Thursday, September 29, 2016

My Police Story (Part II)

I posted a few formative stories about my interactions with the police last week. I realized, though, in discussing the problems that exist in the country today, one encounter that I almost forgot about might be more important to share than any other. It was a completely non-formative encounter with the police, but likely because I'm white.

It was a Friday night after a high school basketball game. A few of the juniors had pranked our cars during the game - simple stuff: hair gel on the door handles, saran wrap, etc. But, being 17, we decided to respond. At about midnight, four of us were driving down Academy Boulevard in Colorado Springs - at the time, the main drag in town. The police pulled us over for having a tail light out. Four white guys in a junky, two-door sedan. I was in the back, with a friend, and 50 rolls of toilet paper, a case of shaving cream, a few packages of sardines, an an industrial size box of plastic utensils, among other things - courtesy of my employee discount at the 24 hour walgreens.

The police were polite, asked for license and registration, shone their lights in the back seat, where we hopelessly tried to find the haul we were literally buried in. He put up with out lies that we were heading home and up to nothing; there's no way he couldn't have known what was going on. We got a warning about the tail light and a "be safe out there, guys," and we moved on.

I hardly think about that story at all. It was innocuous. It made no impression on me, because I was a white kid in a white town and the police were not people to be scared of. Yeah, we thought they might take our toilet paper and tell us to go home, but I was never scared of even having my parents called, let alone being arrested or threatened or afraid.

I haven't thought about that incident in years until talking with someone about their police story, about how a black teenager in that situation might be better off running away than trying to talk their way out of it. The courts have said, at least in Boston, it might even be a good idea.

It wasn't formative for me, but this police story might be the most telling of my experiences when it comes to how policing and race intersect. White kids are brought up to seek out police - if you get lost or hurt or find yourself in trouble, we're told the police are our friends and they'll help us get through a rough deal. Black kids are often taught the opposite - if you get lost or find yourself in trouble, keep a low profile, avoid the police, find another way to get home; police will just make it worse.

Now I'm not going to say either of those lessons are always true, but they're certainly, sadly, more true than false - at least from my perspective. More reason, I think, to keep telling our stories. Things won't get better until we can be vulnerable and honest, listening to each other and living in the uncomfortable reality of someone else's story.

Tuesday, September 27, 2016

The President's Job

With all the Presidential debate stuff going on, what would otherwise be a pretty big story is taking the back burner. There's been a bill kicked around for a decade or more that would allow US citizens to sue the government of Saudi Arabia for damages as a result of 9/11. This has come up now because of the recently un-redacted portion of the 9/11 report that speaks to potential Saudi involvement. Ultimately, the pages are pretty tame - it says the commission looked into links and while there may be some financial connections to individual Saudis, there isn't any direct evidence and no real connection to the Saudi state itself.

Now, lots of people doubt the veracity, or perhaps, the specificity of these details. The very fact that the government took a decade to declassify these pages invites suspicion. It's a messy situation.

What media coverage that exists of this issue is trying to play it off as a good and evil scenario - Congress fighting for the families of 9/11 victims and the President protecting diplomatic cronies with their hand on the oil spigot. That comes off pretty thin, mostly because it's an obviously complicated narrative. For example: a Bush presidency might be more open to Saudi special treatment - no one has yet figured out why Obama would want to help them.

But what this is, and why it's so boring to the media and the general public, is because it's representative of the government working properly. Congress is specifically charged with speaking for the people, in 485 individual blocks. They are supposed to take up the cause of victimized families and support individual issues. That's what Congress is for.
At the same time, the President is responsible for the country as a whole. He has to speak with one voice for the whole, which is a difficult spot to be in with the country so confused about who it wants to be. Foreign policy is one place in which we are just one place - you have to make decisions. The President's job is specifically to represent the best interests of the nation as an entity. As much as we like to say the nation is the people, there is a difference. The State exists as a thing - it represents the people, it is the outer layer of our democratic structure, but it's not the same. There's a reason we have separation of powers, because they represent different things.

So, what's happened is precisely what should happen when everyone is doing their job. Congress worked together to pass a pretty universal bill meant to allow 9/11 families to explore Saudi culpability in court. Yes, it is a tricky foreign policy issue and allowing US citizens to sue foreign governments in US courts could set a lot of difficult precedents, with unknown consequences to our economy and politics. Which is precisely why the President vetoed the bill. It's great for Americans, but not great for America. Both parties did their job.

Now it looks like Congress will override the veto and make the bill law against the President's objection. Again, they're doing their job. Potentially, now, the Courts will weigh in - a third branch of government not specifically representing the nation or the people, but some timeless combination of the two, meant to stand outside of context.

This whole episode is interesting in the season of a Presidential election, where what it takes to be elected is entirely different from what it takes to govern. This is beyond simply the ability to sell yourself in one case and to be reasoned and considered in the next. What it takes to be elected President is to convince the population that you're going to represent them well, but the role of the President isn't to represent the people; it's to represent the country. Presidents run like the nation's congressman, but have to govern like a President.

You see Hillary Clinton struggling with this because she's spent so much time governing. She knows that what a President has to say isn't going to get her elected - she has to act Presidential without actually being Presidential. In this sense, her experience is what's killing her. Trump, on the other hand, has no clue about what it means to govern - he only knows how to sell himself and is going all in on representing the people (of course it can be debated exactly what kind of people he's representing).

We've got one candidate who has no idea what it means to be President and one candidate who has too good an idea of what it means to be President - and neither of them are attractive to the average US voter.

There is, without doubt, a lot of dysfunction in the system, but it has very little to do with the system itself, but the ways in which our culture at large expects people to act towards their own self-interest. Our politicians live into those expectations the same way our voters do. I'm not sure that will change, but I'd hope we can begin to take a step back and figure out how each part contributes uniquely to the whole and make our decisions accordingly.

Thursday, September 22, 2016

My Police Story

I'm really broken up about this seemingly impossible situation we've got brewing. There's no controversy over the problem - statistic bear out that black people in the US, especially black males, are far more likely to be shot by police, arrested, and convicted of crimes than white fellow citizens. There is a numerical discrimination. That is indisputable.

Of course, there is dispute about how intentional this might be and, sadly, even whether or not things need to change. I find myself uncomfortably on the outside of that conversation. I want to be involved, but I am not black and I am not, in any real way, connected to police officers. In fact, I believe strongly there's no justification for shooting anyone ever - even for cops and soldiers. As much as I'm willing to talk about that view and why I hold it, I don't feel like I really have any place in the discussion of people who's actual lives are on the line and are attempting to delve the murky depths of violence's grey areas.

At the same time, I am a citizen of the United States. I live and love my community - which is no more immune from these problems than any other. I believe each of us needs to be a part of the dialogue, moving forward with grace and trust for one another as week seek to make changes that will matter. I talked about my specific position on this issue in a number of previous posts, including this one - if you want more depth there.

At this point, I feel like maybe it's just important for everyone to hear where everyone else is coming from. So I'm going to take this space to share a few life moments that shaped my understanding of this situation. I am not making any claims or arguments based on these experiences, but telling them as stories. I'm not looking to have some "expert" debunk them for me or invalidate them as real or meaningful. I would be open to questions and dialogue about your experiences and why you see things differently - that's a productive conversation that can help get us closer to where we need to be.

There are three major interactions with police in my life that resonate as formative. In elementary or middle school, we had a police officer come address the class about his job. (This wasn't the DARE program, although I did participate in that as well.) I know he talked a lot about the great variety of things he does, but what stands out is how he took special care to speak to us about his gun - specifically he gave what seems like a lot of detail about how he uses it and ways we can stay safe around police officers. The man outlined the requirements he has to fulfill in order to shoot someone.

Let me set a little background - this is rural Vermont, and it's 25 years ago. The Vermont of my childhood was a largely responsible gun culture - almost everyone had guns and there was no real talk of fear or self-protection that comes along with the gun culture I'm exposed to now. It really was a different time - I'd say "for better or worse," but it was definitely better, at least in that aspect.

He talked specifically about means, motive, and opportunity - I don't think he used those words, but that's what he was explaining. Someone had to have a gun - I remember him specifically saying it couldn't be a knife (unless he was close enough to throw it) - there had to be a weapon with a reasonable chance of harming the officer. There also had to be some reason the officer might suspect the guy would try to harm someone. Then he said something that seemed shocking (and still does), but this is my most clear memory of the event. The office said, "Even if the guy has a gun and wants to shoot me, I can't shoot him unless he points the gun at me."

Now, I'm sure he was trying to simplify the rules of engagement for kids. I'm sure there are more complexities that weren't discussed. It's also very apparent to me now how easy it would be for a lone office to testify to those things with not witnesses; we're much more ready to hear and believe "he had a weapon; I was in danger" especially from an officer. I recognize it's not simple - but that guy believed it. I think that's what stuck with me and allowed me to have such respect for the police for much of my life - the one officer I had close contact with really seemed to believe that these rules were important and was willing to put his own safety, maybe even life, on the line to follow them.

Maybe this guy was wrong. Maybe this isn't true everywhere. Maybe this guy is abnormally committed to the job, to virtue. Regardless, this experience has shaped how I see shootings and police action now. It feels like the cops involved are far less concerned with the life of another than with their own - that cuts against the image of the police I was given at an early age.

The other difficulty comes from the other two formative experiences. I've shared both on the blog at some points, so I'll try to be brief. They're similar. The first happened in Indianapolis during the Church of the Nazarene's 2005 General Assembly - it's a meeting of Nazarenes from around the world that happens every four years. I was working for the denomination's headquarters at the time and thus the event. I was pulling like 18 hour days in the convention center and organizing various events, etc.

After midnight one evening I was tired and hungry and not willing to wait for the line at Steak and Shake, basically the only place in downtown Indy to eat that late. I walked a mile or so towards, let's say a "less touristy" part of town, to White Castle, where I got some food to go. It was late, so I got way more food than I needed, because that's what 24 year-olds do after midnight. On the way back to the hotel, what I presume to be a homeless man fell into step with me. We had a conversation about the convention, my life, his life. At no point did he ever once ask me for something - it felt implied, but only because of the situation, not because of anything he said. It was a genuinely enjoyable conversation, during which we shared some food (I offered).

When we arrived at the hotel parking lot, we were saying goodbye when a police car came flying up, screeching to a halt half in the road and half in the parking lot. The lights were flashing and an officer jumped out, screaming at the man.* He was telling him not to panhandle and screaming about him staying away from the hotels. Real screaming - top of your lungs, profanity-laced rage. The guy was angry.

Because I'm a white male, with the (lack of) experience with police I had, I stepped in between the man and the officer and explained - I know I had to eventually yell, so the cop would calm down and listen - that this man and I had been talking for a while, he wasn't bothering me and had done nothing wrong. Then the police officer began screaming at me, "How can you give these guys money - they're just going to waste it," "this just encourages them," etc. I hadn't actually given the guy anything, but a slider or two at this point, but because of that exchange, I pulled a ten dollar bill from my wallet and exaggeratedly handed it to the homeless man, telling him to get some food at the Steak and Shake, staring at the police officer the whole time.

Eventually the party broke up and I waited on the sidewalk to make sure the cop left and the guy got into the restaurant two blocks down. I know I wouldn't take the same tact anymore, but I was 24, with a lot of righteous indignation, and, surprisingly, defending the defenseless seemed to come pretty natural to me. I don't remember thinking through any of those actions, but I sure thought a lot about them afterwards. That encounter definitively shaped how I see police officers.

As did my third story. About five years later, in Kansas City. I was volunteering every day at the Kansas City Urban Youth Center, working with kids in their after school program. We had a little building we used - next to it was a small side street, followed by an empty lot, and then an old church, which we also sometimes used. One afternoon - like 3:00 or 3:30, in broad daylight - I was walking with a group of guys, maybe 5 or 6 of them, middle schoolers - 5th through 8th grade. We were walking the 200 yards from the center to the church. We'd made it to the side street. Literally twenty feet from the building, when a police car pulled over on the side of the road.

I don't know if the office didn't see me or didn't care, but he saw five or six black teenagers walking together and he got out. The kids were immediately apprehensive, looking around, nervous. I was still pretty oblivious, you know, since we were an after school program, helping these kids get an education, learn life skills, be productive members of society - all that jazz - plus we were walking, in broad daylight, 200 yards down a sidewalk.

My Indy experience kicked in, though, pretty quick, so only a few words came out of the officer's mouth before I stepped up and into the middle. They were suspicious, disrespectful words, demeaning to these kids that I loved and cared about - exemplifying the very types of things we were hoping to convince them weren't actually the way most of the world worked. We moved away shortly after this incident, so I don't know exactly the lasting effects of that encounter on those boys, but I know one negative interaction like that can undo a whole host of positive ones.

This is just my life. These are experiences I lived. They shaped me. This is why I tend to hold police officers to a high standard and also why I don't ever expect them to meet that standard. Every cop who's ever pulled me over has been nice and polite; I've been the same to them. Every cop I know in personal life and interact with off the job is generally kind and considerate. Some of them have been quite jaded by the work they do and could probably use more support, but none of them are bad people.

At the same time, I'm nervous whenever I see a police officer; it puts me on edge. I think largely because, in our culture, police can often do just about anything that want and we're hesitant to hold them accountable. Of course, I also know they're asked to do a near impossible job with limited resources and without the kind of support necessary to remain healthy in the midst of it.

I don't know exactly what to do about it, but I do think sitting down and hearing one another's stories is vitally important. Again, not questioning them or disputing them or making excuses (either for cops or the people they interact with), but just listening and seeking to understand the mind, life, and experience of another person - and taking action where we can.

That's how we get through this. I don't think there's any other way.

*I later found out that earlier in the day, the Indy police had pulled up a paddy-wagon outside the convention center, rounded up the homeless from the city center and dumped them several miles out of town so us convention goers wouldn't see them - I guess this cop was made this guy had wandered back or missed the sweep. There's a whole lot wrong with that scenario, on many levels, but regardless, it doesn't excuse the policeman's behavior.

Tuesday, September 20, 2016

Respectability and Privilege

I saw a guy in church who looked like he didn't belong in his suit. I've been dwelling on it for weeks now. Over and over in my head, I've been thinking and analyzing and trying to figure out why I had a visceral, negative reaction to some guy showing up to church in a suit. I really don't know anything about the guy - I don't even know who he is - he just struck me as someone who can wear a suit when he needs to, but probably is not a suit guy.

My thought, in the moment, was to mourn a society in which someone feels the need to dress a certain way or make an appearance in a worship service to be considered generally respectable. There was also some measure of malice - not personal animosity, but definite judgement - about why someone would play that game, a game I've consciously chosen not just to play, but to spurn.

I'm not talking here about unrespectable people; people who earn an active disrespect. I'm more thinking about the difference between those we deem respectable and those who aren't. There's an obvious definition here: respectable people live up to the general expectations of society, people who check the right boxes: wear a suit to church on Easter, bring cupcakes for the Kindergarten party, keep your lawn mowed and green. Respectability is a function of how well we meet social expectations. The whole culture of "punk" exists specifically to flout those conventions, not necessarily because punks like being dirty or dress outrageously, but because they find a real disconnect with what passes for respectability.

It can be argued that very notion of respectability harms society, as well as individuals. We like the idea of having a public face and a general standard of behavior, but what ends up happening pretty quickly is that we use our public face to mask a private one that feels (especially to us) far less respectable. People are, in fact, flawed, and the more we're pressured or make effort to hide or deny those flaws, the more that brokenness has to come out somewhere.

Last year a nasty story about former British PM David Cameron came out, detailing a gross ritual he and his frat brothers participated in during college. It was never necessarily confirmed and polite society avoided it, but I saw several commentators talk about how "those things just happen," or "boys will be boys." One, in particular, though, made note of the expectations society, especially British society, has for the upper crust. The scions of the aristocracy are expected to be government ministers, head charities, and manage investments - they're expected to embody an incredibly intensive level of respectability, which really can't hold. It leads to equally incredibly feats of debauchery in private - think perhaps the parties from Eyes Wide Shut or the various secret societies that exist around the world, usually among the most respectable.

I find it fascinating that even outside the realm of religion, where, for good or ill, there is a certain pressure to be perfect, the same expectations, perhaps less explicitly, are just as real. This is the root of class struggle - an upper crust attempt to distance themselves from the mess of manual labor, and the working class embracing it. Respectability often comes down to one's ability or willingness to hide their mess.

All of that to say, I'm not sure if this doesn't backfire anyway.

I'm baffled by my own judgementalism. I don't really want to be a respectable person, both because I'd rather own my mess than hide it, but also because I get to choose. There's plenty of good justification for the first reason. Covering our flaws in a robe of respectability is detrimental to us and the people around us. My moral and theological convictions drive me to ensure all people are treated as the valuable human beings they are.

I get judgmental for the other reason - I still see the difference.

I've got the education and background to be a good "respectable" person if I wanted to be. As much as I love a ratty pair of jeans and a t-shirt, there's some inkling inside me to better meet the expectations society puts on people like me. I like being different, but I perhaps like more the ability to choose.

I'm more than willing to tear down the walls of respectability with my words and my actions. I'm less willing (in fact, I've probably worked against it more than for it) to break down those walls with my attitude. I root for the respectable team, even if I don't wear the uniform, even as I acknowledge all the problems inherent in the system.

So when I react so strongly against the notion of respectability, it's more a fear reaction. I'm terrified to be challenged to something more. I'm quite comfortable in my mess. To think that perhaps I can work in the midst of the mess to actually improve myself, to exceed expectations (my own and others') is to tempt fate and risk failure. A (entirely valid) critique of respectability is just as easily wielded as a means of self-preservation.

It's a sword that cuts both ways. Respectability can be a standard we hold one another two so as to prevent our own levels of self-concern from being challenged. We don't want our next door neighbor to take in homeless folks - as noble as it is, that kind of selflessness in close proximity rubs up against our well-curated societal expectations in uncomfortable ways that actually make us face our mess. At the same time, respectability can be a shield against a challenge to our self-concern from the other side. By owning and announcing our mess, in the form of critique, we're creating cover to avoid actually dealing with the mess we're so ready to name.

It's a unique form of hypocrisy - one that manifests itself in calling out hypocrisy. It's a hypocrisy that comes from privilege. Privilege is the ability to choose. From my privileged position I can say, "Why would you want to be on the other side of the fence? Don't pretend to be something you're not," but I say it as one who can choose either side of the fence.

Privilege gives me the option to ignore my mess, critiquing both those people who can't escape their mess and those who won't admit they have a mess. We all end up in the same boat - playing the respectability game in our own unique ways with exactly the same motivation.

I have no idea what relationship that suited stranger has to his mess, but in some weird way he's helped me understand that the curse of respectability isn't about whether we embrace or avoid it, but in our - in my - ability to redefine it not with how visible our mess is, but how well we deal with it.

Thursday, September 15, 2016

Wholly Other?

Trigger Warning: Theology talk! I'm going to try and bring it around to something practical, but no guarantees.

In a recent series of blog posts, Theologian and Philosopher Tom Oord discussed a book by Keith Ward and specifically his contention that the "social Trinity" is a bad idea. I have not read Ward's book, only Oord's take on it.

I won't comment on the book or Oord's argument - you can read all that for yourself, but I do appreciate his willingness to re-examine theological ideas that were developed in a more concrete, Greek-influenced time. I believe sometimes Oord tries to do this in ways that continue the more logical nature of theology that I'd like to critique, but, then again, he is a Philosopher, so it might be expected.

Regardless, this post came to mind as I found myself thinking about the phrase "God is wholly other," in some reading this week. It's a very common phrase, especially in theological circles, so common it's easy to brush over without giving it much thought. For some reason I thought about it this morning. Specifically, I thought about why I don't like it very much.

As Oord and, presumably, Ward, are challenging the notion of "social Trinity," they're not really challenging it. Neither man, I believe, fundamentally disagrees with the principles this theory is trying to maintain, what they do disagree with are the implications of expressing a particular combination of core beliefs in this way. There's no challenge to the idea of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit being divine, but simply pointing out that this particular way of explaining how that works presents some extra-biblical problems as its worked into the larger corpus of theology.

I kind of feel the same way about God being "wholly other." This is a pretty basic tenet of systematic theology that speaks to the substantive difference between creator and creation. They are different in as many ways as two beings can be different. I'm not entirely sure, though, if we can't also say those two entirely different beings aren't also the same in some ways - or at least similar. Perhaps the notion of God as wholly other needs, if not theological, certainly grammatical reconsideration.

The very notion that humans are created in the likeness of God leaves some pause for how we understand "wholly other." I get that we're trying to prevent the assumption that God is some sort of perfected human (and thus nip in the bud the notion that humans can stumble upon salvation without divine help). But as a good Wesleyan (often called semi-Pelagian by my more reformed brethren), I can't discount the ways in which God has chosen to involve creation in the ongoing story of existence.

The whole of scripture, tradition, and experience testifies to a partnership between God and God's creation in the unfolding of reality. god has and does enable creation to participate in its own salvation. It sort of makes Pelagianism obsolete in that creation cannot do anything on its own since God has already been inextricably involved in the core processes that lead us to recognize the need for salvation.

I get that we want to emphasize a difference between God and humans so as to prevent us from getting grandiose ideas about our own abilities, but by engaging in incarnation, God blurs some of those lines beyond true definition. God became a human being; the creator became the created, and no matter how we want to define orthodoxy, that statement seems vitally important to Christian thought, even among those groups excluded by Nicaea. It seems difficult to claim God as wholly other when God specifically chose to become like us. Wholly other creates a distance between God and humanity that God personally bridged.

It shouldn't be that hard for us to say God is God and we are not, without creating these substantive categories that separate creation from Creator in sorely unbiblical ways.

The other element of this, though, is the understanding of purity. Holy means set apart - this is where "wholly other" comes from. A holy thing is consecrated for a divine purpose and must avoid co-mingling with the common to preserve its holiness and, in some sense, maintain universal order. This lead to the strict rules about contamination that existed throughout the Hebrew world. This notion protects us from a kind of casualness in relationship to God that leads to, say, modern "Christian" music that sounds more like love songs to Jesus and the immortal Buddy Christ.

That's an important, worthy goal, but it also needs to be kept in check by the witness of God in Christ - the one who moved through the crowd and instead of being corrupted by the touch of an unclean woman, reversed the process and restored her health and inclusion. This is certainly a God unlike anything we've seen in creation, but this God appears more concerned with removing the notion of "wholly other" and bringing reconciliation. The same Christ who prayed that his followers would be one as Son and Father are one.

I understand that in the end we're saying that there still remains a distance between creation as it is and creation as its intended to be. The great apocalyptic of scripture foretells a future uniting of God's realm with humanity's and an eternal joining of the created with creation. If this picture of reconciliation is both our foundation and our future, we must be more creative in the ways in which we talk about God and human.

Wholly other is wholly inadequate for a God of such great love and grace.