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? 

Wednesday, February 22, 2017

St Francis of Our Streets

I like this essay, although it seems the editor who titled it paid no attention to the writer's opening sentence. Nonetheless, it's a good job of calling out for special appreciation to one of the many people who work in purposeful anonymity to help others. For Father Jordan, and for the others inspired like him, it's not about them it's about "the care of the poor and vulnerable." It should be so for all of us. 

A note, too, on my appreciation for the Franciscans. We have had a St Francis statue in our gardens for years, modeling some of our stewardship on his theology. I've written of how that happens in the past. Interestingly, my father, who I've often said looks like the Dalai Lama, has the middle name Francis. 

Monday, February 13, 2017

"What is noise now will be music later"

All of us felt differently the morning of November 9, some the heady rush that what they believed was suddenly and unexpectedly given credence, and some that what they were afraid would happen now would happen. In the latter category, for many of us this has been expressed as numbness, a kind of unwillingness that other people were willing to vote their anger and fear rather than their hope and future. This essay, written by someone who watched his country go from peace to violence and noted the changes afterward: "People asked me if I had known the war was coming — I did, I'd say, I just didn't know I did, because my mind refused to accept the possibility that the only life and reality I had known could be so easily annihilated." Will Trump take us to war? My initial response is, Of course not! We are too civilized, too well-intentioned for that to happen. But of course, exactly those words were how I greeted Trump's second-- or is it third? Can anyone be certain of any fact now?--run at the White House. If this is the new normal, will compassion in government or relationships be seen as abnormal? Will gasps of apprehension become sonatas?

Sunday, February 12, 2017

Sitting quietly

While it's true, as my wife has observed, that I can't take part in a moment of silence without telling somebody that I'm observing a moment of silence, I do in fact spend most of my working day quietly. Between patient visits, of course, I do a lot of reading, usually with a radio on. And when I visit someone who is unresponsive, I'll sit close to them, preferably near a window because I like a view, and relax into my role as nonanxious presence. 

Oddly, I wouldn't have pegged me for someone for whom calm would become a natural state. I bite my nails, I tap my fingers, I hum and sing under my breath. I am a mess of jangling, banging nerves. I promised myself when I was younger that I would never be bored, and smartphones and Facebook have helped me keep that promise. Sometimes, even sitting next to the bed of a person actively dying, it's difficult not to check my email or a friend's status or my Twitter feed. I admit to giving in more often than I'd like.

But I reflect on the situation this way. As a Unitarian Universalist I accept individual and corporate dignity and worth. And a part of that is something I've heard called NODA. No one dies alone. While I can't guarantee to be with someone when death happens, I can be present for a short time as the process plays out. This ministry of presence, as I see it, is as important to a comfortable death as any drug or prayer. It's the best I have to offer, maybe the best any of us has to offer. To accept the sociability of our species, that we like to live with one another, is to accept we also like to die with one another.

Friday, January 27, 2017

My Old Man

Twenty years ago, in an obscure regional magazine, I published a story about my dad. It was called "My Old Man" and it was funny and affectionate and my wife calls it her favorite piece of mine. I am, I think, rightly proud of it.

My old man, as described in that story, is a different old man than the one I come here to visit. There remain some indications he's the same man. He's funny and has the same goofy grin widening his cheeks when he says something he knows people will laugh at. He still sits with his arms folded or purses his lips, steeples his fingers, and puts them in front of his mouth when he's relaxing, often after a meal. He still doesn't want to be seen without his teeth in and a "nice" shirt and pair of slacks on. With shoes, not slippers. He's a favorite of the nurses and aides at his nursing facility, partly because he rarely complains and partly because he will spend days smiling at nothing.

In a deeper, more important way, he is a different person. He's like the hospice patients I visit. When I see him and he's asleep, I sit quietly in a chair next to him, touching his shoulder, holding his hand. When he starts to make sounds, like my dogs when they dream, I gently rub his shoulder, his hands, and he has the same reaction as them. He remains asleep and settles, calmed, relaxed, his breathing that of someone sliding into a warm tub. The flecks of dead skin on his cheeks or the dried milk on his lips remind me he has joined ranks of the elderly who have either forgotten to wipe their faces after eating or no longer care. He loses control of his emotions, on occasion, possibly as a result of his strokes, possibly because of the UTIs his body collects like stamps. It rarely lasts long, a flash of fear and hopelessness, tears, and then he's forgotten it. He's smiling again, at nothing again.

It took me decades to come to love the Old Man I grew up with. He was a good man although like most children I wasn't always aware of it. Frankly, it wasn't until my mom was diagnosed with breast cancer and he became her primary caregiver that I realized just how good he was capable of being. When I began to visit him in the nursing facility, I was faced with a different Old Man, one who was more frail and, at that time, not even certain of who I was. He has improved, partly physically and partly mentally, to the extent he can occasionally use a walker instead of a wheelchair and he usually recognizes my face and voice. But he tires easily and I can't spend more than a couple hours with him before he's got to sleep, and doesn't want to see me until the next day. He is, in some ways, the same Old Man I've loved, but in a more profound way I've had to come to love a new Old Man.

Tuesday, January 24, 2017

The Women's March at human scale

I could not make it to the March, as I've reported, but the host I was going to stay with took several photos and gave me permission to post them here. And while they are not as staggering as the aerial pictures in breadth or scope, they help bring the event to human scale.




Sunday, January 22, 2017

Democracy wears pink

Listening to the speeches during yesterday's coverage, I heard this conclusion to one that turned out to be by Van Jones"[Trump's supporters] came to this town yesterday. They had red hats on. They were proud of their accomplishment. And they thought they had taken America back. What they never counted on was a million women in pink hats that are going to take America forward." 

Saturday, January 21, 2017

Why I didn't end up in DC

It's a sort of a for-want-of-a-nail type story. Except in reverse. And not really about a nail, unless that's what the thing in the above photo started as. I expected to be in Washington, DC, for the Women's March the day after Trump's inauguration. I had the time off, I had a place to stay thanks to the UU congregation in the city.

But from the beginning it was almost as if I wasn't going to end up there. I planned to leave home around nine o'clock Friday, but I didn't leave the house until nearly eleven. My GPS had timed my drive at about thirteen hours, so that would put me in DC after midnight. Then as I was crossing the Chicago Skyway Bridge, a mere couple hundred yards from the Indiana border, my tire went flat. I spent roughly an hour on the Bridge changing the tire, which threw my shoulder out something fierce. I was successful, but then I had to get a new tire. A donut simply wasn't going to last from Chicago to DC. Waiting around for another tire and for it to be changed chewed up at least another hour.

I got back on the road, but shortly after leaving Gary, I was engulfed by fog, dropping visibility to nearly a half mile. By seven o'clock, I had only made Elkhart, Indiana, perhaps a third the distance I needed to cover. So I hedged my bets, decided my best option was to travel on straight to Pennsylvania to visit my father (my intent for the vacation anyway), contacted my host, and stopped for the night at a place on the Michigan border.

I called my wife this morning and told her of my divided sensibility, this feeling of wanting to be in one place but opting to be in another. But my wife, who likes to downplay her own wisdom, pointed out that my decision to visit my father was more what was necessary than another body at the protest. The elderly, she said, were among the most vulnerable of populations, and it's the vulnerable who need the greatest love and help during what will come. Wisdom, as I say.

So today I spent driving the rest of the distance, listening to the coverage on Sirius XM's Progressive 127. It was, in some ways, both an enjoyable and humbling experience. I was envious, looking at occasion at FB friends' pictures from their own marches, some in DC and some in other cities, feeling I was missing out, having given up an opportunity to be a part of history. But I was also made hopeful in new and unexpected ways by the numbers of people who were. Listening to the radio, songs playing on the radio seemed to me like messages of kismet from deejays: "Revolution" by the Beatles, "Evolve" by Ani DiFranco, "People Have the Power" by Patti Smith, "Volunteers" by Jefferson Airplane, "Stand" by Sly and the Family Stone, "Talkin' Bout a Revolution" by both Tracy Chapman and Living Colour. I felt, if not the pangs of birth for a revolution, then the opening salvo across the bow of the Trumpocalypse.

Saturday, January 14, 2017

To say "That's wrong" out loud

It would be easy, I've come to realize, and I admit it might be better for my mental health, to take the tack I followed most of the time during previous republican presidential administrations: That is, to curl into myself like a fern and focus primarily on my own development, occasionally glancing up to wrinkle my nose at the nasty smell coming from DC or even saying "That's wrong" aloud. But I am too involved now with humanity, with its take and give, its weight and physicality, and with people who, under the policies Trump espoused during his campaign, will be hurt to sit home reading up on economics and etymology. I love the individuals of America more than I used to think, and when I hear them cry I can't ignore them.

Wednesday, January 4, 2017

My resolution

It's tempting, and I've been mightily tempted multiple times in the past month, to curl into myself for a long electoral nap, focusing on only those things that affect my family directly and that appeal to my joy. To become that individual in the ivory (or even wooden) tower. But I know many people who, because of skin color, beliefs, their origin, their states of health, or who they love, are unable to do so. Too many people already are willing to leave them to their own devices, even before the ascension of Orangey McHamsterhands (a nickname a friend brought to my attention, and that makes me smile). This isn't brave. It's the determination not to walk by a house on fire because it isn't my house. My resolution: Not to give in to my life being the only one that matters.