The Sanctuary Movement Case

After 19 years of practicing corporate litigation with prominent law firms in New York City and Minneapolis, I was a tabula rasa in what turned out to be important topics for me. I had no knowledge of, or interest in, international human rights law in general or refugee and asylum law in particular. Nor did I have any knowledge of, or interest in, Latin America in general or El Salvador in particular. At the same time I was struggling with the question of how to integrate my newly re-acquired Christian faith with my professional life.

In 1985 all of this started to change.

My senior partner at Faegre & Benson asked me to provide legal counsel to the firm’s client, the American Lutheran Church. The problem: how should the ALC respond to the news that the U.S. Immigration and Naturalization Service had sent undercover agents into worship services and Bible study meetings at Lutheran and Presbyterian churches in Arizona that were involved in the Sanctuary Movement?

As I soon discovered, that Movement was a loose association of Christian congregations that declared themselves sanctuaries or safe spaces for Salvadorans and Guatemalans fleeing their civil wars in the 1980s. The news about the “spies in the churches” was revealed by the U.S. Government in its prosecution of some of the Movement’s leaders for harboring and transporting illegal aliens, some of whom were later convicted of these charges.[1]

In the meantime, the ALC and my own church, the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.), decided to join together to sue the U.S. Government over the “spies in the churches.” Eventually the U.S. District Court in Phoenix agreed with the churches that the First Amendment’s “freedom of religion” clause[2] provided protection against certain government investigations.

The court said that the churches “in the free exercise of their constitutionally protected religious activities, are protected against governmental intrusion in the absence of a good faith purpose for the subject investigation. The government is constitutionally precluded from unbridled and inappropriate covert activity which has as its purpose or objective the abridgment of the first amendment freedoms of those involved. Additionally, the participants involved in such investigations must adhere scrupulously to the scope and extent of the invitation to participate that may have been extended or offered to them.”[3]

I should add that the courtroom work in this case was done by two lawyers at the Phoenix firm of Lewis and Roca–Peter Baird[4] and Janet Napolitano.[5]

This case marked a turning point in my legal career as will be evident in subsequent posts.


[1]  One of the founders of the Sanctuary Movement was Rev. John Fife of Tucson’s Southside Presbyterian Church. He was one of those convicted in 1986 in the criminal case.  Six years later he was elected the national leader (Moderator) of the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.)..(Wikipedia, John Fife, http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/John_Fife.)

[2]  “Congress shall make no law . . . prohibiting the free exercise [of religion].” (U.S. Const., Amend. I.)

[3]  Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) v. U.S., 752 F. Supp. 1505, 1516 (D. Ariz. 1990), on remand from, 870 F.2d 518 (9th Cir. 1989).

[4]  Peter Baird, http://www.lrlaw.com/files/Uploads/Documents/Baird%20Bio.pdf; Phoenix veteran attorney Peter Baird dies, Phoenix Bus. J.(Aug. 31, 2009), http://www.bizjournals.com/phoenix/stories/2009/08/31/daily19.html.

[5]  Napolitano now, of course, is the Secretary of the Department of Homeland Security. (Wikipedia, Janet Napolitano, http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Janet_Napolitano.)

The U.S. Should Pursue Reconciliation with Cuba

U.S. reconciliation with Cuba is in the U.S. national interest. Cuba poses no threat to the U.S. Reconciliation would help improve the lives of many Cubans now living on the margin. Reconciliation also would advance U.S. economic and other interests.

I will explain why I reach these conclusions. Then I will set forth what I see as the topics to be addressed in the necessary bilateral negotiations to reach the reconciliation goal along with a process to facilitate such negotiations.

Why U.S.-Cuba Reconciliation Is in the U.S. National Interest

First, Cuba poses no threat to the U.S.

Our population of 313.2 million is over 28 times larger than Cuba’s of 11.1 million. Our economy of         $ 14.62 trillion is 254 times as large as Cuba’s of $57.5 billion. Our annual defense expenditures of $593.6 billion is over 270  times larger than Cuba’s of $ 2.2 billion, and Cuba’s military equipment suffers from lack of replacement parts while we all know about U.S. military capabilities’ exceeding the rest of the world combined. And our land mass is over 88 times larger than Cuba’s (9,827,000 sq. km. vs. 111,000 sq. km.). (These comparisons are based on public statistics published by our CIA.) [1]

Yes, Cuba is one of four countries on the U.S. list of “state sponsors of terrorism,” but such designation is not justified.[2] Furthermore, there is absolutely no reason why the stated reasons for the U.S. designation of Cuba as a “state sponsor of terrorism” could not be successfully addressed in a good faith negotiation between the two countries.

Second, Cuba’s regrettable human rights violations are understandable and could be more successfully addressed in direct negotiations between the two countries.

Yes, Cuba has committed violations of human rights, as illustrated by the most recent U.S. State Department Human Rights Report on Cuba.[3] As a human rights advocate, I deplore these violations.

Yet given the long-standing U.S. hostility towards Cuba and the immense U.S. superiority in economies and militaries, it is understandable why Cuba has harshly treated what we call “dissidents.” Remember the U.S. usurpation of Cuba’s war for independence from Spain in the late 19th Century and our making Cuba a de facto U.S. protectorate in the early 20th Century. Remember too the U.S.-supported invasion of Cuba’s Bay of Pigs in 1961, and the Cuban missile crisis of 1963 and the CIA plots to kill Fidel Castro. The U.S. embargo of Cuba has now lasted for nearly 52 years. Most recently the U.S. Government’s Commission on Assistance for a Free Cuba set forth a U.S. blueprint for taking over Cuba.[4] In short, Cuba has many legitimate reasons to be afraid of the U.S.

And we should know from our own history since 9/11 that societies and governments tend to clamp down on civil liberties when they fear outside interference or attacks.

Cuba’s human rights record is often used as another justification for U.S. continued hostility towards Cuba and the maintenance of the embargo. Yet, I submit, this has been a failed strategy, and there is no reason to suspect that continuation of this hostility will bring about a change in Cuban human rights.

Instead, good faith negotiations between the two countries aimed at normalization of relations, I believe, hold more promise for improving human rights in Cuba.

Third, normalizing U.S. relations with Cuba would be in the economic interests of the U.S.

Prior to the recent global financial and economic turmoil, Cuba had the highest economic growth rate in Latin America. This was due in substantial part to increasing world prices for two of its exports, nickel and cobalt. Exploration for oil off the north coast of Cuba is now proceeding. Cuba needs to import many agricultural products. Foreign tourists (mainly Canadians and Europeans) enjoy Cuba’s beautiful beaches and resorts.

The global financial and economic turmoil has had a huge negative impact on the Cuban economy. The Cuban government wants to lay off 500,000 public employees (nearly 10 % of the total labor force), leaving them to try to support themselves as barbers, hairdressers and similar occupations. The government also wants to eliminate the food ration card system that provides limited quantities of basic foods at low, subsidized prices. Such changes increase the economic incentives for Cubans to leave the island and somehow get to the U.S.

Our economic embargo of the island deprives our own businesses and farmers from benefiting from trade with the island. In addition, our embargo provides economic opportunities for other countries, and increasingly China, to fill the void.

Fourth, normalizing relations with Cuba would be in the overall interest of the U.S.

The U.S. has many pressing real problems in the world, and Cuba is not one of them. Normalizing our relations with the island would be seen by most people in the world, especially Latin America, as a sign that the U.S. is a mature, rational country.[5]

Topics for U.S.-Cuba Negotiations

I am not a U.S. government employee and thus am not privy to all of our Government’s issues regarding Cuba. As a concerned and informed U.S. citizen, however, I believe that any U.S.-Cuban negotiations would include at least the following subjects:

1. re-establishment of full diplomatic relations;

2. termination of the United States’ embargo against Cuba;

3. termination of the United States’ restrictions on its citizens’ travel to Cuba;

4. compensation by Cuba for expropriated property of U.S. citizens and businesses;

5. emmigration and immigration of citizens between the two countries;

6. enhancement of human rights of Cuban citizens;

7. the status of Cuba’s lease of Guantanamo Bay to the United States; [6]

8. the continued U.S. imprisonment of the so-called Cuban Five;[7]

9. the continued Cuban imprisonment of U.S. citizen, Alan Gross;[8]

10. U.S. fugitives in Cuba;[9]

11. exploration and drilling for oil in the Caribbean Sea between the two countries;[10]  and

12. Cuba’s re-entry into the Organization of American States.

Process for U.S.-Cuban Negotiations

Given the long period of hostility between the two countries and the apparent lack of movement toward negotiations, I believe that the assistance of a neutral third-party mediator would be helpful to both countries. Such a mediator, in my opinion, should be someone who is bilingual in English and Spanish with experience as an international mediator, who is in fact and perceived to be neutral and who has the time (and staff?) to make a major commitment to this process.

Such a mediator indeed could step forward and invite representatives of both countries to participate in mediated negotiations, rather than wait on them to agree on such a process. As a private citizen I unsuccessfully have tried to interest two international organizations in doing just that.[11]

Conclusion

As a result of the above analysis, I strongly disagree with the stated position of the Obama Administration. On May 13, 2011, President Obama said (in Miami), “I would welcome real change from the Cuban government … For us to have the kind of normal relations we have with other countries, we’ve got to see significant changes from the Cuban government and we just have not seen that yet.”[12] He and Secretary of State Clinton previously have made similar statements.[13]

The Administration, in my opinion, is wrong on this policy for two reasons.

First, the U.S. should not insist on another country’s making certain internal changes before even talking about a whole range of issues that need to be resolved in a bilateral relationship. Indeed, this is exactly what the U.S. is advocating for Israel and the Palestinians.

Second, the Administration is wrong as a matter of fact about the changes that have been happening in Cuba over the last 18 months or so. The Cuban government has announced major changes in the economic structures–planning to fire 500,000 public employees and allowing greater private enterprise and economic freedom. Some workers are organizing unions. A small farmers group is calling for an end to the state’s food distribution monopoly. The government is cracking down on corruption. Cuba as a result of an agreement that was brokered by the Roman Catholic Bishop of Havana has released most, if not all, of its political prisoners.


[2]  See Post: The Ridiculous  U.S. Designation of Cuba as a “State Sponsor of Terrorism” (May 20, 2011).

[3]  U.S. State Dep’t, 2010 Human Rights Report: Cuba (April 8, 2011),    http://www.state.gov/g/drl/rls/hrrpt/2010/wha/154501.htm.

[4]   U.S. Commission on Assistance for a Free Cuba, http://www.cafc.gov. The Commission apparently has been abandoned by the Obama Administration because it is not mentioned on the current U.S. State Department website.

[5]   E.g., Thompson & Romero,  Clinton Aims to Improve Ties with Latin America,, N.Y. Times (May 19, 2011), http://www.nytimes.com/2011/05/19/world/americas/19policy.html

[6]  From 1903 through 1933, the annual rent for the U.S. lease of Guantanamo was $2,000 (U.S. gold coins), an amount that was initially seen as generous to Cuba. From 1934 through 1971 it was $3,336 as a result of the U.S. going off the gold standard. In 1972 it was adjusted to $3,676 (due to revaluation of the U.S. Dollar to gold). In 1973, another adjustment for the same reason produced an annual rent of $4,085 which is still in effect today. Thus, for many more recent years the rent is seen as nominal. Moreover, starting in 1960 (soon after the Cuban Revolution took over the island), Cuba has refused to cash the annual rent checks. Thus, for over half a century the U.S. has not paid anything for leasing Guantanamo. (Michael Strauss, The leasing of Guantanamo Bay at 126-37 (Westport, Conn.: Praeger Security Int’l 2009); id. at 214-33 (text of the actual lease agreements).)

[7]  The “Cuban Five” are five Cubans in U.S. prisons after convictions for conspiracy to commit murder; conspiracy to commit espionage; conspiracy to commit crimes against the U.S.; use of false identity and documentation; and being unregistered agents of a foreign government. In Cuba, they are regarded as heroic patriots. A future post will discuss their case.

[8]  Gross is a U.S. citizen who was arrested in Havana in December 2009 and later convicted of illegally distributing in Cuba satellite communications equipment as a subcontractor of USAID.

[9]  E.g., Puerto Rican Nationalist: Not Guilty in Bank Heist, N.Y. Times (May 21, 2011),    http://www.nytimes.com/aponline/2011/05/20/us/AP-US-Puerto-Rico-Robbery.html?sq=CUBA&st=nyt&scp=3&pagewanted=print (Puerto Rican nationalist pleads not guilty in 1983 U.S. bank robbery; another suspect in the robbery is believed to be living in Cuba).

[10]  E.g., Howell, Oil Spill Panel’s Chairman Says His Push for Cuba Talks Irked Obama Admin, N.Y. Times (May 17, 2011); Reuters, Cuban Oil Rig Set to Cause Waves in Washington, N.Y. Times (May 17, 2011).

[11]  The two organizations were The Elders, an independent group of eminent global leaders focused on peace building (http://www.theelders.org/elders) and the Oslo Center for Peace and Human Rights (http://www.oslocenter.no/index.php?option=com_content&task=view&id=12&Itemid=29).

[12]  Reuters, Obama wants “real change” in Cuba before Normal Ties (May 13, 2011).

[13] Ariosto, Cuba to free five more prisoners, CNN, Oct. 21, 2010 (Obama said, “I think that any release of political prisoners, any economic liberalization that takes place in Cuba is positive, positive for Cuban people, but we’ve not yet seen the full results of these promises”); Oppenheimer, Obama unwilling to make new gestures to Cuba without action from Havana, Miami Herald (March 23, 2011)(Obama said, “The Cuban government made some gestures about releasing political prisoners and starting some market-based economies with small business opportunities. (But) we haven’t seen as much follow-through as we would like”); Secretary of State Clinton, Remarks at the 41st Washington Conference on the Americas, (May 11, 2011) (Secretary of State Clinton said the U.S. “could do more  [to improve relations with Cuba] if we saw evidence that there was an opportunity to do so coming from the Cuban side because we want to foster these deeper connections and we want to work for the time when Cuba will enjoy its own transition to democracy, when it can look at its neighbors throughout the hemisphere and the people in Cuba will feel that they, too, are having a chance to choose their leaders, choose their professions, create their businesses, and generally take advantage of what has been a tremendous, great sweep of progress everywhere but Cuba.”); Lopez, The “Low Point” in U.S.-Cuba Relations–One Year Later  Havana Note (May 2011).

Two Women “Shakers” Rock Minneapolis Dinner

On May 19th two of Newsweek’s “150 Women Who Shake the World”[1] highlighted the annual fundraising dinner of Minneapolis’ Advocates for Human Rights[2] that was attended by over 600 people.

One was Dr. Shirin Ebadi, Iran’s first women judge and the Nobel Peace Prize Laureate for 2003 for her courageous work supporting democracy and human rights in her country.[3] Her human rights work began with the Islamic Revolution in 1979 when she was dismissed as a judge because she was a woman. In 1992 she began a private law practice in Iran that concentrated on taking child abuse cases and representing political dissidents, members of the minority Bahai faith, journalists and families murdered by the government. In 2009 threats against her and her family forced them to leave Iran. Dr. Ebadi received Advocates’ highest honor, the Don and Arvonne Fraser Human Rights Award.

Dr. Ebadi was introduced to the audience by the other “Shaker,” Cheryl Thomas, Advocates’ own Director of Women’s Human Rights.[4] Newsweek praised Thomas for her work with local partners around the world writing laws that better protect women and girls. For the last two decades, she has improved legal protections for women suffering from domestic abuse and other forms of violence in places as diverse as Central and Eastern Europe, South Asia, the former Soviet Union, and Morocco. Thomas is an attorney and the founder in 1993 of the Women’s Human Rights program at Advocates.  She previously has been honored as a Changemaker by Minnesota Women’s Press and as one of 15 experts from around the world to participate in a United Nations Expert Group Meeting on good practices in legislation on violence against women.

At the dinner Advocates also granted a Special Recognition Award to the Islamic Resource Group that has been a strong and positive voice for Muslims in Minnesota.[5] The Group seeks to eliminate stereotyping of Muslims through educational programs. Its new video “Muslims in Minnesota” was shown. It documents a Muslim presence in Minnesota going back to the 1880s. Now there are an estimated 140,000 Muslims in the State. They are making an ever growing impact on the state and on the nation–from the first Muslim Congressman to the largest Somali Muslim population in the U.S.

Founded in 1983, Advocates helps individuals fully realize their human rights in the United States and around the world. Its innovative programming has touched the lives of refugees and immigrants, women, ethnic and religious minorities, children, and other marginalized communities whose rights are at risk. The Advocates strengthens accountability mechanisms, raises awareness, and fosters tolerance.


[1] Newsweek, 150 Women Who Shake the World (Mar. 14, 2011).

[2]  Advocates for Human Rights, http://www.theadvocatesforhumanrights.org/.

[3]  Wikipedia, Sharin Ebadi, http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Shirin_Ebadi.

[4]  AHR Press Release, The Advocates’ Cheryl Thomas Named One of 150 “Women Who Shake the World” by Newsweek  (Mar/ 9, 2011), http://www.theadvocatesforhumanrights.org/uploads/cheryl_thomas_-_150_women_who_shake_the_world_3-9-11.pdf.

[5] Islamic Resource Group, http://www.irgmn.org/index.php ( the video mentioned in the text may be purchased from the Group).

The Ridiculous U.S. Designation of Cuba as a “State Sponsor of Terrorism”

The U.S. State Department, pursuant to legislative authority, annually identifies countries that have “repeatedly provided support for acts of international terrorism” and designates them as “state sponsors of terrorism.”[1] The U.S. currently designates the following four countries as “state sponsors of terrorism:” Cuba, Iran, Sudan and Syria.[2] Note that Libya and North Korea, which were previously on the list, are no longer present; these are two stories for others to pursue.

The following is the complete text of the State Department’s rationale for its most recent designation of Cuba:[3]

  • “The Cuban government and official media publicly condemned acts of terrorism by al-Qa’ida and affiliates, while at the same time remaining critical of the U.S. approach to combating international terrorism. Although Cuba no longer supports armed struggle in Latin America and other parts of the world, the Government of Cuba continued to provide physical safe haven and ideological support to members of three terrorist organizations that are designated as Foreign Terrorist Organizations by the United States.”
  • “The Government of Cuba has long assisted members of the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC), the National Liberation Army of Colombia (ELN), and Spain’s Basque Homeland and Freedom Organization (ETA), some having arrived in Cuba in connection with peace negotiations with the governments of Colombia and Spain. There was no evidence of direct financial support for terrorist organizations by Cuba in 2009, though it continued to provide safe haven to members of the FARC, ELN, and ETA, providing them with living, logistical, and medical support.”
  • “Cuba cooperated with the United States on a limited number of law enforcement matters. However, the Cuban government continued to permit U.S. fugitives to live legally in Cuba. These U.S. fugitives include convicted murderers as well as numerous hijackers. Cuba permitted one such fugitive, hijacker Luis Armando Peña Soltren, to voluntarily depart Cuba; Peña Soltren was arrested upon his arrival in the United States in October.”
  • “Cuba’s Immigration Department refurbished the passenger inspection area at Jose Marti International Airport and provided new software and biometric readers to its Border Guards.”[4]

One of the factual predicates for the designation of Cuba as a “state sponsor of terrorism” is true: FARC, ELN and ETA have been designated “Foreign Terrorist Organizations” by the State Department, and such designations presumably are well founded. But what has Cuba done with respect to these three organizations? It has provided “physical safe haven and ideological support to [an unspecified number of their] members.” How many members? What were the particulars of the safe haven?  We are not told other than “living, logistical, and medical support.” And some of these members, the State Department concedes, were in Cuba to participate in peace negotiations with the governments of Columbia and Spain. Moreover, by the State Department’s own admission, there “was no evidence of direct financial support [by Cuba] for [these three] . . . organizations in 2009.”

Further qualifications to this basis for the designation were made in the State Department’s prior annual antiterrorism report, which said that “on July 6, 2008, former Cuban President Fidel Castro called on the FARC to release the hostages they were holding [in Colombia] without preconditions.”  Fidel  “also had condemned the FARC’s mistreatment of captives and of their abduction of civilian politicians [in Colombia] who had no role in the armed conflict.”[5]

The other factual predicate for the most recent designation, I submit, is outright insufficient. Cuba, the State Department says, has continued to permit an unspecified number of U.S. fugitives (“convicted murderers and numerous hijackers”) to live legally in Cuba. Even if true, it is difficult to see how this is support of terrorism. Moreover, we are not told how many such fugitives there are and the circumstances of their cases. The State Department does not even call them “terrorists.” Again, the State Department’s prior annual antiterrorism report on Cuba provides details further undermining this charge.  It stated, “The Cuban government continued to permit some U.S. fugitives—including members of U.S. militant groups such as the Boricua Popular, or Macheteros, and the Black Liberation Army to live legally in Cuba. In keeping with its public declaration, the [Cuban] government has not provided safe haven to any new U.S. fugitives wanted for terrorism since 2006.”[6]

The balance of the State Department’s most recent “rationale” is, in fact, complimentary of Cuba. “”The Cuban government and official media publicly condemned acts of terrorism by al-Qa’ida and affiliates.” “Cuba no longer supports armed struggle in Latin America and        other parts of the world.” “Cuba cooperated with the United States on a limited number of law enforcement matters.” “Cuba’s Immigration Department refurbished the passenger inspection area at Jose Marti International Airport and provided new software and biometric readers to its Border Guards.” Another complimentary comment was made in the prior annual report:  there is “no evidence of terrorist-related money laundering or terrorist financing activities in Cuba.”[7]

The designation of Cuba as a “state sponsor of terrorism” has been reviewed by the Congressional Research Service, which said in 2006: Cuba was first designated a state sponsor of terrorism in 1982. Although it has ratified all 12      counterterrorism conventions, it has remained opposed  to the U.S. global war on terrorism. The CIA judged in August 2003 that ‘We have no credible evidence, however, that the Cuban     government has engaged in or directly supported international terrorist operations in the past decade, although our information is insufficient to say beyond a doubt that no collaboration has occurred.'”[8]

Some prior U.S. antiterrorism reports talked about Cuba’s alleged weapons of mass destruction program, but note that there is not any mention of such an alleged program in the most recent report. This canard was also rebutted by the Congressional Research Service: “The Administration’s assertions concerning Cuba’s WMD programs, which some observers dispute, focus on limited biological weapons research and development. Construction at the Juragua nuclear facility (two incomplete Russian nuclear power reactors) was indefinitely postponed in 1997.”[9]

The State Department’s best case for calling Cuba a “state sponsor of terrorism,” upon analysis, is ridiculous. The designation should be rescinded, and the U.S. and Cuba should get down to the real business of engaging in face-to-face, serious negotiations to resolve their many long-accumulated differences.


[1]  Countries determined by the Secretary of State to have repeatedly provided support for acts of international terrorism are designated pursuant to three laws: section 6(j) of the Export Administration Act, section 40 of the Arms Export Control Act, and section 620A of the Foreign Assistance Act. (U.S. State Dep’t, Country Reports on Terrorism 2009 (Aug. 5, 2010), http://www.state.gov/s/ct/rls/crt/2009/index.htm.) Such designation results in the following sanctions by the U.S.: (1) a ban on arms-related exports and sales; (2) controls over exports of dual-use items, requiring 30-day Congressional notification for goods or services that could significantly enhance the terrorist-list country’s military capability or ability to support terrorism; (3) prohibitions on economic assistance; and (4) imposition of miscellaneous financial and other restrictions.

[2]  Id.

[3]  Cuba is the oldest member of the list; it has been on this list since January 1, 1982. Id.

[4]  Id.

[5]  U.S. Dep’t of State, Country Reports on Terrorism 2008, ch. 3 (April 30, 2009), http://www.state.gov/s/ct/rls/crt/2008/122436.htm.

6]  Id.

[7]  Id.

[8] CRS, Globalizing Cooperative Threat Reduction: A Survey of Options (Oct. 5, 2006), http://fpc.state.gov/documents/organization/74901.pdf. See also CRS, Cuba and the State Sponsors of Terrorism List (May 13, 2005), http://www.fas.org/sgp/crs/terror/RL32251.pdf.

[9]  Id.

Dr. Rev. Anna Carter Florence’s “Changing Your Mind”

At the Homiletics Festival on May 17th,[1] Dr. Rev. Anna Carter Florence presented a lecture on why people of faith change their mind.

She said she has been doing a lot of thinking on this topic. Here are some of the emerging answers to that question. An individual feels the call of the spirit. An individual recognizes himself or herself in a story of the Bible. An individual commits his or her life to a life in the sacred text. An individual decides that he or she has a script from the sacred text.

When someone is called by God to do a difficult thing, he or she usually balks. But then a sacred script comes to mind, and the individual changes his or her mind.

An individual of faith has to become a witness and give testimony.  Being a witness is not easy. You have to give your account of what happened and your belief as to what it means. There are often conflicting stories or testimonies. Some witnesses are discredited. An individual has to come to a verdict on which version to believe. The person has to stand and say what he or she believes about God.

Such testimony is contrary to the world’s “mean” script. Power. Might makes right. Do not share what you have. Be successful, beautiful, strong.[2]

The emphasis on witnessing and testimony prompt me to make comments drawn from my lawyering days. Being a witness in a U.S. judicial proceeding is not easy. A witness first has to be sworn: “I promise to tell the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth. So help me God.” [3] This oath, in my opinion, should also be kept in mind when a person witnesses to matters of faith. Our law has a well established principle to ensure that a witness is competent to provide testimony on a particular subject. Our law provides for cross-examination to test the validity of a witness’ testimony. Our law also has principles to help a jury or a judge evaluate often conflicting testimony. In a religious context, testimony should be subject to similar procedures. One such procedure is the tradition of discernment in honest discussion with fellow Christians.


[1] The Festival seeks to bring together a wide variety of outstanding preachers and professors of homiletics; to inspire a discourse about preaching, worship, and culture; to engage issues related to church in the 21st century; to engage theologically the practices of preaching and worship; to invite individual preachers to consider various styles and methodologies of preaching; and to inspire preachers in their roles of proclaiming the gospel. Festival of Homiletics (May 16-20, 2011), http://www.goodpreacher.com/festival/index.php. See Post: Dr. Rev. Anna Carter Florence’s “Skinny-Dip Sermon” (May 19, 2011).

[2]  The discussion of testimony and witnessing is drawn from Florence’s  book Preaching as Testimony. See Post: Dr. Rev. Anna Carter Florence’s “Preaching as Testimony” (April 6, 2011).

[3] Alternatively a witness may affirm to tell the truth without reference to God.

Dr. Rev. Anna Carter Florence’s “Skinny-Dip Sermon”

The Biblical text for this unusually titled sermon by Dr. Rev. Anna Carter Florence[1] was John 21:1-19.[2]

For Christians this is the familiar story of the unsuccessful post-crucifixion fishing trip by Peter and six other disciples. When they returned to shore, a man on the beach told them to go out again and put their net on the other side of the boat. They did and caught a lot of fish. Then one of the disciples recognized the man on the beach as Jesus and said, “It is the Lord.” Peter, who was naked presumably to avoid catching his clothes on the fishing gear, immediately put on his clothes and jumped in the lake. When they all were back on the beach, Jesus had started a charcoal fire to cook fish for breakfast and to warm Peter. After breakfast, Jesus asked Peter three times if he loved him. Three times Peter said, “Yes, Lord, you know that I love you.” After each response, Jesus said, “Feed my lambs.” Finally Jesus said to Peter, “Follow me!”

Florence said this was another example of Peter as the lone ranger, as the one who always changes the subject from Jesus to himself, as the one who forces Jesus to intervene, as the one who always wants to be the best at everything. Peter is always making “I” statements. We all are like this Peter.

Peter’s immediately putting on his clothes and jumping in the lake, at first glance, is strange behavior. If you want to swim, you do not put on clothes. But it is like Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden after eating the forbidden fruit and needing to clothe themselves when God cries out for them.[3] No one wants to be naked before God and exposing all of his sins. It is really difficult to be forced to look at your own shortcomings.

And Peter did have shortcomings he did not want exposed. Jesus’ asking Peter three times if he loved Jesus while Peter was warming himself by the fire on the beach was telling Peter that Jesus knew that after his arrest, Peter had denied knowing Jesus three times in response to direct questions, all while Peter was warming himself by a fire in a courtyard.[4]

Yet Jesus said to Peter, “Follow me.” Jesus chose Peter to start the church. And Peter chose to accept this call. It is another example of God’s choosing a flawed human being to do something new and of that human being’s choosing to accept the call of God.

This sermon on May 17th was part of the Festival of Homiletics to bring together a wide variety of outstanding preachers and professors of homiletics; to inspire a discourse about preaching, worship, and culture; to engage issues related to church in the 21st century; to engage theologically the practices of preaching and worship; to invite individual preachers to consider various styles and methodologies of preaching; and to inspire preachers in their roles of proclaiming the gospel.[5]


[1]  See Post: Dr. Rev. Anna Carter Florence’s “Preaching as Testimony” (April 6, 2011).

[2]  Bible, John 21: 1-19.

[3]  Bible, Genesis 3: 10-11.

[4]  Bible, Matthew 26: 69-74; Mark 14: 66-71; Luke 22: 54-60; John 18: 15-18, 25-27.

[5]  Festival of Homiletics (May 16-20, 2011), http://www.goodpreacher.com/festival/index.php.

Dinner at an Oxford High Table

Worcester College Hall

In the late 1990’s I was a guest for dinner at High Table at Oxford University’s Worcester College. My host was the Provost, Richard Smethurst.

Each of Oxford’s colleges has a High Table in its dining hall. It is a table on a raised platform at the far end of the hall that is reserved for the college’s dons and their guests. The rest of the hall has tables for the students on the floor of the hall. Many English novels set in Oxford or Cambridge have High Table scenes.

On the evening of the dinner I reported to one of Worcester’s Senior Common Rooms, which are rooms exclusively reserved for the dons’ communal gatherings. I was given an academic gown for the evening to wear over my business suit, shirt and tie.

We then marched to the dining hall, and upon our entry all of the students rose. We then proceeded to the High Table and our assigned seats. One of the students said grace (in Latin). Then everyone sat down, and service of the meal began.

The food that evening was excellent, and I said to the Provost that the food was much better than what we had when we sat at the other tables as students. Richard agreed, but said that the students’ food that night also was excellent. He explained that after Worcester had become a coeducational college (long after Richard and I were students), the father of the one of the female students was her dinner guest and was appalled at the poor quality of the food. The next day he made a special gift to Worcester to finance better food for the students once a month. (Once again I wish that I had kept a journal so that I could faithfully report exactly what was served for dinner that night.)

Once the meal was finished, everyone at the High Table rose and marched out of the dining hall while the students stood in homage. We repaired to another Senior Common Room. There snuff was passed around. I did not take any. We also were served port or sauterne wine. I imbibed the port.

The evening was not over. Another Senior Common Room was the next destination. Now it was coffee, brandy and cigars. I did not smoke, but had coffee and brandy.

It was a very pleasant to experience dinner at High Table after so many meals as a student for two years at Worcester seated at the other tables. (Again, if only I had a journal, I could decorate this essay with the details of the witty conversations that evening.)[1]


[1]  See Post: Oxford in New York City (May 27, 2011) (retirement dinner for Richard Smethurst.)