Conspiracy Theory

Standard

[Paul Brown is one of my best friends in the world and has been since fourth grade. He’s that friend I would call at any hour, no matter what, because I know if I needed help, he would give it without hesitation. We were out of touch for some years, unfortunately the years Paul describes here. I hope you read Paul’s post and offer it to any who need it, whether to understand better or to offer help for those stuck in a scary place.]

With Paul on a hike up Hawkbill Mountain

I was a conspiracy theorist. I spent years running in conspiracy theory circles. I’m embarrassed to admit that. Embarrassment is a small price to pay, however, if I can help others understand and hopefully escape it, like I did. To find out some specifics of how I entered and exited from it, you’ll have to read on, but I hope my experience can help foster a better understanding of this issue for anyone who chooses to read this essay. 

“Conspiracy Theory” is a term with rightfully derogatory connotations, so why has it become such a prevalent issue in the United States today? The first thing people need to know is that conspiracy theory is less a matter of truth and information than it is a matter of trust. Second, because the position is rooted in trust (and distrust) and not truth, convincing a conspiracy theorist of your point of view through truth or information becomes all but impossible. Third, conspiracy theorists do not hold speculators of conspiratorial ideas to the same scientific or truth-telling rigor as they do professionals or credentialed people who hold a more consensus view.

Before I begin, let’s define some terms. Everyone has a pretty good idea of what a conspiracy theorist is, but what is an anti-conspiracy theorist? I devised this term to refer to people who believe in the world exactly as it is presented to them, for those who believe that all things outside the main societal narrative are conspiracy theory. They are the opposite of conspiracy theorists, again based on trust, not facts. Most people fall in between these groups, but the conspiracy theory group has been growing radically in the last 20 years.

In order to understand this world of conspiracy theory, people in the “real” world, and particularly the anti-conspiracy theorists, must come to grips with some uncomfortable facts and some disturbing ideas. There are many ways to enter the world of conspiracy theory, but first I will tell you how I entered it. The study of history and the search for truth are what led me into the conspiracy realm and they are also the things that brought me out. 

One of the first things I learned when I really began to read a substantial amount of history is that most of what we have been taught is BS. Now, let me clarify that statement before you tune out. The facts we have been taught are accurate mostly, what isn’t, is the narrative constructed around the facts. Our history, like every other country’s history, is terribly myopic and carries a primary mission of painting the country in the best possible light. “The winners write history” is a maxim for a reason. World War II was the historical event that got me interested, then I moved on to the Korean War and Vietnam. During my Korean War reading the subject of the CIA came up and I started branching into that area along with NSA. 

Once you start into the “alphabet agencies” as people refer to them, you can really go down the rabbit hole. You suddenly find yourself in a whole other world that is real, but few know anything about, and from this point on it can become self-perpetuating because of a few uncomfortable but incontrovertible facts that those who consider conspiracy theorists to be crazy-ass wing-nuts have a hard time swallowing. The first of these is that some things that have been labeled “conspiracy theory” in the past have indeed been true. I mean now acknowledged, documents declassified, straight-forward true. 

The second is that the label of “conspiracy theory” and “conspiracy theorist” have been used to discredit information that powerful people do not want to become common knowledge. Third, some of this stuff is pretty unimaginable to the average person: testing LSD on military personnel without their knowledge or consent, spraying chemicals over cities again without knowledge or consent, infecting poor people in Central America with syphilis, conducting propaganda campaigns inside the country through ghost writers writing to main stream media outlets, denying the existence of military bases like Groom Lake (Area 51). These few are probably the most well-known, but there are many other less well-known incidents that are damned frightening. These were all considered conspiracy theory until information either became declassified or too much information was available to hide them. 

Herein lies the problem: the narrative of truth becomes blurred. What people are calling “conspiracy” and labeling you crazy for believing actually turns out to be true in some instances. Now you begin wondering what is true and what isn’t, how much of what you know to be compromised history to begin with is outright falsehood? How much of what you believe and had believed is information fed to you to hide the truth? From there it isn’t difficult for people with partial information to construct a narrative that sounds plausible and seems defensible but in reality is usually guesswork and porous facts strung together into what we refer to as a conspiracy theory. 

BUT–and it’s a big “but”–the difference between a person who studies this for a living and a conspiracy theorist is that the conspiracy theorist loses perspective and usually doesn’t have the depth of knowledge to regain his or her perspective. This is one of the dangers of self-study, I think, though I am a strong believer in self-study. When you are being taught history, professors give you a much broader view than what is simply written in a text. To use an English literature example (my area), I remember hearing several college freshman comment on how much they loved Shakespeare and that they didn’t think it was that difficult to understand. But Shakespeare, as are most other canonical works of literature, cannot be thoroughly understood unless you know the history of the time in which it was written. Oh you can read it and enjoy it and understand much of it, providing you have no trouble with the language, but there are so many inside jokes and comments on current events of the time and criticisms of politics that you will never appreciate unless you are taught it or are such a student of history that you are aware of the context already. A good history professor does the same, they teach you not just what is written, but what is going on all around it, and that gives you much better understanding and keeps what you are learning in perspective. 

Most conspiracy theorists lose perspective. When they read about these few conspiracies that have turned out to be true, they usually begin to believe in almost all of them. At that point it should become obvious that your thought patterns have become irrational, but it doesn’t work that way most of the time. The fact that they discovered lies and propaganda cause distrust of information from most reputable sources, assuming that those sources are either being duped or are part of the conspiracy. At that point it becomes self-perpetuating: they won’t believe anything that they feel to be compromised, which ironically is anything that disagrees with what they believe. Eventually, almost everything is a conspiracy, nothing is real, the world is a lie. 

Interestingly, one of the best pieces of information I’ve ever heard on conspiracy theory came from a physicist who was considered a conspiracy theorist because of his views on unidentified flying objects. Obviously, the man is quite intelligent (can’t be a physicist without being brilliant), and despite the world considering him a conspiracy theorist, he stated, “Obviously, 95 percent of these sighting are bogus, what I’m concerned about is how to explain the other 5 percent.” This shows me that he is not your garden-variety conspiracy nut. He admits most of it is garbage, misidentification, whatever, but the other 5 percent are things that get shoved in the bin under “we don’t really know what it was, but it couldn’t have been a UFO.” Most of the people I know and knew in these circles would never say something like that. It would be the reverse. They’d believe 95 percent of reports and say 5 percent were probably misidentifications. 

Fortunately for me, I had several things going in my favor. I had read enough history and had studied a ridiculous breadth of economic, crime, tax and health statistics before I entered, so was able to recognize that most of the theories were partial truths and that, though there are quite a few conspiracies that have ended up being true and many more we don’t know about, they are a drop in the bucket compared to the number of conspiracy theories out there that have proven false over the years. In other words, perspective. 

It’s very much like gambling addiction. You pump loads of money into gambling and then hit a big jackpot. But in order reach that “big win” you’ve lost a huge percentage of the time and more money than you won. Still the perception is that you’ve won. If you believe all sorts of pseudo-science and questionable data (and there are TONS of it out there), you are going to hit some big wins eventually, especially in our country where secrecy is commonly used to hide troublesome issues. What conspiracy theorists are willing to forget is how many times the theories are incorrect. Also, I am married to a veterinarian who can explain to me much of the medical information that shows up in medical conspiracies. Additionally, I am fortunate to know professionals or experts in several other fields who can clarify or explain issues in those fields relating to conspiracy theories. 

Lastly, but most importantly, I have a burning desire to know the truth, not prove a conviction or ideology. When I began realizing that there are many unknown facts that conspiracy theorists learn, but that most of the theories they put together are anything but factual or truthful, that they rely to a great extent on coincidence and minimal evidence, then build extensive belief systems that are flawed from the beginning and get further from reality as they continue to expand from one assumption to another, I realized I would never find the truth there. The partial truth is a powerful tool. It works particularly well on people who are intelligent but without much deep knowledge of a subject. What they do have, though, is confidence in their own intelligence and their ability to recognize fallacy even without much knowledge, and thus they become ensnared.

When looked at from the outside, the world of conspiracy theory works exactly like a cult. It is a cult. When people think “cult” they usually think of radical religious organizations. What most of those have in common is that they control information, often by isolating cult members from society. By doing that they can tell them whatever they want and they will have no reference to dispute the information. Plus, the members trust the cult. But without interaction in society at large they lose their reference points, they cannot see what the lies are and no one is there to influence or guide them. In conspiracy theory, they do this by discrediting any source of information that conflicts with the theories. They create online spaces that become echo chambers for increasingly radical versions of reality. But once you are in this deep, you have usually completely rejected any sort of consensus from the other 7.9 billion people on the planet. Every scientist, every teacher, every doctor, every specialist, everyone who would potentially know anything has become a part of the machine to control you. Even worse than that, the people who become trustworthy are the ones who often have little to no knowledge, or are ostracized by their own professional colleagues, because, the logic goes, they must be telling the truth since they are being outcast. In short, the only professionals or knowledgeable people who are not compromised are those who defend the conspiracy theory. Essentially, they become critical of any error or falsehood from knowledgeable sources and label them compromised, but ignore the mass of errors and falsehoods from sources with little to no expertise. It’s a colossal logical fallacy that is endemic to the whole movement.

As ridiculous as this may sound to those who have never ventured into it, it can be extremely compelling. If you know a bit about something, the theories can sound airtight. Reinforced by some real conspiracies that have been covered up and some that are undoubtedly ongoing, it’s easy to fall prey to your own limitations and fears. Upon reading about a myriad of individual historical tales, most of them dealing with intentions and causation of commonly known historical events and contradicting the pious narrative we have been spoon fed, I fell into conspiracy. Many of the issues I had unearthed were at least acknowledged on these websites. As is always the case, the best deceptions are always based in the truth. There is no doubt that a large amount of individual facts, incidents, policies, etc. dealt with in the world of conspiracy theory are unknown to the general public andtrue. The problem comes in the stringing together of these individual facts using illogical and unproven assumptions, and putting a preponderance of value on coincidence, to create narratives that are untrue. 

People do not handle the unknown very well. We are much more comfortable with answers. What you discover with covert operations research and undercover history is that there are fewer answers than you thought, much less certainty than you’d like, little hard evidence to go on, and a lot more underhandedness and double-dealing than you can imagine. It makes you feel like the rug has been pulled out from under you. Then along comes a sub-culture that puts that core back by reinforcing what you already believe and incorporating the uncertainty into a group of theories that lay blame for the uncertainty on everyone else in society that believes differently. It’s an absolutely beautiful piece of propaganda, completely self-contained and nearly unassailable to the initiated.

Then there is the allure of secret knowledge. When you read about CIA, NSA, FBI, there is a thread of this allure that runs through many people who become agents. Many acknowledge this desire to be involved in covert, secret, elite operations and be privy to secret knowledge, the real world that no one knows about. It’s a thrill and a feeling of camaraderie for some conspiracy theorists to live vicariously in this world. And it also draws some people who want to feel superior, to be one of the few who are really “in the know” while others are living in a fantasy world.

All of the above ironically give the conspiracy theorist the belief that they are gifted critical thinkers and that anyone who doesn’t see and believe what they do are “sheep” or “sheeple.” There are many definitions of “critical thinking,” all of which include rational analysis and evaluation, informed by evidence. Instead, what you find in conspiracy theory circles is an overwhelming reliance on synchronicity. There is usually little evidence to tie the conspiracy narrative together. In the majority of cases you have some facts and then timelines that coincide and from this they make huge leaps of logic and create narratives. 

There is a radical difference between questioning everything and being able to assess data critically. Questioning alone does not make you a critical thinker. Additionally, from the conpsiracy theorist’s perspective their information, no matter how paltry, will always be better than yours, they have always “researched” more than you have, they have always “critically evaluated” better than you have, they can never be fooled by false information the way you have been, and their answer is always the right answer. They will tell you to “read a book” and if you say you’ve read 10, your books will all be from compromised sources and their one book legitimate. Like every cult, you can never break them out, they must want to come out, and tragically, many (or most) never will. The most disheartening thing for me is that those who most need to hear this, those I truly care about, probably won’t be able to. 

Disturbingly, we have had a surge of both conspiracy theories and conspiracy theorists in this country over the last couple of decades. As a fringe issue, conspiracy theory is somewhat innocuous (though not to the conspiracy theorist), but as a movement that is gaining prominence in our society it’s a totally different story. Left unchecked, it’s the death of truth. And with the death of truth comes the death of freedom.

When a Life Matters

Standard

I’m going to try to approach this from a different perspective. If you’re willing, come along and we’ll think through this together. 

Do lives objectively matter, in the cosmos?  Why do lives matter? 

When we say that “A Life Matters,” it begs the question “To whom?” 

In the big, physical-existence only picture, the answer is “no.” Not really. Go back and check the size of the universe. Then check how many people will die today. Happens everyday. More people die, more people are born, the stars shine and go supernova and black holes swallow up light and does any of it really “matter?” No. It just is. I’m describing an answer to the question if we don’t immediately ask “To whom?” Based on the best scientific evidence, we’re a blip, a blink, just passing through with no impact and no real relevance. Then we’re gone, decomposing in our physical form, switching to other forms of matter–so do we matter? Yeah, the pun is almost too strong to resist. But I will. 

If I tell you that you matter, I mean you matter to someone

The great and shocking truth of Christianity–and this is a belief, not a scientific fact I can prove for you–is that bigger than the universe, greater and older and infinitely more than the universe, exists a God who answers that question, who in fact initiated that question so you would know the answer. 

Genesis 1, describing the chaos that was pre-creation, addresses the ancient belief that existence is without order, ultimately threatening and either utterly indifferent or even malicious toward human existence. The writer of Genesis conveys, “No, God who created everything brought order and, from the beginning, bestowed both value and purpose on humanity.” We are all made in God’s image to share God’s value and God’s purpose–and God, we learn, is love. We matter to God. God loves us. God loves us and shows grace to all of us, meaning God doesn’t stop loving us or love us less when we hurt others or ourselves. 

Now if you don’t believe in God’s existence or you reject that a creator God loves us, you have to answer “To whom?” differently than I have. Humanity has attempted to answer that question apart from God. I won’t recount all those various attempts; I’m taking the long way around, but not that long. I’m just pausing here to say you still have to answer the question. 

Okay, from the abstract to the very personal and immediate: you live as if some people matter more than others. You might say “All people matter equally,” or ‘All people matter equally to God.” Perhaps this means all people have a right to matter equally or “All people have equal value” (which is really a different issue). But none of us live as if all people matter equally to us because that is impossible. We talk to some people and not to others. We spend money on some people and not on others. If one person is rushed to the emergency room, we drop everything and go; others are rushed to the emergency room and we say a prayer…or simply don’t notice at all. Remember, we’re talking about lives “mattering” to us, not whether lives have value to God. Who matters to you? I think it’s probably self-deception to say “Everyone matters equally to me but I just pay attention to certain people and not to others.” If you got the news today of someone’s death, you would not respond equally to that news regardless of who died. Neither would I.

When I lived in Nicaragua I realized that Nicaraguan lives did not matter very much to most people living in the United States. It was a bizarre experience, yet probably one shared by nearly everyone who lives abroad and comes to love the country and people of their adopted home. These lives, Bismarck and Juan Ramon and Mileydi and Exequiel, were abstractions to my friends from my native land. I had the strange honor of trying to make them real to other people I love. 

But I’m not claiming I’m special, I’m just describing my experience. If a person in Burkina Faso dies tonight, that person will be an abstraction to me. I don’t know that person. If I somehow found out and it was a little girl, I would feel grief in that general, abstract way we do over the world’s pain, injustice, how children should not die before their parents. But in the past week, I learned that Manuel, who lived in our barrio–no, we lived in his–and who watched out for us as his gringo family, died. Manuel was an alcoholic. He treated his body horribly and we knew his life expectancy couldn’t be terribly long. But he was younger than I am and now he is gone and I grieve. He matters to me. Of course he didn’t matter to you as much as he matters to me if you never met him. When I told you he was an alcoholic, he may have mattered to you a little less; you might now think, just a little, in the privacy of your heart, “he deserves what he got.” 

But people can not matter to us when we know them, too. Jesus tells a parable about a man living in poverty named Lazarus and a rich man named…”rich man.” Unsettlingly, Jesus doesn’t give the rich guy a name. But the rich man steps over Lazarus at his gate, ignores Lazarus’s suffering and needs, and continues on with his comfortable, pleasurable life. 

We’re not like the rich man, of course. At least, I’m willing to bet we have all told ourselves that we’re not and gathered our reasons to back this up. 

“But Mike, you’re being unfair! A life can matter to me even if I don’t interact directly with that person! I can value a person’s life from a distance. I can say that person matters without having to feed him or dress her wounds or clothe their children.” 

Hold that thought. 

My life matters. To whom? It matters to me. I value my own life. I feed myself and exercise and try to take reasonable care of my health. I also try to enjoy myself, to do things that give my life meaning by my own measure, and to be a person I can bear. I try to love others even when they don’t love me, to show kindness to those who refuse to show kindness to me. 

My life matters to me because my life matters to God. I can’t say the following with certainty–I don’t have a control group to test my hypothesis–but I believe I would not be alive if I didn’t matter to God. We usually phrase this as “Because God loves me.” In the mysterious, inexplicable ways of God, not only does God love me but Jesus has taught me that the very the purpose of my life is to do what I can to help others know that God loves them, also. You. Nicaraguan friends. Ultimate players. My kids. Strangers on the street. 

Can lives matter without purpose? They can, but I think it’s harder for us to accept. We still matter to God if we feel we have no purpose at all, but part of Jesus’s conveying to us that we matter is inviting us to join in God’s purposes. Those are big. Reconcile the world to God in love (as opposed to at gunpoint). Redeem and restore all that we’ve damaged with our hate and violence and our disfiguring of creation. Build shalom community. In fact, I would say our purpose and our love, both given by God, cannot be taken away. Even if we lose our ability to do everything, God still works through us to love and heal. That’s grace. 

We convey that others matter by affirming their beloved-ness. We recognize and call out their reflection of God’s image, by which I mean that they are both loved and capable of loving. The more abstract this is, the less it touches people. The more specifically and truthfully we can tell and show people they are loved, that they have purpose and value and significance to us, the better chance we have of helping them to know that they matter. 

Yet numbers work against us. Can you love a thousand people? A million? Can you love twenty people? Twelve? Only two?

Of course, the answer is that we can love different numbers of people in different ways. For how many people would you rush to the hospital? That is one very specific expression of love. That you would not rush to the hospital for everyone does not mean you don’t love everyone, but again, you don’t love everyone equally. We have limits. We could smile at everyone we meet, but we can’t listen well to every person we meet (believe me, I’ve tried). We can share our food with some but not with everyone. We choose. 

As Jesus followers, we trust that God, who is infinite, can and does love everyone while we seek to love those within our reach. Even for those within arm’s reach, we have to choose how we can love them. We who are finite do our small part and believe God uses our small part for the whole, what we call “God’s Kingdom,” God’s overall work in the world. 

Complicating these matters, I’m both sinful and broken. I love imperfectly, even when I’m crazy about the person. Some people I flat don’t like, or don’t enjoy, or don’t respect, or don’t accept. Jesus literally commands us to love everyone–including enemies–and not just abstractly—not the empty gesture of “thoughts and prayers” without real prayer or active love—but specifically to love them as we would want to be loved. 

Of course, my failures and shortcomings in loving others don’t mean they are less lovable. Nor that they matter less to God. But it means little for me to say people matter and yet demonstrate by my action or inaction that they do not. 

Our church has a sign above the door that says, “You matter to God, so you matter to us.” That’s our calling that we recognize from Jesus. Jesus says they matter, so they matter, and consequently we seek to help them to know that they matter, to show by what we say and do and don’t say and don’t do that we affirm their value. To God. To us. 

Therefore, if we have a movement within our country insisting that certain people matter, of course we have the calling to affirm this truth. Jesus makes that clear. I have never, in my thirty-plus years of following Jesus, felt the need to convey to anyone that they matter less. Have I needed to confront some people’s pride and ego? Of course. But not their value. Not that they matter to God or to me. 

Going back to abstracts and specifics, of course every person in the whole world matters. But how many people feel specifically loved or valued by my declaration that “everyone matters?” Notably, our sign doesn’t say “Everyone matters to God so everyone matters to us.” Of course we believe that and try to live it. But my calling, now and in each moment, is to help you know that youmatter. You won’t feel that more if we tell you, “Yeah, everyone.” It is everyone. But you have to hear that it’s you. YOU matter to God. So YOU matter to us.

In Mark 5, Jesus went rushing off with Jairus, a very esteemed and powerful man in his culture, because Jairus begged Jesus, “Come, heal my daughter!” But on the way, Jesus got stalked by a woman. She came up close to him–violating her culture’s laws, by the way–and touched his clothing. Stalker. This touch healed her. You may not believe that, but I do. But the story isn’t that Jesus magic-healed her without trying; Jesus stopped and asked, “Who touched me?” Remember he was rushing to heal a dying girl with the girl’s father, a man who mattered very much within the hierarchy of that culture. Jairus’s daughter mattered very much to Jairus, Jairus beseeched Jesus for help, Jairus mattered to Jesus, and Jesus charged–until this. This lowly, sickly, impoverished woman (all strikes against her) did not believe she mattered to Jesus at all.  Not even enough for him to lay eyes on her. I can just touch him, she thought, get healed, and he won’t ever have to see me or know I exist

Jesus stopped. Jesus demanded, “Who touched me?” Peter said, “It’s a crowd. Everyone is touching you.” Yep. Everyone. Everyone matters. Jesus didn’t ask that. “Who touched me, for I felt power for healing flow out of me.” What? But the woman knew she was busted. She fell to her knees in front of him–have you ever actually dropped to your knees before another person? I don’t think we can even quite get how demeaning, how lowering this act might be. Jesus spoke with her. He raised her up. He listened. He affirmed her. He told her, “Your faith has healed you. Go in peace.” 

Then, and only then, did he resume hurrying to the emergency of Jairus’ little ten-year-old girl. 

I’ve heard people say, “Jesus didn’t heal everyone who was sick in his time. He didn’t help everyone who was poor.” It’s like they understand that Jesus imposed human limitations on himself yet also don’t understand. Or conveniently forget. Jesus loved and modeled loving. He didn’t come so that he could directly heal and love everyone–even though he certainly loved everyone–but so that we could learn how to love as he loves us and spread this love, person by person, throughout the world. He showed love all the way to and through his death, and to his followers’ shock, even after his death through his resurrection. He atoned for our sins in that death and imparted his life to us in that resurrection. 

Yes, now we’re there. Gears shifting.

If someone tells you their life does not matter, as a Jesus follower you have one clear answer. If someone tells you, “I’m worthless, I want to die,” you may not be able to change their mind but you know with certainty that they have worth, love, meaning, value. They matter. 

If someone tells you, “I feel as if I don’t matter,” you have an answer. We know our calling. We know why they matter. We can address what in their life makes them feel they don’t matter. 

If Lazarus says to you, “The rich man steps over me. I don’t matter,” you must tell him, “The rich man is wrong! You do matter, God loves you, and that indifference and neglect by that nameless wealthy person cannot negate your value. You matter!” 

If people feel like it’s debatable whether or not they matter, our part, always, always, is to affirm how much they matter to a loving, grace-extravagant God, and to us, imperfect and finite but loved by God and learning to love like God. If we love others as we want to be loved (i.e. the way Jesus commanded), we know we want to be reminded of and upheld in our value. We may do that poorly for others, but we know the truth; we know our calling. 

If Black people tell us they experience that their lives do not matter within our culture, why on earth would we do anything other than affirm with them–through words and action–that their specific lives do matter? 

As Jesus followers, we affirm to people that their lives matter. Any response that waters this down, or questions or attacks why they bring up the question–imagine answering someone who is suicidal, “Why are you even talking about that?”–works against what Jesus did with the woman he stopped for, what Jesus does when he stops for us. As Jesus followers, we can only be on one side of a discussion someone else raises about whether or not their life matters: 

Yes, you are right. Yes it does.  Your life matters.

Tarnished Treasures

Standard

TW: Racist image and language

My friend Anna made a comment that has me thinking. Good friends will do that. We’re both Generation X, affectionately Xers, folks born between 1965 and 1980. We’re the generation that, in a recent widely-viewed CBSN piece on the differences between generations, were forgotten. Left out completely. Yep.

“Don’t you forget about me…don’t, don’t, don’t, don’t…”

If you have that tune in your mind now, that doesn’t guarantee you’re an Xer, but I guarantee if you are an Xer (and grew up in the U.S.) you now have that Simple Minds song playing in your head.

The quickest search on google declares that our generation is “typically perceived to be disaffected and directionless.” As a writer, I appreciate that both “typically” and “perceived” can be taken as qualifiers. That’s just a stereotype and it is merely how others view us, not necessarily objective reality about the 60-plus million of us who are left. I can’t resist riffing on this for one moment before I go on: we, the generation left off of a chart of generations–no one noticed that little gap between 1964 and 1981?–are perceived to be disaffected? Huh. Now why would that be?

I’m a guy who believes in God’s grace for each of us individually, so I’m not inclined to lump huge groups together that often, but I have a deep fondness and affinity for our generation. We were children of the Seventies and Eighties. We survived being dressed in pull-over velour short-sleeve sweaters with zippers in the Seventies. We recovered from our self-inflicted mullets in the Eighties. The last Xer born on December 31 of 1980 still got to enjoy Michael Jackson in his prime and could understand, at least to some degree, what it meant that Nelson Mandela walked out of prison and the Berlin Wall came down. We still love our music and maybe we are disaffected but if you don’t, you’re missing out.

Back to Anna’s comment. She told me she wants to show her kids some of the beloved movies from our childhood, but they have glaring racism.

“Oh? Wait, which ones?”

I’m not going to attempt a comprehensive survey of the movies we watched in the Eighties and how they influenced our lives, but Anna is, of course, right. Sixteen Candles. Goonies. Oh, Lord, Goonies. We all loved Goonies. We still speak of it fondly in my family. Some of you are balling your fists because I’m mentioning it pejoratively right now.

Well, this is exactly the point I’m hoping to make: it’s easy to see the blatant racism in cultural fixtures for which we feel no connection. Whites-only baseball. Segregated schools. I’ve repeatedly seen this photo and am appalled and sickened each time.

This is from a fair in Wisconsin in 1943. “Versions of the original ‘African Dodger’ were still found in the 1950s.” And yes, unfortunately it’s real.

That didn’t happen at our county fair, which my little Illinois town, as the County Seat, hosted each year. I also have fond memories of the Fair. We didn’t have a lot going on in our town, but that week every year, people flooded in, we rode The Zipper and Tilt-a-Whirl, threw the ping pong ball in the fishbowl to win a goldfish that would die three hours later, and ate the cotton candy, corn dogs, and elephant ears. I saved money all year to blow at the fair. We had a Miss Henry County pageant, a demolition derby, and even quasi-headliners in concert, there in our own little town. I hope you can feel the nostalgia bubbling up in me. I spent countless quarters to win stuffed animals for girls who saw me as a “good friend,” which was basically death for a seventh-grader, but slow, staked-to-an-anthill-and-basted-with-honey death. Like I said, great memories.

Time for one of those uncomfortably honest moments. We didn’t have “hit the N—– baby” at our fair. Thank God. But I loved our fair and therefore I can see how someone who also loved their fair could feel some affinity and fondness, even though something so appalling as this was played. Some folks from the Silent Generation still around today played that game. I enjoyed Goonies and Sixteen Candles, which, among too many other things, in the former made a character who was dropped in acid as a baby and, because of that deformity is now chained like an animal, the punch line* and in the latter discusses date rape so casually that we’re led to assume it’s the norm (which, tragically, it was). Both movies depict extreme racial stereotypes of Asians.

I’m not saying that laughing at Goonies is the exact equivalent of winning a prize for your sweetheart by playing “Hit the N—–Baby.” I’m saying the cultural entertainments, especially those that became fixtures of our culture and our generation, become easier to excuse, accept, or even defend.

Consider Back to the Future. If I was playing softball before, this is hardball. Sixteen Candles and even Goonies are blips on the cultural landscape compared with Back to the Future, which is a franchise with staying power even now. When they do the five-image montage of the 80’s, you’ll see this movie poster.** Of course there’s racism in Back to the Future. No, I don’t want to have to admit that. I want to love Back to the Future like I always have. Especially now that I’ve read Lucky Man. In Back to the Future II, Marty goes back to Lyon Estate and it’s gone to hell. It’s poor, it’s violent, and…oh, there’s a Black family living in Marty’s house. But don’t worry, these aren’t those bad, violent Black people, like the rest of the neighborhood. These are good Black people.

Oh, and Goldie is the mayor now. One of two Black characters in the original movie.

Um…

Damn it.

Another honest confession: when I dig into this stuff, I feel tired. I find myself trying to explain it in my head to people who don’t want to see what I see–imagine, then, how exhausting that is for Black people to try to explain–and also grapple with the part of myself that resists examining these things without my rose-colored lenses. I want to pretend that this “innocent” enjoyment has no lasting effect on my attitudes or perceptions of race. I have to work to make myself keep looking at it honestly and as objectively as possible.

So would it be any different for me if I came from a different generation and our “innocent” entertainment was more starkly full of racial stereotypes and motifs that make us Xers (and many others) cringe?

I titled this post “Tarnished Treasures,” but that probably isn’t adequate. “Tarnish” is a loss of luster due to exposure to air or moisture. We’re talking about inherent flaws. Maybe flawed treasures. Or, less charitably, rotten spots in the fruit that spoil the whole thing.

You tell me. If I said, “Yeah, I loved that county fair we used to go to, and sure, there was that one maybe racist game that they played, but that doesn’t mean the whole fair was bad.”

Remember, this is hard work. It’s good and necessary work. It’s much easier to define racism as “bad people want to lynch Black Americans and call them ‘n—–‘ and I don’t.” But you know what? I’m not helping the current racial conflict nor dismantling systemic racism by reminding everyone that I haven’t lynched anyone. If “suburbs” functions as a code word for “where it’s safe for white people to live,” then I have to acknowledge that a movie I’ve enjoyed from my youth reinforces that stereotype. If I am willing to admit that Asians are suffering race-motivated violence because “they” (every Asian, regardless of birth place) are accused of bringing us the novel coronavirus that causes COVID-19, then I must also admit that Data in Goonies and, even worse, Long Duk Dong, the utter stereotype from Sixteen Candles, contribute to Asian stereotypes and, unless I address and rewrite it proactively, continue to influence my views.

Okay, I can hear the voice saying, “Come on, Mike, my view of Asians isn’t effected by Long Duk Dong and neither is yours!” Do me a favor? Go back and read my friend Stephen’s post he wrote for this blog. Where does this stereotype of “meek” come from? In addition to making fun of Asian accents and his, um, romantic inclination, the main trope of his character was weakness. Or consider,

“Asian Americans who grew up in the second half of the 1980s complained that they were called ‘Donkers’ in junior and high schools,” Grace Ji-Sun Kim, a researcher at Georgetown University, wrote in the book Theological Reflections on ‘Gangnam Style.’ “They were taunted with quotes of Dong’s stilted English lines, such as … ‘Oh, sexy girlfriend.’ “

From the above cited article, “What’s So Cringeworthy about Sixteen Candles?

Here are my conclusions:

1)While it’s worthwhile to call attention to racism in our collective national history (and I do this often), it’s harder and more personal to consider our own direct exposure to racism , especially any that has gone unconsidered.

2)The more fondly we connect to something, the more difficult it will be for us to think on it critically. That’s just an obvious truth. But it’s really important in the context of racism.

Is our church racist?

“God, I hope not! I love my church!”

Yes, me too, but is it?—-

3)This leads us to dig in hard to a better understanding of “racism.” Correct, I have never owned slaves, whipped anyone, nor called anyone “n—–.” I have never done that. Being innocent of these actions does not clear me of racism. Further, racism is neither all-or-nothing nor, if I am racist in some way, such an absolute damning of my character that I am therefore pure, irredeemable evil. I think the question “Did I commit a racism?” is more useful than “Am I racist?” I’m not given over to racism; I do racisms, mostly not consciously.

4)Therefore, this being true, my work–I hope our work–is to become more conscious of the ways I do racisms, the way I still carry unconsidered racist attitudes, assumptions, or stereotypes, and, most challengingly, the ways our culture perpetuates and reinforces these that I do not see but that benefit me. Identifying and confronting these “small” things like recognizing the flaws in our treasures, the seam of racism that runs throughout not just “U.S. history” but my personal history, help us to speak up against racism, even in ourselves, rather than defend and deny it…even in ourselves.

A theme I keep seeing, and of which I need constant reminding, is that how I feel about all this is not the center of the issue. How we treat one another in our country is the center. Worded differently, how we love our neighbor is the center.

By the way, as it turns out, “disaffected” does describe me and, I hope, most of my generation.

Disaffected is defined as “Dissatisfied with the people in authority and no longer willing to support them.”

*I know, the Goonies help Sloth. It’s that whole light-hearted, torture-of-a-disfigured-family-member-as-kids’-entertainment thing that leaves me unsettled.

**Along with Thriller, Pac-Man, Magic and Bird, and Raiders of the Lost Ark. And the Miracle on Ice. And The Empire Strikes Back. And these.

U2 - Live / Under A Blood Red Sky (CD) | Discogs
U2 - War - Amazon.com Music
U2 - The Unforgettable Fire (1984, Specialty Pressing, Vinyl) | Discogs
U2 - The Joshua Tree - Amazon.com Music

But that’s more than five.

Exhaustion

Standard

This is how much of a mess I am right now: a few days ago I was driving and a red pick-up in the next lane over started to switch lanes and then wildly swerved back again to avoid slamming into the Honda that was already there. Blind spot, I’m guessing. We’ve all been there. I was the car behind these two. The car that almost got sideswiped sped up and got out of there. The driver who was trying to change lanes, now running out of space before we turned to cross the bridge, signaled. So I slowed way down to let him in–I was already going slower from that cold sweat down my spine when I thought the cars right in front of me were going to crash. But I definitely went out of my way to let him in and he knew it. After he changed lanes, he stuck his full-sleeve tattooed arm out the window to acknowledge the kindness. 

And I got teary.

His simple acknowledgement of my act, a tiny little drip of decency in a raging hurricane sea of hostility, and I choked up. 

After my last post, which was a touch serious, I intended to come back with something light-hearted. It’s high time I did a post on disc golf. But the chill out post won’t come, even though I know we’re at the point in the plot where we desperately need a breather and some comic relief. Kim has worked 14-hour days the last couple, and when she describes what she’s going to have to pull off to teach this year, it sounds like two full-time jobs. The freaking NBA protested the police shooting of Jacob Blake. No playoff Wednesday or Thursday. I was trying to express how overwhelmed I felt with this latest shooting–and the shooting after that, a 17-year-old killing two, injuring a third–when the WNBA, NBA, as well as some MLB and MLS teams, brought their games to a screeching halt to defend and advocate for black lives. 

I’m profoundly encouraged to see this because these are people with a major platform and powerful voices. If you hope for non-violent protests, these are the epitome of speaking up non-violently. 

Of course, there’s much more than this going on. In case it slipped by you, we’re in an election year. As of today, 184,000 have died from COVID-19, a horrific number which is still likely underreported. Somehow arguments against wearing masks to prevent its spread continue. 

“Look around, look around at how lucky we are
To be alive right now.” You know, from Hamilton.

In 2020, it’s tempting to sing that sarcastically. But then with so many dying of this virus, that feels like sacrilege, doesn’t it? The pandemic began raging in the U.S. in March. It’s only August. My friend Luis survived it but his wife Connie describes

It’s been a month since Luis came back home after his ordeal of 103 days in the hospital-rehab isolation venture due to COVID-19. His days are mostly spent in bed due to the ulcer wound that continues to heal. He still has no sensation in his feet, and unable to walk yet.

Luis is younger than I am. We keep praying for him and his family. 

I have a friend who is an ICU nurse. She just gave me the update on her hospital. 

We are able to care for 16-18 patients, but it is a strain on our staffing to do so long term. We are attempting to hire experienced ICU nurses, and we have 8 nurses in the residency program training to become an ICU nurse but that takes 3 months. Our nurses are working overtime, and we have currently acquired the most traveling nurses that we have ever had.  Travelers are an expensive way to go because they cost the hospital much more than hired staff.  (The hospital pays the nurse and the travel company).   We currently have 14 or 15 travelers!  Normally, we hope to have none, but occasionally have hired 2-4.  This current trend is unprecedented. It is a good thing I live in an attractive place to work and play, so we can attract travelers to our area.  I am sure some areas in the country struggle with attaining travelers.  

This is a response I got to my last post. Pay attention.

I have noticed that I am thinking about death much more lately. Some of that probably has to do with me and many friends being in our 70s, 80s. Feeling less and less time, Your words help me a lot. And this upcoming election scares me to death. I have actually found myself thinking of how to leave life if 45 wins. But then your words help me feel love for my family, friends, and associates. And I smile. I pare down the size of my world. Then I can handle that.

Like I said, I couldn’t find the humor. We’re in crisis and I’m not the only one feeling it. So when a stranger acknowledged me, just that simple arm-wave, the universal signal for “Thanks,” I got emotional. 

Jerry Falwell, Jr. resigned “under duress” as President of Liberty University and I think about how many heard him declare Trump is “the Christian’s dream president.” He’s going to receive a severance of $10.5 million. How many Christians did he impact with his actions, his words, his legalism, with his unreserved support of this administration? How many who aren’t Christians took his words and behaviors as speaking for all Christians? 

It’s so much right now. Nicaraguans are still poor, in fact poorer than ever, and I still want to remind people and speak for my friends, the land that will always also be our home country, a place and people we love. But we have these crises exploding around us. The derecho in Iowa, people trying to pick up the pieces. Hurricane Laura hitting Texas and Louisiana. We’re praying and holding our breath, watching reports come in. 

Perhaps most upsetting, for every issue I just named there is a pitched battle raging among us, with the possible exception of Hurricane Laura. 

In contrast to the driving incident, that same outing I stopped by the local mall on my way home because I‘m a mall rat desperately needed the restroom. Twenty feet from it, an employee told me, quite harshly, “The mall is closed. You need to go the main exit and leave. Now.” I wasn’t the only non-employee still there, by far. It wasn’t two hours after closing. And I go to that mall so rarely that I don’t actually know their closing time. 

“You’re ugly and your mother dresses you funny!” I did not say that to him, but the urge came welling up, hard. Now come on, Mike. He’s an employee mopping the floor after the mall is officially closed. Yes, he could have spoken nicer to me, but he has every right to want to go home from work when it’s time. And it’s not his fault how his mother dresses him. I spent my drive home (this was my second failed attempt to stop for a bathroom) uncomfortable and working through the steps of putting myself in his shoes. Because to do to others as we would have them do to us, we have to identify and empathize. Getting angry is easier than identifying and empathizing. SO much easier. 

Here we are. Small acts, not even necessarily of kindness but simple civility, make me cry. Small acts of incivility hit harder than they should–than they normally would, if I can even remember back to what “normal” felt like. I read about people getting angry at being asked to wear a mask and physically attacking the requester, whether a teenage employee or a stranger. I want to judge the heck out of them–and I do think that’s a horrible thing to do–but I’m also aware that I, personally, am running on approximately zero margin. I’m not excusing horrible acts or awful decisions; I’m acknowledging that we all have more going on right now.

I have. I recognize both of these tiny incidents as symptoms to which I must pay attention. 

So here are my takeaways:

1)It’s right to react strongly to injustice and horrors going on around us. I’m not feeling bad that I’m feeling bad about all this. When I stop caring, I’ll worry. I’m questioning anyone who doesn’t carry these things heavily. Knowing how to retain peace and centeredness in turmoil is not the same as indifference.

2)That means we have to increase our self-care, too. As my friend described, we may have to pare down our world. If we can’t handle all that’s going on, we must make healthy choices to step back and breathe, increase our capacity for what we must handle, limit or mitigate the damage we’re taking if at all possible (not always the case), and, in my humble opinion, keep speaking up and standing up. 

3)How do we keep loving in the midst of this? It seems as if people are getting worse. Behaving worse, attacking more viciously, reasoning even poorer or less (which frankly I didn’t think possible), and somehow nevertheless more convinced of their rightness and righteousness in all of these. And I mean it looks like this to folks on both sides of the political spectrum, looking across the divide. I know with absolute certainty I’m not the only one feeling “those people” are harder to love right now. Therefore, we need a soundly biblical understanding of “love” to keep loving right now. Love does not mean pretending that evil is not evil. Even forgiveness demands calling sin and darkness what they are and calling them into the light. Love never means calling evil good. Love does not mean turning away from sin and choosing harmony over truth. “True peace is not merely the absence of tension: it is the presence of justice.” –MLK Jr. If we can follow this truth in love, seeking God’s Shalom through loving our neighbor while confronting injustice…

Oof. It’s exhausting. I’m emotionally stretched to my limit. I know that. I want to acknowledge that. I want to respect my own limits and yours. I believe everything I just wrote, I will try to live this, and I’m exhausted. 

This is all I’m telling you today. Many of us feel exhausted. If you roll your eyes and call me a “snowflake,” that’s fine (especially if I don’t hear you). But if you can relate, I’m offering you this: love is still the right path. I know it’s ridiculous to get teary when a stranger just arm-out-the-window thanks you for letting him merge. But trying to listen to God’s Spirit, I took that to mean small acts of love mean even more right now. 

Yesterday, I was driving a little fast and then saw a boy, maybe nine, standing with his bike at a crosswalk. I stopped abruptly, which inspired the truck coming from the other direction to stop even more abruptly. The kid looked nervous and hustled across before either of us ran him over. So I rolled down my window and called out to him, “Good job!” smiled, and gave him a thumbs up. Safely on the opposite sidewalk, he smiled back and returned my thumbs up. Small acts mean more now, I’m convinced. Loving others while we’re near our breaking point (or feel that we are) is still where we encounter God. Loving our enemies when they have doubled down and committed themselves to enemy-like behavior will always be the path of life. If by some miracle you are reading my blog and disagree with all my positions and think of me as your enemy (and maybe God’s), well, then this applies between you and me.

This isn’t the light, comic-relief, here’s-a-breather post I had in mind, at all, but I want to make this statement. Some things we have to say not because we’ll change others by saying them but because not saying them will change us. I’m not going to lose my soul in all this. I’m not going to become or give in to the hate I’m beholding right now. I know people deny that it is hate, and maybe it’s fear masquerading as hate. That’s not for me to judge. I just know I’m not going there. Grace still applies and I’m still loved by Jesus in spite of all the bad stuff I think and say and do. I’m not righteous, I’m saved by grace, and I refuse to let myself believe that I am good and others are evil. I refuse to turn a blind eye. 

“I have foresworn myself. I have broken every law I have sworn to uphold, I have become what I beheld and I am content that I have done right!” 

shouts Elliot Ness in The Untouchables. Great line, strong movie, but no. Absolutely not. I also refuse to fight against hate with hate and let myself become the hate I stand against.

As Bono sang,

They say that what you mock
Will surely overtake you
And you become a monster
So the monster will not break you

I’m encouraged that I get teary at minuscule responses. I’m glad God’s spirit still moves in me to offer children affirmation when I can. Many of my thoughts and inclinations right now are not encouraging. I mean, genuinely concerning. You may see some of those in yourself, too. 

But God is with us and, by God’s grace, we will not become what we behold. We will keep trying to speak–and live–truth in love. 

“Be imitators of God and walk in love, as Christ loved us.” These words have never sounded more concrete and tangible to me, because the choice never before looked this clear. 


I had written this and then, that night, found out Chadwick Boseman died, and I couldn’t even. It felt like a gut kick, or lower. That news both underscored the premise of this post–there’s so much and it’s so bad–and doubled me over. We need leaders and role models, people of character and courage. We can ill afford to lose those we have. Go with God, Chadwick, and thank you. 

Image

Image

What Matters

Standard

It’s the middle of the night, 4:30 AM. I know that’s close to getting up time for some of you. I’ve been trying to keep more reasonable hours, go to bed around 1. “Reasonable” for me. That didn’t work tonight.

I’ve been thinking a lot about getting older. It changes your perspective. I realize I’ve been trying to say a few things in my writing and I keep coming at them from different perspectives, hoping to zero in.

What we do matters. What we say matters. We have a chance to make a difference.

Lin-Manuel Miranda wrote ” I imagine death so much it feels more like a memory.” My dad lived sixty-eight years. Rachel Held Evans died at 37. My friend Fred only twenty-nine. And you might think, “Of course you’re thinking about death–it’s the middle of the night!” But I’ve been thinking about these things all the time.

Big events are happening now. We’re in an election year. People are screaming and arguing that this is the best President we’ve ever had, the worst President we’ve ever had, that the fate of the world rides on this election. We’re trying to change a racist, sexist culture while some fight back that our attempt at change is the problem.

We’re in the midst of a worldwide pandemic. We’re learning to do life differently, those of us with the resources to protect ourselves and rearrange our lives. Many more can’t protect themselves. I’m watching my wife, Kim, relearn how to teach after twenty-plus years. We laughed today that it should make her feel young, trying to figure out how to do this, just like she did when she started.

Everything feels huge right now, oversized, overwhelming. We’re enduring too much stress. We’re debating over masks. We’re debating if the sky is blue, if water is wet, if U2 is great (duh). But it’s intractable because somehow both sides believe they have reason on their side, both sides are shouting, “No, this is what ‘wet’ means!”

So I find myself thinking about death a lot, and meaning, and purpose. What of this, if any, would matter to me if I knew I weren’t going to be here. I imagine death so much it feels more like a memory.

I was missing Nicaragua today. It hits me hard some days, catches me off guard, slams me in the ribs, knocks my breath from me.* I was driving this afternoon, when suddenly I missed people and that time and place so badly I literally gasped in pain. But our life in Nicaragua wasn’t Shangri-La; I wasn’t in some perfect state of bliss there. Sometimes I was miserable. I had insomnia for seven years.**

So here it is, what I’ve been trying to say: First, none of this will go as you plan. It isn’t under your control. God didn’t give you that power to make it work as you see fit. Today Kim left for a meeting expecting she would have one school year and returned knowing she would have a completely different one.

I had so many plans and such determination to make things go a certain way and, for the most part, they haven’t. Do I despair? Quit? Try harder? What matters?

Here’s my answer:

I will love you in this time that I have. It’s getting light now. Day is coming.

I will love in this time that I have. Love is attention and love is encouragement. For those who can, love is fixing plumbing or sewing masks. We express love in a million ways. Love is forgiveness. Love is helping others see they are God’s beloved, beautiful, and worth loving.

Today I heard from a friend who has had it–like when Dad shouted “I’ve had it!” Done. Rudeness in exchange for her kindness. Incivility flung at her civility. She concluded that people suck…but she said it a lot stronger. We’ve all been there. Actually, I’m more concerned about anyone who hasn’t been. If you’ve never gotten overwhelmed trying to love these horrible people–I mean, people–then either you are the most shalom-centered, spirit-filled person I know…or else you’re choosing not to love.

It’s such a cliché to tell you that we don’t have much time so you should love people…but we don’t have much time. So love people. Give yourself for the people who can receive love from you. Spend yourself on them.

I feel like we’re following Jesus into the darkness, into a world that gets meaner and smaller and harder all the time, that mocks us for offering or expecting anything different. “When someone is polite to you why can’t you respond? Why do you give filthy looks or just ignore me altogether?” It becomes horribly tempting to do unto others as they’ve done to us.

I’m overwhelmed and exhausted and so tempted to lash out. So bleeping tempted.

My friend matters. Today. My friends who haven’t quit loving and my friends who feel tempted to quit. So I refuse to give in to that temptation. Jesus, give me strength to love and not hate.

No to returning hate for hate.

No to meaner and harder and smaller. No to “everyone lies so what does it matter?” No to “there is no truth.” No to “kindness is meaningless in a world like this.”

“The light shines in the darkness and the darkness has not overcome it.”

Yes to that.

I ache for my time in Nicaragua because I gave my heart there, not perfectly or even adequately at times, but with intention. Heart longing that feels like an elbow slammed in the ribs is a strange reward, but I wouldn’t trade it. Yes to giving our hearts.

Here again, in this vastly wealthier place, I don’t know how to love well or even adequately, and it’s hard here for all different reasons and sometimes I’m miserable, but the light shines in this darkness, this “land of plenty with an empty soul.”*** Yes to that light.

Yes to offering what light we can, what light Jesus gives us, in this darkness.

Yes to believing light is coming.

Yes to loving our children, even when they don’t like us.

Yes to loving our friends and remembering to tell them we’re grateful for them. I’m grateful for you. I hope you know that. Please know that.

Yes to holding out hope that the people in darkness, including those who seem willfully ignorant and callously cruel, who look to me like the dwarves in The Last Battle, choosing darkness and refusing light, will yet have love break through. Yes to praying for them. Yes to offering them light, even still.

I’ve realized, probably a little slow, that for some I am the enemy. I talk about Jesus and believe in God’s love, compassion, and justice. I don’t fit their party lines. I insist on seeing a bigger picture. I won’t turn a blind eye.

Yes to following Jesus, even against party lines.

Yes to loving those who call me “enemy.”

Yes to loving you, friends who give me hope and carry me when I’m hopeless.

Yes to Jesus.

Yes to what matters.

*Much like trying to box out Boone, who is one of the people from there I miss.

**I know, I know, but the difference is I can choose to sleep now.

***”They were making available the dreams of the past
For a limited time, while the supply lasts
Got in line, and I gave the man my cash
I was buying fake diamonds, buying fool’s gold
I keep them in a big sack shot full of holes
In a land of plenty with an empty soul” –“Offer” Bill Malonee, Vigilantes of Love

Unlearning to Love Our Neighbor

Standard

[I had a conversation with my friend Tad, AKA Donald Sternin-Stearns, and what he told me was so good I asked him to write a post about it. I hope you have friends like that and conversations like that. He wrote it. Here it is.]

It was the day before they announced businesses would be closing due to Covid that my wife and I actually started looking for a house to buy in earnest. We had just gotten married October of this year, and the conversation of buying a house always felt like a hypothetical. Much like traveling to Europe, or having children. Much to our surprise we were able to knock off two of those hypothetical’s in a week. And not just any week, but the week my wife turned 40, we closed on a house and got a positive pregnancy test. In one week I had gone from a poor, (currently) jobless, renter, to a home-owning father. It’s a reality that has been so far away for so long, a part of me never thought it would happen. 

A bit of backstory on me, my name is Donald Sternin-Stearns. I am a longtime smoker, borderline alcoholic, foul-mouthed Christian. Born in Seattle and raised in Wenatchee, despite not being particularly well off I always considered myself to be incredibly lucky. Being a white male in Wenatchee it was always so painfully clear to me how easy I actually had it. I’m not what you would call “educated,” so finding a job that pays more than minimum wage is just not likely. Somewhere along the way I had decided for myself that I would, in fact, never be anything more than a renter. Living paycheck to paycheck. I know with 100% certainty that if I had never met my wife, that’s exactly where I would have stayed.

With the crazy new reality setting in of being a first-time parent and home owner, we had on rose colored glasses. In our excitement we completely overlooked the glaring flaws with our new house, namely the hollow core back door that had a dog door cut out of it, compromising its already weak structure. The night before Father’s Day, only having the keys to the new house for less than a week, while staying at the old house, someone pushed in that back door and was able to walk away with easily over $2000 worth of stuff. New electric lawn mower, laptop, blah blah blah. You know the story, anything they could sell or use themselves.

When we noticed everything missing, initially I was furious, obviously. We went around to our neighbors asking if they’d heard anything, called the cops, checked out pawn shops. Just the thought of a stranger going through our things like that, it led us into a cycle of emotions, anger, fear, rage, hate, depression, rage, rage. That wore off in about a week, to an extent. What I’m left with is empathy. I’m positive that whoever robbed us did not do it for kicks, they did it to survive, they did it because that’s what they know. We were lucky enough to not have everything we owned here. Sure, it was an invasion of privacy, but no one was hurt and ultimately we didn’t lose anything that can’t be replaced… Save for a few scandalous pictures of me in a tool belt, to which I say to my robbers, “You’re welcome.”

Not but a few days after this took place, my wife and I walked over to the neighborhood Safeway to get some dinner. Walking into the parking lot, to our right we saw a minivan, completely packed full of boxes and personal items. It looked as if they were moving. Except for the back passenger window being totally blocked out by towels. Our conversation stopped as we walked passed the van to reveal a mother braiding her daughter’s hair in the empty parking spot next to the minivan. The girl couldn’t have been older than 7, with her brother right next to her, maybe 5. Suddenly our problems seemed very small.. The stresses of moving, getting robbed, not working, playing phone tag with incompetent workers at companies that couldn’t care less about you, your lost money, time or sleep. It all suddenly was irreverent. Even though our problems are still real, in perspective, they are minor annoyances.

Immediately upon walking in we are confronted with a guy at the register screaming at the cashier because she didn’t give him a second receipt. Our knee jerk reaction was to intervene, but we are currently in a pandemic. On top of that, its not our own lives we have to worry about but also the life of our child. Our pace slowed as we walked approached the altercation but picked back up as we passed. Turning the corner around the self checkout to ask from afar if we should call 911. The man had already paid for his few items. He could have just left, like a normal person. But he was furious and he selfishly unleashed his hate onto this teenage black girl making minimum wage. Ultimately he left and she went on break. And we were left furious at the scene we had just witnessed.

I couldn’t help but wonder if all of this was somehow connected. People being so desperate that they will risk their own lives to take what isn’t theirs, a woman living in a minivan pretending for her kids that they’re just on vacation, the man so irate that he didn’t get what he wanted that he was actually spitting in the face of an innocent girl. I truly believe that the real problem here is not political, or what our socio-economic might be, or even (God forbid) lack of prayer in schools. The problem is, we are slowly unlearning how to love our neighbors. We isolate ourselves in front of our phones and only surround ourselves with friends and those who believe the same as we do. There is no doubt in my mind that I would not be here today if it weren’t for the positive influences I’ve had in my life. People that showed me extreme love and patience even when I was a total asshole. I challenge you, dear reader, make yourself uncomfortable. Meet your neighbors! Not just one of them, all of them!! Be there to give that crucial advice when someone really needs it! Here’s the thing, if you’re trying to change the world over Facebook, it’s not going to happen. If you’re looking for hope, find it on the micro scale. Help people that actually need it!

Good job on making it to the end! Hope you got something out of it! 

Jackie Robinson Did WHAT?

Standard

Jackie Robinson signed a contract for $5,000 with the Brooklyn Dodgers in 1947 when he was 28. He played 151 of 154 games, batted .297, and won Rookie of the Year. The Dodgers made the World Series and Jackie played all seven games, batting .259, while another rookie, Yogi Berra, hit .169 in that Series and Joe Dimaggio batted .231. Nearly every baseball fan still knows about Jackie Robinson and for non-baseball fans, his is one of the most -recognized names.

Classic conversation:

“Do you like baseball?”

“No.”

“Do you know who Jackie Robinson was?”

“Sure. He broke the color barrier.”

Jackie played for ten seasons–twenty-eight years old is an old rookie–and retired with a lifetime batting average of .311, including being named Most Valuable Player for 1949 after hitting .343 with 124 runs batted in and leading the league in steals (37), and, for you true baseball nerds, Wins Above Replacement (9.3). He stole home twenty times in his career.

I love baseball, baseball statistics, and baseball biographies, so I could go on for a long time.* But it struck me that, until recently, I have accepted all this unquestioningly.

Specifically, we declare and propagate this statement: “Jackie Robinson broke the color barrier.”

He broke the what?

Language matters. You know a writer believes that. But it does. Words create. Words build. Words destroy. How you talk to your mate, your children, your parents, your co-worker, the person serving you coffee, changes their lives, for good or bad. I hope I don’t have to convince you of that. The terms in which we think impact how we understand and act in the world.

I’ve started imagining that on April 15, 1947, Jackie Robinson put on his uniform, pulled on his cleats, grabbed his glove, and ran through this barrier of color, shattering it, sending shards of…well, color(?) in all directions. Are we talking like a rainbow here? Or like something American Ninja Warriors would have to smash through?

I could go on amusing myself with these descriptions all day. But I would argue Jackie Robinson didn’t “break the color barrier.” He did sign a contract and play professional baseball, very successfully. What was this “color barrier?”

You mean racist people who opposed and literally fought, with every means at their disposal, against letting blacks play professional baseball in the Major Leagues not based on those players’ ability. One part of this story that any baseball fan of my age knows: Jackie Robinson was not the first black player with the ability or talent to play Major League baseball. Not close. Many baseball fans also know that a Hall of Famer and one of the early great players, Cap Anson, took a loud, public, aggressive leadership role in forcing blacks out of profession baseball. History–meaning REAL-LIFE events, today will be history tomorrow–has many crossroads. Baseball began to integrate and could have continued as an integrated sport in the 1880’s, which arguably could have changed how Major League Baseball formed and, later, how professional basketball and football followed baseball’s lead (as they did by enforcing segregation). Instead,

“Regrettably, Anson used his stature to drive minority players from the game,” wrote Society for American Baseball Research historian David Fleitz. “An 1883 exhibition game in Toledo, Ohio, between the local team and the White Stockings nearly ended before it began when Anson angrily refused to take the field against Toledo’s African-American catcher, Moses Fleetwood Walker. Faced with the loss of gate receipts, Anson relented after a loud protest, but his bellicose attitude made Anson, wittingly or not, the acknowledged leader of the segregation forces already at work in the game. Other players and managers followed Anson’s lead, and similar incidents occurred with regularity for the rest of the decade. In 1887, Anson made headlines again when he refused to play an exhibition in Newark unless the local club removed its African-American battery, catcher Walker and pitcher George Stovey, from the field. Teams and leagues began to bar minorities from participation, and by the early 1890s, no black players remained in the professional ranks.”

Quoted from “It’s Time for Baseball to Acknowledge Cap Anson’s Role in Erecting Its Color Barrier.

That doesn’t describe a “color barrier” that just appeared one day or existed ex nihilo, certainly not one dropped by God from heaven. That’s a racist man taking action that leads and influences others. Leadership matters.

When we talk about Jackie Robinson “breaking the color barrier,” we make impersonal and objective something horribly personal and subjective. If you haven’t watched the movie 42, please see it. I can’t fathom how many times Jackie was called “nigger” or endured other racist actions. That wasn’t “a color barrier.” That was racist people expressing their racist views of a tremendous baseball player and, as we learned, a tremendous human being.

We’re not those people, of course. I’m guessing none of us sat in the stands and shouted “Nigger!” while Robinson made a play at second, stole a base, or hit a double. (What I wouldn’t give to sit in the stands and watch Jackie play a game!) We quickly–I’m going to say instantly–distance ourselves from “those people.” They don’t represent us; their actions and attitudes do not reflect ours. Wouldn’t we rather sit and have dinner or a beer with Jackie Robinson than with any of them? Obviously.

But I want to ask why we use terms like “color barrier?”

Someone, probably not you but someone you know, will object, “It’s just words. We know what we mean!”

I wish. I wish it made no difference how we talked about these things and we could all rely on our invariably good intentions and our follow-through on those intentions. No, it makes a huge difference. When we use neutral terms, we more easily convince ourselves it wasn’t so bad and certainly we have it fixed by now.

We’re inclined to distance ourselves; we prefer to neuter and sterilize these parts of our history. Makes it sound nicer to say “Jackie Robinson broke the color barrier!” than “Jackie Robinson, Branch Rickey, and others in the Dodgers organization overcame the blatant racists and also all the passive racists who benefitted from an unjust system, i.e. systemic racism.” Remember, there was no written rule stating black players could not play. It just so happened that from the 1890s until 1947, not one black player was found who could compete at that level. Or…the pressure and certain backlash against any team’s owner or general manager choosing to sign a black player kept any of them from signing a black player. What do we call that? Bigot barrier? Racist gauntlet? Maybe systemic racism.

“Mike, Jackie played! He did it! Look how many black players and every other nationality Major League baseball has (and overpays) now! Why bring this up?”

If we can admit this “color barrier” euphemism whitewashes a confrontation with our racism and white supremacy (yes, white supremacy: only whites were allowed to play Major League baseball, in spite of the reality that many black players were as good or better than the white players in said League**), we take a step toward having the courage to acknowledge and examine how we euphemize our current systemic injustice. What racism do we allow to pass unconsidered today?

Language matters. Language provides the framework through which we understand, describe, and interact with our world. Language and culture literally form our thoughts. It’s easier to talk about 1950’s racism than current racism, just as it’s easier to talk about blatant acts of racism by others than it is to identify aversive racism in myself. But confronting our acceptance and minimizing of racism in our history demands self-reflection on why we have chosen comforting denial over painful truth.

I’m not an expert or authority on any of this. I’m just doing what I do, putting my journey into words and inviting you to think through with me how we got here and where we go next.

What are other examples of current terms that either hide our past from ourselves or sanitize it to make it more palatable?

*I also love baseball cards and collect cards of Robinson. A 1949 or 1950 Bowman Jackie Robinson is a dream for me. Or a 1948 Leaf Robinson. Or a 1952 Topps…

**Willie Mays and Hank Aaron were as good or better than Ted Williams and Mickey Mantle, for example. I’m not stating that as inarguable fact, but demonstrating my point. How do we prove black players were qualified, when they weren’t allowed to play and prove themselves? We consider comparisons with the first generation of black players post-integration. Or we ask were Josh Gibson and Satchell Paige better than the worst contracted MLB white players in 1937?

“We are responsible for the damage we do in the world”

Standard

[My friend Adam Cole, writer, musician, and director of Grant Park Academy of the Arts, offered some great thoughts on my post Regarding Others in Light of What they’ve Suffered. I’m so used to reading the Prodigal Son parable through my lens, Adam’s take on it caught me by surprise. Rather than try to cram his views in with my perspective, I asked him if he would turn them into a guest post. Fortunately for all of us, he did.]

This image has an empty alt attribute; its file name is b:W1sic2l6ZSIsIm1lZGl1bSJdXQ==.jpg

I find the Prodigal Son proverb to be a very difficult one.  I believe it’s not sufficient as a learning tool.  There are many questions it raises that it does not answer, and by doing that, it pretends to having answered them, which I find a troubling kind of trap for the unwary.

I do know from experience that proverbs like this one (and the one about the Talents) are sometimes better understood not as things that actually happened and must be explored in full, but as stories that are to be distilled as a means of illuminating some kind of important idea.  Christians are entitled to take their stories simply in order to express simple truths, if truths they are.

Nevertheless, it’s difficult for me to separate the parable from the people in it.  I find myself triggered by the actions of the people in the parables.  They work on me as if they are targeting my anxiety, my sense of justice.

When the father welcomes the prodigal back, is he showing compassion for his son, or for himself?  Who is he letting off the hook, exactly?  The son’s failures are, in fact, his own parenting failures and by restoring his son, he has the ability to erase that mistake.  Their relationship seems quite simplistic.  The son and father both find ways to ease, even erase their suffering in ways that are too easy.  “He was dead, but now he is returned to life.  He was lost, but now is found.”  My apologies for diminishing the message of the resurrection buried in that statement, and of grace to the sinner who turns – I think those are tangential to the good stuff here and, again, are too easy for my taste.  We risk missing better fruits by reaching for easy ones.

I think it’s quite true that we suffer because of our sins, and not as punishment for them.  We suffer in ways we don’t recognize.  Our world becomes diminished and therefore we think we’ve gotten bigger.  The father’s grace to his son may be a kind of modeling behavior that both frees the father from a sin and shows the prodigal that the world is bigger than his conception of it.  However, again, it’s very easy for the father.

Maybe the real heart of the narrative lies in the response of the other son.  He is challenged to have compassion for his brother.  In reality, the other son hasn’t actually suffered from watching his brother receive grace, he’s just had his notion of “fairness” and “justice” challenged.  And because that’s the extent of his suffering, having to grow, having to recognize that he’s fine even though he’s angry, it may be that he will gain an opportunity lost to his brother and even his father.

God doesn’t need anything from us.  If we sin, even if all we do is make ourselves smaller from the sin of omission, it’s going to hurt us, not God.  And to recognize that, to do what’s necessary to remain open and grow in spite of any perceived pain as a result, would therefore bring us closer to what God does.

I don’t give homeless people money.  I fail to make myself vulnerable and I give myself the idea that I’ve kept myself safe.  If I genuinely felt danger, I would know it and wouldn’t question it, but most of the time I have to have the little rationalizing conversation in my head, because there isn’t any danger.  Can I be forgiven for this sin if I have no intention of changing my actions?  What would changing my actions do for me, not in heaven, but on earth, right here and now?

What about Trump?  If he were to repent, why not accept it?  That’s what I actually want, right?  The question is whether after he repents he follows through.  Time for the parent to step up now and do his job.  Trump is president partially because of my inaction.  So no reason to force Trump, or any troll, to do anything more than repair the damage they’ve done, and I must hold myself accountable, not him.

That’s where the parable falls short.  Does the prodigal do the whole thing again?  If he did, it would change the story, and that’s probably why the narrative doesn’t include it.

I can get behind the idea of God as perfect in love, and for us to emulate that.  It’s a powerful, challenging concept.  If the parable encourages us to act like the father, then great, because it’s something to strive for.

If it encourages us to act like the son, not so great.  I don’t know if I can blame the parable for the choice of Christians, or anyone else, to move forward with the idea that because God forgives you, the work is done.  However, if someone acts like that for any reason, I think they’re in grave error.

The Jewish tradition is that we forgive and repent on Yom Kippur.  For sins against God, you pray and fast and the slate is wiped clean.  For sins against a person, you MUST apologize, and if your apology is not accepted, you must apologize a total of three times before you’re off the hook.  I think that nicely separates the responsibilities of us as prodigal children.  I think the parable of the prodigal son can contain that tradition and, if Jesus really told it, that’s what he likely would have understood it to mean in my opinion.  The fact that it does not more explicitly state the responsibilities of the younger son to repair the damage he’s done to himself and his family is not so much a fault of the parable, but perhaps a falling short of theological study which should be discussing it.

There’s no reason in my mind why there can’t be room for disagreement about questions of the nature of God and still have a recognition that we are responsible for the damage we do in the world.  If we care about this world and believe we have a responsibility to better it, the nature of God matters less than how we act.  This is an old debate, millennia old, and I’ve never really had much sympathy for faith over works.

That being said, faith is essential.  It bridges the gap between what we can do and what we can’t do, and without faith, it’s unbearable.  However, faith is necessary but not sufficient.

The question is never about what we believe, but rather what our belief encourages us to do

My own opinion is that those who blithely accept the notion of the clean slate, or fail to see the mote in their eye, are not that way solely because of their religion.  There are such people in every faith, and outside of faith as well.  If you could show that religion currently attracts such people, then that would demonstrate not that the faith CAUSED the problem, but that the way it’s been used is EXACERBATING it.  Solve that dilemma,, however, and those people will go somewhere else.  Some folks are traumatized and cannot bear a complex world view, others may have other issues preventing them from thinking clearly, and still others want to use the power of the simple narrative to advance their own status.  Again, those people are everywhere in the world and they’ll use confirmation bias to believe whatever they need in order to maintain their self-image.

The Argument for Arguing

Standard

I try to look at issues from a little different perspective. When people dig in on whether “Black Lives Matter” or “All Lives Matter” I want to say, “Wait! What do you mean by ‘A life matters?'” We take for granted that we’re using common terms and definitions. Usually, we aren’t.

I’m reconsidering the value of arguing. I’ve had some really good discussions about it. My views are changing. Here’s what I’ve got right now.

First, I always want to begin with grace. We can disagree with people and still show kindness and even grace. I can disagree with you and not make you my enemy. We can disagree and still be friends. This doesn’t always happen, but it can.

The argument against arguing is “No one ever changes their minds, it only leads to hostility, and therefore you’re wasting your time.” Somewhere implied within that is “…and those people are bad word jerks and you can’t reason with them.”

I have felt this, strongly. I won’t tell you that everyone has good intentions but is simply misunderstood and if we all had patience and used our inside voices we’d have a group hug and share s’mores and put all our differences behind us. That’s bull. Some people aim to hurt you. Some even feel entitled to do so because [insert rationalization here] or they honestly don’t care how you feel because what they’re saying/doing is more important than your feelings. Or the relationship. Or you. You can refuse to be someone’s enemy but you can’t force them not to treat you as one.

Jesus followers seek to value every person, however obnoxious or antagonistic or evil. Why? We believe God loves literally everyone and every single person, no matter how obnoxious, antagonistic, or evil, carries the image of God and the spark of God’s light. On my best days, I believe that.

That does not mean we endure any and all abuse from others. Sometimes Jesus calls us to suffer for others and sometimes Jesus calls us to suffer others because they need love even though they are damaged and hurt us. The view that we only surround ourselves with those who like, affirm, and agree with us and the view that we have to endure and absorb every abuse to “suffer for Christ” are both counter to Jesus’ call for us. I would call them both partial truths that become very unhealthy if we make them absolute truths. Loving our enemies doesn’t automatically require taking whatever hurt people throw at us. When they are sinning by hurting us, simply permitting that helps neither them nor us. “Boundaries” is not a word found in the Bible, per se, but healthy boundaries are inherent in biblical love for ourselves and others.

We do need to surround ourselves with people who will love, affirm, and challenge us. Speak truth to us. Show us grace. Tell us how beautiful we are because they can see God in us when we can’t. If we don’t have enough support, if we don’t participate in some form of community, we cut ourselves off from a central stream of God’s love.* If you don’t have strong support, I’d say address that before you figure out arguing, priority-wise.

When I’m talking about “arguing,” I mean disagreeing strongly with someone who does not and likely will not agree with us. I don’t mean “discuss” or “dialogue” or “converse.” I mean argue.

My first impulse has been to say “don’t.” If you know you’re never going to agree, and we also suspect no one changes their mind, what is to be gained?

But we live in a strange age. We live in a world that is connected (and disconnected) on social media platforms and in which many of our fellow citizens–and many of our friends–receive their news and form their opinions through what they see on social media. The recent scourge of conspiracy theories related to COVID-19, which quickly picked up massive momentum in spite of the obvious facts to debunk them (if a video trending on Twitter is found to have 80% of it’s viral circulation coming from troll farms and Russian bot accounts, that’s a giveaway), serve as a perfect example. People whom I know, love, and respect wrote to ask me, “How do you know this isn’t true?” Honestly, that’s a good, open-minded question and also indicates how crucial is our responsibility to fact-check and investigate.

We no longer live in a world in which we can simply roll our eyes at a video of a few people standing in white lab coats, even when it turns out not all of them are even doctors, even when it turns out none of them are emergency room or ICU physicians, even when it turns out that though they call themselves “America’s Frontline Doctors,” none of them are working on the front line with COVID-19 patients (as, say, an ICU nurse friend of mine is) and their organization was formed less than a week before they made their conspiracy theory video. Also, note their homepage no longer exists.

Why? Why do people want to believe these voices over those with vastly more experience, expertise, and legitimate credentials? Well, that’s certainly a blog post or book of its own. We’re fearful in the time of our pandemic. We want to believe that it isn’t as bad as we’re hearing, that the cure is coming soon or already here (but maybe being hidden or suppressed). We’ve been duped enough by government allowing big business and false science to inform us.* Once burned, twice shy.

Our reality is more complex than we’d like it to be. We want simple answers and we want them now. We’re freaked out that science is a trial and error process even when lives are on the line, even when our children’s lives are on the line.

We’ve also devolved into a society that has chosen sides for everything, including who will inform our reality. Fake News. How loaded is that term now? It’s become shorthand for “I must distrust everything this source reports.” What’s worse, both major parties have also promoted identity politics, i.e. one’s political views are not a collection of positions taken from across the spectrum to align with one’s beliefs and values, but “I am my party because that other party wants to destroy the USA!” Identity politics is perhaps the single-worst hindrance to reasoning and drawing conclusions based on facts for those who have the capacity to do so. (I acknowledge this as a danger for myself, as well, and one that I must guard against.) Going back to our example of COVID-19 conspiracies, if the “other side” is trying to debunk a conspiracy theory, that makes some of us that much more inclined to believe it–not based on facts or scientific research or proof, but because everyone knows “they” are bad and liars, regardless of what debunking evidence they produce.

I have to conclude we simply do not have the luxury of ignoring “ridiculous ideas.” If by “arguing” we meant solely “two people facing off, each trying to prove a point while refusing to hear or consider the other’s perspective,” I’d rush to tell you “Yeah, don’t. Please avoid that argument, save your time and energy, and don’t further damage the relationship if there’s anything to be spared.”

In my discussions with trusted friends regarding arguing, we noted several competing values to consider. Engaging in argument with someone who will never listen, much less change their mind, is frustrating and exhausting. If you’re (lucky) like me and take every criticism, insult, and slight to heart, you can end up fixating on it for days. On the other hand, people are paying attention. A surprisingly large number of people have told me, “Thank you for what you say. Thank you for speaking up.” Some of them do not feel the liberty to speak up themselves and some say they get so much backlash for what they say that it isn’t worth it.

These represent the silent readers, who know better than to respond directly and get caught in the crossfire, but who are still trying to make sense of everything that is going on or make sense of a particular issue. They don’t wave their hands or give away their stealth positions very often, but they’re there. If everyone rolls their eyes at the preposterous conspiracy theories but no one bothers to rebut them “aloud,” then these claims go uncountered.

Say this happens with the tobacco industry. Obviously we can tell that cigarettes are causing cancer but they’re still denying it, still spending billions to convince people it’s a lie or make the scientific findings seem hazy (often people don’t need to be convinced, they just need an excuse not to be believe what would be inconvenient). But if the only voices people hear are the denials of truth–and believe me, Big Tobacco paid a lot to make that denial loud–then it’s much easier for people to get (and stay) fooled. Then, perhaps, we’re complicit in their getting fooled.

As with so many things I discuss, I can’t give you a simple “yes” or “no” answer. Reality check: I can chase my tail all day on this stuff. I confess to having done so before. Turns out I gain little whether or not I catch my tail and I can’t get that day back.

xkcd: Duty Calls

I have a very close friend, Geordie, who has changed his position entirely in the past five years (not my doing). He reminded me just a couple days ago that dialogue and well-reasoned confrontation in love can and do have an impact, as he himself is living proof.

I also had a weeks-long, exhaustive discussion with this guy about Trump and got nowhere. When he disagreed he would obfuscate or demand my proof and then, when I provided it, ignore it and go on to the next objection. He claimed not to like Trump, at least “not the way he talks,” but ultimately preferred to vote for him again unless the Democrats ran a candidate with all Republican positions. I learned a lot from that discussion, one of the biggest takeaways being it simply wasn’t worth my time. I don’t regret entering into the discussion, and, knowing me and my optimism, I would probably do it again. But I shouldn’t. Or, when the signs become obvious and inescapable, I should accept them sooner and move on.

I want to add that I still believe in give and take. I know I’m not right about everything. I won’t change my mind about Trump–he’s done too much damage to our country and hurt too many people for anything he does now to turn that around, and I simply don’t think it’s a good idea to have a full-blown narcissist leading the country–though I do pray for his redemption most every day. But I still appreciate when people can challenge my thinking respectfully (or at least civilly) and help me to broaden my understanding. I want to learn and grow.

So here are my conclusions. As always, feel free to ask questions, add your thoughts, or simply let me know how wrong I really am. 😉

  • Grace first. Treat others kindly. Name-calling is still wrong. At all times I want to remember that God loves and seeks the persons with whom I disagree.
  • If by “argue” we mean keep disagreeing in private when clearly neither person has any notion of changing and were doing more damage than good, don’t.
  • Don’t let someone abuse or gaslight you. You get to decide when it’s abuse or gaslighting.
  • Consider whether you have surrounded yourself with people who attack your every word or with people who agree with every single thing you say. Find enough support that you can sustain speaking up. Remember that we all need community and strong, healthy community can bear disagreement.
  • Choose your battles carefully. Choose your battles carefully. AND choose your battles carefully.
Pick your battles quote refrigerator magnet | Etsy
  • Balance your responses between speaking up for the truth and chasing your tail. Balance your investment between remembering that someone is listening who needs your encouragement and someone can’t wait to tell you how wrong you are.
  • Balance your choice to respond between your inner conviction to stand for justice and your need for sanity. Don’t get sucked in to interminable arguments. Say what you need to say. Say it respectfully. You don’t have to get the last word. God is faithful.
  • You have no idea how much your support, your voice, your courage to contradict falsehoods (or racism or hate speech or gaslighting or privilege) might mean to someone else. They might tell you. They might not. But I’m telling you. Your voice matters. Your courage matters. Your decency and kindness matter.

Finally, I try to say it here. Almost invariably I can express thoughts better on my blog than in a few sentences where everyone jumps in with their own take/perception/projection. Likely fewer people read these words (there are so many of them!) but I’m okay with that. I always appreciate when anyone shares my posts to give a few more people the chance to see them. Every time I write one of these, I pray that the people who need it will see it. God’s pretty faithful about that, too.

Remind them of this, and warn them before God that they are to avoid wrangling over words, which does no good but only ruins those who are listening. II Timothy 2:14

but also

Speak out for those who cannot speak,
    for the rights of all the destitute. Speak out, judge righteously,
    defend the rights of the poor and needy. Proverbs 3:8-9

I leave you with this: just as I’d rather be excluded for whom I include than included for whom I exclude, I’d rather be attacked for speaking up against injustice than have peace by leaving those experiencing injustice to feel alone. Every time.

*Community is also a place we can get horribly wounded and abused. I wish that weren’t so, but the gathered sinners do sin.

**Did you know smoking cigarettes was not harmful to your health up until 1999 or 2006? I’m being facetious, of course. Big Tobacco lied to and deceived the U.S. and worldwide public for how many years, with hired scientists to back their falsehoods?

What IF I regard you in light of your suffering first?

Standard

I got some good pushback about the Bonhoeffer quote and the idea that we should first consider others’ brokenness and what they’ve suffered as we evaluate their actions.  It caused me to reflect more deeply on the question.  

In case you’ve had anything else to think on in the past week, here’s the quote:

“We must learn to regard people less in light of what they do or omit to do, and more in light of what they have suffered.” –Dietrich Bonhoeffer

I guess the place to begin this is to say I hope to God that God does with me what Bonhoeffer describes. I hope that God evaluates my actions with a view to my sinful brokenness and what’s still wrong with me. I hope God views all my malicious thoughts, cruel words, and neglectful, selfish choices with a clear eye that I am the sinful, screwed-up, in-the-process-of-being-redeemed-but-still-a-long-way-to-go…Beloved. I am God’s Beloved. I hope God considers, when I shout at my son Corin later today or punch a wall in frustration or harbor some truly unloving thoughts about our political leadership, not how bad I always am but how much in need of grace I am.

What we have suffered, all of us, is being sinful, broken people in a sinful, broken world. That isn’t “an excuse.” That’s reality. We’re all splintered and shattered in so many ways, though some of us hide it better than others.

When the younger son of the wealthy father, the one who “devoured his inheritance with prostitutes,” came limping and stumbling on bare, bloody feet, the father had choices:

He could ignore the return of his son. Disown him. Leave him to survive however he might. “You get what you deserve.”

He could have the brunt of the Jewish Law, which the son broke in dishonoring his father, brought to bear against this young man now. Likely he could have the boy killed. “You get justice with no mercy.”

He could listen to the begging apology/admission of guilt that his son had composed and take him up on that entreaty, i.e. take the son on as one of his servants, disinherited and humiliated but not left to starve. “You get mercy but no grace.”

Those were all legitimate, legal, reasonable responses to the younger son’s behavior. Just to review, so we don’t gloss over it, the younger son in Jesus’ story goes to the father–no background or context provided by Jesus–and demands his share of the inheritance, i.e. what he would get when his father dies. He is saying, “Hey, I can’t wait until you’re dead so let’s pretend you’re dead now and I’ll get my share.” You’d be hard-pressed to come up with a more dishonoring, disrespectful statement. 

Again with no explanation, the father gives the son what the son demands. The son liquidates his inheritance into cash and leaves. He spends the money wildly, frivolously, impulsively, hedonistically. We can assume that everything he does with his money directly assaults his father’s values as a God-honoring Jew. He spends it all. Who knows if he had a plan, but just then the “far off country” where he now lived fell into famine. He went from wealthy and epicurean to starving and desperate. He found a job feeding pigs—a mortifying, defiling job for the son of a wealthy Jewish landowner—and still he was starving.

When the young man “comes to himself,” an English translation but possibly my favorite line in the story (except for the father’s running part), he decides to go back home, though he knows it’s not his home anymore.  

But when he came to himself he said, ‘How many of my father’s hired hands have bread enough and to spare, but here I am dying of hunger! I will get up and go to my father, and I will say to him, “Father, I have sinned against heaven and before you; I am no longer worthy to be called your son; treat me like one of your hired hands.”’

I’m guessing you see what I’m building toward. Did the father regard the son in light of what he had done or omitted doing, or in light of what he had suffered? 

Grace is a scandal. 

“What he suffered?” people will object. “Everything he suffered he brought on himself.” The young man deserved consequences, right? Punishment? What, he’s just going to “get away” with all that? 

Or did he already pay his consequences? 

Many years ago now, I embraced the understanding that we are punished not for our sins but by our sins. It makes all the difference. Does God warn us not to sin because if we do, he will hurt us for it? Or does God warn us not to sin because doing so will hurt us, and God doesn’t want us to hurt? Is holiness not an arbitrary standard but doing the things that make us whole and avoiding the things that shatter us? 

Yes, the father could have turned the thumbscrews down much harder. He could have decided that even though his ragged, emaciated son had come through a famine, utter degradation, and failure, he needed further punishment. Or justice demanded it.

But the father did not make that choice. He embraced and restored his son. He dressed him. He kissed him. He interrupted him, to call for a celebration! 

The father regarded the son in light of grace, in light of what the son had suffered, in light of the consequences he’d already paid for his horrible choices, and in light of his unwavering love for his child. Grace means he gave the boy good instead of the bad the boy had coming. The father didn’t just refrain from punishing him—he embraced his son and welcomed him home.

I don’t think we can always treat people exactly according to this, as if the father’s treatment of the prodigal were a formula. If someone breaks the law, injuring others, we don’t simply welcome them home and let them know that they’ve already paid the consequences of their crime. They haven’t yet. 

It’s also true that we now live in a culture that readily claims victimhood. That means when we try to take Bonhoeffer’s words to heart, when we follow the model Jesus gives us with the father of the prodigal, we must also discern for ourselves as well as take others at their word. I’m not claiming this is easy or obvious. When I try, it will reveal my own prejudices, as well. But it’s a necessary step. 

Having said that, here is the difference when we consider others first in the light of what they have suffered: we begin by viewing them with compassion. I have friends who have attacked me, who are attacking my beliefs and ideas. I know we disagree but I don’t think that justifies the criticism or name-calling. Do I retaliate? Do I cut off relationship? I’m actually quite good at cutting someone down in an argument, though it’s a skill I haven’t honed in years (and years). Do I sharpen those swords again? Do I show what a “snowflake” can do?

Or can I regard my friends in light of what they’ve suffered first, before anything else? I have some idea what they’ve suffered. Not everything, of course. Certainly my first “natural” urge is not to ask “What are you going through that you chose to speak to me this way?” I have to restrain and retrain that first urge. But as another friend pointed out, aren’t we all speaking out of lour trauma right now, stuck in the middle of this pandemic? 

The center of the Gospel may be that God always sees me with grace, calling me away from my self-destructive sin but as the beloved, so that I can experience life and share life. The center of the Gospel may be that even when I behave as an enemy, God does not treat me as an enemy. God can see through my evil, through the rags and filth and stench that I’ve made of the inheritance I’ve squandered, and still see a beloved child in need of redemption. Dying for that redemption, even though I’m bargaining to be made a servant and not restored as a son.

It’s complicated. We don’t excuse poor behavior, certainly not abuse, even when we understand where it comes from. I’m not suggesting the two choices are attack back or allow horrible treatment. But how different my view when I choose to see my hurting friend who says hurtful things, rather than choosing to see an attacking enemy whom I must defeat. 

Truthfully, sometimes the best I can do is remain silent. It feels weak not to retaliate, not to give them “what they have coming.” But that silence may break the cycle of attack and counter-attack. Of escalation. Of violence.

The next step, still way beyond my spirituality, will be recognizing that all humanity are my hurting friends who sometimes say hurtful things. I don’t mean that people won’t hurt us if we just call them “friends.” I mean when we fully commit to loving our enemies, we have no enemies. We recognize that they have attempted to make themselves our enemies, but we refuse to cooperate. At that point, we’re trusting not merely in our kindness but in God’s power to work through our kindness. 

As I said, I’m not there. I’m still trying to love my friends who have chosen to treat me as an enemy. But I believe looking through the eyes of the father for his still-beloved prodigal will lead us closer to God. We try to see through these eyes, even if we fail, and fail feebly. Even the attempt and failure can draw us closer to God, can help us become a little more like Jesus. If I’m fully committed to loving my friend, I will also speak the truth in love if they are deceiving themselves about their own brokenness/victimhood/martyrdom. When I put it this way, clearly I can’t do this for a random stranger who thinks he is getting the short end because he’s previously had every advantage and is offended not to continue getting them all. 

I hope this doesn’t sound abstract. It doesn’t feel abstract to me. It feels personal and real and hard. But it’s life-giving. It offers us an alternative to fight or flight. It offers a different path than defeating our enemies. It certainly offers us a road less traveled. 

If we can even begin to consider the “other” first in terms of their suffering, in terms of the grace we have to offer, then we are growing in grace. 

That will be much more satisfying than winning an argument.