue.

Russia’s Negative Statement About Cameroon’s Conflict

Dimitry A. Polyanskiy (Russian Federation) said the available information with respect to Cameroon was “contradictory, emphasizing that the Council must not take any hasty decisions.  Citing concerns over rights violations in that country, he expressed hope that ‘London and Washington will adopt equally principled positions on the rights of Russian speakers in the Balkans and Ukraine.’ Underlining the importance of not breaching the line between prevention and intervention, he expressed his country’s willingness to offer assistance if Cameroon deems it necessary.

.Conclusion

 It is important to remember that at this session there was no resolution for any U.N. action to be taken regarding Cameroon.

Was it mere happenstance or an attempt to counter some of the talk at the Security Council that on the same day, December 13, the Cameroon government announced that it had ordered the country’s military tribunal to stop legal proceedings against 289 people who had been accused of taking part in the separatist movement? The announcement said that President Biya “had listened to the people” in making this decision to “maintain the country as a peace heaven.” [3]

==================================

[1] U.N., Special Representative  Stresses Need for New Strategies to Tackle root Causes of Insurgency, as Security Council Considers  Situation in Central Africa (Dec. 13, 2018); U.S. Mission to U.N., Remarks at a UN Security Council Briefing on the Central African Region (Dec. 13, 2018); U.K. Mission to U.N., Preventing further conflict in Cameroon and the Lake Chad Basin (Dec. 13, 2018); Assoc. Press, US Demands Immediate End to Violence, Talks in Cameroon, N.Y. Times (Dec. 13, 2018).

[2] See U.S. Warns Cameroon Internal Conflict Could Get Much Worse, dwkcommentaries.com (Dec. 8, 2018).

[3] Assoc. Press, Cameroon Leader Halts Cases Against 289  Alleged Separatists, N.Y. Times (Dec. 13, 2018).

Inner-Ear Damage to U.S. Diplomats in Cuba

On December 12, 2018, physicians at the University of Miami published a scientific study  concluding that the U.S. diplomats  in Cuba who have reported certain medical problems over the last two years suffered damage to the part of the inner ear responsible for balance. [1]

Dr. Michael E. Hoffer, the director of the university’s Vestibular and Balance Program and lead author of the study, said, “These people were injured. We’re not sure how. The injury resulted in ear damage and some trouble thinking.”

Dr. Hoffer added, “What we noticed is universal damage to the gravity organs in the ear. The ear has a bunch of different balance organs — and two of them are gravity organs — and those are damaged in everyone.” After suffering the damage, he said, the patients’ bodies spend so much energy trying to stay balanced that it wipes them out.“That’s very fatiguing. And it doesn’t leave a lot left over to remember where you put your keys.”

To date the U.S. has not identified any known cause for these injuries. The University of Miami study said, “it would be imprudent to exclude any potential directed or non-directed energy sources at this time.”

==================================

[1]  Dr. Hoffer, et al., Acute findings in an acquired neurosensory dysfunction, Investigative Otolaryngology (Dec. 12, 2018); Robles, U.S. Diplomats With Mysterious Illness in Cuba Had Inner-Ear Damage, Doctors Say, N.Y. Times (Dec. 12, 2018); Assoc. Press, Cuba Health Mystery: Diplomats Had Inner-Ear Damage Early On, N.Y. Times (Dec. 12, 2018); Gámez Torres, Doctors who first tested diplomats after Cuba ‘health attacks’ doubt concussion theory, Miami Herald (Dec. 12, 2018). Previous posts on this subject are listed in the “U.S. Diplomats’ Medical Problems in Cuba, 2016–??” section of List of Posts to dwkcommentaries.com—Topical: CUBA.

Another U.S.-Cuba Dispute Over Human Rights

On December 7 U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo sent an  open letter to Cuba’s Foreign Minister Bruno Rodriguez, and Cuba immediately and angrily denounced the letter without responding to the specific questions advanced by Pompeo.

Secretary Pompeo’s Letter[1]

The letter asked for a “substantive explanation of the detention of the [following eight] political prisoners” and “whether [Cuba] . . . continues to incarcerate . . . [them]  as charged with ‘pre-criminal dangerousness’ and “for an explanation of the charges and the evidence against the other individuals [on a list provided by the U.S. in January 2017]:”

  • Yosvany Sanchez Valenciano, Melkis Faure Echevarria, and Yanier Suarez Tamayo of the Cuban Patriotic Union;
  • Eduardo Cardet Concepcion of the Christian Liberation Movement;[2]
  • journalist Yoeni de Jesus Guerra Garcia;
  • Martha Sanchez of the Ladies in White; [3] and
  • Jose Rolando Casares Soto and Yamilka Abascal Sanchez of the Cuban Youth Dialogue.

The Secretary also said that the U.S. “has for decades expressed profound concern regarding Cuban political prisoners. Such prisoners include those charged with pre-criminal ‘dangerousness, ’defined [in Cuban law] as ‘the special inclination an individual has to commit crimes demonstrated by conduct in manifest contradiction to the rules of socialist morality.’ Former President [Raúl] Castro, in a news conference with then President Obama in March 2016, said that if U.S. officials presented him with a list of political prisoners, they would be released that very night. He received such a list, but political prisoners remained in detention. U.S. representatives [also] raised the issue during the October 2016 Human Rights Dialogue in Havana. They were told all prisoners were in jail for sound reasons and that, if we had questions as to the reasons, we could raise them. Our representatives were also advised that pre-criminal ‘dangerousness’ was no longer used as a basis for imprisoning people.”

 Cuban Responses[4]

The Cuban Foreign Minister responded on Twitter, ” Pompeo lies and slanders. U.S. government  is a global repressor [of human rights and] lacks moral authority.” In another tweet, Rodriguez said he has asked “Washington to lift the embargo, restore visas for Cubans” and “stop the repression of migrants, minorities and the poor.”

Cuba’s more extensive response to Secretary Pompeo’s letter was made by  US Director of Cuba’s  Ministry of Foreign Affairs, Carlos Fernández de Cossío. He said the U.S. “acts dishonestly when it raises concerns about the human rights situation in Cuba or anywhere.” He added that the “constant and flagrant abuses against its own population and the population of many countries in the world, and their alliance throughout history with dictatorial regimes authors of the most opprobrious crimes, disqualify the moral authority of the American rulers.”

The Pompeo letter and “his public management are nothing more than acts of propaganda.” They accompany . . . “the unwillingness of that government to sit down with Cuba, with seriousness and commitment, in a bilateral dialogue between equals, to deliberate on the issue of human rights and how to advance with sincerity towards constructive cooperation on the subject. . . . [and if] the United States were truly interested in the human rights of Cubans, it would not impose a criminal economic blockade that punishes the entire nation, nor would it place increasing obstacles to orderly emigration, nor to consular services on which tens of thousands of Cubans depend. ”

Fernández de Cossio concluded, “Cuba is a country in which human rights are respected. . . .  [and contrary to the U.S.]”the Cuban government and society as a whole are mobilized to promote and guarantee the legal framework, public policies and the effective enjoyment of the rights of citizens, including the rights to a life worthy, free of exploitation, marginalization, social alienation, discrimination of any kind, violence, crime and abuse of power, and with access to quality health and education services for the entire population, among other guarantees.”

===============================

[1] U.S. State Dep’t, An Open Letter to the Foreign Minister of the Republic of Cuba (Dec. 10, 2018)   (the letter itself was dated December 7, 2018); Assoc; Press, US Demands Answers From Cuba on Imprisoned Dissidents, N.Y. Times (Dec. 11, 2018).

[2] See U.S. at U.N. Condemns Cuba’s Imprisonment of Political Opponents, dwkcommentareis.com ( Oct. 17, 2018).

[3] See Search Results for: Ladies in White in dwkcommentaries.com.

[4] Cuba Foreign Ministry, Tweets by Foreign Minister Rodriguez (Dec. 2018); Cuba Foreign Ministry, Statement by the Director General of the USA of the MINREX on false accusations of the Department of State of the United States (Dec. 10, 2018).

 

U.S. Warns Cameroon Internal Conflict Could  Get Much Worse 

On December 6, Tibor Nagy, the U.S. Assistant Secretary of State for Africa, while on a trip in Africa said the separatist crisis in Cameroon could get “much, much” worse” and was “worrying me greatly.”[1]

He also said that the U.S. continues to call for dialogue between the Cameroon government and the Anglophone separatists and suggested “some form of decentralization” in Cameroon as mentioned in a proposed constitution for the country.

Unfortunately, he added, Cameroon reminded him of neighboring Nigeria, where the government’s “brutal response” to extremism led to an increase in the membership in Boko Haram. That decade-old Islamic insurgency continues to rage in northeastern Nigeria and has spilled over into Cameroon.

========================================

[1] Assoc. Press, US: Cameroon Separatists Crisis Could Get ‘Much, Much Worse,’ N.Y. Times (Dec. 6, 2018)

Cuba Relaxes Some New Rules Regarding Private Enterprise

On December 7 Cuba implemented new rules for its private sector (the “self-employed” in Cuban parlance) that had been announced on July 10.[1]

However, these new rules had been relaxed or liberalized in the following respects from those earlier announced:

  • The proposed limit of one self-employment license per person was eliminated.
  • Licenses for 26 of the 27 activities that had been suspended will be resumed. (The other suspended category (self-employed computer programmers) will remain suspended until specific norms for this area are developed.)
  • The proposed limit on the maximum capacity of 50 customers for food-service establishments was eliminated, with capacity to be determined by the size of the site to be utilized.
  • The required minimum balance of a commercial bank account: will be reduced from three monthly tax quotas to two, for operations in six categories (food services, restaurants and cafeterias; bar and recreational services; rental of rooms and spaces; construction, repair and maintenance services; and transportation of passengers in the capital).
  • Up to 35% of income of the foregoing establishments need not be deposited in the commercial bank account, to provide greater flexibility.

In announcing these changes, the Minister of Labor and Social Security Margarita González Fernández commented that, as projected, this modality of employment has generated jobs, expanded options for the population, and freed the state from the responsibility of managing small-scale activities that do not play an essential role in the national economy.

She also emphasized these adjustments reflect the government’s intention to recognize the positive role played by self-employment workers in the updating of our economic model, and to take into consideration the opinion and experiences of those directly involved, with the goal of establishing a climate of order and discipline in the sector.

However, there were no changes to the proposed rules regarding private taxis obligating drivers, for example, to purchase a minimum amount of fuel from state gas stations with huge markups in order to curb the black market for fuel amid a decline in oil supplies from ally Venezuela. The new rules  also fix prices for the set, shared routes.[2]

Some private drivers in Havana have said the new rules are so stifling that they prevent them from making a living, so they would rather give up their licenses to operate as taxis. The Vice Minister for Transport Marta Oramas said that around 800 drivers had handed in their licenses so far.

Anticipating this reduction in an already severe shortage in public transportation, the government said it was importing hundreds of microbuses and buses to alleviate the shortage.

=================================

[1] Martinez Hernández, Legal norms governing self-employment modified, Granma (Dec. 6, 2018); These are the new regulations to control the Cuban private sector, Diario de Cuba (Dec. 7, 2018). See also Cuba Announces New Regulations for Private Businesses, dwkcommentaries.com (July 10, 2018); More Details on New Cuban Regulations on Private Business, dwkcommentaries.com (July 11, 2018).

[2] Reuters, Cuba Reinforces Public Transport as It Clamps Down on Private Taxis, N.Y. times (Dec. 6, 2018).

“Whose People Will Be Our People?”

This was the title of the November 18 sermon by Senior Pastor, Rev. Tim Hart-Andersen, at Minneapolis’ Westminster Presbyterian Church.[1]

Preparing for the Word

The Prelude for the service was Franz Joseph Haydn’s Trumpet Concerto (Movements I and II) that was performed by Douglas Carlsen, trumpet (Minnesota Orchestra) and Melanie Ohnstad, organ.

Associate Pastor, Rev.  Alanna Simone Tyler, then led the congregation in the following unison Prayer of Confession:

  • “O Holy One, we gather today aware that we fall short of your hopes for us. We are a people divided. We do not trust one another. We forget we belong to the whole human family, not merely to our little circle. We do not accept the stranger as if it were you, O Christ. Forgive us, and make us one again, with you and with those from whom we are estranged.”

Listening for the Word

The Scriptures: Ruth 1: 1-18 (NRSV):

“In the days when the judges ruled, there was a famine in the land, and a certain man of Bethlehem in Judah went to live in the country of Moab, he and his wife and two sons. The name of the man was Elimelech and the name of his wife Naomi, and the names of his two sons were Mahlon and Chilion; they were Ephrathites from Bethlehem in Judah. They went into the country of Moab and remained there. But Elimelech, the husband of Naomi, died, and she was left with her two sons. These took Moabite wives; the name of the one was Orpah and the name of the other Ruth. When they had lived there about ten years, both Mahlon and Chilion also died, so that the woman was left without her two sons and her husband.”

“Then she started to return with her daughters-in-law from the country of Moab, for she had heard in the country of Moab that the Lord had considered his people and given them food. So she set out from the place where she had been living, she and her two daughters-in-law, and they went on their way to go back to the land of Judah. But Naomi said to her two daughters-in-law, ‘Go back each of you to your mother’s house. May the Lord deal kindly with you, as you have dealt with the dead and with me. The Lord grant that you may find security, each of you in the house of your husband.’ Then she kissed them, and they wept aloud. They said to her, ‘No, we will return with you to your people.’ But Naomi said, ‘Turn back, my daughters, why will you go with me? Do I still have sons in my womb that they may become your husbands? Turn back, my daughters, go your way, for I am too old to have a husband. Even if I thought there was hope for me, even if I should have a husband tonight and bear sons, would you then wait until they were grown? Would you then refrain from marrying? No, my daughters, it has been far more bitter for me than for you, because the hand of the Lord has turned against me.’ Then they wept aloud again. Orpah kissed her mother-in-law, but Ruth clung to her.”

“So she said, ‘See, your sister-in-law has gone back to her people and to her gods; return after your sister-in-law.’”

“But Ruth said, ‘Do not press me to leave you or to turn back from following you! Where you go, I will go; where you lodge, I will lodge; your people shall be my people, and your God my God. Where you die, I will die—there will I be buried. May the Lord do thus and so to me, and more as well, if even death parts me from you!’”

“When Naomi saw that she was determined to go with her, she said no more to her.”

The Sermon:

“Few stories in Hebrew Scripture are as central to our Christian narrative, and are as reflective of what God is up to in Jesus, as the account of Naomi and Ruth.”

In many ways it’s a thoroughly modern story, a tale of love and survival, of refugees and immigrants, of loyalty and generosity, of family legacy and the quiet strength of women.” (Emphasis added.)

“Naomi, an Israelite, marries a man from Bethlehem. They flee famine in Israel and travel as refugees to the land of Moab to the east, beyond the river Jordan, where they settle as a family.”

“But after a time Naomi’s husband dies, and with no one to provide for her and being a refugee from a foreign land, she faces serious hardship. Fortunately, her sons have grown up. They marry women of Moab, Orpah and Ruth, and can now care for their mother.”

“We often view the story of Ruth as the tale of individuals and the decisions they make. But their lives, and this story, are lived in a much broader context. Naomi, from Israel, and Ruth, from Moab, represent two nations historically in conflict. Their people are enemies.” (Emphasis added.)

“To get a feel for the unsettling power of this narrative, imagine it set in the modern Middle East. If we replace Moab with Palestinian Gaza, and Bethlehem with Israeli Tel Aviv, we begin to get a sense of the larger, treacherous, complicated implications of this story.” (Emphasis added.)

“For a time all is well for Naomi in her new life in Moab, but then tragedy strikes again. Both sons die, leaving her vulnerable once more. The only hope for Naomi is to return to Bethlehem where she has relatives on whom she might be able to depend. She learns the famine that caused them to leave in the first place is over, and she decides to go home.”

“When Naomi sets off for Bethlehem, her two daughters-in-law decide to go with her, but Naomi stops them. She tells them to go home to their own people, where they have a chance of surviving, of marrying again and starting new families, and being among their own people. Orpah chooses to return home, but Ruth’s love and loyalty compel her to go with her mother-in-law, who tries again to dissuade her. I imagine them standing on the banks of the Jordan, the border between Moab and Judah, the southern kingdom of Israel, Naomi urging her to return home one last time. But Ruth stands her ground.”

“’Do not press me to leave you or to turn back from following you!’ she says to Naomi.”

  • Where you go, I will go; where you lodge, I will lodge; your people shall be my people, and your God my God. Where you die, I will die—there will I be buried.’ (Ruth 1:17-18)” (Emphasis added.)

“It’s a stunning soliloquy, with far-reaching consequences. With her words, Ruth reframes and redefines existing norms and realigns historic assumptions. She chooses to ignore the accepted boundaries between people and nations. She sets self aside and declares her intention to use love as the measure by which she will live.” (Emphasis added.)

The story of Ruth points to the dangers of exaggerated nationalism and the risks of restrictive boundaries within the human family. The story upends old rules about identity, and proposes new ways of thinking about relationships. It shows that grace and generous love can disrupt historic patterns of exclusivity.” (Emphasis added.)

“After Ruth’s words, Naomi really has no choice, so the two of them set off together for Bethlehem, climbing up into the hills of Judah from the Jordan Valley. Once they get there, they have no means of sustaining themselves. In order to provide food for the two of them, Ruth goes to glean in the fields with other poor, hungry people, picking up leftovers after the harvest. She happens to do this, to glean, in the field of Boaz, a kinsman of her dead husband’s family.”

“Boaz sees her and is attracted to her, and asks about her and, eventually, with a little encouragement from Ruth, falls in love with her. They have a son named Obed, whose wife has a son named Jesse. Remember the prophetic prediction that ‘a shoot will come out of the stump of Jesse?’ That shoot would be David, son of Jesse, great-grandson of Ruth – David, who would become king of Israel, and from whose line the Messiah would one day come, as the prophets of old had foretold.” (Emphasis added.)

“In other words, without the courage and strength of Naomi and the perseverance and love of Ruth, the story would end. There would have been no Obed, no Jesse, no David – and, eventually, no Jesus. The entire biblical story for Christians rests on this one foreign enemy woman, a young widow who leaves her own people, with great risk, goes with her mother-in-law, to support her, because it was the right and just thing to do. As the Shaker poem the choir sang earlier says, ‘Love will do the thing that’s right.’”

“’Where you go I will go, ‘Ruth says. ‘Where you lodge I will lodge. Your people will be my people, and your God my God.’”

The prophet Micah asks, ‘What does the Lord require of us’ Ruth, a foreigner not under the law of the Hebrews, instinctively knows the answer: ‘To do justice, love kindness, and walk humbly with our God.’” (Emphasis added.)

The story of Ruth is a parable for our time. It may not be Moab and Israel, but in America today we live as if we were enemies of one another. There’s no longer a common understanding of what unites us as a people. We think the worst of those with whom we disagree. Everything has a zero-sum quality to it. Either you’re with me or you’re against me.” (Emphases added.)

“Your people cannot possibly be my people.”

“American individualism has always been in creative and generative tension with the call to live as one community. These days, however, that tension has largely been displaced by rampant sectarianism. Very few now try even to talk across the divide anymore. Rigid partisanship precludes the possibility of building a shared purpose as a people. We cannot see beyond our own firm boundaries.”

“Presidential historian Michael Beschloss spoke at the Westminster Town Hall Forum last Tuesday. More than 1700 people were here. The sanctuary and Westminster Hall were filled to overflowing.” [2]

“We were surprised by the crowd. Why did so many people come? The midterm elections were over and the relentless campaigning was behind us , and I think people wanted to take a longer view of where things stand in America. We had just marked the 100th anniversary of the Armistice ending the First World War. And our national Day of Thanksgiving is nearly upon us, always a time to pause and reflect on the road we as a people have trod, and on the journey ahead. People came that day to find hope for the future of our nation.”

“The questions asked of Beschloss at the Town Hall Forum focused less on any particular president, current or historic, and more on the present contentiousness in our land. People wrote question expressing serious anxiety about the health of our democracy. They wanted to hear from a professional historian whether things are as bad as they seem. They are, in his view.“

“Beschloss is deeply concerned about the nation and its future. In his study of history, he said, he knew of few times in our country’s life as fraught with division and discord, and the potential for worse, as ours. Even as he expressed hope about the enduring strength of American democracy, he warned about the risk of conflict escalating into violence.”

“This is not only a Republican-Democrat problem, or a conservative-progressive matter. It’s not even solely a political problem, nor merely a lack of civility. It’s something far more than that.”

“It’s the same question Ruth faced, a question of identity and belonging: whose people will be my people? Our people?”

“It shows up in the rural-urban divide. It can be seen in the widening gulf between those with a high level of economic comfort and those who have been left behind – and in the policies aimed at keeping things like that. We see it in unresolved racial disparities among us. It’s there in the backlash against immigrants. There’s a growing education gap and a perception of elitism among us.”

“We’re all caught up in it. We’re all caught up in the cultural dividing lines that cut across the nation. And naturally we think the “other side” is at fault; but none of us is innocent.”

“Beschloss said that when American presidents have found themselves leading in a time of war they always become more religious. He described Lincoln coming to Washington as an agnostic, and maybe even an atheist,, but as he sent men off to fight and die on the battlefield he turned to the Bible and to prayer for wisdom and strength and succor. We can hear it in his speeches; he quoted scripture all the time. He needed something beyond his own resources to bear the terrible burden and to help resolve the national crisis.”

“We need something, as well, beyond our own limited resources. What we’re facing, I think, can be described as a spiritual problem. We’re too mired in mundane, daily outrage to see things from a higher point of view.” (Emphasis added.)

“In contrast, Ruth refuses to let the prevailing perception of reality – that Moab and Israel are enemies – define her own point of view. She chooses to live according to a different reality. She seeks a deeper, broader, more generous perspective on the human family. She lifts her vision above the discord and looks beyond it. She wants to see things more as God intends them to be, not as the world sees them.”

“We’re in a moment where our nation lacks that kind of moral vision, a vision that looks beyond the immediacies of our divided house, a vision summoning us to conceive anew the possibilities the American experiment was meant to offer. We cannot keep living like this; there’s simply too much at stake not to try to reclaim the values at the heart of our democracy – values never perfectly implemented, but that have served as aspirational measures of our life together.”

This is a Naomi and Ruth moment, and the question facing us is: whose people will be our people?” (Emphasis added.)

As Christians, we believe that Jesus embodies God’s response to that question.” (Emphasis added.)

“In the coming season we will we speak of this one who is born in Bethlehem, the descendant of David. We will speak of him as Emmanuel, God with us.”

Jesus does with all humanity what Ruth does with Naomi. He lives for others and loves them unconditionally, even at the risk of losing his own life.” (Emphasis added.)

In Jesus, and in Ruth, we have the blueprint for human community: a generosity of spirit that starts by saying, “Your people will be our people.” (Emphasis added.)

“Thanks be to God.”

Reflections

This sermon provided historical and contemporary contexts that made the story of Ruth and Naomi more powerful.

Naomi and Ruth were from countries, Israel and Moab respectively, that were enemies. Yet Ruth “reframes and redefines existing norms and realigns historic assumptions.” She “chooses to ignore the accepted boundaries between people and nations” and thereby “shows that grace and generous love can disrupt historic patterns of exclusivity.”

“Jesus does with all humanity what Ruth does with Naomi. He lives for others and loves them unconditionally.”

It is easiest for nearly everyone to first experience love in a family and define yourself as a member of that family. Then as we grow up we enlarge the family group to include friends and neighbors, eventually people from a geographical area and then a nation. All of these groups are logical and hopefully enriching.

The challenge then is to understand and treasure all human beings who are outside these groups. We are offered opportunities to do so by reading about people in other cultures and lands, by seeking to engage with nearby neighbors with different cultures and traditions, by welcoming newcomers of all faiths and traditions to our cities and towns and by traveling to other lands.

I have been blessed in this quest by a superb education; by living and studying for two years in the United Kingdom; by traveling to many other countries in Europe, North America and Latin America and a few countries in the Middle East, Asia and Africa; by being a pro bono asylum lawyer for Salvadorans, Somalis, Colombians and men from Afghanistan and Burma; by learning and teaching international human rights law; by researching and writing blog posts about Cuba, Cameroon and other countries and issues; and by getting to know their peoples and by getting to know people in Minnesota from many other countries.

Especially meaningful for me has been involvement in Westminster’s Global Partnerships in Cuba, Cameroon and Palestine and learning more about these countries’ histories, traditions and problems and establishing friendships with individuals in these countries. For example, this past May, individuals from these three counties visited Westminster in Minneapolis and we all shared our joys and challenges. Especially enriching were three worship services focused on each of our partnerships.

For example, our May 20, 2018, service on Pentecost Sunday featured our Palestinian brothers and sisters from our partner congregation, Christmas Lutheran Church in Bethlehem.[3]

We had Palestinian music from the Georges Lammam Ensemble (San Francisco, California). Rev. Munther Isaac, the Senior Pastor of our partner congregation, provided the Pastoral Prayer and led the unison Lord’s Prayer. My new friend, Adel Nasser from Bethlehem, chanted the Twenty-third Psalm in Arabic.

Then Rev. Mitri Raheb, the President of Dar-Al-Kalima University in Bethlehem, had an illuminating conversational sermon with Rev. Hart-Andersen that was centered on the Biblical text (Acts 2: 1-12). This passage talks about a gathering in Jerusalem of  people “from every nation under heaven,” each speaking “in the native language of each” and yet hearing, “each of us, in our own native language” and thus understanding one another. Here are some of the highlights of that conversation:

  • Hart-Andersen said the text emphasized that all of these people were in one place together, affirming the vast display of God’s creative goodness in the human family when no one has to surrender his or her own identity and thereby affirms the identity of every human being.
  • This is what God wants in the human family, Hart-Andersen continued. Make space for people who are different. The miracle of Pentecost is the existence of bridges over these differences and the destruction of walls that we tend to build around our own little groups.
  • Hart-Andersen also pointed out that Minnesota today is like that earlier gathering at Pentecost with over 100 different language groups in the State.
  • Raheb agreed, saying that Palestine is also very diverse and God wants diversity in the human family. As a result, there is a need to build bridges between different groups, and the Covenant Agreement between Westminster and Christmas Lutheran Church expressly calls for building bridges between the U.S. and Palestine. He also treasures the gathering this month of Cubans and Cameroonians with the Palestinians and Americans because it helped to build bridges among all four of these groups. We were experiencing Pentecost in Minneapolis.
  • Raheb also mentioned that the original Pentecost featured the miracle of understanding among the people speaking different languages. The Holy Spirit provided the software enabling this understanding.
  • Hart-Andersen said the diversity of the human family compels us to build bridges. The mission of the church is to resist walls that keep us apart.
  • Raheb emphasized that Acts 2:1-12 is a foundational text for Arabic Christianity as it mentions Arabs as being present on Pentecost.
  • He also contrasted Pentecost with the Genesis account (Chapter 11) of “the whole earth [having] one language and the same words” and the resulting arrogance to attempt to build a tower to the heavens. God responded by confusing their language” so that they would not understand one another and stop building the tower of Babel. This is emblematic of empires throughout history that have attempted to impose one language on all parts of the empire.

Yes, we all are brothers and sisters in Christ!

=========================================

[1]  The text of the sermon is available on the church’s website.

[2] See Beschloss Discusses “Presidents of War” at Westminster Town Hall Forum, dwkcomentaries.com (Nov. 15, 2018).

[3] The bulletin and an audio recording for this May 20 service are available on the Westminster website.

 

Robots Replacing Farm Workers 

Prior posts have described the overall shortage of labor in the U.S. today, especially in agriculture.[1] Now these shortages have prompted several firms in this industry to introduce robots and other automation into their businesses.[2]

For example, Taylor Farms of Salinas, California, one of the world’s largest producers and sellers of fresh-cut vegetables, recently unveiled a fleet of robots designed to replace humans. Its smart machines can assemble 60 to 80 salad bags a minute, double the output of a worker. In the process it creates higher-skilled positions that can attract younger, educated workers.

Other examples are Driscoll’s, the berry titan based in Watsonville, Calif., and Christopher Ranch, a giant producer of garlic. Driscoll’s has invested in several robotic strawberry harvesting start-ups, including Agrobot, which uses imaging technology to assess a berry’s ripeness before it is harvested. Christopher Ranch has started using a 30-foot-tall robot to insert garlic buds into sleeves, the nets into which they are bundled for sale in supermarkets. Yet another is Bartley Walker, a family business that  now offers a robotic hoeing machine with a detection camera capable of identifying the pesky weeds that sprout between row crops like broccoli and cauliflower.

In the background is a 2017 survey of California farmers  that reported 55% with labor shortages and nearly 70% for those depending on seasonal workers.

Ideally, growers say, Congress would pass a bill to legalize undocumented farm workers who are already here and encourage them to stay in the fields, as well as include provisions to ensure a steady flow of seasonal workers who could come and go with relative ease.

===================================

[1] E.g., Federal Reserve Bank Endorses Need for More Immigrants, dwkcommentaries.com (Nov. 17, 2018).

[2]  Jordan, As Immigrant Farm Workers Become More Scarce, Robots Replace Humans, N.Y. Times (Nov. 20, 2018).