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.

Tuesday, September 13, 2016

The Daniel Code by OS Hawkins

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.

OS Hawkins opens The Daniel Code with a summary of his experience by decade. He speaks glowingly of the '60s, both its exploration and introspection; reservedly about the '70s; optimistically about the '80s, and forgets the '90s altogether, lumping it in with all the years of the new millennium. Context is everything. I know this is just his experience, but he could have talked about the '20s and the introspection following WWI; the '30s skepticism following the stock market crash, the optimism of the '40s, and the forgotten '50s. History does tend to repeat itself.

I also noticed this personal context because I am a child of the '90s. More than any other decade, this one, often forgotten between the end of the cold war and 9/11, shaped who I am. I see the world differently than OS Hawkins because I remember the '90s with great fondness and respect. I ordered The Daniel Code to review largely because of the subtitle: Living Out Truth in a Culture That is Losing Its Way. I suspected that my understanding of what's implied by "culture" and "losing its way" would vary greatly from what the author had in mind. I wasn't wrong.

Hawkins talks about the "de-Christianizing" of US society. He's one of many children of the '50s and early '60s who look longingly on that time as "the good old days." You can tell this almost instantly (like when he doesn't talk about Civil Rights or protest in his description of the '60s; it's like he's living a decade behind US history). That's not to knock his experience. It was a different time and context and people should be allowed to experience what they experience and process it in their own way.

What he's expressing here is very true... for a specific group of white, largely suburban, people, born during the Baby Boom. It's not universal.

I assumed, therefore, that I could take the universal principles presented in The Daniel Code and apply them to the accomodationist fundamentalism of modern evangelical culture that I presumed the book represented and that I seek to distance myself from. I was hoping to "decode" The Daniel Code and use its biblical secrets against it. Sadly, though, the ideas presented by Hawkins in this book don't appear particularly effective and certainly feel, in many cases, anti-biblical and counter-productive. It's a real stretch to find something redeeming in these pages and I suspect readers who take The Daniel Code seriously are far more likely to be harmed than helped in the experience.

It's an irresponsible book that should never have been published, finding more in common with the great cultural sins of individualism, consumerism, and nationalism than with faith, hope, and love. There's a presumption that Christendom, with all its faults, was actually somehow more reflective of Christian life and values than any other time period, that Christians now have a difficult mission of subversion and cultural combat that didn't exist in the 1950s or the 1800s. It betrays an extreme lack of historical understanding and a cultural blindness that is downright disturbing (and I didn't even mention a selling out to conservative US electoral positions and passing them off as biblical).

I was hoping The Daniel Code would represent a general call to live differently in the world as Christians with ideas and true biblical support that would encourage life in the Kingdom of God as an alternative to the kingdoms of the world. Instead, it seems, we have a thoroughly ignorant primer on how to win over the kingdoms of the world by playing their own game, or die in the process. This book plays games of power and control and attempts to sanctify them with poor exegesis and baseless theological malpractice.

I briefly thought about countering the bad ideas contained in this book, as I often do in these reviews, but I realized were I to do so, the review would be longer than the book itself. Hawkins presents vaguely good ideas like, "Stand up for what you believe and resist cultural pressure to change," with very little discussion of how you might do that. When such explanation comes, it's in the form of conservative political talking points or unfounded generalizations.

Towards the middle of the book he uses the phrase "you have what you tolerate" to once again attack the notion of tolerance as anti-Christian and argue for throwing out wholesale that with which you disagree. I have read every word of every book I've reviewed in this BookLook program since I joined, even those with no redeeming value that ended up being utter disappointments. I have broken with that tradition here, because this isn't an intellectual argument or a presentation of ideas with which I disagree, it's a blatant, uncharitable attack on people for whom Christ died, and it contains none of the love, grace, or compassion that are personified in that Christ.

I'd like to think Hawkins knows better, but he can't. I'm sure he's a kind old man who genuinely believes he's serving the Church and his God with this book. I couldn't imagine someone saying the things in this book simply to serve a policy position or back an agenda. The Daniel Code represents a perspective on scripture and theology that exists all too commonly in the world, but there is something to be said for the idea that "the medium is the message." Even if this is a cry from the heart of a concerned pastor, it has to be delivered in a way that reflects the nature of the truth it claims to present. The Daniel Code fails on that account.

I wanted to say this book isn't worth the paper it's printed on, but I suppose it's worth exactly the paper its printed on; the words certainly add nothing to the value. Typically I donate the free books I receive but do not wish to own to Goodwill so someone else who might appreciate them can. In this case I've used the paper so kindly provided to help start a fire - one that we routinely sit around with our neighbors in conversation about things that matter in life, with some hope that our love and acceptance can model Jesus' life and ministry, counteracting the negative, unholy message they've received from people who represent Christ in the ways this book does, to the utter detriment of everyone involved.

For God's sake, literally (and for everyone else's), please do not read The Daniel Code.

Disclosure of Material Connection: I received this book free from the publisher through the® 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.”

Thursday, September 08, 2016

Tortorella and the Ownership of Truth

When I wrote about Colin Kaepernick last week, I did not expect to see the living embodiment of the difficulty I explained in full media view just a few days later. But low and behold, let me present US National Hockey Team Head Coach, John Tortorella. When asked, as any US coach of anything has been the last few weeks, about how he'd handle players not standing for the national anthem, he responded, "If any of my players sit on the bench for the national anthem, they will sit there the rest of the game."

I'm not opposed to the expression of one's views - just last night the Washington Spirit of the pro women's soccer league changed their pregame time schedule to play the anthem before visiting player, Megan Rapinoe, who has knelt in solidarity and protest at past matches, would be on the field. That move makes me uncomfortable, for many of the reasons I'll explain below, but it's certainly within their rights. Tortorella, though, doubled down on his comments the next day with a longer explanation that serves to illustrate the real problem behind this issue.

"I'll tell you right now. Try to understand me. I'm not criticizing anybody for stepping up and putting their thoughts out there about things. I'm the furthest thing away from being anything political. No chance I'm involved in that stuff."

So, here he's saying that his opposition to and potential punishment of a political protest is not, in any way, political. The logic's a bit troubling, but let's say hockey has not always been associated with master logicians. Tortorella went on to explain this further:

"Listen, we're in a great country because we can express ourselves. And I am not against expressing yourselves. That's what's great about our country. We can do that. But when there are men and women that give their lives for their flag, for their anthem, have given their lives, continue to put themselves on the line with our services for our flag, for our anthem, families that have been disrupted, traumatic physical injuries, traumatic mental injuries for these people that give us the opportunity to do the things we want to do, there's no chance an anthem and a flag should come into any type of situation where you're trying to make a point. It is probably the most disrespectful thing you can do as a U.S. citizen is to bring that in. Because that's our symbol. All for [expressing] yourself. That's what's so great. Everybody does. But no chance when it comes to the flag and the anthem. No chance."

Tortorella's son is on his third overseas deployment as an Army Ranger. The coach speaks from and for a certain culture, prominent in the US, and I have no problem with the expression of his opinion. I do have some issue with how he's attempting to stand outside the conflict with this view. He's said he's not being political because the flag stands for something and should be above protest and political statement.

In essence, Tortorella is trying to control the truth.

In the other post (which I suggest you read before digging into this one), I talked about how perspective and our ability to understand the limitations of our perspective, are essential, not only to understanding Colin Kaepernick and Black Lives Matter, but also just for interaction in a diverse world, regardless of topic. In the end, it's all about who controls the truth.

Tortorella wants to put the flag and the anthem outside the bounds of protest, but that denudes the concept of protest itself. As much as I hate to give him credit for something, Stephen A Smith made a good comment on the radio the other day - protest is something that forces you to take sides. It presents an issue. He compared Kaepernick's protest to the opening of 2016 ESPYs, where basketball stars called for a pretty generic end to violence - one that most people would be hard-pressed to disagree with.

But there's real danger in determining where protest can happen and how. This is what I mean by controlling the truth. Tortorella would have us believe that there is just one definition or understanding of the flag and the national anthem, by implication he's saying there is only one understanding, one way to view the US military. He's connecting these things to a specific view of nationalism that separates the nation from its constituent parts and sets it aside as beyond criticism.

Let me put it differently, with a silly, impossible example. If Congress unanimously passed a bill stating all red-heads should be tortured to death in the public square, the President signed the bill into law, and the Supreme Court unanimously ruled it Constitutional, it would still be widely criticized. I suspect, even in a situation like the impossible one above, though, there would still be a sizable percentage of the US population that would argue, "there's nothing wrong with America, just the people running it."

This is nationalism. It's the holding up of the nation as an ideal. Nebulous categories like freedom or equality get embodied within the nation, thus making criticism of, in this case, the United States, tantamount to criticism of those beloved ideals.

Now, there's nothing wrong with loving one's country, or even associating it with certain ideals - the problem lies in then assuming, believing, and acting as if this perspective is, in fact, universal. This is what Tortorella is doing, saying you can't protest because the very foundation of this protest is untrue.

Kaepernick, Rapinoe, and others wouldn't argue about the higher ideals the US is supposed to represent, just that the nation has failed to live up to those ideals. They're questioning the appropriateness of nationalism in the face of a flawed nation. That is certainly a subject worthy of debate. There are lots of valid points on both sides. While I'm certainly in agreement with Kaepernick and others that systems of accountability in the US are broken, especially when it comes to issues of race, I'm not entirely comfortable with the way this protest is being executed or framed. I don't think I have a "side," necessarily - and I feel a whole lot of people are in the same boat.*

At the same time, I'm very uncomfortable with these kinds of words coming from the coach of Team USA - not because I necessarily disagree with his opinion, but because he's essentially invalidating and insulting the actual and real perspective of fellow US citizens. I'd be far less conflicted if he were just referring to the Columbus Blue Jackets, the pro team he also coaches. Like the Washington Spirit, that's a private organization that can decide for itself how to form and express opinions. This team is representing the whole country, but the coach fails to recognize how to respectfully disagree.

I don't think Tortorella is doing any of this on purpose. He's expressing his opinion and trying to represent himself as best he can. I'd say it's more an issue of self-awareness, of not having the distance to understand the larger picture into which he's been (likely unwillingly) thrust. I don't want to demean or villainize him with anything I've said (or will say); I'm hoping to just use his words as example.

This kind of talk is on the road to fascism. Now, like any good continuum, everything we say is "on the road" to fascism and certain parts of that road are completely safe, so it's really figuring out where we're comfortable standing that's important. Fascism is, essentially, the extension of nationalism to a person. Kim Jon Un might give lip service to communism, but he's really running a Fascist state - that's why his father and grandfather have been deified and why his picture hangs everywhere. He's trying to make himself synonymous with the nation, the same way nationalism makes freedom or equality or the sacrifice of soldiers synonymous with the nation - it makes him far more immune to criticism.

It becomes, "If you oppose me, you oppose the nation," or "If you oppose me, you are not patriotic." It's basically shifting the argument in your favor; if a demagogue is good enough at it, you end up with a Hitler or a Mussolini, who can turn a people's fear of being unpatriotic into complicity in some of the most horrible atrocities of all time.

Now, I say the "road to" fascism because no one is going to be Hitler. Even if Donald Trump (who has no qualms with his place on the road to fascism) were to become President, there's no conceivable scenario where he'd be able to convince a sizeable percentage of the population that he's equivalent to the nation, let along to freedom or equality. He's a minor demagogue on the stage of history, but this campaign is an example of how people might be convinced to support things they'd otherwise oppose when the rhetoric of security or patriotism is invoked.

Protesting during the national anthem is to Trump what Trump is to Hitler. It's small potatoes. I'm not trying to gin up hysteria or anything, just hoping to make us all think a little bit. Controlling the means of protest is a power move. In this case, it comes from lack of perspective; I don't think its malicious or intentional. But the fact that this sort of nationalistic response is so natural and unintentional for so many is worth considering.

In fascism the state can do no wrong, specifically the head of state. We're in no danger of that here - most people hate the head of state, no matter who it is, and the mechanism of government are even worse. I do wonder, though, if we're close to making "the military," or more specifically "the troops," into a type of demagogue. Sometimes it feels that "support the troops" is so ubiquitous, like saying "how's it going" when you pass someone, that no one ever stops to think what it means.

This is how Tortorella defended his position, right? It's what many of these nationalistic debates boil down to: you need to respect (this country, my position, the flag, the anthem, etc) because people fought and died for it. When people we know and love are far away and potentially in danger, we want to justify that unqualified sacrifice as strongly as possible. Everything we're doing has to be good or right or important because people are killing and dying for it.

The reality, though, is that the complexity of war, politics, and international relations means that the issues surrounding soldiers, freedom, and equality just aren't as simple as that narrative that comforts those enduring such sacrifice. You rarely see actual soldiers spouting off these opinions - in fact many have come to Kaepernick's defense, even as they disagree with his opinion - they intensely understand the complexity of what they do. It's usually those people without such experience who try to make things simple, either/or, black and white.

This is where ownership of the truth is so important. And while I used the example of soldiers and families - the same danger is just as present with activists for racial justice. It's just as possible to simplify the racial disparities of police violence to "they're shooting black people for sport," or "race war." Things are just more complicated than we can handle when people we know and love are involved.

We have to be careful to recognize we don't own the truth. Tortorella shouldn't have to be quiet, no matter how offended you are by his words. I do think we have to be aware of how we act upon those convictions. It's a real difficult issue to parse in this specific context, because while the two "sides" are saying very different things, they're both operating from nationalism.

Kaepernick is saying because he believes that the United States stands for justice, freedom, and equality, he's protesting how different the reality is from that ideal. Tortorella is saying that because the United States stands for justice, freedom, and equality, the celebration of those ideals is the wrong place to point out how much or how often the nation diverges from them.

But, as much as it seems like a small thing, there really is a big, important difference between saying, "this is the wrong time/place/way to protest," and saying, "you can't protest in this time/place/way." That comes down to ownership of truth - and truth belongs to no individual or side. As much as don't like how messy it makes things, truth is really something we can only figure out together. We own it collectively or we don't own it at all.

*This also makes for a really awkward decision on the part of other athletes. Perhaps they want to express a similar protest in a different way. They're now choosing between what looks like ignoring the issue or dishonoring the country. It's a no-win for everybody else. That doesn't come from any decision any individual made, but by the way we polarize every issue. This is largely what I was saying in the first post on Kaepernick. We have to do better than right/wrong, black/white stuff. The world is more complex than that and important issue are worth more than the marginalization that comes with it.

Tuesday, September 06, 2016

Prescriptive Faith

Using faith in this context is probably narrowing the discussion too much. I hope there aren't readers out there who just generally skip over my religious or theological stuff and miss this one. Perhaps the title would be better as "Prescriptive Life," but what I'm trying to get at is the idea we often have that "this worked for me, it should work for anyone." Maybe in our enlightened state we make it " for anyone in the same situation."

Because of our inherent tendency to generalize, we look to categorize everything into an already accepted paradigm. We find a box we know (ie redheaded people or solutions to an unhappy marriage) and put whatever is in front of us into the most appropriate box. It's how life works if we let it.

I've often argued that we need to take things individually, never assuming one person, group, or situation is like any other. That's not to say we can't learn from other people or the experience of others (or, similarly, that we have nothing to provide someone in what appears to be a familiar situation), but we must work hard to make sure that similarity serve the larger purpose rather than becomes the larger purpose. We get great security knowing that out decisions hold up outside the context in which we made them. I'm no psychologist, so I can't begin to explain it, but I've often found great comfort in confirmation - if it works for someone else, maybe I did handle things the right way.

I was thinking about that today in regards to John Wesley. Wesley was an 18th century English Anglican priest and the founder of the Methodist movement - its largely from his teaching and writing that the theology of the Church of the Nazarene emerged. I've been reading this book - Renovating Holiness - that came out a few years back (and to which I was privileged to contribute). It contains a hundred or so essays about this thing we call "holiness," but provides about as broad a continuum of understanding as one could imagine.

I've been reading a lot of these articles, and it seems really easy for us to slip into a prescriptive kind of faith. That is a "do ________ and __________ will happen" sort of thing. Certainly much of the early leaders who became Nazarene operated in that mode; there was very much an orderly solution to all life's problems, which was pretty consistent with the scientific and mechanical revolution happening all around them. I was interested to see often John Wesley is included in this very prescriptive kind of idea. Certainly much of his methodist practice was prescriptive. He instituted several layers of participation and accountability for his followers, with strict requirements in each level and swift consequences for falling out of line. Sometimes there's a fine line between prescription and discipline.

Modern faith practice seems to operate on a continuum from prescription to description - with one extreme mandating a specific course of action universally, while the other is open to total uniqueness and individuality. I'm thinking of this in the context of faith, but it certainly applies anywhere - from the way in which a person of particular racial, cultural, religious, or sexual orientation should approach the world to what it means to build a business or educate a child. We're all in some sense prescriptive and descriptive - attempting to balance two things that don't tend to get along very well.

Particularly, in the case of Wesley, it seems he evolved greatly over time. Much of that comes from personal experience. He grew up doing faith in the prescribed way - he achieved what he was supposed to achieve, but it left him empty. He found a new and different way of doing things, one that fulfilled him, so he set about instructing other people in that way. Over time he came to realize that the process was less important than the end goal and became far more open to descriptive theology and practice. He still had rules and regulations - "advices" in the vernacular of the time - and Wesley was certainly not shy about giving his opinion on what you should do and how you should do it, but there was also a recognition the prescription was not a solution.

In a sense, this was his second conversion. The first, for Wesley, famously happened in an instant - with his heart "strangely warmed." The second, I'd argue, happened gradually, as he was faced with the diversity of people and experiences that exist in the world. People often ask me where to find a "definitive work of Wesleyan theology," a big, thick book that explains our family of religious thought in a clear, straightforward way. As often as smart, well-meaning people try to write it, Wesleyan theology doesn't work that way, because Wesley didn't. He changed and grew over time - and that willingness to critically engage and reshape theology and practice is really, itself, the hallmark of Wesleyan theology.

That's difficult for a prescriptive person. People who are comfortable with orderly, routine definitions don't tend to enjoy something, especially something as formative as one's perspective on practical truth, that can't be entirely nailed down. At the same time, it's not the realm of individualism either. Being alive necessarily involves relationship - with people, institutions, the world at large. We can't be isolated wherein our decisions affect only ourselves. The whole, "whatever works for you" idea is not exactly the same thing. Absolute relativism only works on paper - or maybe in your head - it can't play out in the real world.

We've got to find some balance in between. We need to be able to see the individual circumstances that make each person and situation unique, respect them, and be willing to give leeway for people to live, believe, and understand in ways that ring true to them. At the same time, we have to hold each other accountable (to themselves if no one else) for ideas, actions, and understanding that actually provides some semblance of good life. In other words, there's just as much danger we'll delude ourselves with idealism as there is in us imprisoning someone else with the same thing.

It's not so much being satisfied with "I'm ok; you're ok," as it is not being satisfied until we are indeed both "ok." That's the balance between prescription and description. What it means to live well in the world can't be static or defined; it's not a puzzle to be solved, but an adventure to be lived - lived together, yes, but with and understanding that life's adventure for each of us is interconnected, but not interchangeable.

Thursday, September 01, 2016

Church for Introverts

My father asked me the other day what a church for introverts would look like. I found that a little odd, seeing as how I always pictured him as an introvert. Maybe 40 years as a pastor has left him less in touch with his introvert nature, but, but I certainly get why he'd ask me. And I don't think he's really asking what a church "for" introverts would look like, but probably more what a congregation could do to better welcome introverts and make them more at home in communal life.

Let's face it, most congregations out there are not appealing to introverts. Most congregations aren't all that appealing to people under 60 at this point, but that's an entirely different issue. Church tends to be about social convention as much as anything else - it's a place to see people, have a conversation or, on the other ends, a place to slip into and out of quietly. You're either interacting or you're not.

That's part of the problem right there, though. Introverts don't like superficial interaction. The whole "How's work? Some weather we're having..." kind of talk is just not something an introvert wants to expend their social energy on. Interactions that feel like they won't go anywhere are probably non-starters - which is unfortunate, because that's usually where social convention dictates relationships start. It's certainly pretty common to maintain those superficial relationships in a church, because Christians these days (at least US Christians) have a real difficult time getting past those relationships. Christian life is supposed to be one of intimacy and vulnerability - life together is really supposed to look like life together - but it rarely is.

Maybe the first step in making a safe (or desirable) place for introverts is a congregation challenging itself to more depth and intimacy. There are a lot of ways to do that - and no relationships is really "easy" for an introvert to enter - but making it known, by words (and more importantly) by actions, that a congregation is intentional about prioritizing trust and vulnerability would go along way. Congregations have become pretty used to setting a low bar for participation - and I think that's good (a sense of belonging is crucial for inclusion of new members in any community) - but there's a real difference between good hospitality and low accountability. Parsing that out is important.

The first thing I thought of when asked this question, though, was something very practical: embracing a traditional "Passing of the Peace." Growing up, this was always named in the order of service, even though it was really just "greeting time." Lately, many congregations have changed the actual name to "fellowship or greeting," and even those congregations who keep the traditional name have essentially made it greeting time.

That's a natural progression - most people are more comfortable saying, "Hi, how's your week?" than "Peace be with you," or "Peace of Christ." But, as an introvert, having a specific liturgical greeting is both comforting and important. I don't like starting conversations and I don't like having to come up with things to talk about (see above). Having a very specific message and response is helpful. I can interact with people in a predictable way, knowing what to say and what someone else will say. It's welcoming. (Speaking of which, I think specifically saying "Welcome to worship," even for people who are regular attenders is really important theologically - it helps remind ourselves that everyone is indeed welcome. Combining welcome and peace always makes sense to me.)

Yes, it's a lot more formal and less like typical conversation, but I think that's also part of the point. We're forcing a bit of depth and intimacy on each other in this way. "How're you doing" is something you'd say to a stranger in the hardware store - "Peace by with you," brings with it a complex series of issues that Christians should be engaging with together. It encourages the kind of community many congregations struggle to form, plus it helps facilitate interactions with which introverts are more comfortable. #winwin

I know there are more ways in which congregations can adapt and change to better include those who aren't immediately amenable to what's become the typical way of doing corporate worship. There's lots of room for inclusion of people well beyond introverts. It's something important, even vital to think about and work towards. A seminary classmate of mine introduced me to a concept years ago that I've adopted to include along with vision casting - she called it "outcasting," a fitting reminder that we must constantly be conscious of those who aren't in our group, to specifically seek out and consider the opinion of the "other" or the "outcast." This is an important reminder and practice for any congregation looking to be more hospitable and inclusive.

Every situation is different, but hopefully this is a good start down the avenue of consideration - for introverts and others who may have not been traditionally considered in the construction and execution of our communities.