Tuesday, November 25, 2014

maigret and the white privilege

[The old vagrant's] murder must have been premeditated, since people do not as a rule go around [modern cities] with...firearms in their pockets.
--from Maigret and the Loner by Georges Simenon

I have loved mystery novels from an early age, and in my early adulthood I discovered Georges Simenon's Maigret series. This is a police procedural involving a rumpled, middle-aged superintendent in late century Paris who does not always get his man, but always locates him. The books are short, often less than 150 pages, and rush along. Simenon wrote them for money, in as little as a week sometimes, and they are legion (his output hovers at around 200 novels; it is uncertain as even he forgot some of the pseudonyms under which he published). The English translations, fittingly, are often fast and loose with meaning, and where there are cultural differences a Parisian reading them would easily understand, there is no attempt made to accommodate a young American also from the late 20th century. Their titles are always, invariably the same, Maigret and the..., as if the superintendent is not seeking an individual but a class or a type. They are my comfort food.

I have been following the events in Ferguson, Missouri, pretty closely, from Michael Brown's death to last night's announcement that there would be no charges filed against Officer Darren Wilson. I'll admit, I had made up my mind already that Officer Wilson was culpable. I hoped that the grand jury would see the evidence that way and he would be held responsible for the shooting, but I also had made up my mind that was unlikely.

On my way back to where I am staying last night I listened to the press conference on one of the stations I often listen to, Urban View, which airs shows by Reverend Al Sharpton, Tavis Smiley, Karen Walker and Joe Madison (The Black Eagle, my favorite), among others. When the announcement was made that he was not going to be indicted, I turned off the radio for four minutes and thirty seconds, a request made by Brown's parents memorialize the four and a half hours their son's body lay open in the street after the police arrived. Then I switched it back on and listened to the people calling in to make their opinions known.

Yes, opinions are like assholes and all that, and most of them said exactly what I assumed they would say. But what came across to me was the anger and sense of betrayal they felt. These were the words and immediate reactions of a people who had climbed their way out of a cynical belief that maybe, this time, things would be different. Like the Trayvon Martin case, it had taken the outcry from social media for the police even to do the minimum investigation and to hold the self-admitted killer of a teenaged black boy to some form of accountability. They had made their way to the upper layers of hope, and had been sunk by the announcement down again into cynicism and despair. Nothing, every one of them said in varying words, Nothing has changed. Black murders don't count. We live in a police state in which we can be picked off for as simple a threat as walking down the center of the street.

I allowed myself, after reaching my in-laws' home, to take advantage of my privileges and turn off my computer and radio and sink into the comforting embrace of Maigret.

I have listened to the evidence that's available and I understand how the grand jury can find Officer Wilson's account believable. My own belief, for what it's worth, is that the situation unfolded at least in part as he reported, but grew terribly, terribly larger than he expected. I don't pretend to know what happened. But as a person who worked in direct care with adults with enormous mental deficits, I know that he is not the first person to have had a situation backfire on him, overreacted to the situation and someone was hurt, and then relied on the privilege his status automatically gave him to downplay his own responsibility as much as possible, and put the fault on the victim. I am convinced that is what happened here.

Perhaps the grand jury is correct. Perhaps Officer Darren Wilson is not at fault. Perhaps he was only acting on what his training, his communities--police, geographical, cultural--and his prejudices had told him were the right ones. Perhaps it is those, and thus us, who are at fault. Of course, as someone once said, when everyone is at fault, no one is at fault.

The voices on the radio were right, nothing has changed. And nothing will change in the immediate future. As with the aftermath of the release of George Zimmerman and the incredible amount of time (admittedly, this may be a good sign) devoted to the grand jury in the case of the chokehold death of Eric Garner, the hoopla will surge for a few days, maybe a week, maybe longer. But eventually it will disappear down the memory hole we seem to have for people killed for complicated reasons by people we are told we should see as protectors. And when it happens again Michael Brown's name will be listed with Emmet Till, Eleanor Bumpers, Michael Stewart, Amidou Diallou, and many others who have been killed by people who know better but who chose to treat them as if their lives were, at best, less important than other people's. And we will cry and protest and perhaps even riot again. And nothing will change.

Until one day, for better and for worse, it suddenly will. Woe to us all then.

Thursday, November 13, 2014

god is brittany maynard

There aren't many completers of suicide who get their pictures on People magazine, let alone getting them on it before they commit it. Brittany Maynard, who at least one commentator has referred to as giving "physician-assisted suicide a very public, and in her case, young (29) and attractive face," has achieved that, however. But we shouldn't hold against her either her attraction, her publicity savvy, nor even her lack of outward signs of the brain cancer that would kill her more slowly but as surely as whatever method she used to complete her decision.

As ever, I'm conflicted about this decision. As with all personal, life-changing ones made by others, it really isn't up to me to even have much of an opinion on it, but in my head there is more than enough death to go around. We don't need to add ourselves to the ever-growing heap.

But some of us feel like we do, and we make those decisions, I accept, without rancor, clear-headed, perhaps even without the expectation of the incredible vacuum our decision will make in the lives of our loved ones (and even those we are certain don't love us) left behind. Yes, some of us do this almost like life is an afterthought. But most don't. I don't believe for a moment Brittany Maynard's decision was either haphazard or born in anger. It struck her, and most of those around her, as rational and maybe inevitable.

I've said before that no matter how bad things have been in my life, I haven't thought of ending it (at least since my teens when, like everyone else, hormones raged through my body like the Russian Army advancing on Moscow). But just because it isn't an answer (or even a question) for me doesn't mean it shouldn't be either of those for others. I respect that most people who approach this decision do so with a clear and sober head and with an understanding of what effect their act will have on the community surrounding them. People may ask, "Where's god in all this?" as if the decision in question is made secretively, out of god's sight. My answer is that it's god making the decision, rightly and wrongly.

Perhaps that's the key: that, like Maynard, people don't make the decision in the quiet desperation of their own minds but in full view and with the feedback of their loving community. Their community may be composed of people (like me) whose job it is to dissuade them from the act, but that doesn't make our response to them any less loving. It's true what Donne writes, that no man is an island. But it's equally true that no one lives in a vacuum.

Read more here: http://www.kentucky.com/2014/11/10/3530333/physician-assisted-suicide-debate.html?sp=/99/349/#storylink=cpy

Sunday, November 9, 2014

we would experience god in the everyday

I have been reading this book for a few days, and while some of it strikes me as very weak (both in writing and in theology), some, like the following, gives me hope. As someone who is, by virtue of working as a pastor to a community of teens who are both desperate for spirit and wary of it, trying actively to achieve a new type of worship service, this is good reading whose real life application is difficult to determine.
During the last few decades, there has been no small amount of controversy in Christian churches over worship style. As those who advocated for maintaining "traditional" worship and those preferring "contemporary" forms struggled against one another, many started referring to the conflict as the "worship wars." Churches within the emerging Christian faith, however, appear to be moving beyond the worship wars. They are discovering a "third way" in worship, one that cannot easily be categorized as either traditional or contemporary...The third way very much appears to be a dismantling of the Tradition for the purpose not of abandonment but of reerecting it in a new place...[They] refer to what they do as "ancient-future worship" or "emerged worship" or "experiential worship" or "incarnational worship...

Although incarnational worship takes a very wide variety of forms, several common threads hold it together. First, it is centered on experiencing God incarnate in everyday life more than learning about God...Rather, worship leaders start with the question, "How do people experience God as Creator in everyday life" The whole world then becomes a palate from which leaders work to open people up to experiencing God as Creator in worship. The idea is not to manufacture an experience but rather to open participants to the possibility of an experience. Incarnational worship operates on the assumption that God's Spirit really is alive and well in this world and will not hesitate to stir the soul if people's hearts are open and attentive...

Second, incarnational worship tends to be mediated through a wide variety of multisensory elements, which may range from quite ancient to postmodern. Participants are as likely to experience worship through smell, taste, and physical touch as they are through sight and sound...[Prayer] and contemplative forms of Scripture reading, such as lectio divina...may be interwoven with film clips, jazz or rock music, and hands-on artistic creation.

Emphasis on the arts and artistic expression, in fact, is a third unifying element... Practitioners...feel that worship should be as artistic as it is scripturally based...[Churches] of the emerging Christian faith [may] eventually [reclaim] the church's more ancient role of supporting the arts and artistic expression...in a new way.

Finally, incarnational worship is frequently created by clusters of people rather than by single individuals or pairs. Pastors work with a worship team made up of both clergy and laity for generating ideas, creating the service, and carrying it off. In this we may be seeing the Reformation principle of the Priesthood of All Believers practiced on a larger and deeper scale than it ever has been before.

--From The Phoenix Affirmations: A New Vision for the Future of Christianity by Eric Elnes

Wednesday, November 5, 2014

we are not hedgehogs: progressive in a season of despair

Many of us are waking this morning to the news of the overwhelming victory by republican tea partiers in states and at local levels. This, their resurgence, after we have been promised that they were dying, a dinosaur interest group struggling one last time against pull of the tar pits. For those of us who suffer from seasonal affective disorder, this has become a season of despair, a Fall.

I will not lie to you, it is bad. In my own state, the governor who easily beat back a historic recall effort has won reelection by a wide margin. Regressive candidates won handily in a state whose watchwords not so long ago were "there is strength in a union." A congressman whose primary strength is his name recognition as a member of a reality show, won a third term.

On a national level, Wendy Davis, in whose campaign many of us saw a grassroots effort to turn around the deeply regressive state of Texas, lost in a landslide victory to a candidate who boasts of the two dozen lawsuits he's pushed against the federal government whose policies he must administer. Republicans not only held the House of Representatives, but won control of the Senate. A conservative friend has posted on Facebook, "[With Harry Reid no longer Senate leader,] America will see Obama is the real obstructionist." And I'm sure, from her perspective, this is true. If, as they've promised, the Tea Party members put forward impeachment proceedings against him, attempts to repeal the Affordable Care Act, draconian Mexican border rules like the infamous Arizona "Where are your papers?" law, and similar attempts, then yes, they will see that Obama is indeed obstructive.

There are, of course, small victories, most of which are the retention of incumbent Democrats, and the defeat of Pennsylvania governor Tom Corbett. That's about it. I wish I could say these Tea Party victories (and they are Tea Party victories, despite the strenuous effort of Republicans to deny their influence) were the result of mass fraud, disappeared ballots, or deliberate intimidation. But I can't. The truth is that their supporters turned out in greater numbers than ours did. And while many Americans decry the complacent, worse-than-useless politician, it is always the other guy's representative who needs to go, not mine. While the numbers for voter turnout aren't available yet, the chances are that they will mirror previous midterm election years, when people show in smaller, more centralized numbers (although if anecdote is allowed, the turnout in my little corner of the hub had already reached number 107 when I voted at 9:45 a.m., a heavy showing in a township of about 500 voters.

It is a hard time. We will see advances rolled back, people who rely on the government for help more marginalized, if not fully scapegoated as under Reagan, the further erosion of the remains of the middle class and greater emphasis on what the upper classes want, more scandals, greater instances of hypocrisy, angrier turning inward on ourselves and villainizing the outer world. Progressives could be forgiven our cynicism, if we turn hedgehog, burrowing into our dens to hibernate until the sweet resurgence of spring.

But there is no such promise. Unlike spring, progressivism isn't a given, a season naturally following the winter of despair. It will not come on its own and all we need to do is duck our heads and wait. We are not hedgehogs. Spring is not guaranteed, we must bring it, bud by bud, thaw by thaw. We can no more give in to easy cynicism than we can dig a hole in the backyard and curl up in it. We will not survive in either case. We must call shit for what it is, and we must continue, despite the odds, despite how unseemly it may seem, despite how much we must ourselves pay for it in terms of public and personal condemnation, to fight and fight hard. When Barack Obama won the presidency nothing was settled, we knew we would have to continue working, sometimes in opposition to him. Nothing has changed. We must be underdogs victorious.