ENOUGH! Time to Grow Up (Part 1)

We the people of the United States, in order to form a more perfect union …

~The Preamble to the US Constitution, 1789

We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal …

~ The Declaration of Independence, 1776

But speaking the truth in love, we must grow up in every way …

~ Paul, to the Christians of Ephesus, 1st Century CE

After much of the year (and more) spent debating and legislating about our public schools, not just about mask mandates, but also how certain subjects – like history – are to be taught, it’s time we all took a collective breath.  Much nonsense has been made over the supposed teaching of “CRT!!!”, also known as Critical Race Theory, to hype this analytical perspective as the latest boogeyman or villain in some imagined culture war.  And as the transition from observing this second Monday in October as Columbus Day to Indigenous Peoples’ Day, now seems an appropriate time to address the stories we tell.

First. let’s all take a collective breath and stop the hyperventilating.  Critical Race Theory in NOT being taught in any public school at any level.  Critical Race Theory is an analytical approach that developed in a few law schools and gradually became a lens to analyze a number of separate, but interconnected, developments in laws and the application thereof, history and how we tell the story of us.  Critical Race Theory may shape how people approach certain topics, the understandings they develop and share with others including within the context of instructional opportunities.  However, the theory itself is not being taught outside graduate/professional schools and select college classes.

The confluence of the Minnesota and Mississippi Rivers in an area known at B’Dote, a scared valley where the stories of the Dakota people begin

Once we’ve caught our collective breath, we really need to grow up!  I am talking to white people since we have played a dominant role in shaping the story we’ve been calling history, who have benefited from social structures that assume we are innately good, right, and above all else innocent of any harm or ill motive. We need to take a step back and take a good long look at what’s been happening … the stories we were once told and have been repeating … the events we have observed (and maybe tried to ignore) … the voices calling for their stories to be heard, insisting that their experiences have meaning and are just a much a part of this country, its history and heritage, the narrative that has prevailed throughout our lives to this point.

Before leveling any charges of “This is re-writing history!”, ask yourself this: Which is the true re-writing of history – putting back in chapters that we omitted, skipped over, or deleted all together OR cutting those chapters and events that actually happened from the story in the first place?

Commemorative Plaque recognizing the suffering and death of the Dakota people, imprisoned in their sacred valley at the end of the Dakota uprising in 1862

One of the tasks of maturity is to let go of an idealized past, let fall the illusions that no longer serve us well, and come to terms with who we really are, both the good and shameful. At nearly 250 years since the signing of the Declaration of Independence that launched a new nation from British colonial efforts in this land … and over 500 years from the on-set of interactions between Europe and this land, it is high time We-The-People grew up. The highly sanitized, shallow story we tell about European settlement and the emergence of a nation calling itself the United States of America is on par with imaginings we cultivate as children, fit only for the children to whom we routinely teach this story and call it History.

The bare facts are what they are. However, history is about more than just the facts. Facts alone aren’t that interesting; the story we tell about the facts makes them interesting. In the story we have long been telling, unpleasant facts are treated as aberrations. Since they don’t fit with the greater narrative we wish to tell, we leave them out or gloss over them so that they don’t detract from the story we want to be telling.

It is not re-writing history to tell a fuller story; it is claiming the fuller truth of our country’s history and heritage. Telling the truth is an act of love. It is not hating our country to speak the truth of its faults and failings; it is an act of love … which is what patriotism, love of one’s own homeland, means.  In that spirit of love and truth, our history requires a fuller and more honest telling.  Fullness and honesty require attending to the stories and voices of two populations that are very much a part of the fabric of this nation: the people who were already here when the Europeans came and the people who were dragged here against their will or choosing.  Yes, I mean Native Americans and African Americans.

Clearly, this is a lot to cover.  In this part, I want to discuss the people who were already here when European settlers and explorers first arrived on the shores of this land we all now inhabit.  There will be a second part to discuss the people who were dragged here from Africa against their will as property.

Marker at Pilot Knob, a historic funerary and burial site for the Dakota people of the area

First, the land the Europeans began to explore was not largely uninhabited, a vast unknown pair of continents that stretched out like a blank canvas ready for new creative actions. The land was very settled with numerous nation-states who had lived for uncounted centuries on these lands which we now call North America and South America.  There were histories already here that the Europeans and their descendants never bothered to understand. To act as though the history of North and South America began in 1492 is both factually and intellectually dishonest.

Our usual telling of American history centers the national origins in the colonial efforts of Puritan separatists who came to a new place to live and worship in their own way, free from the trappings of formality that were part of the Anglican compromise. We treat these Pilgrims as the sum total of British colonization …  and even more, as though the British were the only ones with colonial endeavors in the Americas. In truth, the Spanish, the French, the Portuguese, and the Dutch all had numerous colonial projects.  To a lesser extent, Norway, Sweden, Russia, and Denmark also engaged in colonial operations. We fail to even tell the part that involves European activity in its fullness.

Fall colors in B’Dote, now part of Fort Snelling State Park, near MSP

The usual telling of our history allots only a marginal role to the native peoples of this land.  They appear when convenient in the story and then quietly disappear when they are not needed.  We tell of Squanto and his people who helped the Pilgrims survive their first hard years in Massachusetts Bay after they arrived at the worst time of year, lacked sufficient provisions, and had little idea how to grow their own food in the new place.  That initial settlement might have followed the same trajectory as the original Jamestown in Virginia had it not been for the assistance of the native people.

The native inhabitants make a sort of appearance in the story of the American Revolution as the inspiration for the costuming for the Boston Tea Party… and then, they more or less disappear from “American History.”  But in truth, the native peoples never went anywhere, at least not too far. Our telling of American history characterizes all native populations as though all were like the nomadic tribes of the Great Plains. In actuality, many of the native peoples were settled. They lived in communities and cities.  They had long interacted with each other, had defined territories and trade routes, engaged in treaty making and conflicts.  Although the European settlers regarded the native inhabitants as savages, these original peoples were actually very civilized.

Yes, the ways of dressing were different that European customs.  Yes, the technological sophistication was not equal to European development.  However, this was largely due to the different understandings of the relationship between peoples and the land.  Because the native relationships to land were different from European customs, the ways they engaged in conflict and resolved conflict were different as well.  Wars had been happening in the New (to Europeans) World, but these wars were waged differently than in the Old (familiar to Europeans) World. As a result, war had not been the engine of technological innovations in the Americas as it had been in Europe.

Daughter Trees from cuttings taken from the Four Grandmothers in B’Dote, the sacred valley of the Dakota

The native people were not uncivilized nor were they ignorant or stupid – the European settlers were merely dismissive of what they did not readily understand. Native communities had complex linguistics, literature (mostly oral story telling), arts, laws and mores for community behaviors, commerce and trade routes.  Much as we want to think the of the original inhabitants of the land naively trading huge amounts of land for shiny trinkets, that is a gloss intended to cover over the guilt of the European colonizers and settlers.  In reality, the native people understood treaties very well and expected both sides to honor those agreements.  Natives regularly pushed back to claim their rights when the nascent United States government (and other conquerors) broke those agreements.

The desire for more lands, which would require ending or at least renegotiating British treaties with the native peoples, was at least part of the impetus for the American Revolution. Religious freedom had nothing to do with it by the time the Continental Congress formed to explore a unified American-based governance among the British colonies.  The ban on settlements west of the Allegheny Mountains was one of the numerous issues that motivated the revolutionaries, including George Washington. Ascribing religious motivations seems more lofty and gives the now dominant narrative some sense of divine favor.  However, the true motivations were the usual commercial ones: land … and profits from the land.

American self-governance led to a long history in which the national government made a series of treaties with native people and then changed or broke those treaties entirely when national ambitions required more land. Native nations were typically given the choice of accepting the changed terms of a treaty or having the changes wrought upon them by military force. Even with the reservation system, Native peoples are still among us on their ancient homelands, in our cities and towns. The least step all of us can take is to honor the truth of our shared heritage and acknowledge the first peoples of the places where we live.

Although not universally true, many native peoples spoke (and continue to speak) of this land as “turtle island.”   This suggests some sharing of knowledge and information between the various nations and their territories that developed into a fairly accurate picture of the contour of what is now known as the North American continent.

Who was living on the land where you call home before the colonizers from Europe arrived?  What stories did they tell of their origins?  What did they know about the local environment that we late-comers never bothered to learn?  There are a number of ancient maps of this continent that show the difference peoples who populated these lands as far back as the stories go.  Here’s one you might look at.

Location of the concentration camp where the Dakota were imprisoned; the red ties are for prayers during a ceremony of commemoration

Who from the original peoples are still in your area today?  They did not all go away; they are not all living on reservations.  Here’s a fun fact: as of the 2000 Census, New York City has the highest population of Native Americans than any other city in the country.  What stories do they have to tell us today?  For a look at how Natives tell their stories of who they are today and how it came to be this way, check out the website of the 400 Years Project.

With recent discoveries of mass burials on the site of former boarding schools where Native children were sent, often contrary to the wishes of their families, to be “civilized” (which is to say, made into White people), that effort to eradicate Native cultures and communal identity is coming to light again.  The intentions of the people who operated the schools don’t matter now; the outcomes do.  There is a legacy of pain that runs through many native communities even generations later.

Remembering and Honoring …

As this terrible chapter in American history and native experience is investigated further … as more of these children’s bodies are found and returned to the lands of their ancestors, what traditions and stories and practices are bring brought into view?  How might we learn in this moment to honor the actual history of the land that we are privileged to call home … or even believe is ours?  How can we honor the memory and legacy of those who were here before our ancestors ever arrived?  We acknowledged that the land on which we live … gather … work … was first the home of … who?  What was the name the people who first lived there gave themselves?  Do you know?  How might you find out?

What places in your area were considered sacred, set apart, holy by the people who first lived there?  All the photos accompanying this post were taken at locations sacred to the Dakota people in the Twin Cities area.  To the original people of the area, the world began at the confluence of the Minnesota and Mississippi Rivers.  Having learned those stories thanks to Jim Bear Jacobs and his Healing Minnesota Stories program, I had a greater appreciation for the area where I lived, worked, and commuted through for almost ten years.  I haven’t learned the similar stories in my new place – yet.  But I will.  Where can you learn those stories in your land?

In addition to links in the post, here are some other sources to explore:

Native America Calling – A call-in radio program described as “your national electronic talking circle. The program takes calls when it airs live (1-2pm ET); archived shows are available on the website and through podcast outlets.

News sites from a Native perspective — here are a couple:

Twenty Years Ago…

Statue of LibertyOn that sunny Tuesday morning twenty years ago, I was driving my minivan (which served as our household school bus) down I-35 from our home in Blaine toward MN36, planning (as always) to go east to the exit that would take us to the elementary school.  It was an old school day routine I was quickly redeveloping at the start of this second week of classes.  At some point, just north of the interchange, the news reader for the radio station came on with a report out of New York City that a plane had hit one of the towers at the World Trade Center.

At that moment, the only noteworthy element was that this wasn’t something that happened every day.  There had been a recent report out of Florida (Tampa, if I remember right) of a small plane crashing into a high-rise building after the pilot (and sole occupant) apparently suffered a major medical event while flying his plane.  That’s what I thought of when I heard the first report.  The plane would have to be a small one, not flying at higher altitudes, and the lone pilot had some kind of episode that caused him to lose his ability to control his plane.

Another song played on the radio.  After that, the news reader came back on with an update.  There were reports that a second plane had struct the other tower and that one of the planes was reported to be a 767.  That two planes had struck, one per tower, and at least one of them was a passenger jet (not the small plane I’d imagined), was mindboggling.  How in the world could the same sort of aviation mistake or malfunction happen twice like that?  I pondered the question in the back of my head as I navigated traffic, managed my own reactions for the good of my two children in the seat right behind me, and got us all where we needed to be that school day.

I helped my oldest out of the van at the elementary school and then proceeded to the seminary campus.  By that point, the radio station had stopped with the music and was carrying a national live news feed about the developing situation in NYC. Fall Bluffs 1After I checked my youngest into the day care, I tromped off on a new element to school morning routine: a walk through the neighborhood to get some exercise before the chapel service at 10:00am.  At one of the houses I passed, a construction crew was working in the front yard.  A radio was blaring.  That’s when I heard the word terrorism attached to what was happening for the first time.  My first thought was: It’s too soon for such a statement; we can’t know that yet.  My next thought was: I’ve been looking for an explanation of how two passenger jets could crash into the World Trade Center that would make some sense; as an explanation, terrorism does.

After the walk and a quick clothes change, I headed up the hill to the chapel.  Lots of people were crowded around the common space.  A couple of TVs had been brought in and were showing staticky images.  The snatches of reporting sounded a lot like I’d heard from the radio.  I went into the actual chapel for the morning service.

LS ChapelClearly whatever had been planned wouldn’t work.  (The Dean of Students would eventually preach her well prepared sermon three years later.) I remember we were asked to listen as the Seminary President read Psalm 46 (God is our refuge and strength…); however, by the time he was halfway through, we were reading out loud along with him.  I don’t remember much of what the Dean said, only that she attended to the fears and anxieties and grief – both from what was already known and what might yet be.  I don’t remember the prayers either … only that they helped.

I don’t remember when or how I found out about the other two planes … or when I heard that the towers had collapsed. My news in those days came primarily by radio, not TV.  I watched the footage of the plane flying into the tower once – late on the night of September 11, 2001, after the kids were in bed and everything that needed doing that night had been done.  I watched it that one time and never again

Terry FretheimWhat I remember most is that my class schedule on Tuesdays that semester had the lecture portion of a class called “God, Evil, and Suffering,” taught by the legendary “Heim Brothers,” Terry Fretheim and Paul Sponheim.  The class took place right after the chapel service. That day was the second time class had met for lecture.  Paul SponheimSo there we were, in a class built on pondering the reality of evil and suffering in the world as well as the activity of a good God and how humans act and are acted upon in all of this.  The events of September 11, 2001 would play a significant role in many of the discussions for the rest of the semester.

We were prompted and prodded to take a more expansive view of events like this … to see beyond a personal relationship with Jesus and envision God in relationship with the whole of creation … to consider God still active in the work of creation, refining it and continuing to draw forth the original and eventual fullness of God’s creative intention … God so in love with and committed to this creation as to get dirtied and bruised and bloodied in the midst of it (see also: Jesus), who could sit beside the hurting, receive all the pain, and be present with power and intention to do something … Morning Mist 1God working God’s will in the world in such a way as to allow space for the working of other wills – God’s will could be resisted and worked against and it could be co-operated with; as beloved, created co-creators, we could choose … a God who is not remote and far off, waiting to judge who gets into heaven/reward and who deserves hell/punishment, but rather God who is in the midst of this unfolding creation, ever working for wholeness and completion and perfection.  Where might this God be in the midst of such devastation and suffering?  How might we recognize God’s working and join in that effort?

Where is God in this?  What should be our response?  Those questions continued to be themes in daily chapel sermons for weeks and months … and they showed up in other classes as well.  The questions were ever before us.  Clear, specific answers were not.

Lav Pillar 5It’s the feelings I remember most … the grief and sadness … the sense of vulnerability and softness … the sense of universal hurt as though we were all walking around wounded … the care and concern people extended to one another because they saw the need or someone asked … the coming together in our shared sense of loss.  Maybe that one Tuesday class, more so than any other factor, forced me to be more reflective than most people were at that time.  Something needed to be done as a response; I recognized that.  However, what should be done was a much bigger question for me, a question with very unclear answers. I was growing less convinced that violence, retribution, revenge were the best or even appropriate responses.  I was appalled by the anti-Muslim sentiment and hostility toward people because of how they dressed and how they prayed.  I was haunted by the prayer that had been scrawled somewhere in an NYC subway: “God, save us from the people who believe in you.”

Yes … where was God in all this?  But for that matter, what was our role in the chain of events leading up to the September 11th attacks?  What had we done?  What had we failed to do?  Some people explored those questions looking for ways to prevent a repeat, a similar attack at some future date.  I pondered the questions to assess if we were really the innocent victims we so very much wanted to be.

9-11 Memorial NYCNone of this is to say that any of those who died that day, or as a result of that day, deserved to die.  None of them individually did any more than any one person deserves to die on any given day.  None of the families directly touched by the death and destructions deserved their losses.  None of the first responders, helpers, laborers who worked through the wreckage to salvage anything they could at tremendous expense of their very selves deserved those burdens.  Few of those who, it could be argued, bore more direct responsibility for our national role in the scheme of things were directly touched by this tragedy.

It is anathema to the American mythos of the rugged, self-sustaining, individual to think in a collective way rather than just about individual selves.  It is heresy to the American civic religion to suggest that our nation is anything other than a well-intentioned benevolent actor on the global stage.  However, forced as I was by circumstances at the time to think from a big, globe-embracing, history-spanning, creation-unfolding perspective, I had to acknowledge the reality that we, our nation as a whole, were hardly innocent in all of this.

Downtown 3We have used the more subtle power of dollars and wealth to force our way into other nations and bend things to our purposes and economic benefit, frequently to the detriment of many and the benefit of a few in these other nations.  While not as direct or wantonly destructive as military force, we have been willing to deploy that as well to defend and further our economic interests. We have played at proxy wars, using other nations as pawns to stymie our global enemies.  The US is hardly the only nation to have done this; it’s true.  However, we remain to this day the only nation that has ever used a nuclear weapon against another nation.

As in all things, we tell ourselves it was the only choice, or the least bad from the list of very few terrible options that could have been chosen.  But is it really true?  Or is it just one of the many stories we tell ourselves to reassure ourselves that we are ever and always the good guys in any conflict, the ones who unfailingly do the right thing … so that anything we do is right?

Homeless TentOur record at home has not been much better.  Basic needs like housing, food, medical care are not regarded as universal goods that everyone should have because we all need these things to live.  These are commodities to be acquired by the deserving, those who prove their worth by accumulating enough money to purchase them … who earn their keep … who pay their way.  We are told this is the way it ought to be; this system is perfect and we are enlightening the rest of the world by insisting on it, exporting it.

Where is God in all this?  More to the point, where are we?  How far have we wrapped the flag around the cross, equating the United States of America with God’s chosen people and the promised land, calling for God to bless our endeavors – all of them – throughout the world.  Yes, as a nation, we have done many great good things.  However, we have also done much harm.  Both are true.  Did we deserve to be visited with a heavy hand for our national actions on the global stage, for the neglect of poor and unprivileged in our own land?  I can only answer, Yes, we did.

I can’t celebrate “Patriots Day.”  I can’t join in the “Hooray for our side! We fought back and we won!” triumphalism.  I do mourn the losses.  People died … needlessly.  Families were shattered and broken.  No amount of warfare or vengeance can ever bring the dead back or undo the losses.  Nothing can guarantee that we, as a nation, will never be hurt like this again.

Votive on ScarfI can only ponder what we might have, but have not yet, learned in these past twenty years.  I see the hand wringing over the removal of our troops from Afghanistan, after nearly twenty years of trying to remake another nation into our own image, to have bases in that region from which to more effectively wield military might.  I see the Christian faith being welded ever more firmly to an increasingly militant nationalism.  And I recognize how alike it is to the distorted faith of those who flew planes full of passengers into buildings full of people twenty years ago.

I fear we have learned nothing in these last twenty years.

DAY OF PENTECOST – YEAR CoV: “For thESE holy houseS…”

Pentecost rolls around May 31st on the liturgical calendar, the end of May in 2020, 50 days after Easter.  This week, catching up on On Being podcasts, I heard Krista Tippett’s interview with Ocean Vuong that aired on April 30th.  However, the interview itself happened March 8th.   As she noted at the beginning of the program, how the world changed between when she interviewed him (at a festival gathering, no less!) and when the interview aired (at a time when large in-person gatherings are ill-advised).  Timing is everything, it’s said … and something Ocean Vuong said early in the interview caught my ear.  Speaking of his fascination with the story of Noah’s Ark, Vuong said:

“When the apocalypse comes, what will you put in the vessel for the future?”

 

When the apocalypse comes … We use that word (apocalypse!) so often; I do not think it means what most people think it does.  In common vernacular it is has come to refer to some sort of cataclysmic event that completely up-ends, if not totally ends, the world for everyone.  At this point, there’s no way of knowing for certain that the SARS-CoV-2 Pandemic will bring the end of the world as we have known it. (Stephen King is on record as saying “No, this is not The Stand.”)  However, if we take the true meaning of the word apocalypse, which is unveiling or revealing, we are indeed in an apocalyptic time.  Underlying assumptions about the way things work (or should work) have been laid bare.  Workers we regularly encounter, whom we frequently dismiss as being of little significance, have proven to be essential workers.  Some of our essential workers are some of the least paid, least protected employees in our communities.  There are glaring gaps in our healthcare system that have put certain groups and populations at more risk of harm in this pandemic than others – more than enough care for those who do not absolutely require it (see the layoffs from hospitals due to cancellation of nonessential procedures), not enough for those who need it (underlying health conditions are high in populations that do not have regular health care).  Business plans have been suddenly upended.  People who never had to ask for help in their lives trying to navigate unemployment, food shelves, and housing assistance.  More community services might be needed, but tax revenues to pay the workers are dropping rapidly.

 

Churches – often regarded as something apart and disconnected from business and daily realities – are also impacted.  Shelter-in-place orders have banned gatherings of over 10 people, especially indoors.  Singing together is strongly discouraged in the wake of an outbreak among choir members in northwest Washington State.  Sanitation concerns discourage baptisms – certainly no basins with water (even blessed, holy water) should be out for people to touch.  Communion practices are rife with exposure concerns.  Many congregations have had to scramble for ways to sustain community and worship services without in-person gatherings … Zoom meetings, Facebook Live streaming, YouTube videos … it’s been a steep learning curve for pastors and for congregants.  It’s also been a mixed bag – some people who haven’t been able to attend in-person now have easier access … but others, who lack computers or internet or smart phones or even push-button phones, are being left out.  Now that shutdown orders are being lifted, shelter-in-place guidelines are being relaxed, some groups are eager to regroup in buildings while others are holding back because SARS-CoV-2 is still very much active and will be among us for the immediate future.  Our relationship to our buildings, as well as to each other, is being revealed in this time.

 

Now that the apocalypse has come, what do we put in the vessel that carries us forward?

 

Sunday school teachers for generations have long taught children the finger play: Here is the church, here is the steeple, open the doors and see all the people.  But the same finger play could be done with words like: The church is not a building. The church is not a steeple.  The church is the people!  Lutheran pastor, theologian, teacher Kelly Fryer made a splash almost 20 years ago when her doctoral thesis was published as a small book titled Reclaiming the “L” Word.  Among other things, she challenged the conventional operating formula that:

Church = Pastor + Building

The church, she (and others of the missional church movement) argued is the people of God coming together as community to learn, nurture, and support one another in living as followers of Jesus in daily life.  One of the things being revealed in our current situation is what is necessary for faith communities to be the people of God in this time and place … and what is not.

 

What do we put in the vessel that will carry us forward?… And that brings us to Pentecost, the celebration of the birth of the Church, and what it might mean in the current time and situation.

 

Because Ascension Day, which marks the turn of the Easter season from the Resurrection of Jesus to the coming of the Spirit, falls on a Thursday I was struck by the contrast between what’s envisioned for the Church as the Body of Christ on earth and what’s actually reflected in our faith communities by a regular prayer.  In a classic Lutheran Book of Daily Prayer, the Thursday Morning prayer (in both weeks) focuses on mission, the task of proclaiming the gospel to those outside the faith community.  The prayers focus on “those who labor for us” in God’s kingdom.  Pastors, missionaries, teachers – even referred to as “frontline workers” – are lifted up in prayer.  However, the one offering the prayer is praying on their behalf … which suggests most people offering this prayer do not have any role in actually doing this … which is pretty much how people see things.  Pastors and trained others study the scripture and communicate what they’ve learned to others (who don’t have the skill or knowledge base … or time?) to read and learn for themselves.  The church building is the congregation’s place of schooling where they gather to hear what the pastor has leaned …which will help them be better people in some way (if only to assure them they are already good people).  The people support the work of the pastor (and other frontline workers) with their offerings and also maintain a place to gather for learning and worship.

 

Yet, so little of this fits with what we see of the beginnings of the Church on the Day of Pentecost.  The bulk of the narrative is in the early chapters of the Book of Acts: The disciples want to know if it’s time to (finally!) have the messianic restoration of the Holy Kingdom.  Jesus tells them to stop fussing about times and specifics, advising them simply to wait until they receive power from on high.  Then Jesus ascends to heaven (or otherwise exits the scene).  Angels tell the awe-struck disciples to stop standing around staring and get back to doing what Jesus told them.  So, they start hanging out in the upper room (where they’ve been hanging out for weeks by that point) and the temple, praying, remembering Jesus and his words and actions.  Then ten days later, the Spirit comes to them in the rushing of a wind and flames of fire, and all heaven breaks loose in a chaotic scene of disciples speaking languages they don’t know … and people in the area who do speak those languages being drawn near to hear what is being said.  Whatever was happening, it was not happening in the temple – nor was it all happening inside the upper room.  It was happening out in the streets, in the neighborhood around the disciples’ hang out.

 

The truth of this came home (literally!) to me a couple weeks back when I was leading the Kyrie, a litany, in our congregation’s Zoom worship service.  Sitting in my own home, I read the line “For this holy house …” and realized a number of things.  First, yes, the house that I am in is holy; God is here and blessing this place and all who come under this roof.  Second, looking at other congregants on the screen in their little display boxes, I realized that they, too, were in their homes – houses just as holy and blessed as mine.  And third, that the rest of the line applied just as much in this virtual Zoom setting as within the church building: “and for all who offer here their worship and praise.”  So, I ad-libbed a bit: For these holy houses and all of us who are now gathered to offer worship and praise, let us pray to the Lord …

 

The church has left the building now … and maybe it never really belonged in one.  In the beginning, it was people, not a place.  The upper room was borrowed (rented?) space, not the permanent possession of any one of those gathered in that upper space.  When the Spirit blew through, out they all went … all of them, every single one of them … not just the special twelve … not just the men.  Mary was there, too, along with other women who had been among Jesus’ followers.  Jesus’ brothers were there, too.  And the people who heard and responded swiftly joined in the group as well.

 

Are our church buildings “the vessel that carries us into the future”? Are buildings something we should put in that vessel?  It was a long time before congregations, gathered groups of Jesus-followers (Christians) had buildings – several centuries, in fact, before they could come out of hiding places (like catacombs) and people’s homes (members well-off enough to have one) and have a public building.  And yet, despite no building, the faith spread: believers were supported with teaching, prayers, worship, sacraments … children were nurtured in the faith … new believers were brought into full participation in the community.  The congregation shared food and other goods, provided care to those unable to attend, gathered and scattered to live out the gospel in their everyday lives.

 

Buildings are beautiful things.  There is much to commend them in terms of beauty and design that works to provide a sense of sacred space.  Buildings can be places for vital ministry (like soup kitchens, shelters, food shelves) as well as for important community services (meeting spaces for recovery groups and other community needs).  A lot of good things can and do happen because we have buildings.  Virtual space is not a real substitute for meeting in person … and meeting in person requires sufficient space for the gathering.  But maybe they aren’t central … or “mission critical.”

 

There’s a lot of wisdom to be gained from the classic Orthodox icon of the Ascension.  Most of us moderns (Protestants, especially) would be somewhat surprised (startled? … shocked??) that Mary is front and center in the image.  She’s certainly not named as present in the account of Jesus’ ascension.  But she is there and the central figure because, as Christ once dwelt within her body, Christ will now dwell within the body of believers – gathered together and even individually.  Martin Luther hailed her as the first Christian and an example to us all for much the same reason.

 

What vessel will carry us into our future?  Does it even have to be a physical structure?  If we have the Spirit calling us together and sending us out, breathing in … breathing out, what more do we need?  God’s love is the vessel that carries us into the future, as surely as it has carried people of faith in the past. As Lady Julian was told, as God showed her all that is made as something small and round like a hazelnut and she marveled that it survived at all, “It lasts and will go on lasting forever because God loves it.”  We have the witness of those gone before us – and out own experiences – of the mighty deeds of God, how we have seen and experienced God bringing new life from dead ends.  We have the voice of the Spirit speaking all around us in all kinds of ways – through Scripture, through each other, even through people who might surprise us and the world itself around us.

Now the Lord said, “Church, you better love

     ‘cause it’s a wounded world that needs a healing touch.”

And he gave us a promise and he gave us a job;

     he’ll be with us but the work is up to us …      it’s up to us

~Rich Mullins, Allrightokayuhhuhamen

For the peace of the whole world, for the well-being of the people of God, and the unity of all, let us pray to the Lord … Kyrie Eleison

For these holy houses and all who dwell in them, offering up their worship and praise, let us pray to the Lord … Lord, have mercy

“AND IN THREE DAYS …”: Lent, 3 Sacred Days & Easter in a Time of COVID-19

Back when we entered this season, the congregation of which I’m a part embarked on a series of Mid-Week Reflections on Luther’s Marks of the Church.  One week after Ash Wednesday, March 4th, I spoke about the Mark of Suffering, little guessing what the unfolding month would bring.  By the end of the month, we were no longer congregating for worship as part of the physical distancing and safer at home practices encouraged to support our public health and collective well-being.  The things I said that night, expanded as we face a difficult transition from Lent to Easter, form the basis of this post …

 Here we are, near the end of Lent, at the final chapter of the of the gospel drama that shapes Holy Week and its final Three Days … the time when the sufferings of Jesus are front and center in Christian reflections on the life of Jesus.  Here we are, many of us still in the physical distancing and safer at home efforts aimed at reducing the spread of a new virus, SARS-CoV-2 … a virus that is new to human beings, at any rate.  We may never know how long it lived exclusively in animal populations or which animals served as earlier hosts for the virus.  However it made the jump from lesser animals to humans, the virus is now spreading rapidly in human populations around the world.  None of us has immunity to this; we become immune only by contracting the virus and successfully fighting off the infection.  Some of us may have no indications we were infected at any point.  Some will be very sick and need life-saving drastic interventions in the ICUs of our local hospitals.  Most people will likely be somewhere in between.  But until you have it, you won’t know how this will play out in your own body … and among those you care about and love.

As one wildly popular meme has it: “This is the Lentiest Lent I have ever Lented.”  The season of Lent, with the emphasis on suffering and sacrifice, ends with the celebration of the Easter resurrection.  Although we’re almost to Easter on the liturgical calendar, for the communities around us, the sacrifices for the sake of public health and the suffering – whether it’s someone known to be infected or struggling with a terrible case of COVID-19 or the various sufferings arising from lost income due to sidelined business during this time of shut-down and self-isolation – whatever form it takes, the suffering will continue long after Easter.

At Easter, we speak of themes of resurrection: the end of death … a glorious surprise so big and profound we could never have dreamed it possible … weeping and sorrow changed to dancing and joy.  Yet, the death rate from COVID-19 will continue to run high well after Easter.  People we know and love will be touched by this: loved ones seriously ill with all manner of ailments in the hospital and we are unable to visit … people dying in ICUs or care centers and we are unable to be with them in their final moments … next of kin forced to choose from burial options that do not conform to loved ones’ final wishes or our own preferences … funerals and customs of mourning disrupted by constraints on numbers permitted to attend.  It’s like Maundy Thursday and Good Friday … but then Easter is still an unknown future event, not just two days off.

In times like this … especially among those of us who have never really known deprivation, accustomed more to self-sufficiency and comfortable ease, able to go about our lives as we wished (more or less), able to do for ourselves, provide for ourselves … times ripe with fear, for ourselves and our loved ones, uncertainty about when this all we be over and if the old normal can ever return and if not, then what? … in these times, we need an Easter that is not just a well-loved, well-told tale but an Easter that is anything but the usual way of things – an Easter that is not what was expected to happen, but what should not have happened and yet, somehow did.  To get to that kind of Easter, we need a truly suffering, painfully crucified, dead, laid in the grave and buried Jesus.  The kind of Jesus alluded to in the fourth and last of the Servant Songs in the Book of Isaiah: The Song of the Suffering Servant.

While all the Servant Songs of Isaiah include some element of suffering and rejection, it is in this fourth song in Chapter 53 that the theme of suffering is strongest.  Like the other Servant Songs, this song was first heard among the exiles of Judah who had returned to their ancestral homeland after captivity in Babylon.  Suffice it to say, what they came home to was not the home they had been encouraged to picture during their lives as exiles.  The idyllic vision of a land of promise had been proven to be ruined mess.  “What are we doing here?” they cried; “what good is there in this devastation?”  The song of the prophet is, in part, God’s response to their cries.  The suffering of this servant people will yet bring forth God’s good purpose.

Early Christian writers took this theme of the servant of God who suffers much in himself in order to bring about a blessing to many and applied it to the story of Jesus.  There is much in this that fits – the rejection, the physical beatings, the perversion of justice, the dying.  These sufferings form key pieces of the story as we trace it each year through the season of Lent:

He was despised and rejected by others; a man of suffering and acquainted with infirmity; and as one from whom others hide their faces he was despised, and we held him of no account.

Surely he has borne our infirmities and carried our diseases; yet we considered him stricken, struck down by God and afflicted. …

He was oppressed, and he was afflicted, yet he did not open his mouth; like a lamb that is led to the slaughter, and like a sheep that before its shearers is silent, so he did not open his mouth.

By a perversion of justice he was taken away. Who could have imagined his future? For he was cut off from the land of the living, stricken for the transgression of my people.

They made his grave with the wicked and his tomb with the rich, although he had done no violence, and there was no deceit in his mouth. ~ Isaiah 50:3-4, 7-8

Suffering is something we typically resist until there is just no avoiding it.  More than just the obvious fact the pleasant is always the more preferable option to the painful, most of us are culturally conditioned to believe that we should not have to suffer at all.  Perhaps along with the listing of pursuit of happiness among the inalienable rights of humanity in the Declaration of Independence there is also an implicit right to be free from suffering.  We may not have all we need (or want) in order to be happy, but surely we ought to be relatively free from suffering, right?  But yet, as Christians, we are followers of a Jesus who suffered – who did not resist or fight against the suffering but embraced it and fully entered into it (“leaned in,” we might say.)  This the example we have been given … so, in the classic question from the Small Catechism: What does this mean?

In as much as the Church is called out and called together to be the physical Body of Christ on earth, and Christ Jesus suffered in his body while on earth, suffering is a part of being Church, being the people of God.  In so far as the Church is also called to the same task the people called out by God have always been called to do: be a channel of blessing through which God blesses the world.  And passing on the blessing means letting at least some of that blessing go on to others …  and letting go means losing out at least a little (in other words, suffering) … so it follows that the Church is called to suffer in order to do the work God gives it to do.  Furthermore, because the Church is called to live out the ways of the Reign and Realm of God rather than follow the ways of the world, to the extent the ways of the world diverge from the ways of God, the Church and the people who comprise the Church are going to suffer because when you’re not doing the same dance step as everyone else, your toes are going to get stepped on … people are going to push back when you step on theirs … and if you’re not where you’re expected to be in the dance, you may very well get hit by a swinging arm, unintentionally if not deliberately.  You are going to get hit.  You are going to get stepped on.  You are going to get hurt.  That’s just the way of things.

Let me make one thing crystal clear in all of this: God calls no one to suffer simply for the sake of suffering.  Jesus did not suffer and die just to show that suffering is a good or desirable thing.  It isn’t; suffering simply to suffer is never a good thing.  Jesus suffered and died for the sake of radical love that was out to change the world.  As followers of Jesus, as members of the body of Christ, as Church, we are called to that same kind of suffering: suffering out of love in order to bring about positive change.  If you are suffering for anything less than that, if no change is coming about as a result of your suffering, you need to stop that, get out of that, let it go.  The only kind of suffering any Christian is called to do is suffering that produces a positive change, that moves the situation a little closer to what God intends for people and for all of creation.

Around the time we started into Lent, there was the commemoration of the fifty-fifth anniversary of the “Bloody Sunday” events in Selma, Alabama, the march across the Edmund Pettus Bridge.  This march was instigated after a previous march in the area to protest an act of injustice had led to the killing of one of the protesters.  Those who marched on that subsequent Sunday in Selma knew there could be trouble.  They’d been warned not to do this; they’d been told not only would there be no protection for the marchers, law enforcement had been authorized to do whatever was necessary to stop the march.  But they went anyway, knowing what would happen.

And they suffered for it.  When talking about that day, now Representative John Lewis freely admits he thought he would die.  He was beaten so badly he very well might have.  Seventeen people were admitted to hospitals; fifty more were treated for injuries and released.  This could have been just more suffering for the sake of suffering, accomplishing nothing, changing nothing.  But news crews were there.  When the films of the violence were shown on the televisions in living rooms around the country, when the photos of beaten, injured protestors were displayed on the front pages of papers unfolded at breakfast tables, people were understandably shocked.  Lots of people saw a need for things to change … and you know the rest of the story, eventually change happened.  The suffering had a redemptive purpose; it made the people and the world around them different, better … not perfect, but better than it had been.  This is what suffering for the sake of God’s radical love that is out to change the world looks like.

In this time and this place, for many of us, the suffering we are called to is that of releasing privileges – learning to tolerate inconvenience, making do with less, waiting our turn instead of grabbing first place and top spots as though these perks are rightfully due to us.  It is madness to suppose an economy built of excessive over-consumption, acquiring more and more stuff with near-term obsolescence built in by design is sustainable in any way, shape, or form.  These complex systems cannot be reordered in a day and they will not be reordered without pain and sacrifice on the parts of those who are benefitting from the current situation.  It is insane to suppose that next-day delivery of anything to anywhere can be done free of cost.  You might not pay for it with your money, but the people involved in getting it to you and the environment are paying the price.  It is lunacy to make calories cheap and nutrition expensive and make the health care to offset the damage of cheap empty calories inaccessible to those who suffer because they cannot afford what would keep them healthy.  And it is becoming increasingly obvious a very few among us have been hoarding money and resources the way far more have taken to hoarding toilet paper lately.  If those of us who are benefiting from the current systems continue to assert the privileges of our place in society … if we don’t sit down and shut up and let the suffering ones have a place and say the truth of their experiences, especially when it hurts like hell to hear it, our world will continue to move farther from God’s dream of a world in which all life is flourishing.

That is what we’re called to as Church, as the called-out people of God who are blessed in order that through us, God will bless and heal the world.  It does mean that sometimes we are going to be out of step with the world around us … and we will suffer as a result.  Right now, everyone is suffering.  Many of us Christians are suffering because we cannot be together with others in our congregation, cannot worship in the familiar comfort of our sanctuaries, joining our voices with those of congregants dear to us, even gather with our extended families to celebrate any festive occasion.  These sufferings are hardly unique; everyone around us is suffering much the same … and some even worse.

When will end?  When will change come?  When will it really feel like we’re out of the tomb and the shadow of death and the Easter resurrection can be felt again?  I don’t know, but it won’t happen April 12th.  This year we will be waiting much longer than three days to have much of what we associate with Easter joy, some sense that the world has been put back to rights … if it ever gets put back to rights.  What will be is as much a question as when it will happen because, whatever “normal” emerges, it will be different from what we knew before.

Those first followers of Jesus didn’t exactly know that a resurrection was coming or for certain when it might be.  Yes, in the Gospels, Jesus does try to tell them what’s going to happen, that it will be three days.  But there are also plenty of indications the followers weren’t really hearing him, didn’t understand what he meant.  Likewise, when the resurrection time for this era comes, it might not take the form we expect … and we might have to wait longer than we think.

But in the meantime, we do have a part to play in helping to shape the world that emerges so that is moves a little bit closer to God’s dream of how it can be: all are welcomed, all are cared for, there is life and healing and comfort and plenty for all.  In order to do that, we have to engage with and enter into the suffering of these times.  We got this!  Christian people have done so before in times of communal suffering, through plagues and other disasters and societal dis-ease.  We can, too – because Jesus Christ died and rose again.

A TALE OF TWO CITIES … TWO COPS … TWO SHOOTINGS

Memorial Display at Site of Philando Castile’s Death

It’s been a few weeks since the sentencing after the verdict in the trial of Mohammed Noor in Minneapolis … for shooting an unarmed citizen while on duty as a Minneapolis police officer.  That shooting happened in July 2017, not long after a jury in Ramsey County found former Saint Anthony Park police officer Jeronimo Yanez not guilty of manslaughter in the shooting of an unarmed man named Philando Castile in … almost three years ago now.  Writing on these two shootings might have been a little behind the times, but in the past few weeks, police in Arizona held a black family at gunpoint because their 4-year old child was suspected of shoplifting … and Democratic presidential candidate Pete Buttigieg had to leave the campaign trail shortly before the debates in order to return to South Bend, Indiana (where he is mayor) to deal with the fallout after another incident in which a white police officer shot a black man.  These kinds of  stories keep repeating and the clear similarities – and differences – between the two local cases here, the shooting of Philando Castile in the greater Saint Paul area and the shooting of Justine Ruszcyk/Damond in Minneapolis, provide a lot of insight in to just what is going on here … there… and pretty much everywhere.

 

Let’s start with the earlier case: the shooting of Philando Castile by Saint Anthony Park Police Officer Jeronimo Yanez. 

On July 6, 2016, Officer Yanez pulled over a driver named Philando Castile in Falcon Heights (a small suburb north of Saint Paul and east of Minneapolis).  The given reason for the traffic stop was a broken taillight on Castile’s car.  However, Yanez suspected Castile had been involved in recent robbery of a convenience store along that stretch of road and wanted a closer look.  The stop was proceeding normally.  Castile was in the process of reaching for his wallet to produce the identification Yanez requested when he mentioned to the officer that he did have a gun on him and that he had a permit to carry it.  Seconds later, Yanez fired nine shots into the car, fatally wounding Castile.  His girlfriend, seated in the passenger seat next to him, live-streamed the aftermath on Facebook as Castile bled out.  Her four-year old daughter was in the backseat as these events unfolded.

 

Ramsey County District Attorney John Choi made the decision about bringing charges himself rather than working with a grand jury.  In November, he announced charges of second-degree manslaughter in the death of Castile and two counts of reckless discharge of a firearm, due to the presence of the girlfriend and her daughter in the car. In making the announcement, he stated no reasonable officer would have responded to the situation as Yanez did and set forth the forensic evidence that proved it was impossible for Yanez to have seen Castile’s gun until his body had been removed from the car.

 

At his trial, Yanez was represented by one of the most prominent law firms in the area.  His ace attorneys requested a change of judge, as permitted under state law – and for which no reason or justification is required.  But it did cause the case to be reassigned from a judge who happened to be black to one who happened to be white.  And although the defense could not strike every person of color from the jury, only two people of color were impaneled for the trial that began on May 30, 2017

 

When Choi first announced the charges, he made it clear that the physical evidence at the scene proved Yanez could not have seen Castile’s gun as the officer had claimed.  One of the places where Castile was struck by a bullet was his right hand.  The gun was in the right pocket of the shorts he was wearing.  He could not have removed the gun without unbuckling his seat belt – which he was in the process of doing when Yanez started shooting.  If Castile had been pulling out his gun, as Yanez claimed, then the bullet would have torn through the shorts in order to hit his hand.  But there was no hole in the shorts.  That must have been made as clear at trial, because, in the deliberations, the jury did ask to see Castile’s shorts again.

 

The defense insisted that the amount of THC detected in Castile’s blood at the time of death be presented – even though the lab scientist who presented it argued that, because THC is fat soluble and the breakdown of cells at death results in the release of all stored accumulations, such test results are meaningless.  However, the judge allowed it. The defense insisted because it was important to their case that Castile be considered a drug user rather than the dedicated school cafeteria worker, beloved by the students where he’d worked.  Part of the defense strategy was to argue that Castile was sluggish in responding to Yanez’s commands because he was high.  However, at the same time the defense attorneys wanted him portrayed as sluggish from marijuana use, they also wanted him to still be capable of drawing – and potentially firing – his gun lightning fast.

 

But the biggest key to the defense was Yanez’s emotional description of how much he feared for his life.  Police officers are allowed to use deadly force if they believe their lives are in danger.  Like any belief, it does not have to be rooted in demonstrable reality; the belief only needs to be sincere.  And Yanez testified that he truly believed he was about to be killed in that moment.  On the witness stand, he talked of thinking only of his own little girl and his wife at home as he emptied his clip into the man in the car, oblivious of the child in the backseat car and the other man’s girlfriend in the car, right beside him.

 

By now, anyone who cares to has seen the dashcam video of Yanez’s stop.  Most of us who have watched it wonder how the jury could have found Yanez not guilty.  We see an officer losing control, yelling vague commands repeatedly without allowing time for any response from person he’s yelling at – and then he starts shooting and keeps shooting until his clip is empty.  The jurors who have spoken about the decision say they wished the camera would have shown them what was happening in the car.  They are sure Yanez had to be reacting to something specific that Castile was doing.  That Yanez was most likely reacting to something that was only in his imagination does not seem to be an angle the jurors ever considered. He convinced them he truly feared for his own life, that if he had not shot immediately, he would have been killed by the driver he had pulled over.

 

What Yanez noticed, or recalled noticing, before, during, and after the stop is telling for what he claimed to have seen and what he clearly did not.  He thought Castile had been involved in the robbery “because of his wide-set nose.”  He mentioned making eye contact with Castile as he drove by and saw “a deer in the headlights look.” To have seen all this so clearly in a car just passing by (at about 40mph) suggests remarkable powers of sight and observation, perhaps even approaching superpowers.  Yanez saw a black man and decided he was a suspect in a recent crime. Then, when he realized the black man had a gun, he saw a dangerous criminal who wanted to kill him.  That’s what he responded to.  The observation of “deer in the headlights” seems more a projection of Yanez’s own fears than a clearly guilty look on Castile’s face – since Castile had no reason to think he was a suspect in anything.  In response to questions from reporters when Yanez was charged, District Attorney Choi stated specifically: Philando Castile was not – and never had been – a suspect in the convenience store robbery.

 

Yet for all the keen observations Yanez reported, he did not see the little girl in the backseat.  When the little girl undid her car seat restraint and climbed out of the car, Yanez can be heard on the dashcam video yelling at the child to freeze, to not move.  (I do wonder if he would have fired at her as well if he’d still had bullets in his clip.)  But instead, Yanez’s partner recovered his senses and is seen in the video picking up the little girl and carrying her to safety away from the street … away from the car where a man who was like a father to her is dying … from her mother who is being treated like a criminal suspect, not allowed to move in any way – not to assist her dying beloved nor even her own child.

 

Despite his later claim to have seen Castile drawing his gun, Yanez is heard in the recording saying he didn’t know where the gun was.  He never saw it.  He could not have seen it.  The physical evidence proved that was impossible.  But the only way Yanez could avoid the guilty verdict was to convince others that he feared for his life; the only thing that would justify his actions would be a real danger of being killed.  So, he convinced himself he saw the gun … and prepared to convince others as well.

 

He convinced most of the jurors, and so, he was found not guilty.  It took them more than five days and over 25 hours.  There was a hold out, but the judge would not permit the jury to fail to reach the verdict.  The one man who remained unconvinced that Yanez was not guilty had his reasons – which he never disclosed to other jurors or to anyone outside of the jury.  Apparently, he didn’t think there was any chance of moving the others to his side, so he gave up and gave in to finally be done.  The jurors had their reasons for their decision, and those reasons may well have been good and right and appropriate. However, in the end, they reached the wrong verdict on June 16, 2017.  Consider the similar case that followed – and note the key differences between the two.

 

Now we move on to the second case: the shooting of Justine Ruszczyk (Roos-check) Damond.  She used both last names interchangeably but had not yet married her fiancé, Don Damond.

One month after the verdict in the Yanez trial, on July 15th, Minneapolis resident and Australia native Justine Ruszczyk called 911 to report suspicious activity in the alley behind her house.  Two officers were dispatched to the scene.  A few moments after they arrived, one of them, Mohamed Noor, fatally shot Ruszczyk through the open window on his partner’s side of the car.  Apparently Ruszczyk had come to the alley to meet the officers … perhaps to guide them further … perhaps to provide more information … we will never know.

 

The incident was investigated, and the results were turned over to Hennepin County Mike Freeman on September 12th for determination regarding any possible charges.  Previously, Freeman had stated he would make charging decisions in cases such as this himself, rather than rely on a grand jury. However, Freeman found his investigation was hampered by lack of cooperation from the officers involved and ultimately resorted to a grand jury in February.   Then on March 20, 2018, Freeman announced charges of second-degree manslaughter (the same as for Yanez over a year before) and third-degree murder.

 

In the Yanez case, District Attorney Choi stated that the county could not bring murder charges because the prosecution would have to prove that Yanez intended to kill someone when he stopped Castile in his car.  When District Attorney Freeman added murder charges against Noor, many voices criticized it as prosecutorial overreach and suggested it might be something intended for plea bargaining.  Ultimately, Noor stood trial for both charges.

 

During the waiting for charges (which was about twice as long as in the Ramsey County case), and especially early during the investigation, many voices weighed in on what had happened.  As is the case after any event like this, there were plenty of public tributes and statements declaring how wonderful the deceased was … what the officers might have or should have or could have done differently … and so on.  However, there was one notable distinction.  Any discussion of possible culpability of the victim in her death was quickly silenced.  A few attempted to question why Ruszczyk went to the alley instead of staying in her home.  But those questions were silenced with accusations that those asking were blaming the victim.  Ruszczyk was never allowed to be presented or regarded as anything more than wonderful, beautiful, innocent, and fully deserving to continue living.

 

This was not the case with Castile.  Descriptions of Castile as “Mr. Rogers with dreadlocks” were challenged: what about gang affiliations? … what about the marijuana use? … he couldn’t really be a good person if any of that were true.  Even in the trial process, the base presumption of most jurors was that Castile must have done something to cause Yanez’s fear that necessitated the use of deadly force to preserve the officer from an apparent danger.  Unlike Philando Castile (and other black men), the white woman’s reputation remains unsullied – even after the recent trial.

 

The trial was convened a year and a few weeks after charges were filed.  Noor was represented by the same legal team that had successfully defended Yanez against similar charges in his 2017 trial.  The trial started on April 8th and, finally, on April 25th, Mohammed Noor made his first statements about what had happened on that July night almost two years before.  As Yanez had argued, Noor stated he feared for his life – and for his partner’s life.  That he and his partner had responded to the 911 call, driven through the alley in question with lights off and windows down to see if they could find any indications of suspicious activity was a matter of police call logs.  They had just called in to report the completion of their assignment and switched off their body cameras.  Just when they thought they were done, there was some sort of noise or glimpse of movement outside the squad car.  Noor described how his partner’s attempt to draw his gun alerted him to a threat outside the car.  For some reason, Noor’s partner did not completely draw his weapon, but Noor drew his … put an arm across his partner’s body to keep him out of the line of fire … and fired one shot through the open window, fatally striking Ruszczyk.  Noor stated he fired to protect his partner and himself from the apparent threat.

 

The jury was not convinced by Noor’s explanation.  Within six hours of deliberation, the jurors found Noor guilty on both counts.  Last month, he was sentenced to 12.5 years in prison.

 

The cases are similar: non-threatening civilian shot dead without warning by a police officer.  In both cases the officers began shooting before verifying whether a real threat to their lives (or even safety) were actually present.  Both officers involved are persons of color.  Yanez is Latino; Noor is an immigrant from Somalia.  There were questions about the backgrounds and training of both officers.  Noor had been subject to a couple of disciplinary situations and there were questions if he had been rushed onto the force without being fully assessed.  Yanez had taken a controversial “Bullet Proof Warrior” training program that encourages officers to be alert for potential threats at all times.

 

In some ways, it could be argued that Noor and his partner had even more reason to be suspicious and afraid than Yanez.  They had been called to a potential crime scene and had found nothing – did that mean nothing had happened, the caller had been mistaken?… or was there someone up to no good who was still roaming the area?  They were inside their car, easy targets, unlike Yanez, who was outside of a vehicle with far more freedom of movement to retreat or move out of the line of potential fire.  Unlike Noor and his partner, Yanez knew what he was responding to and what he was doing there: using a seemingly routine traffic stop to check a possible suspect in a recent crime.  Perhaps it was Yanez’s own deception in the traffic stop that had him most on edge in that situation.

 

But here’s the sticking point: If you think the jury got it right in the Noor case (and I think the jury did for the most part – although I do think the murder charge was excessive), then the jury got it wrong the Yanez trial.  The jury in the Noor trial could not look past the reality that a black immigrant killed a white woman.  If Noor had been white, would there have been that murder charge?  The jury in the Yanez trial was okay with a Latino man killing a black man.  True, in the Yanez case, both victim and killer were men of color (just as in the Noor case, both killer and victim were immigrants); however, when it comes to race, Latinos sometimes get a pass because “at least he’s not black.”  A black man never gets the benefit of doubt.  One wonders if charges would have been brought at all if Yanez had been white … or if he would have been found not guilty if the person he killed had been white.  If Yanez had shot a white man under the same circumstances, he’d likely be about three years into a sentence like Noor’s.

 

Race matters in these things – it matters even more than what actually happened.  Would it really be possible to find 12 people who could imagine that a police officer was so afraid for his life because a driver he stopped told the office “I have a concealed weapon that I am permitted to carry” that he fired nine shots into the driver less than a minute and a half into a traffic stop if the driver were white?  Can we imagine a white officer being charged with murder for shooting a person of color who spooked him in his squad car?  How often do stories like these happen – where a white person is shot by a police office under questionable circumstances?  Not very often … which is why there was a conviction in Noor’s case but not in cases like the Yanez trial.

 

Like Philando Castile’s mother said after the trial, when reforms to police procedures were being discussed, we want the police officer to go home safely to his family at the end of his shift – and we want the civilian to go home safely to his after being stopped.  Rather than searching for excuses, justifying the use of deadly force against subjects who happen to be people of color, these events need to be treated like “never events” in hospitals: What happened should not have happen and it must never happen again.  When these “never events” happen in the hospitals, the investigative team goes over everything … sorting through what happened … what went wrong … what could have (should have?) been done differently … what will be done going forward to prevent this from happening again?  Criminal charges and convictions are not necessarily the answer in police cases.  However, in order to learn from mistakes, it is necessary to first admit the mistake was made.

 

And racism is the first mistake … unacknowledged, unquestioned bias that sees a person of color and sees that person as bad, less than, no good.  It was easy for the jury to convict Officer Mohammed Noor in the death of a white woman.  It was apparently impossible for a jury to convict Officer Yanez in the death of a black man – and even more impossible to imagine any officer shooting a white driver in a similar situation.  Can you imagine police officers drawing guns to confront a white family whose four-year old picked up something she shouldn’t have in a store?  Of course not – that would be excessive, over-the-top, inexcusable.  But we excuse it when a black child is involved.  Why?  That answer is the problem.  It’s not on black people to fix it.  It’s on white people.  We have the problem; we have to fix it because we’re the only ones who can.

 

Something to think about the next time – because, until this changes, there will be a next time … and another … and another … and …

 

WHAT IF WE COULD STOP IT?

About a month ago, we marked the first anniversary of the mass shooting at Marjorie Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida.  In a little less than two months, it will be the anniversary of the shooting at Santa Fe High School near Houston, Texas.  Next month, it will be twenty years since fifteen students were killed at Columbine High School in Columbine, Colorado – the one that started it this tragic trend.  Last December marked six years since the mass shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Connecticut.  The children murdered there would be entering their teens … if they’d been allowed to live and grow.  The victims at Columbine would be in their mid-thirties, building their families … developing their careers … had they not been killed by their schoolmates.

The day after the anniversary of events in Parkland, a mass shooting at a workplace in Aurora, Illinois demonstrated these things don’t just happen in schools.  Mass shootings happen in workplaces, too.  Aurora is also the name of the city in Colorado where a mass shooting took place back in 2012 at a movie theater.  Entertainment venues became risky places, too, as the shooting at the outdoor concert 18 months ago amply demonstrated.

Even places of worship aren’t safe from this violence.  There was the shooting at the Sikh Temple at Oak Creek, Wisconsin in 2012 … Mother Emmanuel AME Church in Charleston, South Carolina in 2015 … First Baptist Church in Sutherland Springs, Texas in 2017 … Tree of Life Synagogue in Pittsburg, Pennsylvania less than six months ago.

Now our plague of gun violence has spread abroad with the shooting at two mosques in Christchurch, New Zealand.

When will it ever stop? Can it be stopped?

I’m tired of hearing it can’t be stopped; there’s nothing we can do.  Like many others, I really thought Sandy Hook would have been the turning point, the one that would finally push us, as a people, to do something about the scourge of gun violence that plagues our country.  I still remember that I was driving home from a quick shopping errand when I heard the news that December morning.  I almost came to a complete stop in my shock and horror at the account of little kids, not much past the toddler years … and their lives already ended … because someone had access to a weapon that was purposefully designed to kill lots of people in little time and the ammunition to do it.  Surely this tragedy (the most recent at that time) would finally move the tide of public opinion and determination to do something …that this time(!) something would be done.

I wasn’t alone.  I remember hearing the emotional struggle in President Obama’s voice when he had to address the nation, as presidents are called upon to do in such times.  Years later, I heard the stories of his visits with the families of the children and teachers who were killed … and how he kept a picture drawn by one the slain children in his personal office for the rest of his presidency.  He was determined that something be done, that there be no more of these events, that he never have to make another address to the nation in the aftermath of a school shooting.

Advocacy groups recognized the energy and worked hard to harness it, to rally people to press their elected officials for legislation that would make a difference … to allow the Centers for Disease Control to actually study incidents of gun violence so we might learn more about patterns and factors that lead to these events … so we can design effective solutions.  Clear distinctions were made between guns used for hunting and guns designed for killing people.  Limits on high capacity magazines were proposed.  Vice President Joe Biden clarified how this limit would not impact hunters at all: “If you can’t hit the deer in nine shots or less, you’re not a hunter – you’re a disgrace.”

So much energy, so much determination, so much grief and horror, so much momentum … and yet, as we all know by now, nothing changed.  After waiting a week or so, “out of respect”, the NRA’s Wayne LaPierre convened a press conference and announced a doubling down on gun promotion rather than any sort of cooperation with sensible policy proposals to enhance gun safety.  He argued that we should have more guns … make it easier for people to have their guns on them at all times … arm the teachers so they can really defend their students … “a good guy with a gun stops a bad guy with a gun” – that’s the surest way to keep everyone safe, he said. I remember screaming at him through my kitchen radio that morning, shortly before Christmas, as he ended his “respectful period of silence” to make a public statement.

It was a fallacy then … it still is.  (Not that this stops such madness from being offered as “the solution” yet again in the aftermath of these most recent tragedies.)  I’ve yet to see a school design where the principal’s office affords clear sight of the school entrance or even the office entrance.  The shooter is always going to draw first, guaranteeing the “good guy with the gun” is going to be a few seconds behind … and likely to be killed in the act of getting the gun ready to shoot the shooter.  After last year’s two school shootings, the push to arm teachers that was suggested in the aftermath of Sandy Hook has markedly increased.  But even if teachers were prepared and willing to use guns to defend their students (and most of them are not emotionally wired or mentally prepared to kill another human being), the teacher would have to get the classroom gun from its secured location.  And yes, a gun in the classroom must be secured.  A little over a year ago, a third grader somehow managed to get his fingers into the school resource officer’s holster and pull the trigger on the gun inside.  The gun fired – but, luckily in this case, no one was hurt.  These nonsensical proposals for arming teachers, or at least strategic staff members, defy all logic and any common sense.  Such nonsense will not work, and political energy spent refuting this stupidity would be put to better use in other directions.

Turning schools into fortresses is not an answer, either.  That, too, is offered as an alternative in a sort of “Well, if you can’t have guns in the hands of the good people inside the school, then we have to find more ways to keep the bad guy with a gun from getting inside.”  Let’s have more secure doors, less glass, more locks … perimeter fences and guards … metal detectors like at the airport … in other words, let’s make our schools more like prisons.  Do we really have to lock up our children to keep them safe because guns must be free from regulation and readily available to anyone who wants one?  Is that the actual, baseline choice we are facing?  And if it is, do we really want to choose guns over our beloved children?

That might not be the choice we would consciously, deliberatively make.  However, the complete lack of any action that would make these tragic mass murders less likely demonstrates loudly and clearly that we do, in fact and in deed, choose guns over children every single time we have the opportunity.  Now we are a year past the high school shooting in Parkland, almost a year past the one near Houston, twenty bloody years since Columbine.  Much as we, as a nation, did after every single one that preceded these, we swore this time – this time! – things would be different.  But what’s changed?  We could choose to do things differently – that is possible.  But time and time again, we do not.

This is who we are as Americans in the USA today. I am not at all okay with this.  Are you?

It can be different.  We can make different choices.  We can reshape our cultural world.  This can be done.  I’ve seen it happen…

When I was growing up, we had several ashtrays around the house.  Neither of my parents were smokers by the time I entered their lives.  My dad did randomly smoke a pipe in the evening for a while … and then he’d stop for months, years … and then take it up again … he did this a couple of times.  But mostly the ashtrays were there for a friend or two and a couple of my uncles.  These occasional guests smoked, and when they were in our home, the expectation was that their smoking would be accommodated.

It wasn’t just in others’ homes; it was everywhere.  Smokers lit up in offices and workplaces, in stores and restaurants.  If a smoker felt the need to smoke, then he or she would light up there and then.  Working as a cashier in fast food and retail in the mid-1980s, I had customers smoke while I was assisting them, blow smoke toward my face … hold their lit cigarettes over my head.  But I couldn’t say anything.  It was their right to smoke and good social etiquette expected me to say nothing.

But things started to change.  It was gradual at first.  Public spaces started to create smoking areas separate (to some extent) from non-smoking areas.  The tobacco companies launched a “good manners” campaign, advising their customers to ask, “Do you mind if I smoke?” before lighting up around others and, if the answer was “Yes, I do mind,” then the smoker should refrain.  Similar advertising encouraged non-smokers to speak up and ask smokers not to smoke in their presence.  Good manners flipped.  Smokers started stepping out of the non-smoker’s house when they needed to smoke.  Gradually smoking was banned in most indoor places.

The result is that my children have grown up in a different world.  They have never seen an ashtray in our house because no one who lives here needs one.  They probably can’t remember me or their dad telling the host “non-smoking” when asking for a table in a restaurant.  They’ve never seen anyone walking through a store with a cigarette or smoking in public places.  In their world, smokers go outside to smoke – that’s just how it is.  They can’t imagine the way things used to be … before I reached the age they are now.

We could make a change like that again – if we choose to.  It’s not like we don’t know what needs to be done…

First, it IS the guns.  The authors of our constitution lived in a time when the best rifle in the hands of an expert was capable of firing maybe two shots in a minute.  They could not imagine our modern weapons capable of firing 45 rounds in a single minute. There is no way to project what they might have thought of such a world as we now live in … how our realities might have re-shaped their thinking about the Second Amendment … if they had known.  But they did not know, and we cannot treat their words as though they were written for our times and our current culture.

Our peer nations do not have this problem.  There are things we can learn from them … mandatory training, testing, licensing, registration.  We do all this with cars; we could do this with guns – if we chose to do so.  Closing the loopholes that allow gun sales to bypass background checks is a start.  But we should strengthen the background check … put it on the same level as what we require for people who will work with children or other vulnerable populations.  Those aren’t done in an instant; it takes a week or two.  If we can make day-care providers do this, we can require the same of gun owners.

Yes, people can kill people with all kinds of things.  But semi-automatic firearms with high capacity magazines make it much too easy.  Let’s make it harder, not easier.  Restricting access to certain types of firearms and, especially, high capacity ammunition magazines makes a lot more sense than the current insanity that we’ve been tolerating for far too long.

I’m not so naïve as to believe stronger regulations and laws alone will fix everything.  This problem has multiple facets and requires solutions from several angles.  The stories we tell ourselves fuel the appetite for destruction and death.  We have to change the stories we tell about retribution, violence, and what’s right.

For starters, we need to fully face the realities of the present situation.  Sure, we can feel the sorrow and emotional pain when we see parents crying and screaming at the deaths of their children.  We can laud the courage of those who risked everything to save others, the first responders who helped the wounded to survive.  We can celebrate the resiliency of those recovering, the determination of the student-survivors as they not only returned to their violated schools but became national advocates for changes in gun policies.  These are pieces of the story – and important ones at that.

But there is an important piece missing in our tellings of the tragedies of these episodes: the carnage.  Yes, it would be gruesome to the point of nausea … yes, it will be horrifying to the point of nightmares, but we must see our reality.  We have to see the bodies, our young children, lying in pools of their own blood with the damage the bullets did as they ripped their paths through human flesh.  Images like this are what it took to get us out of Vietnam.  Images like these are what turned the tide of the Civil Rights struggle.  Nothing less than full reality is going to force us to get real about gun violence in our culture.

We have to see the reality because we’ve been fed too much of the fantasy.  It’s not just the first-person shooter video games.  It’s all the stories we tell about the necessity of violence.  Wrong-doers must be made to pay for what they’ve done – in pain and blood, and even death.  If the authorities invested with this responsibility can’t – or won’t – enforce the punishment, then the wronged one has the unassailable right to vengeance.  How often does this pattern play out in the stories we tell (and sell) … on screens big and small … how we shape the narratives in reporting current events … how we fashion the stories of our own lives.  Someone does you wrong?  Don’t just get mad; get even – or better.

We, who are people of Christian faith, have to rethink how we our most sacred story.  For too long now, theologians and preachers have taught a hyped-up version of Anselm’s satisfaction theory of the atonement to the people … and the people have concluded that this is the only true and correct understanding of what Jesus’ death and resurrection was all about.  The satisfaction theory is summed up in the slogan “Jesus paid a debt he didn’t owe because we owed a debt we couldn’t pay.”  In itself, that is an accurate summation of the satisfaction theory, very much rooted in Anselm’s experience in the feudalistic society of his time.  But this theory has been amped up, melded with the penal substitution theory, and made to be about satisfying God’s righteous anger at the horrors of human sin.  God’s anger is amplified to such proportions that it must be vented somehow … which leads to emphasis of the physical horror of the crucifixion to show how Jesus absorbed the violence of God’s wrath on human flesh.  The story is about God getting even and taking vengeance – just as we think we should do when wronged.  This is making God into our image.  It’s wrong and we have to stop it … we have to stop it for the sake of our children … we have to stop it to be faithful to the gospel.

It’s Lent … we’re headed toward Holy Week and the annual remembrance of Jesus’ death.  We can tell our most sacred story differently.  We can talk about the tragedy of sin … and that this is what sin does: it kills things … kills people … killed Jesus.  We can talk about the love that took it all in, to transform us, so that we might love in the same self-giving way, changing the world by love.  We can talk about the language of covenants … how God made a covenant with Abram by passing between the carcasses of slaughtered animals to vow “may this be done to me if I break my covenant with you” … and so Jesus, in his dying,  paid the price to break that covenant and break it open – not just a few people, but for all people.

If we want the culture to change its narrative, we have to change ours.  If we want the violence to stop, we have to stop telling stories that praise the violent retribution and start telling stories of reconciliation and mutuality. If we want a better world in which our children can live and thrive, we have to call it into being with both words and actions.  Good thoughts and prayers for safety will not do it.  We have to act out our thoughts; we have to live out our prayers.  That means we have to change our language, change our policies.  The lives of our children – and maybe our lives, too – depend on it.

#MeToo v. #NotAllMen & the Case of Judge Kavanaugh

Now that all the shouting is over, can we take a pause and take a collective breath?

Can we reflect on what just happened and talk about it?

I think Dr. Christine Blassey Ford told more of the truth than Judge Brent Kavanaugh.

I also hope none of us is the same person s/he was at age 17 … or 18 … or 20; we should be growing and maturing beyond the stage when immaturity tends to be at its zenith.

I also find that absolutes in rhetoric are getting all of us nowhere.  We need to drop the “all right” or “all wrong” mutually exclusive either/or arguments and consider elements of scale and context.

Dr. Ford’s description of what happened was completely credible in terms of what she remembered and what she did not.  Her professional knowledge of how trauma and memory work added further insight; however, the testimony itself illustrated the theoretical concepts well enough.  Of course she remembers the events much more clearly that Judge Kavanaugh does.  It was traumatic for her; she feared, not only for her safety, but for her life at times.  For him, it was quite likely just another alcohol-fueled party; it all fades into one big blur he’d (probably) like to forget as much as he can.

Of course Dr. Ford didn’t tell anyone.  How could she?  She’d only be bringing trouble on herself.  She’d lost all her “good girl” protection in this situation; she wouldn’t be able to claim attempted rape … or even rape, if that had happened.  Only good girls could be raped; if you weren’t a “good girl,” then you were probably asking for it in some way … to some degree … and maybe (if you were bad enough), you even deserved it.

That’s how the thinking went, at any rate, at that time.  Rape was committed by someone the woman did not know, who assaulted her in some random chance encounter in which she was doing nothing to indicate sexual interest or to put herself at any risk.  To be a victim, she had to have been a “good girl” before the rape happened.  A good girl did not wear anything that could be sexually suggestive.  As a teenager, a good girl did not attend parties where adult supervision was completely absent.  She did not drink alcohol if she were under age.  If she was of age, she would not have more than one alcoholic drink at the event.  She did not stay at parties or events where over-consumption of alcohol was happening or being encouraged to happen.  If she could not get herself out of a risky situation, she always had a quarter for a pay-phone so she could call for a ride.

As Dr. Ford described events at the party, it was clear she had failed every requirement for being a good girl in that situation.  She was wearing a swimsuit – which by its very nature is sexually suggestive, whether two-piece, one piece, or even a racer style for competitions.  A good girl does not wear sexually suggestive clothing.  She was at a party where there was no adult supervision and alcohol was being consumed.  A good girl would exit such a scene immediately.  Not only did she stay, she had a beer.  A good girl would not drink a beer at age 15 … at least not in a situation like that, where no family members and no adult supervision were present.

If she told anyone – her parents, the adults at the house, the police, anyone – what happened, she would have heard: “What did you think would happen?  Why did you stay?  It was a house, wasn’t it? Were the phones not working?  Why didn’t you call for a ride home immediately?  Why didn’t you get over to the country club and use the pay phone there, where it was safe?  Didn’t you have your quarter?  You’re so lucky that’s all that happened; you could have really been hurt.”

All of this may sound strange to modern ears – not just the bits about pay-phones and the quarters that were necessary to place a call from them.  All of us women of a certain age were routinely warned about parties like the one 15-year old Christine Blassey attended.  We were told “bad things” could happen at events like this.  If we somehow found ourselves in such a situation, we needed to get ourselves out of there as soon as possible.  If we needed a ride, call – have a quarter to use a pay phone, if that was the only safe or available option.  To remain in that situation was to invite “bad things” to happen.  “Bad things” were understood to refer to sexual activity that was, at a minimum, unintended and definitely unwanted.

Such things were known to happen in situations like that high school party Dr. Ford described.  If things like this happened (and we know they did – this was not some 80s-era urban legend), then it also means some people had to be doing them … not that anyone would admit to it – not then … and certainly not now.

The teenaged Brent Kavanaugh certainly fits the general description of the kinds of guys who might do the “bad things” that happened at parties “like that.”  Despite his claims otherwise, in the hodgepodge of drinking ages at that time, no state had 17 as the legal age.  He wasn’t of legal age to drink anywhere.  However, he was a school athlete … and then (just like now) underage consumption could have eligibility consequences as well as legal ones.  But, it has also long been and still is the case that, for certain considerations, like athletic ability, player’s position, how well the team had been doing … family social standing … household net worth (and the influence that comes with it) … for various reasons, exceptions could be made; behavior could be overlooked.  That Judge Kavanaugh chose to invoke his various privileges (class, gender, race) as a defense against Dr. Ford’s accusations is telling.

But rather than get all spun up over what might have happened … why it should (or should not) still matter 30 years later, let’s put things in context.  Young Christine Blassey had been told a set of stories, given a general narrative to shape her conduct – what it means to be a good girl.  Young Brent Kavanaugh had also been told a set of stories.  But the narrative he was told was somewhat different.  He was good-looking.  He was an athlete.  He and his family were fairly well off economically.  Therefore, because of all this, he was desirable to the young women around him.  And he just as he was entitled to their desire, he was also entitled to the fulfillment of his desires.  Oh, he might have to “help” a good girl get past her inhibitions, but that would be okay because she really wanted to be with him … to make him happy … to have him like her … to give him the sex he wanted.  It was okay to push a little if he needed to get what he wanted.  He deserved it.

In this current #MeToo moment, this probably sounds like something from the dark ages.  But such were the stories of those days.  On TV, the ultimate romantic couple of the soap opera world was General Hospital’s Laura and Luke.  Their relationship was regarded the height of romance; their wedding was a record-setting event in terms of viewership.  But their relationship started when he raped her in his nightclub.  Writers tried to soften it a bit with later flashbacks, but the undercurrent remained for those who saw that initial encounter.

Date rape was played for laughs, most notably as a sub-plot in the highly popular and successful coming-of-age movie Sixteen Candles.  Rather than protest what happed, the victim (the most popular girl in the school) assures the guy it was better than okay … and she likes him, even though he is a geeky/nerdy type … and if she hadn’t been set up like that, she would have never discovered this … so it’s all okay.

Like I said earlier, these were the stories we were told that shaped the narrative for how ordered our lives, made our choices, decided our actions, and understood the behavior of others.  At that time, as a society, we were still puzzling over the concept of marital rape.  (How could it be rape?  Wasn’t the marriage ceremony itself consent to sexual activity?)  Date rape was a very murky concept.  Could a man be blamed if a woman led him on to some degree, gave mixed signals? (And how would we know she hadn’t?)  These views and the stories shaped by them have since received well-deserved critiques and have been appropriately discarded or altered.

But that’s how it is now – it’s not how it was then.  And when Dr. Ford and Judge Kavanaugh were giving their testimony, they were talking about how things were then.  We need to remember that.

No doubt teenaged Brent Kavanaugh, like many of his similarly situated peers, was something of a jerk.  With understandable reluctance, he did acknowledge consuming quite a bit of beer in his youth.  Based on the notations from his yearbook and some other details that have come to light, he was likely a regular on the party scene and generally drank to excess.  Alcohol lowers inhibitions … which has caused a number of people of all ages to be far more sexually forward, and even aggressive, than they are while sober.  He’d hardly be unique in this regard.  And if we take as a given that, as Dr. Ford, recalled, he had been drinking heavily prior to their encounter at the part, then there’s a very good likelihood he would not fully remember the events of that day.  It also sounds like this was not a singular event.  There were other similar occasions in which the young Kavanaugh, while under the influence of alcohol, behaved in various ways that can be categorized as sexually inappropriate.  All of these things he’s been accused of probably did happen.

However, what does it matter now?  That is the key question and the answer is: not much.  What he probably did then doesn’t matter so much now because it is also clear from the record that he has not done anything like this since his college years.  With his various positions, Brent Kavanaugh has been subject to multiple FBI background investigations.  If he were still in the habit of behaving inappropriately, his career never would have advanced this far.  Someone would have said something somewhere along the line.

Why did he stop?  Well, most likely, because he grew up – just like most people do.  He is not the same person today as he was in high school and even into college.  It happens (most of the time, at least).  I would have preferred to have heard his story of how that happened … Did something make him decide to quit the party scene, cut back on the drinking?  Did he decide that just wasn’t the sort of person he wanted to be, the way he wanted to be seen by others?  Did he just outgrow it, as many of his peers did, without any clear prompt or impetus?  I, for one, would have preferred the story of how he left off being a party boy and became a mature responsible adult to the highly defensive assertion of privilege that he actually offered at the hearing.

But such honesty and transparency are not safe right now.  That’s the downside of our #MeToo moment.  Any and all transgression of sexual boundaries by any man is treated as the moral equivalent of rape.  That’s not only unhelpful; it’s inappropriate.  If we are going to have a genuine public conversation about sexuality and boundaries and responsibility, we can’t treat everything as all the same in every form.  We have to be able to say what is, what happened, and why so that we can find our way to a better, more respectful, less sexist future.

As #MeToo started trending on social media as women reported the various forms of sexual degradation, harassment, and assault they had experienced, men were feeling they all were being held guilty of the worst of these offenses … and some of them actually wanted to be allies with women in addressing these concerns … and so #NotAllMen developed.

Here’s my take: #NotAllMen is not accurate.  While it is true that not all men have committed the worst of the transgressions against women’s boundaries, by the time he’s 25 years old, every man has crossed some sexual boundary with some woman at some time.  The transgressions may be minor: looking a little too long in the wrong place … pressing his interest in her (or in sex with her) a little past the point at which it became clear she did not share his interest … deliberate physical contact passed off as accidental … catcalling and wolf-whistling at women passing by … briefly following a woman because he likes the way she looks.  Some are truly problematic … following a woman around a store or mall or public place (even if she doesn’t notice) … grabbing women who are out by themselves (“just because”) … other stalker behaviors … and pornography which treats women as objects for male sexual gratification rather than as human beings.  Some are clearly criminal: various levels of sexual assault, including rape.  All of these are problems.  All of these are transgressions of women’s boundaries and personhood. Just about every man has done at least one of these on at least one occasion.  But to treat them all as rapists isn’t helpful.  Only rape is rape.  Lesser violations certainly are not equivalent to rape, but they shouldn’t be overlooked or dismissed either.

#MeToo caught fire because all women have a story or experience of harassment to share.  Not all our stories are the same, but they all count … they just don’t all count in the same way.  Likewise, not all men are the same in their violations of women’s boundaries – and it is wrong to treat them all as though they were. If we demand that, for any man to have a role in public life, he must never have engaged in any transgressions of any woman’s sexual boundaries, then no men would be allowed.  Some may be okay with that (“Serves them right.”  “It’s about time.”  “Let them be out of power for a few centuries and see how they like it.” “Turnabout is fair play.” Etc.).  I’m not okay with that; I don’t think it’s helpful.

Melodramatic “pearl clutching” is equally useless. (“I’m so afraid for the men … my husband/my son … any woman could accuse him of something he didn’t do and completely destroy his career.”)  However, if we’re bound and determined to exile any man who’s ever done anything a woman finds offensive, then it isn’t safe for men to acknowledge what they’ve done.  Like I said, I would have preferred Brent Kavanaugh to acknowledge what he did (or even that although he did remember the specifics, concede it was quite possible he had done this) and then explain how he became a better, different person.  But it isn’t safe for him to do so.  One need only look to the multiple examples of men being drummed out of public life for acknowledging (or being unable to convincingly deny) any form of sexual transgressions against women.  The fate of Senator Al Franken might be the closest comparison.

Such absolutist positions are not helpful.  We have to be able to talk – and to hear each other.  To have the conversation, we need to make it safe for women to tell their stories – and we need it make it safe for men to take responsibility for their actions … and to change … and to grow and become better people.  Dr. Christine Blassey Ford and all women need to be able to tell their stories and have them heard and considered.  Brent Kavanaugh and all men need to be able to acknowledge what they have done, take responsibility for their actions, and demonstrate change.

This is the only way things are really going to get better… the only way we’re be able to put an end to these experiences for most people in our society … the only way it stops.  At the end of the day, isn’t that what we all really want?

SATURDAY 6-PACK: July 14, 2018

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

 

I’ve been on vacation … and then the usual catch-up when back at work.  Wow, has there been a lot happening!  There’s so much to pick from, but this is what I came up with

The Supreme Court pick … First, there was much speculation that turned out to be all wrong.  Then the prime-time, made for “reality” TV tastes (I’m sure …. which is why I avoided it) reveal.  After that, the real games begin.  Here are two pieces that caught my eye with some intriguing points for consideration of the latest nominee:

http://www.startribune.com/u-s-supreme-court-nomination-brett-kavanaugh-is-uncommonly-partisan-research-shows/487825491/

http://www.startribune.com/oh-come-on-no-one-s-a-strict-originalist/487912351/

 

Then there’s the trade war and what it might mean … Monday mornings on NPR, one of the regular hosts, David Greene this time, and Jonah Goldberg, Senior Editor at the National Review, discuss recent events, trends, and perspectives.  This time the major point is one of the very few areas where the current occupant has been consistent for decades: protectionist trade policies.  But this may not go the way he wants or expects it to …

https://www.npr.org/2018/07/09/627190257/there-are-worries-a-trade-war-could-cost-gop-its-majority-in-congress

 

Then it was on the the NATO summit.  First up, a tutorial about the history of NATO and a quick fact-check (necessary because the current occupant and verifiable facts are not well-acquatined):

https://www.npr.org/2018/07/14/629058526/a-short-history-of-nato

https://www.npr.org/2018/07/11/628137185/fact-check-trumps-claims-on-nato-spending

 

Just as the current occupant blustered and pouted his way through the G-7 summit a few weeks ago en route to his rendezvous with the leader of North Korea, his performance at he NATO summit was more of same.  This is an opinion piece, but the source has immense experience with NATO and a good working knowledge base.

https://www.npr.org/2018/07/13/628789350/opinion-the-problem-with-trumps-wrecking-ball-approach-to-nato

 

A local attorney wrote this piece for the Star Tribune a few weeks ago, when the most recent immigrant crisis was the focus of the news, those heart-wrenching accounts of children being ripped from their parents … and the galling attempts by the architects of those policies to justify them.  The specter of Hitler and his Nazis has been invoked so many times in the past decades it’s become a sort of boy-who-cried-wolf situation.  Would we consider things enough to recognize it if it were happening now, to us?  Is it, really?  I don’t know, but it’s something to think about …

http://www.startribune.com/good-germans-good-americans-where-are-we-headed/486320971/

 

Who are we now? Who … what do we aspire to be?  How much has been lost?  Can we rebuilt what has been torn apart?  I don’t know  … but Leonard Pitts offers much to chew on and ponder:

https://www.miamiherald.com/opinion/opn-columns-blogs/leonard-pitts-jr/article213879189.html

 

 

SANCTUARY … REFUGEES AND IMMIGRATION

One of the joys of parenthood is introducing your children (as they reach appropriate ages) to significant pieces of culture from before their time (significant, at least, in the eyes of the parents).  A few summers back, my husband and I seized on the window of opportunity (our children being still at home but young adults soon to be off on their own) to introduce them to something that roughly coincided with their births – the best Star Trek series ever: Deep Space Nine.  When the series concluded in 1999, they were both too young to have watched it.

There’s always a risk when you do this that the storylines and production values (not to mention special effects technology) will prove to have not stood up well over time.  In retrospect, there was little chance of that happening with this particular series.  Many of the stories, as science fiction does at its best, offer commentary on issues that remain contemporary … perhaps because, well, human nature being what it is.  As my husband and I watched them again (and our kids watched for the first time), I was struck by a number of episodes that seemed as contemporary now as they did then … which is probably what made those particular stories (and the series as a whole) so memorable.

One episode that stood out when we watched it with the kids a couple years ago – and seemed perhaps even more relevant when I caught part of it a few weeks ago as hubby was amusing himself with the nightly “All Trek” broadcast on you-might-know where – was titled “Sanctuary.”

This episode came around the mid-point of the second season of the series.  To understand the story in the episode requires a little knowledge of the series itself.  Deep Space Nine, as the name might suggest, was set aboard a space station that the Federation of Planets (the heroes of the Star Trek stories) was now staffing after the occupation of the nearby planet, Bajor, by the Cardassian Empire.  The station is also close to a stable wormhole, a short-cut conduit between quadrants of the galaxy.   In this particular episode, a badly damaged space craft has come through the wormhole from another quadrant and is allowed to dock at the station.  The first people to emerge from the ship are strangers to everyone on the station.  Eventually we learn these people are called the Skrreeas, but initially even the fabulous universal translator cannot recognize their speech patterns and language.  But even without language, the female, who seems to be the leader of these new arrivals, and Major Kira Nerys, a Bajoran officer who is the second in command of the station, form a connection.  Eventually, the universal translator puzzles out the new language and communication is possible … and the story of the new arrivals comes into view.

They are refugees from a planet in the Gamma Quadrant.  First, their world was dominated by an occupying force, much as the Cardassians did to Bajor.  But then something even worse happened as another imperial force, referred to as the Dominion (which will eventually become quite significant in the storyline of the entire series) came and devastated the planet, rendering it uninhabitable for the Skrreeans.  The leader, Haneek, who was first to come aboard the station is seeking a new home for her entire people, some three million of them.

What Haneek does not so readily disclose to her hosts is that she has been following a prophecy once given to her people.  She has led them through “the Eye of the Universe” (the wormhole) in order to find Kentanna, “the planet of sorrows,” which is to be their new home. Gradually, she comes to recognize that the nearby planet Bajor is the Kentanna of the prophecy.  At about that point, the Station Commander, Benjamin Sisko, informs her that the Federation has identified a suitable new home world for the people.  She tells him that she has already found the new home world for her people: “Your planet,” she tells Kira; her people will settle on Bajor.

This request, or expectation, touches off an understandable debate among the leaders of Bajor.  Their population is already facing a famine because of the struggling recovery from the devastation of the Cardassian occupation.  The leaders don’t see how they could possibly support an influx of millions more people – and refugees at that, newcomers who are bringing very little with them, who have few resources of their own they can use.

Haneek counters that she has identified a currently uninhabited expanse of land on the planet.  She and her people can settle there; no one would be displaced.  But, the Bajoran leaders tell her, that area is uninhabited because it is uninhabitable; it suffered extreme devastation during the occupation by the Cardassians.  However, Haneek has her own counter revelation: she and her people are farmers.  All they need is land and they can support themselves.  This does not sway the Bajoran leaders; the land is devastated – nothing can be grown there.

In the end, the Bajoran leaders refuse to let the Skrreeans refugees settle on their world … and Haneek reluctantly accepts relocation to the planet the Federation is recommending.  It is only hinted and implied, but not clearly confirmed, (the writers were far too clever to be heavy-handed on this point) that these refugees are an answer to Bajor’s needs; in a rather literal sense, each could answer the other’s prayers.  The Skrreeans need a new home.  Bajor needs food.  It might be that these refugees know farming techniques that could restore the now-barren land to production and grow enough food to feed themselves and to ease Bajor’s famine. But the leaders of Bajor were too fearful to take that chance.

It’s more than just the “We are farmers” countermove by Haneek that hints at this.  Like the Skrreeans and their trust in a prophecy, the Bajorans are also a spiritually-minded people.  The wormhole that the refugees call “the Eye of the Universe” is referred to as “the Celestial Temple” by the Bajorans, who know that it is actually inhabited and sustained by extra-dimensional beings whom the Bajorans reverence as  “the Prophets.”  It does not seem to occur to the Bajoran leaders that perhaps their revered prophets have drawn these refugees to and through the wormhole to be of assistance to the Bajorans in their needs.  Perhaps that’s because, for some reason, the leaders did not include the Kai, their spiritual leader, in these discussions. (However, one of the Vedeks, a lower level of religious leader like a priest, is involved in the discussions with the Skrreeans.)  What the Bajorans stubbornly insisted on seeing as a burden that they absolutely did not need might actually have been a gift in the guise of a beggar’s request.  But they rejected the gift and will likely suffer more in the long-run for it as the famine persists.

How are immigrants viewed among our people in our country, one of many on this particular planet?  Unlike the fictional Skrreeans from a hypothetical Gamma Quadrant, elsewhere in the universe … inaccessible except through some special portal, the immigrants we are facing come from other countries on this planet, the same planet we are on.  There is a history between peoples; there have been interactions before and there will be interactions in the future.  Past actions by our nation have impacts on others on this planet.  Although we may speak different languages, the various languages are not unknown or unknowable.  Translation is readily available.  If we choose to do so, we can readily understand.

So, what do we understand in this?  Who are the immigrants coming here?  Why do they come?  What do they seek?

There seems to be little conflict over immigrants from other first world nations, reasonably prosperous countries who apply for an obtain one of the openings extended to residents of these types of nations, who come on the H1B Visas by which employers can support someone from another country to come.  These people are clearly capable, self-supporting, motivated, law-abiding and share in our common values.  We tend to see them as much like us; they will fit right In with the rest of us and be fine additions to the American population.

Most of the public concern is directed toward those who come from poorer countries, who seem to lack resources (wealth, education, potential to contribute value to our society).  Because of the generally lower level of education than is common in wealthier countries, these immigrants tend not to be able to speak English.  (In wealthier, more educated countries, English is one of the foreign languages commonly learned by school students.)  Often, their skin tends toward darker hues than is common for most Europeans or what is considered normal among a declining majority of Americans.  Immigrants and refugees (and there is a difference) often come with little more than the clothes they are a wearing and whatever they can carry with them.

Are they gifts – or are they burdens … coming with too many needs, too few resources, too many limitations and potential liabilities … a drain on our society in multiple ways?   Why are they coming anyway?  More importantly, what was the role of our nation in creating the very circumstances they are so desperate to escape?

First, there is the specific case of refugees.  All refugees are immigrants, but not all immigrants can be considered refugees.  Asylum-seekers are not refugees.  A displaced people group is qualified for consideration as refugees but the UN High Commissioner for Refugees.  Their plight is clear.  They have been displaced from their homeland, generally by some act of violence such as a war; they cannot return to the place they left and expect to survive.  Once that determination is made, preparations begin to relocate the refugee populations.  Representatives from the commissioner’s office work with families on their applications.  Applicants are interviewed individually; if the individually stories of the family unit do not match, all the family members will have their applications rejected.  There are basic health screenings and wellness checks.  The whole process takes well over a year.  Once approved, the refugees are sorted into groups and assigned to the receiving country.  They will spend a few months in preparation for their new locations, but they often do not know exactly where they will be relocated to until a couple of days before their flights.

When the US receives refugees, they are eligible for public benefits immediately.  (No other immigrants are eligible for these.)  However, they can only have those benefits such as food stamps and cash assistance for a limited period of time.  Once that time passes, the refugees are expected to be self-supporting.  Volunteers from refugee sponsorship groups often assist the new arrivals in managing the transition, settling into their new homes, finding work, etc.

Given our participation in recent conflicts in the Middle East, do we not have some responsibility for the refugees these conflicts have created?  This may be especially true in Syria.  There is no doubt the current ruler, Bashar Assad, has committed numerous atrocities against some of his own people.  The country would be better served if he were removed.  However, there are no clear replacements who would be reliable in doing good, not harm.  Furthermore, to take on Assad directly is to invite open military conflict with Russia, something no one wants (and with good reason).  Therefore, since we cannot resolve the conflict, do we have some role – responsibility, even – in doing what is possible to mitigate the very real suffering?

Asylum seekers come as individuals, rather than groups.  They are facing direct risk of violence or persecution in their homelands that is directed at them personally.  The threats may be due to a person’s political activities or affiliation, identity, life situation … any number of things.  By both international and US law, anyone may present her or himself at the border and request asylum.  This is a legal form of migration.

Many of the immigrants currently in the national spotlight on our southern border are seeking asylum.  They are fleeing violence in their homelands … sometimes from husbands, but mostly from gangs – gangs that may be menacing the whole family or just the sons.  The threats are real.  The governments are ineffective.  People would never risk the arduous journey from their homes in Central America through Mexico (where the risk is slightly reduced and the government is slightly more effective) if the homeland weren’t still more dangerous.  Parents would never send their children unaccompanied on “the beast” (the roof of a train many immigrants ride through Mexico to the US border) unless that was safer than keeping them at home.

We know why they come, but what responsibility do we have to receive them?  More, perhaps, than we want to acknowledge.  The hyper-violent gang, MS-13, has received much mention these days – usually in the context that it’s coming here from there courtesy of illegal immigrants.  That’s not actually the case.  The gang was born here among El Salvadoran immigrants in the 1980s who were into drugs (marijuana, mostly) and death metal music.  As part of the War on Drugs, they were sent to prison where they learned US gang culture, especially violence … which interacted with the satanic lyrics of death metal music in horrifying ways.  When these immigrants were released from prison and subsequently deported, they took what they learned here home with them.  Our culture played a significant role in creating the gang; do we owe it to the victims to help mitigate that damage?

While the argument that the governments in those countries should be protecting their citizens, acting to stop the gangs and end the violence is valid, the reality is the governments are corrupt and ineffective.  That, too, is a result of US policies.  Fearing the “domino effect,” that communism might spread in Central America and migrate north to our border, the US took sides with military aid, CIA operations, and the School of the Americas all supported countermeasures to be directed against communist insurgents.  “Communist” became a flexible term directed at anyone challenging the status quo.  A number of dictators and leaders were trained by or supported through these programs.  Having crippled governance by the will of the people and supported corrupt leaders, do we not have some responsibility for the current suffering of the immigrants requesting asylum here from the mess we cultivated there?

And then there are the “dreamers,” children who were brought across the border by their parents, most when they were quite young.  These children have grown up in this country, attended school alongside US-born children, participated in US culture for much of their lives.  Often, it’s only when they are seeking to do normal things for US teens – get a driver’s license, go to college, etc. – that they learn they lack the necessary documents, that they were actually not US citizens as they had thought themselves to be.  Their plight is not unlike that of Tom Hanks’ character in the movie The Terminal … no way forward and no way back.  They don’t have legal status in the US – and they likely lack similar documentation for re-entry to their countries of origin, countries that would be as unfamiliar to them as to any of their US-born peers.

They are here.  They identify as American.  Their peers who grew up here with them see them as belonging to their communities.  But for the accident of their births in another country, they are otherwise Americans.  What is the right thing to do?  Leave them in perpetual limbo?  Deport them to a country they do not know, that has not been home for significant parts of their lives (assuming the other country can be persuaded to take them back without documentation)?  Or do we acknowledge what is at present, let go of how they came to be here, and give the Dreamers a way to move forward as Americans?  There are no perfect answers to this particular dilemma.  However, which option is most true to how we imagine our nation to be?

Some years ago, I came across a suggestion to pray for our country over the weeks between Flag Day (June 14th) and Independence Day (July 4th).  During this time, I regularly use prayers that were written in late 1960s and published in 1970.  Among the petitions are these words:

We pray You would make this nation a haven for refugees, for the persecuted and the displaced.  We pray You would urge [people] in our nation to pursue always the search for human freedoms.  We pray You to stimulate the leaders of this nation to regulate our government that it will offer the hope of freedom for all who swear allegiance to it.  We pray you to forgive our sins of pride, bigotry, lawlessness, indifference, and license. … Forgive us our waste of natural and human resources, for the neglect of our own rights and the rights of others.

Is this who we are called to be?  Is this who we, as Americans, still desire to be?  Or has the time has come to send the Statue of Liberty back to France and donate the plaque from its base, with the words of Emma Lazarus’s poem, to Chancellor Angela Merkel in Germany?  Just who are we going to be?

And here is one more layer, where the connection to the Deep Space Nine episode is particularly pertinent: we need more people.  Throughout its entire existence and into the foreseeable future, the Baby Boom has been the rat in the demographic snake.  Things expand to accommodate them at each phase … and the contract in the wake.  (I’m a Baby Buster, a member of Gen X – I’ve seen it firsthand by being part of a demographic disappointment my entire life.)  The retirement wave of boomers is reaching its peak.  Forecasts for Medicare as well as for Social Security are dire, in large part because the number of working adults per retiree is about to drop precariously.  We need more working adults – and we need them soon (like yesteryear, if it were possible)!

We can’t go back in time and have more children in the Gen X and subsequent generations.  We can’t magically conjure up workers right now.  However, if we welcomed the immigrants (however they find their ways to us) and gave them paths to citizenship and helped them hone their skills to become productive workers and full participants in our economy, then we might cooperate to address each other’s needs.  It would at least be better than whatever it is we’re doing right now.

SATURDAY 6-PACK: June 23, 2018

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

 

Wow!  That was some week.  Before taking on THE issue of the week that was, there are some other things that may have been lost in the roar that really shouldn’t be overlooked.

 

First: the Inspector General’s review of the FBI’s handling of the investigation into Hillary Clinton’s emails from her tenure as Secretary of State.  The verdict seems to have been far less than what the Republicans who initiated it were hoping for.  As The Hill summarizes things:

Regardless, that brings us to the accusers. They face more consequences, in terms of hurt credibility. Republicans were crying foul that the FBI was helping Clinton, but Comey’s actions appear to have favored Trump. That’s what the IG report suggests. But Republicans are still whining. They want retribution for the FBI ultimately helping Trump. Huh?!

Read the whole piece here:

http://thehill.com/opinion/white-house/392714-after-inspector-general-report-republicans-must-reform-themselves

 

Second: the escalating trade war.  Here’s a two-fer, one from The Hill (again and the title says it all) and the other from Marketplace, about trade policies (or lack thereof) and real impacts to Americans:

http://thehill.com/opinion/finance/392654-trump-trade-policy-ungrounded-in-economics-oblivious-to-history

https://www.marketplace.org/2018/06/22/economy/your-new-tariff-questions-answered

 

Third: Neal Conan (former host of Talk of the Nation) now has a series of broadcasts titled Truth, Politics, and Power.  This episode looks at the purpose and art of presidential speech-making with two experienced practitioners of the craft (one from Reagan’s tenure and the other from Clinton’s) along with a look at Obama’s use of the “bully pulpit.”  (Bonus — there’s an explanation of how TR meant that in a good way.)  The last segment contrasts the methods of the former occupants with the habits of the current occupant of the Oval Office.  Note what is said of the role of “conservative media” in recent developments and then consider the illustration in the second piece of how the failure of the echo chamber to buttress the current occupant’s rhetoric factored in the developments of the past week:

https://www.mprnews.org/story/2018/06/20/the_presidents_bully_pulpit

https://www.npr.org/2018/06/21/622137992/conservative-media-failed-to-redefine-debate-on-trump-s-immigration-policy

 

Fourth: The children of immigration.  First, Scott Simon on why the cries of children should — and do! — move us.  Then Leonard Pitts takes us beyond this moment to the larger picture of how much damage the current policies are doing throughout our country.  Read and weep …

https://www.npr.org/2018/06/23/622712944/childrens-cries-brought-down-walls-of-indifference

http://www.miamiherald.com/opinion/opn-columns-blogs/leonard-pitts-jr/article213480684.html

 

Fifth: The “system” (if it can truly be called that) is broken.  To figure out real solutions, we have to understand what the actual problems are.  Here’s a good start:

https://www.npr.org/2018/06/23/622795409/a-former-immigration-judge-on-the-current-situation

 

Sixth: Something to think about on the whole subject of immigration … and a call to most of us for a lot more humility:

http://www.startribune.com/living-in-minnesota-our-land-their-land-our-history-their-history/486324061/