Monday, December 31, 2012

Thirteen Hours Forty-Five Minutes

Nothing special.  Just wishing one and all a happy, blessed, safe, and contented 2013.

With more cowbell.

Sunday, December 30, 2012

Sucking The Smart Out Of The Room

Back in 1995, with some help from local herders, German Archaeologist Klaus Schmidt made what may well be the most important discovery of the 20th century.  Buried beneath the sands of eastern Turkey for almost 12 millennia, Gobekli Tepe (which means "belly hill" in Turkish) is the oldest human-made structure yet discovered; at a stroke, this single site has doubled the age of the known ability of human beings to build structures.  There is a debate now as to whether the site, which Schmidt continues to insist served as a temple, a conclusion teased out from the abundance of animal carvings, their stylized attitudes, and placement, might have served as human habitation as well, for which there is also abundant evidence (which leads me, as always in cases such as these, to wonder why we should choose; people are smart, canny, and resourceful now, so there's no reason to assume people 12,000 years ago weren't also, using the space both for living and worshiping).

I first heard about this about a year and a half ago, and the most amazing part of the "discovery" for me was the fact that locals, especially sheep and goat herders, knew about the stones poking up through the sandy soil.  They didn't think it was any big deal; it was only when Schmidt, who heard the stories and decided to check them out, started digging a bit that something was "discovered".  Except, of course, how can something that the folks living in the area knew about be "discovered"?  A perennial question, especially when it comes to Westerners finding something that non-westerners knew was there all along.

In any case, it is important to think about some things before we continue.  These ruins are dated between eleven and twelve thousand years ago.  Prior to Gobekli Tepe, the earliest dated remnants of settled human communities was half as old, 6,000 years.  The discoveries at Gobekli Tepe raise all sorts of questions, not the least of them being: where are the remains for the space in between?  The record for the past six thousand years is pretty steady and clear.  The theories about the development of agriculture, about the changes in social and cultural life that made settled human habitation possible, the technological development that gave human beings tools to craft spaces for living, buying and selling, planting and harvesting crops all seemed to have coalesced at a point in time that permitted the growth and development of towns and cities.  All those theories are pretty much gone now.  The problem, however, is figuring out what happened in the intervening time.  It is certainly possible that some catastrophe occurred that destroyed not only all human habitation that existed between the building of Gobekli Tepe and the rise of other human civilizations; not only destroyed them, but any trace of their existence, as well as the accumulated knowledge and skill to create them?  That, it seems to me, is more than a little far-fetched (to say the least).

I read today that ABC is running a two-part program on "The Search for Noah's Flood".


Why not look for the Tower of Babel while you're at it?  Or Atlantis?  Maybe feature one of those Bigfoot hunter shows that have nerds running around the woods at night howling at one another?

At what point do we, as a people decide we're going to talk about things that are real, and stop pursuing nonsense like world-wide floods that never happened?  Having a major network devote time and resources to "Noah's Flood" is no different than a program dedicated to "proving" creationism; in fact, the impetus for the ongoing "search for Noah's Ark" lies within the same set of assumptions that saddle us with creationism: Biblical inerrancy.  We are missing the opportunity to learn something important, even revolutionary, about the history of the development of human social life because hundreds of thousands of dollars and hundreds of man-hours are being wasted pretending a folk tale originally told by the Sumerians has anything to do with reality.  In the process, we as a people get hoodwinked in to thinking this is serious stuff rather than fringe pseudo-science, akin to Ancient Astronauts and the Bermuda Triangle.

Sorry, Christiane Amanpour, but you are actually working hard to make America dumber.

Saturday, December 29, 2012

The Greatest Generation

Not only was he the first Japanese soldier I had ever shot at, he was the only one I had seen at close quarters.  He was a robin-fat, moon-faced, roly-poly little man with his thick, stubby, trunklike legs sheathed in faded khaki puttees and the rest of him squeezed into a uniform that was much too tight.  Unlike me, he was wearing a tin hat, dressed to kill.  But I was quite safe from him.. His Arisaka rifle was strapped on in a sniper's harness, and though he had heard me, and was trying to turn toward me, the harness sling had him trapped.  He couldn't disentangle himself from it.  His eyes were rolling in panic.  Realizing that he couldn't extricate his arms and defend himself, he was backing toward a corner with a curious, crablike motion.
My first shot had missed him, embedding itself in the straw wall, but the second caught him dead-on in the femoral artery.  His left thigh blossomed, swiftly turning to mush.  A wave of blood gushed from the wound; then another boiled out, sheeting across his legs, pooling on the earthen floor.  Mutely he looked down at it.  He dipped a hand in it and listlessly smeared his cheek red.  His shoulders gave a little spasmodic jerk, as though someone had whacked him on the back; then he emitted a tremendous, raspy fart, slumped down, and died.  I kept firing, wasting government property. . . .
Jerking my head to shake off the stupor, I slipped a new, fully loaded magazine into the butt of my .45.  Then I began to tremble, and next to shake, all over.  I sobbed, in a voice still grainy with fear: "I'm sorry."  Then I threw up all over myself.  . . . At the same time I noticed another odor; I had urinated in my skivvies. . . . Then Barney burst in on me, his carbine at the ready, his face gray, as though he, not I, had just become a partner in the firm of death.  He ran over to the Nip's body, grabbed its stacking swivel - its neck - and let go, satisfied that it was a cadaver.  I marveled at his courage; I couldn't have taken a step toward that corner.  He approached me and then backed away, in revulsion, from my foul stench.  He said: "Slim, you stink."  I said nothing.  I knew I had become a thing of tears and twitchings and dirtied pants.  I remember wondering dumbly: Is this what they mean by "conspicuous gallantry"? - William Manchester, Goodbye Darkness, pp. 6-7
It was autumn, 1988.  I was working at the country club in my hometown for a season, trying to figure out my life.   While taking care of a set of clubs, I overheard a conversation among a foursome, local men my father's age.  They had been talking of their experiences in the service in what I grew up calling "the War", as if it had ever been the only such thing that occurred.  One of the men, a local real estate developer of some note, was talking about his time in the Navy, serving in the Pacific in the 1944 and 1945.  After a battle in which the Japanese sent wave after wave of planes to die in the face of the steel from our ships and planes, he spoke of a young man who had been in an anti-aircraft turret on board the same ship.  "It took an hour to pry his fingers off the gun.  He didn't say anything, ever, as far as I know."

Four years before, when I had just begun my endless search about which I wrote earlier this year, I read Godfrey Hodgson's America In Our Time, one of the best analyses of post-World War II America I have ever encountered.  A few years later I would read William Manchester's The Glory and The Dream, a magesterial attempt to tell 40 years of our national life, with the question implicit in the title always out in front.  From these in particular, although there are many, many others that tell much the same tale, I learned one indispensable fact: the millions of men who served in the military in the Second World War returned from their service, put on civilian clothes, and got busy creating safe lives and worlds.  They went to college on the GI Bill.  They married and their wives starting turning out babies in much the same way the factories to which they returned were turning out refrigerators and ovens and washing machines and cars.  They moved from the cities to new suburbs, settling for what amounted to barracks housing built on the cheap, designs and yard plans dictated from above with no room for deviation.  They became, as the title of one book noted, the men in gray flannel suits.

When the children of these veterans were called upon to go to their own war, the veterans of North Africa and Italy, of France and Germany, of Burma and China, of Guadalcanal and Tarawa insisted they go, just as they had.  There were too few stories, too few words of advice, too little information other than, "Answer the call.  We did."

Of course, the great silence that cast its shadow over the intervening years needed filling.  Societies dread vacuum.  While there were some stories and memoirs that attempted an honest description of war and its madness - The Naked and The Dead, which introduced the word "fug" to the English language because the publishers were wary of printing the actual dialogue too many soldiers and Marines used; Catch-22, describing perfectly the insanity of war as Yosarian struggles to come to terms with his own fear - the vast bulk of the empty space was filled by popular culture.  Films with the Second World War as their setting were huge, telling a generation of young people what war was like, sometimes featuring actors who became heroes to a generation of young boys eager to learn what their father's refused to tell them.

Sometime in the 1990's, Life magazine published a list of "American Heroes".  Lists like this are useful only as far as we get a sense of what our elite think we should think.  Among the top ten "American Heroes" was the actor John Wayne.  It would be a few years before I learned something about Wayne's life that I have cherished in all the years since.  The man who would make a career playing soldiers and sailors, pilots and Marines, killing Germans and Japanese and even in his later years Vietnamese, was so terrified of the prospect of serving in the military after Pearl Harbor, he urged and begged his mentor and friend John Ford to intervene to keep him from military service.  While Clark Gable and James Stewart and others volunteered, spending their war years in combat (Jimmy Stewart was so hurt in his soul by his years as a bomber pilot, he almost gave up acting), Wayne had every possible string pulled for him to keep him from ever wearing a uniform or seeing combat.  When the war was over, however, he thought nothing of putting on a fake uniform and firing blanks at hordes of extras who would pretend to die so Wayne's status as an "American Hero" would be assured.

It wasn't just popular culture that grew fat on American victory in the Second World War.  Policy planners were no less susceptible to hubris.  When the first American troops landed in Korea in 1950, most were garrison troops, stationed in occupied Japan.  Few had seen combat in the Second World War, but, flush with American superiority and given the weapons their older brothers had used to defeat the two greatest military forces ever amassed, they were confident of easy victory.  As John Toland reminds readers in his In Mortal Combat,  one of the first signs of trouble was the utter uselessness of WWII-vintage anti-tank weaponry.  The North Koreans were using the latest Soviet-built tanks (and if there was one thing Soviet industry was good at producing, it was their tanks).  The charges being used by the Americans were quite literally bouncing off the thick-skinned tanks as they rolled over the American troops.  In the course of the war, American troops were nearly pushed off the peninsula completely; then, the First Marine Division suffered its worst defeat in history, having to march the length of the peninsula during a typical, brutal Korean winter while legendary Marine Col. Lewis "Chesty" Puller tried to keep up morale telling them they weren't retreating but advancing to the rear.

I got thinking about all this when I read Charles Durning's obituary in The New York Times.
Mr. Durning was also remembered for his combat service, which he avoided discussing publicly until later in life. He spoke at memorial ceremonies in Washington, and in 2008 France awarded him the National Order of the Legion of Honor.
In the Parade interview, he recalled the hand-to-hand combat. “I was crossing a field somewhere in Belgium,” he said. “A German soldier ran toward me carrying a bayonet. He couldn’t have been more than 14 or 15. I didn’t see a soldier. I saw a boy. Even though he was coming at me, I couldn’t shoot.”
They grappled, he recounted later — he was stabbed seven or eight times — until finally he grasped a rock and made it a weapon. After killing the youth, he said, he held him in his arms and wept.
That's just part of Durning's incredible story.  Not just of his service during the Second World War; reading his obituary, I realized what a remarkable man we have lost, a man out of time, whose whole life seems to echo "America" as I read it.

All the same, it is the whole "he avoided discussing publicly" that troubles me.  I can, I suppose, understand not wanting to talk about beating a 15-year-old kid to death, regardless of the circumstances.  Yet there is much more.  Durning survived, not once but twice, German ambushes that left much the rest of his comrades dead.  Like my oldest brother-in-law's father, Durning was in the first wave that landed in Normandy in June, 1944.  Unlike Rudy, Durning made it off the beach (my brother-in-law's father was so severely wounded,  like far too many he was left almost too long, festering in the rain among the dead; he was saved, however, and is still alive, God bless him).  The millions of soldiers, Marines, sailors, and airmen who returned from around the world need not have ripped open barely-healed wounds; they could, however, have reminded a victorious nation that victory came with a cost.  Not just the hundreds of thousands of dead Americans; the nearly 50 million dead around the globe, from the deserts of Africa and Mongolia through the jungles of the Pacific and Burma to the frozen waters off Murmansk and, of course, Flander's fields once again watered by the blood of too many young men.  We could have heard that, far from being something done with ease and without a care, William Manchester's story of his first confirmed kill in the Pacific could have reminded us the terrible moral cost that accompanies even the necessary taking of another human being's life.

Those whom Tom Brokaw mistakenly labeled The Greatest Generation, gave us war in Korea.  We sent troops to Indonesia and the Dominican Republic.  We almost blew up the world over Cuba.  Tens of thousands of American men and women died in the swamps and jungles of southeast Asia.  Ronald Reagan dragged outdated battleships out of mothballs to make the hills of Lebanon shake one last time from an American naval broadside.  Still, Americans died there, too.  Far from living the lessons taught by the acres of manicured cemeteries, The Greatest Generation thought its victory vaccinated it from failure in its plans.  Too many men and women, in too many places were forced to pay too high a price for our Greatest Generation's fundamental failure, not just of leadership, but of simple moral imagination.

Through it all, we started to hear stories that war, far from glorious, was horror beyond imagining.  We began to hear, over and over again, that only the dead are our heroes.  We began to learn that the enemy is too often viewed as a comrade, a fellow soldier doing his duty even as he lay dead at our feet.  Not someone to be hated or feared, the enemy is just another soldier, trapped in the brutality and insanity and horror of war.

We are, however, living in a different time.  We are slowly - far too slowly - emerging from over a decade of our own wars.  While our troops and veterans receive increasingly better care, we still read far too often of suicides and addiction, of domestic violence and depression, of the nightmares that bring on screaming fits and violence.  In an age when communication is almost instantaneous and our therapeutic culture demands sharing as much information as possible, we are learning from a new Greatest Generation that war is not a time and place of glory and heroes.  It is misery beyond reckoning, endless fear punctuated by seconds of sheer terror, followed by grief.  From the wounds our young men and women returning from our too-long wars of choice, we may yet learn that we should never again send our young men and women through the human meat grinder that is war; the price we pay for their sacrifices is so high, and we continually fail to make due the bill they present to us.  Perhaps now, as we begin the process of drawing down our combat forces in Afghanistan, we can listen for the stories our soldiers and sailors, our pilots and Marines tell us and give them the greatest honor any nation ever gave those who gave up so much: Vow to find a way to keep their sons and daughters from ever having to experience what they will carry with them.

Wednesday, December 26, 2012

Truly Deserving Of One Another

It's humbug still! - Ebeneezer Scrooge
Great video on how the existence of morality is evidence for the existence of God. - Neil Simpson
At this festive time of year, along with resurrecting the careers of Andy Williams and Johnny Mathis; putting trees in our homes; braving crowds in stores to purchase things we don't need, sometimes for people we would rather not have in our lives; eating too much; gathering with family only to be reminded why we don't gather with family too often; along with all these things, for some reason two sets of idiots square off in various cage matches, attempting to prove to the world who can be more dim.

It's the ridiculous Christians versus the ridiculous atheists.  Personally, I hope they kill one another off so the rest of us can go about our holiday festivities with some semblance of peace and good-will.

By way of example, with a tip of the holly-crown to Sadly, No!, we have Rev. Michael Bresciani at Renew America.  The author CV under his picture on the sidebar says that Bresciani's "articles are now read in every country in the world."  Which sounds impressive until you realize he publishes his "articles" online.  By that logic, my articles are read in every country in the world; at the very least they're available in every country in the world.  Anyway, aside from tidying up his writer's cred a bit, the article is the kind of thing that makes me wish I had been brought up in some other religious tradition.
Anyone who celebrates the birth of Christ is never in need of a boost from a truly mythological person called Santa, merchandising barrages, office parties or tinsel draped conifers. The words, good tidingsgreat joypeace on earth and good will toward men are the phrases that we feel in our hearts because of his birth and we can never accept the fleshly substitute of making 'merry' and the practice of overspending, overindulgence, drunkenness and general partying on an unspecified holiday as a reasonable substitute. Our joy is 24/7, 365 days a year and follows us into eternity. The atheists have missed the point by a million miles.

If Christmas or Christianity was meant to produce only good feelings then we may as well dump both. Feelings may be part of the Christian experience along with celebrations that warm the heart, but it would be the saddest of all religions if it were based only on emotional responses. At the start and at the heart, real Christianity is based on a historical figure and on an actual historical event.
With a short aside to note that the parenthetical in the first paragraph might portend good news, as Rev Grasciani might well join in protests against the over-commercialization of Christmas by a capitalist class who has no need of religious celebration, but does have a need for profit, let us move on and realize what the final sentence of the second paragraph portends.  Yet, it's time for . . .  Let's prove how little we know about historical research, Christian doctrine, and the idiocy of "proof"!  If it weren't for Neil Simpson's continued presence on the internet, this guy would probably win the prize for wasting more space writing about stuff that he only wishes had something to do with being Christian.
New Testament Christianity and the Christmas story are not based on a preponderance of pure unmitigated belief; it is based on the historical record. Our faith in that record and the interaction of God's Holy Spirit with us (Which he promised) is an objective matter and does not rest on feelings, anecdotal experiences, or fellowship with others of like mind.

The atheists might want to save the unimaginable cost of buying billboard advertising on Times Square and use the money to send a contingent of their followers to Mecca or some other Muslim center of worship with the same message about myths. It is likely they would not come back alive, if at all, but we would have a little less bah-humbug for one Christmas season. Who coined the phrase, less is more? More so, just how seriously do they take their message, if it's good for the goose is it good for the 1.5 billion Muslims who haven't heard it as yet?
It's a two-fer.  You get nonsensical dribblings about "belief", with a hefty dose of anti-Muslim rhetoric (with a  bonus swipe at the Jews; since Adolf von Harnack a century ago, "New Testament Christianity" has been a code word for anti-Semitism).  God, save us from people who claim to believe in you!

Except, alas, the folks who don't believe in God are almost as stupid.  Writing at Religion Dispatches, Anthony Pinn insists that, with the massacre at Newtown, CT, we now have definitive proof that God is now dead.  To help us slower types along, he even titles the piece, "God's Obituary: A Humanist Response To Mass Murder".
I am not describing the loss of faith, but rather the limits of faith in the face of tragedy. What is so important, what is so impressive, during this tragedy is not the faithful appeals to God but rather the collective human effort to comfort the suffering and to remember the value of human life.
Trying both to resolve such tragedies and keep God on the throne actually impedes our ability to process this misery. The appeal to God’s logic offers a type of cosmic cover that is difficult to remove. Looking to God and trying to grasp the workings of the divine mind actually arrests our ability to understand the deeply human nature of these acts of violence. There is no justification; there is no larger logic—no theologically exposed silver lining. This misery is all too human—the imposition of an individual’s twisted will on others with deadly consequences. Appeal to God doesn’t fix this; it doesn’t explain it. 
At best we might suggest that God “dropped the ball”—failed to do what a loving God is suppose to do. Instead, it seems to me, as we read the stories of the victims we are also reading God’s obituary. By this I mean that such extreme human tragedy makes it impossible to talk about God in any useful way.
Really?  It's only now occurring to Anthony Pinn, after a century that has seen evil on such a massive scale that to contemplate it could drive one mad, that many of the ways we try to speak about God in the face of such human misery are miserable failures?  Not to mention all the centuries before this, in which suffering, pain, oppression and death were such a feature of the human social landscape as to be invisible; surely Pinn  is not suggesting that only now, in the aftermath of this particular event, can we finally put paid to the Christian God, over a century after Nietzsche insisted the "we" had killed God.  Except, alas, that's precisely what he's saying.
These profound moments of tragedy slowly kill God, making it so difficult, if not useless, to speak of God in response to misery. Instead we are invited to silence. Deep silence, in which we struggle for human resolve to confront human problems. Please do not misunderstand me: I am not saying we should say nothing, that we should do nothing. I am not suggesting that complacency is the proper response, nor am I arguing that these events should be ignored. Rather, I am proposing silence concerning God, silence concerning efforts to make things better through theological twist and turns, and through the revamping of experience to fit religious categories and religious tradition. 
A humanistic or non-theistic response to the misery like that encountered in Newtown centers the loss of life’s integrity, is deeply sensitive to the damage done to the collective fabric of life. And, it holds humans accountable without the cosmic aid that never seems to come. This is not to say that humanists have all the answers. Rather, in light of human tragedy, humanists might offer better questions during these challenging times, as well as a space for wrestling with these questions free of cosmic justifications—and a God clearly missing in action. 
I write this not to deny comfort for those who have been directly and indirectly touched by this unspeakable act of violence. Mine is an effort to acknowledge and respect grief without so quickly pushing to find some reason behind such tragedy. This loss of life is really beyond our limited human language. The loss experienced by those families, by those associated with the school, and by the collective American and human family is so intense, so absurd, so real that it calls for our full humanity beyond any talk of God.
You want to know what I find really horrible about this particular piece?  It isn't the atheism, about which I couldn't care less.  It's exploiting the pain and suffering not just of the those living in Newtown but all Americans to push an idiotic agenda that has nothing at all to do with comforting those in pain or seeking to prevent others from suffering such pain in the future.  There's nothing constructive here, even less comfort.  All there is, really, is the confident announcement that human suffering disproves the existence of the Christian God so we should all just shut up and live like Anthony Pinn.  Who reminds me of many a college sophomore who suddenly discovers the world is a cruel place and that many of the responses of people of faith and earnest intent fall far short of adequate.

So, I'll leave them to it.  Let them argue it out.  Me, I'm going to continue to keep Christmas in my own way, while simultaneously working, again in my own way, to prevent not just future Newtowns, but future Websters and future corner-of-the-streets, and future husband/boyfriend-kills-wife/girlfriend-in-jealous-rage and future child-finds-Dad's-gun-and-kills-friend/sibling/self.  As St. Thomas said of his own work, stuff like that above  is all straw.

Monday, December 24, 2012

Christmas II: It's Something New

So Lisa and I were watching the movie The Nativity Story yesterday.  Being who we are, we stopped it at several points and talked about things that occurred to us.  After Mary returns from Elizabeth's, obviously pregnant, she and her parents and Joseph are in an intense confrontation.  Mary sticks to her guns, that she has not had sex but is pregnant by Divine love.  I turned to Lisa and said, "Isn't it funny?"

"What's that?" she asked, stopping the movie.

"OK.  These people all say they believe in God, right?  And God says, 'I'm going to do stuff.'  Then, God comes along and does something and no one believes it."

"Isn't that the way it always is?" Lisa asks.

That's why she's the pastor and I'm not.

It goes all the way back to Moses, really.  Moses encounters the burning bush and, after hemming and hawing, demands a sign.  The answer from the bush is, to our later ears, a wonderful example of God getting more than a little impatient.  In essence, the answer is, "You want a sign?  I'll give you a sign.  Get busy doing what I told you to do, then come back here for more instructions."

Now, just as with Moses, so, too, with Mary and Joseph.  There aren't any details.  Mary, remember, is a single woman for whom becoming pregnant is not only a cultural and social disgrace but a crime.  As told in St. Matthew's Gospel, Joseph is well within his rights to accuse her of adultery and have her stoned, but demonstrating more character than most people then or now, decides not to do so.  He will quietly release her from the vows they shared.  Only then does an angel come in a dream and tell him the story we read in St. Luke's Gospel.  After that, he took her to his home.  In the film, Joseph comes to Mary and tells her of his dream and his decision to raise the child as his own.  Mary tells Joseph it won't endear him to the rest of Nazareth.  And, indeed, the rest of the townspeople look upon both of them with disgust.  You can almost see the thought-balloons above the women when they look at Mary: "Whore."  Joseph's friends and co-workers look at him like he's lost his mind, taking this tramp in to his house.  As they're leaving Nazareth for Bethlehem, the people in town watch with disgust as they travel together, and Joseph turns to Mary and he says, "They're going to miss us."

Like Moses, neither Joseph nor Mary get any instructions on dealing with the kinds of social opprobrium heaped upon them.  Like Moses, neither Joseph nor Mary are told how to raise this child, what kind of instruction he is to receive, or much of anything else.  In a place and time where many children died young, there aren't any guarantees he won't catch some dread illness and die.  In a place and time where children are taken from families for any number of reasons, there are no guarantees he won't be ripped from their home, sold to slavery perhaps or some other dread end.  All Mary and Joseph get is the notification the child Mary is carrying is the Son of God.

I've said it before and I'll say it again.  I'm no fan of the word "miracle".  I'm not even sure how anyone would define it, understand it, or recognize it if confronted by such an event.  There isn't much talk of "miracles" in the Bible.  There is, however, a whole lot of talk of God doing something new.  We are so used to the Christmas story I think it's easy to overlook the astounding new thing God is doing here.  I had an exchange with an old and dear friend yesterday.  He told me of St. Bernard's commentary upon the story in Luke, chapter 1, after the Annunciation, as we all wait for Mary's reply: "Let humility be bold!  Let modesty be confident!"

In the face of the astounding reality that she is to carry and bear the Son of God, the One promised and hoped for for centuries, St. Bernard calls for an act of faith that should be our own.  First and foremost - hear the Word from God and believe it.  It is real.  This thing that's happening, it isn't some weird or outlandish event.  A young woman is carrying a child.  How ordinary!  This young woman professes this child came to be through the power of the Spirit of God.  Let us celebrate what God is doing!

In the midst of all this ordinariness, God is doing something new.  We should be bold in our humility, confident in our humility, and even faithful in our materialism and hear the Word of God doing something new here and now in all the humdrum events of our everyday lives.  You want a sign?  You want a miracle?  Look at the pregnant lady.  Watch the folks in the stores and shopping malls.  See the crowds milling around the airports and bus terminals.  These are your signs.  Here are your miracles.  It is for this and these that Mary faced not just humiliation and rejection but death because she said, "Yes," to that most outlandish thing: God's messenger telling her she was to have a child.

A merry Christmas to all of you and each of you, your families and friends, and the whole world.

Sunday, December 23, 2012

Advent IV: Hiding In Plain Sight

And this is the judgement, that the light has come into the world, and people loved darkness rather than light because their deeds were evil. But those who do what is true come to the light, so that it may be clearly seen that their deeds have been done in God.-John 3:19-21
A great theme of our national life this past year has been the question of reality.  I realize that's hard to believe that a nation not well known for dwelling on metaphysical issues has spent quite a bit of time arguing about what is real and what is not real.  Yet, it's true.

In this election year in particular, although the discussion spread far beyond politics, we have spent almost as much time talking about what constitutes reality as we have our preference for particular policies.  In particular in the aftermath of the election, when it became clear that at least some partisans had not just bought but embraced a view of reality that was contrary to fact, we argued amongst ourselves over the whole question of fact and reality and perception and that poor, tired, overused truth.

Which is why I'm so fond of Richard Rorty.  Too often misunderstood - neo-metaphysician David Weissman once chided Rorty's claim of "anti-realism" by insisting the claim boiled down to pretending there is no snow while one is freezing to death; I have never quite known whether Weissman was being deliberately obtuse or really is that stupid - Rorty's position can be summed up in simple terms: common sense.  Why worry about the foundations of existence or the nature of how we know things or whether there's some deep connection between the way "things really are" and the way we human beings "know" them?  For Rorty, the provenance of the answers to these questions isn't philosophy, but science, a way of understanding the world that is remarkably successful in figuring out the answers to these questions in a practical way.  For Rorty, the only thing philosophy should concern itself with are questions of how we live with one another, and how to do that in a way that doesn't involve pain and suffering.

Rorty's dismissal of so much of the Western philosophical project is rooted in a kind of silly, gesturing obviousness.  Of course the things we see and hear are real.  In an age after Darwin, we have the explanation to the hoary old problem of the "correspondence" between the world around us and our perception of it.  Of course human beings are constituted in such a way that they can figure out the world; how else could we have survived as a species?

Yet we have been living through a time when claims about the world become matters of contention.  We find ourselves as a people engaged in discussions involving the constitution of the world, what reality is and in not, and whether some choose to believe it possible to live in worlds that are, to put it in shorthand, self-constructed.  And the discussion continues, sad to say.  The refusal to grasp the common sense idea that the world is, and is as it is, certainly creates fodder for hilarious and frustrating internet dialogue.

There is, however, something more sinister at work.  There are those who would deliberately create confusion about the whole question of reality.  The "debate" over global warming is a marvelous case in point.  Most global warming deniers are, I am convinced, well aware they are snake-oil salesmen, handing out patent medicines to people desperately wanting to believe it really can't be true we are in need of radical action to make the world habitable for human communities.  There are, however, millions at least here in the United States, who firmly and honestly believe the whole thing is a hoax, a sinister plot being executed for any number of reasons.  That they are being lied to is obvious; that they accept the lie is sad, to say the least.

Like the people who insist that Pres. Obama is a socialist when socialists are more critical of the President - because their criticism is rooted in fact - than any on the right, your run-of-the-mill global warming denier is the victim not just of tendentious fraud.  They are buying a lie sold to them by people who know it's a lie.  Those who lie in this way, and then lie about their lying, are like those Jesus speaks about above.  They are people who love the darkness.  They run from the light, deny the world that surrounds them, a world that proves their lie again and again.  In the darkness, they tell one another they are in control.  In the darkness, they tell one another that it is possible to create confusion about things that should be obvious; by doing so, they gain power.

These folks were dragged in to the light the night of November 6, when the silky comfort of their alternate reality came crashing around them.  Having convinced millions of Americans not only that Mitt Romney would win, but win big, when the exact opposite occurred - an event whose probability had been tracked for months in public, in ways anyone could understand - many stood around and asked, "Why?"  So, too, as we watch event after event, whether it's drought or hurricane or record heat or whole communities swallowed by a rising ocean, people are starting to wake up and demand an answer to one simple question: Why?

The Jesus of the Fourth Gospel knew the answer: For all who do evil hate the light and do not come to the light, so that their deeds may not be exposed.  The light of the world, the Incarnate Son of God, is the same light, we are told in the Revelation to St. John, that will one day beam out of the new temple, filling the new heavens and new earth.  There is no hiding from this light.  I picture it as a light so all-pervasive there are not even shadows; it is everywhere, all at once, just as the God who creates and creates anew is.

Yet, we live in a time when it is still possible to hide in shadow.  If one is clever enough, one can move around, continuing to conceal oneself from the light of love that is the Son of God.  Like Adam in the garden, however, God demands to know why we are hiding.  We cannot hide forever; even less can we hide if we are pretending the world is other than the way it is.  It isn't divine intervention that brings to light the multifarious lies that do so much damage.  It's reality that dope-smacks the creators of unreality.

As we prepare ourselves for the blessed event of the Incarnation, we should remember that the light that shines from the manger of Bethlehem will one day fill all creation.  In faith, we can follow the light and see all the ways some wish to hide, refusing to come to the light because they know the things they are doing are wrong.  Let us gather together in Bethlehem knowing we too carry darkness within us.  Let us take it to the light so that the baby lying in the feeding trough can remind us that he came to this world not to condemn us, but that all of us, the whole world, would be saved through him.

Saturday, December 22, 2012

Christmas I: It's The Memories

Dim memories.  I had to be 4.  Our last Christmas in the house in Sayre.  I'm sitting next to my brother, jealous of the gift he just received, but eyeing my own substantial stack of loot and remembering there is good stuff in there.


It's early morning, our very first Christmas in our new house in Waverly.  We are frog-marched down the stairs, my father in front, my mother in back.  When Dad opens the door, he immediately strikes a post in the doorway between the dining room and living room.  We are not to peek until we've all had breakfast.  It's a tradition we carry on for two decades and more that at least one child is in the house at Christmas.

I'm in sixth grade, I think.  Christmas is still two weeks away, an eternity to a kid.  I come home from school cold, wet - there's snow, so of course there are snowball fights - and Mom takes me to the front living room and says, "It's time to put up the Nativity Set."

"Why?" I ask.

"Because that's your job," she tells me, then walks out of the room.  It sits where it has always sat, a forgotten corner of a dark room, the least used in the house.  I always think that's just perfect.


It's two days before Christmas that same year.  My youngest sister insists we gather in the living room where the largest tree we will have for several years stands in the bay window, the branches and large-bulbed lights filling the room with the smells and color of Christmas.  She wants us to read, together, some Dennis The Menace Christmas comic books.  Until I'm married and on my own, I never let a Christmas pass without reading at least one of these, thinking of the gift my sister just gave me.

It's a couple days before Christmas.  I think it's 1984.  It's snowing.  I'm in a car with my youngest sister, her then boyfriend, and I could swear there's someone else along with us.  We're in the parking lot at the old J. J. Newberry's in Sayre.  A Christmas song comes on the car radio, and my sister's boyfriend starts to change the channel.  My sister reaches out and flips the knob back.  "It's Christmas time!  You have to have music!"


It's 1993.  My first Christmas as a married person.  I've enjoyed shopping at the Montgomery County Mall, finding all sorts of neat gifts and things for Lisa.  After a crazy Christmas Eve, that included an extremely rude woman in front of us at Christmas Eve service, I wake up about 5:30 because my wife's side of the bed is hot.  That's right.  Our first Christmas together, she has a little 24 hour bug that includes a nice fever.  It's just the two of us in our little apartment, the single string of lights on our Charlie Brown Christmas tree providing enough light for us to open our gifts to one another.  We take a break so she can nap.  We had a nice Christmas dinner planned, but we manage to fake our way through the day.  We have one another.  That's more than enough.


The living room in the parsonage in Jarratt is filled to overflowing.  One man, one woman, a very large Great Dane, two cats, an enormous Christmas tree, and presents presents presents presents for a five month old little girl's very first Christmas.  Even as we tell one another we're not going to overdo it because she's still so small, she won't remember any of it, she doesn't need that much stuff, we over-indulge, smiling and laughing for her until she figures it out and smiles and laughs as each present is opened.  A few bows get stuffed in her tiny mouth, but get taken out before they're damaged.

Another living room.  It's a bit smaller, so it seems even more crowded.  The same adults, the same animals. The same people, with yet another addition, doing all the things her big sister did: smiling and laughing; grabbing paper and tearing it; a bit of paper or bow getting shoved in her mouth.  We're joined by more family and soon the room is filled to overflowing.

What does any of this have to do with the incarnation of God?  One could say not a thing.  On the other hand, it is precisely to these mundane realities that God came, emptying the Diving Life to be a servant for us all.  God has been in each of these moments, and so many more untold or forgotten, filled with laughter and joyous surprise, lots of food and the occasional argument (what a Safford family Christmas would have been without someone yelling at someone else I don't quite know).  These Christmases live on because they remind me that even in the cold and dark of winter there is fun and family and food and, best of all, something new.

Let's Pretend: The NRA News Conference Edition

Rather than stare slack-jawed at the insanity on display yesterday, we're going to act as if Wayne LaPierre is not a demonstrably crazy, conspiracy-mongering whackadoodle.  Rather, we are going to pretend, just for a moment, that a couple of the things he says have some kind of merit, to be considered thoughtfully by all Americans.

First, there's his claim that the only thing that can stop a bad guy with a gun is a good guy with a gun.  How does he explain one of our worst recent mass-shootings at Ft. Hood in Texas?  That was an Army base where there were, I presume, more than a few "good guys" who not only had guns but training in how to use them, in particular using them in situations where someone is shooting back?

The crickets stopped chirping.

There was an armed police officer stationed at Columbine High School.

The crickets have left the building.

The other of LaPierre's statements that I want us to give all due consideration is his call for armed guards, whether police or volunteers, in all schools.  Setting to one side that history has already demonstrated the irrelevance of armed guards in preventing a mass shooting at a school, maybe we should think a little differently.  For example, all sorts of folks were sharing the story of the Marine Sgt. who stood watch outside his son's school yesterday in Merced, CA.  Turns out, however, there was less there than meets the eye.  No offense to the school officials, but I am far more worried about the fact they didn't vet this guy well enough before giving him the nod.  Sure, it turned out OK in this instance.  What about next time some school decides to say, "Sure," to some guy who comes along claiming to be a veteran with a child in school wanting to stand watch?  What if that guy not only isn't a veteran, but is a pedophile?  Or worse?  I don't blame the young Marine who only wanted "to do something".  I blame the school district for not doing basic due diligence, acting to protect the children in their care.

Furthermore, we have "armed guards" over our schools.  They're called police officers.  Now, I'm not a huge fan of police forces for any number of reasons; that doesn't mean I dislike or lack respect for police officers, most of whom are hard working men and women in a dangerous, depressing job.  There hasn't been a single peep about the fact that preventing crime, subduing criminals, and dealing with extreme situations is the job for our municipal, county, state, and federal law enforcement agencies.  Whether we put police on station in schools, or merely have them patrol nearby at frequent intervals, or make sure school Administrators have a direct line to police departments to ensure someone arrives in a timely manner in case of a crisis, it seems to me most school districts already do this.  Anyone with a child in high school will tell you this.  The only ones I hear ignoring or dismissing or demonstrating lack of respect for the role of municipal police officers is Wayne LaPierre.

Furthermore, the call to place armed guards demonstrates the basic lawlessness of the NRA's entire position.  Rather than trust local law enforcement to do their jobs, LaPierre wants ordinary citizens to volunteer to take the law in to their own hands, placing themselves and others at risk because, at heart, LaPierre and the NRA have repeatedly stated their distrust of and dislike for police.  Rather than work to create a safer, healthier society, one in which various officials work together to mitigate violence and the potential disasters that come when people invariably slip through the cracks, LaPierre is insisting we weaken the bonds that unite our local communities, trusting not our elected officials and those who work to protect us but "volunteers" who may or may not have the understanding, training, and expertise to act correctly in a situation of extreme stress.

More to the point, LaPierre's statement ignores the fact the problem isn't school shootings, or just school schootings.  It's shootings.  Period.  How many people have died in gun violence in the past eight days?  How many children have died from gun violence in the past eight days?  It's been invisible for any number of reasons, not the least of them being we as a society no longer consider gun violence as a category of social problem with which we all must deal.  Rather, it is only the occasional extreme example, such as last week's mass shooting, that is the problem.  Gun violence has become, sad to say, the new normal, the price we pay for living in a free society.

Finally, a word or two or three about Wayne LaPierre and the National Rifle Association.  For four years, he and his organization have raised a whole lot of money by creating a paranoid conspiracy theory about Pres. Obama.  Even though Pres. Obama has actually worked to expand gun rights in the United States, the NRA has consistently claimed that, at any moment, the President and his Administration is going to swoop down upon every home in the country and take away our guns.  Like most everything else the right has said about this President and Administration, the exact opposite is the case, but that hasn't stopped the message being repeated and heard.  Gun sales have been through the roof the past four years.  Gun manufacturers - the NRAs real constituency, not the two million Americans who joined because they took a gun safety class or enjoy hunting - have seen their net sales grow each year.  I do not believe for one moment that LaPierre believes any of the drivel he sends out to members about Obama's secret plans to take away our guns.  It is worrying, however, there are far too many Americans who hear it, believe it, and act upon it, buying up more and more guns, creating more and more opportunities for accidental shootings, suicides, and the occasional huge, whomping horror as occurred last Friday in Connecticut.

Part of having a discussion about gun control - not "gun safety"; gun control, folks; we have to stop this idea that if we just rebrand an idea it will suddenly be more appealing - is dealing with the world in which we actually live.  Wayne LaPierre and the NRA have created for far too many gullible Americans an alternate reality, one in which they live in fear, one in which police departments and law enforcement officials are "jack-booted thugs" rather than part of the way we ensure our communities are safe.  Rather than work to promote responsible gun ownership, the NRA has spent the past four years promoting paranoid fantasies, ensuring more and more profit for its primary constituency - the corporations who manufacture and sell firearms.  That is reality.

Wayne LaPierre's news conference was just another exercise in his years-long promotion of fear.

Friday, December 21, 2012

You Might Be Doing It Wrong

As we begin a long-overdue examination of where gun culture in America has gone, we can't avoid the way guns have become so entwined with masculine anxiety, as so many men seek to find their identity in instruments of destruction.-Paul Waldman
Cultural critics, feminists, and just run-of-the-mill folks who point out, repeatedly, that gender identity tends to be conflicted social space get a lot of flack from folks who refuse to see what's out there in front of everyone's face.  With the national heartbreak from Newtown, CT still fresh, it's been interesting to discover how Bushmaster, the manufacturer of the weapon used to kill 27 people last week, marketed gun ownership.  From the Paul Waldman piece linked above:
[I]f you're anxious about your masculinity, if you aren't quite sure whether those around you find you sufficiently strong and potent, the Bushmaster corporation has an answer for you. If you buy one of their semi-automatic rifles -- like the kind Adam Lanza used to murder 20 children and six adults last week -- you may "Consider your Man Card reissued."
That's the message of ads the company has been running, along with a particularly ridiculous social media campaign. Until today --the page has apparently been taken down, but parts of it are visible here -- you could learn on the "Man Card" section of Bushmaster's website that "In a world of rapidly depleting testosterone, the Bushmaster Man Card declares and confirms that you are a man's man." Then you could fill out a little form to bust on your buddies for not being manly enough, to "Revoke a Man Card." Just enter a brief description of the offense and put it into one of five categories: "Cry baby," "Cupcake," "Short leash," "Coward," or "Just unmanly."
Folks, like me, who consider quite a bit of our national desire for guns to be a sign of social and cultural illness really don't need to go very far to discover all sorts of ways this illness displays itself.  While egregious, this marketing campaign is hardly atypical.  Whether it's cologne or trucks or tools; whether it's "chick flicks" versus "action flicks" at the cineplex; it might even be what kind of beer you drink; all these products become stand-ins for how gender roles are clarified.  Last night, I was watching an episode of NCIS from season 3, in which two characters discover a third uses hand and body lotion, then proceed to question both his masculinity and sexual orientation.  I have to admit, while I'm a fan of the show, I was horrified by what I was watching.  Honest to God.  Are there really people in the world who are so unsure of their own sexual and gender identity that it's important to belittle others because of the products they use?

It isn't just lefties like me who tend toward gender-specific social criticism.  National Review Online featured an article by Charlotte Allen (no links to this heap of bilge) in which she wrote that the massacre at Sandy Hook Elementary School happened because there weren't enough men on campus.  As Charlie Pierce wrote in his scathing dismissal:
American conservatism has been rendered a parody of a burlesque of a puppet show. And Charlotte Allen should be shunned by decent people. Hell, people who think like this should be shunned by bacteria.
Is our problem one of gender?  Are men these days just not man enough?  Has feminism rendered males weak, unable to perform their function as protectors and providers?

It seems to me that, as this forms the backbone less of serious cultural criticism and more an advertising campaign for weapons whose sole designed function is to kill human beings, the answers to these questions is probably no.

For all you men out there: If you are really worried about being "a man's man", here's what you do.  First, if you're just not sure, uneasy in your own skin as a male, take off all your clothes and look down.  See that thing dangling there about half-way down?  Some of you might have to bend forward a bit to see over the gut.  You see it?  If so, then you've confirmed you're a guy.

Step two to being a man's man is really simple.  Hug your kids.  That person you really love - it could be a woman, it could be a man - should be told every single day how special they are.  Tell him or her, in all sorts of ways, how much his or her presence makes your life better.

Go to work, and do your job thoroughly, professionally, with dignity and pride.  I don't care if you're an office worker, a mechanic, a construction worker, a lawyer, or President of the United States.  When you're on the clock, be focused on that work, because whatever it is you're doing, it's effecting the lives of hundreds if not thousands of people, most of whom you'll never know.

Be polite to everyone you meet.  Even, perhaps especially, the folks who rub you the wrong way, who can't seem to say anything nice about the rest of the world.  It doesn't cost you anything, and you have no idea the impact small things like that can have.

Laugh when other people tell jokes.  Express sympathy to those who are hurting.  Give a helping hand to folks who ask for assistance.

Volunteer somewhere.  Do some work, whether it's ringing the Salvation Army bell, or building a house with Habitat for Humanity, or serving a meal once a month at a homeless shelter.  Whatever it might be, even a little thing makes you feel better.

Finally, if after doing all this, you're still unsettled about your basic gender identity, then seek help.  Seriously. Sitting and talking with a counselor isn't a sign of weakness or illness.  Shoot, it takes a real, strong man to admit he has problems and wants to deal with them.

If you feel this urge to buy a gun because the company that makes it tells you you're just not man enough, stop for a moment, think, and spend that money to help yourself and someone else.  That's what a man's man would do.

Thursday, December 20, 2012

Caveat Emptor

First of all, full disclosure is in order.  I was in my early 20's when I read The Right Stuff and James Michener's fictionalized version of the same story, Space (the only Michener I've ever been able to read, by the way).  I defy anyone who's read either, but perhaps especially Tom Wolfe's breezy account of the early years of the space program - the whole thing could have been printed in caps lock mode and would have read far better - without coming away not only with a great deal of admiration for the men who fly combat aircraft, but quite a bit of admiration for the machines, as well.  Twice in my life I've been fortunate to visit the Air Force Museum at Wright-Patterson Air Force Base in Dayton, OH.  There's something . . . just something about those planes, whether WWII-era fighters, Cold War work horses like the F-4 and F-111 or our new-fangled aircraft that is . . . thrilling? Is that the word? . . . and makes me more than a little proud to be an American.

Having said that, I wanted to expand a bit on some complaints Charlie Pierce wrote concerning the proposed F-35 Lightning Joint Strike Fighter (JSF).  Linked to a story in the business section of The New York Times, Pierce takes aim at two facts: both the per-unit cost for the aircraft as well as the potential cost for the entire proposed program are not only enormous, but growing; several countries that had placed orders for the plane are backing out of their commitments, not only because of the cost, but because the aircraft, as it has developed, is not offering what was originally intended.

While dubbed a Joint Strike Fighter, much like the problem-plagued F-22 Raptor, the F-35 is not an air-superiority aircraft.  An Australian defense think-tank has a run-down of its own complaints about the F-35, and ends the discussion comparing the Lightning to other aircraft, concluding that, in fact, the F-35 resembles less an F-18 than the old F-104 Thunderchief.  Not just the design of the aircraft, but the missions for which it's best suited, the F-35 would be far better providing air cover and low-level tactical raids than Top Gun-like dog fights.

So the plane's actual performance doesn't match expectations.  Yet the real complaint is the cost.  This is, I think, less a product of industrial perfidy than it is the oddities of our weapon procurement system.  It begins with the statutory demand not only that designs meet specific military needs; these designs need to be approved based upon cost.  Specifically, for example, while Lockheed Martin received the contract for the F-35, in all likelihood, several contractors probably bid on the project, offering plans for an aircraft to meet the stated needs of the  Armed Services.  By law, however, the bid is awarded to the company that offers the lowest bid.  This system creates cost overruns.  I doubt there are many large-scale weapon systems that have come in on budget and time, not because the system for weapon construction is laden with opportunities for graft.  Rather, it might seem feasible to propose $X million for a particular weapon design; once actual construction gets underway, even small flaws in the original design can create magnified cost-overruns to compensate.

Once prototypes go through initial testing, more changes usually follow.  Then there are test flights, which just increase the demand for changes that create spiraling cost increases.  This process can take many years, during which the demands from policy makers change, which create issues for designers to incorporate these new demands.  Again - costs increase.

The entire way we buy weapons guarantees no system will end up either performing, appearing, or costing what was originally proposed.  I'm not sure what the answer to this conundrum is, although I do wonder if we really want weapons that are built by corporations that are willing to spend less on them than anyone else.  Even with design specifications and detailed regulations that insure safety and reliability, doesn't it seem at least plausible that a low-bid is, after decades of experience, just a low-end estimate?

From the look of the aircraft through its mission capabilities to its cost, the F-35 might well be, as Pierce says, a lemon.  All the same, it is a product of the way we have decided to order defense systems.  So, I wonder: Who's to blame?  Is it Lockheed Martin, who is only looking for a slight return on its many-year investment in the F-35?  Or, perhaps, is it an entire way of doing this business that does nothing but suck money from the public trough?

Tuesday, December 18, 2012

Valuable Values

OK, it's been an entire weekend of listening to people parcel out blame among their pre-existing moral hobby-horses in regard to which of them is most to blame for the massacre in Connecticut. Guns. Video games. Bad Bruce Willis movies. I have my own opinion on all of them, except for the Bruce Willis movies because they don't pay me enough money to see enough of those to develop an opinion. Here's my feeling on all of them. You know what the real culprit is?
Profit. - Charlie Pierce
I love few things more than the constant barrage of noise about traditional values.  Really.  What, after all, does the word "value" mean?  Something is of value if and only if we can reasonably set it aside other things of greater or lesser value.  Otherwise, it is either worthless (of no value) or priceless (outside the set of those things upon which we bestow value).  All that talk about "traditional values" only shows the folks doing the talking have been nabbed and landed, and are currently drying on the stringer held up by capitalism.

Let's face it.  Not just in principle but in fact, everything is up for sale in this country.  We are one gigantic junk yard, filled with people willing to do just about anything to trade for cold hard cash whatever someone else is willing to pay.  Why else would "family" be thought a "traditional value" if it weren't something we were willing to trade, say, to a reality television producer to splatter dysfunction across the nation's screens for titillation and the marvelous frisson that comes from seeing someone's life that is far more screwed up that one's own?  The next time you hear someone talking about "traditional American values", remember they are only trying to part your money from you.

A simple test: What's of more value?  The tens of thousands of very real lives lost to gun violence or the right to own a weapon?  A 2010 study in the Southern Medical Journal, as reported by reports that having a gun in the home is 12 times more likely to lead to death of a resident or visitor than an intruder.  The evidence is pretty clear, it seems.  You want to protect your home?  Keep guns out of them.

Except, of course, that isn't the story we're told over and over again, by an industry that seeks to profit from our fear of The Other.  We are told over and over and over again that our homes and our families' lives and safety are so valuable, we should invest in a firearm for protection.  Even though the available data indicates that owning a firearm actually increases the danger to those in that home.

So, again - what's really of value?  The lives of those we love or the erroneous aura of protection we get from owning a weapon that is far more likely to be used in a suicide or accidental shooting than to protect our property or family?

Remember.  When you wonder if capitalism can alter our ways of thinking, consider again this simple fact: If you own a gun, it is twelve times more likely to be used against a resident or visitor than an intruder.  We aren't told that, however, because gun manufacturers have convinced us, for their own profit, that owning a firearm will keep our families safe.  

Monday, December 17, 2012


As a way of avoiding talking about guns and gun control, there has been quite a bit of attention paid to yet another American scandal - our woefully underfunded mental health treatment and support systems.  The general line of argument, repeated with neither thought nor empathy, runs something like this: Only someone with something very wrong, mentally, would go on a shooting spree that purposefully targeted children.  Thus, the shooter was crazy/mentally ill.  If we were more aware/paid more attention to/properly funded mental health screening and treatment, perhaps this event could have been avoided.

As far as logic goes, there is a certain soundness to it.  Alas, like many logical sequences, however, it bears little resemblance to any reality, most especially the one in which we live.

Which is not to say that mental health is either understood or treatment fully funded.  On the contrary.

Rather, the major premise - Adam Lanza was mentally ill - is not only not a given, it shouldn't be assumed.  There are varieties of mental illness that could, I suppose lead one suffering from them to acts of violence.  The reality, however, as this post as Feministe reminds us, is the exact opposite: Persons with mental illness are far more likely to be the victims of violence than the perpetrators of violence.

People with mental illness suffer enough stigma without bearing the brunt of our society's fears.  Fully-funding mental health programs is a worthy goal in and for itself.  Running around insisting people who are diagnosed with a mental illness pose a threat to others in society does nothing to help them, and much to hurt them, as well as their families and loved ones.

All the talk about funding mental health programs that are following in the wake of the Newtown shooting are as much a red herring as anything else that distracts from the singular reality that we have far too many guns, and far too easy access to them.  Which is not to say that we should not fund mental health programs.  We should.  We should do it, however, without fearing those we are treating.  The mentally ill are not dangerous. They are hurting and in need of help.

Sunday, December 16, 2012

Not Playing Fair

From Wonkette:
We’re going to talk about it because our thoughts and prayers are not enough. They were not enough after Columbine (15 dead), or the Amish schoolhouse (6 dead), or Virginia Tech (33 dead), or Tucson (6 dead), or Aurora (12 dead), or the Wisconsin Sikh temple (6 dead), and they are not enough now that another 28 once living, breathing people have been added to the tally. To offer only thoughts and prayers is to say “Well, that’s a damn shame. Sure hope it doesn’t happen again.” We have done this every time. And every time, it’s happened again. So we’re going to talk about it.
From Cynthia Nielsen:
How many more lives must be lost before we enact change? How many children must perish? How many parents must pick up the pieces of their shattered lives after having lost their children? What will it take to change our hearts and minds about the needless, rampant gun violence in our country? Will it taking losing your children or mine? Are not these children and these children and these children our children, our brothers, our sisters?
From Gary Wills:
Read again those lines, with recent images seared into our brains—“besmeared with blood” and “parents’ tears.” They give the real meaning of what happened at Sandy Hook Elementary School Friday morning. That horror cannot be blamed just on one unhinged person. It was the sacrifice we as a culture made, and continually make, to our demonic god. We guarantee that crazed man after crazed man will have a flood of killing power readily supplied him. We have to make that offering, out of devotion to our Moloch, our god. The gun is our Moloch. We sacrifice children to him daily—sometimes, as at Sandy Hook, by directly throwing them into the fire-hose of bullets from our protected private killing machines, sometimes by blighting our children’s lives by the death of a parent, a schoolmate, a teacher, a protector. Sometimes this is done by mass killings, sometimes by private offerings to the god.
Look at the names above.  Especially the ones with the "6" and "7" after them.  Then tell me we are powerless, that there's just nothing we can do, isn't it so sad and too bad.  Read those quoted above and tell the families and friends of the named dead how wrong they all are, how it isn't the gun-worshipers and phony he-men who are selfish but all those expressing sympathy and support and most of all demanding that these persons should not have died in vain, that we in fact are the selfish ones.  Go read those names and pretend that, somehow, the problem is too few guns.

Please.  Say whatever you want to say about slippery slopes and people killing people and Agenda 21 and enforcing laws on the books, but before you say any of those things - things that are meaningless, repeated each and every time an event such as this occurs, and have nothing to do with the world in which real people really live - please make sure you read that list of names up above.  Memorize it.  Those are the names of the sacrifices we have made sure were carried out.

A Counter-Question In The Face Of Evil

So yesterday, I was on my way home from my very long day.  Weekend All Things Considered was on the radio, and the host was interviewing Eugene Peterson.  The first question asked is the one that, to me, seems to come most often from people who have not been brought up within any religious tradition: How do you maintain your faith in the face of an event like this?  This particular question is really nothing more than a kissing cousin to the classic expression of theodicy: How is it possible for evil to exist in a world governed by an all powerful, loving God?

It's been forty-eight hours or so since we became aware that, as horrible as things might be in Newtown, the reality was far worse.  If your Facebook feed (I don't hang out on Twitter, but I guess it's probably as bad there) is like mine, the only real topic of conversation is what happened on Friday.  We are, all of us, grieving.  Some of us, perhaps many, feel helpless in the face of mass death that is simultaneously so close yet so far away.  Some of us, perhaps many, are enraged without finding a proper target for our anger.  Many people are taking refuge in the comforting words and images that salve their wounded hearts.  To be honest, with the exception of the terrorist attacks of 2001, I cannot remember an event that has so gripped the emotional and spiritual lives of the nation the way the Newtown mass killing has.

And always, of course, is the search for meaning.  I know I'm rare in that I long ago stopped looking for "meaning" in events, good or bad.  What happened, happened.  In this case, what would meaning look like, beyond perhaps a reminder that evil comes in many guises, including great, huge walloping blows about our souls and hearts, leaving us gasping for air.

The theodicy question is, I suppose, fair enough.  For folks, whether within the Church or not, the claims of Divine sovereignty and overflowing love can ring particularly hollow in the silence that follows horror of such enormity.  And we should be fair enough to remind ourselves it isn't just Newtown, either, lest we privilege too much our own grief in the face of loss.  At this moment, perhaps, we should remind ourselves of the terrible loss of life in Haiti due to an earthquake, an event that was followed by a terrible plague; the death toll from the earthquake alone was astronomical.  The plague continued to kill those left behind, and the people of that land are still waiting for anything resembling a normal life.  Even as I write this, a Pacific typhoon bears down on Fiji having wreaked havoc through Somoa.  The cry of those who suffer, whether that suffering is the result of a planet that seems apathetic to human life or the result of human action, is one to which we should give heed.

Giving an ear, however, does not mean to privilege that cry.  For all those who demand from God a resolution of pain, whether from heedless nature or the evil, murderous intent of our fellow human beings, I do believe the answer from God is a simple counter-question: Why do you permit it?

God isn't a magician.  God isn't a wizard, able to wave a wand and cure the evil that lurks within all of us.  God doesn't have a button to push to help people get safely out of the way of dangerous weather or other natural phenomena.  While the earthquake that struck Haiti was little different than earthquakes that hit places as varied as Turkey, Japan, the United States, and Chile.  Haiti, however, is a land ravaged by other, all too human evils, leaving the people with fewer resources to protect themselves from the ravages of nature.  It isn't too hard to figure out that the very first Republic governed by people of African descent in the Western Hemisphere would face obstacles no other country would face - not only neo-colonial exploitation that stripped much of the natural beauty and resources from a once-beautiful and rich land, but the added burden of white supremacy that, by turns, withheld help or forced alien-supported rulers who stole and pillaged while others turned deaf ears to the suffering of the people.  Why does Haiti suffer, God asks us, when we all have the power to relieve that suffering and prevent any repeat in the future?  Don't blame me, God might well say, when all of you have done far too little to help Haiti and the Haitian people mitigate the terrors from a world that runs on its on scale.

As with Haiti, so, too, with Newtown.  How could God let this happen?  Well, says God, how could you let it happen?  This event isn't some odd, random occurrence, outside any human experience.  On the contrary, while certainly the scale of the horror is far greater than our usual experience, it isn't like we have never gone through anything like this.  And we keep going through them, offering prayers to God in the names of the families of those lost, thinking we have fulfilled our spiritual duties this way.  We cry and we hug and then we shake our heads and we move on with our lives until there is yet another multiple shooting, as there was in Alabama on Saturday.  Which doesn't include the singular events of gun violence, events that push that body count higher each day.

We have the temerity to ask God how such evil occurs, when we have the power, should we so choose, perhaps not to eliminate but certainly to drastically reduce the possibility any such event can ever occur again.  What happened in Connecticut isn't some oddity, outside anyone's ability either to comprehend or explain.  On the contrary, it is all too human for all the horror it contains, or perhaps precisely because of all the horror it contains.  At the end of the day, while certainly understandable, perhaps even a necessary part of the grieving process, sitting around and getting mad at God is little more than refusing to take a share of the responsibility.  God didn't let this happen.

We did.

Saturday, December 15, 2012

It Isn't About Newtown

I should be honest enough to say that title is a lie.  Because, as everyone knows, it is about Newtown.  Or, perhaps better - With the events yesterday in Newtown, I realized that silence equaled consent.  Not just in the bloody massacres at which we all stop and ask, "What have we become?" and everyone says they'll pray, and whoever is President will say a word or two, and then . . . the next one happens.  According to The Washington Post today, there have been thirteen such events just this year.  In fact, by the criteria of this report, there was yet another just today in Alabama.  Catch our breath?  Why even bother breathing?

But it isn't mass shootings.  They're the blockbuster of gun violence, big and gaudy, attracting all sorts of attention, enough to blind us to the steady drip of blood that is gun violence in America.  According to the CDC, in 2009 there were 11,493 gun-related deaths in the United States.  About 31 per day.  That's one and one-half Newtowns every single day.




Why don't we hear about it?  We do, though.  It's on the news, isn't it?  Just this summer, the city of Chicago saw a spike in homicides, with the city's four hundredth coming in late October.

If we faced a disease that killed an average of 31 Americans every day, we would be investing tens of millions if not billions of dollars searching for a cure, or at least effective treatment.  Facing the violent, gun-related deaths of 31 Americans every day we are told all sorts of things.  "Who could have known this would happen?", "This isn't the time to talk about gun control", "If a crazy person wants to kill people, that person will find a way to do it", on and on.  And on.

Why?  I think this article from The New Inquiry  gets at part of it:
I feel like sometimes it’s the bigness of the problem that scares us the most, and so a solution that feels practical becomes the only response we can imagine. But when people have guns to protect them from black people and the government, a black president is not going to have much luck trying to repeal the 2nd Amendment.  Especially when our response to a white guy shooting up a school is to tell people to be on the watch for “suspicious characters.” If there’s a solution, the law might be part of it, and the people who were demonstrating in front of the White House yesterday, good for them. I’d have joined them; I’m all for taxing the living shit out of anyone who wants to own a gun in a big city, for example. I’ll sign that petition, why the hell not. But as long as there’s a loophole, as long as some people are more animal, more killable than white kids in Connecticut, there will still be people killing people, and people who are crazy enough to want to do it are crazy enough to find a way. And we should be aghast about every single one of the dead kids, and adults, not just the white ones who were killed by automatic weapons in a school.
The frustrating thing about this is it is both right and wrong.  It is right because it makes clear the enormity of the problem.  It is wrong because if you say, "Wow, that's just too big," then no one does anything and we all cross our fingers and hope and pray the daily body count doesn't include people we love.

Taking any single event and saying, "Who could have known this would happen?" certainly makes sense. Except, of course, these aren't single, or singular, events.  Think Progress has a list of the 29 mass shootings since the Columbine High School shooting in 1999*, and states there have been 61 in the past 30 years.

But just as it isn't about Newtown, it isn't about mass shootings, either.  It's the mass shooting that happens each and every day, whether it's a street corner on the southwest side of Chicago, or the Lower East Side of Manhattan, or the destitute streets of New Orleans or Detroit.  These are American lives lost, a body count that we have allowed to get every larger because we both refuse to accept that these deaths are American deaths, and because we refuse to accept that bearing responsibility means doing something.

There are more things to say, such as pointing out other cultures are just as violent as ours - anyone even passing familiar with Japanese popular culture understands it is a sinkhole of violence and misogyny, for example - so American exceptionalism doesn't extend to our vices any more than it does our virtues.  There are more things to say, such as pointing out that the insistence on moments of silence are insulting to the memory of the dead.  It is silence that keeps the bodies piling up, makes that butcher's bill ever longer.

Only the dead are silent.  It is up to us, the living, to be the voice they have lost.  Because it isn't just Newtown.  It's about America.

*Their criteria for "mass shootings" appear to be slightly different from those that led to the article in the Washington Post, linked above.

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