SATURDAY 6-PACK: November 11, 2017

A weekly listing of articles, audio clips, and other tidbits I’ve encountered that seemed interesting, insightful, or otherwise useful …

It’s been quite the week, opening with the shocking events in Sutherland Springs, Texas … moving into the off-year elections … the unveiling of the Senate Tax Plan … oh yeah, and the on-going cascade of reports of sexual harassment and assault involving famous, powerful men … all taking place against the backdrop of Trump’s trip to Asia.  Where to begin?


This does not involve the shooting at First Baptist Church in Sutherland Springs.  But it does speak to the beauty of family ties and the way such acts of violence leave permanent scars, from the StoryCorps Project … and a mass shooting you may have forgotten

Lost in all the major news and drama of the week, one of Chicago’s most famous legal residents answered his summons for jury duty.  Barack Obama was only the most recent former president to receive such a summons.  Scott Simon muses on the power and privilege of the highest office in the land … which might not be the one you think it is…

Continuing in the You, Me, and Them: Experiencing Discrimination in America, this report makes it clear that words, actions, mistreatment DO take a real toll on a person.  This piece focuses on a doctor with Hispanic heritage and things he experiences repeatedly that will make you cringe … and maybe gasp … and it might make you mad…

And some of the same truths also apply to the women finally coming forward to tell the truth about their experiences of harassment and worse.  Here’s a good reason to burn one of your monthly free articles from the New York Times Lindy West, telling it straight-up, as always …


And here’s another good reason : Gail Collins’ run-down of the many clouds and shadows looming over Trump’s efforts to celebrate the anniversary of his election, the week that was …


And finally, do these apparent missteps, mistakes and out-right failures really matter?  It may depend on whom you ask.  Michael Kruse’s visit to Johnstown, Pennsylvania is revealing — and stunning.  Warning: this piece does contain some very frank language that some may find offensive.  However, it is an accurate and exacting portrayal of what is happening in this slice of “Trump Country”.



The inauguration of our 45th President last month did not include a poem, which has become something of a custom at these events in recent years … at least for Democrats. Poems have only been read at five of the inaugurations, starting with JFK’s.  That innovation lay dormant for decades until Bill Clinton opted to have a poet read a poem at both of his events.  George W. Bush did not follow suit, but Barack Obama did.  Since Trump’s expressed desire was to exceed anything done before, doing everything that had been done before — including a poem — and then some would have been a decent plan toward that goal.  (And, given that several poet/ storyteller/ bard-types had left us in the days after the election, including a poet with a poem to share might have been a way to blunt such an ill-omen.)  Many poems have been written; surely one would be appropriate to the occasion.

One that strikes me as appropriate for the time is very old; indeed, it is ancient … composed long before anyone had ever conceived of the word president … long before anyone spoke in the English language. It was written in Hebrew, the language of a people govenerned by kings, either their own or oppressive kings of other nations. Psalm 12, a lament, seems suited to the time.


Maya Angelou at Bill Clinton’s 1st Inaugural

Help, O Lord, for there is no longer anyone who is godly;

The faithful have disappeared from humankind ….

Throughout the past twelve months, a number of public religious leaders have voiced support for Donald Trump and continue to do so even as his positions, pronouncements tactics, behaviors contradict the teachings and examples of Jesus. These are ministers, preachers, teachers, who presume to speak and preach and teach in the name of Jesus … who are called to be stewards of the mysteries of God … whose work is to guide others in following Jesus. Whether through the expressed support of the likes of Franklin Graham (who has taken up the mantle of his revered father Billy), Jerry Falwell, Jr. (now president of Liberty University, the Christian college his father established) … public Christian figures such as James Dobson (Focus on the Family) and Tim Wildmon (American Family Association). Perhaps the most galling example of a public failure by a Christian leader to keep faith with God was the invocation at the Republican Convention by Mark Burns of South Carolina, who identifies himself as an evangelist, a herald of the good news of Jesus. But there was nothing of that gospel in his words.

Whether these led their followers or their followers pushed them towards it, exit surveys show over 80% of people who identify as evangelical Christians (and are considered white in our raced society) cast their ballots for Donald Trump. His constant dishonesty was no barrier for their support. The self-identified public champions of family values raised no concerns about his multiple marriages, his well-publicized affairs, and the sketchy comments regarding his daughters’ appearance. None of this mattered. It was all shrugged off with a “well, who can know what’s in his heart?”

In their public support of Donald Trump (who himself has demonstrated no faithfulness to and little interest in the ways of God), so many, who want to be considered godly, faithful to God as revealed in Jesus Christ and in the words of scripture, have shown themselves to be faithless.


Miller Williams at Clinton’s 2nd Inaugural

They utter lies to each other;

With flattering lips and a double heart they speak…

Oh where to begin on this one? The lies … the deceits … the innuendo … the spurious accusations. During the campaign, Trump branded Hillary Clinton as “Crooked Hillary” when she was far more honest, direct, and up-front than ever he was. After bullying and belittling her and many, many other women, he claimed that no one respects women more than he does. (Saturday Night Live made good use of that nonsensical remark) He insists he’s a highly successful business man, but where’s the proof? He still refuses to release his tax returns, so how can we know? He points to the opulence with which he surrounds himself as evidence of his great wealth. He claims he has little debt. But how do we know? Where is the proof?

As has been observed, he says many things that are not accurate – and keeps insisting that they’re true. When the inaccuracies are called to his attention, he doubles down, continuing to repeat them and insisting they are true and that any evidence or reports to the contrary are fake news.


Elizabeth Alexander at Obama’s 1st Inaugural

May the Lord cut off all flattering lips,

 The tongue that makes great boasts.

Those who say, “With our tongues we will prevail;

Our lips are our own – who is our master?”…

It’s not just the tongue that makes great boasts; the fingers on Twitter do as well. Nothing is acceptable to Donald Trump unless he is the best ever, lauded in the most superlative of terms. It was inevitable that the crowd for Trump’s inauguration would be smaller than the gathering in 2009 when Barack Obama was inaugurated for his first term. After all, the crowd for Obama’s second inaugural was smaller than the first. That first one in 2009 was truly historical; it will be a long time before anything like it happens again.

But Mr. Trump always has to have the best for himself, the highest praise, the biggest turnout or ratings or whatever. He used a photo of the crowd from President Obama’s first inaugural and tried to pass it off as the crowd at his own. The switch was obvious, especially to those who had been at the inaugurals. But when challenged about it, Mr. Trump doubled down and kept insisting that his was the biggest crowd ever.

But that was just the beginning. He bragged about himself in his address at the CIA the day after his inauguration. A few days later, in an interview for ABC, he boasted of his reception when he was giving that address. He insists everything is going incredibly well, better than has ever been done before … that his proposed cabinet is being met with nothing but astonishment at its uniform awesomeness (even though a number of nominees have faced appropriately harsh criticism because their qualifications and knowledge base are minimal at best) … the travel ban he ordered a week into his presidency was going very well (despite the obvious problems that were happening – in no small part because those who were charged with enacting it weren’t sure what procedure to follow because none of the impacted agencies had been involved in the drafting and there had been no preparations for its implementation). Mr. Trump refuses to hear anything that contradicts his grandiose assessments of himself and his actions.


Richard Blanco at Obama’s 2nd Inaugural

“Because the poor are despoiled because the needy groan,

  “I will now rise up,” says the Lord;

  “I will place them in the safety for which they long.”

The needy are already groaning – the refugees seeking a place of safety, a new home in which to rebuild their lives … those struggling to support themselves and their families with minimum wage jobs, a wage that doesn’t even cover the cost of living for a single adult … the people struggling with mental illness or addictions and need help from programs like Medicaid, help that is now being threatened with cutbacks … the list can go on.

The promise is there that God will rise up and act. This isn’t an insistence that churches ought to take over poverty relief operations.  In 2014, Bread for the World calculated that if religious organizations were to take over the food stamps program, every congregation (of any religious affiliation) would have to increase its annual budget by $40,000 for ten years. In other words, it cannot be done.

No, it’s not the churches nor the civic government. It is the Lord God who is to rise up. That’s good news for those in need but not so much for the rest of us. The more dependent we are on the established order of things, the more upheaval we are likely to face. Chaos and collapse are necessary parts of the drastic change that it is required to bring forth something new. If nothing else, chaos is a guarantee with the current president and his administration.


The promises of the Lord are promises that are pure,

 Silver refined in a furnace on the ground,

                                 Purified seven times.

This we are promised – and it is a promise that depends upon God, not us … not our leaders … not our president, whoever he (or she) may be. God keeps promises with or without our help. Our part is simply to live and act as best we are made able in the direction of God’s promises.


You, O Lord, will protect us,

You will guard us from this generation forever.

On every side the wicked prowl,

 As vileness is exalted among humankind.

Wicked? Maybe not. Weakness and ignorance are more evident than overt ill-will for the most part. However, this is not to exclude the potential for wickedness on the part of some in positions of influence time will tell on that account.

In some translations of this psalm, vileness is rendered that which is worthless and that we do value on a social and cultural level. Why are enough people paying attention to anything the members of the Kardashian family do that they are featured on covers of magazines every week, mentioned in every news feed? We binge watch all manner of entertainment, invest energy and attention in such meaningless contexts as The Voice or Dancing with the Stars or Celebrity Apprentice. I don’t even want to start on HGTV.

2017 Inaguration

But wickedness and vileness is in the eye of the beholder. What seems wrong and even evil to one may seem good and right in the mind of another. Who is to say which is true and which is not when each claims his own perspective as the correct one?

2009 Inauguration

We can no longer even agree on what the facts of a situation are. Studies in the weeks since the inauguration people who voted for Trump are choosing to disregard established facts of the inauguration crowd photos from 2009 and 2016 to support Trump’s claim that his is the photo with the largest crowd. When wanting something to be true is enough to make it so, what is left for a standard to determine what is real and factual? Garry Trudeau’s “My Facts” call center in Doonesbury seems almost prescient.

And what is worthless if someone values it, whether rightly or even wrongly? Who is any one among us to tell another what she values is, in reality, trash? If the Kardashian tribe or HGTV provides something of value to someone, then maybe it has value after all. If rooting for or voting for one competitor over another in any competition provides some meaning or purpose or focus for someone, then there is some value. Just like with facts, who can say what is truly worthy and what is worthless for anyone else? Do we value even a common center, point of reference enough to seek one?

There are people of faith proclaiming that Donald J. Trump is God’s man for our times, that his election as president was God’s doing, God’s will. As the Persian emperor Cyrus was a pagan leader used for God’s purposes, they explain, so God will use Trump whether he is truly a believer or not. There are people of faith who see his behaviors and actions, his words and policy proposals as contrary to the ways of God. For them, Trump’s will and ways are often in direct opposition to what they discern of God’s will. Christians of sincere faith disagree – and who is to say which side speaks God’s truth, truly understands God’s ways?

The psalmist doesn’t stand apart from the community in this lament. There is no one left … The faithful have disappeared … humankind … everyone … the language exempts no one. Yet there is some us/them language. Us are those trying to seek God’s ways; them are those seeking their own ways apart from God. But even those who are seeking may not have it right.

Perhaps that is the way out of the right or wrong, true or false conundrum: an honest, humble recognition that seeking is all we can do; certainty may ever elude us. We cannot be certain where God is in this or what God is doing. We can only trust that God is present in this somehow and search as best we can for signs of God’s movement. But we do so with the knowledge that we are not God and it is not our place to dictate to God, to demand God do our will. Instead, we are to let go of anything that is not God – including our established ways, our institutions, and even the world as we have known it, built it, wanted it to be.  Rather than twist Jesus and his teachings to match our desired ends, the call to follow Jesus means fitting our lives, our words, our wills to the example that he has set for us as best we are able.  Lent is upon us.  It’s time to walk the hard wilderness road, following where Jesus leads.

Turn us again, O God… May your justice shine like the sun and the poor be lifted up.

(from the Lenten dialog for Evening Prayer)


SIGNS OF THE TIMES: Cycles … Advent … Elections …”The Second Coming”

lav-pillar-2Irish poet William Butler Yeats wrote “The Second Coming” in 1919, during the aftermath of World War I. American history books don’t attend to this, but “the war to end all wars” was not only a profound social-political crisis for Europe; it was a spiritual and theological one as well. Throughout the whole conflict, the front line only moved a mile or so in either direction. The techniques of trench warfare unleashed a number of horrors that prompted many to ask how good, Christian men of enlightened, modern nations could do such hellacious things to one another. Yeats ponders this sense that world has been so profoundly shaken that what has been can no longer be and what may yet be cannot be imagined …

images-5Turning and turning in the widening gyre

The falcon cannot hear the falconer…


The gyre refers to the ancient concept of the wheel of time. Life cycles through the wheel of time. The task of life is to stay on the wheel and move with the cycles. But what if the wheel spins off center? In such times of profound dislocation, it feels as though the wheel has lost its center, spinning and whirling off course and out of control. A falcon that cannot hear the call of the falconer has lost the point of reference for directions, the guide to the way home. Likewise, in a time of such profound dislocation, any sense of rootedness or grounding seems lost.

images-6Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold …

While a number of lines from the poem have been quoted in some form or used as titles, this may be the best known line from the poem. When people have been asking “Can the center hold?”, this is what the question refers to … because if the center of a spinning wheel does not hold, everything flies apart. Think about swinging and object tied to a string around and around; what happens if you suddenly let go or the object becomes free of the string? It flies off in some direction – and may do a fair amount of damage if it hits something.

Can the center hold? That has been a question in our national, and even local, political life for some time now. Once upon a time, I’ve heard (as I was too young to observe such things at the time), the Republican Speaker of the House and the Democratic Senate Majority Leader would travel by taxicab together to speaking events, discussing along the way the points each would raise at the event. Then afterwards, they would get into the same taxicab and go out for a drink together. Could you imagine such a thing happening today?

When President George H. W. Bush failed to win a second term in 1992, even if Senator Bob Dole had dared to think it, he would never have stated publicly to anyone that the top priority for Republicans would be to make Bill Clinton a one-term president, as Senator Mitch McConnell said in the aftermath of Barack Obama’s victory in 2008.

Maybe some of it had to do with the ending of the Fairness Doctrine in the Reagan Era, which allowed the rise of voices like Rush Limbaugh and others of what came to be conservative talk radio and eventually gave rise to Fox News. Maybe some of it has to do with fighting between moderates and conservatives in the Republican Party with neither willing to become separate in the way that the Green Party led to the separation of the ultra-liberals from the less extreme elements of the Democratic Party. Maybe some of it has to do with Newt Gingrich and the “Contract with America” during the mid-term election in 1994, raising up new Republican members of congress to oppose Clinton’s agenda. Maybe some of it has to do with the rising profile of the Green Party, which drew voters from the Democrats in 2000 and caused the party to appeal more to the far left in efforts to garner more votes.

488px-2000prescountymap2Whatever the reason, studies show that where there was once a fair amount of overlap between the Republicans and Democrats in terms of policies in the 1960s and 70s (when Republican Senator Bob Dole helped author the Food Stamps program), there now is little – if any – overlap between the two. Each seems more interested in opposing the other rather than seeking common ground where policies can be built to the benefit of people in this country. The center is gone. Each side views everything – and everyone – in black-or-white terms. Either you’re a liberal or a conservative. If you don’t agree with my position, then you must be on the opposite side. If you’re not conservative or liberal enough, then you’re an apostate. There’s no place in either sphere for moderates or the less-than pure.

Neither Bob Dole nor Tom Daschle would have dared delay a vote on a Supreme Court nomination by Bill Clinton or George W. Bush by citing a need to defer to the next president (or the next election) as Mitch McConnell did this year in defiance of clear constitutional directives and all precedent. But McConnell’s purely partisan maneuver met with nothing but approval from conservatives (despite their avowed devotion to the Constitution).

Is there any center left to hold? It seems not. Everything is put in terms of “us versus them” in a zero-sum, winner-take-all battle. When George W. Bush narrowly lost the popular vote to Al Gore but won just enough of the Electoral College vote in 2000, he recognized he did not have a majority or any sort of mandate. He understood the frustrations with the election outcome and recognized the need for deliberate outreach to build connections and find some common ground.   Despite the similar outcome in this year’s election, the President-elect and his party speak of a mandate that they clearly (by any objective measure) do not have. They won and so all those who wanted someone else in office must now come to agree with the winners.

The divides were so distinct in the recent election … rural is “red”, urban is “blue” … the oldest generation skews strongly one way, the youngest one is as strongly the opposite … college–educated voters head in one direction, the non-college-educated in the other … it’s “elites” verses the “real people” and never the twain shaIl meet because neither (we are told) can possibly understand the other. The respective worlds are too far apart. Where is a middle way? Where is some center point where common ground can be found? It appears there is none to be had. And if the center is lost, then things, of necessity, fall apart.

imagestw71gql6Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world,

The blood-dimmed tide is loosed, and everywhere

The ceremony of innocence is drowned;

The best lack all conviction, while the worst

Are full of passionate intensity.

This is a reflection of what we have just been through … “the best lack all conviction, while the worst are full of passionate intensity.”

untitled-5Many critiques have been made of Hillary Clinton over the years. Most were over-exaggerated at best and dishonest at the worst. However, one that is true is that she seemed to lack core convictions. Every policy was carefully thought out in advance … and just as carefully vetted and nuanced to appeal to as many while offending as few as possible. Her slowness to respond until she’s tested the wind and the waters gives the perception that she lacks any solid convictions. Although she is most authentic when she talks about her faith and the impact it’s had on her life, she’s always been reluctant to speak of it. That’s unfortunate because it is the source of the actual convictions she has.

Passionate intensity fueled both the rise in prominence of Bernie Sanders as well as Donald Trump and the other major contenders in the Republican contest this year (Ted Cruz and Marco Rubio). For Bernie, at least, that intensity is consistent with who he has always been, the causes he has always pressed for.   The passionate intensity is an expression of who he is and what he does. For President-elect Trump, that passionate intensity was useful in winning the election. Now that he has accomplished his goal, he has little interest in things that aroused such passionate intensity in his supporters: building a wall tens of feet high all along the southern border … pursuing a criminal investigation of Hillary Clinton (despite the fact that numerous investigations over the years have found nothing with which to charge her) … bringing back waterboarding “and worse” for captured terror suspects… completely repealing the Affordable Care Act. All of these have fallen to the backburner or have been significantly modified for the incoming Trump administration, no doubt to the disappointment of all those who voted for him because they shared the passionate intensity he voiced on these issues.

160118134132-donald-trump-nigel-parry-large-169Donald Trump is yet to be sworn in as the next president and his proposed cabinet is only beginning to take shape. However, despite the promises of bringing in top-tier, high caliber, “the best” people for positions, his selections so far are well below those promises. Jeff Sessions, who was unable to garner enough votes from a Republican majority for a federal judiciary appointment, as Attorney General … Ben Carson, a retired neurosurgeon who has done no development of housing stock or businesses, is being considered for Housing and Urban Development … Nicky Haley, governor from a small state with little international connection or experience (other than being the daughter of immigrants), for UN Ambassador … Betsy DeVos, an opponent of public education with a demonstrated determination to advance an agenda rather than cultivate public policies (the most recent evidence of which is her sudden reversal of her prior support for the Common Core), for Secretary of Education … these are not the brightest and the best that Trump was promising.

All indications, so far, are that Jeb Bush was correct in his assessment of Trump as a “chaos candidate” who will “be a chaos president.” But when things are falling apart, chaos is a given. Anarchy, too, is a form of chaos. Our nation is now 240 years old; the US Constitution a little more than a decade less at 227 years. Nothing lasts forever. All things eventually come to an end. Chaos and even some anarchy may be a necessary part of the undoing and remaking part. But remaking into what?

imagesqj79u5wySurely some revelation is at hand;

Surely the Second Coming is at hand.

The Second Coming! Hardly are those words out

When a vast image out of Spiritus Mundi

Troubles my sight: somewhere in sands of the desert

A shape with lion body and the head of a man,

A gaze blank and pitiless as the sun,

Is moving its slow thighs, while all about it

Reel shadows of the indignant desert birds.

Longing for the Second Coming, for Jesus to return and finally make everything right, the poet describes the Sphinx of the Egyptian desert, animated by the spirit of the world. This is no answer from God, but rather an expression of the earth itself. It is animated just like the Sphinx of myth, which never gave answers, only questions posed in riddles. However, this one does not even pose a question. Is the world itself indifferent to the chaos of the present? The reeling shadows of the desert birds echo the lost falcon of the first line and drive home the point that there is no clear answer, no stable center to return to, no way back to what once was. But if this is the present, then what of the future? The poet reaches back beyond the present to the far past …

imagesv0ra2oreThe darkness drops again; but now I know

That twenty centuries of stony sleep

Were vexed to nightmare by a rocking cradle,

And what rough beast, its hour come round at last,

Slouches towards Bethlehem to be born?

This is the only revelation to be had: twenty centuries (or two thousand years) … a rocking cradle … and a beast slouching to Bethlehem, waiting for a birth. A birth … Bethlehem … the time of the early 20th Century – all these indicate the poet is pointing toward Jesus. Rough beast might call to mind the donkey that carried Mary on her journey to Bethlehem where her promised son, the Savior, would be born. But if it’s the rough beast itself waiting to be born … then where does that point?

Advent 1We journey into Advent in each new liturgical year by passing through Christ the King Sunday that ends the previous year. During 2017, those that follow the liturgical patterns from antiquity, closed out the third of the three annual cycles, the one that centers on the Gospel of Luke. For Christ the King Sunday this year, we read a passage from Luke’s account of the crucifixion in which Jesus is very roughed up – beaten, bleeding, starving, exhausted. Nailed to the cross, he could be described as beastly-looking.

In the revelatory language of the Bible, the term beast often refers to a nation or a ruler or a power of some kind. But words such as rough or slouching aren’t used to describe their appearance or movement. While the poet is suggesting some kind of emerging power, he doesn’t seem to mean the traditional kind. Perhaps he has in mind the “scapegoat,” the other animal used in the annual atonement ritual of the ancient Israelites. Two goats were chosen. One was slaughtered as a sacrificial offering. The other, however, had the sins of the people placed upon it by the hands of the priest. Then it was driven out into the wilderness, to Azazel, to carry away the sins of the people. The exact mechanism was never clear, nor was it clear what happened to the goat after the duty was fulfilled. Perhaps Yeats’ rough beast is the scapegoat, having fulfilled its mission, slouching back to the people who sent it out.

Were we to ask the poet which of these it is, though, he would likely say, “Yes.” Poets and their poems can be that way, I’ve heard. But Yeats was an Irish Protestant and the last part of the poem is rich with layered Biblical imagery … as is the turn towards seeking a revelation that comes before this. It feels like the end of the world, but is it? Could the long-anticipated second coming finally be at hand? Maybe … but rather than point forward, the poem reaches back toward Bethlehem, where Christ the Savior was born. If you’re looking for some sort of revelation, the poem seems to suggests, Jesus is all you’re getting.

This is the advent movement – looking backward and forward at the same time. It’s a preparation to celebrate the birth of Christ and at the same time a reminder to prepare for Christ to come again. It’s a reminder that the promised deliverer came in obscurity to a poor family in a backwater village rather than among the powerful in their castles. It is a reminder that way Jesus lived and taught is the way things are to be when the world returns to God’s intentions. It is a reminder that Jesus died and rose to bring the world as God dreams it into the world that is today. We who would be followers of this Jesus are called to do the same, to work for the same dream.

IMG_0081So where does that leave us as 2016 winds down and 2017 approaches with a mixed bag of hope and fear, promises and risks … when for some it already seems the like the end of the world is possible (much like Yeats in his poem) and for others it may seem things are finally turning the right direction (illusory though that sense may be)?

Nothing in the world (or even the world itself) can last forever. Things change … sometimes slowly, other times rapidly, but always moving and shifting. Any person, any structure, any system we might want to use as a focus of stability will, sooner or later, shift or change or disappoint or fail. If it is time for things to come apart, we’d be foolish to fight against that. Falling apart, chaos, upheaval and destruction are necessary parts of re-making. It is that re-making that is a better focus for our energies and efforts.

But what shall we use as a guide? Perhaps, as the poet suggests, we might slouch … stumble … stagger back to Bethlehem, see what is born there, and try once more to learn.


images-4 There isn’t much TV that I watch consistently. In fact, I haven’t checked out any of the new shows that have debuted as this new season starts. But I am looking forward to the January-February mid-season interim when American Crime will be back for a third season. The decision to go ahead with a third season was made back in May, but I only learned of it a few weeks ago … and recently heard the third season will be based on an actual crime that has a Minnesota link.

American Crime has been a favorite among critics in both of its seasons (so far) and has garnered multiple nominations for Emmys in each of them. It was expected, but still disappointing, that at the 2016 Emmy Awards back in September HBO’s similarly named series based on the OJ Simpson trial of 1994 walked away with all the awards for limited series – except for Best Supporting Actress, which went to American Crime’s Regina King for a second year in a row. In all fairness, the OJ story was a riveting spectacle that played out in real time on TV as the actual events unfolded. Undoubtedly, the dramatized retrospective was even better, having been tailored specifically for a TV audience. The slew of awards for HBO’s The People vs. OJ Simpson: An American Crime Story certainly added some much needed diversity to the parade of winners. But for an exploration of crime, the impacts on all involved, and the question of what is justice, nothing tops American Crime. This is TV that will make you feel and make you think.

This is not yet-another police procedural, neither a whodunit nor a how-catch-em, focused on the work of clever detectives. It’s not a courtroom drama where persuasive attorneys force the truth to come out through gripping testimony or well-written arguments. The police, detectives, lawyers (whether prosecutors or defenders) are bit parts in this series. Instead, what has unfolded in each of the two seasons is a deep dive into the impacts of a crime on the victims, on the accused, on their families and the community. The stories press the question “What is justice in this situation?” but never offer any easy answers.

untitled-2The first season revolved around the murder of a husband and the violent assault on his wife. She had been left in critical condition, but although she did ultimately survive, she was unable to provide any information about the attack that killed her husband and nearly killed her. The groups of suspects connected to the crime included two Hispanic males (one only a teen), a black male, and a white female. Suspicion quickly focused on the sole black male (Carter, played by Elvis Nolasco). Rather than consider the role that her son’s drug dealing might have played in his death, the victim’s mother, Barb (played by Felicity Huffman), kept pressing to have the event considered a hate crime, arguing that her son was killed and her daughter-in-law was attacked because they were white. We never did learn for certain who did the killing, although we certainly saw Aubry (played by Caitlin Gerard), the white girlfriend of prime suspect Carter, become violent when her boyfriend was threatened. Near the end of the story, she confessed to the killing in order to spare her beloved Carter. That may have been the truth, but there was never any definitive statement within the storytelling that the truth was out at last. In the very end, Aubry killed herself in the state mental health facility where she’d been sentenced in her plea deal … after learning that her beloved Carter was dead … having been shot by the distraught father of the victim (Timothy Hutton) … who then killed himself, having reached the limits of his own abilities to cope with what had happened and having no support for rebuilding his life. The other characters were left with somewhat lesser levels of upheaval and devastation … and only a few had some small hope for a better future.

This past season, the crime story was even more complicated and the questions about what would be justice for those involved were even harder to answer ….

untitled-3From the opening sequence in the gym of Leland High School, a fictional tony private school in Indianapolis (capitol city of the basketball-crazed state of Indiana), it’s clear there’s something about Eric (played by Joey Pollari) as we watch him very hesitantly place his hand on the back of teammate and co-captain Kevin (Trevor Jackson) as they work on Eric’s defense under the watchful eye of Coach Dan Sullivan (Timothy Hutton). The basketball team is practicing … and so are the cheerleaders. A few students are sitting in the bleachers watching the goings-on. Among them is a student named Taylor Blaine (Connor Jessup), who is scrolling through his Facebook feed on his phone. We are given glimpses of the pictures and comments but not enough to be certain what exactly has been posted. A flashback reveals Taylor is a charity case at the school, a capable student who could go onto college (meaning great things) if he’d apply himself a bit more in his classes. But then we discover Taylor is being expelled. He only tells his mom, Anne Blaine (Lili Taylor), that he wants to go back to his previous public school – but not why. She finds out he’s been expelled for behaviors that violate the school conduct policy – but not what the behaviors were. In desperation, Anne meets with Taylor’s girlfriend, Evy (Angelique Rivers), who reluctantly shows her the pictures on social media of an obviously intoxicated Taylor at a party … pictures that show evidence of vomiting, complete loss of self-control, possibly taken while Taylor was barely conscious or even unconscious. Evy was at the party with Taylor, but she and Taylor were soon separated for some time. Although she isn’t sure exactly what happened to Taylor, she is certain “somebody messed with him” … a certainty Taylor also expresses when his mom confronts him about what she’s seen. Armed with this knowledge, Anne returns to the school to meet again with the director, Leslie Graham (Felicity Huffman). At this meeting, Anne states that her son was raped at the basketball team’s Captains’ Party. Leslie takes notes as Anne talks and then asks her to sign the last page under a hand-written statement that Anne is agreeing to abide by the school’s disciplinary policy and will seek no further action. Leslie then talks to Dan, urging him “to have a talk” with his team. images-3The coach is reluctant, but he mentions what he’s been told at the end of the team meeting and invites anyone who knows what happened to come tell him. No one does (of course). When Anne checks back with Leslie and learns that it’s been handled as far as the school is concerned, she calls 911 to report the rape of her son Taylor.

The first season started with the immediate aftermath of the crime. So does the second, but it takes the whole first episode for the crime to be revealed. What follows is the usual intricacies of investigating and trying to prove sexual assault (something we’ve seen played out in real life and dramas many times over) with the added complications that significant time has passed since the assault and that the situation involves two males … and how deep does anyone really want to dig when money, power, and the popularity of championship sports team are involved? A number of people try to do the right things, like Anne, Evy, the investigators, Taylor’s counselor. Others are mostly trying to look out for themselves … Kevin’s parents (a wealthy Black couple played by Regina King and Andre L. Benjamin), Leslie, Dan, the rest of the team and others connected with the school.

What comes to light is messy. The assault happened at the Captains’ Party, an annual tradition for the basketball team that involves alcohol, drugs, and team members “making the team” by having sex at the party. Co-captain Eric invited Taylor to the party for the purpose of having sex. Prior to the party, he and Taylor exchanged text messages discussing sexual activity. But does flirtatious texting beforehand constitute consent in the actual moment? Although Taylor willingly accepted a beer at the party, it’s clear the beer he was given contained some kind of drug. Does the fact he was drugged negate any consent he might have given previously (if the use of alcohol alone weren’t enough to remove the possibility of consent)?

images-2As for Eric, Taylor’s accused rapist, his situation is just as complicated. No one on the team knew Eric was gay until it became clear he was the one Taylor was accusing. As everything becomes public, Eric attempts suicide. The revelation of Eric’s homosexuality leads to increased turmoil in Eric’s already fragile family and increased tensions within the larger community as Leslie attempts to use Eric to demonstrate the school’s commitment to inclusivity. Ultimately the disclosure leads to direct insults at the next basketball game from the opposing team and its fans, a game that ends in a loss for the Leland Knights, the regular state champs.

While Eric and Taylor struggle in their separate ways to cope with what happened, the incident sets off ripples throughout the community. Kevin is the only team member of legal age, so he’s the only one who can be named in reports. His parents, Terri (a high-powered management level professional) and Michael (an architect), have the money to hire a good attorney who’s able to offer competent advice. imagesThey also have a friend in the police department who is able to provide them with advanced warnings as the investigation proceeds. Eric’s dad asks them to help for his son as well, but they refuse. Leslie frets about the potential impacts of the crime on the school’s upcoming fundraising gala. Dan tries to hold the team together at the school while balancing tensions in his own home between his worrisome teenage daughter (one of the cheerleaders) and his pot-addled wife who punts all the heavy-lifting of parenting onto him. Eric’s brother attends the same public school that Taylor returns to where the embattled principal, Chris (Elvis Nolasco), is trying to navigate tensions that pit one ethnic group’s interest against another for the limited resources available to the school. These conflicts are brought to a boiling point around a situation that involves Evy. Only late in the story do we learn that Evy was touched in a sexual way by a student at the school – igniting tensions between her circle of friends and the guy who touched her. It’s a secret she keeps for most of the story … adding insight to Taylor’s reluctance to disclose what happened to him.

After having been rejected by Evy when his sexual orientation is exposed, Taylor reunites with his first boyfriend once he’s back at the public school. He’s seeing a counselor, but he isn’t cooperating with his counselor or working towards healing. Mostly, he just wants to clear the air with Eric and move on with his own life. After the basketball game at which insults directed at Eric are hurled at the whole team, Kevin shoots off his mouth with some of his teammates, characterizing Taylor as a bitch who needs to be taught a lesson. The other teammates convince Eric to text Taylor, asking to meet him at a playground. Eager to finally be able to talk to Eric, Taylor goes to the playground and is badly beaten by several members of the basketball team.

untitledWe wish Taylor would go to the police with what happened … or at least tell his mom … or confide in his counselor … or even just try to follow his counselor’s guidance. But instead he hides out with his boyfriend, not wanting to be seen until his bruises are gone.

Throughout the story, Eric engages in hook-ups with guys who drive hot cars, exchanging sexual favors for some time in a car he’d like to have. As happens in real life, people misrepresent themselves on hook-up apps and one such hook-up turns out to be a dad with a minivan. Their encounter quickly turns violent and Eric has to fight his way out of the minivan. He’s badly shaken and we never learn what condition he left the other man in.

Things turn even worse for everyone when Taylor, partially recovered from his beating, steals a gun from the family friends who have been like foster parents to him … buys some drugs from the coach’s daughter (marijuana and pain killers she’s stolen from her mother’s stash) … and concludes that the solution to his situation is to kill Leslie. He goes to the school, but she’s out of the office, giving a speech at a conference. Finally, after some consoling words from the secretary, Taylor decides to leave.  As he makes his way across campus, he encounters one of the basketball players who assaulted him at the playground. The player gets in Taylor’s face and yells “Didn’t I tell you if you ever showed your face around here again, I’d kill you?” To everyone’s surprise, Taylor pulls the gun from his jacket pocket and shoots the other student. He dies … and now Taylor is facing murder charges.

As the series winds to a close, Taylor is preparing to accept a plea deal instead of pursuing a defense strategy that would emphasize his trauma in a plea of self-defense. Eric, after having been confronted by his dad about the “dates” he goes on, is preparing to hook up with yet another guy in a hot car. Does Taylor take the plea deal? Does Eric get in the car? We’re left with those questions … along with the question of what would truly be justice in this situation

What would truly help Taylor find healing and peace after what has been done to him: the assaults (physical and sexual), the betrayals by people he was supposed to trust, the unjust expulsion? He is a good kid to whom a number of terrible things have happened. What will help him back on the path he was brutally knocked off of? What will give him hope and open the door to a good future?

And what is justice for Eric? Luring Taylor to the party and ensuring his compliance with drugged beer was cruel … so was rejecting Taylor afterwards, claiming embarrassment by how Taylor was acting under the influence, embarrassment from the photos of that episode posted on social media. But Eric has his own torments and problems, starting with rejection and condemnation from his parents … and then the public shaming from others in the community. Where can Eric find love and acceptance and help navigating the transition to manhood as a gay man?

And what are the roles of the adults in this? The Captains’ Party is an established tradition for the basketball team. Surely the coach must know something about the event and the goings-on. The school director is also turning a blind eye because a winning coach who brings home championship banners also helps bring in the donations her school needs. Money protects Kevin and his parents to some degree … but in the end Terri’s bosses at the firm find the lengths she went to in order to protect her son embarrassing and she’s offered a lateral move to a different city or an exit package … suggesting that race ultimately trumps money nearly every time.

Money, race, class, privilege … who is valued for what and who is overlooked … who matters and who doesn’t … all these currents swirl though the stories of American Crime and add complexity to the question of just what is justice in these situations for all involved. The open-ended conclusions of the stories with no hint of closure drive the question home. Producer and writer John Ridley (with help from a pool of talent) demonstrates that his Oscar for writing Twelve Years a Slave was no fluke.

untitled-4This season, Emmy nods went to Lili Taylor as Anne, Felicity Huffman as Leslie, and Regina King as Terri (the second time in a row for the latter two … and Ms. King has won the Emmy both years). Timothy Hutton is as excellent as he has been since his Oscar-winning debut decades ago in Ordinary People. But overlooked in the nominations were the outstanding performances by Connor Jessup and Joey Pollari as the characters at the heart of this drama. Both delivered powerful, gusty, unflinching performances in very difficult roles neither of which were truly hero or villain.

Completely overlooked in reviews and awards for this second season were the choreographer and dancers. Several scenes in early episodes were set around the high school’s dance company rehearsing for a performance at the fundraiser gala where the piece was performed in its entirety. The dance number was an exploration of humanity, sexuality, power, and consent that offered wordless commentary on the story in a highly effective way.

If you missed the first seasons of American Crime, spend some time catching up — and be watching come January!

Good Tidings, Dear People — One More Time

I’m indebted to pastor & author Walter Wangerin, Jr.  for the title line (which also appears in the text) as well as for the indentifier “the fear-not angel.”  I also want to acknowledge my mom for the theological insight she gave me twenty-some years ago…

Nativity - GR 1We’re here tonight because it’s Christmas Eve … because this is just what we do. It’s tradition, after all. And like all traditions, it’s not about any one thing; it’s the whole constellation of things. It’s the memories that are wrapped around the specifics like Silent Night will soon be wrapped around our little candles. It’s the togetherness of family – the memories of being children … then adults … then parents with our little ones. It’s a touchpoint as the year winds down – a night to watch and ponder. It’s a moment of stillness and peace amid the frenzy that is our cultural holiday celebration, a time to relax between all the preparations and tomorrow’s gifting and feasting. And it’s a story.

143897fbdf2d8499b1953c50e78e9628We are here tonight for the story … so often-told we know it by heart … perhaps best told by the child’s voice of Linus in A Charlie Brown Christmas, reciting a part of that story straight out of the good ol’ King James Version. It’s the story we sing in our beloved hymns tonight – the reason why those hymns are beloved. It’s a story of a wondrous baby, stars and angels with a few other characters tossed in like Mary and Joseph and the shepherds out in their fields. So long as Jesus is lovingly tucked into that manger-bed and the angels sing their glorias, then, at least for this night, all is truly right and beautiful in the world.

untitled (2)We need that tonight as much as ever we did – and maybe even more – because so much is not right in this world. Where to start? We’ve seen pictures this year of other little babies washed up on shorelines half a world away. We’ve heard the stories from their devastated parents of the terrible risks they’d taken to find a place of safety after being driven from their homes by war and mayhem.

09-04-2015Refugees_FYROMWe know the violence that drives such desperate choices. We’ve experienced the terror such violence produces as it spilled into Paris, France and San Bernardino, California. We ponder the toll this violence takes on families here in our country as our service men and women continue to serve in these war-torn lands, as we add up the loss of lives and the battle damage that never fully heals. We wonder if our military efforts are helping or hurting. Would more troops help or should we just get out?

Military action elsewhere isn’t the only source of violence that haunts us. We’ve seen a number of mass shootings here in our land this year. images (3)One of the most shocking was the slaying of nine people in the sanctuary of “Mother” Emmanuel Church in Charleston, South Carolina. The young man did it to act out his racist perspectives, citing the slaying of Trayvon Martin by George Zimmerman as his wake-up call.

Touching on that subject, we are becoming more aware of the number of people of color, mostly young males, almost always unarmed, who have been killed by police or died while in police custody. We’ve seen it happen recently here in the untitled (3)Twin Cities and yesterday’s Black Lives Matter demonstrations have sought to raise awareness of the struggles people of color face when it comes to matters of justice and equality. A seemingly endless litany of demographic statistics around income, education, housing, you-name-it shows these inequalities are not simply a matter of perception.

Tonight, in our city of Saint Paul, families are doubled up with others or sleeping in cars or huddled anywhere they can be out of the elements for the night. The shelters are full and there is no room to be had. ChristmasTreeRents keep rising and housing that’s affordable to low-wage earners is harder and harder to come by. Supposedly our economy has recovered from the recession, but most of us aren’t feeling it.

I know … this is supposed to be a happy, joyous time and I’m really not trying to deprive you of that happiness and joy or to depress you. But this is the situation that surrounds us as we gather tonight to tell that story of Jesus’ birth in Bethlehem. And if that story doesn’t speak into these times in which we live, to the world we know, then it won’t mean much of anything.

So let me tell you another story – a true story. As stories go, it’s neither unique nor unusual. It could have happened five years ago or fifty years ago; it could have happened almost anywhere.

WIN_20151227_181315A new grandmother was watching as her own daughter cradled the new little baby boy who had made the daughter into a mother and the mother into a grandmother. “You know,” the grandmother remarked to her daughter, “watching you with him I wonder if this was what it was like to see Mary with Jesus.” “Mom!” the daughter protested, “I’m sure Baby Jesus never pulled his mother’s hair or kicked her when she was trying to feed him.” But the grandmother smiled back with a wry, knowing smile that seems to come with being a grandmother. “I wouldn’t be too sure about that,” she said; “I think he just might have.”

Yes, Jesus just might have done those things. Sure, he was quiet that first night – worn out from the process of being born as any other newborn is … for a while. But he probably wasn’t quiet the next night or for many more after that. As he grew, he was probably as rambunctious as any other toddler … and got into as much trouble as your average growing boy. We know there was some consternation on Mary and Joseph’s part when Jesus up and decided all on his own to stay back in Jerusalem after Passover and not tell anyone his plans.

No, Jesus wasn’t a perfect angel baby. Jesus was a human baby who was born as all of us are, who grew as all of us do, who experienced human life in all of its complexity and messiness. That’s the whole point of the incarnation. God was rolling up the holy sleeves and plunging wholeheartedly into human existence and all that life in this world involves. Jesus didn’t come because we finally got it all together or fixed ourselves up enough that all we needed was a slightly better model of perfection. God broke into the world in Jesus because it’s a mess, because our lives in this world are a mess.

Tea Lt 3So let me tell you another story … one that might be a bit different in the telling, but familiar nonetheless. It did happen a long time ago, but within a span of years we can reckon. It did not take place in some galaxy far, far away but in an area we still map today. In the days of the Roman Empire, when Augustus ruled as emperor and decreed a census, and so the whims and the demands of the empire set people moving about.

That’s why Joseph had to travel south, from his home in Nazareth to a city called Bethlehem, because his ancestral roots ran there. But over the many years between the time of David the Shepherd Boy who became king and the time of Joseph and Mary and Augustus and Quirinius in neighboring Syria, Joseph’s people had been moved about by exile and return and other needs. Hence, it wasn’t just Joseph; a lot of people were having to move about to satisfy the demands of the empire.

Joseph had to leave his home and he took his very pregnant wife with him. Why? Who knows! Maybe he didn’t want to miss the baby’s birth. Maybe he wasn’t sure how long it would take him to return from Bethlehem (especially if he spent all the little money he had for that initial trip). Maybe Mary having her baby away from their hometown would blunt the counting of the months between their hurried-up wedding and the birth of her child and allow the local gossip chain to settle down.

imagesA3F5A19LIn any case, Joseph took Mary with him to Bethlehem and there she gave birth to her baby. Like any mother, she wrapped him tight in what cloth she had to keep him snug and warm. Then she laid him in an animal’s feed box for a bassinet because there was no shelter for them, except with the animals. No one took any notice. People such as these don’t really matter in the overall scheme of things.

imagesA07EVF73Now somewhere outside of town, there were some working stiffs up on the night shift. It was to them that the angel of God appeared as the stars overhead seemed to explode into a myriad of heavenly beings. This messenger of God said to them: Don’t be afraid; I have good news that brings great joy – first to you and then to everyone else. To you a Savior has been born in Bethlehem. This is the messiah, the one sent by God to put the world to rights. You’ll find the baby wrapped up like any other, but this one is lying in a feed box. Then the angels sang their glorias and the working stiffs went to see. And when they had seen, they told everyone they met about what they’d seen, what they’d heard. Maybe a few listened … maybe.

What God did some two thousand years ago, God could do again. God broke into this world then and God can break into it now. After all, you really didn’t think God went through all that coming in Jesus just to leave us all on our again, did you? Of course not! In the incarnation, by coming to us in Jesus, God has demonstrated a dedication to this world that God made and continues to love. Trio 10In Jesus’ living and teaching, in his dying and his rising, God acted to put the world back on a course toward the dream God has had for this world and life in it from the moment of creation.  God is still at work in this world to bring that dream to life in the here and now. You just need to know where to look.

What does the story tell you? It wasn’t to the big names like Augustus or Quirinius and their wives that Jesus was born. Instead, the holy child was born to a peasant couple whose names would otherwise have been completely lost to history if not for this story. It wasn’t in the halls of power in the palace or the temple where the messengers of God sang the glorious good news. It was to no-name laborers out in the fields, outside of town and society. If you want to see what God is doing, look there … among the forgotten, neglected, and rejected, those at the margins and on the outside. There you will find Emmanuel, God with us – for God has come to us.

So sing your glad songs. Gather around the table; eat the bread and drink the wine. Take the real presence of Christ into your own flesh and bones. Light your candles and sing the sweet song. Then blow that small flame in – not out, in – into you, God’s love now made flesh in you. untitled (2)Then go out like the shepherds and tell all you meet what you’ve heard, what you’ve seen. Go out as fear-not angels, singing out the good news of great joy which is for all the people, for you and everyone else. Christ is born. God is with us.

Good tidings, dear people, one more time. Amen.

A Prayer for Peace

Trio 7A Prayer for Peace…

… On the occasion of the 2015 National Vigil to #EndGunViolence

Lutheran Church of the Redeemer, Saint Paul, Minnesota

December 9, 2015


O Lord our God, maker of all things… Hear your children as we pray by the many names with which we cry out to you. Though we and this world in which we live may be broken, frightened, despairing, you do not abandon us to the threatening darkness. Down through the ages, time and time again, with the varied voices, your prophets have insisted that your ways are marked by compassion and love, mercy and peace. Stir us up in this time and place, O God, that we may declare your message in this time and place, your holy calling to turn from the ways of violence and fear, to choose the way live and do those things that make for peace … for salaam … for shalom … for your vision of live. The peace you call us to – to live for and to work for – is more than an absence of violent actions. It is life for all – IMG_0098life in which all would dwell in safety and security, life where there is enough for all and no one is left neglected or in need, life without fear. Give us your power to live in that shalom, that salaam, that peace. Grant us to the courage to say boldly in these troubled times that there is a better way. Fill us with hope and courage to walk from this place in this way of peace. Hear us as we pray and grant us your life and your peace. Amen.


“… The flowers and the candles are stronger than the guns.”

~ A father in Paris to his son at one of the memorial sites after the November 13th attacks


A week later, I’m unsure which I find more sickening: the attacks themselves or the nasty reactions by people here in the United States … friends and family members, political leaders and wannabes … many of whom profess themselves to be Christian. Yes, our current efforts against the terroristic, vicious movement known as “ISIL” need to change. But not in the ways the strident voices in our midst are insisting.

Our current strategies (such as they are) and efforts clearly are not working. How do those calling for more of the same, only harder and more forceful, think for one moment that this will produce a different result? It won’t. The mess that exists today is the outgrowth of our military adventuring in the name of nation building for the past few decades.

We say we want to promote democracy – but democracy, by its very definition, can only come from the will of the people. It cannot be forced at gunpoint or bombed into existence. To think that we can reshape these countries to suit our preferences is the same misguided policy that for the past century has produced problem after problem … sometimes by deliberate intention and with “malice aforethought.” After nearly a hundred years, it’s high time we all learned a few things and stopped this madness.

Ottoman%20Empire,%20declineWith the collapse of the Ottoman Empire in the wake of World War I, the colonial powers of Europe created countries that had never before existed. The boundaries were drawn in such ways as to make them inherently unstable.   The Kurds were divided among several of the new nations rather than allowed to remain a single entity. Populations of Sunnis and Shi’ites – who have a long history of mutual animosity – were lumped together within the same boundaries despite any lack of shared interest in living together in harmony. These were not accidental blunders. This design was intended to create nations that would be inherently unstable because that suited the purposes of the Western (colonial) powers.

Given so much internal strife within these ahistorical nations, a strong armed dictatorial leader would be required to enforce order. Such a leader would be dependent on the Western powers for the means necessary for maintaining control, making him a vassal for the Western powers, beholden to them so that he would act according to their interests in order to continue to have access to the support he needed to stay in power. And so it was.

This set the stage for the on-going manipulation by both the Soviet Union and the United States in the aftermath of World War II. Leaders were raised up and manipulated like pawns in the greater chess game of the cold war as each side sought to improve its own access to the one resource neither could continue without: Middle East oil. The inherent conflict between Iran and Iraq was exploited by both sides of the cold war as support shifted back and forth. First we supported the Shah of Iran (our strong arm vassal). But when he was deposed, our support shifted to Iraq and Saddam Hussein was our new best friend in the area. Then, of course, that shifted again. The Soviet Union had similar issues with Afghanistan.

Given all this manipulation – and the behind-the-scenes currying of favors that accompanies manipulation, should we be surprised to find widespread corruption in the governmental entities of these puppet-states? Yet, when we in the United States decided that democracy would be preferable to dictators for governing countries such as Iraq and Afghanistan, we seemed shocked that there would be so much wide-spread corruption among the government that emerged from our military campaigns.

“Why do they hate so much?” we lamented in the aftermath of September 11, 2001. The thought that our national actions in the Middle East might have made us less than loveable never entered the conversation or public thought process around these issues. Al Qaeda has its roots as counteraction to past US military activity in the region just as the Taliban rose up as a reaction against military interventions in Afghanistan. They cite western influences as corrupting. If we tried, even for a few moments, to manage something like a neutral, observational perspective on this situation that has devolved over the decades, could we say they were entirely wrong?   Our motives have never been guided by the best interests of the people living in the Middle East. How could our actions be perceived as entirely benevolent?

The rest of the mess is recent history … going into Afghanistan to root out Al Qaeda and deal with Osama bin Laden for the terrorist attacks of September 11th … then finding reasons to go into Iraq and remove Saddam Hussein. Despite efforts to promote and establish democracy, functional government remains elusive in both places. Meanwhile, the atrocities inherent in warfare have left deep scars among the people. Long-standing internal tensions erupt in violent actions again and again. We can send more troops surging in to quell the morass, but once we pull back … it starts all over again … and we can’t seem to figure out why.

The answer has been in plain sight all along, but it’s rarely mentioned. These nations were set up a century ago with an intentional design to be inherently unstable. Unless we are willing to commit to be a permanent, occupying presence to enforce an unnatural stability in the region, stability will not happen.

military+coffins+Those arguing for more military activity in the area should put their bodies and the bodies of their loved ones where their mouths are. If they are of age to serve, they should enlist. Otherwise, they should be taking their young adult children or grandchildren down to the recruiters’ offices and sign them up for the Army or the Marines, committing them to being among the boots on the ground that they are demanding as the only possible solution. If they are unwilling to do that, then they need to shut up now!

What we’ve been trying to do is enforce a civil order and structure that few – if any – in the region truly want.

What we have in the Middle East is a wide-ranging civil war produced by long history and outside interference. If we truly support democracy, governance through the will of the people who are being governed, as we say we do, then it is the people of these countries who must who direct the way forward and we have to let them. That means we have to back off, stand down, cease and desist our military efforts to sustain an arbitrary order that unwanted by the people who must live under it.

I know it’s never been done this way before. But the only way I can see out of the mess is to create some non-violent process by which the people of the Middle East can draw their own national boundaries. Yes, there will have to be some negotiations around where the lines will go, who gets what territory. 09-04-2015Refugees_FYROMYes, in some places, people may have to be uprooted and relocated. But that’s already happening now … and it has a longer history in the region than the arbitrarily drawn boundaries of the past century.

The multitudes of refugees streaming into Europe are seeking nothing more that someplace to live in safety and in peace. If they could have that in their homelands, they would stay. And if we were living under the conditions they are fleeing, we would do exactly the same thing! How dare we fault them and blame them and insult them for doing this?

Most troubling of all is that those who are doing the most calling for more military action, more bombs, more boots … those clamoring loudest to refuse the refugees from these areas we have torn apart through military violence … are Christian voices, proudly hailing America as a Christian nation!

This is no more Christian than terrorist activity is Islam. Both are betrayals of the very faith the perpetrators profess.

untitledFor Christian Churches whose communal life is shaped by the annual liturgical cycle, this past Sunday was the Sunday of Christ the King, also known as the Reign of Christ. It’s a good time to ponder the ways of Christ’s rule and the calling of Christ’s followers to live out the ways of that rule. In fact, this observance was introduced to liturgical practice almost a century ago as a protest against dictators, as a way to say our allegiance is to Christ and Christ alone.

To say that we are followers of Christ, that we live under the Reign of Christ, is to say that we live by a different way than that by which the world “has always done it.” It means to reject the ways of power over others and oppression because it was such systems that executed Jesus on that cross. And it was over such ways that Jesus triumphed in the resurrection – proving that love is stronger than hate and fear, that life is stronger than death, that the will of God for all the world and all its peoples is love and life in its fullness. We are called to live out this vision and to participate in God’s on-going work to bring this promised future to life in our world.

Advent 4The season of Advent is almost upon us. Although popular understanding of these weeks prior to Christmas has devolved into getting ready for the celebration of the birth of Jesus, Advent is far more than that. We look to Christ’s first coming, the birth of Jesus among us, in order to remember that God has indeed broken into our world so that we can look forward to God’s in-breaking in our world today. What God did then points toward what God will yet do and is doing even now. We remember then in order to prepare for the future so that we can live toward that future now.

This story we tell of Jesus, from his birth to his ministry to his death and resurrection, is our story as Christians. The gift of faith is to shape our understanding of God’s ways and God’s work in the world. This story is to shape our understanding of the world and our place in it. Our perspectives, our language, our words and our deeds are to be shaped by this story. It is not for us to pick and choose bits and pieces of the good news just to suit our preconceived expectations, our political preferences, our self-justifications. As Christians, we are supposed to be different from the usual way of things in this world and right now, the world desperately needs us to be heralds of that different better way.

For the love of Christ, those of us who would call ourselves Christians, who profess to be followers of Jesus the crucified and risen one, must reject the ways of fear and hatred and violence. We are called to be voices of the new creation, heralds of God’s dream for all the world. Our words must speak of love and hope and peace – not hatred and fear and violence. To do the latter is a rejection of Christ and the ways of God and a denial of the faith we claim to have.

Lav Pillar 6The world desperate needs our voices to call out against the hate and the fear and the violence … to tell the truth we know – that love is stronger than hate and fear, that life is stronger than death … Lilacs 2to explain that the ways of God are the ways that make for peace and healing, that call life out of death … to offer the bold assurance that the candles and the flowers in what they represent really are stronger than the guns.



Lessons from Charleston (at least so far) …

About two weeks ago, I was on my way home from another trip through Saint Louis. Last year, about that same time, I was on the first of several trips through Saint Louis that I would make in the following twelve months. That first trip was also a short time after the killing of Michael Brown in the suburb of Ferguson; the nightly demonstrations were still occurring. This time, as I passed through Saint Louis, it was around the anniversary of that event, which was bringing fresh attention to the events of last August and all that has happened in between.

It was also about two months since my previous trip through Saint Louis. On June 17th, my daughter and I were flying back from the registration and orientation event at her college. In the airport that night, I caught the news of the shooting at “Mother” Emanuel AME Church in Charleston, South Carolina.

Traveling through this area brings these events back to mind for me.   This Sunday will also be a day for Confession, Repentance, and Commitment to End Racism for the ELCA in solidarity with the AME Church.  Now seems as good of a time as any to post these thoughts that have been bouncing around in my head …


Stay off the “me-too” bandwagon 

In the immediate aftermath of the Charleston tragedy, a number of white commentators suggested that we couldn’t be certain of the shooter’s motives or mental state. Race might not have anything to do with this, they cautioned. Indeed, this might have been an attack on Christians in general rather than a black church group in particular. Maybe we’re all at risk, all victims (at least potential victims) here.

It’s a tempting line of reasoning. A church was attacked … perhaps for no other reason than it was a gathering of Christian believers. That being the case, all Christian communities could be at risk from similar violence. Certainly black lives do matter … but that’s simply because all lives matter. After all, we wouldn’t want to leave any one out or exclude anyone.

That drive toward inclusion also expands the circle of victims beyond the nine people murdered in the church and their family members grieving these heartbreaking losses. At the arraignment hearing for Dylann Roof, the judge explained there were two sets of victims in this case: the clear victims who were shot and their families who must live with the loss – and also, the family of Dylann Roof.

Why expand the circle of victims to the Roof family? No doubt the parents of young Mr. Roof are shocked that a child they nurtured and raised could do such a thing; any decent parent worthy of being identified as such would be shocked and horrified. The private pain and public humiliation they are feeling is surely unimaginable. In some very real ways they have been harmed by their son’s action. But are they victims on equal footing with those he killed and the other family members and friends who are left to mourn such tragic losses?

Let’s not obscure the realities of the situation: a young white man shot nine black people in the sanctuary (which means safety) of their church building, their spiritual home. By his own admission, Dylann Roof did this because they were black. Plenty of evidence of his racist attitudes surfaced within days of the shooting. We are not all victims in this; we are not all at equal risk from people like Roof – who are all too common.


Speaking of Churches, what of faith formation?   

imagesWhen Dylann Roof was named as a suspect and arrested, the pastor of his family’s church was present with his parents. Not much has come to light about the Roof family’s actual involvement with their local ELCA congregation. However, the presence of the pastor at a time like this suggests active membership and some level of regular participation in the congregation. (People who are marginally affiliated with a congregation generally do not think to contact a pastor at such times.) Even less is known of Dylann’s recent involvement in this or any other congregation. But what we do know indicates that Dylann was reared within the congregation and almost certainly went through the catechetical process in preparation for confirmation (or affirmation of baptism).

And somehow, despite that, by the age of 20, Dylann Roof embraced white supremacist views that contradict what he should have learned in the congregation.

The Roof family happens to belong to a congregation of the ELCA, the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America. But I don’t think this outcome is exclusive to the ELCA. Something like this could – and likely does – happen in most any Christian denomination. An outcome as horrific as this should give all of us pause about faith formation, especially with our children and youth. How can we nurture an understanding of God’s love for all people and all creation that is so clear and so strong that the ideology which ultimately guided Dylann becomes, literally, unthinkable?


About the Confederate Flag … Can We Talk?   

imagesX1W1NO3WBy this point, the Confederate Battle Flag has been removed from the South Carolina capitol grounds … something that was unimaginable in Charleston at the beginning of this year. Discussions over the appropriateness of such displays of this battle flag have been political fodder for decades. Now there has been an almost allergic reaction to the old Stars and Bars. But uncritical, wholesale rejection may be just as problematic as the defensiveness that previously swirled around the battle flag as a historical artifact.

Yes, the flag was originally created to rally the Confederate troops during the Civil War. Then, once the war ended, the rebel battle flag faded from view along with the cause it represented. These historic displays of the Confederate Flag only go back some fifty years or so. The old flag was revived to serve as symbol of resistance to the Civil Rights movement and the legislation it produced.

480225354Any honest conversation about that flag and its symbolism needs to address this point. To gloss over it … ignore it … stuff it away without addressing the actual reasons why the flag was being displayed where it was will waste a real opportunity to assess how much farther we really have to go in living out those words of the Pledge of Allegiance (to the American Flag) – those words about liberty and justice for all.



To seek justice and to love mercy … 

Many sat up and took notice at Dylann Roof’s arraignment as a number of the survivors expressed forgiveness and mercy to the young man who murdered their loved ones. Was it genuine? Was it too soon to speak of forgiveness? Did that mean the matter was settled?

Our culture has a very shallow, perhaps even cheap, sense of what the word forgiveness means. “It’s no big deal.” “It’s not a problem.” “Just forget about it.” These are things we say to communicate something akin to forgiveness … but I’m not sure they communicate actual forgiveness. We want to equate forgiveness with forgetting and moving on, as though whatever hurtful thing happened didn’t actually happen.

images (3)What has happen can never not have happened. There will be no future in which the hurtful experience is no longer a part of the past. Forgiveness doesn’t mean forgetting or pretending that what happened never happened. As Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King put it, forgiveness means not allowing a past bad action to be a barrier to future relationship.

For the brave survivors of Mother Emanuel, I suspect the words they spoke about forgiveness, love, and mercy were less about how they actually felt in that moment as they were expressions of their intentions for how they would move forward. They spoke bluntly and openly of their grief and how much the losses hurt. That language was direct and powerful. Not one among them asked that Dylann Roof be released or the charges be dismissed. They all clearly expect the trial process to go forward toward a guilty verdict for Roof. Justice will yet be served – as it ought to be.

This has all faded from memory fairly quickly as other tragic, high-profile acts of gun violence have happened again and again these past two months. Perhaps we may have forgotten that as Dylann Roof was being arraigned for his attack, Dzhokhar Tsarnaev was being sentenced to death for his role in the bombing at the finish line for the Boston Marathon in 2013. Not all of those who testified, to be sure, but most of those who spoke did so with anger, hatred, and contempt for Tsarnaev. It was all perfectly understandable.

But contrast these statements with the words of the victims and survivors of the shooting at Mother Emanuel had to say to Roof. Which people would we really rather be like?

If we let them, the survivors from Mother Emanuel have much to teach us.


It’s still not enough … 

images (2)If the brutal killings of 26 children and teachers at Sandy Hook Elementary weren’t enough to move our culture forward on sensible actions to reduce gun violence, the killings of nine people in their church won’t either. Indeed, in the aftermath of Charleston, the same stupid suggestion was made that more guns are the solution. After Sandy Hook, there were calls to arm teachers and school staff. After Charleston, there were suggestions that churches should consider armed security. Isn’t such a suggestion completely antithetical to the task of the church to be a demonstration of life in the Reign and Realm of God?

If you’re not easily offended, read and consider this …

… And then ask this question: Who profits by selling this nonsense?

The problem is too many guns are too easily accessible to people who are more likely to use them for harm … who may even regard the harm as a positive, even good, action. When I was learning to drive, I was told that the car is as dangerous as any weapon. Our society readily requires training and testing and insuring and licensing in preparation for driving a car. But driving is a privilege while gun ownership is regarded as a right. However, does that difference mean we can’t have any meaningful training, testing, licensing, and maybe even insuring as part of gun ownership? Why not? We the People – we make the rules. Survey upon survey shows the majority does want better background checks and other steps that can reduce gun violence. So can we take those steps now … after Charleston … after the many episodes of similar violence that have happened in the two months since then?

But if not now, when will it be enough?


Dear God … It’s The Good Wife


The Good Wife 2When I saw the title (“Dear God”) and the briefest of plot synopses (Christian mediation) for the episode of The Good Wife that aired on CBS on Sunday, October 5th, I wondered. It’s not very often that television gets this stuff right. Sure, The Good Wife is reliably one of the best dramas on TV (especially broadcast network TV) right now. The writing and directing and acting are consistently top-notch. Many weeks the guest cast list includes at least one notable name. While faith has come up from time to time throughout the seasons, it’s always been a sideline part of a story, not the main focus. Usually it involves mother-in-law Jackie sniping at Eli Gold (her son’s previous campaign manager who is now his chief of staff) about his Jewishness … or more recently daughter Grace and her burgeoning Christian faith.


thCANZLH9NBut overall, far beyond The Good Wife, television has a long history of getting faith more wrong than right. I still regard TV’s best portrayal of Christian faith and life (at least as I’ve experienced it) as the short-lived series Nothing Sacred, which aired from the fall of 1997 until early spring the following year. Set in Chicago (like The Good Wife), the series centered on the staff of fictional Saint Thomas Catholic Church. Characters wrestled with faith and doubt and questions for which there were no simple, clear, easy answers. Angels never showed up to explain anything; this was no Touched by an Angel (a much more popular program that started a few years earlier). Viewers, it seems, prefer fantasy to reality again and again … a dynamic that does not bode well for those seeking honest, realistic portrayals of people of faith on television. So back to The Good Wife and “Dear God” (Episode 3 in this sixth season)


105162raw-95bThe primary story for this episode features a client named Ed Pratt (Richard Thomas), a sort-of John-Boy Walton who went to business school and then into agribusiness rather than becoming a writer. (Yes, it is a bit of type-casting; however, few actors can convey earnest sincerity and have it seem natural and unforced like Mr. Thomas does.) Ed is a client of attorney Kary Agos (Matt Czuchry), who is on the sidelines due to pending criminal charges. So Alicia (Julianna Margulies) takes over arguing his case, assisted by newcomer Dean Levine-Wilkins (Taye Diggs). The courtroom sparring between Alicia or Dean and the defendant’s attorney, Carter Schmidt (Christian Borle), does not sit well with Ed or with the defendant, Wendell Keller (familiar face Robert Joy). As it turns out, not only are Ed and Wendell neighbors, they are also Christians. So they decide to try a different approach to resolve their dispute: Christian mediation by what is called “the Matthew Process” and appears to draw from instructions in Chapter 18 of Matthew’s gospel.


Now here we go … but in which direction? What variety of Christian behavior and practice is going to be on display?


Enter Robert Sean Leonard (more recognizable here than in his recent turn as Dr. Roger Kadar on TNT’s Falling Skies) as the mediator, Del Paul. His mediation sessions take place at a conference-style table set up in a church sanctuary. thCA2YNURYIn the hands of a lesser writer and a lesser actor, this character could have easily become a buffoonish compilation of clichés that the entertainment industry frequently associates with Christians … which is what I feared would happen. But that is not what happens at all.


As the first mediation session begins, the lawyers attempt to recreate the same arguments and strategies we just saw them using in the courtroom. Del, however, is having none of that. The rules and procedures to which the lawyers are accustomed don’t apply here. Instead, Del’s primary concern is what is going on with Ed and Wendell – what is the issue as each understands it? … which is where any mediation process generally begins. This being a Christian mediation process, Del is also concerned about Ed and Wendell’s on-going relationship as neighbors and as fellow believers, their personal integrity and the role their faith has in their interactions. Hence, it is quickly made clear to the attorneys that scripture is to inform their arguments – not legal precedent.


This sends Alicia home to consult with her daughter Grace (Makenzie Vega) for a crash course in what passages from the Bible would be appropriate for her to use. As Alicia lines up the passages to use to support her case and then to argue against what the opposing counsel is likely to say (yes, “Bible bullets” to shoot back with), bibleGrace explains that the Bible doesn’t work that way. This leads to Grace explaining how things in the Bible can be true “the way poetry is true.” It’s a great moment for the characters and a realistic explanation that most pastors would love for a member of the youth group to be able to articulate.


Back in mediation, Alicia and Carter give working from Scripture their best efforts, but they are still attorneys. Del acknowledges that they have done their homework … while at the same time subtly conveying his awareness that their use of scripture is utilitarian … in a manner that is not condescending or insulting. And when Del states he will pray and reflect on the points that have been raised, inviting the others to do the same, he comes across as genuine and conveys an openness to possibilities rather than a mind that is set on a foregone conclusion. When the next mediation session convenes, Del has reached an understanding that opens a safe place for one party to confess … and to explain why he felt he had few options other than to act as he did … and for both parties to work out a means of restitution that honors their relationship as neighbors and friends by not forcing the party in the wrong into destitution.


Also during the back-and-forth of dueling scripture passages in the second mediation, as the Alicia and Carter attempt to use scripture much as they do case law, the heretofore quiet second-chair Dean spontaneously cites a very relevant passage of scripture. That leads to a conversation with Alicia that exposes some backstory for Dean’s character … 9781435132412_p0_v2_s260x420that he considered going into the priesthood before To Kill a Mockingbird drew his interest to what legal practice could accomplish … and, like Alicia, he didn’t consider himself to be “genetically built to believe in God” … until he did. Without this bit of self-disclosure, who would have guessed – or even wondered for a moment – that this character might also be a Christian?


What makes Dean different now that we know he has faith in God, that he considers himself a Christian? Maybe nothing really. After all, what did we assume about this character (or any other character) initially? Do we expect characters we encounter in stories, whether on TV or in film or in books, to be Christian (or have any kind of faith affiliation)? Do we assume, if it isn’t made clear and expressed in a specific way, that some form of religious faith is, therefore, absent?


thCAEZIQQOWhat about the people we meet in real life, day to day? What do we expect or assume about them? If they don’t say they’re Christian … if they don’t throw the word blessed around … if they aren’t given to spouting phrases like “praise the Lord” or “the Lord laid it my heart… if they aren’t constantly putting it out there, do we imagine they might possibly be Christian? Statistics indicate that most of the people we cross paths with (except for those we did see at church on Sunday – if we were there) were not at church the previous Sunday. But is regular church attendance the definition of a Christian? Or is it attending Bible studies? Or does some indication of devotional practices or a prayer life prove that one is a Christian?


What do we expect of people? What do we take as a given to be true of them? And how do our expectations change if we know they are Christian … or if we know they are not?


Looking at this episode of The Good Wife, what evidenced the characters as Christian wasn’t necessarily what they said or the way they said it. What made the mediation process Christian was not the role of prayer (at no time did any of the parties clearly pray during the mediation) or the use of scripture — the non-believing Alicia and the who-knows-what-he-believes Carter cited scripture the most. What marked the characters identified as Christian – Ed, first, and also Wendell and Dean as well as Del – was a sense of integrity.


thCANUXXLCThe dictionary defines integrity as soundness or completeness, honesty and sincerity. The word shares a root with integrate, meaning to bring the pieces together into a whole. It’s not that having religious faith, whether particularly Christian faith or any faith at all, is essential to having integrity. People without religious beliefs can – and do – have integrity. But for those who do have religious faith, that faith is a part that must be included in the whole-making necessary of integrity. The faith has to be expressed in how you live … the way you look at other people and life and things … and how you do what you do in the world.


“A Christian cobbler,” Martin Luther famously explained, “makes good shoes, not shoes with little crosses on them.” Faith isn’t lived out by putting a pious gloss on something, whether it’s little crosses or fish symbols or a “blessed.” Faith is lived out by doing our best work consistently because it is the right thing to do, not because we’ll get a bigger reward (this life or the next … take your pick). Faith is lived out in relationships marked by care, respect, honesty, a concern for the well-being of the other equal to one’s own. “See how they love one another?” remarked a confounded critic, observing the early Christians. This sort of faith made visible in relations with others, how and why we do what we do, is a key piece in Christian integrity.


Kudos to The Good Wife for getting faith right (at least in this aspect). Can we do the same?


"The Lyons" Opening NightAnd, speaking of people doing their best work in whatever role is given, also check out Linda Lavin’s work in this episode. She has a significant role in this episode as part the on-going story line involving criminal charges against Kary. As Joy Grubick, Kary’s Pretrial Service Officer while he’s out on bond, she hits all her marks as a dedicated, hard-working, probably underpaid, clearly underappreciated public servant. Ms. Lavin’s performance in her last scene in this episode is as real as it gets.

Crimes & Judgement


Donald … Byron … Teenagers Shot …

And a much bigger question we’d rather not face


imagesAt the end of April, two disparate events happened in the same 24-hour news cycle. Both are still being heard on appeal in the respective venues in which their cases have been tried. (One party, however, seems to have just now given up his fight.) On first glance, they couldn’t seem to have less in common. One involves a wealthy owner of a professional basketball team – a team whose name was well-known even if its owner’s was not-so-well-known … at least until the last month or so. The other involved a retired man in a small town in central Minnesota. Although his case was a high-profile one on the local news scene, it garnered scant attention nationally. Offensive statements by both men, albeit in very different circumstances, contributed to the judgments made against them. But that’s only one point of connection.   As Laura Holt would say at the opening of the Remington Steele television series, “Follow …”

untitled (5)The one making headlines in the national (and even international) news was, of course, Donald Sterling. Even if you don’t pay much attention to the NBA in particular or to sports in general, it was all but impossible to miss hearing the story of the remarks Mr. Sterling made to his girlfriend in private, not knowing he was being recorded. The recording of his racially charged remarks was made public and backlash ensued. After an investigation that determined the male voice in the recording was indeed that of Los Angeles Clippers owner Donald Sterling, NBA Commissioner Adam Silver promptly banned Sterling from the NBA for life, imposed the maximum fine possible, and vowed to force the sale of the team to a new owner.

imagesCAFG5ZHTA few raised the question of privacy – should Donald Sterling be held publically accountable for something he said in private? Wasn’t the secret recording an invasion of his privacy? And since it was in private, why was any of this the public’s business? Those are fair questions. But those questions and the secret recording are over shadowed by the much bigger question: Given how much public evidence already existed of Mr. Sterling’s racist behaviors over the years –imagesCAKDAR7N from complaints of a “plantation mentality” in the organization by various players … insights from former coach and NBA legend Kareem Abdul Jabbar to a wrongful termination lawsuit by former VP and GM (and NBA all-star) Elgin Baylor to a housing discrimination case by the Justice Department that was settled out of court – given all of this: Why didn’t the NBA take action before now?!

Plenty of evidence of Mr. Sterling’s racist behaviors was public before the past month. Real people were directly harmed by his actions (particularly in the housing discrimination). But no one in the NBA took action or even seemed to notice. Perhaps the time for action came not so much because of the general attitude Mr. Sterling expressed in those recorded comments but because he dissed one of the legends of the game, Earvin “Magic” Johnson. While it’s highly unlikely that Mr. Johnson would suffer much from Mr. Sterling’s dislike of his own girlfriend posting a picture of herself at a game with one of the legends of the game, such a poor attitude toward of player of Magic Johnson’s stature (someone who helped make the league the financial and commercial powerhouse it is today) simply could not be tolerated by the NBA organization.

So we get righteously exercised over the terrible person that Mr. Sterling clearly is, bemoan and decry the racist attitudes he voiced, and expel him from the rest of decent society. We feel so much better now, knowing we are not like that. Then we heave a collective sigh of relief and turn our attention to less troubling things instead of looking deeper into the questions of race and power and class that this situation raises in the NBA and elsewhere in our society.

Enter Byron Smith …

untitled (6)Byron Smith is a retired security systems engineer who lived (until very recently) in Little Falls, Minnesota – a setting about as far from the glitz and glamor of Los Angeles as one could get. Little Falls is a small city in central Minnesota at the south end of wide spot in the Mississippi River. It’s along US Highway 10 west and little south from Lake Mille Lacs, northwest of Saint Cloud and the Twin Cities. The greatest claim to any sort of fame for Little Falls is that it was the boyhood home of famed pioneering aviator Charles A. Lindberg. It’s the kind of place where any murder case would be big news. But the one that a jury was deliberating at the same time NBA Commissioner Adam Silver was handing down his verdict on Donald Sterling, was particularly heinous.

On Thanksgiving Day in 2013, two teenagers broke into Byron Smith’s home. The kids had been involved in other break-ins around town and Mr. Smith’s home had been broken into several times before then. (What was never quite clear was whether these two teens had broken into his house previously.) On that Thanksgiving Day, Mr. Smith moved his truck from its customary parking place in front of his house to a location out of sight, supposedly so it would not be damaged while he cleaned his garage. But instead of cleaning the garage, he went back inside the house … unscrewed some light bulbs from fixtures … gathered up some snacks and things to drink … and then went downstairs to the basement where he loaded his guns and sat down to pass the time reading a book.

untitled (8)Mr. Smith heard the sounds of two people entering his house. But he did not call out to the intruders or make any other effort to scare them away. He did not call the police. He picked up his gun and waited in silence. As one of the intruders came down the stairs into the basement, Mr. Smith shot him several times, first wounding Nick Brady, a 17-year old, and then killing him. He wrapped the young man’s body in a tarp, so it wouldn’t bleed all over the place. But he didn’t call the police or warn the other intruder. He waited as Nick’s 18-year old cousin untitled (7)Haile Kifer called out to her cohort, trying to discover where he was, if he was okay. Mr. Smith waited in silence and shot her as she came down the steps into the basement. Much as he did with her cousin, when she had tumbled down the remaining steps, he killed her with another shot. But he didn’t call the police. During the events and in the hours after, the audio recording captured a number of things Mr. Smith voiced out loud regarding his victims – “Now you’re dead, bitch … “I felt like I was cleaning up a mess” … “I was doing my civic duty”  … “I don’t see them as human.  I see them as vermin.”

Within hours, concerned family members were seeking the whereabouts of the missing teens. But Byron Smith did not break his silence. The next day, he spoke with a neighbor … and the neighbor persuaded him to contact the police. He did and an investigation ensued. Clearly, Mr. Smith had the right to defend himself and his property against intruders. The teens had been in violation of all legal and moral standards when they entered his house. But did Mr. Smith’s action cross a line between self-defense and murder? The police investigators and the county attorney decided that line had been crossed. At the conclusion of the trial, the jury convicted Mr. Smith of four counts of murder.

The details of what happened inside Mr. Smith’s house were known in large part because of video and audio recordings from the home security system that Mr. Smith had installed and personally turned on that Thanksgiving Day as he prepared to wait for intruders. (The surveillance recordings show Nick moving around outside the house, looking in windows for more than ten minutes before he attempted to enter.) Because Mr. Smith made the recordings, none of the questions regarding possible violations of privacy have been raised by this case, as they have in the case of Donald Sterling.

imagesCANIKG5G But the Smith case in Little Falls does raise questions of the right to self-defense, property rights, and “Stand Your Ground” types of laws … which Minnesota, unlike Florida and some other states, does not have. From that angle, the Smith case invites comparisons to some other high profile cases in which unarmed teenaged suspects were shot to death by men – the Florida cases of George Zimmerman and Michael Dunn. Like Mr. Smith, Mr. Zimmerman’s suspicions regarding Trayvon Martin were aroused by previous break-ins in his community. Also like Mr. Smith, Mr. Zimmerman claimed self-defense and cited the injury to his head as proof he was the one being attacked. In the second case, untitled (9)Mr. Dunn, like Mr. Smith, did not contact police after shooting into a vehicle full of teenagers, killing one of them, Jordan Davis. But unlike Mr. Smith, Mr. Zimmerman was found not guilty of murder. Although the jury in Mr. Dunn’s trial found him guilty of the attempted murders of the other teens in the car, the jurors were deadlocked on the question of Mr. Dunn’s guilt in the death of the one teenager he actually killed. These differences between the outcome in Minnesota from those in Florida is the connection point between the low-profile murder trial in Little Falls and the public opinion trial(s) of Donald Sterling.

imagesCAFXM5L9Whereas both Nick and Haile were clearly engaged in criminal behavior when they broke into Byron Smith’s home, George Zimmerman only suspected that Trayvon Martin might be contemplating a similar action. There was no evidence prior to or found in the aftermath that validated Mr. Zimmerman’s suspicions. Jordan Davisuntitled (10) was only guilty of playing offensive music too loud – a commonplace behavior among teenagers that, although extremely annoying, is not illegal. Neither Trayvon nor Jordan were engaged in anything illegal at the time each was shot to death. Yet, their status as crime victims was widely disputed. However, most readily agreed that, although Nick and Haile should never have been inside of Byron Smith’s home, the proper penalty for breaking and entering is not summary judgment and execution on the spot. Therefore, they were the victims in this situation.

In short, there was no trashing of the reputations of Nick and Haile before or after Mr. Smith’s trial. Yes, they were using drugs – abusing over-the-counter medications, prescriptions they could get their hands on, using stolen property to fund their drug habits.   Nick had an intoxicating amount of cough syrup in his system at the time of death. Apparently a number of teens in Little Falls are engaged in this (much as anywhere else). Yes, Nick and Haile were definitely on the wrong track. Yes, they should face the consequences of the crimes they committed, consequences that could include time in jail (but certainly not execution). It might have been the wake-up call they needed to change their ways and turn their lives around, to become the kinds of people their parents had always hoped they would be. After all, these two were essentially good kids who lost their way, decent kids who deserved another chance.

Perhaps it’s just part of “Minnesota nice” not to speak ill of the dead. But aside from the obvious point that, if Nick and Haile had been having Thanksgiving dinner with their families (as they should have been doing) they would still be alive today, very little was said to dispute this narrative of good kids who lost their way. Some have complained that the verdict gives a green light to all would-be criminals out there to break into any place they want – which is only a gross exaggeration of the situation and not in any way a personal attack on these two victims.

This prevailing narrative of two good kids who lost their way stands in sharp contrast to the public trashing of the reputations of Trayvon Martin and Jordan Davis in Florida (and in the national news) during the time leading up to the trials of their killers. Time and time again, the families of these victims were called upon to show that their sons did not deserve to be shot. In contrast to Nick and Haile, the general assumption seemed to be that if Trayvon or Jordan had not been doing something criminal when they were shot, they would have … eventually … it was just a matter of time. There was an implication that their shooters may have done society a favor by eliminating these future criminals from our midst. (“Vermin,” as Byron Smith said of the teenagers he shot.)

untitled (12)Maybe it’s just that Minnesota is a little nicer, a little more civilized than Florida. We’ll see.  Two weeks ago, another heinous case erupted in Minnesota, this time in Mankato (the “big city” the Ingalls would sometimes mention or visit on Little House on the Prairie). Isaac Kolstad, a 24-year old father and former football player for Minnesota State University, was horrifically beaten to within an inch of his life; two weeks later, he is still in critical condition. The principal assailant was Philip Nelson, a 20-year old former quarterback for the University of Minnesota untitled (11)who had just transferred to Rutgers University to play football there. A second assailant fled the scene; he was apprehended later in the week.  The original headline in the Star Tribune (the largest paper in the state) read: “Flurry of blows leaves 2 lives in ruins.” The headline suggests both the assailant and the victim are suffering rather equally in the aftermath. Nothing could be farther from the reality. The assailant, reportedly “kicked the victim’s head like a soccer ball.” The victim has been in critical condition since the attack; if he does survive, his life will never ever be as it was. Why this confusion of victim and attacker and who is really suffering? The attackers in this case were white. The victim is black.

But that’s Mankato and the outcome remains to be seen. Meanwhile, back in Little Falls … Why, in the case of these two teenagers, who were clearly engaged in criminal activity when they were shot, is it easier to believe they were victims and to find their killer guilty of murder than in the cases of two other teenagers who were doing nothing illegal at the times when they were attacked and shot to death? Unlike Trayvon and Jordan, Nick and Haile were white. That makes a difference in any location. Perhaps the citizens of Little Falls are more sensible than those in Orlando or Jacksonville. Perhaps “Stand Your Ground” laws muddy the line between self-defense and murder. But in murder cases across the country, the race of the dead victim trumps alluntitled (4)

And that brings things back to the fracas over Donald Sterling’s remarks. People are outraged by the racism of that – and rightly so. So we excise the offender from our midst and prove that we are not like him. We are crusaders for justice, equality, fair treatment. Thus satisfied, we sit back on our newly won laurels and don’t look to the deeper questions of the role of race in our society and genuine injustices.

Speaking about lingering disparities on the occasion of the 60th Anniversary of the Brown vs. Board of Education, US Attorney General Eric Holder quoted Supreme Court Justice Sonia Sotomayor’s dissent in the Michigan college admissions case, saying: we must not “wish away, rather than confront, the racial inequality that exists in our society. … The way to stop discrimination on the basis of race is to speak openly and candidly on the subject of race.'”

Suddenly booting out Donald Sterling after years of publicly demonstrated racist behaviors circumvents the kind of deeper exploration that would lead to a more just, more fair, less racialized society. The causes for outrage are real. But spend the energy where it will make a difference, where it will work towards the lofty ambition in the Pledge of Allegiance – that our country truly become a land “with liberty and justice for all” … for Trayvon and Jordan as well as Nick and Halie … for the nameless ones struggling for housing against the likes of Donald Sterling.