Tuesday, June 07, 2016

The Veil of Politics

I've had a number of conversations recently about issues, both local and national. I've noticed - I guess I've always noticed, but it particularly struck my fancy this week - how often people take positions on issues simply based on partisan politics. I recognize it's a particularly contentious election year (with is a redundant description of the year) and that this really isn't a new phenomenon in the US, but it does seem to be presenting itself in new and unique ways. You've always seen this kind of thing with politicians and people actively involved in the machinations of party politics; it's become an increasing part of news coverage as well, with the proliferation of networks and diversity of opinion. At the same time, it does seem relatively new on a broad scale.

It's not that Mr. Middle Management in 1950 didn't say or do things, "because I'm a Republican," but that he wasn't necessarily the norm AND he wasn't generally saying, "I'm against ____________ because the other guys are for it." Our two main political parties have done a great job of getting people to identify with one or the other - even as the number of registered independents goes up. This has happened because we've become a nation of objectionists. People won't call themselves a Democrat or Republican so much anymore, but they certainly have Democrats and/or Republicans they want to stop. We've become a nation of people who identify our politics by what we oppose more strongly than what we support.

That's not really what I want to talk about though - I'm more interested in how this particular connection to our electoral and governance process limits and distorts how we see the world. This is the difference between politics and politics. If you've read much of this blog at all, you know I take a broader view of politics - it is the way in which people live together - and there are many ways of doing politics, only one of which involves elections and legislatures and laws.

There is a broader scope to politics, one that, until recently, seemed to be clear for most people most of the time. It wasn't about winning, but about making space where you and your neighbor could get along and thrive together. It was more about building community than installing some ideology or winning a legislative battle.

Even in that statement, I'm guessing a bunch of you had interjecting thoughts about how "the other guy" does those slimy things and how "my side," is working for right and good. Don't blame yourself; this is the way we've been shaped.

We're taught to accept a set of facts, often carefully crafted by professional fact-crafters in one party or another - and then to question anything that comes along which challenges us to think about those things. We can easily throw away Report X because some liberal wrote it or reject Study Z because the foundation behind it is conservative. Sometimes those things are true - I mean, fact-crafters do have to craft their facts somehow and using media outlets, research studies, and investigative reports are easy means to convince people of truth (whether its true or not).

At some point, though, we have to avoid the easy route of rejection.

We can't just look at the byline on something and say, "This is trash." There has to be some engagement. I mean, there doesn't have to be - just look at the US Congress: no matter who's in power, they refuse to listen to the other side, whilst the side being ignored can win political points claiming to want compromise when they know their bluff will never be called. It's the same no matter who's on each side.

We've been fooled by this over and over, assuming things will be different if we change the letter next to the name of the guy (or gal) with the gavel. But that's the con - we've been so shaped by objectionism that we're content just to win the battle on the ballot and not worry too much about why it's having a negative effect on the world around us - no matter who wins.

This is why we see so many people searching outside the "mainstream" for candidates this time around. People want something different, but they're looking for it within the same partisan, objectionist, winner take all system that's never proven to do anything good for anyone (except maybe the people at the root of it, regardless of party). Putting "outsiders" into a corrupt system will only make the outsider insiders and corrupt the values that made them attractive in the first place.

In the end, I think the answer is simple: don't believe anyone.

That sounds super cynical (although I'm not sure there are many adjectives I've been called more), but it's true. Maybe we could say, be attentive to everyone. That sounds nicer. If we treated every piece of information with the same skepticism we treat those things we deem "opposition," we'd be far better off. It might lead us to actually research the "facts" we're fed no matter who's manufacturing them. In this age of the internet it doesn't take much time or effort to be really informed. Even Wikipedia has links to things that purport to back up what they say.

We just need to take responsibility for our own opinions and not outsource them to parties and pundits we've found common ground with for some reason. We see layers of argumentative exposes all the time: "Look at How Bad the GOP is," followed by, "Things the Dems Didn't Tell You in that Last Piece," followed by, "Ways the GOP Spun that Last Rebuttal," and on an on. What looks like a genuine search for truth is just a stalling tactic to keep you from looking for yourself.

If your response in an argument is "that source is biased," you need to know why, in this particular instance, about these particular fact, that the conclusion isn't sound. You're probably right about the bias - no one is without one - but it's even more biased to simply accept or reject another person's interpretation of facts simply because you're more comfortable with them.

I've long been an opponent of political parties for exactly this reason. It leads people to generalize and it allows politicians to avoid taking a real stand on anything. Party (or ideological) loyalty trumps having an actual, reasoned opinion on anything.

How many people would even bother to vote if there weren't party affiliations next to names on the ballot? How informed would people actually be if they had to find out what specific candidates think about a variety of issues and make decisions that way? How much easier would it be for neighbors to sit down together, talk through issues, and make decisions to better everyone's life?

It's not Republicans or Democrats or Socialists or Libertarians who are the problem, it's us, who let them dictate agendas and divide us into groups of adversaries, pitted against each other in some zero-sum game where only one team can win. Life isn't like that. We can and must live together - we are ultimately all human beings - let's remember that and treat each other that way.

Thursday, June 02, 2016

Subversive Jesus by Craig Greenfield

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.

If you work with young Christians or work to understand them, Subversive Jesus is a great book to read. It chronicles the life of Craig Greenfield and his family, from high school in New Zealand, to a home in the slums of Cambodia, to a fledgling Christian community in Vancouver's Downtown Eastside. Greenfield traces his attempts to follow the radical theology of Jesus to life with and for the poor of the world.

The first two chapters are breathtakingly simple and straightforward, highlighting how one couple has attempted to be faithful to God's call, while also supplying a really intense, concise explanation of the Kingdom of God and how it intersects with our world today. The rest of the book fleshes out these concepts and lessons learned through some really unique experiences.

If there's any downside, it's simply that Greenfield doesn't answer a lot of the logistical questions one has while reading, but I imagine that's intentional, as he challenges readers to explore the radical, subversive message of Jesus on their own, rather than following any model (other than Christ's).

It's a quick read, with short sections, and lots of excitement. It also approaches radical Christianity from an obviously conservative perspective. It's not that the book is conservative or liberal, but you can tell how the author understands theology and scripture and it's quite different from the perspective you most often see in these radical Jesus books. I think that helps set up an important exegetical and practical position as outside the mainstream arguments of religion and interpretation.

This is a book for everyone, although this kind of radical challenge can be scary and easy to write off, Greenfield presents it in a way that should enable any reader to take simple steps towards a Kingdom life without having to make the kind of leap that often scares people away. It's fun and quick, and the kind of book that will benefit any person, especially those looking for a faith worthy of committing one's life to live.

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.”

Tuesday, May 31, 2016

Tragedy and Remembrance

I've had a lot of good conversations over the weekend around Memorial Day. I've written about the struggle between opposing war and supporting people here and here. What I've been thinking about this weekend is slightly different, though.

Setting aside nationalism, which I originally thought was central to my unease, I've come to realize, through healthy conversation and a lot of pondering, that it really stems from how positive and joyful these celebrations tend to be. There's almost no recognition of the horror of death, of loss or pain - the day, at least from my perspective, tends to be one of joyful celebration. We trot out the tropes and patriotic one liners that certainly feel more at home on July 4th - really, it's like we end up with another Independence Day and that's what's a bit unsettling.

Memorial Day is a uniquely US occasion. Yes, most countries have a Remembrance Day of some kind, but it's more associate with our Veterans Day (celebrated on November 11th, the end of WWI). We wound up with two holidays - one commemorating war dead and another celebrating ALL veterans, living or dead - by accident, really. Memorial Day, formerly Decoration Day, was a long-standing tradition in both the North and South, marking the graves of Civil War soldiers. In fact, Union and Confederate competing celebrations (and dates) lasted until the early 1967 (and a few persist today).

It would really make sense to celebrate everything together on November 11th, with the rest of the world, but, probably rightly, Congress didn't want to eliminate long-held traditions. It does create a bit of a dichotomy, though, with a specific holiday to honor the dead - and there are numerous websites dedicated to making sure people understand the difference. This certainly adds to the confusion about how we celebrate Memorial Day.

It's further complicated because Memorial Day has become the de facto start of summer - people want to be outside enjoying the warm weather. This is also compounded because we went a whole generation without war dead - from Vietnam to just after 9/11 (the first gulf war had just 148 US casualties), taking away some of the personal connection to tragedy that might otherwise go along with the day.

That really gets closer to my point, here. Our holidays of remembrance don't look like those in England or Holland or France, I think, partly because the real cost of war is simply unknown to most of us. Even with the recent wars and all the pain, trauma, and loss suffered, less than 1% of the US population has been deployed - obviously a far smaller percentage has died. There are just very few people with real personal connections to the people remembered on Memorial Day.

Unlike those countries mentioned above, we've also not seen tragedy or the destruction of war on our soil since 1865. Hawaii was not even a State when Pearl Harbor happened and it's distance has always been a hindrance to the nation fully accepting it as something other than a vacation destination. We haven't seen bombed out building next door or sent children to the country for their own safety. We've never been occupied. And although most of the people who remember those things in Europe are aged or dead, those memories remain real and vivid - something we've long forgotten.

I suppose all of this might serve to reinforce the more celebratory tone most often taken on Memorial Day - and I'm willing to accept that conclusion as valid. We might also point to the natural human desire to avoid grief. It's just natural to make something sad into something happy. At the same time, whether it matters to you or not, it was important for me to understand why the day and the celebration seem so at odds - and I think this is it.

What struck me was the way I see the few people I know who lost loved ones recently do Memorial Day. There were a few choice pictures of a flag-marked gravestone, but mostly remembrances of a son and brother as a little boy. The celebration of Memorial Day for those folks was no different than any other family's anniversary of tragedy - they just have two days a year to do it, instead of just one. In substance, there is no real difference from the remembrance of any lost loved one.

You and I might disagree to the extent we can or should make our national holidays about broader themes (freedom, democracy, patriotism, etc), but no matter how you side on something like that, this day really should be about families mourning loss.

Yes, we're quick to justify those losses with statements about what they died for, but some families who lost loved ones don't feel they died for "good reasons." You know what, I don't think anyone ever feels like a parent or child or sibling dies for a "good reason." We can say they lived a long life or served faithfully a higher calling, but that doesn't actually change our grief. I don't think I'd mourn my wife's death any less if she died saving a child from a burning building than I would if she were in a car accident.

Loss is loss and despite our natural inclination to avoid pain and grief, they're good for us. They're healthy. They're not good or healthy places to spend our lives, but a couple days a year of mourning can be really beneficial.

In the end I think I react negatively to this celebration of America - "Woo Hoo, we're the best, let's set off fireworks and throw a party," for the same reason I react negatively to people who don't cry at a funeral. I get having a picnic and inviting the neighbors as a way to enjoy the lifestyle provided by the sacrifice of soldiers, and I'm all for having a good time in that effort, it just feels like we too easily gloss over the real horrors of war and the real tragedy of death.

It is an honorable thing to be willing to die for something you believe in. It's a dedication worth honoring even if I don't always share a commitment to the same things. Of course my perspective of nations and war colors my perceptions of any holiday that deals with them, but this is also true if you hold a position on the other side of the spectrum from me. I think it's important for all of us to see beyond those discussions - at least on Memorial Day - and let it be a time of sober celebration.

People have lost mothers, fathers, sisters, brothers, children, and friends to war - those people were loved and of immeasurable value. We may not have known any of them or be attached in any way to this grief - so at the very least, let's make it a celebration of the people we still have with us and remember that for so many people closest to war and it's effects, this day is about loss, grief, and suffering. By all means, celebrate the memory of people no longer with us, but let's do it with a health measure of understanding for the tragedy involved.

Thursday, May 26, 2016

Hozier and Personal Faith

Hozier's song, "Take Me to Church," analogizes sex and worship. It can come off a bit uncomfortable for people of faith, although the honesty of the lyrics and his performance is tough to over come. I'm not sure whether this was his intent in writing, but, being an Irish singer, it's not difficult to see the complicated relationship between the Irish people and the Catholic Church coming through here.

Seen with that perspective, the song becomes even more powerful. Hozier talks about giving his partner the knife with which to cut him, but also being dependent on her for whatever satisfaction he finds in life. Relationships are like this in a lot of ways - the trust we put in another person is certainly a double-edged sword, but it also speaks to what's traditionally been the relationship between the people at the Church, especially Roman Catholicism.

There is so much emphasis on the Church itself as the means of salvation - and while I certainly agree with that in principle, it often becomes an unhealthy obsession with a human institution. The Irish Catholic Church, as has been revealed over the last few decades, really took the trust of the Irish people and trampled it for a long time. The very deep and devout faith of the people was used as a knife to cut them deeply - yet, because of generations of church teaching, there was literally nowhere else to turn. It's not hard to see how it can feel like a prison.

The Irish Catholic Church largely failed to properly mediate the gospel for the people in its care. The result is a whole generation of Irish kids, shaped and formed by an extremely religious culture, running from faith altogether - at least the sort of organized, formal faith that so marks their land.

In the song, Hozier doesn't depict an equal relationship. He's not approaching his love from the same footing she approaches him; the power dynamic is off. It's not as though he can be blamed for the position he's found himself in. It's far from ideal and certainly different decisions could have been made to prevent it, but, like the Irish relationship to the Church, what we really have here is abuse and manipulation that feels like a inescapable trap.*

For me, it speaks to how we understand our personal faith. Even that term itself can be tricky. So often you hear people talk about personal faith. I have a hesitancy to use the term, mostly because it sounds so individualistic. Personal faith means, I decide. I become the arbiter of value and truth. In some sense, we do all have to be that - we live in a world with free will. We get to make decisions; there is some measure of autonomy, even if we're ultimately connected to each other. At the same time, we really move onto shaky ground when we become the arbiter of anything - that could be illustrated no better than the recent failures of the Irish Catholic Church.

Perhaps the better way to speak about things is taking personal responsibility for faith. Traditionally, the Church served as the mediator of faith - this is how traditions with a strong lay/clergy split still function. The priest/pastor represents God to you. As a pastor, this is a pretty scary, solemn responsibility. It's almost too much.** No person, no institution, really, can be the proper mediator. Trouble really arises when those failures compound.

This is outsourcing our faith. That's a problem in the Catholic Church, sure, but also in a low of evangelical protestant churches as well. It's not an issue of theology or practice - it's an issue of humanity and religion. People go to church, essentially, so its someone else's problem. We don't have to ask and answer the questions if there's a pastor/priest there to do it for us. We'll just show up now and then, listen and be good.

This was never a good idea, but it worked so long as the mediator was trustworthy. Now that we've reached this age where pretty much no one fully trusts religious institutions, things are all coming apart.

People tend to respond to a failure of mediation by assuming a personal faith - in essence they become their own mediator. They might still show up in church from time to time, but now, instead of following blindly, they'll just take what they like and leave what they don't. This is a very pragmatic faith, but it's not helpful in any way. This kind of individualism is dangerous for all the reasons outlined above. It's the source, I think, of all the "spiritual, but not religious" talk happening with younger generations today. That's the next step: saying, "why do I even show up at all? I'm capable of figuring this out. There's an understanding of something outside ourselves, but we have no means of faithfully reaching it, because the mediators we've been given have failed us or have proven untrustworthy. So we become the mediator.

I think there's another way to respond to this cold shower of realization. Instead of simply taking the faith we've outsourced and making it a personal faith, what if we just, I don't know, took responsibility for the faith we've ignored? There's still an element of individualism here - I'm not sure how we get around that when we are, in some measure, individual people. But we're just as flawed a mediator as that church or priest we rejected; it would be silly and downright arrogant to think otherwise.

There is a real value to having other people, especially a people with a history and a tradition, speaking into our lives, providing guidance and wisdom and influence. The idea of Church is not a bad one - in fact it's really, really good. The problem is blind acceptance. We need to enter the mediating relationship with our eyes open, recognizing that we're all just people - the whole thing is people. Yes, there is, if you believe in God, some force working through it all, but we can't just take the conduit for granted.

We can and should ask questions. We can and should do our own leg work, investigate what's being told to us - not out of suspicion, but out of care and concern for our own spiritual (and physical) well being. Faith is, of course, meant to be personal, but it's not meant to be all personal. We're naturally connected to each other - now and in the past. History is important, as is tradition - so long as we're not outsourcing our faith to them irresponsibly.

I think that's why the Hozier song is so powerful. Sex ends up being a perfect analogy. We recognize in (both spiritual and physical) ecstasy some real larger truth that's at once within us and completely outside ourselves. But that ecstasy is a moment within a larger life - and realities of that life outside those moments is so much bigger and more complex and less, well, ecstatic. We can't simply chase the moments; we have to figure out how to incorporate them into the whole of our lives in healthy ways.

*The official video for the song is even more complex and emotionally disturbing on a number of levels - it explores this notion more deeply and troublingly that certainly I was expecting.

Tuesday, May 24, 2016

It Started Out As A Joke...

... and I guess it still is. Ever the curious mind, when all this talk of an independent Presidential candidate took off with Trump assuming the mantle of presumed GOP nominee, I got curious what it would actually take to make a real run. Just to get on the ballot in most states is incredibly laborious. You need tens, sometimes over 100,000 signatures from registered voters in each state to make the ballot. The Texas deadline has already passed. No candidate getting in now could even win.

But in the course of informing myself on the process, I noticed a little comment at the bottom of the chart,

Two states (Colorado and Louisiana) allow independent candidates to pay filing fees in lieu of submitting petitions.

Louisiana still has a lot of hoops to jump through with their filing requirements, even if signatures aren't among them, but Colorado, ever the rebellious, libertarian state, has just a fee. For a scant 1,000 (nonrefundable - they make this very clear) dollars, any eligible candidate (35 years old, natural born citizen, and 14+ year resident) can have their name added to the ballot. There's a couple other hoops to jump through (see below), but all very doable.

I thought, "wouldn't it be funny to get my name on the Colorado Presidential ballot?" I mean, most of my family lives there. It would be cool for any parent to check the box next to their child's name when voting for PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES! I wouldn't win, obviously, but I don't think I'd want to anyway. Besides, I'm a little scared my Dad might vote for Trump if I don't present a palatable alternative.

That's a real issue, though - not so much Trump (although Trump is an issue), but there are tons of people out there who don't like either major party candidate, but still feel a real, deep compulsion to vote. Getting my name on the ballot gives people an alternative - and one that can maybe make them smile a little in the ballot box rather than groan.

The biggest problem, though: I don't have a thousand dollars - and if you think my wife is going to sign off on spending even $10 on this silly campaign, you don't know my wife. The solution: crowd-funding. I needed to set up a gofundme campaign, or something of the like to make it work. But I didn't think people would give $10 if they thought I was just going to pocket the money - so I had to find a site that allows you to set an all or nothing campaign. Indiegogo came out on top - this way, I either get to the full $1,000 or none of the donors pays a dime.

But before I could go about setting up the campaign, there was one little thing to take care of. Colorado's first step to filing is to declare yourself a candidate - and the Federal Election Commission has a long and lengthy, very technical, legally intimidating process for doing such. You have to register a campaign committee with names and social security numbers, etc - you have to have a Treasurer and file quarterly reports of receipts and expenses - not to mention all the laws a candidate for President has to follow. It's tough.

Then I noticed another little caveat at the bottom of a page - it said, unless you raise or spend $5,000, none of these requirements applies to you. I even sent an email to the FEC to confirm that if I only spent, say, $1,000 or so, I'd be free to get on the ballot without federal filing requirements. I received an email reply from one Mr. Christopher Berg, Public Affairs Specialist with the FEC confirming that my campaign could proceed.

The campaign was pretty easy to set up. I filmed a short video to introduce myself and the project (it sounds a little artsy because I tried Kickstarter first and got rejected... for not being artsy enough) and I shred the link a couple dozen times.

Within a few minutes, I had my first donation - from my Dad - what a vote of confidence.* I never expected to get donations over $10 - that seemed like the right amount for a project of this nature - and although 100 of those seemed difficult, I gave myself two months to pull it off (still giving me a week or so to get all the forms submitted for the filing deadline in Colorado). To my surprise, the next donation was $20, from a college friend I probably have not kept it good enough contact with over the years. Pretty cool. Then another friend gave $100 and I started to think this might really have a chance. Still 87 donations away from the goal, but it had only been two hours!

We left the next day for my sister-in-law's graduation and I try not to spend too much time on the internet during family gatherings, so when I awoke that Saturday morning to a text from my brother, I was till groggy and didn't quite understand what he said, "Jeremy gave you the $1,000."

After a few beats of confusion, I scrambled for my laptop only to find, indeed, my whole project was now completely funded - in just a few days.

You see, I have this cousin (well, I have a lot of cousins, but this one in particular), Jeremy, I've jokingly called the "black sheep" of the family - not because he's bad at all, really (he's not), but because he's so relatively normal - he just never seemed to fit in well with the rest of us odd, strange, people. His family lived farther away, we saw them less often - he's really the cousin I know least well.

Anyway, he's also the most famous person I know personally. Jeremy is the voice and co-writer of cinemasins. You and several million other people may subscribe to their youtube channel - you've probably seen one of the videos, at least. Apparently, this youtube thing is a going venture and he's got $1,000 laying around to fund a crazy joke (I think also his recognition of the humor in this whole attempted campaign betrays that perhaps the outsider aura he's gave off to my childhood self was a front, or perhaps a serious misinterpretation by me).

Anyway, the money is there - and I'm very grateful.

I let the $100 donor, Bruce Barnard, be my Vice President (Jeremy politely declined) and my brother Jordan is collecting the signatures of nine registered Colorado voters who would serve in the Electoral College, should I win the state. The only remaining hurdle is filling out the brief paperwork and getting it notarized.

Now, I have to say, this is sometimes a bit embarrassing - like yesterday, when they called a nice woman at my local bank back early from lunch to notarize my form - having to explain the whole story in brief and apologize for interrupting her lunch was awkward. The tension was broken, however, by my four year old daughter yelling, in the bank, near the top of her lungs, "No, don't do it, daddy, don't run for President!"

But run, I will. I'm too far in to back out now.

Over the course of the next six months or so, I'll put together a few videos or something to try and make people laugh and, who knows, maybe catch some viral mania. I'm not trying to win and I don't expect to. I just wanted a funny story to tell for the rest of my life, but, to be honest, it would be kinda awesome if a bunch of strangers actually found out about this whole thing and got my votes to double digits.

So if you have friends or relatives in Colorado. Encourage them to vote. Help me get to 7th place in the Colorado election for President. I feel like 7th would be a real achievement.

*Pun intended.