We Are Who We Are

I’m proud of my president tonight. I can’t always say that, for reasons I’ll get to in a moment, but I’m proud of him tonight. He (finally) said some challenging things in a challenging time. In fact, I would say that tonight he was not just a president, but a prophet, calling the country to account. And, sadly, he was also a prophet in that he made a prediction about the future which is pretty much guaranteed to come true: that this won’t be the last time he has to make a statement after a massacre.

I’m also proud of President Obama for calling for common-sense gun laws. I agree, particularly in the realm of gun-safety education. The trouble is, I’m fearful. I’m fearful that no such law will ever pass this particular Congress—or any Congress, really, because I fear there will always be at least forty senators who owe more to the National Rifle Association than they owe to their consciences, and four or five Supreme Court justices who often distrust or outright despise government interference in general, and these days that’s enough to halt any law in this country.

But I also have a more direct fear: I’m worried for the president’s life. He’s already said enough that will make certain people want to kill him. If, by some miracle, he managed to get a gun-control law passed before he left office, I’m convinced that he would be attacked, possibly repeatedly, quite possibly by very well-trained men. Many would be killed. The president himself might be killed.

And we already know what the attackers would say to explain themselves, don’t we?

“He was reaching for my gun.”

After all, we know what happens to black men in this country who even appear to be trying to take a gun away from someone, even when said gun is pointed straight at their heads.

Friends, here’s the heart of my fear and the heart of the problem: this is America. We live and die by the gun. The Second Amendment exists because many of the founders of this nation were afraid—afraid that the people they had enslaved would rise up in revolt, afraid that the people they had taken the land from would come to take it back, afraid that the new government they were actually forming at the moment would turn tyrannical. After all, they’d just fought a war against a government that had done just that. Thus our country came into existence by violence, and by violence alone, in at least three different ways. And it was maintained by violence: for all the rhetoric and eloquence of our governmental system, the enslaved Africans and the disinherited First Nations were not persuaded by it. Thomas Jefferson went so far as to suggest that political violence was necessary. And so the Second Amendment legalized the tools to make all that violence possible.

This nation was then shaped by violence; for all that I admire President Lincoln, he was willing to kill to keep the country intact. Then, after a gun took him from us, guns rewrote his legacy, too, disenfranchising the newly-emancipated black people of this land. A reign of violence kept people of color powerless—be it the KKK attacking black families, the Texas Rangers attacking Hispanics in the southwest, or the US Army itself bludgeoning the First Nations to death. Guns and violence took US power around the world and built us an empire—an empire we still maintain, in altered form, with our global military presence. President Obama himself has used violence against his enemies extensively, even when the drone-strike program has left so many innocent dead (along with some judged guilty, but not judged so by means of a trial). And, of course, the United States was the inventor of the biggest weapons possible, the atomic and hydrogen bombs.

We are who we are.

Why will now be any different?

Dr. King—almost exactly a year before he, too, was shot and killed—explained it best. Speaking in 1967, he described going around the country to speak with black rioters in Watts, in Detroit, and in scores of other places. He told them they shouldn’t be using violence to get what they wanted. “But Dr. King,” (he recounted them saying) “what about Vietnam?” And he understood at last that we use violence to get what we want, or to feel just a little bit safer, all the time. Every damn day we use violence, be it yet another case of domestic assault or yet another cop killing yet another black kid or yet another US military op dropping bombs somewhere else in the world. Every damn day.

I’m proud of my president. I’ll stand with him, if he pushes to get a law passed. But the trouble is, he’s treating gun violence as if it were a cancer. As if with the right bone-marrow transplant we could cure ourselves of this. But every era in our history makes it plain that this is not a fluke. It is what it is, and we are who we are. Until we come to grips with the complicated history of violence that has brought us to this state, blood will still be shed.

Guns aren’t a cancer in our bones. They are our bones.

Can a country cut out its own bones?

Occasionally we’ve started to—the end of slavery, the end of Jim Crow—but we wouldn’t finish the job, and we wouldn’t even start until we saw Emmett Till lying in his coffin and Medgar Evers lying in his driveway. And even then we still looked away, from the crimes and from their causes. We refuse to look, and refuse to admit what we’ve done. How could we let someone kill a man like Dr. King? Well, because we’ve already let thousands of people like him die, before and since, because we looked away, and lied the American lie that “It can’t happen here.” We are well-trained in separating causes from their effects.

The first step of the cure is not to look away. God knows it will hurt, and fixing the problem will hurt even more, because the second step is actually admitting what we’ve done, which will burn our lips to ash. And then it’s on to the pain of Step Three… cutting out one’s own bones is not an easy process. But if this is who we are, and we want to be somebody else, then that’s what we’ll have to do.

I was always taught that we Americans could grow up to be anything. Can we grow up to be people who do not look away?

Ferguson Queries

As I was coming home from work the other night, a song came up on my headphones: “The Suburbs,” by Arcade Fire. I have always thought of that particular piece as a “prophecy song,” in large part because of the music video, which can be found here. It’s about six minutes long, and I encourage all to watch it.

For those who are unable to watch, the video centers on five friends, in their early teens, enjoying their life among wealthy suburbs, riding bikes, playing with BB guns, roughhousing, and in general becoming fast companions. But they live in a slightly different America, a dystopia, set against the background of, as the song lyrics say, “a suburban war—your part of town against mine.” Armed soldiers patrol the streets. Occasionally people are dragged from their homes in the depths of night. Military helicopters fly overhead, trucks and tanks are common sights. And gradually this background seeps into the foreground, as the twisted world the kids live in begins to destroy their friendship, culminating in an act of brutal violence.

As I listened to the song on my headphones, I thought of the current situation in Ferguson, Missouri—the St. Louis suburb where Michael Brown, 18, was shot and killed, unarmed, prompting protests and riots. I thought of the militarized police that has been so aggressive and so criticized in Ferguson. And it finally hit me, years too late: Continue reading

The Problem of Evil

For centuries, theologians have wrestled with a simple problem. If there is a god, then that god would have to be all-powerful and all-knowing; any limitations would make such a being less than divine. But if there is such a being, and that being is loving and merciful, then why do terrible events befall the world? Surely a powerful and loving god would step in and do something. I feel, however, that (with apologies to the Bard) “the fault is not in our gods, but in ourselves.” The worst evil and the darkest disaster, such as the storm that has just pounded the Philippines flat and left death and desolation in its wake, is not the fault of any god above, nor necessarily the fault of the lack of such a god, but due to our own inaction. Edmund Burke probably never said “All that is required for evil to triumph is for good men to do nothing.” But my point remains regardless. If there is evil in the world, it is because we allow it.

Longtime readers will remember, however, that I am not concerned with the proof of God. I will not try to prove the existence of the divine, nor will I try to argue against it. It is, quite simply, not my issue. I don’t care if God exists, though I believe that the Holy Spirit is real—God or not, my actions would be the same. So why am I, so resolutely dedicated to the here-and-now world, addressing a theological debate? I do so because there are real lessons in the discussion for believers and doubters alike. Continue reading

Senseless?

Last week the flags were at half-mast again. I am beginning to wonder if we shouldn’t just leave them down all the time.

With the half-mast flags come the attempts at explanation. But the attempts usually fail: “Senseless,” cry the papers. “Mindless,” declare the TV anchors. Investigators digging for “clues” to the “motives” assure us that we may never truly know why such things happen. Regarding the latest incident, the Seattle Times opined: “The shooter in Oak Creek, Wis., took six lives and wounded three others in a mindless display of firepower fueled by a motive he surely cannot articulate.”

Oh? It seems to me that his message was “Kill the brown people.” Wouldn’t you say he delivered that message well? Continue reading

The Last Judgment of the USA

Then the people of the United States were brought before Christ, and were divided in two, the sheep and the goats, and the goats were placed at his left hand. And he said to them, “You who are accursed, depart from me into the eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels; for I was hungry and you gave me no food, I was thirsty and you gave me nothing to drink, I was a stranger and you did not welcome me, naked and you did not give me clothing, sick and you did not cure me, in prison and you did not visit me.” And they all answered, “When was this precisely, Lord?”

And he told them:

“Whenever you drove past East St. Louis or around Watts, and did not stop; whenever you passed over Gary or avoided the South Side; whenever you ignored Baltimore or the Bronx, stayed away from Philly’s heart, fled DC at nightfall. Continue reading

Suspicious

Students at Howard University put out this video in response to Trayvon Martin’s tragic death. I strongly encourage you to watch it, because of its powerful refrain: young men on their way to careers in history and law put on “hoodies” — like the one I’m wearing right now — and say, “Do I look suspicious?”

And my gut response, my immediate reaction, no matter what I tried to stop myself was, “Yes. Yes you do.” Because I’m white, they’re black, and I’m racist. Continue reading

Righteous Among the Nations

There is a dark place in Washington, DC, and not one of the ones you might be thinking of. I mean a place that is physically dark as well as metaphorically, a place with black walls and low light, and terrible things on display: the Holocaust Memorial Museum. It is an intentionally oppressive and uncomfortable place, where visitors walk through the records of death.

There is, however, a literal bright spot: a white wall, well-lit, standing out from the gloom. It is the list of rescuers, the “Righteous Among the Nations” as honored by Yad Vashem: the ones who risked their lives to save the Jews fleeing the Holocaust. They were listed by country. I found a few familiar names quickly: Raoul Wallenberg among Sweden’s contingent, for instance. Then I looked for Denmark.

Denmark, after all, had one of the more remarkable rescue efforts of the Holocaust. The Germans had let Denmark be, to a great extent; the Jews had not even been required to wear the hated yellow star. This unfortunately means that the legend of King Christian X wearing the star in solidarity is apocryphal, although elsewhere in Europe non-Jews did put on stars in protest. But eventually the Holocaust reached Denmark, too. Continue reading

Neutrality

“Anoka-Hennepin staff, in the course of their professional duties, shall remain neutral on matters regarding sexual orientation including but not limited to student-led discussions.”
— Anoka-Hennepin school district policy

“We are not a homophobic district, and to be vilified for this is very frustrating.”
— Anoka-Hennepin superintendent Dennis Carlson

“Then they dragged him out of the city and began to stone him; and the witnesses laid their coats at the feet of a young man named Saul.”
— Acts of the Apostles 7:58 (NRSV)

 

As I write this, I have just read an article in Rolling Stone about a series of school policies in the Anoka-Hennepin School District in Minnesota, and about a series of suicides among the student body. The article is worth reading in full, but the short version is this: under pressure from Christian groups, the school district adopted a policy of neutrality on gay issues (as you can read above). The immediate result: if incidents of bullying or harassment had any anti-gay overtones, the faculty ignored them. At least one teacher let a fight go on unchecked because the attackers were yelling “faggot!” at the kid they were beating. Astonishing, unbelievable, but true.

A further result: nine kids in the district have killed themselves. Continue reading

Giving

I am depressed.

I mean that both about my life in general and about me, today. It’s genetic; I can see traces of problems on both sides of my family. I could also attribute it to a biological father who left me and my mother when I was young, or a stepfather who meant to teach me to avoid ego and instead taught me to avoid self-worth. I can blame brain chemistry, an awkward and isolated childhood, my social life, lack of light in Seattle winters. But ultimately blame leads nowhere, least of all to solutions.

For me depression means lack of energy, lack of interest, feelings of hopelessness, and above all a bitter self-loathing and self-sabotage. I can remember feeling sad with no cause when I was very young, and I can remember taking out my frustrations against myself. I learned emotional masochism, making myself feel worse through guilt or making my life more difficult, so that at least I would be in control of the amount of pain I was feeling. Since I was a storyteller from almost my first word, this meant my heroes would all prevail against vicious odds, but pay the price, suffering serious wounds in the moment of victory. They would then live out the rest of their lives maimed and meaningless.

It took twenty-odd years, but eventually I went from telling stories about it to doing it myself. I was a cutter for a year and a half, and I have nearly a score of scars visible on my arm.

One night I tried to go further. I knew a high place, and I intended to jump off it. Something or Someone stopped me, but it was a struggle. I contemplate suicide to this day. I won’t do it. But I think about it. Living is not easy; it’s like going through life in heavy chains, forever constrained by the bonds and by the sheer weight. Everything is a little harder, a little worse, a little more painful, and self-destruction to one degree or another is my constant companion. This is what depression is.

Yet for all this, my case is light. Many days I have no symptoms, and I can live like anyone else. My case is sufficiently mild and sufficiently idiosyncratic that I have never considered medication. I have never trusted any method that would rely on me alone. I am too good at self-sabotage to be solely responsible for my own health. If I chose to take medication, I could just as easily choose to not take it, and frankly, knowing myself, I would stop at the worst possible time.

Besides, I have a cure.

It is not a quick fix; nothing is. My cure is more Sisyphus than silver bullet (and while it works for my mind it couldn’t possibly work for all mental illness). And it is less easily weighed, measured, and dosed than any pill. My cure is other people.

When I look into a mirror, I see flaws, failures, a useless lump of flesh that cannot–will not–accomplish anything that is worth the oxygen it consumes. This is because mirrors lie. We look into them and see what we expect, out of our pride, our misery, or our mediocrity. It takes someone else, someone who loves us for who we really are, to tell us the truth and do what no mirror can: show us our real selves.

Sometimes one person is a strong enough force in my life to bring my mind into balance for a time, by herself. I’ve already written of Jay, who helped me through my addiction to cutting. She didn’t do it herself; she couldn’t have helped me unless I was willing to be helped. And I could not have done it without her to help me. So we owe each other the victory. And Jay isn’t the only one who’s been so stabilizing for me.

Hanging my sanity on one person works, if it’s the right person… but only for a time. If nothing else it’s tiring for them. I try to give back, but I can’t always, not at the right time or in the right way. And even strong relationships of mutual support will eventually end, one way or another, because everyone dies. So the only way I can make my cure work is by drawing on many people, and the only way it’s fair is if I use the strength and stability they’ve given me to help them in return.

I have often wondered why, in the One’s big plan, I was born under such a shadow of depression. And if there is no grand plan, I’ve wondered what use I can make of my illness, how I can make it serve me rather than the reverse.

Now I know.

My cure is the world’s cure, or the beginnings of one. The support I need–and the support I hope I can in turn give others–is the support we all need. I just need a little more of it. No one can go through life alone. Every great hero we’ve ever heard of had a hundred helpers; even Jesus of Nazareth needed family and friends. I have said, “We are one.” This is what I meant. People supporting other people and being supported in turn. Those who have–be it money, power, or in my case just a better view of who I am–supporting those who have not. And then, as all such stories go, the balance shifts, and those who were needy become those who give. Many times it is love and truth, as with me. Sometimes it may be a larger act, perhaps those who have money and power giving to those who need it more, and getting back what they most need: forgiveness.

It all begins in weakness. It begins by saying that we need help, then by asking as I have asked. It is a renunciation of power, a confession of vulnerability, and for many of us it is the most terrifying act of our lives. But do as I have done. Say, in your weakness, “Please. I need help.”

You’ll be amazed, as I have been amazed, at who comes to your aid, and how. Then in time you will become the one to give, so listen to your neighbor’s whispered cry–“Please. I need help”–remember your own weakness, and give to them in the same measure as someone gave to you. And so our weakness becomes our strength.

This is the story of all family, of all community, of every union and every alliance, the story of all democracy, of all humanity. Asking for help and giving it, not once but always, giving back what’s been given, day in and day out. It is the story of all hope.

Give and ask and give again, world without end, forever and amen.

Divisions

[Note: This was written on April 22; it’s taken this long to get up in part because of The Filter.]

I have just watched a deeply troubling video of a brutal beating. It shows a transgender woman under attack by two women in a Baltimore McDonald’s. The violence is horrifying, and seems to never end; every time the attackers move off for a moment, they come back. The McDonald’s employees largely do nothing, instead recording the attack on a camera phone; one employee does try to stop the beating, but after a brief time he seems to give up. The pummeling doesn’t end until the attacked woman begins to have a seizure, her blood smeared on the floor, and the man recording the incident warns the attackers to run before the police arrive.

First let me state that the footage is not always clear. The video makes the violence plain, but does not reveal motivations, show what is happening elsewhere, follow the incident all the way to its conclusion, or even provide a clear recording of what the people are saying. All that can truly be understood from the video is the flying fists and the blood on the floor. So my analysis here may be flawed on several levels.

This whole incident cuts across so many divisions in American society. Let us count the chasms…

What first leaped out at me is that the attackers appear to be black while the trans woman appears to be white. I say “appears” because again the footage is not always clear; it is difficult to judge race from a blurry cameraphone video — again, we encounter the limits of anything filmed — but also because the racial lines in this country are themselves increasingly blurred. The attacked woman could identify as white or as Hispanic or as almost anything, which underscores the futility of ever judging by skin tone. But this doesn’t mean that we can dismiss the racial element. There seems to be greater resistance toward non-heteronormative identity and presentation from some in the African-American community. I also note that one of the people to interfere in the violence is white, and while again motivation is unknown, a yelling match between an older white woman and a younger black woman will inevitably have some racial overtones.

A second thing that struck me is that both people who attempt to intervene are older than the attackers, while the bystanders seem to be younger people themselves, setting up an age-imbalance dynamic. Speaking as a teacher, I know that younger people do not always react well to being yelled at by older people, or even just being told what to do. I also note from long personal experience that bullying by young people is always more effectively opposed not by adults but by other young people. While this battering is obviously on a different level entirely, the age of the bystanders makes me wonder: if one or more of the younger employees or customers had even spoken up, would the attack have continued so long? The tacit approval of their peers and the presence of a camera might have added to the vitriol of the assailants.

A third divide worth noting is that of citizens vs. authorities. The bystanders warn the attackers to flee before the police come, indicating that the bystanders have more sympathy for the assailants than for law enforcement. The bystanders also make no move to call for an ambulance at first, as this too would draw official notice, until they realize that with the woman’s seizure they have entered a new level. The racial element returns here, and I may also note that trans people may not always welcome the police, either.

The most obvious division, of course, is between heteronormative and transgender women.

The most fundamental divide, however, is “Us vs. Them,” sameness vs. the other, which runs through all the rifts discussed here.

It seems to me that every act of brutality, from this small-scale viciousness to the most dire genocide, hinges on drawing that line between “like me” and “not like me,” and then cutting off those “not like me” from any common feeling. Those “like me” I will protect; those “not like me” I will attack, or permit to be attacked. We are people, They aren’t. And you only have to be good to people.

This incident teaches us all too viscerally of where that line of thinking leads us: it makes us into victims or villains. It leaves us bloody on the floor, or with blood on our fists, or — most likely — watching idle from the sidelines, inactive and yet just as complicit. There are no other options if we divide the world into Us and Them; every act of human violence has happened because people allow people to suffer what they would not suffer themselves.

This incident also teaches us that all our problems are interconnected. We cannot separate the clash of heteronormative vs. transgender from the clash of race, age, class, or power.

And finally, just as all the problems are entangled — just one problem, really: dividing people — then this incident teaches us that we must be united. I write this on both Earth Day and Good Friday. Just as those two occasions are far more connected than you might think, we are all more connected than we realize. Earth Day reminds us that all the people in the video have more in common than they have differences: the same genetic heritage, the same needs and hopes and aspirations, the same oasis home on the Pale Blue Dot They are all human. Good Friday suggests that — now that what’s happened has been done and cannot be undone — then the absolute best possible outcome from this terrible deed would be all the women, attackers and attacked, becoming friends. If these blows do not lead to an embrace in the end, then the attack’s last tragedy rolls around: it cuts the chasms deeper, and hurts all involved again.

I’ve written of what weapons do to us, the harm they inflict in both directions. That is true even if the weapons are words, or fists, or feet, or power, or paychecks. Harming anyone does damage to the harmer. So I mourn for what the attackers did, both to another person and to themselves. And I mourn for the bystanders who let it happen, as I mourn every time we stand by.

All the problems we face are aspects of the dire knot, humanity’s self-division and civil war. All hope we have rests in our reunion. Unless “Us vs. Them” becomes “Us and the Rest of Us,” we can’t even begin to face the catastrophes we’ve brought on our heads, because we’ll still carry the cracks in our hearts, the cracks that will widen to chasms and divide us yet again.

So speak with me now:

All our woes are one. All people are one. All the earth is one. I must be a friend to all my foes, and they must be friends to me, or everything we have and everything we are will always live in risk.

We are one.

We are one.

We are one.