The Revolution According to Mark

Joe Snyder tells Bible stories. This sometimes makes people uneasy, and two years ago I was one of those people. “I flinch every time you say, ‘Jesus,’” I confessed.

“Read the Bible,” Joe replied, not at all concerned. “That’ll take care of that flinch.” And then he told me about Mark.

This piece is intended to comfort the afflicted and afflict the comfortable. The afflicted in this case—or, perhaps, the conflicted—are those Quakers, particularly young folks like me, who are troubled by references to Jesus, Christ, Christianity, or the Bible as a whole. The comfortable are either those who are sure that they already know what the Bible says, and thus dismiss the Bible as a reactionary old tome, or those who confidently use the Bible to shore up today’s structures of power and wealth because it is so reactionary. I mean to show, however, that the Bible has a lot to offer the most radical in our Quaker faith. Continue reading

Christ in Vegas

Where would Jesus go in this country?

Would he go to the megachurches or to the televangelist sanctuaries? Would he go to the Catholic cathedrals, or to the Mormon temples, or to the Southern Baptist congregations? Only, I think, to cleanse any wickedness that has taken root there. Only, I think, to cast out the fundraisers and decry the modern Pharisees. And if he did go, and if he did preach, I think he would quickly outstay his welcome, for he would preach a message of charity that is often mouthed but not always followed in such places. He’d lead the pro-life marches down to the prison where they’re hanging a man, or down to the military base where they’re planning a war; he’d bring the wine to gay weddings and pass out condoms at Pride; he’d work the fields with the migrants and never cross a picket line. He’d love the wrong people (again) and he’d quote the wrong scripture (again!), and before too terribly long, a lot of Christian churches would probably throw him out. Continue reading

Altar Call

It was cloudy and drizzling; not the kind of weather you’d be out in by choice. My friend Ron, of course, has no choice. He has to beg for money every day so he and his brother Jim get a room for the night. So, huddled under his umbrella, he stood at the stoplight, waiting for people to take pity. I had a dollar for him, and stopped to talk. He was in low spirits, due to the weather, exhaustion, and little luck that morning, and he predicted with gloom that he’d still be out there when I got off work hours later: the money his brother had gotten wouldn’t even fold, and Ron wasn’t doing much better.

“It’s no way to live,” I said. “If you’re still out here when I leave, we’ll see about getting you what you need.” I had a twenty-dollar bill in my wallet, you see. Then I hurried up to work to get myself out of the rain.

But it bugged me, as I dried off inside. Ron was miserable waiting for a handout, thinking about old friends who now drove past avoiding his eyes. And I had a twenty in my wallet. Continue reading

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.

Blocks

The people of the Census Bureau are probably some of the unsung heroes of the United States government. In a representative republic such as ours, a census is absolutely vital to determining who gets represented, etc. My home state of Washington will get another representative in Congress, since we have grown since the last census in 2000. The census also collects other information, and that information can be an absolute gold mine. Specific census data — with names attached, that is — is opened up to historians, genealogists, researchers, and the curious after seventy years. Generalized data, i.e. averages without names, is revealed more quickly. The New York Times and Google Maps have now taken recent census estimates and put together a remarkable website, Mapping America, which shows averages on race, income, rents and mortgages, and education for “every city, every block” in the country.

(Ostensibly every block. The city of Mercer Island, near Seattle, simply doesn’t appear to have any information, as if the Census or the Times simply don’t think it exists. There are also considerable areas labeled “Low Population Area” or “Small Sample Size” that don’t turn anything up. But still, it’s darn close.)

By going to the site you are confronted with the racial breakdown of New York City. Zooming in you can get a better look, and can mouse over any census tract to bring up information. Zooming out you can get a national view, with county-by-county breakdowns available. Going up to the button “View More Maps,” you can switch from the racial distribution to other maps based on race; going over to the sidebar on the “More Maps” screen you can bring up map sets based on income, households, and education as well.

Let’s look at what the site teaches us. Continue reading

Hear the Word

I would see justice done.

I would see the long labor of the poor rewarded at last, rewarded as it has never been even acknowledged in full. I would see the return of investment and the fruits of harvest benefit all who sweated for them, not merely those with their names on sheets of paper.

I would see children fed. I would see the sick tended. I would see the prisoners and the impoverished remembered as human. I would have it so that no one has to stand on the sidewalk and beg for scraps. I would see us remember that all who live on this earth are our kin, our family, no matter the color of their skin, the language of their tongue, the riches in their pockets, or the faith of their heart. I would see justice done as it has never been done, not since some few thought to exalt themselves at the expense of the many.

I am done with this misery. I am done with this suffering. I am done with laws and codes and customs that claim it is fitting that the poor live in pain. I am done with “deserving.” I am done with “They are lazy.” I am done with “Don’t coddle them.” Do you hear me? I love all, and deserving’s got nothing to do with it. In this I follow my god, the One, and the words that the Holy One gives to me. Continue reading

The First Blessing

This week seems like a good one to talk about Jesus and his wacky notions. Check back at the end of the week for another post on him, too.

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There is a woman who rides the buses in Kirkland; I see her frequently. She is very distinctive because she wears black trashbags, tucked with practiced care around her body, and pulls a handcart wrapped just the same. Rain or shine she is hooded and cloaked this way, and I imagine she’s relatively immune to said rain. We’ve had mild weather lately, but I wonder how well she does with cold. Tonight she was wearing old flip-flops, her feet looking callused to the point of crust, and had a makeshift bandage around her ankle. I think the bandage was the same one I saw her wearing weeks ago.

She seems to have enough money for bus fare often enough, and seems to know where she’s going. I saw her before it got cold last year and now I’ve seen her after, so evidently she’s surviving. She never asks for anything. She never says anything at all, in fact, and no one says anything to her.

I don’t claim that the Bible’s stories are literally true, as I’ve mentioned lately, but I still claim to follow the teachings of Christ. Or at least I can claim I try. So I have to ask, despite the cliche: what would Jesus do? Continue reading