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.

Saturday, October 4, 2014

Truth and Meaning: Priorities


What do Lockheed Martin, Boeing, General Dynamics, Raytheon and Northrop Grumman have in common? They are the largest defense contractors in 2014 with almost $50 billion in Defense Department awards. They are also the largest recipients among all government contractors for all purposes. Military spending in the United States constitutes our single largest discretionary spending category. It is a safe assumption, therefore, that the maintenance of our military at current levels or greater is the top priority of our government.
Why? There are no armies capable of invading the United States anymore. "Red Dawn" may be a classic cult film, but in our modern world, such a scenario is impossible. And yet, we continue to spend billions on new planes, tanks, ships, bombs and supporting infrastructure for "defense." In reality, we spend this money to allow our nation to engage in and promote more war. When the world looks at the United States, they do not see people — they see a war machine interested only in oiling its own mechanisms.
Imagine yourself in a future century, reading the history of the United States. Will we be seen as liberators, empowering other nations to determine their own destinies? Or will we be seen as simply one more iteration of Babylon, Rome, the Holy Roman Empire and England? Will we be seen as neighbors, or conquerors? Will we be seen as a force for good, or the servant of greed, power and self-righteous entitlement?
A colleague of mine recently posed the question, "Why has there been almost no reaction from traditional elements of the peace/anti-war movement to recent events surrounding Syria?" I responded. I believe the lack of response is from despair.
With few exceptions, there are no statesmen or stateswomen left in Washington. Many people put their faith in Barack Obama to stem the influence of the military-industrial complex, but he has proven little different than his predecessor when it comes to foreign policy. There is no viable solution in the Middle East because the U.S. contributed so much to creating this mess for the past 60 years that we cannot possibly be part of the solution.
Every bomb or drone we drop kills more innocent people and creates even more enemies. We can't even feed our own people, provide them medical care or maintain our crumbling infrastructure. And the prospects for the 2016 election provide no hope whatsoever. The only sliver of hope I have at all is if Bernie Sanders runs — but he has virtually no chance of winning and would likely be saddled with the same kind of Congress we have now — a bunch of stooges of defense contractors and special interest groups.
We got our hopes up with the Occupy movement, but it couldn't sustain itself. Now our police are rapidly becoming an occupation force in our own cities. Unless five million people show up in Washington and demand fundamental changes to campaign financing, corporate personhood and our warmongering, then our future is bleak. We need the passion, the activism and the leaders like we had in the 1960s to pave the way.
Does the passion still exist? Yes. Are activists ready to move? Yes. Are there leaders out there ready to take charge? I believe so. The upcoming elections will tell us much. If the American people don't vote for change, then we are eventually doomed to stagnation and decline, or revolution and collapse.

Sunday, September 28, 2014

Truth and Meaning: Occupy 2.0?

 
Sept. 17 was the three-year anniversary of the Occupy Wall Street movement. Whatever you thought of the movement's strategies or success, its wondrous and flawed idealism, ask yourself this question: Has anything Occupiers protested improved in the past three years?
  • The bankers, lawyers and other white collar criminals responsible for our economic collapse have not been charged, let alone convicted of crimes. 
  • Income disparity continues to rise, with the average corporate head earning hundreds, even thousands times more than their average worker. 
  • Racism, sexism, homophobia, xenophobia and other oppressions continue unabated and largely unregulated. 
  • Our diet has become more genetically modified and our environment more polluted. 
  • Labor unions continue to be assaulted, no living wage is in sight and health insurance remains a target of the "haves." 
  • Jobs remain scarce, and students continue to graduate from college with decreasing hope and increasing debt. 
  • Corporations are being treated more like people, and people are being treated more like disposable commodities.
  • Our reckless policies regarding campaign financing have created a government owned by the tiny elite they are supposed to be regulating. 
  • Our blind pursuit of war abroad has now expanded onto our city streets as paramilitary police gun down unarmed, innocent civilians. 
  • It has become increasingly easier to buy a gun than to vote in some states.
As the original statement of the Occupy Wall Street movement said, we as one people united must acknowledge that the future of humanity requires that our system must protect our rights, and upon corruption of that system, it is up to us to protect our own rights; that a democratic government derives its just power from the people, but corporations do not seek consent to extract wealth from the people and the Earth; and that no true democracy is attainable when the process is determined by economic power. We continue to live in a time when corporations, which place profit over people, self-interest over justice, and oppression over equality, run our governments.
 
The embers of the Occupy movement still glow. Perhaps the time has come to reignite the flame. While we wordsmith and squabble over pennies to aid the poor, the wealth of this great nation is being drained by a new monarchy as trickle down economics has become flood upwards economics. A people united cannot be divided. North Carolina is showing us the way with its Moral Monday movement. Perhaps the time has come for every state and for all people to unite and exercise their rights and responsibilities as Americans to reclaim the moral center of our country.
 

Truth and Meaning: Normal


Normal. I am hard pressed to think of a word I dislike more in the English language. Whatever definition one uses, I believe the word creates confusion and prevents us from engaging in useful and productive dialogue.

For instance, one may say that a society is "normal," because it functions by the laws or norms that it has established. Should we consider normal the fact that nearly 50 million people in the richest country in the world live in poverty? Should we consider normal that there are as many guns as people in this country — and we have the gun death rates to back it up? Should it ever be normal that most of our elected officials could not pass the simplest tests on women's anatomy, the environment, or our national banking system?

One may also say that something is normal if it is the "usual" state or condition. But tens of millions of Americans have untreated physical and mental illnesses. For them, the "usual" state consists of pain and anxiety, disability and depression. Tens of millions of people of color in America are "usually" treated as inferior by so-called white people. Should that situation ever be accepted as normal? On the average, 430 young people injure themselves and 13 succeed in committing suicide every day. How could a society ever consider such a "usual" state to be normal?

We routinely say that someone is "normal" if they are free from illness or sickness. Well, if that is the case, then there are no normal people on the face of the earth. We learn more each day about the nature of physical and mental disease, about neuroscience and addiction, about the impact of stereotypes on our levels of stress, and about the long-term impacts of trauma and abuse. Normal health does not exist and we delude ourselves believing that it does.

The word "normal" always carries with it an inherent stigma. When a teacher calls Johnny a normal student, the implication is that he does not really excel at anything but fits some arbitrary average. He may be the next Rembrandt or Albert Einstein, but we might never know because he is dyslexic. When friends call Katrina a normal-looking girl, the implication is that she is not beautiful. She may be the next Amelia Earhart or Sally Ride, but we might never know because she suffers from bulimia. And when we say that the Smiths are a normal family, we imply that the Smiths are heterosexual, have children, and pursue goals that match those of their neighbors. We don't notice the bruises on Mrs. Smith's arms, or the way the children flinch from the slightest touch. And the "abnormal" Joneses next door may be an amazing gay couple who could revitalize the neighborhood, but they just got evicted from their apartment and fired from their jobs for being gay.

"Normal" should be an aspiration — not the average or worse yet, the least common denominator. Wouldn't it be nice if a normal day consisted of the United States not bombing some other country in the name of democracy and freedom? Wouldn't it be nice if a normal day consisted of not one gay teenager being beaten and bullied, and not one woman assaulted or raped? Wouldn't it be nice if a normal day consisted of not one single instance of wanton police brutality against unarmed and innocent civilians? Wouldn't it be nice if a normal day consisted of every person in the world being fed, clothed, sheltered, safe, and happy?

Unfortunately, we live in the real world, and our leaders insist that those aspirations are currently beyond our reach. So, in the meantime, I will revel in being abnormal. Because the only way we can make those aspiration real is if we all excel in whatever makes us not normal — that is what makes us who we are.

Saturday, September 13, 2014

Truth and Meaning: Pain



When I was in college, I commuted every day by bus. One day, I stood on a narrow island on Liberty Avenue in Pittsburgh as the bus approached. I moved backwards slightly and accidentally stepped on the foot of the man behind me. I turned and said, "I'm sorry," boarded the bus and sat down. The man followed me, stood directly in front of me, and then shouted at me for the next 15 minutes. I said I was sorry again, but he was intent on venting his rage at me. I kept my head down reading my newspaper until he finally got off at his destination.

I got off a few stops later — grateful that he had gotten off first. The bus driver said to me, "Yeah, I know that guy. He's always angry." Needless to say, the incident shook me. I had no idea at any point during the trip whether he would lash out and grab me, punch me, or worse. For a long time, I relived that moment, trying to think of what I could have done to avoid the situation, but came up empty.

The reason I came up empty is that there was nothing I could have done to avoid the situation. I just happened to be the person at that time and that place when that man's pain erupted. Partly out of fear, and partly out of my desire to not escalate the event, I managed to escape with only 15 minutes of verbal abuse. At least I was left only emotionally shaken, and with the knowledge that the likelihood that I would ever encounter that man again was very small.

Now, over 35 years later, I was reminded of that incident with the release of the video of Ray Rice beating his wife. Like many men who would never dream of hitting a woman, I have long wondered why women in abusive situations stay with their abusers. There is much research on this topic and I now know many of the reasons why a woman would stay with an abusive husband or boyfriend. For those interested in learning more about this, search Twitter for #whyistayed and read the hundreds of stories of women caught in this nightmare of pain.

And that is largely the answer. Pain. Pain is, of course, a part of life. Pain is something we all must learn to deal with. Perhaps we all have different thresholds of pain. Perhaps some of us are better able to endure pain because we value more highly our children, our marriage, and the hope that someone will live up to their promises to stop abusing us. I thought of the man on the bus again and imagined what kind of pain could allow anyone to think that venting such extreme anger at a stranger was acceptable.
And while I was finally able to forgive him and forgive myself for my inability to defuse the situation, what about his wife and children? Were they enduring such outbursts regularly? Did he express his fury with only words, or did his abuse go further into physical violence? I will never know, but I do know that the answer lies in our need as a society for a paradigm shift regarding pain.

1.  We must stop tolerating racism, sexism, homophobia, and other hatreds and fears that victimize those unlike ourselves, and only increase our own pain.

2.  We must increase our awareness of the pain being felt by others and reach out when we think the pain is becoming unbearable. Our religious communities can play a huge role in this work.

3.  We must stop blaming the victims of abuse, rape, assault, and brutality for the anger of perpetrators. We must take responsibility for our anger and find constructive, or at least harmless, ways to release the frustration and hurt. This means building a much larger support system for victims of sexual abuse and domestic violence, and much more support for counseling and therapy.

4.  We must acknowledge the interconnection of oppression, mental illness, systemic poverty, addiction, unemployment, and abuse and build an adequate safety net for everyone victimized by pain.

5.  When someone, in spite of all of the safeguards put into place, insists on venting their pain on others, then the criminal justice system must punish abusers harshly. That means that police must start believing victims and act on their behalf.

And perhaps most important, women and male allies MUST make it clear to everyone that abuse — whether emotional, verbal, coercive, or violent — is always wrong. Every girl should grow up knowing that being abused by a partner must not be tolerated. And every boy should grow up learning that violence against women is never acceptable.