Tuesday, October 17, 2017

Me, too

I want to add my voice to the #MeToo movement (or potential movement), but not in the way of my women friends and my wife and a few men friends. No, I can't identify as someone who has been taken advantage of, but as someone on the other side.

My "Me Too" comrades are Harvey Weinstein and Donald Trump.

It's a hard thing for someone to admit, that he has been an asshole, pressing someone to have sex. But it's imperative in the Beloved Community that we own our mistakes and own them without pretense. I can't fathom the notion of Weinstein's "That was the culture" excuse, because really, even in the midst of the worst of the excesses of the last fifty years, if we were listening we could hear women telling us it wasn't the role they wanted in the revolution. In that culture there was a resistant strain of American machismo that allowed men to mouth changes for society but still left room for the worst forms of cocksmanship.

And I'll admit, I took part in that assumption of male power too. Why not, it often got me laid. Such acts are a giving in to the frailty of our egos and the humbling admission that what we think we deserve we really don't. I didn't have the influence of a Weinstein or Trump, but I was still a man and in this world that's often power enough. There are big holes in my memory, whole years, but I remember two instances when I pushed beyond acceptable flirtation to flat-out hands-on-the-body coercion, and while neither woman actually said "No"--both in fact ignored my clumsy pawing--their body language certainly did, and I plunged on as if it didn't matter. It didn't work in either case, by which I mean I didn't get laid, so there's that.

But I can't apologize personally to either of them because, no surprise, after we parted the next morning we never saw one another again. So if you're out there, Karen and Beth, I'm sorry I was an asshole. What happened wasn't your fault, but mine.

And this is why I can demand of a Weinstein and a Trump that their excuses, whether held up as excesses of the culture or of locker room talk, are limp and mealy-mouthed. Because there was a third instance. For whatever reason, although I hope it was a growing awareness what other people meant to me, this time I agonized over what I'd done, knowing even as I put hands on her it was wrong, and when I saw her again I apologized to Tanesha in public. In front of friends and strangers I owned responsibility and asked her forgiveness. She gave it and never contacted me again. I did the right thing.

It has to be done. Men who do this, women who do this, anyone who tries and succeeds or tries and fails to take advantage of someone through coercion or intimidation or reliance on being in a more powerful position, are responsible to make amends and apologize to the person they've tried it with. Understand, doing so isn't brave or cleansing. It is embarrassing and humbling, but it should be because what we've done is crossed the line that divides the playfulness of wooing and the seriousness of pressure. To do so, we know, is wrong, and as bad as we might feel in confessing it and asking forgiveness, we should feel worse for having done the act in the first place.


Tuesday, October 3, 2017

God doesn't play favorites

If it's true, as Albert Einstein famously observed, that "God does not play dice with the universe"--and I would submit, so far as we can agree on what "God," "play," "dice," and "universe" means, that he was right--then it follows God does not play favorites either. That runs contrary to how we'd like to think it, that America is a chosen land, Americans are a chosen people, and American religious people like to think they are specifically, so far as this is the generation out of the millions and billions of previous generations, that will experience the Rapture, the End of Days, the Second Coming, the Tribulation, the Final Revelation, however we want to think of it, that they are the final, most glorious, most sunk in depravity and thus held highest by God. But it isn't so.

Neither the United States, or Christians, or American Christians--indeed, or Americans or Twenty-First Century peoples or Jews or converted Jews or Muslims or, well, or anyone you'd like to name--none of these are chosen or favorites. When it comes to natural disasters, we all drown or are dashed against rocks and trees exactly the same. When it comes to man-made disasters, we all crumble after being hit by bullets or have our organs ruptured from being trampled exactly the same. The only difference lies in that some of us experience this and some of us don't. But the ones who don't really have no cause to proclaim themselves somehow better than the ones who do, because when it's all said and done, no matter how it comes, death is something we all experience.

So does it mean anything when a middle-aged white man opts to take out whatever frustrations or psychoses or hatreds he may have by shooting at least 550 people, outright killing nearly 60 of them, with whatever combination of semiautomatic guns he could collect and spitting bullets like watermelon seeds into a crowd composed of, mostly, other white middle-aged Americans enjoying a type of music endemic to America while having its roots in African and Celtic sounds? It doesn't. And it does. 

When I say it doesn't matter I mean it doesn't matter that it happened in Las Vegas, Nevada, any more than when it happens in Myanmar or the Democratic Republic of Congo. It often seems as if massacres, the purposeful slaughter of large groups of people by other groups or individuals, is the default setting for humankind. That fact should give us pause.

But when I say it does matter what I mean is that any slaughter of people is reprehensible, and I suspect to God it is all populicide, the killing of people.

It matters too because in Las Vegas, Nevada, unlike in Myanmar or DRC where there are often great, sudden outbursts of violence, often by the authorities, there is no excuse for it happening.

This isn't another anti-gun or anti-weapon or even anti-Second Amendment diatribe. We've all heard those and we fall on one side or the other often depending on our use or non-use of those same weapons. What it is is an observation. As others have pointed out, Americans decided gun control was a non-issue when we decided (and we did decide, make no mistake, we decided as firmly as if we'd fired the shots ourselves) that 20 grade school children were a tolerable sacrifice to have greater access to guns than at any peaceful time in history. We will bury our dead, we will cry and lament over them, and then we will pretend to be shocked when it happens again, bigger, louder, with greater loss of life and perhaps with our own children or parents or cousins or friends among the dead. We will go on as if we have no more determination than the dice in Einstein's quote.

Saturday, September 9, 2017

"Simply being present"

The past month and change has been one of deaths, some personal, some better known, some metaphorical and emotional. Thus, this seems a perfect time to post this reading from Parker Palmer's A Hidden Wholeness: The Journey Toward an Undivided Life.

When we sit with a dying person, we gain two critical insights into what it means to "be alone together." First, we realize that we must abandon the arrogance that often distorts our relationships--the arrogance of beleiving that we have the answer to the other person's problem. When we sit with a dying person, we understand that what is before us is not a "problem to be solved" but a mystery to be honored. As we find a way to stand respectfully on the edge of that mystery, we start to see that all of our relationships would be deepened if we could play the fixer role less frequently. 
Second, when we sit with a dying person, we realize that we must overcome the fear that often distorts our relationships--the fear that causes us to turn away when the other reveals something too vexing, painful, or ugly to bear. Death may be all of this and more. And yet we hold the dying person in our gaze, our hearts, our prayers, knowing that it would be disrespectful to avert our eyes, that the only gift we have to offer in this moment is our undivided attention.
When people sit with a dying person, they know that they are doing more than taking up space in the room. But if you ask them to describe what that "more" is, they have a hard time finding the right words. And when the words come, they are almost always some variant on "I was simply being present." 
We learn to "practice presence" when we sit with a dying person--to treat the space between us as sacred, to honor the soul and its destiny. Our honoring may be wordless or perhaps mediated by speech that the dying person cannot hear. Yet this honoring somehow keeps us connected as we bear witness to another's journey into the ultimate solitude. 

Monday, September 4, 2017

My John Ashbery Story

Lost in the bustle yesterday of both Labor Day weekend and Walter Becker's death (and that is tragic; I am a closet Steely Dan fan) was the death too of American poet John Ashbery. Ashbery is eulogized quite nicely by the New York Times but I want to add my memory too.

My friend Rick Robbins has a collection titled Famous Persons We Have Known and I've often thought about writing a book with just such a title. My John Ashbery story would be one of the best, in my opinion, because I've rarely met anyone as full of grace and politesse as John.

In the late-80s, between my divorce and last marriage, I spent a lot of time spooning with many, many people (sorry, none of them were famous), and one of them was Shelley. I've spoken a little of what's become of her since but she's not the focus here. Anyway, Shelley came from money and she knew a lot of moneyed people, most of them through her dad, a nutrition guru. One day she was driving me back from somewhere up north we'd gone, Vermont or the Adirondacks, and we passed through the town I'd grown up near, Hudson, New York, in those days just becoming a tourist mecca, and as we drove down Fairview Avenue, the main drag into town, she pointed at a pretty, older home  and said, "My friend John lives there. Let's go see him."

Now, keep in mind two things. While I had grown up near the town I knew almost nothing about it or the more well-heeled people who lived there. And that this was 12:30 at night and we had been drinking wine since probably 3 the afternoon before.

Shelley swung into the driveway--there was almost no traffic on the street--and we noisily got out of the car and giggled our way to the door, where she rang the bell. The bell's sound was mellifluous, less like a buzz summoning the host and more like a relaxed chime saying, "Hello, I've come to see you." A light came on in the hallway and the curtains covering the window on the door parted a bit to admit a white, questioning face, that became more questioning as it recognized who had rung the bell.

The door opened and John Ashbery asked, "Shelley? Is something wrong?" And she said quickly, "No, we just dropped by so I could introduce my friend Bobby to you." I was a dabbler in poetry then, writing some and reading more, and while I hadn't read any of his work, I had heard the name John Ashbery, so I knew if I'd heard it then it must have been a well-known name. We shook hands and he said, "Well, come in, please." He led us to a small cozy room that I could probably remember if I'd been more sober, but I was not. He offered us something to drink, and we wisely asked for water as we had at least an hour's drive ahead of us.

So the three of us sat there in his little sitting room in the town near where I'd grown up, the so-famous-I'd-heard-of-him poet, the drunk girl from money, and the drunker me who didn't need fame or money. The two of them carried the conversation, which was good, because it mostly revolved around Shelley's family and other wealthy people they knew, and my head was reeling at the recognition we'd just rung the doorbell of a famous person and waltzed in during the middle of the night when by rights we should be sleeping our drunks off and he should have been let alone. His water I can describe in detail: It was wet and cold, probably Poland Spring and doubtless kept cold in the refrigerator, and the glass, which was the same heavy, dull glass my parents had, sweated in my hand. It tasted lemony and clear, not like the water I'd grown up with around there. John asked me some polite questions--"What do you do? Where do you live? How do you know Shelley?"--none of which really had the sorts of answers I wished I could have told him.

But I mentioned his politesse and I can describe that, if not as completely as his glass of water, then nearly so. The word I would use about him was attentive. I felt as if he was completely there in the room with us, which again remember were two people who had invaded his home in the middle of the night for no better reason than an introduction. That he should be that way with Shelley, the daughter of a friend, didn't surprise me. But that I should be treated the same way did surprise me. I remember thinking, "This man is paying attention to me, an overfed, long-haired hippie who showed up on his doorstep out of nowhere to drink his water and take up his time, and who really has no claim on that time beyond sharing his sitting room for a little while." (This is in retrospect. I think I thought more in pictographs back then as I was rarely coherent enough for words.) I never felt, either, that I was being watched closely because of what I might do or break or steal--a sort of watching I was very familiar with in those days--but because this was how he sat with everyone. This attention I think came from his being at peace with himself and with the world, an impression that he knew what his place in life was and how he was to live it. I have since tried to emulate that peace, and if I have, it's a tribute to how well John Ashbery treated me.

After about 20 minutes, he said, "Well, if it's all right with you I would like to go to bed," which sounded from him less like an invitation to leave and more a straightforward telling us of his plans. I drank the rest of my water--Shelley had gulped hers down in a quick, impulsive way, the way she did everything--and we stood up and he walked us back to his porch and bade us goodnight. We got back in the car and drove the rest of the way talking about mundane things. At one point she asked, "What did you think of John?" and I said, "I liked him. I really liked him. He was a real human being."

Here is a poem by Ashbery. I like to pretend he might have written if he'd known what my meeting him had done for me.

"My Philosophy of Life"

Just when I thought there wasn't room enough
for another thought in my head, I had this great idea--
call it a philosophy of life, if you will.Briefly,
it involved living the way philosophers live,
according to a set of principles. OK, but which ones?

That was the hardest part, I admit, but I had a
kind of dark foreknowledge of what it would be like.
Everything, from eating watermelon or going to the bathroom
or just standing on a subway platform, lost in thought
for a few minutes, or worrying about rain forests,
would be affected, or more precisely, inflected
by my new attitude.I wouldn't be preachy,
or worry about children and old people, except
in the general way prescribed by our clockwork universe.
Instead I'd sort of let things be what they are
while injecting them with the serum of the new moral climate
I thought I'd stumbled into, as a stranger
accidentally presses against a panel and a bookcase slides back,
revealing a winding staircase with greenish light
somewhere down below, and he automatically steps inside
and the bookcase slides shut, as is customary on such occasions.
At once a fragrance overwhelms him--not saffron, not lavender,
but something in between.He thinks of cushions, like the one
his uncle's Boston bull terrier used to lie on watching him
quizzically, pointed ear-tips folded over. And then the great rush
is on.Not a single idea emerges from it.It's enough
to disgust you with thought.But then you remember something William James
wrote in some book of his you never read--it was fine, it had the fineness,
the powder of life dusted over it, by chance, of course, yet still looking
for evidence of fingerprints. Someone had handled it
even before he formulated it, though the thought was his and his alone.

It's fine, in summer, to visit the seashore.
There are lots of little trips to be made.
A grove of fledgling aspens welcomes the traveler.Nearby
are the public toilets where weary pilgrims have carved
their names and addresses, and perhaps messages as well,
messages to the world, as they sat
and thought about what they'd do after using the toilet
and washing their hands at the sink, prior to stepping out
into the open again.Had they been coaxed in by principles,
and were their words philosophy, of however crude a sort?
I confess I can move no farther along this train of thought--
something's blocking it.Something I'm
not big enough to see over.Or maybe I'm frankly scared.
What was the matter with how I acted before?
But maybe I can come up with a compromise--I'll let
things be what they are, sort of.In the autumn I'll put up jellies
and preserves, against the winter cold and futility,
and that will be a human thing, and intelligent as well.
I won't be embarrassed by my friends' dumb remarks,
or even my own, though admittedly that's the hardest part,
as when you are in a crowded theater and something you say
riles the spectator in front of you, who doesn't even like the idea
of two people near him talking together. Well he's
got to be flushed out so the hunters can have a crack at him--
this thing works both ways, you know. You can't always
be worrying about others and keeping track of yourself
at the same time.That would be abusive, and about as much fun
as attending the wedding of two people you don't know.
Still, there's a lot of fun to be had in the gaps between ideas.
That's what they're made for!Now I want you to go out there
and enjoy yourself, and yes, enjoy your philosophy of life, too.
They don't come along every day. Look out!There's a big one... 

Friday, August 18, 2017

The liminal redemption of Donald Trump


I believe strongly in redemption, the idea that anyone can redeem himself or herself with the good of society no matter what evils he or she may have done. Anyone. This includes racists and Donald Trump.The things we do, little things that we may not think about, big things we give a lot of thought to, affect other people and radiate in ways we don't understand fully. We call such things liminal, the confusing, often unconscious transition point between acting and not acting, a doorway between "Someone should do something about that" and "I am someone."

Can this liminal redemption happen? I don't know, but the butterfly effect is real. It's given us the ends of the Soviet Union, American institutional slavery, and South African Apartheid. It's given us smaller, more personal things like the cousin who checks in to make certain you're okay, the employer who gives you a second chance, the busy driver who helps you cross the street. These small acts of compassion demonstrate our humanity. They are what we must do to build us up against those who would tear us down.

Wednesday, August 16, 2017

It's gone too far

The past couple weeks have been maddening, chaotic, not only personally but, more importantly, nationally. It can't be mistaken that I'm in any way a Trump supporter or apologist, but I couldn't have wished on him the clusterfuck he has brought on himself.

I don't think I have to explain much of anything about what happened this past weekend in Charlottesville, VA. By now just about everyone knows at least the basic facts: that an event calling itself Unite the Right obtained a permit for a march on Saturday, ostensibly to protest the removal and relocating of some local statues to the Confederacy. That the Friday night before, various groups there for the march held a pre-march march through the campus of the University of Virginia, chanting slogans like "You will not replace us," "Jews will not replace us," and "Blood and soil." That this encouraged more counter-protesters to appear the next morning; that the rally was declared an illegal assembly after there were violent outbreaks that included beatings of counter-protesters by Unite marchers, in one infamous instance using poles (warning: not only a brutal scene but very annoying ads to get through for the video). That in one related instance a helicopter crashed a few miles from the rally, for as-yet-unknown reasons, killing the two VA State Troopers inside; but not before, tragically, a car driven by a rally attendee rammed into several groups of counter-protesters, injuring nearly twenty and killing one.

At least it used to be that just about everyone would know that back when we had three channels with nightly news. With innumerable sources claiming to be collectors and disseminaters of what they call "news," some of it legitimate, most of it conjecture if not outright wishing, a reasonable commentator can't assume everyone is up to speed in the same way. Trump, famously, is primarily a consumer of a single network that provides news entertainment and a few websites, most of which present him in as positive a light as possible. Most recently, we have learned that he may be given a twice-daily set of memos detailing nothing other than "screenshots of positive cable news chyrons..., admiring tweets, transcripts of fawning TV interviews, praise-filled news stories, and sometimes just pictures of Trump on TV looking powerful."

Which may be why Trump reported in his initial statement on the violent events as the deaths and injuries were something that could be blamed on "many sides," a statement that defies analysis. We don't say that a mugger or an arsonist has "a side." Beyond his version of events, he doesn't have a side for having done what he did that we need to pay attention to. Barring exceptional circumstances, robbery and arson are bad acts unto themselves, not to be addressed as if they have a "side." Similarly, assault and intimidation by self-identified Nazis and KKK members against unarmed protesters don't have a side. 

If we had thought Trump had reached his nadir, then we weren't prepared for what was to come. Having made a further statement on Monday making more explicit his condemnation of racism, naming "the KKK, neo-Nazis, white supremacists, and other hate groups," on Tuesday night he made what one supposes he hoped would be a final word on the subject. Naturally, being Trump, it will not be. At least not by commentators and, one hopes, by Republican lawmakers. 

His comments were nothing less than offensive and accusatory. “I’m not putting anybody on a moral plane,” he began, before going on to do exactly that. In the ensuing days somehow the counter-protesters had become armed attackers. “You had a group on one side and group on the other and they came at each other with clubs – there is another side, you can call them the left, that came violently attacking the other group." That defies verified videos of the events, although Trump explained to reporters he had watched videos "closer than you did." 

He made the further argument, "You had people that were very fine people on both sides...Not all those people were neo-Nazis, not all those people were white supremacists. Many of those people were there to protest the taking down of the statue of Robert E Lee." There is an argument to be made that not everyone who joined the National Socialists believed in their policies or their actions. That argument can be made for members in the 1930s and 1940s. Not for members in 2017. There is no parallel argument to be made, by the way, for members of the Ku Klux Klan at any period of history. Both groups and their auxilliaries have, by their words and actions , put themselves beyond the scope of society, and while their right to exist and to present their "side" is protected by the Constitution, it is only so long as it is done peacefully, not with guns, poles, and torches, and certainly not with hurtling cars. So far as the comment about people there to protest the statues' removal, yes, they are probably "fine people," but it isn't their argument about the statue that's at contest here, it's their actions of rushing the counter-demonstrators, hitting them, and intimidating them with guns and ersatz riot gear intended to make them look like official police. 

We are at an important moment in history. Trump and the thirty-five percent of Americans who somehow continue to think he is doing a job worth approving are at the end of their influence on the important policies of American governance. I've often pointed out that more people believe in ghosts than believe in Trump and we don't allow them to run the country. 

Trump has reached his sell-by date; in fact, in the fact that it's cost at least three Americans their lives, he's passed it. The sooner he resigns (preferable because we don't want the martyrdom that might come with impeachment), the sooner the reconstruction of American political life can begin. I don't like Mike Pence as the president, I think in some ways he'll be worse than Trump. But he'll be consistent, he'll play by the rules. And he'll know not to confuse self-proclaimed neo-Nazis and members of the KKK with voters whose endorsement he wants. 

Sunday, August 13, 2017

a little hope

I have, as some might imagine, much to say about the burning dumpster fire which is the situation in Charlottesville, VA, and I will say it. But today, as I've been reacting and texting, I came across a short ad that fills me with hope.

I say an ad because it's a trailer for a BBC show. Amazing Humans, and the episode is subtitled "Every Child Deserves the Right to Play." It chronicles a group of people who had an idea to help, tried it, were absolutely stunned at the realization they had no clue how they were going to accomplish it, and discovered that being there is sometimes all the planning you need. Watch it.

Saturday, August 5, 2017

My Sam Shepard Story

With all the mishigas of the past week, national and personal, I've held back on this, my Sam Shepard story. This was, maybe, twenty years ago. I was working for a company  that parceled me out like a paid friend to a number of people, most of whose caregivers needed some kind of time off. One of them was a retired farmer named Lamoine. His wife needed three hours a week to herself on Thursdays for shopping and sociability. One afternoon I arrived and there was a red truck with Minnesota plates in the drive, and a big red lab in the bed. I said, "Hey, bud!" to the dog and he came to the gate wagging and sniffing my face and mouth. We bonded real quickly, and I went over to the house and knocked on the door. Sam Shepard opened it. 

Now I knew he was buying land from Lamoine but hadn't expected he would be there visiting. I stuck out my hand and said, "I'm Bob." He stuck out his and said, "I'm Sam Shepard." Now at this point there were several different things I could have said: "Buried Child. Wow No one saw that coming."; "Fool for Love; what the hell was that?"; even, "I saw King Kong, Jessica has great tits." But I ended up saying what struck me right then and there. 

"Wow. Sam, you got bad teeth."

Because he did. His whole top row of front teeth were set back like a firebreak line of trees to protect his palate; he wore false teeth when he acted or was in public. He smiled a little and covered his mouth. We got along okay.


Cut to a week later and my wife and I are in a nearby WalMart. It starts raining and we're wandering around the place, not looking anymore for anything in particular. And suddenly Sam Shepard is standing in front of us. I went up to him and said, "Hi, Sam." And he put out his hand and said, "Bob, right?" He had his falsies in. I introduced him to my wife and we talked for a little bit about the area, the horses he planned to stable on what used to be Lamoine's land. And then the rain let up and he said, "Well, gotta go." We said goodbye and wandered around a little longer because we didn't want to seem to be following him. 


A few minutes later we were checking out and the cashier was all agush, pointing to another cashier a few rows over, saying, "She just checked out Sam Shepard!" And we said, "Oh, yeah, Sam. Nice guy. Bad teeth."

Friday, June 30, 2017

Should the president be a role model?


Short answer: Absolutely.
Slightly longer answer: Abso-fucking-lutely.

Much longer answer: Since he's assumed office, Trump has gone out of his way to rudely respond to anyone registering the slightest grievance with his policies, his choices for officials, his use of his weekends, even the tweets with which he communicates with the country (and apparently with his staff, since he often announces new and different opinions daily).

But even within his large list of offensive tweets, it's understood that his most recent offensive message heralds a new low point, and probably a new difficulty for those Republicans foolish enough to continue trying to negotiate a channel by which they might actually govern.

In trying to defend his ever-increasing nastiness, his deputy press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders suggested Americans might be better off looking to God for behavior modeling than to the POTUS.

Setting aside that God's behavior, unlike Trump's, can't be articulated (some people get long, painful, lingering deaths, others quick ones; some places receive wave after wave of decimating environmental and economic disasters, others simply do not; there is no theology that explains that, only several suggesting we get used to it), there's also the important command, imperative to Christianity, that all adherents try their best to emulate Jesus. Trump claims and has had claimed for him that he is a Christian. Perhaps Huckabee Sanders can explain to us: What aspect of Christ's behavior is he modeling in this most recent tweet?

Thursday, June 29, 2017

I don't want to be in charge

I've spent the week in The Thick visiting my dad at his nursing facility, and while I'm here my wife has been having difficulty dealing with the Tall Kid, our foster son. According to her, one of the things he's told her several times has been, "Well, Bobby lets us [whatever it might be he wants to do and she doesn't want him to]. He doesn't have an issue with it."

So naturally relationships between fathers and sons has been on my mind.

She's right when she suggests I'm inconsistent in disciplining him. This is a part of why I've never wanted kids: I can be quite consistent when I'm working, say, with teenage boys and girls because it's only for a number of hours a day, and then I go home and I don't have to care about them. When I'm home, I don't want to be in charge, I want to drink a couple beers and read a book and go to bed. In my defense, I knew going into this situation that could not be how things happened, but I didn't really think much about it.

But I can't be like my dad who, for all his plusses, was not much of a disciplinarian or involved in my day to day life when I was a kid. My mother was easily the primary fount of good and bad behavior, punishment and praise, in the lives of my sister and I. When she was disappointed or angry, or proud or happy, we were aware of it. She was a larger-than-life personality, a Mama Rose without the pathetic demands for attention or the murder accusation. I think I was, somewhere in the back of my brainpan, under the impression I could count on the same happening as a foster dad.

Since my mom died my dad has played a larger role in my life than ever before. One of the things he's done of which I'm proudest is to have been the priary caretaker for my mom the last decade and a half of her life. A favorite memory from those years is his gently tugging a scarf around her neck and making certain her shirt collar was comfortably inside the scarf, reminiscent of my own actions readying residents of group homes where I worked for winter walks. After his retirement as a banker, my dad spent several years volunteering at the same sort of group homes, often doing overnights, work he has since said he wished had been his career.

The Tall Kid lives for basketball and I am watching a WNBA game, part of my determination to watch as many games as I can because I want to appreciate his playing and I want to share that appreciation with him in his language. This is another difference between me and my dad, who never tried to be a part of my life outside (or, so far as I could see, inside) our home. I don't know this will make me a better dad than him, I don't think about it that way. I like to think, since I'm not his father, this will make a difference as the Tall Kid matures.

Sunday, June 11, 2017

We Have a Kid

I think a month and a half break from publishing is long enough. During that time, much has happened. Trump's first hundred days have come and gone, numerous scandals relating to said 100 days and earlier have been discovered or uncovered, members of a family were murdered during an argument between a woman and her "bully[ing,] ticking time bomb" of a husband who nonetheless had access to a gun, people were killed by van and knife in London, and a lot of people naturally were killed between May 1 and May 31 around the world in various terrorist attacks. And during this period, we finally took in a foster son.

It was a long process, begun last year. Since, over the years, we have housed up many of my homeless and traveling friends, my wife said, "I think I'm getting the hang of this. Maybe we can have a kid come live with us." We'd talked for years, mostly in the theoretical language we appreciate, of having a teen come to live with us, but now we decided we had crossed the Rubicon between theory and practice and were ready to give ourselves in place of lectures or a little charity. So we began what was, in retrospect, not so bad a process but at the time seemed a huge burden to carry, essentially explaining the way we'd decided to live our lives in such a way that people for whom anything much outside the lines was a line too far (and they begrudged us that, oh yes, they did, keeping us on tenterhooks down to the wire as to whether they would even accept us or not) to be satisfied that we would not assault or eat any teenage children they threw our way. We knew, from the beginning, we would prefer teens as that age is very hard to place, but is the age group with which we were most comfortable.

The Tall Kid is a good kid, 6'4" of opportunity and issues. Like any of us are. Without getting into his history, I will say he's in foster care for the first time, having been placed with different members of his family and being rejected in each case. He behaves well around home, and while there are missteps, they aren't major ones (well, except using my wife's still-working credit card information on her former phone he uses to order sneakers, but we caught that fast and dealt quickly with it. One of the major elements I insist on is that, once a situation has been corrected, that's the last he hears about it, unless he does it again); it's been different at school. There, he's an authority-confronting, teacher-defying frequent user of their In-School Suspension Room, and the day before the end of school his principal called to tell me he had worn out his welcome there and was now suspended for the rest of the school year (which meant, of course, a day and a half).

We are hoping he makes the changes he wants to over the summer before starting high school. We suspect many of the problems at school are attributible to his past behavior and the fact, as someone new to the foster system, and as a Tall Black Kid, he's a focus of attention. At least high school offers  a place for new behaviors. I'm not so naive to assue he suddenly straightens up and flies right. I remember my own teens too well. But I am hoping the new place makes him want to be a different, better person.

I'm reading a book that's 20 years out of date, but is nonetheless one I'm learning a lot from: A Tribe Apart: A Journey into the Heart of American Adolescence, by Patricia Hersch. If nothing else, it gives me an insight into the way his parents might have grown up and why they treated him in the ways they did. Color me hopeful.

Friday, April 28, 2017

A little Friday morning reading

I've enjoyed Neil Gaiman's writing for years, and I'm interested in trying to binge-watch the new series American Gods after it's gotten good and going. (I've tried several times to binge-watch shows--The Man in the High Castle, Penny Dreadful, Dark Matter--but I couldn't watch any past the first season; they always disappointed.) Anyhow, I really liked American Gods my first reading and intend to reread it before watching the shows as I don't remember many details (and the trailers remind me I've forgotten more than I'd thought), and I want to get in on this binge-watching thing that everyone, including my wife, has been doing.

I've been reading much about how several TV shows now are especially relevent as they give insights into Life Under Trumpism, and especially American Gods and The Handmaid's Tale. But for the Gaiman book, I read a very good interview in which he says the following:
I have this mad theory about American elections. There is a reality-TV quality to them, in that they tend to go to what people think would probably be the most interesting story. “Who’s more interesting? Who’s a better story? Bob Dole or Bill Clinton? Let’s go for Clinton, it’ll be more interesting!” And there is that point where you’re going, “Okay, so is it Hillary, who still feels kind of like a rerun? Or is it Trump?” Even articulating that as a theory means that people are going to mishear what I’ve said. It will turn into a clickbait headline and people will be going, “You said that Trump was a better story!” No. I think Trump is an out-of-his-depth idiot. Who is possibly criminal. And certainly incompetent. I think that, actually, having a sane and functional right wing is a good thing. Having what we’ve got right now is a bad thing.

When the novel was written, it was written about America as a country of immigrants, of people who either came here of their own free will, or escaped here, or were brought here against their will. And what that meant — talking about the religious traditions and talking about the cultural traditions and talking about what that became. And having a lead character who was racially — and in all other ways — a melting pot. That, when I wrote the novel, didn’t seem to me to be particularly problematic, difficult, or even praiseworthy! Things that I did not think were praiseworthy or sensible included writing about indentured servants and transportation. Writing about the slave trade. Writing about a gay, Muslim salesman encountering a genie who drives a cab in New York.

I wasn’t doing it for the credit. I was doing it because it all feels right if you’re talking about America. Suddenly, Trump came in and now I’m reading articles in Vanity Fair about, “This is the most political stuff you’ve ever seen.” Well, I guess that’s all true, but it’s not like we sat down and went, We are the opposition. We simply started telling our fucking story and then the world changed. It would be like telling a pro-Jewish story in Berlin in the 1930s, and suddenly you’re looking around going, “We’re apparently doing something big and important.”
 Oddly, this theory of his comforts me, as the idea that we love a good, juicy story is a lot more appealing than that we like chaos and incomepetence. It's certainly played out at times in American electoral history (although it's important to remember we never had Presidents Bryant or Long), and if it's true it suggests that, like all the other times, most of us will get through it. Of course, some of us won't. And it's for those the rest of us must act up.

Saturday, April 22, 2017

A reason we ended up with Trump?

I've lately been reading a book about adolescence, A Tribe Apart by Patricia Hersch, which is, I'll be the first to admit, rather dated in its information, having been published in 1998. But precisely because of that I'm left to wonder if the following information, presented about the early teens of the mid-90s, who are parents now, is a good descriptor for what has led to Trump's election.

In 1992, a USA Weekend survey of over 236,000 young people revealed that 25 to 40 percent of teens see nothing wrong with cheating on exams, stealing from employers, or keeping money that isn't theirs. A 1989 Girl Scouts survey of 5,000 kids found 65 percent would cheat on an important test. A survey by the Josephine Institute of Ethics in 1992 similarly revealed that 75 percent of high school students admit to cheating...The biggest reason, according to 65 percent of the students, was that it was more important to get good grades than to be honest..."People are under lots of pressure. The attitude is that everybody does it, people don't look upon cheating as bad, none of your friends look at you as bad because you cheated." Everybody knows it is the wrong thing to do, "but I am not convinced that it is unfair when you are in a class you are never going to need again in your whole life but...the difference between a C and an A will make a difference in what college you get into.
Paradoxically, there is an ethic of cheating. This is how most students explain it...: It is easy and it is not always straight-out cheating. It is the little sneaky stuff like asking somebody from the period before what is on the test, or being absent so you know what is on it the next day. "Real cheating is having the answers in front of you while you are taking the test, looking at someone's paper."
The truth, and everybody knows it, is that to get into college an A or B is always better than something lower, and students' lives are so full of pressure and activity, especially for the smartest and most ambitious, that something has to give. "Even though we are told it will hurt us in the long run, that is a bunch of baloney...Maybe you are hurting other people and that may be unfair, but you are not hurting yourself. Why not take the easy way out if you can go home and be with friends for three hours or work in a subject that really matters to you...[?]" The bottom line is that "grades are more important because they get you someplace--getting good grades, not being ethical." 
This may be the crux of the matter. In the Girl Scouts of America survey, it was found that by a huge margin the youth problems of the headlines--peer pressure, drugs, alcohol, sex, gangs--were not the "crisis issues" for kids. Their concerns were "the social expectations of the adult world which all have to do with pressure..." In times when society lacks clear ethical guidelines, when parents neither spend the time to educate about time-honored values...and personal responsibility nor necessarily model consistent value`s in their own lives, kids are responding to the one message they hear loud and strong from the adult world: Succeed. Do well. Do whatever you need to do... 
Kids have grown up with a regular diet of people like Leona Helmsley, who ripped off the government; Mayor Marion Barry, who was reelected after being in prison for cocaine possession; Michael Milken and his junk bonds; Ivan Boesky and insider trading; Pete Rose and gambling. The list seems endless: Watergate, Clarence Thomas and Anita Hill, Lorena and John Bobbitt, Whitewater. Stories of killings for sneakers, parents who abandon their children, drive-by shootings. The students see inconsistent punishments or no consequences at all... 
Somehow people keep on expecting kids to have a certain belief system or a commitment to certain kinds of values that are not evidenced with any regularity in their environment. Values do not spring fully formed out of nowhere. And cheating, among all the things people are doing that are not right, turns out to be fairly benign.
 Get ahead any way you need to. Cheating isn't the worst thing you can do, and you have to do it because everyone else is and it's the only reasonable response to everything they expect of you. If you aren't caught, you won't be punished, and if you are caught, well, people will understand. There's a sliding scale of unethical behavior and you can always justify it by contrasting it with what someone else does or could do. Act like we tell you, not how we act. Most importantly, other people do a whole lot worse, and they're the real reason things are bad.

Is there a better description for what history will come to call Trumpism?

Thursday, April 13, 2017

To recognize the fragility in each of us

In my last post I made reference to a developing story out of Oklahoma, that of Ron Robinson, a UU minister outside Tulsa. I say "developing" because there have been no reports since his initial arrest on March 30, and I can't imagine there haven't been additional developments.

I don't know him or heard of him, but friends of mine have either been mentored by him or worked with him on projects. His past accomplishments are impressive: co-founder of a UU congregation, university professor, youth pastor, ordained minister, director of a local foundation and its food pantry. Would that all of us had this sort of spirit.

Almost hidden in that list is a damning title: youth pastor. Because Ron Robinson has been arrested on "federal charges for distribution or receipt of child pornography and possession of and access with intent to view child pornography." Hence my certainty there have been more developments since his arrest. 

Now, I'm not going to talk about his guilt or innocence because aside from the stuff noted above, I don't know anything about it. But I've seen enough Law & Order: SVU episodes to know that there is a high bar for prosecutors to meet to start a potentially costly federal case while the air is full of states and the government crying austerity. So I'm presuming at least some guilt. 

I don't have any experience or insight to bring to Robinson's case. What I have mostly is a couple questions. Why do so many people later charged with child endangerment of any kind seek positions in the clergy? And what is the UU response to it happening in our denomination?

That clerical malfeasance includes sexual abuse of kids isn't new. Like teachers, foster parents, police, social workers, every position that has some measure of authority over them, there are many, many examples among religious leaders of every faith of taking advantage of children in some way. And while prosecution of these cases may be new, it's certain that the practice is very old, in some faiths may even be codified. (This link is included, not for its authority, but for its examples from multiple faiths.) But some practices continue now. Not only, of course, in Catholicism, but among  Protestant groups, among Jews, HindusBuddhists even among Animists

Religious leaders are perhaps most susceptible to the delusion that their position of power is a role assigned by God and that, if they want something, God must want it too. I don't think it's putting too fine a point on it that, while I'm sure few contemporary religious abusers would put this in such a straightforward way, what it often comes down to is they feel authorized, by their position and respect and the tendency of congregations and individuals to defer to them, to rationalize their abusive behavior (or in the case of child porn, their viewing someone else getting away with it) as being something they have the imprimatur of the group to do (or in the case of viewers, the thrill of watching someone else do it). You feel a powerful tingle when you get away with something you know you shouldn't do; I've felt that with theft. 

So we know it happens. What do UUs do when it happens among us?

The first thing, obviously, is to remove the abuser from that position, and that was done. As I understand the news, Robinson was brought to the cops' attention by his use of a website they were monitoring, but I like to think anyone who caught wind of his behavior among his congregation would have reported him. I don't know if I would have talked with him first. 

But I think the attitude displayed by friends and co-workers of Robinson, The UU Missional Cohort, is one we should mimic. They remain dismayed, they grieve. And they gather and weep and recognize the fragility in each of us. They assert that "Missio Dei—The Mission of God—even for those of us who quibble about the definition of 'God,' is bigger than any one person, or movement, or religion...The mission of oneness, that we are here to serve each other, to create a Beloved Community that is nothing less than a heaven on earth...We believe in a larger truth—that we are here to abet and witness to the wonder of existence, that we are here to serve each other and to realize Shalom—that each and every one of us is a minister, a servant of that creative, sustaining and transformative power." That Shalom, that Beloved Community, is, must be inclusive even of people like Ron Robinson. 

Whether we recognize the Ron Robinson in ourselves or in others, my time teaching in prisons taught me that he is our brother, our dad, our cousin, our friend. He's transgressed the law of the tribe and he'll be punished for it. If hell is separation from God, then a part of that is separation from your tribe. But once he has served his sentence, we must let him, and others like him, back in. With watching, with certain agreements, with monitoring; but if he will do that then we have to do that. We are a justice-seeking people, and it is just to accept one another's deep criminal flaws and behave, not as if those flaws don't matter, but because criminally flawed is still human. 


Saturday, April 8, 2017

Guides on the journey

There isn't a reason my opinion would be sought out on this issue. But in the midst of the garbage fire that is the Trump administration, it's important to keep your eye on the smaller things happening that effect us on a different level.

To wit: the resignation of my denomination's president. This isn't like Pope Benedict XVI resigning, or even the resignation of Rowan Williams. I even find that many UUs are unaware of it. But within the hothouse world of Unitarian Universalist politics, while it's not a hot-button topic, it is cause for concern and speculation.

To understand it totally, you'd need to go back to the beginnings of the Atlantic slave trade; but you can get enough background by remembering the problems of the late 1960s. It was a different America, both for better and worse, and one of the ways it was better was the spirit of "can-do" optimism on the part of society at large, and one of the ways it was worse was the ability for much of the makeup of that society to ignore the concerns of its minority citizens. Here is a good timeline that explains much of how the situation came about. For a fuller examination, I recommend the books of Mark Morrison-Reed, particularly Black Pioneers in a White Denomination.

It was at least in part because of their behind-the-scenes treatment by the nascent Unitarian Universalist Association that many black members left, and it's perhaps a legacy of that period that UUism has fewer members of color than it ought. There is much in UUism that attracts black and brown freethinkers, but as Dr King said, Sunday morning remains the more segregated day of the week. Those who do belong watch carefully the way the organization refers to and treats them, with justification.

The presidency of the UUA has a fixed term and current officeholder Peter Morales' term ends in three months. The vote for a new president will happen at the annual General Conference. All three candidates are women, and are fine candidates. But all three are white women. And here is where it gets sticky.

When the retiring leader of the Southern region of the UUA, who is white, was replaced by another white man (and this is not a denigration of his abilities or his hiring), it was seen by members attending the Finding Our Way Home retreat, a group of clergy and religious professionals of color, that "the UUA had hired another white person over an unidentified woman of color who was a qualified finalist for the Southern Region job." That candidate, Christina Rivera, identified herself at the retreat as a finalist who was passed over because she wasn't "a good fit."

I have issues with Rivera's blog post. If I were to edit it, I would condense it and eliminate many of the remarks that suggest personal complaint, focusing on the need for diverse voices in leadership. But her primary point is important: "The Exec and First Management levels are the directors of departments and staff. They have the power, influence and autonomy to direct policy, resources and hiring. And autonomy is a huge measure of power within our dominant culture; who gets to decide the what, when, who and how of the UUA. And just seven are people of color. It is an insult to the over 100 UU Religious Professionals of Color gathered at the recent Finding Our Way Home conference to suggest that this is anything other than racial discrimination at the UUA." (Her emphasis.)

The charge that UUA leadership reflects elements of white male supremacy are merited. So, unfortunately, does nearly every other denomination. It's a holdover from the past, not only of the US, but of Europe. Typically, the landed gentry knew best, and in most European nations, the landed were white and male. There are deeply-ingrained assumptions and beliefs that society and individuals hold. There's nothing wrong or demeaning about accepting one's contemporary advantages and their having risen from historical ones. It is, literally, the least one can do. 

At the retreat, President Morales was asked what his opinion was and, unfortunately, he answered like a CEO rather than a religious leader. (I cannot locate a quote of his response, only paraphrases.) It was essentially that, "If we had more qualified candidates of color applying for those positions, there would be more people of color in them." Even Morales characterizes his response as glib, of having reacted when he should have listened. 

Black Lives of Unitarian Universalism, whose co-founder and executive director is a friend of mine, is correct in asserting that this is a "crisis" in our faith and correct too in noting that "Those seen as 'fully qualified' are usually white, usually ordained ministers, often cisgender, often male and able-bodied, often heterosexual, and otherwise fit into common notions of what leadership looks and sounds like." This is one of the elements of white supremacy, that the norm is white (and usually male) and that anyone else qualifies as exotic or foreign. It's a mark of the ubiquity of this belief that many of us don't even recognize when we do it on a personal or an institutional scale. It's a mark too of its insidiousness that Morales, the first Hispanic president of the UUA, repeated one of its tenets. 

However, while everyone agrees he shouldn't have said it, no one called for Peter Morales' resignation. Friends among the UUA communications organization report, while there were a few calls from individuals, there was no coordinated effort, no one in the organization had suggested it, and no one thought it would solve the issue. It was completely out of the blue.

Morales is, of course, capable of making his own decisions and he wrote in his resignation letter, "I have clearly lost the trust of many people and my comments have become a focal point in the ongoing discussion. It is clear to me that I am not the right person to lead our Association..." But I am not convinced of the rightness of any of those statements. Many of us rolled our eyes at his comment and it may have been newsworthy for a day or two, but it and he have not been the focal point at all. That has remained the ongoing assumption among religious organizations that the de facto leader of any institution is a white male.

There are important issues our denomination has to grapple with; along with the above, there is the recent arrest of UU minister Ron Robinson on charges of child pornography, how we react to the maelstrom of Trump administration fiats, and the simple continuation of our faith in a world where the word has become synonymous with either cruelty or irrelevance. This is not a time for leaders to take themselves out of the game because they've made stupid comments. It's time to admit our mistakes and provide ourselves, if not as models, then as guides. 

Sunday, March 19, 2017

"Some of these issues are so important you can't not speak out"

We live in an age of hyperpartisanship, for better and for worse, and a part of that is tagging the opposing team. It doesn't really accomplish anything, but it feels better when you're the side doing it. Sometimes, when it seems the whole nation is against you, seeing an opposing viewpoint that mirrors or excedes your own is the right thing to keep you off the ropes and in the struggle. Billboards and artwork like this exists for the same reason cheerleaders are a big part of professional football. And generally about as helpful in the final result. (And in the event anyone thinks I profess this because it's Trump, no, it isn't.)

Thursday, March 2, 2017

“We Wail, Whether or Not Anyone is Listening”

This is my sermon from two Sundays ago. I was asked to speak on "justice" and ended up taking my text from the Tanakh to illustrate the idea that justice is best served by the people crying out for it in the face of its absence. What I took as my original question while writing it was "What is it we want? And does it matter? 

“We Wail, Whether or Not Anyone is Listening”

            Here’s a joke for you from the Tanakh. It starts, like most jokes do, with God just walking around and thinking about things, and as God reflects God decides, “There’s this city on Earth that has really got me POed. They’ve insulted me by refusing to show mercy and hospitality, the few things I’ve told people to do, and I’ve just got to set an example. I’m gonna blow this city, smack it down into the soil, rub my hand around until there’s no trace of anything or anyone left. That’ll show the rest of them: Don’t screw with me.”
            Naturally, God being God, God can’t just do this but has to tell someone first. There’s this guy nearby God’s been having occasional conversations with and tells him, “Hey, there’s this city over there and the populace have gotten on my nerves. I’m going to rub them out, literally. Just wanted you to know.”
Now this guy, he’s been paying attention to what God’s told him and how God’s behaved in the past and, ignoring the question whether the city actually is wicked or not, says, “Listen, I don’t want to tell you your business, but what kind of god punishes the righteous with the wicked?  What if there are fifty good people in that city?  Would you ignore the city’s slights for fifty good people?”  God allows as he would.  Guy says, “Oh, but it could be some of them woke up in a bad mood this morning, didn’t have their coffee.  How about forty-five?”  God agrees and guy says, “I wouldn’t presume to tell you what righteousness is but what if some of those good people are having a hard time and I can only locate forty.  Will you accept forty?”  God says, “Okay, forty works for me.”
This guy, he’s on a roll, he says, “Hey, forty people that’s a lot of people, and it’s not like you’re gonna give me forever to find them. And maybe they aren’t feeling so righteous when I find them, y’know, kid’s got failing grades, wife burned the manna. How’s thirty?” God, who by this time is thinking actually destroying a whole city, that’s a big, time-consuming, difficult process, we’re talking environmental impact statements, hazardous waste material, agrees. “Sure, thirty’s fine. I like thirty.” But this guy, God may have made people, but this guy knows people, he says, “Oh, hey, now I think about it, it’s nearly harvest, most of the good people, they aren’t gonna be in city limits, they’re gonna be out in the fields harvesting, reaping, bringing in the sheaves, the whole lot. So maybe twenty is a better number.” By now, God’s not really paying attention, playing a couple hands of  solitaire. “Yeah, no problem, twenty.”
But this guy, he says, “I got it! Listen, what you want is a minyon. Ten righteous people. I find ten righteous, good-hearted people, you’ll ignore what this city’s done?” God’s got the guy on hold by this point, talking with other cultures, God puts him back on, says finally, “Look, you get me ten righteous, just people in that city, I’ll be such a sweet God, hosannas left and right, you won’t even know me. Their grandchildren will be drinking milk and honey straight from the bottle. Ten is my final offer.”
Of course, if you’ve recognized that the guy I’m talking about is Abraham and the city is Gomorrah of “Sodom and” fame, then you know the punchline is a killer. Abraham can’t even find ten just people and God obliterates Gomorrah and in the process we get Lot and his daughters repopulating the plateau, a pillar of salt, and a whole bunch of stuff we’d rather not get into.
Now keep in mind, a lot of writing at this time, it’s got to do double, triple duty, so jokes are going to have a cautionary air to them too as well as parting some kind of metaphysical truth. Here’s another knee-slapper from the Older Testament with which you may also be familiar. There were these two, well, for want of a better term, let’s call them “beings,” God and the Adversary, arguing about a guy who is very devout, name of Job. God’s boasting of Job’s fealty and the Adversary calls God on it, saying, “Of course he worships you. You give him everything. He’s got land, family, prosperity, a secure future. Without that he’d drop a dime on you before you could blink.” God says, “You wanna bet?” So the Adversary removes all those benefits: he kills Job’s family, his crops fail, his livestock develops brucellosis, his slaves run away, creditors take away all his savings, and Job himself gets boils, pustules all over his body.
There’s a lot more to the story, of course, and it’s a good story. But I want to focus on what happens next. Three of Job’s friends, hearing of his misfortunes, his misery, go to visit him. In the story you may remember, after Job himself breaks his silence, they presume to lecture him on what he may or may not have done to anger God.
But an incredible and often overlooked event happens first. These three friends, when they see Job, can barely recognize him, he’s so changed. The Job writer relates that, on recognizing him, “they raised their voices and wept aloud; they tore their robes and threw dust in the air upon their heads. 13 They sat with him on the ground seven days and seven nights, and no one spoke a word to him, for they saw that his suffering was very great.”
They wail. They tear their clothes. They comingle the dust of the earth with their flesh and hair, perhaps reminding themselves of the state they will eventually return to. And they sit on the ground with their friend for as long as he does. Quietly. Respectfully. Silently. They treat his punishment, which the Job writer tells us is what they think it to be, as their own. They take on the worst their friend has suffered as if they had suffered it. Not in an intellectual way. They shred their own clothing and get into the dust with him to suffer with him.
Job and his friends cry out after those seven days and God, miracle of miracles, responds. But our experience, when everything we have worked for, bled for, some of us have died for, crashes around us and we call out for God, our experience is likelier to be similar to the Psalmist’s, who begins the famous lament of Psalm 22, “My God, My God, why have you forsaken me?” We wail at the injustice of it all and there is no answer. No response. There is, at best, silence from the heavens or the depths of our souls or wherever we may be seeking an answer. We wail, and we receive a suggestion that no one is listening.
Where is God? Where is justice?
We fetishize justice in this country, even dressing it up as a woman holding scales and a sword and wearing a blindfold, the suggestion being that she makes no distinction between the people who come to her for judgement. And that’s a wonderful ideal. We know it’s not what happens. We know that too often the blindfold faces one way for one person and another for another person. We know that in this country there are certain crimes for which you won’t be stopped or arrested if you’re white. We know that in this country if you’re wealthy you can afford a lawyer who will help you avoid punishment for whatever crime you have committed. We know that in this country if you’re rich enough, your crime isn’t even called a crime, but a downturn in the market.
Where is God? Where is justice?
Scholar Mel Leaman reminds us that “lament doesn’t guarantee God’s benevolent response,” but what if there is nothing in response? No storm, no earthquake, no mighty wind or even soft whisper. There is nothing. We look on the works in the first month of this presidential administration and, noting the breaking up of families, the fear in the eyes of people who may be next, we ask, Where is justice? Where is God? In response, nothing.
How do we interpret the absence of God when we seek justice?
The first thing we must do is to determine for ourselves what it is that we want. When we march in the streets or letters we call out for change and justice, but what is it we want? If it’s true, as Martin Luther King, Jr, asserted that the arc of the moral universe bends toward justice, what is it we mean by justice? And by “we” I mean us, the people of here and now, this generation of American citizens and people who would be citizens and people who want justice to roll on like a river and righteousness like a never-ending stream. What do we want when we say we want justice? Do we want a return to something good, like the previous administration, which had flaws but we felt someone somewhere listened to us, we felt our leader understood that people demand justice, understood which way the blindfold faced, and what it took to secure our national character? Or do we want something better, a land of milk and honey, a place in the sun, a world where we are judged not by the color of our skin but the content of our character?
As Naim Stifan Ateek, a Palestinian Christian, reminds us, “Power is very closely linked with justice, so much so that the one may be easily confused with the other. This is illustrated daily by the frequent claims of the powerful…that their power is justly gained and used to support justice.” It’s true that the current presidential administration won enough electoral votes to put Donald Trump into office. But a month on we find that win is simply not enough. How often do we hear his boast that it was a record electoral victory, that the opposition may have had millions more popular votes, but that’s because those votes were cast by “illegals,” that the number of people at his Inauguration was exponentially higher than the number of spectators at Barak Obama’s Inauguration or the number of people who came out the day after to take part in the Women’s March? These specious claims are easily refuted and have been multiple times, but he continues to insist on them because power must not only be legitimate, power must somehow be more popular than the opposition. This is what lends it the pretense to justice.
Hannah Arendt, whose Eichmann in Jerusalem will be on bookshelves and nightstands for the next four years, reminds us that what she called the banality of evil lies in its actions are uniformly “a textbook case of bad faith, of lying self-deception combined with outrageous stupidity…[as well as] the case of the eternally unrepentant criminal…who cannot afford to face reality because his crime has become part and parcel of it…”
Justice, like the famous explanation of pornography by Justice Potter Stewart, is something that, even if we can’t define it, we know when we see it.  It is something too, I think, we recognize best by its absence.  Like oxygen, we might appreciate it best when we don’t have it.
So what is it we want when we say we want justice? I don’t know. Isn’t that lame, I give you the question, I tell you it’s important, it’s what we have to answer first, and I don’t have an answer. Do we want a return or something new? Maybe that’s something for the We generation I mentioned earlier to determine. But I do have a suggestion for what we do in the absence of an answer.
We wail. We wail, whether or not anyone is listening.
Professor Leaman reminds us, too, that “God’s people frequently forget how to live like God’s children.” Like any children, God’s children need occasional reminding that there is a better world that they’re growing up into and they had better get their business straight if they want a better world for everyone. The difference between a Noah and an Abraham, for instance, is that Noah, for all his strengths, accepted God’s determination to destroy humanity. Not once, in the story we have of him, is it suggested he maybe tried to get God to save another family besides his own. He was, in contemporary terms, the perfect right-leaning scold: The rest of you will drown but me and mine will get by.
Abraham, like Job, argued with God and he did so not for himself or his family. He has no kin we’re told of in Gomorrah. On behalf of a comparative handful of people he called for justice. He told God, You are punishing an entire community for the misdeeds of a few people and that is simply not right. It is not just.
Do we dare, like Abraham, to get angry at God? For God’s silence? For God’s inattention? You don’t get angry with someone you don’t care about. You ignore her, you avoid her, you cut her out of your life. But anger suggests you want something in that person to change. Dutch psychologist Nico Frijda reminds us, “Anger implies hope and that fighting is meaningful.”
Now I’m not talking just pissed-off, fly off the handle, how could you leave the water running for three hours kind of anger. That is just uncontrolled egotism, the kind that makes you sit up at three in the morning tweeting your fury at an otherwise resting world. I’m talking about righteous anger, the kind that hits you like a slap, that challenges you to think not only of yourself but of others. It is, like Abraham, to challenge God of behalf of creation, to remind power of its better self, and that if it can’t reconcile its actions with that better self, then it had better step down.
Too often, the one is mistaken for the other. How many times have you been told, Get over it. Your candidate lost, accept it. Give him a chance, will you. The way you feel now is the way we felt for eight years.
We aren’t lamenting the loss of our team in the playoffs, no matter how close the score, no matter how exciting the overtime. What we are lamenting is the codification of prejudice against our neighbors, a barring of our cousins, our lovers, even of ourselves, as if who we are, who we love, what we believe, where we come from, somehow lessens this society, this country we love.

We must get down in the ashes and dust with them, our cousins, our lovers, our neighbors. Maybe literally. We must join them and wail at the injustice they suffer. Our wail and our witness are our most powerful weapons. “Even in the absence of God, silence cannot be our last word.” As always, “We are the people we have been waiting for.” Abraham and Job stood before the Almighty and demanded an explanation. Can we do any less against this administration?