Tuesday, October 25, 2016

Assertive Privilege

I think we've all had moments where we desired for recognition. I want the teacher to put my art work on the wall. I want to be on that committee. I want to be considered for that award. Obviously we shouldn't understand our worth based on external recognition, but at times its helpful to place ourselves in the social hierarchy, to not get too big a head (or to further inflate the one we've already got).

I think we're more aware these days of privilege - the notion that straight, white men are more likely to end up getting chosen or recognized or empowered when these choices are made. It's part of the reason why CEO's and politicians and Nobel Prize winners are primarily part of these groups. This kind of self-reflection is often part of the equation when we engage in such decisions - do I belong on this panel? Do I really deserve this recognition? Is there some voice or perspective we're going to miss if I serve here?

It's wonderful progress, even if it is hard, sometimes, to answer those questions in the right way. We do still, generally, want recognition. Sometimes we even deserve it. But the question of who's most deserving or the "right" choice is real difficult to parse. You've got two parties responsible for parsing things out - are the people in charge considering the effects of privilege in the same way I am?

What often trips me up, though, is the second, more often hidden layer of privilege. It's not just that being a straight, white male gives me a leg up; culture and society also teach me to ask without guilt when I think I deserve recognition. If I've gone through all the appropriate mental gymnastics and conclude this is something I should and want to do, I'm far more prone to ask or volunteer than someone who doesn't enjoy my privilege.

I wonder how often we miss out on great contributions because there's a societal expectation for certain people to pursue opportunities and others to be invited. Now this is a little easier for me, since I tend to have a pretty low evaluation of myself and avoid putting myself out there to avoid rejection, but even if I believe that I am the best person for a position - after considering those in marginalized, hidden, or overlooked groups - it's become a discipline (one I don't think I exercise very well) to sit back and, if its going to happen, let opportunities come to me.

Men, particularly educated, white men, are taught to sell themselves. I'm not sure that's a natural inclination, at least not for me. If it's an evolutionary, survival-of-the-fittest quality, I might be in trouble. I think it's far more likely assertiveness is learned, or at the very least, cultivated sporadically. Those with the most privilege are also those who've most been taught to sell themselves. The people who could most benefit from assertiveness are those who are more likely to have it trained or punished or intimidated out of them over time.

I'm not really sure what the point of this post is, other than to highlight something I've been particular noticing recently. For those of us used to this system, it feels so natural it's often hard to notice. It would be very good if we did, though. We need to recognize the ways in which our mores and patterns have been created the benefit some more than others. It behooves us to actively change the way things work rather than expect people primed for an underprivileged place in the system to adapt.

Just because things are the way they are, doesn't mean they always have to be.

Thursday, October 20, 2016

Loving the Unlovable

We've got two really disturbing stories in the news this week that bring some real difficulty when thinking about them theologically. There is this man in Montana who, three times, raped his own teenage daughter and was given a suspended sentence, which will result in just a couple months in jail, provided he completes serious counseling and other treatment plans (and has no solo contact with minors, pretty much ever again). The judge in that case is getting a lot of flack, including a potential impeachment/recall, but he also sites the insistence of the girl's family that having the head of their household gone for, potentially, forever, would be a real detriment to the family, especially the man's young sons.

We've also got a police report out, which details journals and documents from the counseling sessions of NFL kicker, Josh Brown, who admitted to abusing his wife in many ways and on multiple occasions. There was a police incident over the summer that lead to a suspension, but these details show both a lengthy, serious pattern of abuse, but also an equally lengthy, involved process of counseling and recovery.

Our general society like revenge. We say, "do something awful, pay for it forever." That's generally our attitude in public and it's the way most of our laws are written. It's not hard to say, "You rape your own daughter, you're lucky to get to live." Although "life" for a child rapist in prison is probably not preferable to death, but then again, people are often ok with that - whatever punishment we can get for people like that. Spousal abuse used to be something we brushed aside as "private," but lately (and sadly) largely due to the spotlight of the NFL, those attitudes are changing - and perhaps to make up for all those years of neglect, the vitriol with which we approach those situations is as intense as just about any other crime someone could commit - and with good reason; it's pretty sickening.

What we seem to miss in all of this, and what makes it so difficult to really parse, is that despite the inhumane things these men did and the dehumanizing our system of laws, courts, and punishment does to those who commit them, these people are, in fact, still human beings.

I've written before that we take such extreme responses largely to separate ourselves as people from other people who do terrible things. We don't want to think of child rapists or murderers or domestic abusers as humans, because we are humans and it forces us to face the reality that we are capable of entirely inhuman things. Given a specific set of circumstances, that could be us. It's terrifying.

We rightly run from it.

Although I'd argue that people who embrace that notion - that we are all capable of tremendous evil, are the ones most likely to find the kind of health and peace necessary to avoid such evil. Hate is powerful, but it rarely plays out to our benefit. We tend to become that which we hate. In dehumanizing, we become like those we dehumanize. That's a lot of historical precedent for this.

I read, last week, the memoir of Bryan Cranston, who played Hal on Malcolm in the Middle and Walter White on Breaking Bad. He talked about an incident early in his adult life, where he became so afraid of and angry at an ex-girlfriend-turned-stalker that he believed himself capable of killing her, even had a lucid dream of doing the deed so real he believed, for a time, that he'd done it. The rest of the book (which is very good, by the way) illustrates, though, how the realization of that moment, those feelings, his actions, led to a really healthy process of growth and development that shaped his life in profound ways, building a solid foundation that helped prevent many of the mistakes he seemed bound for in his early years.

If we're going to see terrible people as human beings, we have to treat them humanely. Providing counseling and rehabilitation - programs for healing, growth, and recovery make a lot more sense than archiving evil in prisons and jails, ignoring mental illness, or labeling people as hopeless. Is Josh Brown going to be punished because he sought help? Will we eliminate any possible good this Montana rapist might ever do in his life, because of the atrocities he's committed? That's the Bill Cosby question, right?

If you're like me, it leaves you totally confused. I like black and white. Even in difficult issues, I tend to work until I find a path through the weeds - it might not be perfect; it might even need to be altered a time or two, but it's something, a decision. It doesn't work that way here.

A man raped his own daughter, three times! Certainly he should never, ever, ever have contact with her ever again; his name should never be uttered in her presence, unless she initiates it. I believe she earned that kind of respect and protection by what she's suffered. And Josh Brown is not the kind of person anyone would want to employ - and his bosses should have every right to fire him and no one should feel sorry about it.

At the same time, I believe in redemption. I really do. My faith is built on the idea that love changes people - not often quickly or completely, but I've formed my life around the idea that no one should be written off. It creates a real problem - the old punishment vs consequences problem - which is easy to solve in the abstract, but darn near impossible to even fathom in the reality of people's lives.

How do we separate our need for revenge and dehumanization, for distance and escape, from the very real responsibility we have as a society to ensure people don't escape the consequences of their actions. We long to shelter and shield innocent others from the consequences of the guilty, but it's rarely that simple. The pain we inflict on one person necessarily radiates to others - many others - for whom it was never intended.

That is the reality of life.

I'm not going to take a "position" on either of these two issues I brought up - other than to say I think we'd all be wise to consider every perspective with care and genuine concern. I don't think this judge is just trying to let a rapist off; I don't think it's necessarily undue compassion (the way it probably was for that Stanford athlete) - at the same time, it's real hard for me to call what the judge did "right." It's courageous and it flies in the face of what society expects.

Of course, as in any public event, there are a lot of details we don't know that are pretty core to making a learned opinion. And as much as these travesties compel us to speak, act, and react, we can never be in the position of those actually involved. We will never understand or fully appreciate the context. I'd just like for us to consider what our reactions say about what is important to us. I'd like to suggest that perhaps we expand that definition of "important" influences beyond those emotions which immediately spring to mind.

Life is difficult. Life is complex. Life is messy. But, man, is life worth it.

Tuesday, October 18, 2016

Our Place in this World

I was reading TIME magazine today - it's an issue focused on actual policies that our politicians might talk about, if they ever talked about actual issues. In the environment section I ran across an interesting, albeit common, idea. "As a scientist, I am responsible first to humanity." I heard a similar sentiment a few months back, from the head of Zoo Miami, commenting on the killing of Harambe the gorilla. He said, essentially, "humanity comes first."

He actually said something like, "If the last endangered white rhino stood between me and the lives of my wife and kids, of course I'd kill it," which is a little over-dramatic for the point he was making - which is that human life comes before animal life. I suppose, in individual situations I don't disagree - I mean, if the gorilla had really hurt or killed that kid, they'd've had to put it down anyway.

I'm not so sure the sentiment hold true for me as a guiding principle, though - at least as it appeared in the TIME article.* I reject the notion that humanity is the primary concern of the world. Theologically it's all wrong - God created humans to care and tend to the Earth. Yes, one might say that the Earth can't be cared for or tended if it's caretakers are extinct, but this idea seems an extreme argument and, ultimately, someone else's problem. If God creates a universe, puts us in it specifically to care for that world, calls us to live sacrificially in service of creation, then also allows us to do so to our own extinction, that's either poor planning or part of the plan all along.

I tend to think our science and theology pushes us to see humanity as something different than what's been before. Humans are really the only creatures capable of analyzing our own instincts and rejecting our natural inclinations. We're capable not just of making choices, but analyzing those choices, even before they're made. I'd say we're different enough to really affect the whole of creation, either positively or negatively.

Of course, as the "pinnacle of creation" (or evolution) it makes a lot of sense for us to think this way - and we'll probably continue to think this way right up until some other, more evolutionarily advanced creation takes our place and makes us irrelevant (and if you scoff at that, ask your friendly, neighborhood neanderthal what they think... oh, right).

Now I'm not going to argue that we're NOT responsible for humanity - after all we're a big part of this world in which we live - but I would argue that we're more responsible for making the whole work well than we are for maintaining any part within it. Creation is a system - one Christians especially believe humans play an integral part in maintaining - it should be understood and approached that way.

This is sort of what I was saying the other day: are we merely a collection of individuals, or are we individuals who've submitted ourselves to the whole? It sounds like simple talk, but it makes a real difference in how we view our purpose in the world.

Yes, if the world's last remaining white rhino somehow stood between me and my family's life, I'd probably kill it. I hope not, but let's be honest (although I have no real clue as to how one might go about killing a white rhino, especially in an emergency - I don't usually carry around high powered hunting rifles and somehow I don't think my bare hands are going to cut it - or a knife; I'm not sure a knife would cut it -rhinos have very thick skin). Would it be the right thing to do? I doubt it.

Like any issue of life, the question, though, isn't about one moment, it's about setting up a system that addresses the issue well beyond any individual moment. So, as an example, we could say sacrificing acres of rainforest is worth it if lives are saved - some would even argue that faith in science and progress leads them to believe we'll figure out solutions down the road. I'd prefer to figure out the best solution now.

Yeah, I'd rather sacrifice my own life over someone else's - at least then I'd get a choice - but I think the idea of sacrificing our lives for something more noble than just an individual life is pretty important to the way the world works. I believe in non-violence, but making a stand for non-violence usually means suffering violence - often for quite a while - before the message takes effect.

I'm not sure the big issues of environmental stewardship are really life or death for too many of us just yet, but they do call for sacrifice, for giving up pleasures or conveniences or things we might've otherwise considered needs, to create a world that's ordered and sustainable for all.

There's nothing wrong with making humans a big part of our sacrificial environmental actions, but we need to make sure we've got a more generous end in mind.

*It was called "Engineered food holds our future" by Hope Jahren, but it doesn't appear to be online anywhere yet.

Thursday, October 13, 2016

Outlaw Christian by Jacqueline A Bussie

Disclaimer: I was given a free copy of this book for the purpose of review. My integrity is not for sale. Those who know me well are aware a free book isn't enough to assuage my cutting honesty. If I've failed to write a bad review, it has nothing to do with the source of the material and only with the material itself.

In many ways, Outlaw Christian is part of a recent trend - mainstream Christian books emphasizing the importance of doubt to faith. Don't get me wrong - this is a wonderful development, certainly better than the alternative. At the same time I'm a little skeptical when a challenging position becomes mainstream, almost as if the system is embracing the danger in order to denude it. I don't believe this is the author's purpose. Her writing is deeply personal and heartfelt; she is genuinely interested in sharing "good news" with people who might otherwise have given up on faith. At the same time, I'm not sure if the publisher has the same pure motives.

There are really two halves to Outlaw Christian - almost as if there are two books in one. The first half is very wordy, in many ways. There is a lot of explaining - about anger and doubt and theology and scripture and the ways in which Christian culture has tended to rob life of its complexity and joy. It's honest and I agree with it, but it sounds an awful lot like every other book about doubt and faith. This first half gives the impression of fighting a battle between co-option and co-operation in naming the relational sins of this culture and presenting alternatives. It's also wordy in that there are too many words. The writing is dense, a bit awkward, and repetitive; it was hard to find motivation to keep reading.

When you get about halfway through, though, it's a joyful ride to the finish. The second half of the book is less formulaic and more built around narrative. Bussie tells stories - her own, those of her students, and those of people around the world. The second half personalizing the more esoteric conversations of the first half into powerful examples of the kind of "outlaw" life she wants for those who need it. It is powerful, emotional, and vulnerable in ways that signify her authenticity and connection to the material.

I struggle with how to rate this book or even how to recommend it. I really did not like the first half - even though I agreed with most of what she presented and find it important information for Christians (and anyone else) in the world, it was boring and impersonal. It wasn't fun to read. The second half, though, was brilliant, poignant, and important in a whole different kind of way.

Maybe that's the point of a review, then - to present the whole picture and let the reader make up their mind. Do with this what you will (but if you start on chapter 5, I doubt you'll have any complaints).

Disclosure of Material Connection: I received this book free from the publisher through the BookSneeze.com® book review bloggers program. I was not required to write a positive review. The opinions I have expressed are my own. I am disclosing this in accordance with the Federal Trade Commission’s 16 CFR, Part 255: “Guides Concerning the Use of Endorsements and Testimonials in Advertising.”

Monday, October 10, 2016

Locker Room Talk

Donald Trump was caught saying some really outrageous, disgusting things ten years ago. Most telling, though, is his response. Time and again, even when given 48 hours to prepare to comment on them at the debate, he answered with "it was locker room talk." Essentially, he's saying "this kind of things is, of course, embarrassing and unseemly in public, but it's how people talk in private."

There are a lot of people who would never dream of saying something like that, and I think those people are justifiably expressing outrage. Let's be honest, though, a lot of people do talk, or at least passively participate in such talk. Maybe it doesn't rise to the graphic (and potentially criminal) level we heard in that video, but the objectification and sexualization of women is far too common in regular conversation. I have personally heard things from the mouths of people (people who were openly and vociferously opposed to Trump on social media this weekend) that troubled me in similar ways. I've usually said nothing, although I know my inconspicuously uncomfortable looks have betrayed my feelings more than a few times.

I certainly have plenty to apologize for. I can't say I've ever said something so crass as Trump did and, even wracking my brain, I can't remember any conversation I've ever heard where anyone said anything so shockingly vile in vocabulary, but I've certainly viewed people as objects. I don't know if I'm normal or profoundly sociopathic, but one of my greatest struggles is to value people as people and not as tools to be leveraged for my own selfish ends.

We live in a society that tells us to value people, especially women, but demonstrates the exact opposite. We teach our children not to judge on appearance and then spend the rest of our lives doing just that. There is a real disconnect between what we believe and what we'd like to believe. There is objective truth and there is painful reality.

One thing I haven't heard in all the clamor and denouncement is a collective mourning about just how correct Trump's statement was. "When you're a star, they let you do it." Shoot, they got off the bus and the first thing Billy Bush does is pressure that poor woman into hugging this creepy old guy - why? Because he's famous and she's supposed to be ok with it.

Now, I know many athletes have come out to refute that this kind of thing is even really "locker room talk," but this whole Derek Rose lawsuit proves that even if the rich and famous keep it out of their place of business (which I'm skeptical of to begin with); it is certainly a part of their lives.

I'm even willing to go so far as to believe that Trump was lying; that despite his colorful language, he hasn't actually done any of the things he says. Well, I don't believe it, but it's certainly possible - the guy has proven, over the course of a lifetime, that he's willing to say literally anything that will make himself look better in the moment. There's no reason to think he wouldn't lie so outrageously and offensively if he thought it might make him look cool.

The issue really isn't what he said or did; it's Trump's firm position that there is a place for this kind of talk. Man, even if he said it and was embarrassed about it, I might have some small measure of sympathy - but he's doubled down. He only feels bad that people found out, something he's admitted over and over again. "This is how people talk."

Enough has been said about all of this already, so I don't need to go into more detail. Excusing this behavior is worse than committing it. I firmly believe that. Even worse, that so many Christians were willing to put up with it just to win a political war. The very worst parts of Christianity are those birthed from an "ends justifies the means" mentality. It's so pervasive in US evangelicalism it might as well be synonymous.

As a Christian, I'm not even sure what those ends are anymore! Is it the belief that through enforcing a specific moral code, some internal switch will be triggered in people that will automatically make them intellectually assent to the basic tenets of Christ worship? That sentence doesn't even make sense to me... and I wrote it! Is there some placation of guilt if one can criminalize sin? Even if the Supreme Court were made up of James Dobson, Jerry Fallwell Jr, and Franklin Graham, what end, exactly, would that accomplish and how would it remotely relate to scripture?

I must admit, I am thoroughly confused.

But perhaps most difficult for me, is how we, as a country, respond to ideas we dislike. Be they racist or sexist, objectifying or consumeristic - we tend to make anathema the holding of an unpopular opinion. This is all fine and good until we are the ones with the unpopular opinion; then it suddenly seems tragic. The world has turned upside down and no longer makes sense.


Because we all hold the positions we hold because we think their right - or at least, as right as we can get at the moment. A person does not contend that black people are mentally inferior by virtue of their DNA simply to get a rise out of you. Well, I suppose some people do, but they are few and far between and almost always obvious. For the most part, people make statements like that because they really believe them. When we create a climate where saying that sort of thing gets one shouted down, at best, and physically threatened or assaulted, at worst, we do everyone a disservice.

When someone is smacked down for expressing an unpopular opinion it does not change their opinion, it simply tells them they shouldn't talk about it. Yes, I know there's an election involved here - and it's fine for us to reject a candidate for the positions they take, appropriate, even. And yes, people should express counter arguments and contrary opinions freely and with vigor.

At the same time, we have to be careful to do so with grace and humility. The purpose of challenging someone's opinion or idea should be to create dialogue, not shut it down. I know, most people don't change. That's very true. Unpopular opinions usually die out because the people who hold them die out. I get it.

That doesn't help the people who are still forming opinions, though. The kid who apes his father's objectification of women doesn't see rebuke as a reason to doubt his father, he sees it as evidence people don't want to hear the truth. It's an issue of authority. "My pastor said it," or "My political party said it," or "I read it in this book by an author I really like." We form our opinions in all sorts of ways, but it all comes down to those influences to which we ascribe authority in our lives.

Yes, Trump's kind of language may be popular in the locker room or the board room or the country club, but we must willing to have enough conversation to ask deeper questions. Why is this the language of those circles? Why are the customs and expressions of these people important to you? What might cause someone to be offended by that opinion? This is the kind of conversation that actually moves people to change.

If we don't, we're just ourselves engaging in this "means to and end" business. If my end is proving myself right and him wrong, then, yes, let's just shout down Trump, thrown him on the trash heap and be done. In that, though, we're objectifying him as the enemy. He's just an opponent to be consumed and discarded. We're defeating ourselves. There's no care or concern for my opponent as a human being.

Yeah, you might say, "that guy just isn't worth it," and I'd respond, "what influences have lead you to that opinion," and maybe, just maybe, we might have an enlightening, productive, and world-changing conversation.