Friday, September 20, 2013

the problem of good

A Sermon Delivered to Willmar UU Church,

September 15, 2013,

            I’d like to start this morning’s sermon by reciting the names of four young women. I’ll bring them up again later. Cynthia Wesley, Carole Robertson, Addie Mae Collins, and Denise McNair.

I almost don’t know where to start because this involves a situation about which most of you will have thought about more than I have. As a result, I’m going to make this a shorter sermon than usual so we have more time than usual for community dialogue.

            In the event someone isn’t familiar with the facts of the situation, they are these. The body of 79 year old Lila Warwick was found the evening of Monday, July 29th of this year, at her home on Highway 12. She had failed to pick up her daughter that morning and didn’t show up for volunteer duties at that evening’s Bible study. A Kandiyohi County deputy was asked to check on her welfare and discovered her body in her basement. She had been strangled, stabbed multiple times with a 20-inch sword-like knife, and thrown down her cellar stairs. It’s not reported that I can locate but my guess is she died from loss of blood and blunt trauma. Over the course of two days three teenagers were arrested for her murder. One of the teens is her grandson.

            The teen who is charged with the actual murder, 19 year old Brok Junkermeier, has given testimony that suggests the murder happened this way. Robbing Lila Warwick had been planned for the previous week, but been abandoned. Junkermeier entered Warwick’s home through her garage early Monday morning, about 6:45, where he apparently met up with her. The third teen arrested, 16 year old Devon Jenkins, kept watch outside the garage for witnesses or police. Warwick’s grandson, 17 year old Robbie, who stayed in the car they’d arrived in, had provided the access code or it may have been a key, stories differ, to the garage door. Junkermeier forced Warwick to show him her online bank balance and then to write a check for $1500 before killing her. Then he collected some items from the house—no one has reported what they were; given Junkermeier’s previous convictions for theft and receiving stolen property, we might presume they were easily sold things like electronics and jewelry—and as he was loading them in the back seat Junkermeier told Jenkins and Robbie he had killed Robbie’s grandmother. The three boys apparently went on with their lives as if nothing out of the ordinary had happened; Junkermeier, in fact, was arrested at his part-time job at a local printer.

Both Junkermeier, who seems to be the teen who is talking as most news stories focus on him, and Jenkins claim the idea and planning for the robbery of his grandmother was Robbie Warwick’s, although no one has explained if Lila Warwick’s murder was part of the plan. People who know the three of them say Robbie was the leader of the group. Apparently the impetus for the crime was his conviction that his grandmother had $40,000 in a safe, but that was only wishful thinking. Robbie says he was to receive $300 for having given Junkermeier access.

            While Brok Junkermeier’s and Devon Jenkins’ series of events and how we believe or disbelieve them are subject to interpretation, the facts are not. And the fact that Lila Warwick is dead and that evidence points to her grandson Robbie’s intimate involvement with it is, given what we have heard, incontrovertible we have to ask ourselves why we feel especially repulsed. I don’t think I speak only for myself when I say there is something repugnant, absent extreme circumstances, in the death of a old woman caused, at least somehow, by her grandson. Particularly when we have testimony that his grandmother allowed him to stay with her when he was at an ebb and helping him to get help for his drug issues. Interestingly, the only drug I read about Robbie being involved with was marijuana which is not typically a drug causing massively uncharacteristic behavior so we are forgiven if we assume, as I do, that he was already inclined to do the things he did. His cousin reports Robbie hated his grandmother, perhaps resenting what he saw as meddling or an attempt to control him. At this point, beyond the $300 he was supposed to receive—some news reports say it was $700 which is a good indication how little we still really know about this situation—we don’t know Robbie Warwick’s rationale for providing the victim and the means of access.

            Here’s the question that as people of faith we must ask ourselves: Leaving aside the question of whether someone is also his actions, is Robbie Warwick evil?

            I’m going to give you the answer in advance. The answer is that I don’t know the answer. I doubt anyone knows the answer, not with certainty, although given how much thought a lot of people have given the question over millennia, I’m sure someone will eventually come up with the answer. It’s probably one of those million-monkeys-on-a-million-typewriters sort of thing.

            Just because I don’t think anyone has the answer yet doesn’t mean I can’t go to someone who might have a better clue than me. In this instance it’s the author Terry Eagleton who published an essay on evil in the magazine Tikkun two years ago. You might not be familiar with Eagleton’s name unless you are up on your contemporary MarxistBritish literary critics. He’s one of the last self-identifying Marxist academics, teaching at the National University of Ireland in Galway, and publishing a book in 2010 called simply OnEvil.

            Eagleton begins with the question, Why “is evil so sexy, and so profoundly glamorous? And why does virtue seem so boring?” I might rephrase it to ask, Why is doing evil or allowing evil to happen so appealing? Well, I do have an answer for this question: Evil is appealing because to do or allow evil is easy. Doing the easy thing is not always evil but doing evil is always easy.

            Eagleton calls evil “a kind of lack or defectiveness, a sort of nothingness or negativity, an inability to be truly alive. Evil may look lively, seductive, and flamboyant, but this is just the flashy show it puts on to cover up the hollowness at its heart. It is the paper-thinness of evil, its brittle unreality” that gives it away. I’m reminded of a scene from the second Austin Powers movie when Dr. Evil is confronted by his son, Scott Evil, on the Jerry Springer Show. He’s asked by his son, “Why’d you run out on me?” To which his father replies, “Because you’re not quite evil enough. You’re quasi-evil, you’re semi-evil. You’re the margarine of evil. You’re the Diet Coke of evil.”

            Those “who are evil,” Eagleton continues, “can only manage a kind of sham, inauthentic life, a ghastly parody of genuine life; and they derive this life from their own sufferings and from the sufferings they inflict on others…Only in being in atrocious pain can the evil persuade themselves that they are still alive.” By this light, assuming Robbie Warwick wanted his grandmother to suffer and felt justified only by her suffering and not the $300 or $700 he expected to receive after his friend robbed her, then yes, his actions were evil. Does this mean Robbie Warwick is also evil? I’m not prepared to go there.

            Eagleton further explains that “virtue is really all about enjoying yourself, living fully,” that people who do “evil…cannot bear the fact that they are incomplete—which is to say, cannot bear the fact that they are human,” that they “are pathological purists for whom [the] intolerably messy and indeterminate” aspects of life are anathema, and “are precisely those [people] who don’t enjoy an orgy.”

            We’ll let that last line stand without comment. Eagleton’s point is that “a genuine human community…can only be [constituted] on the basis of our shared failure, frailty, and mortality. This is a community of repentance and forgiveness, and it represents everything that is the opposite of the American Dream.” You may have thought I was kidding about that Marxist crack. If Eagleton is right, “that to be stripped of our culture and civilization, of all that makes for difference and specificity, is…to cease to be human altogether,” then it’s in the recognition of our own ability to be both evil and virtuous, as the Lutherans say, to be simultaneously sinner and saint, that our humanity lies. I don’t know if Robbie Warwick recognizes or regrets the evil he has done but he is profoundly human in having allowed it to bubble to the surface.

My friend RobMacDougall, a United Church of Christ minister in Menomonie, Wisconsin, was once asked how he can be certain there is a god in the face of all the evil that happens around us daily. He responded that the proof was in all the people who weren’t murdered or raped or hurt. While I’m not sure I agree with his conclusion I can’t fault his thesis. The fact remains there are a lot of people who aren’t killed or hurt. While it’s true there are many who do, there many, many more who do not wake up hungry or in pain, whose lives are essentially pleasant to them, whose grandchildren do not plan to rob them. Anglican Bishop NT Wright has written that the problem for humanity is not, Why is there evil? but, Why is there good?

            Evil, as I said, is easy. It should be our default setting. But human behavior, that massive cauldron of possibilities, does not support this. Most people do not act out of self-interest, enlightened or not. Most people act in other people’s interest even if they don’t think of it that way. Consider the simple act of flushing a public toilet that we’ve just used. We get nothing of value out of it, we’ve already used it, and there’s no reason we should feel confident leaving our mess for the next person to clean up. Similarly, yoga guru KrishnaDas has pointed out with amazement that many people show up daily at centers and churches where they try to get themselves straight with the universe. What’s amazing, he says, is that we seek anything outside ourselves. Why aren’t we all sitting at home getting drunk and eating cheeseburgers?

            Think on this. This is Sunday morning. Why aren’t we nursing hangovers and watching the game alone? Why are we in church where we gather with others to sing and talk and, we hope, learn a little more about ourselves? How can that possibly benefit us more than a Jameson single malt and a Big Mac?

            The answer may lie in this story. In yesterday’s mail I received an envelope with a thin slip of paper in it. It’s a thank-you note from a gentleman I’ve never met in Bigfork, MN, not far from Bemidji.

            I take walks during my lunch break at the bookstore where I work part time and the store is in a mall.  About a week ago I noticed a slip of paper on the floor. I picked it up and it turned out to be a check for $50.

            The check had been drawn on an account at a bank in Bigfork and when I got home that night I put it in an envelope with a note telling how I’d come to find it. I didn’t include my name since I didn’t expect to hear anything back, but I put my return address on the envelope so if the address was wrong it wouldn’t get lost. Picture this, two people communicating not by name but by addresses—to me this gentleman was 55096 Gale Lake Road and to him I am 2509 County Road N—as if we were playing a game of putting pins on a map. His note to me reads, “Thank you for finding a check I wrote to my grandson and sending it back to me. You are a very good person and they are hard to find. Thanks again, Jim Lissick.”

            He has a name for me now. We are two strangers who exist for one another only because of a good deed, and I don’t think I’m immodest making a claim to that deed. It wasn’t a heroic act. I simply bent down and picked it up and then sent it away. When I saw the envelope in my mail I had to think hard to place where I had heard of Bigfork, MN. It proves my argument, that evil is both easy and rare, that its acts stand out in our collective memory while our virtuous acts are so commonplace we forget about them.

            Picking up that check and returning it didn’t benefit me in any way, unless you count some vague warm fuzzy sensation of internal feel-good. It certainly wasn’t in my self-interest—my self-interest lay in cashing that $50 check. I think Jim Lissick and I are both aware that was a possibility and it says something about me, but about other people too, that that didn’t happen. Balladeer Bruce Springsteen sings, “You’ve got to learn to live with what you can’t riseabove.” It’s in knowing which actions we can’t live with ourselves having done that the good happens.

            Finally, is Robbie Warwick or Devon Jackson or especially Brok Junkermeier evil for what they’ve done? I don’t think so. Their actions were evil and so was their inaction—behaving as if nothing out of the ordinary had happened, acting as if their lives, now that Lila Warwick’s had ended, would simply go on—but unlike Terry Eagleton I’m not ready to lump people and their acts together. Surely, if we can opt for church over cheeseburgers, then turning their lives around is possible for these boys. It’s in the nature of being human to seek something outside ourselves—god, beloved community, the universe, call it what you will—and I don’t doubt that impetus will manifest itself in these boys too. Meanwhile, paraphrasing Springsteen, we must rise to the level of actions whose doing we can live with.

            And those girls’ names I mentioned at the start. They are the 4 little girlsfamously killed in the bombing of the 16th Street Baptist Church inBirmingham 50 years ago today. When we are down, when we are certain evil has won and will always win and we’re left fighting the good fight whose end is always in doubt, we need to remember that, in this country, that event is a watershed. It was an evil act whose repetition would call down such a rebuke from people we cannot even imagine it. We must remember that when it comes to evil acts there are lines beyond which no one is willing to cross.


Tuesday, September 10, 2013

blinkered by the recent past

This passage resonated strongly with me, partly because of what it says about disillusion-ment and partly because of what I used to teach about language. I had to really press students in Comp I to understand that there was a variation of Aryan that didn't involve the Nazis and that originated in northern Asia than in Europe and that, linguistically, we had a very close connection to. We are so blinkered by recent history, and the Nazis did such an excellent job of co opting the term, that even when we're presented with proof that a word or idea predates what we think we know of it--stereotype is a less malevolent example--we find it almost impossible to see past it to its original use.
Try to imagine the scene: the Parsi grandee in the sanctum of his library, with his English friend..., a man driven by life into books, standing by an open window. So he's not completely sealed off, the library isn't a closed tomb, and through the window comes all the tumultuous sensation of the city: the scents of channa and bhel, of tamarind and jasmine; the shouting voices, because nobody ever says anything in these parts without first raising his voice; and the quarrel of traffic, the hooves, the sputtering exhausts, the bicycle bells; the brilliant light of the sun on the harbour, the hooting of warships and the electricity of a society at a point of transformation.
Now imagine a gust of wind, sweeping a crumpled page of newsprint off the filthy street, tossing it upwards in slow spirals like a dirty butterfly; until at last it passes through the window, the outside world penetrates the world within, and lands neatly by Sir Darius' polished oxfords, pleading for attention. This is a picture I keep seeing, although it couldn't be, could it, how it really happened...Prefer, if you please, some [more] prosaic version, but I'll stick with mine. Through the window came the newspaper, and Sir Darius, picking it up distastefully, was on the point of disposing of it when four words caught his eye. Aryan, Nazi, Muller, Dumezil. [These are two scholars Sir Darius and his friend study.]
Neither Sir Darius Xerxes Cama nor William Methwold ever believed for a moment that either of the great maligned scholars, dead Max or living Georges, had had a single racial-supremacist cell in his body. But when language is stolen and poisoned, the poison works its way backwards through time and sideways into the reputations of innocent men. The word "Aryan," which for Max Muller and his generation, had a purely linguistic meaning, was now in the hands of less academic persons, poisoners, who were speaking of races of men, races of masters and races of servants and other races too, races whose fundamental impurity necessitated drastic measures, races who were not wanted on the voyage, who were surplus to requirements, races to be cut, blackballed and deposited in the bin of history. By one of the wild improbabilities that, taken collectively, represent the history of the human race, the arcane field of research in which Sir Darius and William Methwold had chosen to sequester themselves had been twisted and pressed into the service of the great evil of the age. History had captured their field, and their love of it had placed them on the wrong side--the side of the poisoners, of the unutterable, of those whose crime was beyond words.
At the moment when things changed for them, Sir Darius and Methwold had been full of the delight of examining the parallels between the Viewing from the Walls in the Iliad (when the Trojans survey the besieging army while, for their benefit, Helen identifies Agamemnon, Odysseus, Idomeneus and the greater Ajax) and the similar scene in the Ramayana (in which a pair of spies, standing with the abductor Ravana on the ramparts of his fortress, identify the heroes Rama, Lakshmana, Vibhishana and Hanuman). Sir Darius read the scrap of newspaper that had blown in through the window and passed it to Methwold without saying a word. When the Englishman had finished reading, he shook himself, as if emerging from a long sleep, and said, "Let's call it quits." Sir Darius inclined his head and began to close the beloved books. It was September 1939. Rip van Cama and William Winkle stumbled blinking into the light, the roar, the stink of the real world.
--from The Ground Beneath Her Feet by Salman Rushdie

Thursday, September 5, 2013

why I am returning to a dying industry (and why I feel cautiously optimistic about it)

            It’s probably absurdly apt that I received this epiphany on Labor Day, in the period between receiving my first paycheck and leaving work for the day. The day is meant for reflection and my work—at a large chain bookstore—is, if not meant to be a model of reflection, at least doesn’t detract from it.

            I haven’t worked full-time in over two years, so the response to my title is very simple: I need the money, and of thirty-six resumes and vitas I recently sent out online or hand-delivered, this was the only one that responded. Previous to this, I was a full-time seminary student working toward national ordination in my faith. Prior to this, I was a part-time seminary student and full-time college teacher. In 2011, at the point at which my contract with the state stipulated I must, after working so long at a particular institution, be granted tenure and permanent employment, I was informed, owing to precipitous drops in enrollment, my contract would not be renewed for that crucial final semester. In effect, after eleven years teaching at multiple sites for the state, prisons, public institutions, workplaces, and private colleges, I was being let go.

            Friend asked if I thought it was personal. As my teaching style is a little unorthodox, but effective, there is some cause for the question. But I don’t think so. At least twenty of us at the same institution were let go that semester, and enrollment is down, so I don’t think it was any more personal than any other cost-effective business decision to downsize before costs become burdensome.

            This argument gains traction by the observation that this recession works differently than all others. Whereas in earlier recessions community colleges were a great place to work because everyone went back to school to improve their education, teaching English as I did was a hedge against unemployment—everyone has to take English. But this recession is not like others—industries are imploding, businesses are closing shop, and what used to be the standard is no longer that.

            To return to academia and my job in it would now require my return to post-graduate school and getting a PhD—my MFA, while it is a legitimate terminal degree, is snubbed by Human Resource Managers up to their eyeballs in doctorate applicants—only to have no more promise of work than before and for the same amount of money I previously made, was not an option. But as I was already in a mid-career change to ministry at the point I was let go, my wife convinced me to take classes full-time and work odd jobs in order to finish. I graduated with a Master of Divinity this past May.

            But my faith, which is post-Christian, has been experiencing a downsizing of congregations for years, and while I’ve been locally ordained by congregations I’ve served in the past, and can legitimately call myself “Reverend,” that all-important national recognition requires a year’s internship at a church under an older (and presumably wiser) minister. Most of these, owing to the shrinking of congregations, are unpaid. I can’t convince my wife (or myself) into subsidizing my yearlong unpaid internship, so I need to return to full-time employment. But part-time is all that has presented itself.

            Fortunately, what I am doing is something I enjoy and have done before. I worked for this same chain a decade and a half ago while I was in the midst of one of my previous identities as a professional bookseller.  I worked for six previous bookstores in my history and I have quite a background in knowing my way around a stack of books. Nevertheless, despite my history both with the profession and with this chain, when it came time to determine my pay the corporation determined I was worth the same as someone walking into the job off the street. I receive minimum wage, which admittedly as I work in a marginally more progressive state is slightly higher than the national average, but it is minimum wage.

            So, in my mid-50s, the holder of a terminal degree, two advanced degrees, ordination, over a decade of experience teaching, and nearly a decade of experience working in this industry, I am being paid minimum wage. I make less now, both in real wages and in current pay, than I did when joining this company 16 years ago with less experience.

            But bookstores are dying and no matter how big they are they are dying at the same, and maybe a greater rate than their smaller competitors.  Of the six bookstores I previously worked at, I helped to close three of them. This bookstore, larger than the others I worked for, will probably ride out the future expected decision to close many of the chain’s underperforming stores, but doubtless at a reduced staff and at reduced services and reduced stock.

            Because bookstores are not the only part of this industry that is dying. So is book production (although not writing: between online content, online-only ebooks, self-published books, and traditional book publishing, we are in a glut of writing. We may not be the most literate nation but we are certainly the one that uses reading most often in our day-to-day operations).

            As I reminded a customer who opted against joining the chain’s membership plan by explaining she was “not a reader,” the person who reads but chooses not to is worse off than the person who can’t read at all.  We are a highly literate society that often chooses to be functionally illiterate or perhaps the better term is “un-literate.” We can read we just choose not to (except online gossip items and the occasional tweets by our friends). Readers are becoming more and more an exclusive club that is experiencing a balkanization of its decaying corpse into The Feminine Nation of Novels and further dividing into Post-Apocalypticatopia, Chicklitavania, and Religioficastan. These are separated from The Country for Old Men comprised of Memoira, Currentrightwingidolland, and Kindasciencey, and the same reader rarely visits both destinations. There is nothing wrong with the balkanization of readers but there is something wrong with readers being unwilling to experiment and potentially being surprised by fulfillment from an unexpected source at the risk of being disappointed.

            Publishing, of course, is in decline. Bestsellers aren’t what they once were, and while it’s never clear the multiple copies that people bought of Sinclair Lewis’ Cass Timberlane were actually read, most media behaved as if they were. It may be a good thing that we’ve scaled back our expectations that all those copies of Happy, Happy, Happy have been read cover to cover but we lose something by not having a shared glossary even if it’s Phil Robertson’s mutterings on faith and family.

            One way my chain seeks to offset the fewer-reader future is through the use of a membership. There are good reasons for becoming a book store member, number one of which is an intent to see to it that the bookstore you frequent continues. Perhaps more small bookstores would still be in business had they shifted to a members-only or subscription model. And there are other genuine advantages to membership. But if lose my new-found minimum wage job at this chain it will be because of the requirement that each bookseller sell at least one membership every 50 ringouts. I can’t in good conscience push the hardsell for this.  Most people in the current climate aren’t interested in memberships in anything. They don’t want to be tied into something for which they’ll feel responsible, if they remember they belong, or feel guilty for if they forget. When they work, as with gyms or supper clubs, they rely on a self-selected group that, with the best of intentions, signs up and pays up, and then it’s in the best interests of that facility that the person show up rarely if at all, to reduce costs. When stores have used memberships in the past—in my own experience with a store called GEX or Government Employees Exchange—they have been an abject failure.

            We live in an incredible time when nearly everything ever published and almost everything ever written is available in some form at some price. The difficulty for professional bookselling is, of course, the same as with social services, ministry, education, and other forms of personal service: everybody wants to make use of it and almost no one wants to pay for it. This state of affairs doesn’t portend the Fall of Civilization but it does seem to present a serious case of a Lessening of a Quality of Life.

            I mentioned being cautiously optimistic in my subtitle and so far I haven’t given any reasons for feeling so. In fact, I’ve given nothing but reasons for being unabashedly pessimistic about both bookselling and my role in it.

            It may be that publishers and bookstores will need to completely reinvent themselves and become less purveyors of new books and more producers of smaller, shorter runs and, for stores, sellers primarily of older copies—there are millions of copies of books printed over the past century that no one has ever read as well as copies someone has read once or read a portion of and will never pick up again, and, like clothing, we may need to switch to a consignment economy. This gives me hope in addition to appealing to my punk aesthetic, a reverence for Do It Yourself in terms of, say, repackaging unattractive-looking books with more artistic, hand-made covers made by the bookstore staff.

            But here is what really makes me optimistic. In the short time I’ve been at this new job I’ve had a conversation with a retired truck driver with whom I commiserated over the practice by some cities to drag you along a detour only to drop you on a side street with no indication how to get back to the main highway you started on. I’ve talked with older people who are visiting Las Vegas after a long time away and are concerned about their ability, now that it’s physically harder for them to get around, to circumnavigate The Strip and made them aware of websites devoted to their questions. I’ve made an older woman, asking in a sad voice for books about grief and getting on with life after a death, laugh a real, full, belly laugh.

            The afternoon I was most depressed about my age and low wage, Labor Day, I was approached at the register by a woman and her two children. The girl had gotten a fortune cookie with her Chinese lunch that said “Treat yourself to something you’ll enjoy,” and that was a book. They were younger kids, perhaps around four and six, judging from the books they were buying. They were learning, their mom said, to pay on their own and they had crumpled bills and pockets full of pennies.

            A short line of people formed while I helped them by smoothing out each bill and counting pennies with them but no one seemed in a hurry. I took an extra three minutes, perhaps, to check out the two kids separately so each could experience the accomplishment of buying his and her own book. I cannot explain or emphasize enough how good, how like ministering to them, this act felt to me. If there are holy acts in retail, this was a holy act.

            As they left, the boy stepped back to tell me that he really, really liked the book series he bought and that he intended to read all of them. I thanked each person who’d waited in line individually and several of them took an extra moment to smile and say they appreciated the time and care I took with the kids.

            Yes, I was indoctrinating them into bourgeois, consumerist society, teaching if only indirectly that the shiny new thing will soon turn into just so much something-in-the-way they don’t need. While it doesn’t guarantee the two of them will become avid readers, the opposite likely would have dissuaded them from that. In addition, I helped them have a positive experience with books and that itself cost them and me and no one in line nothing. That is worth celebrating.