Two Ways to be Wrong

I discovered a piece of racist literature on my walk yesterday.

At first glance it looks quite innocuous. The flyer that was up on the lamppost is two-thirds picture, showing a smiling woman holding a smiling child, the woman looking quite modern in shorts and close-cropped hair, the child of indeterminate gender. And under the picture, these exact words:

We must secure the existence of our people and a future for White children”

Continue reading

Put the Hammer Down

On October 19, 2014, an advertisement ran in the Los Angeles Times (on pg. A4). It stated that an “apparition” of the Virgin Mary had revealed that Pope Paul VI was replaced with “an impostor pope” leading to the “destructive Vatican II reforms.” The ad then showed two pictures of Pope Paul, one labeled “Pope Paul VI,” the other “The impostor (1975-1978) created by highly skilled plastic surgeons.” Never mind the fact that Vatican II ended in 1965, and never mind the fact that the pictures are obviously of the same man, just at different ages. It’s a ludicrous story—but one that someone clearly believes, whole-heartedly, as it gives them a reason to avoid change.

I wouldn’t mention this at all, except that the ad struck me as remarkably parallel to something else going on right now: “GamerGate.”

If you’re unfamiliar with GamerGate, you’re a fortunate soul, but it’s a real problem that needs attention, because it shows how determined people are to Keep Things The Same, and how willing they are to threaten people to get their way. 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

Old Lessons

Every homeless person I pass, every abused child I hear of, every accusation of rape that is met with hostility and scorn, every fresh disaster worked by human hands, from pollution to famine to war — all these call me to my words. How could they not? I follow a teacher who taught me to love my neighbor as myself, and yet I live a life that spits on such philosophy — indeed, I live such a life and I am enriched by it. I follow a teacher who taught me to share all I have, and I live a life that insists on hoarding my wealth. I follow a teacher who taught me to see the holiness in every one, and I live a life of privilege in a system that treats some as gods and the rest as raw material, to use or waste as the gods see fit.

Then I see those charged by my teacher to set these wrongs aright — minister, priest, pastor on one level, every Christian on another — and too many of them are the scoffers and abusers, the ones who perpetuate the structures of power and the abuses of that power. Not all. There are quite a few who give all they have and more, who love their neighbor with compassion as their guiding star. But any is too many, when it comes to those who say they follow Jesus and attack their neighbors anyway. I look around at my fellows in faith, and for every one I see laboring to heal the world, I see one or two or ten wounding it further, sometimes without even knowing it. I may not see all the good that’s being done, which is as it should be. But when I see the poor on the streetcorners mocked and attacked and scorned, then there is more to do, and I see many of those charged with helping the struggles leading the charge against love and justice, or applauding the attacks from the sidelines. The man from Nazareth came to change the way the world worked, and too many of his followers are standing in his way: they are themselves the problem.

In such times all I can do is quote the words of the prophets, time and time again:

“‘With what shall I come before the Lord, and bow myself before God on high?
Shall I come before him with burnt offerings, with calves a year old?
Will the Lord be pleased with thousands of rams, with ten thousand rivers of oil?
Shall I give my firstborn for my transgression, the fruit of my body for the sin of my soul?’
The Lord has told you, oh mortal, what is good; and what does the Lord require of you
But to do justice, and to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your God?”
(Micah 6:6-8)

“I hate, I despise your festivals, and I take no delight in your solemn assemblies.
Take away from me the noise of your songs; I will not listen to the melodies of your harps.
But let justice roll down like waters, and righteousness like an ever-flowing stream.”
(Amos 5:21, 23-24)

“‘You shall love your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind.’ This is the greatest and first commandment. And a second is like it: ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself.’ On these two commandments hang all the laws and the prophets.”
(Matthew 22:37-40)

Why must I say this again? Why must I teach old lessons anew? Better men than I have taught us to love our neighbors — men, yes, and better women, too, for all that they don’t make it into the books as much. Why is it so hard to learn? Why is it such a struggle for so many to remember? I see so many pouring out their piety on one side, and pouring out scorn upon the poor from the other, yet all from the same mouth. One of their words must be a lie, and their wealth tells us which it is, because they “cannot serve both God and wealth.” They must renounce one master or another, and it seems they have chosen to renounce God.

But to those who renounce wealth, shall they be poor, shall they suffer, shall they starve? No, for the Generous One shall not forget them — and those they have helped will not forget them either. Let those who worship wealth go their own way, because it is a way of loneliness, and meaningless. Those who worship the god I follow shall have each other.

Make your choice!

Methods of Counting (part two)

Part One discussed gerrymandering and voter ID laws; now we turn our attention to somewhat darker matters.

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Another form of voter suppression is still more deeply cloaked in legalism: convicted felons can’t vote. For violent felons this may be a reasonable punishment, even if it is lifelong. For non-violent drug offenders, however? Especially for marijuana? Use of marijuana is so common that if everyone who had ever smoked up was tried, convicted, and stripped of their voting rights, the electorate in this country would shrink by half. At least. Which means that being denied your right to vote, perhaps for your whole life, on the grounds of a felony drug possession of marijuana, is a travesty of justice. Yet it happens… and perhaps predictably the rate of drug felonies is dramatically higher among minorities. 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

No Second Coming

A whisper came into my soul and said, “Write!” And I asked, “What shall I write?” And the whisper said, “Write the words that are given to you, write the law that I wrote in your heart.” The whisper said, “Write of the world you live in, not of the next.” The whisper said, “Write of love and justice.”

For a thousand wrongs, and for ten thousand, the One will not withhold the punishment; because for the wealth of one we have beggared a thousand, and for the feast of ten we have let a million starve. The wealth of the great was a gift given that it might be given again, a blessing to be handed on for the blessing of all, but out of greed and pride and luxury it has been held back. Therefore all luxury shall pass away, and its passage will not be peaceful.

For a thousand wrongs, and for ten thousand, the One will not withhold the punishment; for what the One gave open-handed has been taken and consumed, and the fingers and the hand as well, and now we gnaw the wrist! The streams and the trees of the mountains are stripped and fouled, and the mountains themselves are thrown down, and not by faith but greed. The sea has been poisoned, and the air itself, and all the bounty that was once called limitless draws near to its end. Continue reading

Choices

The issues of abortion and contraception seem to be in the air these days, and the pro-life camp has its standard-bearers out in force. After listening to the public discourse, and after conversations with some of my pro-life friends, I feel that I would have much more respect for the pro-life camp if I could be certain that all of them were focused on preserving life, and not on preserving control. In short, I’d be happier if I could be certain that the whole of the pro-life camp is actually pro-life, instead of anti-women.

I can understand the belief that abortion is killing. I think that saying so raises both biological and theological questions that we can’t answer with certainty at the moment. I and many others could raise many objections to the abortion = murder position, but I can understand and respect the principle. I know many people who hold to that belief, and my friends believe it honestly and reasonably.

But knowing as I do that a significant percentage of abortions are performed because the women in question just can’t afford a child… knowing as I do that the Pill prevents both ovulation and implantation, and thus has effects both before and after conception… knowing as I do that abortion rates barely even twitch when abortion is criminalized, and only go down when contraception is readily available… I must look to a different strand of the pro-life camp, which to my dismay and astonishment seems to not only seek an end to abortion, but to birth control and education on reproduction. Continue reading

The Storm

From June to September, I have a regular practice of checking the National Hurricane Center webpage to watch for storms. I’ve done this a few years now, and every time I see another hurricane coming, I find myself wondering: is this the one? Is this the holy storm that will hit us so hard that we’ll finally see the light? Katrina shone some light, made us see the wretchedness our society has papered over, made us see the poverty and contempt that creeps through our culture like a cancer. Then Katrina blew itself out and we looked away. So every time another alert goes up on the NHC website, I ask: will the wrath of a wronged, forsaken god finally come down on us? Will heaven finally stop pulling punches, truly lay us out, make us change?

And then I do this: I hope. I whisper, “Make it this one. Do it. Break us. Shatter our cities, open our eyes, make us see. Hit us. Hurt us.”

There’s a storm brewing; I hear there hasn’t been a storm like this since Gloria, or Bob, or the “Long Island Express.” This one is called Irene. It could tear up the whole coast, whack every city from Savannah to Boston, roll right into New York Harbor and hit that city as it has not been assailed in generations… no, not even ten years ago.

I was talking with my friend Jay, of whom I’ve written before. She lives in DC, and I said to her, “I’m glad you don’t live in New York.”

Saying this, I stopped. Jay’s not in New York, but Phoebe is; she’s an old flame of mine, I’d hate to see her hurt. And Jo, to whom I owe so much, is in Boston, which may suffer just as badly. In fact Irene is going to pass over every woman I’ve loved in the last five years.

Which made me wonder: do I only care if someone I’ve had a crush on is in danger? I actually have people all along that coast. Friends. Family. So many people I love in so many ways, from Atlanta north.

It hit me then: every single person in the storm-path is loved by someone.

If even one person dies, then someone’s heart will be broken.

I was ashamed then. I still am. Ashamed of quietly calling for a killer storm on everyone else, whispering prayers for divine judgment so long as they didn’t touch me or mine, not seeing or not caring that any deaths would rend someone as much as I would be rent if Jay or Jo or Phoebe or anyone else were hurt. Here I was, just months ago, saying how we are all connected. Here I was, just days ago, teaching myself to see everyone as people, so I can take the next step and love them as neighbors. And here I am today rooting for a city-breaking, world-changing storm to hit the next town over from my friends. I’ve drawn a circle around the people who matter to me and said, “Take the rest.”

We all do it, of course, not that it excuses me. Everyone has that circle, and beyond it we rarely raise a finger. Oh, sometimes we do, when a quake hits Haiti or a storm smashes New Orleans. But we don’t care enough to change the world’s ways — our ways — that put those people in the path of the storm to begin with. They are outside the circle.

But Christianity is about drawing one big circle around everyone ever created and saying, “This is who we care for. No one gets left out. No one is unloved.”

Hard, yeah. Likely impossible. But it’s written plain right there in the law: “Love your neighbor. Love the stranger. Love your enemy.” If we don’t… well, then, the man from Galilee won’t even want to know us.

Then I remember that the One I follow is mercy and forgiveness incarnate, and that we absolutely get points for trying.

Irene is not the wrath of the One. If there’s anything heavenly in this hurricane, it’s in the hope that people will help each other. Not just this week or this year but all the time, in advance and ever after.

And if there’s no such thing as god, then absolutely nothing changes. If there’s no one watching us, we’re still watching each other. If there’s no reward, then helping just for helping’s sake is all the more beautiful and selfless.

Hurricanes will come. They aren’t the wrath of a heaven too long ignored. There won’t be a god-storm that opens eyes. If I want eyes opened, then I have to speak up.

So.

What will it be? Will we turn away from each other? Will we leave each other in the lurch again, forever look the other way?

Or will we face this storm and all storms? Face it together? Together as a community, as a country, as one people? Shall we again disappoint, or shall we rise to meet our promise?

Take my hand. Make the circle. Bring everyone in.

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.