Tuesday, November 25, 2014

Ferguson


I am overwhelmed with sadness as yet another young black man's life is snuffed out and the killer excused by a system determined to maintain a status quo of injustice. After the first few sentences of the press conference last night, I sat in front of the television saying, "oh no, here it comes again."

Absolutely nothing sounds right about this case. If Michael Brown was a suspect of a crime, how does he reach the car before the police officer emerges? Why would a man suspected of shoplifting wrestle for a gun, get shot, run away, and then come back towards the police officer? Why was deadly force ever on the table once there was separation between the two? After shots have been fired in the car, how can eyewitness accounts of the fatal shot be so conflicting as to be completely ignored? Why does a prosecutor spend months creating reasonable doubt (the job of the defense in a trial), and then do everything possible to prevent a grand jury from finding probable cause for even an indictment? If Michael Brown was standing accused of shooting a police officer, how long would it have taken for the grand jury to return an indictment for murder?

If this were an isolated incident, I could be tempted to dismiss it as inconclusive and to give a law enforcement officer the benefit of the doubt. But this is no isolated incident. Given the way this society systematically imprisons black men and given the quickly growing numbers of people of color shot dead by police under questionable circumstances, any reasonable person must start asking questions. How would this event have changed if Michael Brown had been white? Would events have been different if the officer were wearing a camera? Whatever other evidence exists, if two credible witnesses testified that the shooting was questionable, why is the officer not being charged at least with involuntary manslaughter?

Yesterday, after the killing of Tamir Rice in Cleveland, Police Chief Calvin Williams said, "Guns are not toys, and we need to teach our kids that. Our community needs to understand that." No, Chief Williams, our police need to be taught that using deadly force against a 12-year old playing in a park is never acceptable. Instead of constantly blaming victims - especially those of color - our society needs to make radical changes to its out-of-control gun culture.

Fifty years ago, I was a blissfully ignorant eight-year old boy who played "soldier" with toy guns. Andy Griffith was the town sheriff in Mayberry. I watched Dragnet and Highway Patrol and knew the police were my friends. But I didn't grow up in Selma. I paid little attention to Huntley and Brinkley reporting about dogs and fire hoses, burning churches, and murdered civil rights activists. Negroes lived in a different part of town - a part of town I never saw.

But now, my eyes see the world through the lens of centuries of oppression. I have tried to put my feet in the shoes of the people of Ferguson and of countless other towns and cities where police violence against people of color takes place. I have held hands - hands of all colors and ages - and tried to change our broken system. Last summer, I stood in solidarity with thousands of others in the 50th anniversary of the March on Washington.

The frightening specter of the 50th anniversary of the events in Selma, Alabama loom heavily on my mind. Fifty years later, African Americans are still dying at the hands of white authorities who aren't even indicted and brought to trial. Poor communities are in deep pain and feeling enormous frustration at the continuing legacy of racial injustice in this country. As Unitarian Universalists and other people of faith, we must condemn the racist practices displayed by law enforcement agencies that mainly targets young people of color in our society, which negates their inherent worth and dignity, and continues the mass practice of institutional racism in our society.

It is time again for us to stand on the side of love to actively demonstrate alongside others who are fighting to change the laws that allow police harassment, which results in violence against communities of color. Every American deserves equal treatment in the eyes of the law. Every American deserves an equal chance to succeed in the most prosperous nation in the history of humankind. Every American should feel confident that police are there to protect them and not to execute them.

Monday, November 24, 2014

Truth and Meaning: Frivolous Waste


During the last week of the recent campaign for District 98 State Representative, Midlanders received a barrage of lurid and sensationalist ads predicting all manner of doom and gloom that would befall Michigan should Democrat Joan Brausch be elected. Republican candidate Gary Glenn worked hard to separate himself from these disgusting tracts of fear funded from groups supporting his candidacy. But it must give one pause that if a candidate cannot control his backers before he is elected, what chance has he to be objective of lobbyists and special interest groups after he is elected.

Now, in his first public pronouncement since his underwhelming victory, our new representative has unveiled his first call to action. Nothing about roads or gas taxes. Nothing about job creation. Nothing about saving our retirees from unfair taxes. Nothing about school funding. And nothing about saving Michigan's traditional families from the scourge of homosexuality and the "gay agenda" he fears so strongly.

No, his first call to action is to request an investigation into the money paid to a consultant by the state. No investigation into the allegations of fraud and nepotism by Gov. Rick Snyder. No investigation into the blatant misconduct of many of the emergency managers given dictatorial power over their cities by this administration. No investigation into the outrageous gerrymandering occurring in recent years. Our new representative's first request is to investigate how the state spent .0002 percent of its revenues two years ago because he doesn't like the reason the government spent the money.

What possible purpose could this investigation serve? The state paid a consultant to do a job, which he did. This same consultant was hired by other states to do exactly the same job. Michigan paid him $481,000 while Vermont — a state with 94 percent fewer people than Michigan — paid him $400,000. The consultant did his job and the state chose not to use his recommendations — much to the detriment of the poor and uninsured. So now Glenn wants to throw more tax dollars away investigating an expenditure already made for a job the state legally contracted, and which was completed.

The only purpose of such a call is not to exhibit any concern for the Michigan taxpayer. The only purpose is to discredit a medical insurance program that Michigan conservatives rejected in spite of the fact that many of our citizens have no access to affordable health care. The only purpose is to attack a program that has provided many millions of Americans with medical insurance for the first time. The only purpose is to bring the Washington brand of Tea Party obstructionism full force to Lansing and grind our government to a standstill wasting time on pointing fingers at nonexistent scandals, while at the same time providing no solutions to the problems that serve the interests of the people of this state.

It doesn't matter that this same consultant also worked on a similar project many years ago. This same consultant was paid by then Gov. Mitt Romney of Massachusetts to design that state's health insurance program — the exact program that served as the primary model for the Affordable Care Act. So it would seem that Glenn and his conservative backers had no objection to the consultant's fees charged to create a system for a Republican governor that has worked splendidly. But when a similar program was passed after a year-long debate and signed into law by a Democratic president, all of a sudden Glenn takes issue with that same consultant working for Michigan to implement a similar program.

And let us remember that the Affordable Care Act has been a spectacular success. Health care spending by consumers is at its lowest rate in 10 years. More than 10 million previously uninsured Americans now have affordable insurance, driving the number of uninsured citizens down 25 percent in just one year. The second year sign-up period has already seen one million people visit the healthcare.gov web page. And the overall price tag of implementation has come in at $100 billion less than predicted.

So, I offer a counter proposal to Mr. Glenn's call to examine the out-of-context statements of an advisor to the project. Let's take the money that this fruitless display of grandstanding will cost the taxpayers and buy a few tens of thousands of free school lunches; or replace some laid off public school teachers; or fill all of the potholes on I-75; or give a tax credit to a small business owner who will bring 100 new jobs to our region. Let us take the money the state will waste investigating this contract, and put it toward something that will help our citizens, like joining other states that have successfully implemented their own exchanges.

Saturday, November 15, 2014

Truth and Meaning: Half-Baked Bigotry


Much ado has been made in the past year about the bakery in Colorado that refused to make a cake for a same-sex couple celebrating their marriage. The baker argued that he exercised his religious freedom in refusing to bake a cake celebrating an act he considered counter to his religious beliefs. This argument makes a mockery of our Constitutional rights by hiding bigotry behind the right to religious freedom.

Here are the salient points:
  • The baker argued that he feels no hatred of homosexuals, and would willingly provide other types of baked goods to gay customers. He would refuse to provide a wedding cake to a heterosexual customer if it was for a same-sex wedding. But this argument is a distinction without a difference. The primary feature distinguishing same-sex weddings from heterosexual ones is the sexual orientation of its participants. Only same-sex couples engage in same-sex weddings. Therefore, it makes little sense to argue that refusal to provide a cake to a same-sex couple for use at their wedding is not “because of” their sexual orientation.
  • The baker candidly acknowledged that he would also refuse to provide a cake to a same-sex couple for a commitment ceremony or a civil union, neither of which is forbidden by state law. Because his objection goes beyond just the act of “marriage,” and extends to any union of a same-sex couple, it is apparent that his real objection is to the couple’s sexual orientation and not simply their marriage.
  • The baker argued that preparing a wedding cake is an expression amounting to protected speech, and that compelling him to treat same-sex and heterosexual couples equally is the equivalent of forcing him to adhere to “an ideological point of view.” But the baker categorically refused to prepare the cake before there was any discussion about what the cake would look like. He was not asked to apply any message or symbol to the cake, or to construct the cake in any fashion that could be reasonably understood as advocating same-sex marriage. The mere act of preparing a cake is simply not speech warranting First Amendment protection.
  • Regardless of what the cake itself might communicate or not, the act of selling cakes is also not a form of speech; thus, forcing a bakery to sell to a same-sex couple is not compelled speech. Compelling a bakery that sells wedding cakes to heterosexual couples to also sell wedding cakes to same-sex couples is incidental to the state’s right to prohibit discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation (which is the law in Colorado). To say otherwise trivializes the right to free speech.
  • The baker's refusal is distinctly the type of discrimination that the Supreme Court has repeatedly found illegal. It adversely affects the rights of buyers to be free from discrimination in the marketplace; and the impact upon sellers is incidental to the state’s legitimate regulation of commercial activity. Conceptually, his refusal to serve a same-sex couple due to religious objection to same-sex weddings is no different from refusing to serve a biracial couple because of religious objection to biracial marriage — an argument that was struck down long ago in Bob Jones Univ. v. United States.
As a minister, I wholeheartedly support the free practice of religion and I absolutely defend your freedom to believe the religion of your choice. What I find reprehensible, however, is when people use their religion as a shield for groundless hatred and bigotry. If you choose to discriminate against same-sex couples because you oppose homosexuality based on your interpretation of your religion's teachings, then you must apply those same standards to all customers. Are you going to give every customer a survey asking if they are guilty of any of a list of sins you find objectionable? If not, then you are a hypocrite abusing an important freedom that is seminal to the founding principles of this nation.
 
As the Michigan legislature considers adding "sexual orientation and gender identity and expression" to the Elliot-Larsen Act's list of protected classes of people, I call on everyone to make clear to our senators and representatives that we cannot allow people to pick and choose which religious beliefs they want to protect. Whatever your personal beliefs about homosexuality, the state has an overriding obligation to protect the basic civil rights of LGBT people.

Saturday, November 8, 2014

Truth and Meaning: Brokenness


We live in a society intolerant of difference, of error, of being less than whole. And yet, our society is populated by human beings, who are by definition imperfect, frequently wrong, and broken.

Many organized religions attribute this circumstance to our separation from the sacred center of the universe or whatever name for the oversoul one prefers. A strictly scientific view simply recognizes the biological reality that organisms suffer from natural diseases, mutations, and variations within ecosystems filled with challenges to our survival. A third view is that our historic ancestors angered god who subsequently punished us with imperfection for our failures.

Sadly, humanity has killed itself by the millions arguing over whose story is correct, rather than focusing on fixing the brokenness. Whether we are broken because we lack enlightenment, good enough science, or strong enough faith, the fact is that these are not mutually exclusive concerns. A Buddhist can still agree that scientific research has great value reducing human suffering and that Abraham, Jesus, Mohammad were great bodhisattvas. An atheist, humanist scientist can still find worth in the calming practice of meditation and the soothing ritual of devotion and commitment to religious community. And a believer in Original Sin can find solace in the notion that we will eventually achieve the gnosis to attain salvation and that reason can ease our path along the way.

Our brokenness is not the problem. How we cope, or fail to cope, with our brokenness is the problem. Mental illness is not the problem. Stigmatizing the mentally ill and providing inadequate care for sufferers is. Addiction is not the problem. Failing to provide treatment and support for the addict is. Domestic violence is not the problem. Continuing to promote the objectification of women in our rape culture is. Poverty is not the problem. But failing to dismantle institutionalized systems of social, economic, and political oppression is.

There is a parable told in many ways about a village next to a river. One day a villager noticed someone drowning in the river. The villager quickly swims out to save the person from drowning. The next day, the villagers save two drowning people. The following day, four people are caught in the rushing current. The villagers organize themselves quickly, setting up watchtowers and training teams of swimmers who can resist the swift waters. Rescue squads are soon working 24 hours a day. But each day the number of drowning people increases, reaching the point where the villagers cannot save all of the drowning people. Finally, someone asks the question, "Where are all these people coming from? Let’s organize a team to head upstream to find out who’s throwing all of these people into the river in the first place!"

America is drowning. All the watchtowers, lifeguards, and band-aid solutions will never solve the problem. We must venture upriver to stop those who are throwing people into the river. We must stop those who love power and money more than people. We must stop the lunatics who believe that we can bomb enemies to freedom. And we must stop electing willfully ignorant politicians who cater to the wealthy to the detriment of the People.

Thursday, October 30, 2014

Truth and Meaning: The Character of Candidates


Halfway through writing a posting on brokenness for this week, I walked out to get the mail. Living in a house previously owned by a Republican, I have been exposed first hand to the character of their candidate for State House. Joan Brausch has run a clean campaign based on nothing but her record of service and her stance on the issues. Organizations backing Gary Glenn, on the other hand, have produced some of the most vile and despicable pieces of political trash I have seen in my 58 years.

Many years ago, when I still lived in Pittsburgh, I was represented in Washington by a gentleman named Doug Walgren. He had served many terms quite successfully and was a popular Democrat. Then, Walgren ran against a political newcomer whose entire campaign was based on the fact that Walgren had moved his family to D.C. out of convenience. His opponent argued, therefore, that Walgren couldn't possibly represent the people of Western Pennsylvania adequately. Of course, it didn't matter than Walgren maintained two homes and paid taxes on both. This opponent was slick, avoided the issues and kept hammering this inconsequential point and managed to get elected. Literally one month after the election, he moved his family to Washington D.C. as well. That flagrant hypocrite was Rick Santorum.

So, folks, let me tell you that I have seen this act before. And believe me, it is an act. When he pulled that stunt about the American Legion with Karl Ieuter, I revisited the politics of the Big Lie again. I am a pacifist, and I have been a member of the American Legion because of my father's service, so I knew Glenn was making a political mountain out of a mole hill just to scare veterans. And now, according to Glenn's ads, electing Joan Brausch will turn Michigan's men gay, get our young women raped, and infest our population with Ebola. I wish I were kidding, but that has been the content of these ridiculous and sensationalist ads.

If you want to vote intelligently on Tuesday, you must look into the soul of a person. Someone who claims to be pro-life, but would continue slashing funding for public schools, cut access to birth control, and interfere with women's basic health care will say whatever it takes to scare conservative voters. Someone who claims he can revitalize our economy, but walks lock step with the Koch Brothers and the Mackinac Center will say whatever it takes to scare business owners and rich people. And someone who claims the moral high ground, but stoops to the low tactic of calling LGBT folk pedophiles worthy of being fired or evicted because of who they love certainly isn't moral.

If you can't bring yourself to vote for Joan Brausch, then at least reject Gary Glenn's Tea Party obstructionism and simply abstain. We have more than enough fear mongering in government. We need people with hope and vision, people willing to listen to all points of view and do what is best for the people. Reject the slick words and the insulting scare tactics and look into the souls of the candidates. Then vote for the person who respects the dignity of every person, speaks to the issues, and doesn't resort to cheap theatrics to garner your support.

Saturday, October 25, 2014

Truth and Meaning: Jesus and Guns


My blog last week generated enthusiastic response from ardent supporters of the right to keep and bear arms without a mandatory background check. At one point, one of these strident advocates cited Luke 22:36 as a defense of the position of his "God-given" right to own firearms. The verse describes Jesus talking to his apostles and reads,  "He said to them, 'But now, let him who has a purse take it, and likewise a bag. And let him who has no sword sell his mantle and buy one.'"

Since this verse comes up frequently in discussions of gun control, let's destroy this argument once and for all. First, let us examine the full context of the verse by including the following two verses. "He said to them, 'But now, let him who has a purse take it, and likewise a bag. And let him who has no sword sell his mantle and buy one. For I tell you that this scripture must be fulfilled in me, 'And he was reckoned with transgressors'; for what is written about me has its fulfillment.' And they said, 'Look, Lord, here are two swords.' And he said to them, 'It is enough.'"

The New Oxford Annotated Bible has this to say about the passage. "An example of Jesus' fondness for striking metaphors, but the disciples take it literally. The sword apparently meant to Jesus a preparation to live by one's own resources against hostility. The natural meaning of verse 38 is that the disciples supposed he spoke of an actual sword, only to learn that two swords were sufficient for the whole enterprise, that is, were not to be used at all."

Anyone who has read the Gospels knows that Jesus was fond of metaphors. Matthew 23:24 - "You blind guides, straining out a gnat and swallowing a camel!" Or Mark 10:25 - "It is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for a rich man to enter the kingdom of God." Clearly, Jesus had no intention of inflicting either of these painful actions upon any camels. So, presuming that everything Jesus said was to be taken literally is groundless.

Jesus frequently used physical objects (seeds, lamps, vineyards, coins, lost sheep, etc.) to teach universal truths, and the same is true of the two swords. This interpretation is supported by Matthew 10:34: "Do not suppose that I have come to bring peace to the earth, but a sword," (another verse often misquoted by gun advocates). In proper context, Jesus did not mean a physical sword that cuts up and bloodies the family, but a spiritual and moral one that may divide families nonphysically.

Biblical scholar Bart Ehrman labels a literal interpretation of Luke 22:36 as an absurd contradiction. Throughout the Gospels, Jesus teaches peace. Matthew 26:51-52 - "One of them...drew his sword, and struck a servant of the high priest's, and smote off his ear. Then said Jesus...'Put up again thy sword into his place: for all they that take the sword shall perish with the sword.'" Luke 2:14 - "Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace, good will toward men." John 14:27 - "Peace I leave with you, my peace I give unto you: not as the world giveth, give I unto you." John 16:33 - "These things I have spoken unto you, that in me ye might have peace." Acts 10:36 - "The word which God sent unto the children of Israel, preaching peace by Jesus Christ."

The New Jerome Biblical Commentary agrees. "A new time within the era of fulfillment is dawning. Hostility will be the church's bedfellow...The reference to this destructive weapon (sword) must be taken in the total context of Luke-Acts...Since Luke narrates in his Gospel that Jesus not only preached love of enemies (6:26-36) but also lived that teaching (9:51-55; 23:34), and since he narrates in Acts that Paul and other missionaries never use swords, he cannot mean by 'sword' here a lethal weapon...Rather 'sword' is a symbol for crisis. A paraphrase of the latter part of verse 36 is: Sell your mantle and buy trouble."

Therefore, the words of Jesus in Luke 22:36 are not to be understood literally, that he would have his disciples furnish themselves with swords. His meaning is that, wherever they went and a door was opened for the preaching of the Gospel, they would have many adversaries. They would be met with violence, followed by rage and persecution. The phrase expresses the danger they will be exposed to.

When gun advocates use this verse to justify the purchase of guns without background checks for self-defense, they not only pervert the meaning of the statement, but the purpose for the warning. The disciples are entering hostile religious territory to preach a message, not to protect themselves from criminals. And the message they are preaching is one of love and peace, not "stand your ground" violence.

There are rational and compelling arguments on both sides of the gun control debate. Arguing that the Prince of Peace would have supported the right to keep and bear arms is not one of them.

Sunday, October 12, 2014

Truth and Meaning: The Root of the Problem

As more cases of police violence emerge in our media, we find ourselves repulsed by the violence, by the unprovoked viciousness exhibited by those chosen to protect and to serve. For many of us, our immediate reaction is to call for punishing those using excessive force. We want justice for Michael Brown and so many others brutally abused, beaten and murdered by police officers. We want to stand with the citizens of Ferguson demanding change.

But, the root of the problem is not the police. Our police are only a symptom of the underlying disease. This nation has engaged in one illegal military action after another, fighting one former ally after another that we armed to fight some other supposed enemy. And many brave and patriotic young men and women have felt duty bound to defend the principles of this nation by serving in the armed forces. But after their traumatic experiences, they return home physically wounded, emotionally bruised, and desperately in need of help. And we turn our backs on them.

The way we treat our combat veterans should be a matter of national disgrace. The rates of suicide and homelessness among our veteran population should be a top priority in Washington. The failure to provide these courageous men and women with the physical and mental health treatment they need is beyond appalling. I worked in the hospice unit of a VA hospital and saw the remnants of our fiasco in Vietnam and it grieves me beyond belief than we will be treating thousands more like them for the next 50 years.

Our police are no different. These brave men and women put their lives on the line every day to protect our manicured lawns and allow us to sleep soundly on our posturepedic mattresses. But, we raise our children in a world that still condones racism, sexism and homophobia. Our boys and girls grow up learning that violence is a solution and that a gun conveys power and authority. Our youth learn quickly that intimidation is the American way and that force trumps diplomacy.

So, is it any surprise that a handful of our police are bullies? Should we be shocked when an officer goes quickly to deadly force when facing a person who is the "other?" In a world of political extremists and religious fundamentalists, why should the violent reflexes of a police officer baffle us?

The root of the problem is not bad cops. The root of the problem is our tolerance of hate, our acceptance of prejudice and our parenting that teaches a child that other children are somehow less human because of their social status, skin color or identity.

So, for now, we should punish anyone who abuses their authority. But, we must start treating the disease underlying the symptoms. We must heal the sickness of bigotry; we must refute our gun culture and rape culture; we must start loving each other unconditionally until the death of one is felt equally by all.