Beyond Godwin’s Law

 

Hitler and Goebbels brightened

Comparisons to Hitler are tired. And they are used so much in contemporary American politics that the reducto ad Hitlerium argument actually has a name, Godwin’s Law. Most of us agree that unless you have spearheaded a genocidal campaign that ends in the deaths of millions and the forced subjugation of Europe, you’re not Hitler.

Unless you kinda are.

How Do You Solve a Problem Like Adolf?

Hitler had to become HITLER, the poster child for evil and political oppression the world has promised will never happen again. From his days as a corporal during World War I, after a failed career as an artist, Hitler nursed an illogical antisemitism and helped form the basic political platforms of the nascent National Socialist German Workers (Nazi) Party. Capitalizing on the fears of the populace, taking advantage of an always vacillating economy, and clearly identifying an enemy with vague promises of making Germany Great Again, Hitler and the Nazis managed to win seats in the Reichstag over the course of a couple elections, catapulting Hitler into the limelight and resulting in his appointment as Chancellor to Hindenburg’s presidency. His unreadable book Mein Kampf clearly set forth his plans, and was required reading for all of Germany. Much like the Bible, the book sat in homes untouched. Often people say that there was no way to know in 1933 what 1943 would look like; hogwash. One can almost imagine Hitler saying, if asked about his plans for Germany, “Buy my book.” Trump’s equivalent, set forth in all of his books, is “truthful hyperbole.” Essentially, if you make the claim big enough, the exaggeration is not really a lie because somewhere, under all the fatty bluster, is a kernel of truth clinging to itself for dear life. (Shameless plug, buy the books my mom and I wrote on Hitler and World War II; they have all the best words.)

But a despot cannot rise to power without some significant manner of support. Sure, political executions and control of the military are key–and Hitler did that in spades–but there has to be buy-in, at least early on, from the people. There has to be the notion that some sort of revolution is happening in which those frequently disenfranchised are being empowered, and that they are given carte blanche to deal with their enemies.

Dateline, Paris. 1938. Low-level functionary Ernst vom Rath is assassinated by a Polish Jewish teenager born in Germany, Herschel Grynszpan,  who has been living in exile. Upon learning that his entire family had been turned away from the Polish border as they tried to escape the Nazis and convinced that the execution of a German diplomat would bring worldwide attention to the plight of the Jews in Germany, Grynszpan forms and carries out his plot. Vom Rath lingers for a few days, and dies on November 9, the 15th anniversary of the Munich Beer Hall Putsch.

Nazi propaganda minister Joseph Goebbels seized upon the opportunity. He had successfully led the efforts to purge Jews from public life. The death of vom Rath led Goebbels to ask Hitler if he could unleash the SA upon the innocent German people. Hitler agreed. From Goebbels’ diary:

In the afternoon the death of the German diplomat vom Rath is announced. That’s good…I go to the Party reception in the old Rathaus. Terrific activity. I brief Hitler on the affair. He decides: allow the demonstrations to go on. Withdraw the police. The Jews should feel the people’s fury. That’s right. I issue appropriate instructions to the police and party. Then I give a brief speech on the subject to the Party’s leadership. Thunderous applause. Everyone dashed to the telephone. Now the people will act.

What Goebbels set forth as the “action of the people” was actually a coordinated, deliberate, and violent action perpetrated by the Nazi paramilitary wing, and resulted in the deaths of at least 91 Jews, the arrest of over 30,000, and the destruction of Jewish businesses, synagogues, hospitals, schools, and apartments across Germany and Austria. The night of terror has become known as Kristallnachtor Night of Broken Glass. Any doubts about the Nazi plans were dashed on that night.

Remember, though, the leadership claimed that they had no responsibility, that it was the actions of the German Volk rising up and making Germany great again.

 

Herr Drumpf

Appearing on CNN on March 17, Trump said, “I think you’d have riots. I think you’d have riots. I’m representing a tremendous many, many millions of people.” When pressed about the word “riot,” der Fooler retorted, “It’s not riot as in a negative thing like what we’ve seen in the past, it’s the fact that you have a large amount of people that will be very unhappy. I don’t think they would sit there and resort, in fact I know they would not resort to violence, I know they would not do it. However, they would make sure their voices are heard, that they can’t be ignored.”

Set aside the fact that there is absolute hypocrisy in Trump’s denunciation of the Black Lives Matter movement for their protests and uprisings. Do we really think that Trump is not calling for violence if he does not get his way?

Words. They mean things. And while it is getting tiring to hear comparisons of Trump to Hitler almost every day, as someone who knows a great deal about the Nazi rise to power and the propaganda methods utilized by Goebbels, it is chilling to me the direction that Trump is taking his rallies and his message. While I never want to play the role of prophet or prognosticator, I fear that someone will die at a Trump rally. I fear that his armed and angry supporters will take to the streets and target mosques, minority owned businesses, the homeless, and anyone who does not raise their right hand and pledge to vote for Trump. Trump claiming that he will not lead the riots seems about as credible as Goebbels claiming Kristallnacht was the spontaneous actions of the people. Trump will continue to act like he is innocent and above the fray, all the while sending not-so-coded messages to his followers. Why, just today three people in Milwaukee were killed for the crime of not speaking English.

Stay tuned, y’all. This is not going to be fun.

Bernie of Nazareth

bernie

Preamble

This is a rare request blog; rare only because I have so few readers, and most of them are not champing at the bit to set me to task. However, a good friend who happens to be incredibly knowledgeable about religion and Scripture asked me to take up the crossovers between Bernie Sanders and Jesus. How could I say no?

I have to offer some caveats, though. because this is the sort of blog that could offend a whole bunch of people and actually get me in some trouble if I don’t set forth ground rules. First, I am writing as a private citizen who is guaranteed the right to freedom of religion and the right to participate in the American democratic process. I happen to be a pastor at a very specific place, but my words in no way, shape, or form represent an official or unofficial position of the United Church of Christ, the Presbyterian Church (USA), More Light Presbyterians, the Presbytery of the Miami Valley, or First Presbyterian Church of Yellow Springs. Full stop. Second, while I voted for Bernie Sanders and continue to support him, I am not “endorsing him” as a pastor or even as a Christian. My reasons for supporting him are (almost) purely political, although I would be lying if I didn’t say that my religious principles influence my needs from a political candidate. And finally, my comparisons between Sanders (I-Vermont) and Jesus (I-Nazareth) are meant to be interpreted within the larger gestalt of Evangelical Christianity in the United States, in which Bernie’s Jewishness has been identified as somehow unacceptable for a president.

Setting Up  the Argument

John Dominic Crossan, in a career spanning five decades, has argued that Jesus’ talk of kingdom (hereby referred to as kin-dom) was a specifically political act that posited a foundational question: “What would it look like if God sat on the throne of Caesar?” Ever since I encountered this idea during undergraduate studies, it has stuck with me. From the language of “Lord” to presenting Jesus as the King of the Jews, the gospel writers are pushing readers to engage in compare and contrast: where kingdoms of humans (Roman or American) favor the wealthy, oppress the poor, and subjugate the many, the kin-dom of God privileges the poor, liberates the oppressed, and offers freedom to all who are repentant and desirous of transformation. While reasonable people can disagree about the timing of Christ’s promised kin-dom (here but not yet, I like to say), it is clear that Jesus’ good news was in no small way about the radical turning over of power structures that humans put in place which create an “us and them” dichotomy. And while, in my opinion, too much of Christianity has focused on a confession to blood atonement theology and a looking to the next world, there can be no doubt that Jesus provided (through his life and work) an example of how followers can address the systems that keep people in physical, economic, mental, spiritual, and emotional chains.

Finally, before turning to the 5 points I will highlight, I want to pause and say that comparisons between an American politician and a Jewish man billions follow as Messiah are flawed from the start. There are things I would say about Jesus–Lord, Savior, Son of God–that I would never say about Bernie, and vice-versa. So if your inclination is to want to attack this blog for its underlying chutzpah, don’t. I get the weaknesses, but I again reiterate the purpose: to show that Sanders is actually very close to the social message of Jesus. I’m also not arguing the viablity of his plans; rather, I am pointing out the crossover between Gospel requirements and Sanders’ own political platform. I’ll also note that I provide very substantive, scholarly evidence for my claims in the links. If you come at me without having read the links, I’m going to know.

Prison Reform

“When the Son of Man comes in his glory, and all the angels with him, then he will sit on the throne of his glory.  All the nations will be gathered before him, and he will separate people one from another as a shepherd separates the sheep from the goats,  and he will put the sheep at his right hand and the goats at the left. 34 Then the king will say to those at his right hand, ‘Come, you that are blessed by my Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world;  for I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you welcomed me, I was naked and you gave me clothing, I was sick and you took care of me, I was in prison and you visited me.’  Then the righteous will answer him, ‘Lord, when was it that we saw you hungry and gave you food, or thirsty and gave you something to drink?  And when was it that we saw you a stranger and welcomed you, or naked and gave you clothing?  And when was it that we saw you sick or in prison and visited you?’  And the king will answer them, ‘Truly I tell you, just as you did it to one of the least of these who are members of my family, you did it to me.’  Then he will say to those at his left hand, ‘You that are accursed, depart from me into the eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels;  for I was hungry and you gave me no food, I was thirsty and you gave me nothing to drink,  I was a stranger and you did not welcome me, naked and you did not give me clothing, sick and in prison and you did not visit me.’  Then they also will answer, ‘Lord, when was it that we saw you hungry or thirsty or a stranger or naked or sick or in prison, and did not take care of you?’ Then he will answer them, ‘Truly I tell you, just as you did not do it to one of the least of these, you did not do it to me.’ And these will go away into eternal punishment, but the righteous into eternal life.” (Matthew 25:31-46 NRSV)

Jesus does speak of a kin-dom not of this world, one that will be ushered in by his Parousia (second coming), and will feature a judgment based upon specific criteria. While I could highlight numerous platform proposals of Bernie Sanders that would address each of the issues elucidated by Christ, I want to focus on prison, because it is an issue close to my heart. It is well known that the United States leads the world in prison population; that our rates of incarceration have increased by 700% since 1970; that disproportionate numbers of Latino, Black, and poor White persons are incarcerated with increasingly punitive sentences,  despite evidence that rehabilitation programs are more effective in preventing recidivism; and that many longtime prisoners have few to no visitors, increasing their isolation.

I attended Ecumenical Advocacy Days in Washington D.C. in 2015; the topic was mass incarceration, and there I was met by members of law enforcement, the legal community, and religious leaders who are dedicated to reforming our justice system. The biggest roadblock right now? Private, for profit prisons. In some cases, like in my home state of Ohio, these prisons threaten to sue their city or state where they reside if the units are not at capacity, putting pressure on politicians to support judges, District Attorneys, and country prosecutors who keep the school to prison pipeline going.

Bernie Sanders is for the elimination of private prisons immediately, and sets forth a systematic analysis of how racial, economic, and family justice are derailed by the monied interests that see the continued incarceration of Black, Brown, and poor Whites as good business.

Universal Healthcare

And as he sat at dinner in Levi’s house, many tax collectors and sinners were also sitting with Jesus and his disciples—for there were many who followed him. When the scribes of the Pharisees saw that he was eating with sinners and tax collectors, they said to his disciples, “Why does he eat with tax collectors and sinners?”  When Jesus heard this, he said to them, “Those who are well have no need of a physician, but those who are sick; I have come to call not the righteous but sinners.” Mark 2:15-17)

Most often, this passage is used in the context of discipleship; Jesus has just called to discipleship Levi the tax collector, and Jesus is being questioned about his choice of company. Clearly, the overt claim here is that Jesus comes to those who are set aside by common wisdom and practice. Those who are already taken care of are taken care of; Jesus is concerned about those who are left out. It is not an irresponsible reading to point to Jesus’ example of a physician’s duties. He or she is to go to the sick. Not the sick who can afford it; not the sick who have the right paperwork; not the sick who have proved themselves worthy; not the sick who have behaved in a way found acceptable. The sick. Full stop. Period.

Bernie Sanders calls for universal healthcare and declares it is a fundamental human right that comes from simply being a human person. This, to me, sounds like a secular way of saying that the right comes from God, and that we all as beings created by God have the right to healthcare.

For those who think this is a stretch, that’s fine. But I will point out that Jesus spent a vast majority of his time healing those the priests refused or could not heal. And he did so in violation of the law and cultural norms. Jesus put himself on the line to help the sick, and we cheapen the historical Jesus’ work if we claim that healings are merely signs of his true identity and not an indication of his priorities. If we espouse imitatio Christi, that should logically extend to creating an accessible system in which the sick can get to a physician.

Economic Justice

By some estimations, there are over 2,000 verses in the Bible concerning money. Jesus was especially critical of the wealthy, arguing that humans cannot serve both God and Mammon. From the Parable of the Sower to the Sermon on the Mount (or Plain) , Jesus was quite clear that economic disparity is not acceptable to God. In fact, the oft-mentioned destruction of Sodom was not the result of homosexuality, but rather greed and indifference to the plight of the poor. I’ll be honest and say that anyone denying this very basic point–that Jesus set forth a preferential option of the poor which arose from his confession of the Jewish God–is studying a Christianity I have never met. I suggest they follow Joel Osteen and his church of good feelings and large bank accounts.     

Bernie’s “one issue” (sic) is economic justice. It accounts for many of the planks in his platform, from the right to an education to expanded access to loans to start businesses. Now while Jesus spoke about how money can become a deity unto itself, thereby keeping people from serving God, and did not speak specifically about startups and reasonable interest rates from poor and minority applicants, let us think about the underlying assumptions of Jesus’ words. Money itself is not the problem. The problem comes in its use and in its hoarding. We are not to store up treasures here on earth, but rather in heaven. Recall our first passage; Christians believe that there will come a time in which we will be judged, and the criteria are clear: Did we assist those who needed help? In our capitalist system, money is one of the easiest and most readily-available ways for the economically wealthy to assist the poor. It seems clear to me that Jesus calls for us to do so. Sadly, private charity is not enough. Bernie’s call for the government to do so seems pretty much in line with Christ to me.

Regulation of Economic Centers

I’m treading dangerous water here because we are comparing apples and oranges. There was no notion of Church and State in the ancient world. There was the Roman Empire (during Jesus’ lifetime) and their occupation of Israel. Jews were allowed to practice their religion only because Rome understood preventing them from doing so was simply not worth the hassle. Jews were very good at uprisings, both violent and nonviolent, and were willing to die for the Torah. Some Rome just threw some more taxes at them and left the Sanhedrin in charge, with a Roman procurator coming in from time to time to make sure everything was in order. Of course, the soldiers never left.

The Temple itself was the center of Jewish life. It was like Wall Street, the National Cathedral, Harvard, and Piccadilly Circus all rolled into one. There has been much written about Jesus’ cleansing of the Temple; his overturning of the tables was meant to send a message, but what?

It seems unlikely that Jesus was objecting the Temple itself being a place of commerce and meeting. Jerusalem, since the time of David, was a neutral political and religious capital meant to provide the disparate tribes a “national” identity. Solomon’s Temple, destroyed by the Babylonians in 587 BCE and rebuilt and dedicated in 515 BCE, was a wonder of the world and attracted visitors, thereby assisting in the economic viability of the Temple and the people of Jerusalem. Jesus does not object to economic transactions on the face; what he does object to is the corruption that kept the average person from having access to God. According to Jewish law, a number of relationships or realities could not be set right without a sacrifice offered by and blessings bestowed by a priest. Roman money was not allowable in the Temple, as it contained a portrait of Caesar and was considered a graven image. Therefore, a Temple currency had to be used. There was usury by the shulhani, money changers, that could sometimes price people out of the market. The practice was legal, but disproportionately hurt the poor.

Bernie is for the breaking up of the big banks and prosecution of Wall Street speculators who greedily bend and break the law without any ramifications. Bernie is metaphorically going into the economic center of the United States and is overturning the tables, shouting that the people’s house is one for all, not just the few.

Children

“Truly I tell you, whoever does not receive the kingdom of God as a little child will never enter it.” (Mark 10:15)

This is again a slightly slippery area. Jesus is clearly speaking about how one should receive God. Here, the example of a child is used. It is important to note that during Jesus’ time, there was no notion of childhood as we have it now. Children were to be seen, not heard. Children were regarded as little adults. They had no rights. Their lives were often filled with sickness and loss.Once children reached around the age of 10, they began to enter adulthood. We in the first world really don’t understand the ways that childhood functioned in the ancient world, but let us try. Jesus is using the example of a rather marginalized figure; the child had not reached the age of religious accountability, and the child could not produce a full day’s work.

Children were economic, spiritual, and emotional investments. No one is suggesting that parents in the ancient world did not love their children. Of course they did. But life was shorter and more brutal then. Attitudes and notions about responsibility and utility were different. Children had to be educated, trained, fed, and protected.This is what Jesus means when he says that we have to receive the kin-dom like a child. We have to understand our dependence upon God, our need to be protected and nurtured and educated. We are fooling ourselves if we think we can do it alone.

Bernie prioritizes programs for children that enable them to be productive, educated, contributing citizens. He sets forth ideas to address child poverty, skyrocketing prices of childcare, and nutrition. He believes that the better a child starts in life the greater the chances that he or she will succeed. If the children are going to receive the kin-dom, there better be something there to help them.

Conclusions

Truth be told, I wrote this article because I was asked. I think my points are solid and fair, but I fear that the piece will be misunderstood. I’m not suggesting a theocracy. Far from it. I don’t think the United States is or ever has been a Christian country. I also live a contradiction; I am invested in this world but have a deep belief that this is only a step on a much longer journey. I understand that we cannot perfect our society because we are fallible, selfish, flawed individuals. But I believe we are capable of great things for the whole of humanity. We are failing in that charge now. In very big ways. To me, Bernie is the closest thing to a “Christian” politician I have ever seen. I do not want to put that label on him, though, because he is not Christian. And he need not be. And these ideas that he sets forth do not have their basis in Christianity, at least for him and a lot of his followers. They don’t need to. But I see the connections and I will not deny that my faith informs some of my political stances.

So take this for what it is worth. I am open to reasonable discussions, but I have been pretty straight-forward with the flaws of my presentation, and also honest about what it is and is not meant to do. To the friend who requested it, thank you! You helped me think through these issues a little more deeply.

The Curse of Caring

 

 

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Recently, a good friend of mine who is a psychologist–we’ll call him Dr. S–solicited volunteers for a diagnostic questionnaire he had put together. Curious, as ordination required me to take almost every available test during my discernment process, I agreed and took the test. I put it out of my mind until a couple days ago, when in my inbox appeared the results. Scanning it, I immediately wanted to accuse him of wicked magic because, frankly, Dr. S. is really good at what he does and I was suddenly looking at myself in statistics form.

Let’s be honest. A blog like this is really an exercise in narcissism. I post my (mostly) learned thoughts on subjects and send it out into the interwebz, putting links on my Facebook and Twitter feeds hoping people will read my musings. I have a small, but regular following. Mostly people I know, or who know of me because of my ministry work. I do assiduously attempt to deconstruct this ego in order to be clothed in Christ . It is tough to do, especially when God has given one an emotional makeup like mine.

According to Dr. S’s analysis, my Affect Intensity (how I feel things) is high; my positive and negative are both high, but my guilt is off the charts. Like, crazy high. Like I should be Jewish or Catholic high. Dr. S writes,

Your affect intensity was high across most subscales. This means that you respond to the world around you with more emotional intensely than most people do. In other words, this means that what most people believe to be moderately stimulating in feeling, you tend to experience as highly stimulating. You scored high in both positive and negative affect, meaning that you likely experience both positive and negative emotions crisply and can be subject to acute bouts of strong euphoria, as well as sadness, depression, or fear. It is vital that you consider working on lowering the amplitude of your affect to stay centered and calm. People with a high affect intensity profile are subject to cyclothymic patterns of feeling (the roller coaster of highs and lows). 

So, basically, I am kinda like Yoda in that I feel the emotional and mental pain around me in acute ways. But here is where it gets interesting. I score really low on the Mindfulness scale, which means that I feel stuff but I can’t always sort out what it is in the moment. Which is why I am sometimes a real asshole on Facebook or email, because I have all these feelings and I don’t pause to process and I just shoot off at the keyboard. Because I don’t like conflict, I rarely shoot off at the mouth, unless it is a justice issue. And then I have my Jesus cape on and all bets are off.

Why do I share this, other than a desire to be like and understood by people, which is another pathological need I am addressing in therapy? I share because it is Lent, a time when we Christians enter into the fullness of myriad emotions. We stand at the cusp of Palm Sunday. A day in which we lay down our cloaks or wave our palms, a day in which we shout or sing along with the stones because the Prince of Peace is making his way into Jerusalem at the same time that Pilate, with his earthly powers and methods of death, is marching in the other side of the city. Lent, the time when we prepare ourselves for the upper room and Gethsemane, the foot of the cross and the sealed tomb. It is a time when we are to feel.

But what is emotion without awareness? What is the good of feeling if we are not aware of that which we experience? On Sunday, we will be told by Jesus that no efforts of human beings could stop the stones themselves from singing; that Creation itself cries out for peace and love, compassion and justice. Let us not be so overwhelmed with our own feelings that we do not pause to understand what God is saying, what God is directing, what God is revealing.

Hey, Pastor: You’re Doing it Wrong!

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“Bernie Sanders, who doesn’t believe in God, how in the world (are) we going to let Bernie — I mean, really? Bernie’s got to get saved, Bernie’s got to meet Jesus. He’s got to have a coming to Jesus meeting.” –Pastor Mark Burns at a Donald Trump rally  

Most of us who went to a real seminary–unlike Pastor Burns, who went to the pay-for-the-paper Andersonville Theological Seminary to earn a “Master of Ministry” degree, whatever the hell that is–learned very quickly that there are certain things we should never do. Telling a Jew that she or she needs Jesus is at the very top of the list. Seriously. There are few things that are more historically loaded or fraught with pain than Christians forcing Jesus on the original sons and daughters of Abraham. For details, read James Carroll’s amazing book, Constantine’s Sword, or, I dunno, watch five minutes of any documentary on the Shoah. Es no bueno.

But the problem goes deeper than ancestral memory. It is not a matter of politeness. Christians that try to force the Jesus issue forget that Paul told us Judaism is just fine on its own, the problem is our lack of discipline (see Galatians); Christianity is largely for those of us who cannot live the 613 commandments set forth in the Torah. We forget that the first revelation of God was to the Jewish people, and while we don’t need to act like the younger sibling–God loves us all equally, thank you–we would do damn well to remember from whence we came. No Judaism, no Jesus. No Jesus, no Christianity. No Christianity, no Islam. It all is a package deal. We’re not enemies. We’re not competing. Christianity does not have a stranglehold on the truth, and we most certainly don’t have God’s trademark. There is more out there than us.

Gone are the days in which we need to constantly talk about Jesus because the gospel needs to be spread around the globe. Do we seriously think there are people out there who have not heard of Jesus? There are underground churches in North Korea. We’re not dealing with a world bereft of Jesus. The message is out there. So that means that our charge is different. It means that we have to actually start living the principles we espouse and stop shouting through megaphones that people are going to hell.

Pastor Burns represents everything I cannot stand about the popular face of my faith tradition. He has no real education. His “Bible Studies” are laughably simple and self-serving, devoid of any real understanding of the Scriptures. His homepage has a “Donate” button as large as my head, and his main purpose seems to be making money. The image of a wealthy Christian pastor screeching that a culturally Jewish public servant like Bernie Sanders needs Jesus is part of the reason that people go running away from religion. If a good, decent, giving, compassionate person like Senator Sanders is somehow deficient, then I fear for the state of my own soul.

So, pastors. Let’s stop this stuff. Now. Let’s think before we speak, and if we are really concerned that a person needs Jesus, don’t we think that God is in a better place to make that happen than are we? Let’s just stick with the whole “loving each other” thing and leave the other stuff to God.

Getting on the Record:In which the pastor writes very unpastoral things

trump nazi

There’s a tweet going around pointing out that a lot of White people are joking about moving to Canada if Trump wins, but minorities are legitimately afraid of what might happen to them. And given the violence that has been unleashed at (primarily) persons of color at Trump rallies as Trump gleefully rubs his stubby fingers and orders more marmots sacrificed for his hairpieces, ethnic “minorities” (seriously, what a bullshit and loaded term) have legions of reasons to fear. Trump recently bellowed from that orange-painted blowhole that passes for a mouth-anus, that protesters used to be dealt with in more severe manners. I think he was envisioning something like this:

civil rights

Or this:

1971

Ah, yes. Those wonderful days in which students and minorities lived in rightful fear of their government, police forces, and military. An America in which the second amendment trumps the first, and the government cannot be criticized without allegations of socialism, communism, or anti-Americanism being hurled.

But with all respect to the original tweeter of the message regarding a divide between Whites and non-Whites in Trump’s America, I kind of think we’ve passed that point. We should not forget that a number of White people lost their lives during the Civil Rights movement. Thousands and thousands of non-Jews were killed by the Nazis during the Holocaust. And Trump does not seem to have any real racial motivation behind his accusations that people are losers or lightweights. Trump just hates anyone who criticizes him. What he has done, though, is given tacit and not-so-tacit signals to racists and White supremacists  that their actions will not only be tolerated, but also protected.

If Trump’s ideology was purely racist, he would not have gotten as far as he has. Trump is a mastermind at stoking the fires of fear, but also at playing into the sense of righteous indignation plaguing those who hate “libtards.” They are the people who believe that President Obama is a racist; they are the ones who believe that Millennials are brainwashed by Leftist professors who teach them to hate America; they are people who literally believe that the Earth is 6,000 years old; they deny climate change; they think the answer to almost everything plaguing us is more guns and less regulation of everything; and they feel like everyone who disagrees with them should be imprisoned or killed. Click on the links. These beliefs are held by “mainstream” people. Many of them ran for president on the GOP ticket.

So what we’re dealing with here is racism, yes. But it is a larger clash between ideologies and methods of discourse. What’s sad is that a majority of Republicans also believe the insidious lie that somehow the Left (ie Obama) is solely to blame, that we’ve become so radical that there are no “moderate” Democrats exist. (If Hillary Clinton is not a moderate, I do not know who is.) The fact is, studies show that the entire country has gone right politically since Nixon, and that the Republicans have moved much more than the Dems. Republicans have made it their modus operandi to block Obama since day one. (Really, do you need a link?)

So I’m just going to get on record to say that there is fear of Trump across races. Don’t think that somehow White people are resting easy and saying, “Ah, Trump won’t be so bad for us. Our race will protect us.” Trump will not like me because I am White; he will hate me because I will not believe his malarkey and accept his asinine political promises. I certainly acknowledge that Trump is tapping into racial fears, but he is no mere bigot. He is a megalomaniac with enough influence to get others to do his violent bidding. All of us who do not get in line are in danger.

It’s Complicated

 

Apr 27 starGenX1

If the baby boomers and we Gen Xers were to have a Facebook relationship status, right now it would read “It’s Complicated.”

I speak only as one of those on the avowed Left, who grew up as Democrats but now may question our party loyalty, in particular because of the policies enacted in the Clinton-era, that now halcyon period too many Baby Boomers want us to recall with fondness, despite the fact that the current student loan crisis rests squarely at the feet of Bill Clinton, and that the current mass incarceration problem is Clinton’s doing as well (by his own admission). You see, I can’t even get through the first sentence without having to enumerate why we are so very torn on Hillary Clinton, and why a lot of it has to do with the Baby Boomers as a generation.

With that said, I am not here if it were not for the baby Boomer activists. For me, especially, as a White man, if it were not for the incredible African-American (Hispanic, Native American, and other non-White) leaders who emerged in the 50s, 60s, and 70s, and for their White counterparts who did the difficult work of deconstructing their own Whiteness, I would not be where I am in terms of social consciousness. While I identify primarily as a Christian, the fact is my education was leftist and deep. I–like so many others of my generation–would not be who I am if it were not for the baby Boomers that produced us, nurtured us, guided us, exposed us to incredible ideas and people, and infused in us a sense of responsibility and rebellion. If there is to be one criticism of my generation, it is that we have been apathetic a lot. We did not think that we would have to fight for the same ish that the Boomers fought for. We had no idea we would be relitigating some of the central issues that were decided, we thought, in terns of racial justice and women’s rights. As a generation, we started a little later (en masse), but we showed up.

In many ways, I feel a bit shamed by the Millennials, and I think that we in Gen X need to be doing more. Give us props, though; we’re a pretty engaged generation when we need to be. Think of ’08. You can really thank us for the ’08 Obama push. Once we realized that he could win, we got mobilized. It was pretty awesome to see. But it is 8 years on now. Our student loans have not decreased. Many of us have kids, no savings; jobs, no retirement; ham, no burger. We are looking at being the first generation in American history to not do better than our parents  We look at some of the compromises that were made–and the generation that played a large role–and we get a little upset.

Here is what I have discovered as the result of a few unfortunate exchanges with Baby Boomer friends. The anger that we Xers and Millennials have is not against individuals; at least, not individuals who were not directly involved in decision making. Some of us are mad at President Clinton and President George W. Bush. But when we talk about Boomers, most of us are commenting on the legacy we have inherited from a generation. We understand that there were dissenters. We understand that most of our parents stood against some of the things that we greatly abhor about today’s political climate (the racism, the misogyny, the xenophobia); the Boomers were the ones who taught us to fight against such stuff.

But there were some decisions even Progressives supported that aren’t working out so well, like student loans and welfare reform. And we think that elements of the system need to change. Now. So when we criticize the generation, we are criticizing the system we have inherited. It is similar to criticizing White privilege. When someone tells me that I as a White man have privilege because of my race and gender, I understand that they are not saying I’m a bad person. It is not a value judgment. It is a statement of fact. I do have privilege, regardless of the particular details concerning my life. This is what I mean when I write about “Baby Boomers” and their impact on politics. I am not critiquing individuals, I am saying that my generation has been impacted in very specific, damaging ways. We’ve also inherited some amazing music, literature, art, philosophy, human rights work, and countless other contributions that enrich our lives and culture.

We Xers love you, Baby Boomers. You gave us life. You gave us hope and a sense of what can happen when you question authority. You’ve taught us to be bold and imaginative and to have hope.

So please, Boomers who are supporting Hillary, don’t shoot us Bernie supporters down when we are just trying to do what you raised us to do: Imagine. Don’t try to kill us with pragmatism or tell us that it cannot be done. Y’all might not have done it, but maybe we can.

Footloose and Fancy Free

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Last night I went with my wife Miriam, our dear friend Sommer, and her daughter to see our local high school’s production of Footloose. All three of us adults have been and continue to be involved with local theater; Sommer and I were founding members of the Thespian Troop–I serving as the first vice president–and we all are close personal friends with the director, choreographer(s), producer, and know a lot of the kids in the show. One comes from my church, but I met everyone in the cast when I was asked to come in and talk to them about what it is like to be a small town pastor. Last night, watching these kids dance, sing, run around, and give life to a really captivating examination of the influence the wrong sort of Christianity can have on a town, I was so proud and impressed. I’m biased, but there’s nothing like putting on a show that tackles issues of religion; I know from experience. My friend Sommer played Jesus to my Pilate when we did Jesus Christ Superstar in high school.

Those who know me know my JCSS obsession. This is not that blog entry. Footloose, based, of course, off the classic generation-defining film of the same name, has been part of my life since my sister and her friend Linette, who is now a fellow UCC pastor, took me to see it when I visited them at Purdue University in 1984. I fell in love with Kevin Bacon (I mean, who didn’t? the man is gorgeous) and like everyone else, I just wanted to dance. I do remember regarding John Lithgow as a foreboding, impossible figure, whose beliefs seemed to suck all the fun out of the room. Raised as a Western secular humanist tending toward atheism, the whole religion thing was foreign to me. I was fascinated by it, but I thought that the pretty boy dancing seemed a lot more fun than the old man yelling. Such is the mind of a child.

Miriam and I rewatched the film in preparation for the show, which was a great thing to do because we had the script freshly in our minds as we watched the troop perform the musical. I began to see that the story itself is much more complicated and nuanced than I allowed the film to portray, at least in my minds eye. Perhaps it was because I sat in the gym of my elementary school, across from the church I pastor, next to the local veterinarian and surrounded by former classmates watching their own kids, but I realized that Footloose is about small town religion. That good old time religion, the bluegrass singers call it. A religion in which the pastor is seen as the minister to the town, not to the church alone. And Footloose is about how, historically, pastors have gotten it wrong.

Yellow Springs is right next to a place called Cedarville, home of Cedarville College. If you’ve never heard of it, think of Liberty University but with actual academic standards. The whole idea of a town outlawing dancing and a local pastor having almost autocratic control may seem like a ridiculous idea to some, but in this part of Ohio we see it. I am glad to live in a town in which such is not the case, and I also love the fact that Christianity has played an historically significant role here in very good ways.

But last night I was struck about how fear often informs our religion. In the play, Rev. Shaw Moore has lost his son in a car accident, along with three others, and his response is to outlaw those things he fears will lead to danger. He does this not because he is an autocrat, but rather because he is propelled by agapic love to do so. At least he thinks he is. I can understand this in a way. My faith has resulted from the suicide of my brother; my response has been to live more fully, more deeply, more compassionately. Yet, I wonder now if that has simply been a coping mechanism. A way for me not to think about the possibly finality of death. I espouse a resurrection hope, not a resurrection certainty. So do I throw myself into relationships with others in the name of Christ to assuage myself that I am living as deeply as possible? Do I still have fear at the base of my existence?

I often say that a major mission of mine is to help transform the way that people think about Christianity. This is not unique; a number of my Progressive Christian friends say the same thing. We love the gospel, but we see the looks we get when wearing clericals; or how if we are introduced with our titles, how people’s faces change. Not everyone. Not always. But if I stay at a party in which people have more than two drinks, I am almost always guaranteed to hear someone’s honest feelings about Christianity. In the main, I love these conversations. I generally listen more than I talk, because I really want to know about the Christianity that puts them off. Most often, it is not a form of Christianity I practice or would want in my life. I try to follow the advice of St. Francis of Assisi. I preach the gospel, using words as necessary.

Rev. Moore Christianity thrives around these parts, but stops just short of our town lines. But that does not mean that I don’t have the desire to have the sort of influence he has in the town. For me, it would be the influence to address our growing lack of racial and economic diversity; to assist in creating the  conditions that allow multigenerational families to remain in the village; and to foster an atmosphere in which people who are not Christian would still look upon the religion with respect and esteems. Heck. It might even be possible that people would know Christians by their love. Huh. Imagine that?!

But to those reading this and living in this corner of the world, get out to see Footloose Saturday night or Sunday afternoon. Enjoy the kids and their hard work, but please give a thought to your local pastor. Let me know what I can do for you. No strings, just love.

And maybe a little fear that this is the time to get it right.

Prison Love

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It is not like the movies. At least, it hasn’t been for me. There is no glass separating me from Michael. We can hug. There are rules about where he can sit and can’t sit; there is a time limit. We are not supposed to talk to other prisoners and their visitors. We need to be careful of our eye line, mainly for the guards but also to respect the privacy of others. And, yeah. It is kinda weird at first. You get used to it rather quickly, though, especially when it is football season. Michael and I do love to talk football.

I met Mike when he was in kindergarten and I was in 9th grade. We had been paired together as “pen pals” by the elementary and high school teachers. He was a round-faced, smiling child who loved the Bengals; I was equally round-faced and loved the Lions. We got along swimmingly. I had always wanted a little brother, and Michael was Winnie the Pooh adorable. We met several times over the course of the year, and he made a little Cincinnati Bengals flip book that I still have today.

Decades passed, during which time Michael committed murder. Let’s put it out there. He did it. He took the life of another person. A lot of people think they know the story. They don’t. But it is not my story to tell, so I won’t. Needless to say, ish went down and perhaps the greatest sin was committed: Michael extinguished the life of another human person. The brutality of the event cannot be captured by language, and I am not going to try.

I wanted to reach out to Michael almost immediately after his arrest, but I didn’t. Part of it was fear; part of it was uncertainty about how to do it. Twice I started to write him, and twice I felt bewildered by what to say. Hey, guy! I hear you’re in the clink? How’s that working for you? 

I was still new into my pastorate when a local boy made good came to the church to sing. That’s an understatement. Martin Bakari is a Julliard-trained lyric tenor who has toured the world. Martin came to sing at our Feast of the Epiphany service; the house was packed, and Michael’s mother came to support Martin, a longtime friend of the family and of Michael. After, as I received the congregation while exiting, Gilah came up to me with tears in her eyes. “I’m Michael’s mom,” she said. We hugged, and thus began a wonderful relationship that has seen Gilah, her husband Shep, and Michael become involved with the church. Without question, the three of them are gifts to me as a pastor and a person. I love them fiercely.

Loving someone in prison is difficult. It produces a mixture of hope and shame. I cannot express how impressed I am with Michael, with his spiritual, intellectual, and mental development. He has done his time well. Very well. And we have hopes that he will receive parole at some point in the future. Every time I think of parole, though, I start to feel guilty. I know the deep ramifications of his crime. I understand how it has touched this village and the people in it. I know that there is pain and loss that will never go away. There are no sides here. Not really. There are no winners. It would be easier if Michael were a monster. If he weren’t a loving, compassionate, funny, dynamic, handsome, passionate guy, it would be easier to walk away from our visits and not feel empty. I wouldn’t have to cry in the parking lot because I want to take him to lunch, but can’t. It would be easier for me to watch his mother and stepfather negotiate the myriad emotions that come with a rather public crime in a rather small place. Good people have been irreparably impacted by that one damn act.

Loving someone in prison means thinking about emotions different. Suddenly, you begin asking yourself if you have the right to feel the way you do. Laughter erupts, and then a flash: Someone is dead, and you are laughing? You hug, and then an internal reminder: Others don’t get to do this, so why do you? It becomes a challenge to our Christian notion of love, that it be boundless and creative, infectious and powerful. Love in prison always comes with an asterisk. A pause. A “yes, but.”

I have a lot of “tough on crime” friends. They think you should lock them up and throw away the key. Education? No! Television? No! Weight rooms? No! They see the sin as all-consuming, all-defining, all-encompassing. The child of God has been wiped away and replaced by a caricature that is easy to demonize. And I get it, to some extent. Honestly, if my brother has died from murder rather than suicide, I sometimes wonder how my life would be different. I wonder if my understanding of God would be different. I do know, however, that my view of God is different having met Michael. As a result of loving Michael. Recently, we were on tenterhooks awaiting word about a transfer. There was a snafu with the paperwork and it looked like Michael might end up away. Far away. There was anxiety. Some tears. A lot of prayer. But we just received the best news we could: he’ll be close, and have opportunities to continue his rehabilitation. I am not ashamed to say that I had a big smile on my face for most of the day. I’m supposed to visit him tomorrow, but can’t because of his move. That’s okay. We’ll see each other soon.

Jesus told us to visit people in prison. I think Jesus knew that it would benefit the visitor and the prisoner. Truth be told, I have a lot of skeletons in my closet. I have done some stupid, stupid things. I made some tragically irresponsible decisions in my life and if I had been caught, I would have gone to prison. For a long time. I am not trying to brag on my sin, but rather to say that my life could have worked out much differently. Learning to love Michael has also helped me begin the process of forgiving myself for some of those mistakes. I long ago made reconciliation with the people I have hurt, but I find it difficult to forgive myself. Loving someone in prison is helping with that.

Lent is winding down. Jesus will be in jail soon. Will you visit him? Or are you just going to wait until he’s resurrected and comes to you?

Jesus Atop a Bank


Above a local bank that has been serving our village for decades, there is a large window looking out over the heart of downtown. This past December, with little fanfare, many of us noticed that the window was suddenly filled with a banner reading “JESUS.” Memories both ancestral and recent could not recall a time in which such a banner had been displayed, but there it was, like a newborn baby wailing in a manger. Most of us shrugged and went about our holidays. As January winded to a close and the sign was still atop the bank, the people began to murmur. There was gnashing of teeth and renting of clothes, at least metaphorically, over the sign. Tom Waits-like voices intoned all over the village, “What is he building in there?”

It was not the work of the bank. Rather, an undisclosed religious group has placed the banner and lighted it. The poor employees of the bank have to explain this almost daily to people who come in and ask. Apparently there have been some hostile comments. People feel affronted, confronted, perhaps even inundated with a message about which the intention remains unclear. “Jesus!” Well, yes. Jesus. But so what? What about Jesus, we’d like to ask.

I sit in my office in the Presbyterian Church that has been next to the bank even before the bank was a bank. 1860 was a long time ago, but our sanctuary has stood here since then. Through the Civil War, Jim Crow, desegregation, women’s suffrage, GLBT rights, and a whole host of other movements, local and national, and we’ve been flying our Jesus flag. We’ve been putting the gospel at the center of what we do, as have the Methodist, Baptists, African Methodist Episcopals, Catholics, and Quakers in town. We are not a community bereft of Jesus.

But we are also a community of Wiccans, Buddhists, Bah’ais, Jews, Muslims, Unitarian Universalists, Rastafarians, and every other tradition and non-tradition of which you can think. I don’t know if a sign that said “Buddha” or “Allah” would have received as much attention. I don’t think that conversation needs to happen because that is not what the sign says; and I don’t think anyone should cry “Christian persecution” because some villagers are asking why the Jesus sign is overlooking our town square.

What this does bring up is Christian privilege and Christian history. Look, I am just about the most Jesusy guy I know; I can’t really go five minutes without talking, writing, thinking, or praying about Jesus. Hopefully, it is not obnoxious because my Jesus obsession is more about action than talk. I take this whole Christian thing seriously, so seriously I know that I really don’t know that much about the secrets of the universe and it is better to be a loving, compassionate, kind person who admits his own limitations than an arrogant, assured, fundamentalist asshat. I’m serious about Jesus because I am serious about love. But let’s be honest. Christianity is not so good about living and letting live. Christianity has been pretty much in your face constantly in this country, and it is not a kinder, gentler Christianity. It is one that hates gays and tells women to shut up in church; it is a Christianity that has married itself to a particular kind of politics. It is a largely White Christianity that screams “All Lives Matter” and ignores the Black and Brown bodies piling up in the streets.

We can cry out that signs and symbols do not equate the thing unto itself. We can quote Wittgenstein and Focault, and give arguments about how the name Jesus means more than the fear of religious oppression; but we shouldn’t. We who are Christians should focus on transforming our actions and words into ones of love, compassion, and justice-seeking. Through our lives and the ways that we commit ourselves to relationship, we should seek to transform the ways that people think of Christianity when they see a sign bearing the name “Jesus.”

The problem is not the people who object to the banner. The problem is we who do not get why and how we’ve failed as Christians. How great would it be if we Christians acted in such a way that when non-Christians see the name of Jesus, they would smile and say, “Now that’s a great man. Good people follow him, too. Not my cup of tea, but keep on keepin’ on, followers of Christ. Y’all good people.”

“Not All Whites”: An Open Letter to My Fellow White Males (Gen X and Millennial Edition)

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It sucks to feel that you are blamed for things you never individually did; none of us annihilated the Natives or enslaved Africans. None of us beat women as they were making their way to the polls. We did not support Plessy v. Ferguson; we did not burn crosses on the lawns of those supporting integration, and we did not create a system that defines an African American as 3/5 a person.

But we inherited the system. And while I can absolutely understand the knee-jerk reaction to defend ourselves, to eschew the label of racist or misogynist, especially when we feel it is being hurled at us simply because of our race and gender, the fact is our defensiveness is misplaced. When we respond, “not all males” or “not all Whites,” we are derailing the conversation. We suddenly make it about our fragility and need to be comforted from the realities of our complicity in racism and sexism. We put the responsibility of assuaging our hurt feelings on people who have a much better understanding of racism and sexism than do we, even those of us who consider ourselves rather enlightened and educated. I read one pompous liberal on a local FB page say that he, a White man, was not part of the White supremacist culture. Yes you are, dude. We all are. It doesn’t make us bad people, it just means that we are part of a system we did not construct.

But the answer is not to deny the reality of racism. The answer is not to point out that there are Blacks who hate Whites (this most certainly is true); the answer is not to say that if we all just ignored race everything would be fine. It won’t be. And we do not have the right to ask others to deny their own ethnic and cultural heritages in an effort to do away with the racism that was created through White supremacy culture.

What I often hear from fellow White men is this: “We can’t be proud of our race or gender. Can you imagine the uproar if we talked about White pride?” While I understand the sentiment, the answer is not to be mad at persons of color because they are proud of their heritages; we should be mad at the asshats in the White Power movement that have made white pride synonymous with hatred.

Those people who seek to make us ashamed of ourselves or to loathe ourselves are not understanding what will alleviate the original sin of racism. While there is no “reverse racism,” there is prejudice abounding. Prejudice knows no color. And I certainly understand striking back (verbally, but with restraint) against those who seek to denigrate us and turn us into objects of ridicule. I am a child of God, and you will not deny me of that.

But whether we like it or not, things are not even in this country. No one is saying that you don’t work hard; no one is saying that things are somehow easier on a day-to-day basis, especially for those of us who are working class or are under employed. It is hard out there. However, we are part of a system that privileges both race and money. Too often, our anger is directed at people who discuss race issues in ways that we find confrontational. So we get defensive and the conversation derails. The fact is, most of us are beholden to monied interests, and have little to no shot of equaling or bettering the quality of life achieved by our parents or even grandparents (who lived through the Great Depression, think about that). We have to start having real conversations about race, and that means, yes, we need to go back to the 1950s. At least in terms of our education. We need to learn about the Civil Rights movement, and not the whitewashed version we get from textbooks. We need to watch Eyes on the Prize, and read Stride Toward FreedomAutobiography of Malcolm X, Lay Bear the Heart, and Soul on Ice. We need to understand that the nonviolent movement was largely carried out by persons of color, and too many of us Whites remained silent or expressed our solidarity silently.

I know. Not you. You were not there. But you are here. Now. And we have some major problems brewing. A fascist, racist, billionaire is poised to capture enough delegates to win the nomination of the GOP, or force a brokered convention. Ish is getting real. So we need to stand up and decry the racism that we see; we need to listen to others about their own experiences so we can better identify the ways in which racism manifests itself, and the ways in which we might have internalized racism without even understanding that we did.

Not all White people. I agree. But we have a choice to make regarding which side of the divide we fall upon.