Tuesday, November 22, 2016

What Do I Do?

On the Saturday morning after the election, members of my congregation and others joined together to draw chalk love notes on the Jefferson Avenue sidewalk. A small gesture - one unlikely to impact Trump America much – but a meaningful effort for some.

As hundreds of cars and trucks drove by, I knew that people saw us. We made a public statement against the hate this election released. People feeling scared and vulnerable in the wake of hundreds of examples of bigotry and violent intimidation could see that some of us oppose this rhetoric of division.

Amidst the smiles and waves, however, one passing driver shattered the mood of solidarity. One cowardly shout of “F*** Black Lives!,” reminded me that our effort was not an art project; not an insignificant public service message supporting love and acceptance. With three words, a bully thoughtlessly yelling at children drawing with chalk reminded me that our actions were a doorway, an opportunity to walk in another’s shoes.

As a white person, I never feared the police. As a man, I never shook with terror as slavering eyes pawed my body with rage-filled lust. As a cisgender male, I never trembled while walking to my car followed by a gang of overgrown boys looking to prove their manliness. As a U.S. citizen, I never imagined the terror of uniformed men ripping me from the loving arms of my family and casting me into a windowless prison. Even as a non-Christian, I cannot suffer the venomous revulsion others feel toward Muslims and Jews.

I can only imagine, and will never really ‘know’ how these things feel. I can only know the sorrow, the helpless witness of a growing power structure that supports violence and discrimination against People of Color, women, LGTBQ, immigrants, and non-Christians in America. I brim with frustration that I cannot ‘fix’ my country. I bemoan my inability to cure this plague of white, male, straight, U.S. born, Christian privilege in my homeland.

In the wake of the election, incidents of unthinkable cruelty occurred in our schools, our workplaces, and our public spaces. Assaults, beatings, and people made to feel unspeakable terror at the hands of their neighbors. Even Midland did not escape unscathed from these expressions of intolerance. In response, some allies began wearing safety pins as a sign that they were a ‘safe’ person, someone who would stand with the victims unleashed by simple-minded demagoguery. We hoped that this small symbol would send a subtle, but powerful signal to our community that we will not tolerate verbal and physical abuse of marginalized peoples.

No sooner had this movement begun, however, when critics expressed doubts about its sincerity, about the true commitment of the pin wearers to commit when needed. After all, white people largely elected Donald Trump as President. Why should non-white people trust them to put themselves at risk?

So, what do I do? Do I wear a safety pin or not? I do not support the racism, misogyny, homophobia, and xenophobia acting out on our national stage today. But I am one person. I am afraid, too. I do want to help; I just don’t know how.

You ask yourself questions. If I see a man berating a Muslim woman for wearing her hajib, will I stand by her and share the verbal attack? If I see children chanting “Build the Wall!” will I silence them and scold them for their insensitive attack? If I see a man grab a woman forcibly by her most private area, will I speak up and put my body between the two to protect her? I see a gang of homophobes beating a trans-person. Will I shout at them and come to the victim’s defense?

Until it happens, you cannot know the answers. Until faced with actual physical danger, you cannot know how you will react. There is nothing wrong with that. Self-preservation is a powerful instinct.

Self-preservation is a luxury of privilege
If you are white, you have the luxury of always trusting the police. If you are a man, you have the luxury of never fearing attacks by rapists. If you are heterosexual, you have the luxury of entering any business and knowing you will receive service. If you are a natural-born citizen, you have the luxury of sleeping each night knowing that you are safe from a government-sponsored home invasion. If you are Christian, you have the luxury of living in a country where your morals go unchallenged and your beliefs earn you protection.

The day following the election, November 9, commemorated the anniversary of Kristallnacht, The Night of Broken Glass. On this day in 1938, Nazi military and paramilitary forces, joined by citizens, destroyed or damaged 7,000 Jewish-owned businesses, wrecked 1,000 synagogues, and killed hundreds of Jews. With rare exceptions, the German people uttered no protests. Few stood by the Jews and other targets of Nazi rage. The churches and universities stood mute. Judges acquiesced. Doctors and nurses complied. A nation watched as thugs kicked friends and neighbors to the street, rounded them up, and shipped them to concentration camps.

Protected status is a luxury of privilege
One by one, the government singled out groups: Jews; political opponents; gays and lesbians; emigrants; Romani; Jehovah’s Witnesses; and other “defilers.” The people responsible for electing their leader turned their backs, and others hid behind their privileges of religious belief, sexual orientation, ethnicity, and racial identification. Facing little opposition, the nation’s leaders began to change the rules of society. They normalized the abrogation of human rights and welcomed intimidation and violence as tools to enforce the new order.

I pray that history cannot repeat itself in America. But the rhetoric is there; hate groups roam emboldened; and our leadership possesses the raw arrogance to use the enormous power of this nation without concern for the very human consequences.

So what do we do? We refuse to accept these ideas as ‘normal.’ When someone threatens to hurt a minority group, believe them. Don’t rationalize, don’t intellectualize. Take them at their word…and resist. The enemy we face is not radical Muslim extremism. The enemy threatening our American way of life is radical American extremism. The precepts of radical American extremism teach that putting more wealth in the hands of the rich will improve the economy for all; that making white people feel more secure will improve everyone’s safety; that limiting the rights of women and gays reflects the will of God; and that building a wall will preserve the privileged status we earned merely by being born.

The American Dream is a luxury of privilege
Of course, you worked hard to get to where you are. But have others worked just as hard, even harder, and received fewer rewards? Why? Was your skin color a factor? Your gender identity or sexual orientation? Your citizenship status? Your religious beliefs? There is a reason the lead characters in Horatio Alger’s stories of the American Dream were all young white boys.

This election unleashed radical American extremism, freeing it from restrictions imposed by civilized behavior. Not surprisingly, white supremacists, Klansmen, and other hate mongers now rise and walk without shame, seeking to redefine our national strength as white strength, straight male strength, Christian strength, and ‘pure-blooded’ strength. This election affirmed one modern version of concentration camps – for-profit prisons selectively incarcerating generations of men of color and immigrants who simply followed the footsteps of our own ancestors who built this nation. Groundless fears of voter fraud fueled the passage of laws denying millions of citizens their right to take part in this election. How soon before our government requires that Muslims register and sew the Crescent on their clothes?

Wearing a safety pin sends the message that you considered all of this and still want to help. It means taking the stand we will not recognize discrimination and intolerance as American values. That means confronting bigots – some of whom may be friends or relatives - and making them feel marginalized for behaving in ways that do harm.

Wearing a safety pin shows your willingness to lean into your own discomfort. Read the works of marginalized peoples and explore your own feelings of fragility. Resist the urge to take offense and fight the decades of programming telling us that our way is the only right way.

Wearing a safety pin means putting your privilege of self-preservation, of protected status, and the American Dream on the table and accepting the outcomes. A safety pin is not a passive, colored ribbon of support. A safety pin is a promise – your promise to actively resist racism, misogyny, homophobia, xenophobia, and religious hatred.

I make that promise gladly and proudly. I invite you to join me.

Back in the Saddle

The pizzatorium is open for business again.  I completed a sabbatical over the summer, providing a long-needed break from commentary and agitation. Sadly, the causes demanding attention have not gone away - many have actually worsened.

For much of the fall, I watched the campaign of our now fascist-elect with disbelief.  As a student of the German state of mind in the Nazi era, I could not bring myself to believe that Americans would elect someone like Donald Trump.  And like almost everyone, I trusted the polls that never gave his campaign a chance to succeed.

The unthinkable has happened.  Why is no longer relevant.  What we do now is critical.

The time for sitting on the sidelines is over.  My path is clear.  As a minister possessing most of the categories of privilege this society offers, I must speak out and act up.  The clarion call must resound and signal the need for action.

In the coming months, I intend to be relentless in calling out hypocrisy and raising up opportunities to stand as allies with the legion of people threatened by this regime.  As Rachel Maddow says, "Watch this space."

Wednesday, February 17, 2016

Catching Up

Recent events in the fair state of Michigan have conspired to keep me very busy. The unconscionable acts of corrupt officials and the inhumane attitude of politicians and their corporate keepers leave little time for the daily tasks of ministry.  As a result, I have not been keeping my contributions to the Midland Daily News posted to my blog for the past two months.

Since my submissions are now taking the form more often of printed editorials and not online blog postings, the paper has decided to eliminate the blog from its site.  As a result, I have caught up, posting my writings from the past two months here to the pizzatorium for posterity.

"Truth and Meaning" will continue in newspaper print form roughly once a month (or more often if the state of affairs demand).  But I will be returning to more regular muse kennel submissions as well for those of you who follow this blog (thank you!)

Rev. Jeff

A Crisis of Leadership...and Faith


People of faith across Michigan find themselves wrestling with the ongoing revelations that state officials knowingly allowed the poisoning of the people of Flint without warning for more than a year. Every day, more information shows us that Gov. Rick Snyder’s appointees sacrificed the health and well-being of thousands of citizens recklessly, perhaps immorally. As we learn more, we must cope with our immediate response to the crisis while at the same time discerning its cause.

In his State of the State address last Tuesday, Gov. Snyder apologized and vowed to fix the problem. Rep. Gary Glenn told us to accept his apology and move on, a sentiment I share. We should forgive Gov. Snyder and those who reported directly to him responsible for this heinous act. We should not let our feelings of betrayal and outrage lead us to lash out against politicians who may have — somehow — believed they were serving the public interest.

We should release the anger we feel toward Gov. Snyder and his appointees so that the work of reconciliation can begin. As people of faith, however, forgiving Gov. Snyder does not mean that we will not seek justice for the people of Flint. Every child who drank the lead-contaminated water will live the rest of their lives suffering the effects of their poisoning. People made intentional decisions that exposed those children to vile pollution. And they must be held accountable.

The acts resulting in the destruction of the water supply of Flint and the ongoing exposure of its people to toxic, perhaps fatal chemicals, were a sin against every human moral belief system. Whether you are Christian or Muslim, Buddhist or Jew, Atheist or Pagan, the decisions that allowed Flint’s children to be poisoned were unthinkable and evil. And justice demands that those responsible be held accountable for their actions according to the laws of our land.

Consider this comparison. You hire a trusted contractor to build a playground for your children. The contractor completes the task, but knowingly uses rotted wood and rusty nails without telling you. Eventually, the playground collapses, injuring your children permanently. The contractor apologizes and holds you in his prayers. Then he asks for your trust and assures you that he will fix the playground.

We cannot know the nature of eternal mysteries of creation and goodness in the universe. We cannot presume to understand what consequences Gov. Snyder’s actions will inflict on his soul. Therefore, we should leave moral punishments to the Spirit of Life and Love that we call by many names.

We can, however, determine to what extent he and others violated the law and deal with them as we would anyone accused of crimes. If the deaths due to Legionnaire’s Disease were attributable to decisions made by Gov. Snyder and his appointees, then they should be charged with those negligent homicides. Anyone complicit in the poisoning of children should be indicted for the appropriate crimes. And those involved in hiding or covering up knowledge of these actions should be held as co-conspirators. This is not “finger-pointing.” This is a call for justice and for the fair application of our laws to all, whatever their position in our society.

This investigation will also bring to light the many instances of corruption resulting from this governor’s application of the emergency manager law. We must examine its overtly racist application to cities with large minority populations, wherein citizens have been deprived of their democratically-elected representation. We must consider whether our state’s experiment with temporary totalitarianism has been a colossal failure and determine how our cities can survive sustainably in a 21st century environment.

Perhaps most important, as Rep. Glenn reminds us, we must “invest ourselves in finding solutions.” I could not agree more. So I call on you, Rep. Glenn, to take the lead on local relief efforts for our neighbors to the south. Perhaps you could negotiate with local businesses and corporations to provide regular truckloads of water at discounted rates to which we all could contribute. You could sponsor emergency legislation to bolster Flint’s public schools, medical services and civic infrastructure to begin their long path back to health. And, most important Mr. Glenn, show us your leadership by demanding a repeal of the emergency manager legislation and a comprehensive investigation into the actions of this governor and his appointees.

The opportunity for us to live the shared principles of our various faiths lies before us. We need leadership willing to let go of partisan loyalties and commit to the citizens of Michigan. And we need leaders with the courage to show us the way toward justice for the people of Flint.

(originally published January 24, 2016)

The Heartbroken and the Heartless


People of faith across mid-Michigan feel heartbroken over the plight facing refugees fleeing the violent destruction of their homes in Syria. Fortunately, many nations have responded with open arms to these victims of war. Germany, once the producer of refugees decades ago, has accepted tens of thousands of Syrians, displaying a vigorous national relief effort.

In the United States, however, fear too often overcomes compassion. Prospective candidates for the presidency spew the same kind of vicious venom that helped turn away Jews, condemning millions to Nazi concentration camps. The rhetoric has even progressed to the horrific level that led us to erect our own concentration camps to inter American citizens without just cause. Such flagrant ignorance runs counter to every religion teaching us to love our neighbor, to care for the homeless and hungry, and to free the oppressed.

And our own state representative contributed his personal xenophobia to a Japanese television news team. Shamelessly purporting to report the concerns of his constituents, Rep. Gary Glenn failed to acknowledge that many mid-Michiganders would welcome war refugees who are fleeing exactly the violence he presumes them capable of. Rep. Glenn has brought international shame to our region by revealing the same heartless bigotry toward desperate Syrians that he usually reserves for the members of the gay and transgender community.

In fact, Rep. Glenn’s fears are groundless. According to a report by the Migration Policy Institute, “The United States has resettled 784,000 refugees since Sept. 11, 2001. In those 14 years, exactly three resettled refugees have been arrested for planning terrorist activities — and it is worth noting two were not planning an attack in the United States and the plans of the third were barely credible. In fact, refugee resettlement is the least likely avenue of infiltration by foreign enemies bent on causing us harm.

Rep. Glenn also fails to realize that the true danger facing our citizens comes not from outside our nation, but from our own politicians. Imagine this scenario. An ISIS terrorist infiltrates our nation and poisons the water supply of a major city. Every one of the hundreds of thousands of residents is affected. Rather than killing, however, the poison instead causes an entire generation of children to suffer irreparable brain damage. The outcry would blow the roof off every government building. Our media outlets would talk of nothing else for weeks. People across the nation would call for the immediate execution of this terrorist.

And yet, that is exactly what has already happened right under our noses, and few of Michigan’s citizens even know about the attack. In a series of reckless, monstrous choices, Gov. Rick Snyder, his emergency manager and other appointees made decisions that destroyed the water infrastructure of Flint, resulting in catastrophic levels of lead poisoning of its citizens. In spite of governmental attempts to discredit them, only the diligent research of individuals uncovered this act of domestic terrorism for the world to see. Cover-ups are slowly coming to light, making it clear that high level government officials knew exactly what was happening, and that they did absolutely nothing to prevent it, or to warn the innocent citizens of Flint.

Just one hour away, thousands of families face the prospect of raising children whose lives have been shattered by the government they trusted to look out for their interests. People you might know, or work with, or go to school with have been affected. And now that they know their water is poisoned, there is little they can do until the damaged infrastructure is replaced. People lacking the resources to move away must bathe, wash clothes, and do other household chores in poisoned water. But Gary Glenn tells us to worry about women and children from Syria coming here to harm us.

Where is your concern for the people of Flint, Rep. Glenn, who did not need religious extremists to launch a heartless attack on their city? The violent assault on our families is happening right now on your doorstep, and the culprit is our own elected officials. If you care about these citizens at all, then you will demand a complete and thorough investigation of Gov. Snyder and his appointees responsible for this crisis.

In the meantime, keep your xenophobia to yourself and stop shaming us before the world audience. America is a nation of immigrants, most of whom came to this land in search of the same safety and freedom that Syrians want. Who are we to deny them the same opportunities our ancestors had? Instead of fear mongering, we should be welcoming these people to their new land and showing the world that compassion and understanding will always triumph over hate and violence.

(originally published January 17, 2016)

The Real War on Christmas


Every year, at about this time, pundits begin the mantra of The War on Christmas. Usually, these dire warnings cite non-Christians as the source of efforts to remove the meaning of the holiday from the public arena. And while I agree that the important and wonderful meanings of Christmas are in jeopardy of being forgotten, I would posit a different source for the conflict.

Early in November, I made an online payment to a department store of $25.00. Unknown to me, my new virus protection software had a tiny bug — when in protected mode, the decimal key on the numeric pad simply didn’t work. So my $25.00 payment went through as a $2,500.00 payment.

Of course, I immediately called my bank and was informed that the payment was already in transit and that I would have to contact the store for the refund. The first two layers of customer service people told me that it would take them 7-10 business days to review the overpayment and issue a refund. Finally, the third person connected me with a different office. This person told me that if the bank faxed information about my account on letterhead, that they could process the refund in less time.

Of course, nothing is ever that simple. After several different customer service people with my bank, I found myself talking to a special resolution department in Kalamazoo. He told me that the bank could not send the information because their policies prohibit dissemination of routing and account numbers. Wonderful Catch 22.

More calls and I provided the bank representative with the direct phone number and the email of the store representative. For the following week, calls to both people went to voice mails and were unanswered. Trying again, I got to the fourth level of store management. Now more than two weeks into this nightmare, she told me that the funds were earmarked for release, but that it would now take 3-5 more business days to process the check through a third party vendor. Finally, seven business days later, the money arrived in my account.

So my payment happened at the speed of fiber optic cables in less than a day. The refund took 27 days for processing. Of course, in the meantime, our family finances were a wreck only made tolerable by an incredibly patient landlord. And my money was earning interest for some parent corporation while I faced overdraft fees.

So when you ask me who is behind The War on Christmas, I will tell you. We are. We are all responsible for this war because we tolerate the delusion of capitalism portrayed by the American economic system. We turn away desperate refugees fleeing conflicts from which our military-industrial complex has richly benefited. We demonize people with different notions of God, while coveting people who worship no god but an idol of gold.

Christmas in America was long ago perverted into a commercial travesty of greed and consumer gluttony. A holiday that should bring togetherness instead forces minimum wage employees to work on Thanksgiving while we watch football and overdose on turkey. A holiday that should be about joy instead induces anxiety and the relentless bombardment from businesses telling us what we need to be happy. A holiday that should celebrate the life of a babe and his teachings as a man is instead marked by more mass shootings, more poverty, more bigotry, and more overt discrimination in our supposedly great nation.

Those who claim that the United States is a Christian nation need to wake up. Atheists are not your enemy. Muslims are not your enemy. LGBT people are not your enemy. Your enemy is your own hypocrisy, your own embracing of the privilege afforded you by the accident of your birth to benefit from inherited wealth, skin color and other advantages. Your enemy is your own corporate institutions that put profits before people, and the welfare of the few over the good of society.

Do you want to defeat the forces waging War on Christmas? Then practice the teachings of the man believed born on this day. Help the homeless, feed the starving and clothe the naked. Do this without expectation of benefit in return, but simply because it is the right thing to do. Fight oppression of minorities, women, gays and lesbians, veterans and others suffering from intolerance and mistreatment by an economic system with no incentives for activities that do not produce increased stock prices. And teach your children that this day is about giving, not about receiving.

But most of all, tear up your credit cards. Instead of greeting cards, write letters. Instead of gifts, give your time and attention. Don’t be led like sheep by chain department stores, consumer manufacturers and banks. Remember the true meanings of Christmas — love your neighbors, bring peace to the Earth, and join together in common purpose to make the world a better place.

(originally published December 6, 2015)

Our Souls


Catholic or Protestant, Muslim or Jew, Buddhist or Hindu, Pagan or Agnostic. Whatever your faith or religious belief, you possess morality. And that morality has a source from which you discern right from wrong.

For many, that source of our morality connects integrally to the essence of our being. Some call this our soul. Whatever you name that force that defines “you” sets you apart as unique, special and wonderful. One of the true wonders of humanity lies in those small, special differences that make us each one of a kind.

At the same time, we can come together with like-minded souls — people with whom we share concepts of morality and its sources. And so many of us belong to churches, temples, mosques and other houses of faith. These religious communities can be fonts of great strength and support. However, they can also divide us when sources of faith calcify into rigid dogma and believed truths.

Midland contains over 100 Christian churches. This fact mystifies non-Christians, who cannot understand how so many different interpretations of the teachings of Jesus can exist and manifest themselves in wholly separate communities. What is the difference between a Presbyterian and a Methodist, a Lutheran and a Baptist? And what separates the dozens of congregations not affiliated with any of the traditional Protestant denominations?

We know some of the distinctions involve ritual practices and internal governing structures. One church may interpret particular scriptures differently enough from another that worshiping together would be problematic. But many of us would be hard pressed to explain to others why we segregate ourselves on Sunday morning into 100 different buildings searching for the same things — fellowship, support, hope, love — things that everyone desires, whether they belong to a religious community or not.

As a result of this fragmentation, we find it hard to come together when needed to address matters that affect us all. Whatever our beliefs regarding the source of our morals, there are times when we should be able to unite in agreement against mutual wrong, against evil so clear that all would support its opposition.

We face such an evil right now, here in Michigan.

Barely one hour away, one hundred thousand people have been poisoned, permanently harmed by their drinking water. This poisoning resulted not from a natural catastrophe, but from decisions made by men — men whose morality varied tremendously from our social norms. These decisions derived from a source that is not any god or sacred gift of goodness and grace. The men, women and children of Flint were poisoned by people who worship an unholy god — a god of money, a god of corruption, a god of racial hatred.

The people of Flint hurt. Already long-suffering, our neighbors feel betrayed and abandoned, powerless and hopeless. The people we helped elect knew they were poisoning a city and they did nothing. This governor and his appointees placed pipelines and profits over people. They played on your faith in them to care for and nurture our brothers and sisters in Flint to pursue a political and economic agenda that is growing more and more ugly as details emerge.

We are all praying for the people of Flint: the homebound elderly; the mothers and fathers; the children who have already suffered irreparable brain damage that may affect them for the rest of their lives. We should continue praying for our neighbors in Flint, and for everyone working to help them rebuild their damaged city.

But prayer is not enough. Charity is not enough. We must reclaim the road to Jericho from the thieves and robbers so that no more travelers end up dying in the ditch. As people of faith, we must unite against the idolaters and reclaim not only our own souls, but the soul of this state. We must tell Gov. Snyder that people matter more than privatization and profit.

To do this, we must look to the source from which these men derived their sense of values and expose it to the light of love.
  • The emergency manager law violates the most core tenet of our republic — representation of the people by those elected by the people. We must demand that the politicians in Lansing repeal this law and return democracy to this state.
  • The conjoined twin of the emergency manager law is vile racism — the belief that some people are inherently superior to others. Every person has worth and dignity and no one who believes otherwise should be creating laws, whether their hatred is based on race, ethnicity, immigrant status, sexual orientation, gender identity, age, or any other distinction. We must demand the resignation of bigots who cannot legislate fairly and equally.
  • State officials must be held accountable to their public service mission. The mission of the Department of Environmental Quality states that this agency is “dedicated to protecting human health and to preserving a healthy environment. The DEQ exemplifies environmental stewardship and affirms that a healthy environment is critical to our social, cultural and economic well-being.” Without accountability, such statements represent cruel perversions and indifference. Any staff or appointee who knew of this poisoning and did nothing must be fired.
  • Accountability can only occur when investigations into truth are impartial and unbiased. Appointing a prosecutor with known financial ties to the principle subject of the investigation tells us that our Attorney General seeks neither truth or impartiality. We must demand an impartial federal investigation into the poisoning of Flint.
  • Even impartial investigations require transparency. This governor’s expressions of remorse ring insincere when he continues to shield himself from requests for pertinent information. We must demand complete disclosure in this and all matters of governance.
  • And the core source of all of these problems? A philosophy of selfishness and greed expounded by entities like the Mackinac Center, a soulless organization devoted to helping the wealthy retain and increase their riches while the people starve, struggle for homes and jobs, and now suffer the loss even of usable drinking water. The pundits of the Mackinac Center have turned Flint into a third world country, and we must disavow their amoral teachings. We must refute these corruptions of capitalism and democracy and steer our ship of state to a port where people are never poisoned for corporate gain.
The soul of our state hangs over a fiery precipice. If we stand mute, then all of our Sunday sermons and prayers mean nothing; all of our creeds and principles ring hollow. We have elected men into office who have already sold their souls to golden idols. We must place no more faith in their ability to govern and make decisions for us or our neighbors.

Our brothers and sisters in Flint lie bleeding along the road and we must help them now. We must lift them up, bind their wounds, and see to their needs. This means not just bottled water and filters, but immediate replacement of pipes destroyed by chemical and political corruption. This means routing state money to Flint today to restore what was taken from that city. And it means ensuring that nothing like the evil inflicted on our neighbors ever happens again.

(originally published January 30, 2016)