Monday, September 26, 2011

if this paper is wet

most of my writing the past few days has been of little interest outside a very narrow audience. (really. locating proof of the jewishness of the author in the 1st 2 chapters of the book of luke.) but I have also been writing yesterday's sermon on the topic of forgiveness, particularly apt since rosh hashanah begins in a few days, after which is yom kippur. on my way into the hub to deliver the sermon I realized the congregation, like most uus conversational under the least circumstances, would want to gnaw at the topic like it was a bone, so I cut about a page from it so we would have a 25 minute congregational dialogue. I've marked those incisions with brackets.

“If This Paper is Wet, It’s Because I’m Crying So Bad”
A Sermon Delivered to DUUC,
Burnsville, MN, on September 25, 2011

This past July I drove out to Pennsylvania to spend some time with my dad. Having most of the summer free I avoided the Eisenhower Interstate system in favor of the old interstates and back roads. While there I drove out to my sister’s place in southwest New York and the Hudson River Valley where I grew up and then back out west toward Jamestown to meet up with my wife who was flying into Cornell to share my final week with my dad. Together we took another two days driving home.

What I noticed more than anything else on that long, circuitous route was the number of homes for sale and houses that have been abandoned. And not all of them were on the typical Hooterville-type roads that may have been paved at one time but now the only remnant of that is the occasional even patch where if you’re driving a car rather than a truck it might bottom out because the road has washed out lower than the transmission is slung. These were state and county roads that were in very good shape, where the bracken on either side is cut low and the signs are all new. I counted hundreds of such houses—all right, “counted” is not accurate because I didn’t count—but it’s fair to say I noticed what must have been hundreds of such places.

We live about five miles outside the little town of Baldwin, Wisconsin, where I’ve noticed that along the back roads between town and our house there are five homes for sale and four abandoned houses. You know the kind of places I mean by “abandoned.” A home up for sale, besides the telltale sign, often has the lawn cut and the hedges trimmed and all the buildings are in fair shape. Sometimes there’s a welcoming wreath on the front door and a nice little landscaped garden in the yard. An abandoned house can often be seen from the road only by a corner or a sagging porch end jutting out of the greenery. The grass has grown as tall as the top of the porch and the trees have shouldered together to keep the place seluded. Where I come from back east it’s not unusual to see large patches of fields where the farmers don’t plow because of variations in the terrain, but in this part of the country wherever there’s a clump of trees in a field or a flat place it surrounds a weathered empty house or the foundation of one. Sometimes in the winter in an area you’ve just moved to the bare branches uncover one of these places and on your drive home one night you’ll say, “I never knew that place was there.”

As a thought experiment I started keeping track of homes for sale and abandoned houses within a five-mile radius around our house but I gave up when I reached thirty-five. Perhaps the most disturbing part was the number of homes for sale where the house is still being kept up but the sign proclaiming it available and giving contact information is itself obscured by weeds or branches or overgrown by grass and shrubs, as if the owner has given up hope and is only willing to keep up part of the pretence that someone driving by might want to buy it.
It’s a sad time in this country, we all know that. [In some ways it strikes us as a sadder time than ever before even when we remember the turbulent 60s or 30s or even if we reread our history and recall the 1850s and the Civil War. Sadness is often the emotion of the day. We read about young girls sexually abused and murdered and we say, “that’s so sad.” We read about men, high on amphetamines or cough syrup, or women on crystal meth and with nothing left to lose, provoking a standoff with police and pretending they’ve got a weapon or threatening a cop with a car, and the official gun comes out and ends their miserable life and we say, “that’s so damn sad.” Everything around us seems so rotten and people seem hopeless and, well, it seems as if there’s nothing we can do that can make it better. ]

The title of my sermon is “If This Paper is Wet, It’s Because I’m Crying So Bad,” and some of you might recognize that as a quote from a recent sad story. It’s one of the messages Steven Cross, a divorced, unemployed man with a young son, left his 11 year old boy in a note the morning he disappeared. Let me remind you a little of that story. It’s a local one so you might have heard it. Sebastian Cross is an 11 year old boy who woke one morning back in July to discover that his dad, architect and single father Steven Cross, had left him alone in the house with two letters. One, addressed to Sebastian, explained that Steven had left for good, and directing the boy to the home of a neighbor and good friend, to whom the other letter was addressed. Sebastian’s letter included this heartbreaking sentence, “If this paper is wet, it’s because I’m crying so bad” as well as the astonishing news that his mother, whom the boy had not seen since he was 2 after which Cross explained she had died from cancer, was in fact alive.
Sebastian’s mother, now known as Katik Porter, had never expressed interest in contacting either of them and her whereabouts at that time were unknown. To be fair, Porter, who has a history of substance abuse and arrest, has since reemerged and asked to be a part of the boy’s life.
In his letter to Sebastian, Cross explained that things were mighty bad and had been for a long time. Cross had been out of work for a while, had been the subject of several litigations by former clients, and his financial problems had been accruing since at least 2007. A bank was scheduled to foreclose on the house they lived in. In booking photos since police discovered him in Cambria, California, Cross looks like a shell-shocked 60 year old for whom the world has turned out to hold more misery than he’d been told it would. After spending a month living out of his car in various California towns, Cross had finally found work at a deli where he was known as a tall-talker for the stories he told employers and co-workers. Doug Lindsey, co-owner of the deli, has said, “It’s a horrible situation…It’s just a sign of the times.”
It is, isn’t it, a sign of the times? Cross has explained his leaving Sebastian as his attempt to keep the boy from seeing the father homeless and destitute. Most of us in this room are fortunate enough not to have to leave behind our kids and our homes in order to start new and better lives. But the chances are that we know someone, maybe intimately, children or friends, only a step or two away from feeling that packing it in, packing up, and walking away is the only honorable solution left. Who is only a paycheck or a job or a marital argument away from that home becoming empty, the grass growing chest-high, the trees slowly merging as if hiding from the world the shame of someone’s failure.
What do we do with those people? And by “those people,” of course, I mean us. Because much as we might think ourselves outside that demographic, if nothing else the current economic collapse, often referred to as the worst in American history since the Great Depression, is a visceral reminder for many of us that we are not that secure in our fortunes. It can take only the loss of a job, of an income, the closing of a place of business, to break out the sweat on our foreheads and make us start to look around wildly for what we can jettison from our lives, the boat or the motor home or the cable connection, the weekly dinner out, the new clothes, the
Christmas or birthday presents, the relationship, what we can do without to keep the wolf from the door another couple weeks.
The other day I had a knock at my door but it wasn’t the wolf. It was one of my neighbors come to ask a favor. Dennis, who looks and sounds like the Canadian actor Graham Greene, is a farmer about three miles to our west and he’d had four stray dogs show up on his property that week in sets of two. The dogs had obviously been cared for and he could see the outline of collars on each neck, although there were no collars on any of them when they appeared in his fields. He already has four dogs and they weren’t getting along with the new ones. He surrendered them to another farmer—our township long ago eliminated the budget for an animal control officer after the county pet shelter also went belly up, and the farmer, who is also the township’s council chair, has been the unpaid acting officer for years, holding strays in one of his barns—but they were scheduled to be shot in a few days if no one claimed them. Would we be willing, Dennis asked, to hold them at our place until he could find adopters?
I want to note this happens, abandoning dogs, in our area often. We’re a couple miles off I-94 and there are wide stretches of roads where no one can see anything you do. It’s not unusual on my daily walks during spring thaw to find deer carcasses some hunter has thrown into a ditch after cutting off the antlers and choice pieces of meat, leaving the head and legs and guts for my dogs to discover. Just the week before last my largest one found where another person, probably after having cleaned his freezer, had dumped about five pounds of uncleaned pond fish by the side of the road. They had bloated and exploded in the sun and the smell tickled his nose a lot earlier than it did mine.
Last year my wife and I were walking our dogs, including the lab we found curled in a tiny broke-leg lump on the side of the road nine years ago, on the trail near our house. There had been flooding that spring that took out a bridge and we used that as a turnaround for our walks. A large brindle-colored dog bounded across the creek and joined us and after he and our dogs sniffed one another, joined us in heading home. He had no collar but he was in good shape and we assumed he was a local dog we hadn’t seen. As we got nearer home and nearer the main road, I was nervous about him following us onto the highway, so I stayed with him and Jayne took our dogs home and came back with a car so we could take him back to his home. He bounded in the back and we drove from neighbor to neighbor, asking if he was theirs or if they knew where he belonged. About five stops in, we realized he had been abandoned.
We couldn’t take him in so we contacted Jim, the farmer who’s also the council chair, and he said we had about four days to find him a place. This story has a happy ending. We put photos of him on Facebook that night and within a couple hours our friend Liz, who’d only the week before lost a local election and whose own dog had been killed the previous year by a car, contacted us to say that now she had the time and energy available to take him in. Liz drove over to Jim’s with my wife the next day and they had cartoon hearts coming out of each other’s eyes on meeting one another. His name is Murphy now and we get regular updates and photos showing how well he’s doing.
They don’t all have happy endings. Jim has had to shoot ten dogs already this year. Dennis didn’t want to make it fourteen if he could help it. I said yes, we’d find some way, and he said he had a couple leads but wanted to have a backup plan. He called me that night to say he’d found placements for three of them and then called the next morning to say he’d found a place for the last one. But he’s keeping my number on speed dial, he said, because he expects the situation will happen again soon.
[We figure, by the way, there are probably nearly as many cats abandoned out our way too, but aside from the few that take up residence at local farms, including one that winters in one of our barns, we assume the coyotes get them.

We say, “how sad” and we go on because what else can we do? Dogs and cats are even less visible than abandoned houses.] People in desperate times do desperate things. It’s not all bad news. Yesterday we learn that a La Crosse mother, citing Wisconsin’s 2001 Safe Haven Law, surrendered her three-hour-old newborn boy at a fire station where she also provided health and medical histories. This boy will doubtless grow up with complications from his abandonment, but I cannot fault someone who recognizes when she’s in over her head, especially in light of the reasons the Safe Haven Law was enacted. Perhaps the flip side to the American Dream, the idea that you can someday have it all, is that when it becomes too hard to manage, you can walk away from it.

Here is my question. Do we forgive these people who do these things? And if so, how do we forgive them? Relationships can be more quickly abandoned as houses. For instance, Dennis is certain he knows at least one farmer who has dumped a couple dogs on his property. He asks me, how can you do such a thing to an animal you’ve cared for? And also, how can you even bring that up when you know the other person?
We don’t all know someone who’s walked away from his home, his child, a pet, but we all know someone who has somehow crossed the boundaries we might think are well-established and inviolable. Here’s a for instance: I had a friend, a good friend, Bonnie. Like me she had been homeless and in need and had gotten back on her feet. At least it seemed so. Back in the late 90s, after she’d been working regularly as an accountant for a homeless advocacy group in the Twin Cities, Bonnie’s employer discovered she’d been embezzling money from the organization to fund trips to Treasure Island casino. Bonnie lost her job and was arrested but it never went to trial and she didn’t serve any jail time. It was, the mutual friend who told me about it said, a sign of the times.
I was incensed. I can’t fault stealing, I’ve found myself in positions where I’ve had to steal food. I’m not proud of those times, but I tell myself I took things that weren’t expensive and didn’t cause anyone much pain. What Bonnie did was to take money from people who least could afford the loss, who had already lost everything, and taken it from a group helping people in situations she had herself been in. It was the equivalent of spitting in the face of a nursing mother. In a fit of self-righteous apoplexy I dropped her from my life.
[You probably have an idea how this ends. Shortly after entering seminary I came to the conclusion that I need to forgive her. After all, if, as I keep hearing at United, the best way we can live out a life like Jesus or Gandhi or the Buddha is to behave as they did, then I need to live out my belief that no one is beyond redemption or forgiveness. If I hope, after all the wrongs and questionable decisions I’ve done in my life, to be at peace with who I am, then I need to be at peace with Bonnie.
It hasn’t gone any further than that.] I know this is what I have to do but the situation hasn’t presented itself nor have I gotten in touch with her through that common friend to bring the moment to its crisis. There is precedent for this. Pope John Paul II forgave Mehmet Ali Agca, the Turkish would-be assassin who shot him in St. Peter’s Square in 1981. Georgia Congressman John Lewis who, as a young civil rights advocate was spat on and had his skull fractured at Selma, forgave Governor George Wallace before his death. Bonnie didn’t shoot me or split my skull but I admit I’m afraid. She did a great wrong that hurt many people. Somehow the fact her actions didn’t affect me directly makes it harder. How do I say to her, “I forgive you” and mean it?

Someday Sebastian Cross will be faced with the need to forgive his father for abandoning him. Someday Dennis is going to ask that other farmer why he thought someone else should shoulder the cost he couldn’t anymore. Someday each person who walks away from a home or a dog or cat will need to face the need to forgive himself for having done that. Someday each of us will face the need to forgive someone we know, someone we love for having committed an act that, while it may not be the equal of abandonment or embezzlement, nonetheless pushes us away. What do we say, to them and to ourselves? How do we say it?

Wednesday, September 21, 2011

at least we're not dave

this is an interesting essay introducing an idea I'd never even considered in the plethora of reasons for the conservative knee-jerk reaction against "wealth redistribution"--that some people fear there will not be a layer of people poorer than themselves. if there is a single objective truth to the newer testament it's jesus' observation that the poor will always be around but it has never occured to me that some people might be afraid that they might be that poor themselves. while I am currently unemployed with little hope of work before january at the earliest and the fear of sliding further is a visceral one that haunts my thoughts, I've never thought that my ego could be placated by there being a class or a group I end up looking better by comparing myself to and that it's in my interest to ensure they remain there.

my wife and I used to have a friend about whom we could always reassure ourselves, no matter how bad things got for us, "at least we're not dave." but dave came from the wealthy family my wife worked for and his future, no matter how he screwed up (so long as he kept his head low beyond the occasional dui or possession charge), was ensured and his ride through life welllubed with women and drugs. the last we'd heard from him, he was married to a wealthy lawyer in the city and his family, remaining upstate with the business, paid him an enormous salary to keep quiet and occasionally appear at trade shows. at the point we knew him--and it's true, part of the reason we were friends with him was the free wine and smoke he brought with him when he visited--we had so little money that we subsidized our dog's diet with boiled government rice. we sometimes skipped meals to make certain he had enough rice and kibble although we always had nice wine to drink while we watched him eat.

and we'd tap our glasses together and say, "at least we're not dave."

Monday, September 19, 2011

culling my library

my wife has been after me to get rid of some of the thousands of books I've got scattered around our home and we made a deal last week that, in return for her collecting some of her unworn clothes that lays in heaps around the bedroom, I would find a place where I can donate some books. it so happened that I noticed the organization people serving people was having a children's book drive.

so over the next few days I collected 3 boxes full of mostly young adult novels (I discovered just how few actual children's books I own, which is to say next to 0, but I did have many that I enjoyed as a young reader and that I think most teens would relish). these included several dozen I'd filched from free library discard piles specifically, I told myself, for this very eventuality.

I'm ridding myself of my beloved weird heroes collections from the 70s. they are near worthless monetarily but I adored them and I think it's wrong of me to bogart them when they could be enjoyed by other kids. the same for my francesca lia block novels, including my 7 copies of weetzie bat (even a 1st edition that, had it not been a library copy, might have been worth $75, but it's worth more as a book some girl can read). I've gathered a small cache of brian jacques redwall novels for precisely this purpose, and the same for c.s. lewis' narnia books. I've got what I think is a solid girl-friendly hero collection, including marion zimmer bradley's mists of avalon, sheri tepper's sideshow and phillip pullman's golden compass, as well as all the aforementioned blocks. I've even included a history of hip hop from about a decade ago that still has its accompanying cd (I've only played it 3 or 4 times).

all in all I'm quite proud of myself. of course, I must remind myself, all I've done is collect and box the books; I've yet to actually drop them off, and I'm finding many reasons to put off taking the hourlong trip to the center of the hub in order to do that. still, there is something to be said for the morale of actually doing the thing for which the delivery is the smallest part.

Friday, September 16, 2011

a fully enclosed paranoid universe

crooks and liars has an excellent essay by matt osborne positing that the social conservative right and the religious right have become a single entity, at least as played out in the tea party. he notes they have a creation story, a creed, rituals and sacred words, and other holy articles that mimic fundamentalist belief systems. someone brings up, in the comments, an excellent point regarding the distinction between fundamentalism, evangelicalism, dominionism and "plain old protestantism," and thinks it threatens the foundation of osborne's point, but I don't agree. true, those -isms are rarely more than wary cousins to one another, but as with the tendency of the tea party to ignore the differences between, say, liberals and progressives in order to make their salient points, it's just as fair to elide distinctions between prosperity gospel adherents and premillenial dispensationalists in order to make the larger point that there has been an awkward shift to a new religion of the righteous that is "a fully enclosed paranoid universe where the ice is not melting, the government is too big, and freedom is threatened by change."

Wednesday, September 14, 2011

hungry guy at the light

I've been off the road over 20 years but sometimes I might as well not be. on the way home after picking a few groceries at the local market I decided I wanted a hoagie for dinner and swung off my usual road to head to subway just off the rim. at the intersection to the frontage road there was a fellow standing at the light, with roaddust and sunjuice on him, holding a sign that said something about being hungry. I've seen many hitchhikers in baldwin my years here, but never someone homeless or at least that I recognized as homeless.

I went into the subway and got my sandwich and ordered one for him. I got the warmest, most filling thing I could imagine: a meatball marinara with the works. I pulled over to the light just as he was folding up his sign and collecting his things and I said, "here you are, brother." he turned around and he had the gaptoothed grin of the downandout but appreciative. he said, "oh thank, brother." I said, "I got you something warm," and he said, "I'm heading over to the motel and tonight I'll feast!" we both laughed and I drove on and he went back to packing.

there are little things you don't forget. the need for a quick "thanks!" and a warm smile when someone does you a goodness. about a month ago I pulled over at an interstate exit ramp in minneapolis to give a guy a $5 bill. as I sat about a block away I saw him duck behind a road sign and reach down to slip the 5 into his shoe. that suggests he's been on the road a while--someone can easily take your money out of your pocket but he has to really work you over to get it out of your shoe, by which time the money you lose is the least of your worries. I met a guy down south who sewed little sleeves into his hightops to make getting his money in and out easier. when I was a teen and a regular nyc visitor, my mother sewed a zipper pocket into the cuff of my pants for my cash and traveler's checks. one day in an elevator an older guy saw me take a bill out of my cuffs and said, "one time I was mugged down the street here by 2 guys and they were so thorough they got the money I kept in my socks." I said, "why don't you move away?" and he said, "what, and give in to them?"

anyway, am I bragging at least a little by pointing out the good deeds I do? yes, I am, because I think that may be what we must do to remind people that doing such deeds are worthwhile and are done by people who are special. I'm sitting in my warm home with a full belly and I know at least one guy who's sitting somewhere warm, also with a full belly. that's a good feeling, knowing I contributed in some way to someone else's benefit. driving away from that guy at the light I felt like I'd run a good race and done respectably. no matter how old I get such a feeling never does.

Tuesday, September 13, 2011

pissing in our faces

the response by a conservative audience to wolf blitzer's question at last night's republican candidate debate to ron paul--"congressman, are you saying society should just let [a hypothetical coma victim who has refused to buy medical insurance] die?": shouts of "yeah!" and "let him die!" and applause--absolutely freezes my soul. to be fair to paul, while he simply did not answer the question and didn't seem to have any clue how to answer it without contradicting his own healthcare plan, he also seemed taken aback by the response.

these are the catcalls of the anonymous crowds that gather where someone teeters on a ledge thinking about ending it all. they have nothing at stake in the matter and are interested only in entertainment, wagering that the wouldbe suicide might be less likely to kill himself if there are people insulting him but if he does, they'll be able to say they were there. that's the response of internet trolls and drunken fratboys, hangerson that want to appear tough and outside social niceties. theoretically, a debate audience ought to be made up of individuals who are really interested in the way society functions. but there is obviously a point that we've reached where the 2 groups, usually seen as separate and at odds, have become a single, nasty, meanspirited mob.

I hasten to point out this is a single, apparently focussed group, one that's presumably representative of the new, more conservative, less social right wing of the republican party. destpite their presence at the debate as representatives, I don't think they necessarily represent most republicans or conservatives. but I cannot imagine a similar reaction to the hypothetical at a meeting of obama supporters, liberals, or even late 60s dixiecrats. it is beyond the pale. such a response by an audience of made up of a group seeking political legitimacy and the presidency pisses in all our faces.

Monday, September 12, 2011

c & e xians

I've been interning at a couple hub uu congregations so I haven't been attending my home church--what exactly does that mean, anyway, "home church"?--for the past year until yesterday. the service, the 1st of the new congregational year, was the gathering of the waters. it's not unusual for uu churches to stop meeting for the summer, and the one I often attend in eau claire is no different. I mentioned to my xian wife yesterday that xians may not be able to understand the feeling that this rite tickles in us, having not seen one another for months (save perhaps for a few social occasions). but she suggested it was a similar experience to the one c & e xians--christmas and easter--have and I must agree to an extent. it's probable that xians who only attend church a few times a liturgical year have a comparable sensation of having rediscovered the existence of beloved community, although I don't think it's necessarily a good thing. as for uus, we ought to give up the classicism of pausing summer meetings. while the joke that uus are the only sect god can trust for 3 months on our own is worth repeating, the fact is that fewer of us remain of that uberclass that goes away between june and september and our meeting schedule should reflect it.

Wednesday, September 7, 2011

in the presence of burning children

just as I think it's an indicator of a superior theology that it's willing to look at its presumptions and say, "we were wrong," so I think it's important for individuals who pay close attention to theologies to admit it when they are also wrong. my trek through mullino moore is slow, but the following quotes are from about 30 pages beyond what I'd quoted and critiqued earlier. I don't think she's answered the questions suggested by the ways biblicism has been used to abuse and oppress people--admittedly, a task worth a whole branch of biblical taxonomy on its own--and I don't think by writing 3 paragraphs she's done more than given a thin veneer to the troubling aspects that she brings up. but she at least touches on the subject and that's more than I thought she had done, and at least she doesn't pretend the issues don't exist. so here I quote her takes on the topic, keeping in mind that so far as I've read this is all she's said on it, but noting as well it remains something worth attending.

"truth-telling is not easy to hear, and it demands a response, whether by individual action or social policy. native americans make this clear in the united states, asking the government to acknowledge atrocities against their people. vine deloria also adresses the christian church, which has forced 'opinions, myths, and superstition on us.' he adds, 'you have never chosen to know us. you have only come to us to confront and conquer us.' deloria's cry echoes the cries of south africa and elsewhere, where generations of people have been denied basic human rights. like [archbishop desmond] tutu, he knows the significance of memory, including the memory of pain and horror." [emphasis added]

"reconciling with the past is undermined when people gloss over pain, blame themselves or others for tragedy, or seek glib words of comfort. these are common responses, however. painful parts of the bible are rarely the subject of sermons or bible study in christian churches. people often carry large burdens of unresolved guilt on their backs, which they hesitate to reveal in their churches, much less to expect absolution or renewal. scapegoating is an international pastime, soaking into our various religious communities as ink soaks into a garment, staining our communities forever with practices of looking for other people to blame for ills in our world. further, people often seek solace in painful times by scouring the bible and devotional books for comforting words. dietrich bonhoeffer notwithstanding, 'cheap grace' is attractive." [emphasis added]

"to reconcile with the past is to engage with hard realities, which finally requires critiquing and reforming theological traditions and religous practices in light of those realities. historical critique is not an empty exercise; it points to real flaws in biblical traditions. to say this is to align with irvin greenberg's post-holocaust analysis--to recognize that no theology is adequate if it does not make sense in the presence of burning children. if anti-judaism and anti-islam are part of christian history and have led to dismemberment of others, we need to reflect critically on traditions that made that possible. if christian theology has aligned with oppressors and ignored the oppressed, we need to revisit and reshape our traditions in light of jesus' central teaching of love toward god and neighbor." [emphasis in original]

Tuesday, September 6, 2011

day after labor day

the author of the blog vagabond scholar did a good job yesterday of posting a labor day commentary, better than I might do (although I would connect too to this list). because I was involved instead in shabbating for the weekend, I'm taking the easier way out of simply linking to it. but as a way of making up for this lazy practice, I am reposting 1 of my favorite mashups from a year and a 1/2 ago.

Friday, September 2, 2011

immoral graphic behavior

comic books were a very big part of my early life. I still have several boxes of them from the early and mid-70s, my prime comic-reading period. and I like to catch up with them every once in a while when I have some free time because they can still be cracking good reads, maybe more so now that I'm more nuanced in my understanding of the way the world works than when I was younger.

which is why a comic book story I read this afternoon has weighed on me. it was one of 5 or 6 stories collected in a graphic novel called marvel .1 and it was, I think, an attempt to provide some overview of the direction the company is taking. I'm relying on several-hours-old memory for this story, so forgive me if some of the details are wrong.

the conceit--whose title I don't know but it was written by nick spencer--is that the secret avengers, a splitoff from the regular avengers franchise devoted to covert operations, is going to extract a genetics expert who works for a.i.m., or advanced idea mechanics, a scientific crime organization I remember well from my comics-reading heyday. this scientist has worked for the organization for 15 years and had passed secret information to the government that helped it to avoid a chemical disaster along the lines of the release of sarin in the japanese aubway a decade ago. his cover has been blown and they are responsible for extracting him and his wife and 2 children safely.

they discover in which secret facility the genetics expert works. the superheroes split up and one group attacks the facility. there is a scene in which 2 of the secret avengers, war machine and ant-man, are on their way to the secret lab and are discussing how they'll gain access. another member of the team, valkyrie, will have arrived there before them and neutralized the guards. what this means, we understand from the action we see under their conversation and what they say (ant-man actually says, "you mean when we get there they'll all be dead?"), is that she will kill about a dozen people on entering the facility. this is confirmed when they arrive and valkyrie is standing over their bodies.

when they get there, however, on finding the person they've come to extract, they discover from the man that he is actually a cover and it's his wife who is the genetics expert who has been working in a home lab. she had sent the information under his name for reasons that aren't specified.

another member of the team, moon knight, races to the couple's home, but it's too late. in a panel shown immediately after his fight with the 2 a.i.m. operatives he finds there, we see a woman's arm and hand, both dripping blood, at the top landing of a set of stairs, and his response to steve rogers, the original captain america, who is in communication with the rest of the team, is that the operatives have killed her. we don't hear anything about the couple's 2 children.

the composition of the shot of the victim's arm and hand suggests we should feel badly that the team was too late to save her, and the panel is effective. I had an "oh, no" moment myself. how mature of comics to present the fact that not all stories have happy endings.

but that we are manipulated to feel badly for this woman's murder and not for the deaths of the dozen men (and possibly women since we understand that a.i.m. obviously has women working for it too) that valkyrie kills on her entrance, many of whom are also probably fathers and mothers, is staggeringly immoral. true, valkyrie is presumably operating in self-defense, but from the conversation between her teammates it's obvious she was going there with the intent to kill any opposition she met. the way they talk about it, it's even made light of, as ant-man bemoans his lost opportunity to impress anyone with his superheroics since they'll all be dead.

it's possible that we're meant to sympathize with the murdered genetics expert because when she leaked the salvific information to the government it was, as her husband reports later, "the right thing to do." but so what? she had worked for 15 years for this criminal organization--what did she imagine they were doing with that genetics information she provided for nearly 2 decades? winning science fairs? and who's to say that none of the dozen dead cannonfodder may have also leaked important lifesaving information to some government branch that simply hadn't been made known to the secret avengers? and even if we can assume that none had, isn't that just a byproduct of not being in a position to have damaging information in your hands (possibly that you, as the genetics expert, might have yourself developed)? and, let's face it, in the economy of the past decade, if someone offers us a job, say to guard a facility or a courthouse, that presumably pays good wages and benefits, wouldn't we take it, without being evil or even malicious ourselves? (after all, are we responsible for what the corportation we work for does?)

but so what? it's just a comic book. do I really expect a moral tale from a comic book? yes, I do. by the 1st decade of the 21st century, comics have become an art form that comments as much on realworld dilemmas and events as they do on the madeup problems of superpeople and for better and worse comics have become a method by which some people communicate how they think the world ought to be, and to make light of the deaths of a dozen people and then expect us to shed a tear for a single person who is at the least complicit in research that may have led to the deaths of many more, is an immoral act.