Options, Part Two

One of my more common failings, friends, is getting something started and then forgetting to finish it. And such was the case with this. My apologies for the delay in posting part two of this essay. Part One can be found here—or, if you’re looking at this on the main screen, just scroll down.

Now to the communal options! I’ll list these in ascending order of audacity. Continue reading

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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

Rescuers

Once upon a time two people lived beside a large lake. One was quite rich and had a powerful speedboat. The other was quite poor, and had only an old and leaky rowboat. One day these two were both out on the lakeshore, when out in the lake they saw someone drowning.

Whose responsibility was it to go to the rescue: the one with the fast boat, or the one with the boat so bad that anyone taking it out might soon need rescuing too?

Or should the drowning be rescued at all? 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.

Self-Defense

There’s been talk about self-defense in American political/social discourse all my life. It has been a limited talk, however, dominated by limited ideas.

Usually when we talk about self-defense, we are referring to defense of one’s person, family, or property against theft or assault. There is a second and broader strand of “self-defense” talk, concerning the defense of a country, usually either the United States or Israel. Finally people speak of defending rights.

What all these usually imply or assume is that there are evil people who would harm us in a variety of ways, and that the natural recourse of good and decent people is to defend themselves violently. Almost all references to “self-defense” that I can think of regard a violent response to a violent affront. Usually there is some connection to the Second Amendment or to the military. Handguns come up frequently. The speakers usually identify as conservative.

Yet there is a far broader definition of self-defense that is equally valid, and far broader means of self-defense that just the violent resort. (I will not say “last resort,” for when the violent resort is available, it is almost never used last.) Continue reading

“Use of Weapons”

I have an old friend, whom I have known off and on for half my life. I knew him when we were boys, and now I know him as a man; he’s funny, insightful, and generally a good friend. He was among the first to recognize my cutting for what it was. He also owns guns.

Whenever I was over at his apartment, he would get out his latest acquisition, put it together and show me the parts, occasionally demonstrating grip or aim. His eyes would always light up as he did so. For my part, I was nervous, and it showed; he would always take pains to show me that the safety was on, that the gun was unloaded, that I was safe.

Thing is, I was never for a moment worried about what the gun could do to me. I was worried about what the gun was doing to him.

You see, I’ve held a weapon in my hands before. I’ve felt the rush of power that goes through me when I do. It is thrilling. It is a little intoxicating. It is, perhaps, a primal thing — an old human instinct to  pick up a rock or a stick to use as a tool to make oneself stronger and safer.

Trouble is, weapons are tools made to inflict harm… and therefore made to exert power. That I know all too well, and I am reminded every time I look at the scars on my arm. When I held a weapon, things became clear; I had a measure of power over my pain and over my life. My knife gave me a way to dominate my problems. I was raised to not harm others, however, so I became my own target; I couldn’t hurt anyone else. Besides, I wasn’t dealing with my actual problems, just trying to simplify things with a thrill. So I have felt both a weapon’s allure and a weapon’s damage. And it hurt.

In fact, it hurt both ways.

When I see a weapon, therefore, I see its effects in both directions. I see the damage it can do to others: whose lives will the weapon claim? Whose body will be rent by it? Who will mourn? Who will hurt?

I also see the damage the weapon can do to its wielder: who will they stop seeing as people, and start seeing as targets? Who will they feel they have control over? Who will they feel they can dominate and coerce? What problems and disputes will they be tempted to simplify or resolve through using weapons, or threatening to? How will the weapon alter their anger? Their fear? Their grief? Will they take it out on others? On themselves?

Perhaps my history — first as a Quaker, then as a cutter — has misinformed me. Perhaps people with weapons need not be so altered; perhaps all those who defend the Second Amendment are well aware of the intoxication of going armed and doing harm, and guard against it; perhaps they are well aware of how much responsibility lies on them when they carry weapons or allow others to do so. Perhaps they are aware of the potential consequences and are content to run the risk.

Still, no matter if I am misinformed about the mental damage on the users, I feel at least a little qualified to speak to the physical damage done on the targets; I’ve seen the blood I’ve drawn, staunched the deep wounds I’ve inflicted, felt the pain I’ve dealt out. And I know that when it comes to weapons, power through doing harm is their only purpose; even when used as deterrents, it’s the potential for damage that gives them their power. They work by hurting. Hurting is their work.

So I think of innocents in the line of fire. I think of those like me who turn their weapons on themselves in a desperate bid at controlling something. I think of those who really are guilty of something, but are never given a chance to atone. I think of all those who love the targets, and their pain. And finally I think of what weapons did to my mind, that addiction to power and dealing pain, and wonder what might happen to other weapons users.

So no, I don’t trust weapons, from the pocketknife up to the atom bomb. I don’t trust their power and I don’t trust the hands that wield that power, be it a lone wolf or someone in uniform or just someone like me. People are not always healthy, after all.

And so for the sake of all, I don’t use a weapon anymore, and I hope others will think twice about using them as well.

(I am indebted to Iain Banks, who first used this title.)

Forgive Us

For over a century, women in this country had no real legal rights, except perhaps as widows. They had no right to vote, no right to own property while married, no right to a divorce except in cases of adultery, no right to even a modicum of control over their own bodies. That last was not a comment about abortion: women were denied access to information about controlling their fertility. Not abortions, not condoms, just pamphlets. Such information was declared “obscene” by the Comstock Laws, and Federal officials would routinely search the mail and seize educational material on human sexuality. The lack of control would go even further, as spousal abuse was not considered a crime and rape would generally be blamed on the victim.

For over a century, African Americans could be killed with impunity in this country. They could be lynched for talking back to a white man, whistling at a white woman, owning a gun, or trying to vote. As local law enforcement usually organized the lynch mobs, blacks had no legal recourse or protection (State and Federal officials ignored the problem). Nor was this an exclusively southern phenomenon. The north and west had “sundown towns,” so called because the rules were simple: blacks could come into town during the day to work or do business, but had to be beyond the city limits by sundown, or face arrest or worse. Lynchings the country over were family affairs for whites, an occasion for a picnic and taking photographs. They were so solidly entrenched in the American culture that Franklin Roosevelt could not get an anti-lynching law passed in the heyday of the New Deal.

For nearly two centuries, gays and lesbians in this country were effectively persecuted. Sodomy was a felony. Just being at a gay bar could get you arrested for public indecency. If a gay man got arrested, he could expect to be beaten by the police (who would he complain to?) and have his name published in the newspapers, unless he could bribe his way out of it. If his name was printed up he could expect to lose his job, his friends, even his family.

Lesbians could expect all of the above as well; they would also be raped.

Things are better now, of course. Teachers can’t get in trouble for teaching about sex, just for teaching anything other than abstinence-only birth control. Blacks can’t get lynched by the police, just shot by them. Gays and lesbians can’t get beaten by the police, just by the general population. Continue reading