Reminders from “Selma”

It has been a long time since I was at seminary and a long time since I had a congregation to lead, which required spiritual time and Bible study, so sometimes these things fade into the distant haze of my brain and heart, and every once in awhile something reminds me of the things I believe — a movie, a song, a friend, a hug, a picture — and I feel more like the person I want to be.  The family and I saw “Selma” tonight and it brought back some basics for me — as well as some new lessons.

The new, first: 1) People put their lives on the line when they want their rights non-violently. They must be scared out of their mind doing it.

The fact that they do it anyway ,means they are a) brave, b) honorable and c) full of dignity. They should be recognized as such. I have been to protests, but have never faced clubs. I have seen friends hit with a club by police, but — ironically — not at a protest, but at bar in L.A. Because I have seen Andrew Young, Dick Gregory, Jesse Jackson, Joan Baez, Peter, Paul, and Mary, I have seen people I am in awe of as an adult, Yes, I have seen Dr. King on TV as a child, and have been in awe. That awe was always from the outside, seeing them do their thing or talk about it. The movie “Selma” shows it from their perspective and so the fear they must have experienced became evident.

2) The Voting Rights Act’s recent gutting needs to be fixed. I knew vaguely about poll taxes and increased requirements for registering. The ripple effects they talked about in the movie were new to me. Then again, I don’t spend my days thinking up ways to oppress people.

Now, the old:

1) It is important that human beings are brave and stand up for themselves and others. — it brings out the best in them. It is the job of parents and clergy and helping professionals to teach children to believe in themselves and be brave living everyday life. The quote by Thoreau, “Most men lead lives of quiet desperation” is both true and horrible.

2) Religion is not meant to oppress. Religion is meant to worship God. God is good. Religion that worships God does good for the world. Any religion that doesn’t make the world a better place, as is God’s intention, is not a religion worth having or practicing, and is certainly not a true religion.

3) God likes justice. Faith and love and justice are not mutually exclusive. God calls us to be our best selves — and even better. God knows what our best selves are and we don’t. We just guess at it and aim in that direction.

4) Black lives matter because all life matters. Black lives are a part of humanity — a humanity that the Spirit endows with life. They are not better or worse. They are simply lives. But “simple” in this case is also “holy”. They ought not to be taken lightly.

5) Good is good. We know it when we see it. Bad is bad. We know it when we see it, Being a faithful Christian is often like standing in the middle of the road — you get hit by cars going both ways. Still, it is the best way to be.

6) Contrary to what many of my liberal friends and my conservative enemies believe, violence never solved anything. Conservatives are not enemies because they are conservative, but people who are way off the conservative deep end  tend to believe in violence — and ignorance. Off-the-deep-end liberals tend to be educated and violent. They are still wrong, but they are smart and I like that better. Of course, I could be wrong about that.

Peace,

John

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An Open Letter of Apology to My African-American Friends

My God, this is horrible. After recent events, and as a follower of Jesus, I feel like a disciple at the cross today, watching a friend die, or living with the possibility that they might. The last time I felt like this was when I thought of my daughters on the day of the Newtown shooting. They weren’t shot that day, but what if they were? My life would never be the same and I would be upset until the day I died.

My White brothers and sisters don’t hear of your plight because they don’t know you and our media never tells your stories in any sort of way that seems moral or spiritual or decent people.

I, however, am different. People may not know it now, but nearly 20 years ago I was the only White clergy person in the Interdenominational Ministerial Alliance — the ostensibly Black Clergy group. I helped bring an African-American church into our church’s building, and met my wonderful friends, the Claytors — Benny and Gerri and their daughters. I was the chair of my local denomination Committee on Racism. I led a suburban/urban camp for the CT Conference UCC, and — in one of the proudest moments of my life, at the behest of some congregants, was acknowledged for my work with diverse communities in Bridgeport by the CT State Senate.

I should be proud of all of this, and I am. But today it is also the cause of my shame. All of this is speaks to how much I knew about your situation….Yet, here we are nearly 20 years later, and you are dying. I can’t imagine a worse fate for either of us, but mostly for you.

Ferguson is just the start. In the wake of Michael Brown’s death, we have heard more and more and more and more stories of policemen and African-American men getting killed which give testimony to the African-American condition in this country. In the wake of Trayvon Martin, I have heard about an African-American woman who was standing her ground against her violent man and the law that got George Zimmerman off didn’t apply to her. The list goes on.

This last thing, though, kills me emotionally. In Ferguson, the Grand Jury was given the WRONG burden of proof to determine Darren Wilson’ s guilt. The Grand Jury heard from the defendant, which is not supposed to happen. The officer involved went home with the evidence. His superiors talked to him for hours privately. His gun was washed off! The police militarized and attacked non-violent demonstrators — all to protect the man they feel killed Michael Brown. Darren Wilson is a problem, no doubt, but he is by no means the only one. The ADA, the clerks, the lawyers, the police, the National Guard ALL conspired to prevent justice from happening.

As the stories come of 12 year old being shot by police and a man who — after being beaten by police was charged with destruction of property because he BLED ON the uniforms of those who beat him, after those stories become more and more frequent, somehow I — who knew how bad things had been — had forgotten to watch after you. I had been led into a false sense of security while places like Ferguson, MO existed.

I was aware of concepts like systemic racism which are vague and require proof to the White community. But I was also aware of the harsh realities of my African-American friends, brothers and sisters. But, somehow, if someone had told me that whole communities like Ferguson still exist in America in 2014, I would not have believed it.

But here we are and I am shocked. You are dying because of our sins. You are dying because slowly we stripped away your rights and your growth and I didn’t say anything. I didn’t say anything when the clerk in the grocery store or the bus driver gave you a dirty look. I didn’t say anything when someone told a racist joke, or portrayed President Obama as a monkey or… or … The list went on.

Now, if anything happened to my friend Greg or Margo or Gerri or Bennyta or any of the Black clergy in Bridgeport or anywhere else, it would be as if someone shot my daughter or my wife in a senseless tragedy that I should have seen coming.

But, while racism has put you on the cross because of our sin, I am aware that God will not let this stand. God and the Christian community can and should redeem the whole country, perhaps world, in the face of such tragedy. It has happened before and it can happen again. We can learn from the unnecessary death of Innocents who are confused with the guilty. We can learn from what seems like a summer of slaughter and we can say something about the stray look or the angry man with a gun or the police academy cadets who think it’s good to be aggressive. We can protest the mayor or council person who makes what they think is a cute racist remark . In short, we can repent.

A lot of us out there think that “repentance” means saying you’re sorry. It means more than that, though it’s a good start. The Hebrew word for “repent” is “shoov”, which means “turn around, go back” and it means return to the way it’s supposed to be with God and each other. THAT is what I want us to do today. But as one of my 12-step friends says, “if you walked 10 miles into the woods, you now have to walk 10 miles OUT of the woods.

It has been far too long that we as a nation have been walking into the woods. It is time to turn around, it is time to “shoov”, it is time to repent. It is time for us to travel TOWARD the dream of one of AMERICA’S greatest men ever, Martin Luther King, Jr, rather than away from it .

I, for one, pledge to try to keep my eye on the sparrow and keep walking out of this weird place we’re at in this country when we know better. I knew better. I should have paid attention. We all should have. But never again, brothers and sisters. Never again.

If any of my Black friends around the country were to die because of the way are in this country — for driving while Black or walking while Black or shopping while Black — I would grieve for the rest of my life because they were my FRIENDS. But at least I’d know I was walking in the right direction. For now, all I’ve got is “I’m sorry” . It’s not much, but it’s a start.

Peace,

John

Ferguson, Race, and Police: What Now?

My friend Sean Murphy was right. According to the Grand Jury of Ferguson, MO, Darren Wilson didn’t do anything wrong, or at least criminal. I don’t like the verdict, but if those are the facts, those are the facts.

My African-American train friend  and I were talking about the case and I asked her about “The Talk” with her daughter. I knew that parents had “The Talk” with their sons about interacting with the police, but I didn’t know if they had it with daughters and she assured me that they did. She spoke about what to do when pulled over and where not to go, because African-Americans “stick out” there.

You know we’re going to make a moral out of the story, right? The news will cover it, and people will write on Facebook and Twitter and we’ll all say what it means. What does this case mean, then, for life in America and whether we’re “post-racial”. Should she stop worrying? Should she tell her daughters not to worry?

I have to ask her, but I don’t think she’s going to go for it. Here’s the problem as we discussed it, with my spin on it somewhat. Most normal White people would not do anything as racist as beat someone up or shoot them simply because they were Black. In fact, most normal White people can’t even imagine doing that. Because they wouldn’t do it, and because they don’t experience it, they have a hard time believing it happens. That doesn’t mean it doesn’t happen. It just means that it’s hard to imagine unless you’ve been there.

Still, every day as a therapist, I hear about actions that no normal person would ever engage in. Incest, rape, and molestation are a lot more common that anyone can imagine. Drug use and robbery and domestic violence and male rape and … the list goes on. Did these things happen, as my clients maintain? In reality, I don’t know, I wasn’t there, but I choose to believe them. Why? Because they can’t imagine it happening, either, and they are frequently in shock. I believe them because something happened, because their bodies and their psyches are out-of-whack and they no longer act normally. They have experienced the unimaginable and believing them seems to relieve their misery.

So, Darren Wilson didn’t commit a crime. According to our laws, that’s the fact. Darren Wilson got justice, according to the law. Does that mean that “driving while Black” isn’t a reality? Does it mean that parents don’t have conversations with their children? Does it mean that the Ku Klux Klan doesn’t exist? No, it doesn’t mean any of those things. Does it mean that we don’t need to consider what “appropriate force” is again? Does it mean that laws and consequences aren’t used more harshly against Blacks than Whites? No. It doesn’t mean that either.

Does it mean that we shouldn’t believe Blacks anymore — because of Tawana Brawley and now Michael Brown? Like everything else, we have a choice. We can listen to them and believe them and build friendships and trust or refuse to believe them and watch the divide between us widen. Listening and believing leads to healing. Not listening and not believing leads to a colder world and a divided world, and the fear that everybody’s crazy.

I am convinced that we need to reach across color lines in our day to day lives, that we need to listen and believe what we hear — not stupidly or blindly — but with open minds and hearts. If we do that, we will experience the racism which is so hard to imagine. If we see each other as brothers and sisters to start with, we can experience each others’ cultural experiences. Where we experience pain and the unimaginable, then we can become motivated to change things. Where things turn out to be lies, we have enough of a relationship to cope with it or claim the reality without the rest of the world being impacted.

These are our choices. In whatever stories we hear, this should be the process — 1) listen with an open mind 2) get the reality of the situation 3) make decisions based in the reality of the situation. That has happened in the case of Darren Wilson, as far as we know. Let’s make it so for everybody else in America.

Peace,

John

“Career Creators” vs. “Job Creators” — Education and “Reform” (for Dawn)

I have wanted to write something for my friend Dawn, who is a teacher outside of Boston, for awhile. She posted on Facebook that some new ruling/department decision was making it nearly too hard to do her job. There are two or three things you should know about Dawn — 1) She loves teaching; 2) She’s not a particularly political person; 3) She never complains. In short, she is normal, but unrepresented in the press. She goes through life, raising her kids and her students, whom she sees as “her kids”. She goes to work, does her job, and goes home. She cares about people, wouldn’t rip anybody off because, well, she wouldn’t. She pays her taxes and — though you’ve never heard of her — she makes the world better in her corner of the world.

For the world to lose such a person in such a career would be a terrible waste and a sign that something is wrong. When we make life hard for the average person who isn’t doing anything wrong — and in fact, is doing things right — there’s a problem. When the political among us write and say and do things, we expect backlash. When non-political types start having difficulties, there’s a serious problem.

Education reform is a complicated thing based in a lot of factors, mostly politics and money, test scores, standardization, privatization and unions and/or union busting. Given all of that, it’s hard to understand the situation and I have generally refrained from saying something I don’t actually understand.

Turns out, I know a lot of teachers and I hear from them all about the complex system that causes them pain when, frankly, they’d rather just teach. They teach because they believe in education, they teach because they like kids (on a side note, there are a lot of teachers who don’t like kids and are working out their own issues of control on students — especially inner city ones — but that’s a whole other blog piece) and their kids get smarter because of it. College professors, high school teachers, early-education teachers, elementary teachers, generally teach because they believe in education and creating fully functioning individuals who know things about their world.

Schools where students are overwhelmingly violent are not schools, really, but warehouses until those kids can be let out in into the world and society can say “Good luck!” to them. No teacher should be forced to work in a situation like that and no student should try to learn in a situation like that. So, yes, there are things that parents should be doing in this whole educational process. This is difficult when there’s one parent or when both parents work, so economics again effect things. Aside from that, though, it seems like we’re doing things wrong in schools.

This is what I think is wrong: as in much of America today, we’re too short sighted. The new basic philosophy is that students should be 1) productive and 2) ready for work in the jobs we foresee coming. In short, those “job creators” we pay so much attention to want people to fill those jobs and it’s the educational system’s job to create the people who can do that. Further, they want teachers to prove that they are doing that, so that they can keep their jobs.

Put succinctly, they want education to produce people who know things, not think about things, or create things. I think we’re starting with the wrong premise. we are aiming for people who know what we know about, rather than people who can face anything. I always kind of thought it was stupid to publish lists of careers that people should go into because a) people already know what they like to do and b) if everybody rushes toward those jobs and college takes 7 years, by the time they get there, the job market will have changed and people already in the field will have taken those jobs. Oops.

The best teachers that I know want kids to know things, to think about things, and to creatively face whatever challenges face them. They want kids to learn because they are curious more than anything else, and they see kids as full people who need to know about the world they live in.

I still can’t believe it when I see what my kids are expected to know and do in school and — right or wrong — I go back to my own childhood. Kindergarten was a half a day because kids can’t be expected to produce all day long. They can be expected to play. Our “texts” were “We Read Pictures” and we played with trucks and sand and dolls from 8am to noon.

Later, in elementary school, we learned basic fundamentals by rote. I know that this is not every teachers favorite style of learning, but it worked. I can add, subtract, and multiply in my head to this day I have a fairly good vocabulary. I do believe in learning facts and I think that may have been where the problem was that people felt we needed to reform.

In junior high, aka “Middle School” now, we started developing Selves — figuring out who we were, who we wanted to be and what we were good at. In High School, we began to think about what it all meant. We could learn about atoms in elementary school, figure out that they were cool in junior high, and think about the ways they should be used — or not — in High School. If we wanted to think more or think in depth, we could go to college. If not, we could think on our feet and adjust to life. We were supposed to be “well-rounded individuals”. Out of that, I got an undergraduate degree and two graduate degrees. I got a career or two and a way to decide what to do with my life.

In those days, though, we had recess. We had art, we had music, we had vocational and tech ed. Now, like everybody else in America, we want our children to do more with less. We take away art as not “practical enough”, we take away music as “not practical or productive enough”, we de-fund programs for hands-on learners and then we test them about what they know.

Brains don’t function that way, though. Music and beauty and fun and time to think and time to play are all important to learning, and they make the difference between smart people and wise people. It’s like an orange and orange juice are better for because of things that are in the peel than reduced to their core, processed, and put in a can. It’s the whole thing that makes it work, not just the obvious, and not minus the obvious. (Orange peel is no substitute for a whole orange, and it doesn’t make much juice).

We should educate kids as they are, and we should let teachers teach to kids as they are. They know how to teach. They know what it takes to make wise, well-rounded adults. The Powers That Be won’t let them do that. They have different goals in mind.

Kids coming out of the way of education I experienced have careers, not jobs. They have callings, not an 8 hour day. They create new industries, rather than jobs for the old ones. Let Dawn and all the teachers like her do their job. Fund education, let kids be kids, and let them use their whole Self. It might make things messier, but it’ll be a whole lot more useful.

Peace,

John

Full Citizenship and The Realm of God (For Gerri and George and Ken)

I dreamed last night about a T-Shirt/Bumper Sticker that said “Full Citizenship for African-Americans!”. I woke up this morning to my friend Cat Chapin-Bishop’s posting of a video where a Black man discuss being pulled over by the police as a time when he feared his life is in danger. After this summer’s events, it seems to me that from the experience of African-Americans, they might believe that they don’t have full citizenship in America. By “full citizenship” I mean the right to use our roads without fear of the government (yes, police are the government). If memory serves me right, I also mean the right to live where you want, instead of being steered to areas in certain zip codes. In the present,  I also mean the right to go into a store and not be looked at suspiciously, or the right to vote without having to prove you live in a town you’ve lived in for eighty years. Further, the right to be assumed to “belong here”, wherever one may roam in the U.S. is part of what I would call “full citizenship” in the United States.

It occurs to me that women don’t have full citizenship, either, by the way, but the same principles apply — the right to become Leader of our country, the right to the same pay for doing the same job, the right to not expect the glass ceiling, the right to be considered for all types of job if you can do them, the right to make decisions about your own person — these rights are part of full citizenship, as well.

The poor don’t enjoy the same rights and privileges that others do either — they are kept out of the gated communities of the rich, kept from the benefits of medicines, kept from all kinds of things which your average person can afford, and — if a person dares to show their class via language or etiquette, they are often discriminated against.

None of this means that others have full citizenship in the U.S., either — every group and individual is probably kept from reaching their full potential in some way or another by government or the society it supposedly represents.

Oddly, many of the people that speak of Freedom with a capital “F” seem to be against other people having the basics of freedom — the right to be left alone unless you’re doing something wrong, the right to go where you want, the right to be who you are without punishment or scorn or ridicule, the right to work and eat, the right to vote, the right to control your own destiny and your own body. If those people who rail against losing their freedoms actually had to deal with their basic rights infringed upon, we’d never hear the end of it — with good reason. So the idea that it’s not okay to complain when your basic rights as a Citizen are being kept from you is absurd, but there are always those who say “complaining shows that you are weak (and therefore undeserving)”.  The people with the most rights often claim their Christianity as the reason they deserve to be free. They say things like “we founded this country and don’t you forget it!”. They say things like “we came to this country to exercise our religion. Don’t take that away from us or pretend it isn’t that way”. They are right for doing so. Their facts are correct (if you don’t consider Native Americans, who belong to their own sovereign nations.)

But here’s where it gets messed up: The rights of citizens here in the U.S. are supposed to be based on the rights that God will/does give people in the “Kingdom of God” (or the Realm or Reign of God if you’re into inclusive language). The point of establishing cities in the New World was to establish cities that Christians could and should live in. “The kind of cities that Christians should live in” were the ones they envisioned in heaven. As Jesus says in the Lord’s Prayer, “on earth as it is in heaven”.  But in the Realm of God, everyone is supposed to be given Full Citizenship — the poor, the widow, the orphan, the sojourner and stranger in our midst, as well as those nice people in the Temple who do the will of God. The law in heaven is supposed to be something like “love one another as I have loved you”, once you cross into the pearly gates, however you get there.

That kind of Full Citizenship is the kind we should be giving people in America as well. If you think it is “this way” in heaven, then that is the standard we are to use here on earth in a democracy as envisioned by our Founding Fathers. Granted, of course, that their interpretation of scripture might be different than ours — the principle is the same. This is why Martin Luther King, Jr had any vision of what the country should be in the mid 1900’s that included former slaves that many of the Founding Fathers couldn’t even imagine. The idea that we have lost ground, or that there is unfinished work to do toward King’s dream is proof that we are not the Christian country we claim to be and used to strive to be.

This works on two different levels: The personal/spiritual and the legal/practical. We ought to think about each other as Full Citizen’s in God’s Kingdom/Realm so that we don’t assume that the guy with the hoodie is a criminal or the man walking down the street doesn’t belong there or that a woman doesn’t want control over her own body. This is us, as individuals, responding to other individuals as full citizens, in the way that God would want us to. This is the area of our hearts and minds that should show forth from The City on The Hill or the unhidden lampstand. What’s the point in being a beacon if you don’t want to call people your way? This is something to consider in the immigration situation we currently face in the Southwest and other places. If we are doing things right, people should want to come to our Kingdom of God on Earth and we shouldn’t keep them away or dim our lights.

Legally and in the world outside of our hearts, our country, founded as “like the  Kingdom of God in earth” should reflect those same values that we’re supposed to have in our hearts. If we claim to have integrity as a nation, then our outsides should reflect our insides, and our insides should be better than they are. Spiritual laws like “everyone’s important and everyone’s opinion matters” should have their equivalent in practical laws like “everyone gets to vote”.  “Everyone is loved by God” should be enforced as “No one shall make someone else not live up to their potential as human being”. If God makes food for all to eat, then our laws should say that “everyone should get what they need”. If we’re making laws that say “some people are allowed to be de-valued”, then we are not doing our law-making right.  If God offers mercy, then our laws should do the same. If God “loved us when we were yet sinners”, our laws should say that we do the same, even if we only suspect our neighbors might be up to no good.

This is the kind of Full Citizenship that African-Americans deserve, and Celtic-Americans deserve and Polish-Americans deserve and Mexican-Americans deserve. This is  the kind of Full Citizenship that Male Americans and Female Americans and everything in between deserve. Fat Americans and Thin Americans, Short Americans and Tall Americans deserve this, as do both the mentally ill and the mentally capable, the physically ill and the physically capable. This is the vision that Christianity gives to this country.

I am sure that other religions offer similar visions of The Way Things Should Be but, as a Christian, I can only speak authentically about my faith and my understanding of history. I suspect people of Islam or Judaism or Buddhism come here believing in Full Citizenship in America should look their best world-view as well — “the land where the streets are paved with gold”, or “nirvana” or “the place where justice and peace prevail”, etc.

In any case, I believe that  our view of “what the world can be if God lives with us” should be the same as our vision of  “what our laws say we are to be” and “what our minds should see when we look at our fellow citizens”. If our laws said “do to others as you would have them do to you”, we wouldn’t be in the mess we’re in. We should do what we can to make it that way.

 

Peace,

 

John

It’s A Good Year For Thinking

As the Jennifer Lawrence-and-everybody-else nude picture scandal happens, It occurs to me that it’s been a good year for thinking, if one is inclined to do so.

I read an article that said, “If Jennifer Lawrence wasn’t a ‘good girl’ (e.g. Miley Cyrus, Rhiannon, Nicki Minaj), we wouldn’t be having this conversation”. Wow. I never thought of that before, but it’s true. But now it is being thought about. The conversation has shifted from “people (women) shouldn’t take nude pictures of themselves” to “it’s a matter of privacy” and “blaming the victim here is like saying ‘her skirt was too short'”.

The tone of the conversation has changed. Because I like the show “Chuck”, I was fascinated by what actress  Yvonne Strahovski said: “It is with great sadness and disappointment that I address this hacking issue. To my fellow actresses whose privacy has been invaded—my heart goes out to you. I’m so disappointed that there are people in the world who feel the need to comitt these criminal acts. Some of these pictures are fake, my own included. Regardless—I ask you all—do not share the links. Don’t even look at the photos. Just let people have the privacy they deserve. Integrity is sacred.” Again, after a decade of “leaked” sex tapes of the rich-and-famous where we all assumed the person leaked it themselves for publicity/financial reasons, now we’re acknowledging (as a society) that there are people on those videos or pictures and maybe they are embarrassed by them being seen by others. Strahovski is asking people to have integrity and/or respect the integrity of others. I suspect that she is, because she’s not generally thought of as a “political” actress, speaking the thoughts of your average person without an axe to grind.

By and large, the last time there was this much change in thought about sex and gender roles, Anita Hill was speaking before Congress. I don’t know yet, but I suspect that most men are cool with this new thought. We’ll have to see.

This summer, of course, Ferguson happened, as well as violence around the country between Blacks and authorities. As usual, there were the resounding voices of “if they weren’t criminals, they wouldn’t be in this mess”, but there was so much happening, in so many places, that the talk didn’t stop there. If one kid was shot by police, it could be a fluke — either a bad kid or a bad cop”, but racism and violence and race issues were so present, the issue had to be discussed. The press was attacked and jailed. Protesters were marched on by soldiers. There were a lot of people involved, on so many different levels, and they were all affected by it.

Also, this year, we have heard discussions about money and power and the inequality behind them as well. We have heard about Veterans that we called “heroes” being denied services by the scores. The idea that “climate change” might be real (remember last winter? I do). The idea that creation might be more than 6,000 years old was challenged by a respected scientist on PBS as well.

It occurs to me as I write this that we really — for the last 30 years or so — have had real difficulty conceiving of the world as more that one dimensional. We have moved into rigid categories of “Good” and “Bad” on both left and right, sometimes with good reasons, sometimes without. In any case, we have come to believe that because Good and Bad are so clear that people’s lives are the same way — Good Things happen to and come to Good People while Bad Things happen to and come to Bad People. Jesus said, “Rain falls on the just and the unjust alike” and we still have problems with this idea all these centuries later. But big events, where even “Good People” have “Bad Things” happen to them, challenge our notions of what’s out there and how the world works.

How does this happen? It happens when Good People step into the lives of people they don’t know and discover the reality that is the other person’s life. Police clashes with Black men have been happening for years. This time, there were people watching. Sexism has caused us to divide women between “sluts” and “good girls” for years. This time “good girls” are caught in the web of sexism. Rigid “patriotism” has separated “Real Americans” (supposedly “hawks”) from Un-American-types (supposedly “doves”) for years. This time, “Heroes” aren’t getting support from people that supposedly supported them and we now wonder “who is a true American”. As we all shovel out our driveways or stay inside because even the dogs won’t go out or deal with tornadoes we’ve never seen before, we are all caught in what ever is happening, whether we “believe in it” or not.

We have a chance like we haven’t had in years. All of these things cause us to think, to challenge what we know about others, because we have come to realize we are the “others” — they are related to us as we attempt to relate to them. In short, because we care enough or have been forced to look, we can now see. Let’s make the best of it. Let us listen to each other, let us watch each other, let us see the complicated reality of our not so simple world — and maybe let’s live in it together.

 

Peace,

 

John

If Guns Don’t Kill People, Why Do Ours Do It More?

I was thinking about it the other day and it occurred to me, “What if the NRA is right?”. What if guns don’t kill people, people kill people? They have guns in other countries. I don’t know where and I don’t know what kind, but I’m sure that people in other countries have guns. Their guns don’t seem to fire as often as ours do. Their guns don’t seem as deadly as ours.  In Springfield, Massachusetts, where I work, there were three  people killed last weekend by drive-by shooters in two cars. Today, a man was killed as he attacked a courthouse with a gun in Atlanta. Yesterday, a man attempted a mass shooting in Seattle. That’s a lot of people dead via guns that don’t kill people.

What’s the deal with guns? Is it also true of other weapons? To be sure, there was a boy recently who attacked a group of his class-mates with a knife recently, and nobody’s screaming to take away everybody’s knives. Switchblades and bats and crowbars have been the favorite of gang members for years. Probably more crimes are committed with those weapons than with guns yearly. What about the broken bottle used in a bar fight? Nobody’s screaming to halt the sale of beer in bottles. There are probably a hundred or more ways to kill a person. Why do guns get singled out? That’s a good question and it deserves an answer.

It is because our culture is different than European or Asian cultures or South American cultures. Our very Constitution enshrines guns as the weapon of choice for Americans, if that’s how you read the Second Amendment. The Constitution doesn’t say, “a militia being important for the common defense, all weapons are protected. It says “we have the right to bear arms”. Switchblades somehow don’t make the cut, or crowbars or firebombs or even atomic bombs.  When we think of bearing arms, we think guns.  Americans equate guns with freedom and liberty and patriotism! Then we do something weird with it. We flip it upside down logically. If you don’t own a gun, you’re not free. If you don’t own a gun, you don’t have or enjoy liberty. If you don’t own a gun, you’re not a patriot, at least according to the NRA. or places that require you to carry a firearm.

Now there are a couple of problems with that idea. On a personal level, I feel free and I don’t own a gun. I believe in liberty and democracy and all those good things, and I don’t need a gun to do so. It seems to me that my love for all of those things makes me a patriot, with or without a gun. But more than my personal opinion, there is the question of what real militia people do with their guns. On this memorial of D-Day, I am struck by how patriots — genuine, actual, heroes — only fight when they have to, and then they go home. The heroes of the “Greatest Generation” went home after being heroes and — according to tonight’s news — never said a word about it. They didn’t say, “We’re heroes”. They just were.  War didn’t make them heroes. Their humanity made them heroes — their love for others, not their love of war. They took up arms because they saw no other way. They put down their weapons as soon as they could and went back to being engineers or farmers or doctors or whatever they were “in real life”.  If the “Greatest Generation” took up arms and saw violence as an un-natural thing, why do we see weapons as patriotic? It is because we love war so much and we worship violence, especially if we don’t have no experience of war.  Presidents and politicians who actually fought in wars  are often against war as an option. Eisenhower, Colin Powell, Kennedy — none of these people wanted to have endless war.  Bush II, who didn’t go even to his National Guard post, loved war.

How we got there is a whole other question, but I think that Eisenhower had it right when he talked about the military-industrial complex (in the 1950’s!) and how our economy was being built around weapons and war. Weapons are money-makers. To make more money — and to restock the shelves — we have to use what we have. The best way to use all those weapons/make more money is to have a war. The only way to have a war is to forget that there are people on the other end of them. The only way to  forget humans die when we use weapons is to focus on something else — some idea like Love of Country, “freedom”, wealth, jobs, racial superiority or something as simple as productivity.

Men have this thing about manhood and productivity — The Man Code says if you’re not bringing home the bacon, you’re not a man. Even I buy into that one. The problem is that in order to do that, you have to keep a product going in order to keep the job going.  Threaten a man’s job, and you threaten his status as a man. If more jobs out there are related to weapons, then more more men derive their male pride from building weapons. If we had other jobs as the basis of our economy — say, farming, like we used to do– we would still have our pride, still be productive, and we wouldn’t be so attached to weapons.  Instead, our pride gets wrapped up in weapons, which require wars, which require a focus on proving we’re men. How do we prove we’re men? We make things. What do we make? Weapons. And so it goes…

So there it is — “Freedom” is having guns, Making guns is “masculinity”.  In order to be a Free American Man, guns are required.  For people who don’t take mental health care seriously, we sure have taken Freud to heart. Like everything else in America, bigger is better. If a gun that shoots one bullet is good, then a gun that shoots a lot of bullets is really good. If a gun shoots a bullet is good, then a gun that launches rockets is even better.  If a boom is cool, then a big “Boom” is even cooler!

“Why all the fuss about men and guns?”, you might reasonably ask. As mass murder after mass murder happens, the one constant is that there’s always a man — or someone who will grow up to be — on the end of the trigger.  I don’t think there has been one mass murder — in a theater, in a school, at a government office or anywhere else — committed by a woman.   As long as American, Free, and Male are considered good things to be and ideals to strive for, and as long as we twist them with so they are confused with needing weapons, we will have the problem of mass shootings. Some part of America’s psyche believes in, and likes, mass shootings because some part of us likes the exercise of the rights of Free American Men.  That part of us is insane, because it tries to do good things (I like being free, American, and male!) by doing horrible things (killing, killing quickly, making Big Booms with people involved).

All of this leads us back to … guns. Even the staunchest gun lover doesn’t believe that crazy or impulsive people should handle a (neutral ?) weapon.  My grandfather, a gun tester as his occupation and gun user in hobbies —   got out of the woods when he perceived that trigger-happy people were running around in them. Respect for the weapon meant avoiding them when crazy  or stupid people had them. One of them meant you had to be careful when hunting.  More and more of them meant you got out of the woods.  We need to get out of the woods and we need to get out of them until things calm down and folks can prove that they can handle their weapons.

Furthermore, if people can’t handle their regular guns because they are insane in this society, then giving them bigger, faster, more deadly weapons makes less and less sense.  Giving people the power to go faster in the wrong direction is further proof of our insane thinking. We can’t handle guns at this point in our history. When we stop connecting freedom with a gun, and masculinity with shooting a big one often, then all those “neutral” guns can become the neutral, respected , scary things they used to be and we’ll be safer.

Peace,

 

John

 

 

 

 

Can Somebody Just Explain Why?

I take the train from Hartford to Springfield with a woman who is a nurse at a local hospital. While waiting for our train, we talk about life, work, and our daughters. She has four, I have two. Hers are older than mine and her last one is going to college in the Fall. We were talking about paying for it all, as my two will be going in a few years. Her daughters are apparently smart and got accepted into more than a few schools, but it has come down to how much they could afford, how much they could get for financial aid, etc. This last daughter is going to a very good college, with some “name” to it, but it is not Ivy League or anything.  I asked about the cost and she said, “$56,000 per year” and both of our jaws fell on the ground. I said, “That’s $200,000 — almost $225,000 — for four years! Who has that kind of money?!”. Even with financial aid, she pointed out, “It’s a good thing we like Ramen noodles!”.

In looking back on it, even if I had gone all four years at my most expensive college, it would have cost me $40,000. College is like health care and cars, we agreed. How can anyone afford them? Why are they so expensive? As we talked further, it occurred to me that my income (and hers, her husband’s or my wife’s, I suppose) have not gone up by 600 % in 25 years – not even close. And education hasn’t changed much. She said, “They still have the same dorms”. I chimed in with “I bet they still have the same food plan” and the subjects they teach are largely the same — same subject matter”. So, here’s the question: How can you offer the same product for six times the cost? What has changed? Has the quality of the service gone up that much? Really, where does the money go? How does a college keep going if the customer’s income has gone up maybe twice what it used to be? If 2x is income and 6x is outlay for college, how is it possible that anyone buys this product?

The same is true with health care — I know that access is a big issue but if my income has gone up by, say, 5% and the cost of health insurance went up 400%, how can anybody afford it?  There’s an article in the Huffington Post today about mental health and insurance companies where the author complains about the Kafka-esque system that makes people run around from here to there to get what they need. That is its own problem, but included in the health care issue is paying for something and getting nothing. If you have a deductible, of $5000 for instance, then you basically have no insurance until you spend $5,000. Your premiums continue to come in, and the rates continue to go up… and then you have to pay another $5,000 before you get anything!  While I understand Obamacare now and I approve of it, I have never been convinced that insurance is the reason that health care costs are so high. If I can walk down to the CVS and buy a bottle of aspirin for $3.00, why does one pill cost that much in a hospital? How can a doctor walk in a room, say “Hi.”, ask a single question and charge $100 for it? If you stay in the hospital overnight, just for regular recovery (whatever that is) and it costs $1200 or more, why couldn’t a person stay at the Hilton and have a private nurse 24/7?  It would still cost less! How is that possible?  Again, if your average person makes $10.00 per hour how can they afford $50.00 per hour in the hospital?  It seems that over the last, say, 20 years health costs have risen at a far greater rate than income has. How are people expected to pay for something that costs that much?  Can someone explain what’s changed in the hospital that costs that much? As of yet, I haven’t heard an explanation from anyone.

The last target of my rants is automobiles. It seems to me that the average cost of a car is $25,000 to $30,000. Americans love their cars, or so they say. America was built on the backs of the car industry so cars are important to the economy and the people of America, but who can afford one? Again, like health care and college, the cost of an automobile has gone up dramatically, while the income of the people buying one hasn’t. I hear car commercials all the time that make it seem like someone could afford a payment, but those are lease prices, they don’t include mileage that your average person might put on, you have to put down a good sized downpayment, and you don’t own the car when it’s done. If you actually want to buy the car now, you have to take out a 72 month (6 year!) loan to do it, when you used to pay it off in 4 – 5 years.  In addition, there are all the fees, the cost of fuel, the cost of parts (Oh, my goodness! replacement parts cost a lot of money!) and labor (Pep Boys charges about $100.00 per hour in our area) if your car needs repair. Oh, and car insurance costs money as well.

How does anybody afford this?

If the American dream is work hard, make enough money, take your car on drives across America with the family, then send your kids to college so that they can do better than you did, and if a health crisis comes up, pay for it with insurance, then the American dream is an impossible dream. The economy simply cannot survive this way. When basic needs and basic tools to get ahead are impossible to afford, it’s only a matter of time before the whole thing collapses. There are basic problems in the economy and no one can explain why they got this way, so we can’t fix them. What is up with that?

Peace,

 

John

A Bridge Over “Power”

Last night, I was reading The Nation (THE best magazine ever, in my opinion — I come back to it all the time) and I came across an article on online feminism and the fact that it has apparently gotten nasty between radical feminists online. A few weeks ago, a client and I got into it regarding authority. I was saying that I, as therapist, had power in the relationship by nature of my role. Further, while I knew of people who had taken advantage of their clients,it was my job not to. She argued that I didn’t have power, that’s we were collaborating on her treatment and, while she also knew people who abused power, she didn’t have to believe a damn thing I said if she didn’t want to.  Oddly, we both believe the same thing, because there is nothing so misunderstood, controversial, and divisive as power — for liberals and conservatives. We use the same word and mean totally different things by it. All of this got me to thinking about conflicts between me, my liberal friends, and my conservative ones.

Power, in the conservative political  world, is a good thing and we all have it. We can all rise above our circumstances if we just believe in ourselves enough. Freedom gives us that, and government doesn’t allow us freedom, so it dis-empowers, even –if its motives are good.

Power, in the liberal political world, is different altogether. For liberals, the world is sexist, racist, homophobic, classist, ageist and so on. We might have individual freedom and the moral responsibility for standing up for ourselves, and others, but the world/ the “system” is the problem, and government must act to protect people from the -isms by making more laws.

My “guru” in the psychological world, Virginia Satir, didn’t deal with political and societal power issues in the sense that it wasn’t her frame of reference. She doesn’t subscribe to a particular world view, so the lens of “power” and “dis-empowered” isn’t a given. She (and I) are much more “reality based” in her approach. If the way you’re living is working for you, fine. If it’s not, it’s “dis-functional” (a word she coined) and you need to do something about it. She believes a non-hierarchical approach is healthiest in systems, like couples, families, and societies and is about breaking those down when she can and when it applies. In short, there may be hierarchies, but you don’t have to subscribe to them and it’s not healthy to do so in any case.

Jesus, my religious and spiritual inspiration, is quite clear about power — “You are not to lord it over others”, he says in the gospel of Matthew, Chapter 20:  25 Jesus called them together and said, “You know that the rulers of the Gentiles lord it over them, and their high officials exercise authority over them. 26 Not so with you. Instead, whoever wants to become great among you must be your servant, 27 and whoever wants to be first must be your slave— 28 just as the Son of Man did not come to be served, but to serve…”

All of this is to say that some people will always want power over others, some people believe they have no power in their lives. Some people feel oppressed, some don’t. Some people feel they don’t oppress others, some do. In the words of the songs, “people everywhere/just want to be free” (the Rascals, in the 1960’s) and “everybody wants to be/closer to free” (the Bodeans, in the 1980’s).

Here’s where it gets tricky: What if you don’t see oppression and you are (supposedly?) oppressed?. Does seeing it mean believing it? Does denying it mean not believing it has any power in your life? If you don’t believe you are oppressed, are you?

If  you’re one of those “in power”, supposedly, the same questions apply. If you don’t believe in lording it over others, are you anyway? Is “white privilege” the same thing as “being racist”? Is “male privilege” the same thing as “being sexist”? It depends on who you ask.

The reality is this: we live in separate worlds and we can’t know each others’ experience until we experience it with them or through them in some way — like literature or art. Years ago, when my friend Greg Coles and I went to a yacht club for lunch (he’s Black, I’m White, He’s richer than I — he chose the place), we were ignored for the 45 minutes until we left after Greg tried to get their attention. When I was growing up, people didn’t think women needed as much money as men. Why should they? Today, we fight the battles over whether LGBT people have the right to be included in every facet of society. As someone who grew up poor, many of my peers later in life had no idea what it was like and saw me as having more power than they did. I saw myself as poor.

So, yes, racism actually does exist. You can still get pulled over for Driving While Black. Sexism still exists — women still make less money than men do for equal work, generally. Homophobia still exists. Ask gay couples who go to Jamaica or Olympians in Russia. Classism still exists, but is seldom, if ever, acknowledged. If you never bounce a check in your life because you have a thousand dollars in the bank, you pay less than someone who bounces a check so they can get milk.

Actual political oppression has always existed. The Romans in Jesus’ time oppressed the Jews and everybody else. Within the Jewish world, a woman with no husband had no power to vote or make a “legitimate” living. At the same time, as Monty Python’s Life of Brian points out, there was also “progress” in the areas conquered by Rome — roads, running water, etc. Does that mean the people were less oppressed? I don’t know. I bet some felt like they were and some didn’t. I bet some Romans believed they were doing the right thing while others had reservations about expanding the empire. In any case, I bet that you were more likely to be happy with the status quo/less likely to see yourself as an oppressor if you were a Roman and less likely to like the status quo/more likely to see yourself as oppressed if you were one of the annexed or conquered communities.

In America today, it’s much the same among liberals and conservatives. I wonder if people like Clarence Thomas or Herman Cain are oppressed simply because they don’t acknowledge racism. I find it hard to believe that a gay man or a lesbian running the halls of power on the White House staff is really all that oppressed, and I find it easy to believe that any person on the White House staff is in power. And yet, they are both true in different forms and to different degrees.  There are some who would say that the very existence of Barack Obama as President of the United States means that he is no longer oppressed and that racism no longer exists. See? That one’s in the most powerful position in the world, so he can’t be oppressed”, goes the logic. Furthermore, “because The Most Powerful Man In The World is Black, they have an ally in power and racism can no longer exist”, they say. If there is one thing that this administration has taught us, it is that even The Most Powerful Man In The World can be held back by racism. How else do we explain the unprecedented gridlock in Washington? I don’t know that any other President was called a “sub-human mongrel”.

(A brief detour here: Is “authority” necessarily  the same thing as “power over”? Obama’s got authority, clearly, as the President. Does he have power? Yes, of course. Does he have power over anybody? That remains to be seen, if he doesn’t take it.  Caring people, people with a conscience, try not to “lord it over” others. Hitler had both oppressive power and authority. Hitler would have killed Ted Nugent before the sentence about “mongrel” was complete and no one would have questioned him about it. Obama’s Secret Service detail “had words with” Nugent. Did they rob him of his free speech? Maybe, but he’s still a free man, and he can still speak.)

I have two white male friends who believe what I believe — that real authority is the antithesis of oppressive power. My minister growing up, Bob Kyte, once told me that “the only power we (ministers) have is trust”. A colleague in therapy-land, Will Foremaker, once said “a relationship can either be about power or it can be about love. It can’t be both”. Both of these men have power as politically defined, by nature of their jobs, by nature of the their gender and sexual orientation, and yet both men are about as egalitarian as they can be. Are they racist, sexist, homophobic, ageist, classist, or the new one in the news this week, “transphobic”? By some far-left standards, yes. By some far-right standards, no. The more important question is this: “Are they jerks?” and the unequivocal answer is  “no”.  They both have authority in certain circumstances, but they don’t abuse it. Their having power over themselves means that they don’t need it over others and this is the thing that liberals don’t get in their power analysis. At the same time, this is the thing that makes conservatives cringe because “good” conservatives know this.  Power-analysis liberals get into these dysfunctional battles about “who’s the most oppressed?” as though “being oppressed” gives you power in some way. In this way, we eat our young. Feminism has suffered because there are mean feminists and nobody wants to be mean, so women distance themselves from the label. The fact of the matter is that there were feminists who were feminists who didn’t like men and there were feminists who liked being strong women. The second group is alot more fun to be around, while the first kept everybody — men and women — away. It seems to me that this first group are still around, still arrogant, and creating the “toxic environment” that the Nation article talked about.

It is this way, by the way, for any liberal group. Conservatives don’t go there. For them, if they’re not trying to be racist or sexist or homophobic, they aren’t.What I learned in seminary is this: labels like “sexist” and “racist” and “homophobic” mean nothing to our souls if everybody is racist, sexist, and living in a homophobic society.  Some people internalize their oppression (and are thus racist to themselves and others externalize it (and are racist to others). If that’s the case, the answer to the statement, “You’re a racist/sexist/homophobic/transphobe” is “Yes, but I’m trying not to be”.  Anybody who is trying to be is a jerk, but most people aren’t trying to be. They aren’t jerks — and that is where the bridge can be built among people of left or right persuasions and within each camp.

We shouldn’t waste our time on whether the -isms exist. They most certainly do, in all of us. We shouldn’t be wasting our time on who but ourselves is a racist, sexist, etc. Nor should we be wasting our time fighting over who’s most oppressed, because it doesn’t matter.  The important thing is who is being a jerk and who is not, who is intentionally being a jerk and who is not. The important thing is that we look at ourselves honestly, take responsibility for ourselves and our actions and do what we can to fight those people who are jerks to others — intentionally so. If you are doing that, labels don’t matter to me. Conservative or Liberal mean nothing. Nice and trying mean everything.

Peace,

 

John

 

 

 

 

 

What If … Just Sayin’

                                      “You shall love your neighbor as yourself” — Leviticus 19:18 (Hebrew scripture)
“So in everything, do to others what you would have them do to you, for this sums up the Law                                           and the Prophets” — Jesus in Matthew 7:12 (Christian scripture)

Apparently, some group of leaders in Arizona — like groups of leaders throughout history — have decided to make a stand for “deeply held religious beliefs” like anti-gay sentiments because they claim Christianity as their religion. At first, religious freedom, and the right to exercise your deeply held beliefs in the marketplace seems like a reasonable– if controversial — idea. But let’s think about this …

What if an Islamic taxi driver wanted a law to refuse service to Christians because of his deeply held religious  beliefs?

What if a female waitress wanted a law to refuse to serve men because of her pagan beliefs?

What if a transgender Buddhist wanted a law so they could refuse to serve heterosexuals because of their beliefs?

What if an African-American wanted a law saying they didn’t have to serve White folks because of their deeply held Black Muslim beliefs?

What if a Jewish couple wanted to pass a law so they could refused to serve Christians?

What if Native American casino owners passed a tribal law to refuse service to non-Native Americans?

What if atheists wanted to refuse to serve religious people of any stripe?

Would you be upset? Would you be howling at the indignity you suffered? Would you think they were bigoted against you? Would you think it unfair? Would you hold rallies against it and want your allies to join you? What if they publicly “excused” your anger because of your “ignorance” of their intent? Would that make it any better? Or would you just think it was a stupid, bigoted law?

Hey, it’s a free country and they have the rights to their deeply held religious beliefs.  Just saying…

Arizona “leaders”, have you actually heard of Jesus or the God he claimed to have as his father? Do you really think you are defending them? Just asking… because I’m not seeing it.

Political “leaders”.  Don’t you work for all the people of Arizona? Just asking… because I’m not seeing it.

Don’t all different kinds of people vote in Arizona? Just asking… Because clearly, you’re not seeing it.

Just saying…

 

Peace,

 

John