Saturday, April 28, 2012

eight cows: sangha

this is a mashup I made for my class on buddhism.  it's grainier than the original which is apparently a consequence of a 20-minute video being converted to a size suitable for uploading.  we're expected to do a dharma talk on a topic of our choice and I determined mine would be on sangha, mostly because I'd already done a sermon on that about 6 years ago and still had the research.  but when the crunch came, I opted to do a video rather than a sermon and the message of the dharma talk also changed.  I'm rather proud of the outcome, although as I let the class know last night if I'd had my druthers I'd have cut some of the more sensational images out of the iranian sufi video clip since the sufis represented include the more extreme member who expect their faith makes their flesh impenetrable to pain.  thus the hammering of daggers into heads.

still, I like it and I'd have to call it a hit among my classmates who seemed somewhat agog at the presentation.  that may have been amazement at my accomplishment or it may have been astonishment at my gall, I never can tell.  

Sunday, April 22, 2012

my zen experience

I was raised a Seventh-Day Adventist in the German tradition, which meant stiff prohibitions against alcohol, coffee, premarital sex, meat and several other things.  My parents were rather relaxed when it came to religion and allowed me to leave the church in my early teens.  I experimented with several Christianities for some years as well as agnosticism and atheism, and came to Buddhism after reading Hesse’s novel Siddhartha during my second college go-round and eventually on Zen.

Zen practice fit with my lifestyle at that time, which was geared toward a massive de-emphasis on material goods.  My divorce, though amicable, had helped me recognize that my life was not what I wanted it to be.  I lived for a year after that in a tiny room in a boarding house where I had a large bed, a desk, a cabinet, a stereo and a bookshelf and not much room to move around.  If I had guests we needed to sit on the bed since it took up nearly the entire room.  Everything else was in storage at my parents’, and when I moved into an apartment on the other end of town, it quickly filled up with the things I retained from my marriage, including a lot of bad feelings.  So in the middle of the night about a month after moving, having watched the film The Razor’s Edge and being especially touched by the scene in which the protagonist stays warm by burning the pages he’s read from the one book he has, I spent several hours literally piling clothes, books, furniture, utensils and various other things into the center of the living room and called in my friends to pick through it and take what they wanted. 

After that I set about studying in earnest.  I lived in a small college town at the base of the Shawangunk Mountains which are part of the Catskills and there was no little choice of Zen classes to join.  I chose one that met at Unison Center which was a 30-minute walk west of town.  I did a great deal of reading and spent a lot of time in practice.  After I bought a car I drove northwest to Woodstock to study under John Daido Loori at Zen Mountain Monastery which I managed to attend for free for a while having done carpentry work under a friend’s brother who was doing renovations there.  Eventually I moved to Woodstock for several years and continued my studies there. 

Before that happened I spent three months in sesshin at Dhammapada in Montreal on Daido Loori’s suggestion during which I did a lot of practical study.  I didn’t advance very far in my practice; the monastery was strict Rinzai school where we sat seiza style and I discovered I really wasn’t very good at sitting or contemplation.  I looked forward to my time in the kitchen and the garden each day and that was what got me through each sitting.  I was one of those people from the joke who say to themselves, “Hey, I’ve become one with nothing. Aw, nuts.”  At one point near the end of my stay I approached the abbot in dokusan saying, “I’ve become enlightened,” to which he answered, “Oh, I’m so sorry.”  I can’t say I got very far, certainly not in my practice.  But I did learn to master my anger which was a powerful step forward. 

After I returned from sesshin I did a lot more reading and studying but almost no practice.  It was almost as if I thought of myself as having used up the practice I needed during sesshin and didn’t have to put in the painful and (in my view) futile sitting.  I remember sitting once a day on my return—often at night before bed or early in the morning after waking—then once a week, then once a month, and finally not sitting at all.  Meanwhile, my reading emphasized the ethics of Tao over the practices of sitting; I decided to drop Buddhist studies, as I saw the end result of it as retiring to a monastery, in favor of Taoism. 

Saturday, April 21, 2012

merton on what xianity will become

The new Christian consciousness, which tends to reject the Being of God as irrelevant (or even to accept as perfectly obvious the "death of God"), must be seen to...[have] no metaphysical intuition of Being, and hence "being" is reduced to an abstract concept, a cipher to figure with, a purely logical entity, surely nothing to be concretely experienced.  What is experienced as primary is not "being" or "isness" but individual consciousness, reflexsive ego-awareness.

This dimension is very important indeed, because if the primary datum of experience and the ultimate test of all truth is simply the self-awareness of the conscious subject, verifying what is obvious to its own consciousness, then that self-awareness would seem to block off and inhibit any real intuition of being.  By the nature of the case, being, in this new situation, presents itself not as an immediate datum of intuitive consciousness but as an object of empirical observation--which, as a matter of fact, it cannot possibly be.  This has many important consequences.  For such a consciousness, a nonobjective metaphysical or mystical intuition becomes, in practice, incomperhensible.  The very notion of Being is nonviable, irrelevant and even absurd...

The new consciousness naturally turns outward to history, to event, to movement, to progress, and seeks its own identity and fulfillment in action toward historic political or critical goods.  In proportion as it is also Biblical and eschatalogical, it approaches the primitive Christian consciousness.  But we can already see that "Biblical" and "eschatalogical" thinking do not comfortably accord with this particular kind of consciousness, and there are already signs that it will soon have to declare itself completely post-Biblical, as well as post-Christian...

[The] new Christian consciousness would seem to be the product of a kind of phenomenology which more and more questions and repudiates anything that seems to it to be "metaphysical," "Hellenic" and above all "mystical."  It concerns itself less and less with God as present in being (in his creation) and more and more with God's word as summons to action.  God is present not as the experienced transcendent presence which is "wholly other" and reduces everything else to insignificance, but in an inscrutable word summoning to community with [others]...The Church in its traditional authoritarian structures is severely criticized--which is not necessarily a bad thing!  But the rather more fluid idea of community which "happens" when people are brought together by God's word may perhaps remain very vague and subjective itself.  In theory it is excitingly charismatic; in practice it is sometimes strangely capricous.  It may conceivably degenerate into mere conviviality or the temporary agreement of political partisans...

...But this much can be said:  the developing Christian consciousness is one which is activistic, antimystical, antimetaphysical, which eschews well-defined and concrete forms, and which tends to identify itself with active, progressive, even revolutionary, movements that are on the way but that have not yet reached any kind of clear definition.

--from Zen and the Birds of Appetite by Thomas Merton (emphasis added)

well, the best that can be said for merton's prescience is that he probably was right about how public xianity was developing in 1968.  however, that would prove short-lived.  by the late 70s and early 80s the public face of xianity would develop into a religion that would be exactly the opposite of what merton was chiding:  heavily mystical, narrowly focused and defined, and remarkably conservative if not regressive in search of some neverwas golden age.  about the only thing he got right that stayed right is the activism which has led almost like it was on a treadleboard into the fears he voiced about political partisanship (and as for its temporary nature, see what any number of fundamentalists have had to say about mitt romney before and after his ascendency to candidacy).  merton of course wasn't the only one to get late 20th century xianity wrong; but a question I've often wondered is what would he think about what xianity has become in the 4 decades since his death?

Wednesday, April 18, 2012

"sweet jesus, but that mother could talk!"

over the past weekend the regional association of our denomenation had its annual series of meetings and workshops in the midst of the hub. I attended most of it and had a good time seeing folks I hadn't seen in a while and some I only get to see when this happens. one of the most interesting things happened friday night when I checked in and the woman getting my paperwork turned out to be a member of the congregation I belonged to in the mid to late 90s before we moved further out on the rim. she didn't recognize me by looks but by name and when she found out I'd been a member she said, "you gave a talk about meeting al green, didn't you?" this was a long time ago, nearly 15 years ago, but I had indeed done that and she said, "I was just thinking about that story a few days ago when I heard an al green song on the radio. every once in a while I hear one and think of your story. it was very strong."

I've reflected on what she said and decided to put that up here since, to be honest, I haven't thought of that story in quite a while but like the opportunity to be reminded of my past successes. (I don't think it's necessary for me to say it, but I was also in awe of the president recently referencing al in a speech.) thus, here is my story of meeting al green:


Words are talismans, and as such they are independent and we have no control over their effects. Words, names, bundles of organized sound can hurt and they can help, and we’re all familiar with how they can say what we did not mean for them to say. But there is power there. Names mean things that otherwise can’t be said. We should wrap them in leather and hang them from straps around our necks, like charms.

Al Green. That’s a pair of words I would hang around my neck. Just the name evokes memories of late nights when I was twelve, lying awake in my upstairs bed, innumerable blankets piled over me, the cheesy black plastic radio I’d saved for for weeks snuggled under the pillow next to me, turned way down, the antenna poking up from the mound of pillows, blankets and me. Its tinny sound came all the way from big-town Albany, fifty miles north. Rock 99. I’d keep that radio nestled next to me and playing all night long. If a cloud drifted in from the west and the signal faded, even in my sleep I’d move it just the least bit away or closer, and the tinny sound strengthened. Between Led Zeppelin and Joe Cocker and Three Dog Night and even Dobie Gray the sound waves would suddenly slow down and I could feel a palpable dip in the night, like reality paused a moment to take a breath. Everything quieted and then the impossibly mellifluous strains of “Let’s Stay Together” melted out of the tinny speaker and across the expanse of the pillow and white sheet and into my ear like some tiny meandering bug. I always went to sleep when I heard that song. Not because it was dull or soft, but because it added to the haven I’d set up for myself inside the pillows and the blankets and the whole world was all right.

I saw that set of words on a marquee outside a little church in a dusty town in rural Georgia. The words stopped me cold, or more precisely, I stopped my car and craned my neck to read them. They said, “Our Guest Speaker This Sunday: Rev. Al Green.” There could have been any number of Reverend Al Greens, and I’m sure any of them would be nice guest speakers; but it didn’t take much for me to stay a few days near that town. My life wasn’t going anywhere fast back then. I set up my living stuff in the parking lot of a local wilderness park and spent a few days hiking and reading. That Sunday came and I’d almost convinced myself not to go—idol-worship being bad and all that—but I found myself walking into the church at the right time. It was one of these large, single-story modern plaster-and-white stone churches, almost more ecumenical in design than in practice. The carpet was gray and beige and then when you entered the nave it was star-patterned with bright yellow.

It was, indeed, my Al Green. He wore an off-white, three-piece suit, and shoes that were reddish-brown as the clay out in the parking lot. The local preacher introduced him—sort of his opening act—and then sat down and Al Green stood up and opened his mouth.

Years before I’d agreed to store a friend’s large screen television. I hooked it up to my VCR and spent most of my time in front of it watching pornography. There being no cable in that town back then, I got one station, the Trinity Broadcasting channel out of Poughkeepsie. The 24-hour God channel we called it. I got into a habit of watching that after long binge-drinking nights. Most of the broadcast day was given over to Pat Robertson and Jack van Impe and Benny Hinn, but at three o’clock in the morning there was a preacher whose message was a strange mixture of counterculture and establishment religion. I don’t remember his name and I probably never knew it: I never made it home in time to catch the beginning of his show or stayed up long enough to watch the end. Like so much of life, it was a permanent present when I switched on the television. Jesus was a hippie with dirty feet and callused hands to him, and by God he was proud of that. His audience was composed primarily of yuppies, a smattering of blacks and Latinos, and one or two older faces. He had a style like an old fire and brimstone padre with the addition of a few hip phrases. I loved to watch him while I was drunk. I do recall something he once said in relation to this dirty, hardworking Christ: “Sweet Jesus,” he said, “sweet Jesus, but that mother could talk!”

This is what I was thinking as I sat in the cold wooden pew in the white small town modern church on a sweltering summer Georgia Sunday afternoon, listening to the Reverend Al Green. Because Al Green could talk. I could have listened to him forever. His message was simple: like Calvin Coolidge’s preacher, he was against sin, and he was for Jesus. And then the choir sang some gospel and the congregation joined in—thus, I can claim that I once sang with Al Green. And then, because you can’t have Al Green’s voice and not sing, he sang an a cappella gospel number that sent the shivers of the being-naughty-and-knowing-you’re-getting-away-with-it style down my back. I was back, unbelievably innocent, to that time of tinny radio speakers and covers drawn up over my head and the cold outside and the warm right in here.

I stood with the rest of the congregation for the local preacher’s closing benediction, but snuck out before it was over. It was too much to take, those memories, this voice, that throb that filled my head and opened up some other part of my heart.

Because I lived in my car public bathrooms were precious to me. I visited this one and relived myself and splashed water across my face. I headed out for the hall and then to my car.

Coming toward me from the other end of the hall was Al Green.

He was sweating in his white suit in the Georgia August day, and it put a sheen on his face like I’ve seen on wooden statues of San Martin de Porres in Santerian shrines. He walked like a man with places to go. That wide, friendly, open face I’d seen on albums, television shows, Soul Train, was clouded, downcast.

I wanted to say hello—what an opportunity, not always available to people like me, to touch for a second some tangible part of their past—but I didn’t want to disturb him. This was a man with the tragedies of the world on his mind, weightier matters than I presented. Al Green was trying to solve the problem of existence and he had nothing but his voice to fight with, so I gave him room.

He walked alone. I walked past him, giving him that nod and crooked smile guys give one another, that little “I-know-you-and-if-you-were-hip-you’d-know-me, but-it’s-okay-that-you-don’t” sort of grin and eye lock. But he didn’t play the game. Al Green stopped and his face took on the dimensions I’ve seen on supplicants contemplating God. He broke out a smile the width of the hallway and he stepped over to me and he took my hand in both of his and he said, “How are you?”

He seemed to mean every word. I was astonished. Al Green had stopped to talk with me. You must picture this. He was sweating in the August heat in his off-white suit. I stood there in a stained T-shirt with the arms ripped off, a pair of cutoffs whose worn fabric held together just below my crotch, old running shoes that didn’t smell very good. I had dreadlocks then—there are few places to wash one’s hair on the road—and they stuck out in every direction. I pray I remembered to brush my teeth that morning.

I was sweating too, but the heat I felt came from this man who had stopped to talk with me and whose two large, black hands encased my small, callused one so that when I looked down—and I can still see it—it looked as if I’d dipped that hand into molasses. It was as warm and gentle a grip as if I’d done exactly that.

I said a word or two, something along the lines of, “oh, I’m all right, how are you?” And he said “fine, fine”, and he seemed to mean that, too. And then because you can’t speak to Al Green and hold his hands and not say what’s on your mind, I said, “My God, Al, you can sing.”

He laughed. And then this man with the weight of the world’s sins and flaws and tragedies continued to laugh as he let go of my hand and turned around and headed into the bathroom. The sound of his laugh bounced off those walls and come to rest inside me. That laugh has continued to reverberate, crashing against the walls inside my skull, like a pendulum out of control in a too-small space, until it finally breaks everything down and all that’s left is the pendulum, swinging slowly and unhindered and alone.

Thursday, April 12, 2012

to the sneakersignal!

last week I watched an interesting documentary on jews in rural wisconsin in which one interviewee said something I've heard many times before but hadn't really tweaked to: to be a jew you need other jews. all the reading I've done this semester, esp in relation to jews, but also about christians and muslims, reinforces that. I think that's a part of being a people of the book, that you can't read the book alone but must have someone to read it with.

then yesterday I was having a conversation with a friend. in the middle I was discussing one of the comments my cpe supervisor had made about me and that I readily admit: that for all my admission for the importance of community--and in unitarian universalism the community is as important as it is for intentional groups like the santarians or the amish or the hare krishna--I find it very hard to be fully in community. I already knew this was true but my epiphany, such as it is, lay in realizing for the 1st time why this is.

I love community. my wife will tell you one of my most overworked words is "communal." I think the good of the community beats the good of the individual in most cases and I'm in awe of people who sacrifice for their neighbors, esp ones they don't know.

but I like being on the outskirts, living out on the edge of a larger group. I identify with the rim, only coming in when I choose to and living outside the group when I choose to. my hero I've always identified most with is the lone ranger who lives somewhere out in the desert with his faithful companion and rides into a situation to right the wrong and then gallops off, unthanked, into the sunset and disappears until the next wrong crops up and he's needed again. (and, at least as portrayed by clayton moore, the masked man I grew up with, never killed anyone intentionally.) sometimes I think ministry is like that, only you're not so hard to get ahold of, more like batman who can be called in with the batsignal. ("if you need me, turn on the sneakersignal.")

I like living with people and I like living near people--I tell myself I miss living in the city--but if I'm honest I'll admit even when I lived in the middle of a city I was usually pretty lowkey and often hard to find. I like to be places where I'm unknown. I'm probably more introverted than I think I am because these days, given the choice between spending time with friends and spending time with my dogs, I'm more likely to hang out with my dogs. I love to spend time with people, but on terms and conditions I set.

this is a pretty privileged existence, I know. I can pretend I don't have to rely on other people (although of course I do like everyone else) and I can choose when to involve myself in the messiness of other people's lives or whether to let them get involved in mine. to provide another metaphor, I'm like the kid playing "duck, duck, goose" (although out here they call it "duck, duck, grey duck") who walks outside the circle and chooses how long he can circle the group and which person to let chase him. I remember in my freshman american lit class learning about the puritan concept of "being in the world but not of it" and I think that informs at least some of this, not that there's a better life for me afterward but that I've got something better going on over here that I'll share but I'd rather not. I don't think that's being a good person of the book and I know it isn't being a model unitarian universalist but there it is for me: "beloved community" is an idea I like very much so long as I can come and go as I please.

Tuesday, April 10, 2012

In the Spirit of the Mosquito

I’d forgotten how much I miss the scent of incense and just-lit matches. I was immersed in it at the Clouds in Water Zen Center in St. Paul. I visited there yesterday with several other members of my Zen Buddhism class, co-groupers from a social fieldwork project.

The place was incredible and in the warehouse district. The ceilings were huge, 25, 30-feet tall. They’ve had problems with pigeons occasionally flying in through open or partly-open windows, leading to their placing extra, narrower screens on the windows. The ceiling is held up by old-growth timber; the building was one of the Great Northern Railroad’s many local warehouses, and the Center’s Zazen room was the vault for the building. There are several motion-sensor cameras above each door coming in from the outside—a sensible precaution in an area with many bars and restaurants—but aside from several altars in different rooms and a few paintings in the meeting room, the walls are blank of adornment.

Much of this was told us by Tom, a member who was our practice instructor for the morning. Tom had grown up Catholic but was attracted to Zen Buddhism as a spiritual discipline that was “in service to humanity and not to a god.” He had joined the Center after “30 years of reading and dreaming” and had been a member for 10 years. Initially dismissive of the lessons he learned under the Church, but in the years since meditating and practice, he has become more convinced there are strong correlations between what he’d grown up with and his current practices. He said he was “too much of a smartass” back then to retain much, but now claims “if only someone had taught me then about anything,” he would have been more likely to combine them. He calls the two practices, in their separate ways, “talking with God.”

The Zazen was wonderful, relaunching the memories I have of time spent on my knees, and I was happy to discover that the stance I was most comfortable with was also a legitimate one, called the Burmese sitting position. This was a tremendous improvement over the sitting I was required to do as a younger and more pliable participant in sesshin back in the late 80s, settled on my knees resting on my heels for hours. (I saw only one person sitting this way, and he seemed comfortable in it.) Had this stance been offered me, I might have remained a Buddhist.

The Buddhism the Center espouses is Mahayana or Greater Vehicle Buddhism, which prioritizes the enlightenment of all beings over the enlightenment of the individual. The chant they conducted after the dharma talk was, in fact, the Bodhisattva’s vow:

May our intention equally penetrate every being and place with the true merit of Buddha’s way. Beings are numberless, I vow to free them. Delusions are inexhaustible, I vow to end them. Dharma gates are boundless, I vow to enter them. The Buddha Way is unsurpassable, I vow to realize it.

We sat for a little more than a half hour with a few minutes break at the halfway point. I was surprised how easily it all came back to me: the peacefulness, the attuned hearing, the sense of something interior being let out, my attention to the play of sunlight moving slowly across the floor. I focused on a window just in front of me, remembering to have soft eyes (it helped to push my glasses off my face), and counting my breaths. I did not experience Satori but I did feel very good.

This is the chant we did after sitting and before the Dharma talk. Tom had told us it was the chant they did weekly.

The unsurpassed, profound, and wondrous dharma is rarely met with, even in a hundred, thousand, million kalpas. Now we can see and hear it, accept and maintain it. May we unfold the meaning of the Tathagata’s truth.

I noted during our stretching break and at other times that some people, mostly men, were very conscious of imagined eyes on them. Their own eyes darted to and fro. I noticed this because I recognized my own tendency to do this. I also noted that the Buddha whose presence dominated the Zazen room was very feminine-looking, and might even have been a female Buddha. If this is so, I liked it.

The Dharma talk itself, I fear, was dull to me. Not much was said that struck me as original (aside from the comment that provides the title for this post or the African proverb preceding it) and several times I thought to myself, “This would be a good place to end.” I found myself experiencing not only monkey-mind but monkey-body—rocking, stretching, moving beyond necessity to find a comfortable position.

I took down several takeaways from the Dharma talk:

• “Where do I start in my new life?”
• “There’s an African proverb that says, ‘If you think you’re too small to make a difference, you haven’t spent a night trapped with a mosquito.’”
• “The Eightfold Path operates as a prescription against suffering.”
• “Why do I feel the need to speak?”
• “I see the power of speech and how actions emerge from that.”
• “Even a small action, how like a ripple it moves out.”
• “Being aware right now, of all judgment, with deliberation.”
• “What I want to escape isn’t my life. What I want to escape is my struggle.”
• “In one minute we are told there are 60 seconds, and within each second there are 60 or 62 moments. So we have a lot of time to notice thing. We should not miss our life. Right now is the only time we have.”
• “It’s exhilarating to fight this losing battle with reality.”
• “The mind is an untrained elephant.”
• “Everything is alive and whole and complete [including us] as it is.”
• The Eightfold Path (also called Indra’s Net) is holographic—every piece reflects the whole.

Wednesday, April 4, 2012

last sunday's sermon

We are likely to remember at least a part of early October, 2001. The World Trade Center towers and a portion of the Pentagon in D.C. had planes flown into them, killing thousands, and in a Pennsylvania woods another plane crashed unceremonially. The newly placed President, George W. Bush, famously froze when given the news and eventually went on reading The Pet Goat to elementary schoolchildren. We were all in a daze at the notion that, like much of the rest of the world, we had been the targets of a terrorist attack. It ought to be noted, of course, that such attacks happen in other places on a weekly if not a daily basis, even if they don’t have the same loss of life.

Less than a month later, October 7, we woke to find our nation attacking the small country of Afghanistan, a country which we were told had financed and planned the attacks as well as harboring the mastermind of the organization accused of carrying them out. When our intention to bomb them back to the stone age was reported, one of my students from Afghanistan said, “Then this war should already be over; we are already there.”

We are nearing the beginning of our second decade of bombing the tiny nation back to the stone age. Osama bin Laden is dead; al Qaeda, whose greatest strength, its decentralized leadership, has also turned out to be its greatest weakness, is a sidelined terrorist group; the Taliban, whose name means “students,” were routed and forced out of Afghanistan, only of course to return, making inroads among a rural population long sick of being collateral damage; and ancillary war and military action in neighboring Iraq and Pakistan have blossomed. Despite the rhetoric of President Obama and the withdrawal of a tenth of our troops there, the war continues.

There has been no shortage, from drone bomb deaths on innocent neighborhoods to attacks on wedding celebrations to smart bombs launched at overfilled hospitals, for the Afghan public to turn on its supposed liberators—remember the promises of flowers thrown at the feet of advancing Americans?—and now its invaders and occupiers. On March 11, Staff Sergeant Robert Bales, Jr. gave them yet another reason. A 38 year old four tour serving married father of two from Ohio who had enlisted in those heady days immediately after September 11 who was previously diagnosed with traumatic brain injury from a road accident, he is accused of having killed 17 Afghan civilians, almost all of them children and women, and setting fire to some of their bodies.

Staff Sergeant Bales is the person we blame although there remain questions about what witnesses saw—some have reported that the killings were done by American soldiers—as well as the way events played out—how did an American soldier manage to simply leave a well-fortified post like Camp Belambay, not once but twice, walk several miles in the dark to the nearest villages, and then after his grisly deeds were done simply reenter the camp without having been challenged by guards? The truth is no matter how much evidence is collected and no matter how much investigation goes into it, this is probably one of those wartime atrocities that, like My Lai and the Winter Soldier events of Vietnam, or like who shot JFK or what really happened to Jimmy Hoffa, will probably never be solved to anyone’s satisfaction. Already we are experiencing a notable lack of investigation on the part of American media which is more interested in finding rationales for Bales’ actions than for determining the way he might have done it.

On this last point the essayist Glenn Greenwald has written: “Here’s a summary of the Western media discussion of what motivated U.S. Staff Sgt. Robert Bales to allegedly kill [17] Afghans, including 9 children: he was drunk, he was experiencing financial stress, he was passed over for a promotion, he had a traumatic brain injury, he had marital problems, he suffered from the stresses of four tours of duty, he ‘saw his buddy’s leg blown off the day before the massacre,’ etc. Here’s a summary of the Western media discussion of what motivates Muslims to kill Americans: they are primitive, fanatically religious, hateful Terrorists.” We do tend to relegate the actions of people we already disapprove of to evil and, when faced with proof of our—“our” in the same sense we talk about the team we follow—own evil acts, we experience what Greenwald calls “a desperate need to believe that when an American engages in acts of violence of this type…there must be some underlying mental or emotional cause that makes it sensible…” We live in chaos; people behave in ways we can’t predict or control. Chaos, with good reason, frightens us so we paper it over with narrative, impose order on it, so it makes sense.

Similarly, we are trying to make sense of another, older killing, that of young Trayvon Martin in Sanford, Florida, by George Zimmerman. His death occurred in late February this year and came to many people’s attention by way of social media, articles on websites, and the publicity of a large march by people wearing hooded sweatshirts. Unlike the Afghan killings, it was several weeks after Martin’s death before people heard about it—I’ve tried to trace back my own discovery of the incident and I think it was a report on the article-accumulation site dated March 8, nearly two weeks after his death and five days after his funeral. I hate to say it but articles like this and events like this happen nearly every day in contemporary America and the only reason I’m likely to have noticed it myself is the use in that first article of the incredibly affecting photo of a tween Trayvon staring plaintively into the camera and wearing a hoodie similar to the one he was killed wearing and the title’s emphasis on the word “unarmed.”

In the short time since this story became a national headline so much has been said about and commented on the events of February 26th that it may be necessary to reiterate what we do know. We know that George Zimmerman, who has operated as a one-man neighborhood watch in the gated community for a number of years, sighted an unfamiliar black youth walking in the rain with his hood up. Trayvon Martin, who was on suspension from school at the time, was visiting relatives who lived in the neighborhood and had just come from a local convenience store where he’d bought Skittles and iced tea. He noticed Zimmerman following him and called his girlfriend, who has fortunately remained anonymous in the media, who was probably on the phone with him when he was shot.

Zimmerman, who has logged in many calls to the local police department—the number 46 seems certain although whether that is since 2001, 2006 or since December depends on the source—alerts 911 whose dispatcher tells him it will be checked out by police and that he should not confront or follow the suspect. Zimmerman, saying “These assholes always get away,” instead leaves his SUV, approaching Martin on foot.

This is the point at which we don’t know what happens, only what the result is. Zimmerman claims he had chased and lost the suspect and was returning to his SUV when Martin attacked him, breaking his nose and banging his head on cement. The 911 dispatcher, who kept the phone live, records someone yelling for help—the police say it was Zimmerman, Martin’s girlfriend who was also listening via his cell phone says it was Martin—and then a gunshot. Several witnesses report hearing multiple gunshots although no one alleges that Martin had a gun. All of this occurs between 7 and 7:25 that evening. The police have determined that George Zimmerman killed Trayvon Martin with a shot to the chest at about 7:25 and approximately five minutes later officers arrived.

Zimmerman tells the officers he shot Martin in self-defense. An officer notes in his report that Zimmerman is bleeding from the nose and head. He is placed in handcuffs and taken to the station for processing. However, he is not charged, and when he is released his gun and his gun license are returned to him.

As more than one reporter has noted, the more we learn about this case the more complicated it becomes. George Zimmerman accused his former fiancĂ© of having attacked him in 2005 and biting his face (she claims he attacked her and her dog bit him). Martin was suspended from school for having been found in possession of a plastic bag with trace amounts of marijuana in it (one commenter I read pointed out, quite realistically in my opinion, such a charge and punishment would be laughed off by most white suburban high school students). Zimmerman’s father, who is a judge, has pointed out that his mother is Hispanic and this point has been remarked on repeatedly by his defenders as a reason this couldn’t possibly have been a racist attack, as if racism is the result of a formula, the introduction of one element negates another, rather than an incident based on cultural and social assumptions, and there’s no indication Zimmerman self-identifies as Hispanic. The Sanford police chief, Bill Lee, has stepped down in the face of a state-led investigation of this and another case involving his refusal to charge the son of a prominent citizen for killing a homeless man. We have seen in the past few days the release of surveillance video of Zimmerman’s arrival and processing at the Sanford station that night during which he looks neither injured nor bleeding, and even if he had, as some defenders claim, been “cleaned up” before arriving, he certainly does not look like he’s suffering a broken nose.

The primary means for explaining the rather lenient treatment of George Zimmerman barring some rather strong and justifiable beliefs of racism on Zimmerman’s part or on the part of the police has been the Florida law on justifiable use of force by civilians, also known as the “Stand Your Ground” or “Castle” defense. Subsection 3 of Chapter 776 of the state’s 2011 Statutes, the relevant section of Florida’s Law Code, reads, “A person who is not engaged in an unlawful activity and who is attacked…where he or she has a right to be has no duty to retreat and has the right to stand his or her ground and meet force with force, including deadly force if he or she reasonably believes it is necessary to do so to prevent death or great bodily harm…or to prevent the commission of a forcible felony.”

I’m certainly no criminal lawyer but it strikes me by a cursory reading of the law and the information that we have of what transpired on February 26 that George Zimmerman may very well be not guilty of the murder or manslaughter of Trayvon Martin. But it strikes me also that Zimmerman, the Sanford police department, and indeed the law itself, are guilty of something.

What is that something? To answer, I’d like to return to the tragedy I began with, the killing of 17 Afghan civilians allegedly by Staff Sergeant Robert Bales, Jr. What do these two incidents have in common? They are tragedies, surely, happening in both instances to people we must presume are innocent of anything punishable by a death sentence. Both became needfully more complicated the more information became available. Both too are examples of killings that should have been easily avoided: Zimmerman was told to stand down by the police dispatcher, Bales should have been confronted by guards when he first left Camp Belembay. Both too are examples in my mind of misplaced policy. There should not be a continuing war in Afghanistan in which a Robert Bales, Jr. experiences a fourth tour of duty—contrast that with the average experience of a Vietnam veteran, the penultimate suffering soldier of my generation, who served a single tour that was both shorter in duration and less intense—and there should not be a “Stand Your Ground” law on the books in Florida or anywhere, wherein anyone using a gun against a stranger is given the benefit of the doubt about his motives. Such use of deadly force should always be investigated thoroughly and its user, as the survivor, should be presumed guilty until proven otherwise.

But the two tragedies have another similarity and that’s the one I want to talk about finally. It’s a sense of entitlement. Entitlement has become a dirty word in our current political climate, used by candidates and politicians to mean something unearned, like food stamps or healthcare or voting rights. As if we lived by the maxims “no work, no food” and “if you’re sick you’ve sinned” and “you don’t play unless you have skin in the game.” But that’s not the entitlement I’m talking about.

Nor am I talking about the entitlement that most of us feel when we walk the streets unmolested by others, safe in our own environs or safe in the areas where we know, because of the color of our skin or the power of society behind us or our ability to fend for ourselves, that we won’t be bothered or at least not for long, that no one is likely to physically harm us or steal something from us or accuse us of something we haven’t done. I’m not talking about the entitlement we feel when a cop car passes us by, secure in the knowledge we’ve done nothing wrong and they won’t stop to ask what we’re doing.

The entitlement I’m talking about is the sense that, having been harmed somehow, whether by a horrible war whose ravages we suffer or by the predators, both real and imagined, that take advantage of society, that we are within our rights somehow to avenge ourselves, our families, our culture, on other people, on the representatives of those predators, willfully blind to whether they are adults or guilty. Perhaps, like the war in Afghanistan, this entitlement is a reaction to the experience of September 11, as if having been victimized on a national level gives us the right to ignore what the Gospel writers point out about our responsibility to turn the other cheek. It’s a human reaction, maybe even so universal as to be a mammalian reaction, to strike out against someone or something that harms us or harms what we consider our own. To take revenge for slights that are real enough to cause us pain.

But as much as it’s human it’s also arrogant especially when it’s applied against someone who, in the cold light of day rather than in the middle of the night or when it’s rainy, can have had no part in harming us. To do so is to sin. You might remember Michael Milken, the so-called Junk Bond King from Drexel Burnham who was indicted, along with Ivan Boesky, for racketeering, securities fraud and insider trading, and who spent two years in prison. Milken, of all people, has what I think is the most cogent definition of sin, probably by reason of his experience: “Sin is treating other people as means and not as ends.”

It is this sin that that the United States commits by continuing an unnecessary war against Afghanistan. It is this sin that Staff Sergeant Robert Bales, Jr. and George Zimmerman committed against innocent Afghans and against a young black man in a hooded sweatshirt. To both men these people were only representations of forces that had impinged on them and theirs and killing them served to exorcise, but only for a moment and only in their own minds, whatever evil bedeviled them. Both Bales and Zimmerman gave in to their own sense of entitlement that they were the persons capable of determining guilt and punishment for other people. Both are wrong. In both instances, we demand justice over blood. We demand investigation over concealment. We demand responsibility over retribution. In pursuing answers in these cases we are demanding nothing less than that life, with uncertainties, messiness, and indeterminacy, is privileged over the certainty of death.