Sunday, August 09, 2020

COVID as a window to a pre-modern world, and what they valued

In some ways, the COVID world makes the pre-industrial world more relatable. There is more insecurity now than before. Scarcity is something that is far more relatable after seeing months of shortages and empty shelves at poorly-stocked grocers. It is now more heartfelt to be grateful for simply having food, as the steady supply that I took for granted last year now seems a luxury. Even now, with supplies much improved over a few months ago, the stores still lack things that I used to take for granted.

And yet most of human history has been lived with uncertainty about these things. Every vaccine on our vaccination list was probably once an epidemic or an otherwise feared disease. And life went on. Instead of life being defined by possessions or security, it was defined by heart and soul, family, beauty, and a host of spiritual things that were held to be of greater value than food. Having had more experience of scarcity now, I begin to appreciate their point more deeply. I found this to be moving:

Blessed is the one who finds wisdom,
who gains understanding

For wisdom is more profitable than silver
and yields better returns than gold

She [wisdom] is more precious than rubies;
nothing you desire can compare to her.

Long life is in her right hand;
in her left are riches and honor. 

Her ways are pleasant ways,
and all her paths are peaceful. 

She is a tree of life to those who embrace her,
those who lay hold of her will be blessed.  ... 

When you lie down you will not be afraid;
when you lie down, your sleep will be sweet. 

Have no fear of sudden disaster
or of the ruin that overtakes the wicked.

(Proverbs 3:13-18; 24-25)

In comparison, I think our pop culture is not even a parody of what it should be. 

Wisdom and kindness can give our lives a kind of value that a well-stocked pantry cannot: one with honor. The return-on-investment of wisdom is quality of life, depth of life, beauty of life, even (often enough) length of life. It sweetens sleep as it does waking life, deepens friendships, makes the rough places smooth. It is life-giving. Wisdom is the world's foundation; anything built without it will not last, and anything without it will not continue -- and will not be a blessing, and will not give life, and cannot attain to peace. When the rubble of our current mess is cleared away -- however deep the rubble may be -- it will take wisdom to lay the foundation again, and a respect for what is solid and upright and true.


Sunday, August 02, 2020

How to love our neighbors during COVID?

This may seem basic -- and yet I see reason to believe it would still be good to think about. It's easy to lose focus. So as the lockdown continues into another month I've been searching for ways, either as individuals or in community, to love our neighbors during COVID.

  • Take care of our own health and theirs: Do not endanger a life. Here, love of our neighbor legitimately requires love of self as well. Someone who is infected will almost inevitably put others at risk. 
  • Do not judge: This virus is new. We're navigating in uncharted waters. None of us will make the right call 100% of the time; neither will my neighbor. 
  • Kindness and patience: I can skip a chance to be angry at someone. We all have extra struggles now. 
  • Listening and staying connected: I can make a phone call, send a message, have a quick video chat. When we're isolated there are all kinds of problems, and fewer solutions. Left alone, it's easy to slide into self-doubt or low spirits. It's easier to fall into fear or anger. The act of connecting to another person can re-set our minds. 
  • Visit the sick: This can be done on-line or by phone or by a card; no one needs to risk personal health in order to visit the sick. 
  • Feed the hungry: The lock-down has been economically devastating for millions of families. Now more than ever, there's a chance to feed the hungry. 

I'd be glad to hear of other things that haven't made the list yet.

Sunday, July 26, 2020

Group identity badges

Jewish culture may have adopted some of their more puzzling laws (for example. not wearing mixed linen-and-wool clothing) based on an attempt to distinguish themselves from neighboring tribes. Choosing to wear distinctive clothing is fairly harmless, as cultural boundaries go. That requirement was a small part of a bigger picture, and even that requirement was presented as part of a moral code. In that context, how many people would come to wonder if the differences enhanced their own moral status, and how does that work out in the cultural mind, as time goes by? By the time of Jesus, Jewish prayers seem to have included thanking God for being born a Jew. By the around end of the first century -- with challenges to Jewish identity from Jewish monotheism going global under the banner of Jesus -- some Jews wanted to distinguish Judaism-without-Jesus from Judaism-with-Jesus, and added to their daily prayers a call for God to curse heretics (by which they meant followers of Jesus), calling on G-d for their destruction and damnation. And while the worship leader would be excused a verbal stumble at any point in the prayer, they came to insist that the prayer against heretics be said properly and without stumbling -- lest they find that their leader was in fact one of the heretics. So in some times and places it became a job requirement to use a prayer for cursing and/or verbal abuse. To be clear, my point is not that particular prayer so much as that particular mind-set. Christians are not immune to that kind of thinking, with some denominations requiring that their ministerial candidates must identify certain symbolic enemies of the faith (e.g. the anti-Christ) with either the teaching or leadership of another Christian group.

A boundary marker's purpose is to recognize a division or separation. In their most innocent form it's simply functional, something like a property line that keeps each side's place safe from the other. But not all markers are so friendly. They can institutionalize more than a boundary; they can institutionalize a sense of superiority or grievance, or they can be used to teach hatred. They can draw a line between "good people" and "bad people" -- or whether someone is eligible for a job -- by whether they are willing to participate in a hate-marker. In some groups, it is expected that someone should participate in standard verbal-abuse formulas of another group, or their own identity is suspect: their own acceptance or rejection is on the line.

The same thing happens outside of religious circles, too. Ever notice how former child stars so commonly do a nude photo-shoot or nude role before they have access to adult acting jobs? There seems to be a quiet job expectation that the actor should take an action that rejects ethical limits to sexuality and nudity. Hollywood somehow doesn't get called to account for its pedophilia problem, which seems closely related to the expectation that a former child star should join in violating the ethical norms meant to protect them. Participating in bashing others -- or in bashing certain social norms -- is sometimes a passport-stamp not only to certain social circles, but to the better jobs.

Every group has its boundary. The question on my mind today is: How many boundaries are maintained at someone else's expense?

Sunday, July 19, 2020

George Floyd - Things that need saying

I know politics isn't my usual topic, but I've had these things on my mind, and wanted to say them now that we've all had a moment to think. 

To some extent, the U.S. is still grappling with the murderous actions of a police officer who killed an unarmed man back in May. Many people have already said worthwhile things; I'll limit myself to a few points where I might add to the conversation by reinforcing points that haven't gained as much traction as they merit.

Good cop, bad cop

One of the more disturbing things that came to light is that it was no surprise that this particular officer (now ex-officer) was a bad actor. He had a long list of complaints against him. If he hadn't had a badge, I wonder whether he might have already been behind bars. The fact that he was still on the streets with a badge is disturbing. Because the officer was a known problem, it does in fact mean that the surrounding institutions (police leadership, possibly also police union leadership) share responsibility for what happened. (I'm not convinced that the police chief actually belongs in the cell next to ex-officer Chauvin -- but given that Chauvin was a repeat offender, the chief should at least answer to the public for how that happened, and what is being done to make sure that never happens again.) I do not want to hear the politicians or even the police chief give a hand-wringing speech -- though I do want to hear them take responsibility for fixing the problem. I want to see the police departments and leaders make a policy change that will get known troublemakers off the streets. I also need to hear the police unions say that, while of course they need to protect cops from malicious revenge-complaints, that they have also become willing to acknowledge there are bad actors and see them taken off the streets. I would also like to see an immediate review of repeat-offender cops so that they can be pulled off the streets now.

Protests and riots

After George Floyd's death, the outrage was more than understandable, it was right. Giving voice to that outrage was a simple act of decency, respect for the dead, and protest against injustice. In the places where there were peaceful public protests, they gave a visible form to the unanimous American sentiment that we will not tolerate this. It may be true that the number of unarmed people dying in police custody is down, that the trend is downward and has been for some years; it's still too high. As a nation, we insist on the day when the number of unarmed people who die from being arrested is zero.

And yet the protests were marred by riots. I can hear it now, "Don't call them riots, call them peaceful protests!" Nope; when there's a death toll, it's a riot. When there are even a series of violent injuries or deliberate arson I will say right back, "Don't call them peaceful protests, call them riots." When people are bringing backpacks full of concrete rubble so that they can attack police, or are pre-placing pallets of bricks for ready weapons, they are not even spontaneous outbursts of frustration, but intended and planned attacks. Too many people were killed; that doesn't happen in a peaceful protest. Neither is this the first time in recent years that political riots have killed people, have multiplied the death toll and, with blood on their own hands, undermine their own cause.

Black lives matter because all lives matter

From what I know at this point it looks clear to me that the cop belongs behind bars, and there's no telling whether his actions were racially motivated but they may have been, and that does add an extra layer of sickness to the events of that day. It is clear that many people perceive it as racially motivated. As a statement of fact, "Black lives matter" is true and it looks to me as though its truth is universally accepted, in that I have never heard anyone say that black lives do not matter. Still, there are legitimate reasons that I have heard people cite for distancing themselves from that particular way of phrasing things. Besides being a moral fact, unfortunately the phrase "Black Lives Matter" is also the name of a political organization that seems to have professional anarchists on speed-dial. Some peaceful people hesitate to use that phrase in order not to endorse an organization generally seen keeping close company with a terrorist/anarchist group, and that has a noticeable amount of blood on their hands over the years. Also, because there are a variety of races in this world, singling out one race that matters can send the wrong message, and eventually will send the wrong message. Considering the number of killings during the riots or in their wake, it has become increasingly necessary to affirm that all lives matter. Consider the recent report of the murder of a young woman for saying "All lives matter," or several people who are known to have lost their jobs for saying what is also a statement of fact, "All lives matter" -- which includes blacks along with all the other races as equals. Your life matters, my life matters, and nobody's safety or job should be in jeopardy for saying that their own life matters. There are people who are quick to shout down people for saying that their own life matters, who work to silence them, who falsely accuse them -- who even cite the alleged dog-whistle, the perennial excuse to justify doubling down on an unfounded accusation rather than issuing an apology, when looking into the facts turns up a complete lack of evidence for the original accusation. We live in a country where people have been retaliated against for saying that their own life matters. That is dangerous ground. Think twice.

Too broad a brush

The death of George Floyd has made it abundantly clear that there are bad cops out there. And yet I would bet that there are more good cops, and that it is unfair to judge them based on the bad ones in the group. In the same way, when it comes to group judgment, I would bet that most males are not sexual predators. We can think of other examples of group prejudice; but it's odd which ones are considered wrong and which ones are accepted. The court of public opinion has a long track record of over-generalizing, of going to all-or-nothing thinking, of making group accusations and assigning collective guilt.

While we're on the topic of painting with too broad a brush, I have reason to believe that most white people aren't racists. Yet there have been some very vocal white people saying that all white people are racists. I have no idea what's inside these peoples' heads, but I suspect that not only are they badly wrong, but I think they are actively doing harm. If I were a member of the black community, what would be more useful to me: hearing a white person send the message "Really we're all racists", or hearing the message "Really we're all horrified by what that cop did. That guy is going down. We're not standing for that, and we're with you"?

To wrap it up

As I said at the start, much has been said, and I haven't covered all that could be said. But for today I have gone on long enough, and want to close with my main point:

Really we're all horrified by what that cop did. That guy is going down. We're not standing for that, and we're with you.

Sunday, July 12, 2020

Persecutor, Rescuer, Victim - Do the roles fit into redemption?

It's over fifty years ago now that Stephen Karpman described the drama triangle now often named after him as the Karpman drama triangle. He describes how in conflict there are generally three identifiable roles: persecutor, rescuer, and victim. In his psychological/drama analysis, some interesting things come to light: not only is there is a payoff for each role, there can also be a marked difference between which role people claim for themselves and how they are perceived by others. And people often change roles over time. For example, someone may psychologically embrace the role of victim which confers a status of innocence at the cost of giving away any power or agency. To gain heroic status, someone may understandably embrace the role of rescuer -- at the cost (or benefit) of painting someone else as the villain and implying someone else is helpless. And many persecutors see themselves as either victims or rescuers, either justifying or not noticing when they cross the line to being violent, controlling, or unreasonable themselves.

I find myself wondering today how those roles fit into the picture of redemption, or whether they fit at all. We'll start with an innocent role: the role of victim. To clarify, that's not the same as someone who has been harmed. We've all had the common human experience of being hurt; whether we continue as a victim is a different question. The dramatic role of victim requires a certain perpetual powerlessness and involves sticking to a certain limited script of responses. For someone defined by hurt or motivated by anger, forgiveness can mean losing identity or motivation -- or losing the default assumption of innocence that is part of the victim role. With redemption, the picture changes. There is justice tempered with mercy. Hurts are healed. There are no more victims, only those who have been redeemed and restored.

What about a rescuer? Clearly there can be legitimate instances of helping other people. Even so, the legitimacy of the starting point doesn't protect against the temptations along the way. This person generally pictures themselves as doing righteous work -- and may come to depend on the recognition and status that comes with the role. They may also grow their self-worth at the expense of the belief that someone else cannot get along without their help. They may enable the cycle to continue. On the darker side, rescuers may enjoy the opportunity to call other people the villains, and (like victims) may find their identity and self-worth caught up portraying someone else as irredeemable, and themselves as better-than. The angrier and more self-righteous the rescuer becomes, the higher the risk that they cross over that paradoxical line where history's most dangerous villains have seen themselves as champions of a good cause. For those who have not yet crossed that line, though, how do they relate to redemption? Of course the rescuers will be glad to see the hurts healed. But there is a temptation among rescuers to be merciless, even ruthless; that way lies no small danger to ourselves. Those who are on a quest for peace and justice will be glad to see justice -- and even be glad to see it tempered with mercy.

But when vindictiveness becomes a virtue, the victim or rescuer has lost themselves and has emerged as a persecutor. They may have started out in another role with innocence or good-will. But the longer the focus on hatred, the longer the hardening of heart, the longer the dehumanization of the opposition -- the longer the good-will becomes limited to certain people, the more the original innocence is lost and the original good-will becomes stained. Redemption is most powerful when it redeems even the evil, and makes them innocent again. And yet it rolls off of those who insist they are innocent already. Here is a danger in the "good cause" that hardens the heart and provokes to mercilessness. Still there is always hope for redemption. Forgiveness is always an open door. For the cruel and arrogant, it starts with humility. Contrite repentance will renew their fellowship with God and others. God will lift up the humble.

Whatever our starting point, whatever our current place on the drama triangle, there isn't a single place in the drama without its temptations. "Watch and pray", as they say; "watch and pray."

Sunday, July 05, 2020

Communicating the Nature of God

Every now and then I have asked my readers' patience with my side pursuits, such as poetry or humor; this time it is art.

The Bible contains many beautiful images, and describes many beautiful things. One that I find particularly striking is the image of the lamp and stand from the ancient tabernacle:

"Make a lampstand out of pure gold and hammer it out, base and shaft, its flower-like cups, buds and blossoms shall be of one piece with it. Six branches are to extend from the side of the lampstand -- three on one side and three on the other." (Exodus 25:31-32)

If you continue reading the description of the original, you will see that this drawing is much simplified and takes some artistic license to "complete" the image with the simplifications; the original design is well beyond my current skill. Still the basic idea -- a tree of gold with flowers of fire -- has enchanted me and captivated me for many years now, and I am pleased to have a first draft.

I have noticed how often the Bible associates holiness with beauty, with an incarnated touch of numinous beauty that communicates the splendor of God. It is my hope that any place where God's beauty is shown and God's name is invoked becomes an outpost of holiness in this world. They say that there are mysteries of God which cannot be put into words. In which case, we can only convey them through things that are not words. Beauty can communicate the presence of God better than so much talk.

Sunday, June 28, 2020

Breaking the silence

I dislike politics. It is so polarized that entering into that particular arena can leave us dehumanized. And yet whether I want to enter or not, there I am. Recently I reached out to a friend that I hadn't heard from since the COVID lockdown began. At first she was glad to hear from me. But then during a second conversation she set a litmus-test for my politics, demanding a yes-or-no answer to a question that, for me, is not all-or-nothing. I answered honestly; she ended the call and has cut off all contact. Such is the destructive, dehumanizing power of polarized politics. There is too much hatred, too much unthinking rage, too much willingness to believe the worst of people. For me, entering a conversation on politics has the feeling of walking into a baited trap. And yet if I'm going to lose friends over it, I would rather pull off the bandage and have it done. The topic I bring tonight isn't the same one I discussed with my friend -- and yet in the same way it is a litmus test in some peoples' minds.

My early experience of polarized politics consisted of my very-liberal mother's contempt for all things conservative, which early in life I adopted by default. The first time I remember re-evaluating was when I heard some conservatives defend a pro-life stance. You see, my brother and I were unwanted children, back from a time now long-gone when there were laws to protect unwanted children. Later my mother volunteered at Planned Parenthood, underscoring what she told us in so many words: Sometimes she wished we had never been born. So when I met conservatives who affirmed that I had a right to exist, a right to breathe the same air as other people and not be ashamed of my own existence, that I wasn't an inexcusable burden for simply being alive -- well, those were new thoughts to me. I took a second look at the default assumption that "unwanted children don't count". When I considered another view, "unwanted children are just as human as wanted children", considered that the lack of a mother's love didn't mean I was less worthy of love than the wanted children, I could breathe better. I know that taking a pro-life stand paints a target on myself; politics is not a game that is played nicely, but is generally played as a blood-sport these days. And yet I affirm that I have a right to exist, and that my brother had a right to exist.

There is an argument sometimes made in support of abortion, that any woman who does not want her child will do a bad job raising the child. That certainly matches my own experience. The attitude that she didn't want us so we didn't count -- that attitude didn't go away when we were born. There was an amount of neglect that should have seen us placed in foster homes -- if the family hadn't been so good at keeping secrets, if the system weren't so practiced at turning a blind eye. Every now and then I'd see a news segment where some neglected children were found and rescued and all kinds of people would cluck disapprovingly how those people should never have had children. But my focus was the rescue to a foster home; I would find myself quietly squashing the forbidden-yet-familiar thought, "Where's a news crew when you need one?" There was abuse serious enough that it contributed to my brother's diagnosis of PTSD, which in turn contributed to his untimely death year-before-last.

So I would like to take one step back and look behind the argument that "a woman who does not want her child will do a bad job raising that child." Underneath that argument is a basic acceptance of the attitude of not wanting your own child. There's an implied acceptance of neglect of unwanted children; perhaps even an expectation of it. The potential tragedies of abuse and neglect are framed as the natural result of the unwanted child's existence, instead of as the natural result of the attitude of not wanting the child. I would like to challenge that attitude, and challenge its acceptance. The most basic of all social contracts is that parents love and care for their children. The most basic moral touchstone, "Do unto others as you would have them do unto you," forbids us to harm the innocent and helpless; it would awaken our sense of compassion for our own child, and our sense of justice as people who have reached child-bearing age to care for the life of the next generation. 

To be clear, I am not writing out of any expectation that I'll have covered all the ground on this topic; there are dozens of contributing conversations, and they have hardly been touched here. Or out of any expectation that I'll have made anyone reconsider their own "side" (the fact that we're divided, and there are "sides", is its own problem). I hope that some people become aware of how arguments for abortion can sound to those of us who were unwanted, as the arguments affirm our parent(s) in claiming that, as unwanted children, we have no right to exist. In my experience, that attitude hardly stops when we're born. And that's part of the argument for abortion: the parent's attitude will cause them to at least neglect their child. And so it does; can we stop accepting the attitude then?

It is readily accepted in so many areas of life that we are responsible for our attitudes, and that changing our attitudes makes a world of difference. The only change I am advocating is a change in attitude. Do unto others as you would have them do unto you: Want your child. Even -- maybe especially -- if they have already been born.