Thursday, April 19, 2018

Shaken: On the Anniversary of the OKC Bombing

When it happened at 9:02 AM on April 19, 1995, I was living far away, in Tacoma, Washington. I had never been to Oklahoma. Nevertheless it shook me.

I had no idea that one day I would live just a few dozen miles north of the site of the attack, that when people asked me where my home was, I'd answer "Oklahoma." Nevertheless it shook me.

I didn't know that I would marry a woman who heard the explosion and felt the Earth shake under her feet, who would remember the hours and days that followed as a haze of stunned horror and moments of involuntary weeping. Nevertheless it shook me.

I did not imagine standing on the memorial site, looking at the the rows of graceful chairs representing the dead and then noticing all the little ones, the ones that stood for the children gone. Nevertheless it shook me.

I did not know that one day I would recognize the distinctive shape of the Survivor Tree, and that it would become for me a symbol of hope in the midst of devastation. But like the world I sat transfixed by the aftermath, unable to wrap my mind around what has happened.

It shook me because it struck in the heart of America--not some big city on the coast that you might imagine the target of terrorist violence, but a city in the heartland that stood for every American town. It was a place that said, "This can happen anywhere."

It shook me because the perpetrator was an American, a disaffected young man so filled with ideological rage and righteousness, so lost and clawing for purpose that he could embrace the delusion that meaning would spring from a war against his own country, his own people, that the deaths of innocents and the shattering of innocence would be some kind of vindication of his life. He was a terrorist who said, "I could come from anywhere."

For years I'd been a student of violence, an advocate of nonviolent methods of resolving conflicts. I'd spoken out against the way that Federal law enforcement agencies were handling the Branch Davidian standoff even before it reached its tragic culmination. But I never saw it coming. I never saw how that bungled siege might help turn an American veteran into a terrorist against his own people even as he imagined himself still a soldier in some righteous war. I never truly understood the power of ideology, wedded to the right psychology, to turn a human being into an agent of horror.

It shook me. And when I see the images and hear the stories, when I stand at the memorial site looking at what difference a single moment can make in the world, I am shaken still.

Monday, April 2, 2018

Oklahoma Teacher's Walkout: A Perspective

Today my wife and thousands of other Oklahoma public school teachers descend on the state capitol in an effort to remind the Oklahoma legislators who they work for: the people of Oklahoma.

Executives of the fossil fuel industry do not work for the people of Oklahoma. They work for their stockholders. Their job is to maximize profits for those stockholders, and one way to do that is to convince state legislators to pass laws that help the stockholders get rich. And for many years now, corporate lobbyists have succeeded in doing just that. It's not their fault. They're just going their job to make as much money for the stockholders as they can.

Of course, the state legislators don't work for those stockholders but for all the people of Oklahoma. And they are called to think long-term, to care about Oklahoma's future and not just the stockholders of this or that company. Nothing is more central to the welfare of Oklahoma going into the future than a vibrant public education system, sufficiently funded to help each student achieve their highest potential.

But Oklahoma legislators, it seems to me, have lost sight of this truth, starving public education for years in order to give corporate tax breaks, primarily to fossil fuel companies. Those tax breaks don't serve the people of Oklahoma. The fossil fuel companies aren't going to leave the state for a lower tax rate elsewhere, because the fossil fuels are HERE. They want access to them--to the natural resources that belong collectively to the people of this state.

Paying their fair share to support the collective future of the state, ensuring that an educated workforce is available for them and every other business, should be part of the price of admission. Of course, it's the job of big business executives to get as much for free as they can, including not paying the price of admission, not doing their fair share to support Oklahoma's long-term survival.

It's the job of Oklahoma legislators to tell them no. But state legislators have instead been acting like employees of these big businesses, starving education in the process.

And so our teachers are saying no. Our teachers are saying enough. Education is the future of this state, and the future is being starved by a legislature that has forgotten who they work for. And so the teachers, who have not forgotten, are rising up and demanding that our legislature remember.

Our legislators have so far responded by saying, "How about we feed you a little better than we have been while continuing to let your students starve? Isn't that wonderful? Hooray for us! You should thank us for such a wonderful proposal and if you don't, you're just being greedy!"

Or teachers have answered, "Our children are still being starved."

Today, I hope, the legislators of Oklahoma will open their eyes, remember who they are and who they are supposed to represent--all the people of Oklahoma, including our children--and do the right thing.

Corporate executives have their lobbyists. The children of Oklahoma have our teachers. Pray that out teachers have the eloquence and resolve to make a difference. Pray that our elected Representatives will be moved to implement real change shaped by the real needs of the people they represent, rather than being constrained by some artificial concept of political expediency shaped by corporate interests.

Let all of us stand with our teachers and say, "Feed our children."

Thursday, February 15, 2018

A Plea for Meaningful Conversations: Gun Violence Edition

I want to have productive conversations about gun violence in this country, in part because I want my children to be safe and healthy and alive--and if we just shout at each other every time there's another mass shooting, we won't be able to take the steps that it makes sense to take.

When I first started seriously wrestling with this issue in the wake of Sandy Hook, I discovered that many of my own thoughts on guns were deeply naive and based on misunderstandings. This is not surprising. I grew up in a family that would never even consider owning a gun. I have not only never fired a gun but I have never physically handled a functional gun. I have absolutely no interest in ever doing so. But living for close to two decades in Oklahoma, I am immersed in a gun culture where gun ownership is routine and living without guns is as unthinkable to many as possessing one is to me.

I learned that as someone who has never physically touched a gun, I am understandably ignorant about them. I've made some effort to overcome this ignorance on a theoretical level (I now know, for example, that a semi-automatic AR-15 is not functionally very different from a standard hunting rifle), but I can imagine very few conditions under which I would be willing to actually touch a real gun. To me, they are symbolically bound up with human death in a way that makes the very thought of touching one fill me with nausea. And each new mass shooting--especially when the victims are children--only increases my aversion.

But guns are tools. They have legitimate uses. Some people use them to hunt, and the traditions of hunting give meaning across generations. Some find legitimate pleasure in target shooting, testing and improving their marksmanship in competitive sports. While I think the protective power of guns in private hands is overrated compared to other ways of staying safe--good locks on your doors, cultivating strategies of nonviolent conflict resolution, affirming the dignity and humanity of everyone you meet--there are occasions when a gun in the right hands could save lives.

And there are occasions when a gun in the wrong hands could turn vibrant young adults with their futures ahead of them into corpses. And while a culture that treats guns with respect, as tools that should be used with due care, has value, there exist subcultures that seem to fetishize guns in a way that is almost pornographic--subcultures that take twisted pleasure in the very things that make me nauseous.

We need to have honest conversations that distinguish between law-abiding users and those who would do violence, between a culture in which guns are a dangerous tool to be treated with caution and respect and a culture in which guns become a focus for feeding unhealthy and dangerous psychological urges. We need to make distinctions so that we can make changes--changes that keep us and those we love safer but respect our diverse heritages and traditions and experiences.

How can we have these conversations? What steps can we take to open ourselves up and have meaningful, productive dialogue with people whose views on guns are very different from our own?

I would discourage any answers that are only about how "they" have to change, how "they" are too unreasonable to talk to. What can "we" do to open up conversations in ways that inspire reasonableness and honesty and, hopefully, progress?

Correcting Unhelpful Gun Slogans

In light of recent tragic events in this country, I thought it might help to re-post some thoughts on how we talk about guns. Some common gun slogans gloss over important truths, making it harder for us to have thoughtful conversations. If we want to move forward as a country, part of what we need to do is set aside such unhelpful slogans in favor of thoughts that are more accurate and complete.

I don't pretend to know how to solve the epidemic of gun violence in this country. Even if, in theory, our country would be safer if far fewer people had guns and guns were much harder to acquire, the reality is that the guns are already out there in huge numbers. And the gun culture in the US pretty much ensures that any attempt to forcibly reduce the number of guns that are out there would be met with entrenched resistance--not just political resistance but other forms, in some cases armed resistance that could magnify bloodshed in this country rather than reduce it.

It seems to me that some policies make sense, even if they don't make a huge dent in the problem: closing the gun-show loophole, instituting mandatory training and licencing for gun owners, registering guns and keeping track of ownership in something like the way we do with cars.

But while I don't have a clear sense of how to solve the problem, I do know that certain slogans don't help us to think clearly and carefully as we collectively pursue a solution. So I've decided to correct a few of these problematic slogans. Here goes:

Slogan 1: "Guns don't kill people. People kill people."

Correction: "Guns don't kill people. People kill people--but they frequently do it with guns, at least in the US, since guns are one of the most efficient tools for killing people and they are readily available. Since guns are tools specifically designed to kill things, they make it so much easier to quickly and efficiently (or accidentally, in the case of careless owners and toddlers) turn a living human being into a corpse."

Comment: The slogan above trivializes the killing power of guns. But the first step in responsible gun ownership is to respect the deadly potency of these weapons. Just as with cars, a gun in the wrong hands is a tragedy waiting to happen. It is recognition of this fact which inspires us, as a society, to train would-be drivers and test and license them before we let them operate a car unsupervised. Promulgating slogans that obscure how dangerous guns are is a bad idea if we want to come up with sound public policies and encourage private responsibility.

Slogan 2: "If guns are outlawed, only outlaws will have guns."

Correction: "If guns are regulated such that everyone who purchases a gun (even at a gun show) is required to undergo background checks designed to block those we all agree shouldn't be entrusted with a gun, everyone will still have access to guns, but those who can't get them legitimately will have to rely on the black market and so will be guilty of a crime for which they can be arrested--meaning law enforcement will have a legal basis for taking action in cases where, had the guns been available for legal purchase, police hands would be tied until the guns were actually put to use in tragic ways."

Comment: Outlawing guns is not seriously proposed, nor is it politically feasible in the US. Arguably, it's also unconstitutional. More careful regulation of gun sales to keep guns out the hands of "outlaws" will, in a perfect world, mean that outlaws won't have access to guns but law-abiding citizens will. In our less-than-perfect world, "outlaws" might still get them from the black market. But if they do, they've committed a crime. And that magnifies the options that law enforcement has for preventive action.

Slogan 3: "The surest guard against tyranny is a well-armed citizenry."

Correction A: "The surest guard against tyranny is a military with a conscience."

Correction B: "The surest guard against tyranny is an informed and engaged citizenry with a conscience."

Comment: If the US government decides to impose tyrannical rule, armed citizens won't have much of a chance against the US military. Really. They'll get slaughtered. If the government decides to turn its formidable coercive power against its own citizens, our best hope is that our military, made up of our own young men and women, will say no.

But of course, tyrannical regimes tend to know that soldiers won't happily start shooting their own. They know that their power depends on the obedience of the soldiers who kill for them, and that these soldiers come from the very communities the tyrants want to control.

That's why tyrants are much more sneaky and incremental. They use ideological indoctrination and propaganda that plays on our fears and insecurities, selling their repressive system bit by bit as an essential means of promoting safety. They'll be especially interested in winning the allegiance of those who are most angry and most well-armed. They do this by pandering to these groups and carefully directing their fear and anger towards scapegoats who are blamed for everything that's wrong with the country. Pretty soon, the well-armed citizenry has been absorbed into the tyrant's forces and is kept busy herding Muslims into concentration camps (or something along those lines).

But if we live in a society that refuses to be sucked in by these us/them ideologies, a society whose citizens stand for human rights without discrimination and who keep themselves informed about current events and engaged in political life, then these indoctrination tactics are far less likely to work. Tyranny will be stripped of one of its most tried-and-true strategies for taking control.

In short, reasoned discussion about guns requires each of the following:
(a) Appreciation of and healthy respect for the lethal power of guns.
(b) Recognition that the choice is not between unrestricted access and a ban; the aim, instead, is to find a regulatory scheme that reflects the kind of balance between public safety and individual rights that is in play with automobiles.
(c) Setting aside naive fantasies that large-scale gun ownership is an effective safeguard against tyranny, and replacing it with the more realistic view that our best guard against tyranny is a citizenry committed to fairness and human rights and politically aware and engaged in our democratic processes.

(Originally posted Dec. 8, 2015 under the title "I Fixed It! Gun Slogan Edition")

Thursday, December 14, 2017

Evangelical Credibility and Strategic Alliances with the Morally Compromised

My evangelical friends who voted for Donald Trump last year tended to offer the same explanation: both Trump and Clinton were morally odious characters, but Trump had promised to make pro-life Supreme Court appointments while Clinton was sure not to.

And so, a strategic alliance was forged.

Of course, some evangelicals whitewashed Trump's character in defiance of what strikes me as overwhelming evidence that the man is fundamentally out of touch with anything in the vicinity of Christian values. I suspect that on some level they knew the truth but had a hard time feeling good about voting for him for purely strategic reasons. But most of the evangelicals I know who voted for Trump saw him as the lesser of two evils--meaning they saw him as an evil, but as one they could work with.

They had a deal with him. The entitled trust fund billionaire from New York City who has never been a principled advocate for life (or for choice, since he has no core principles at all) gets to wear the title of president in exchange for enacting legislation and judicial appointments that promote evangelical concerns.

Their vote was about political realism. Sometimes you have to make deals with the devil. Of course, deals with the devil tend to have costs--but if you're making a deal with the devil to serve God's agenda, won't God shield you from those costs?

Apparently not. At least not all of them. And thinking about the costs of making such deals is important.

Fast-forward a year. Roy Moore, who has long posed as a conservative evangelical fighter for bringing God into the public square, is coasting towards becoming the new Senator from Alabama. And then the news breaks: a credible report, well-vetted, by a woman who says that when she was fourteen and Moore was in his thirties, he engaged in sexual acts with her (short of intercourse). More corroborating stories pour in, some more credible than others. It's reported that when Moore was in his thirties he was so active in pursuing teen girls in the Gadsden Mall that he developed a reputation, and security at the mall was on guard when he was there.

There is a brand of belligerent finger-pointing Christianity--a culture-warrior kind of Christianity that attacks those who are Other, that wears Christianity like a visible cloak of righteousness rather than a humble vocation--that is particularly attractive to those who have deep moral flaws but who lack the moral courage to confront and confess with sincere humility. Instead, they try to find righteousness in an ideology of division: there is the in-group, and there's the out-group, and being part of the in-group is what makes you good despite the evils you know are lurking in your soul.

Sometimes, the most vigorous agents of this us-them brand of Christianity are really fighting to justify themselves through the easy righteousness of belonging to the right group (instead of engaging in the deeply frightening task of confronting their sins honestly, feeling sincere remorse and penitence, and making a humble effort to open themselves up to grace).

If you want my analysis of Moore, that's it. But whether this is right or not, it's clear that Moore's Christian warrior persona was masking something dark--and in the weeks before the election, that darkness was exposed.

But Moore was a pro-life Republican, and his opponent in the Senate race, Doug Jones, was a pro-choice Democrat. Whatever Moore's moral flaws, there was again the deal to think about: If Moore loses, then the Republican majority in the Senate shrinks and it becomes harder for Republicans to push through legislation that favors evangelical concerns. Worse, the Senate becomes two Senators shy of a Democratic majority with the power to block judicial nominations.

And so, evangelicals in Alabama were confronted with another deal-with-the-devil scenario. Again, some tried to whitewash: "Adult men dating teens isn't so bad" (!!!) or "It's just a plot of the liberal media to discredit a good Christian man" (etc.). But many evangelicals knew that the allegations against Moore were credible. Not all of the ones that came out in the wake of the original charges perhaps, but enough to form a reinforcing set of reports that were heavily vetted by stringent journalistic standards.

Some of my evangelical friends who voted for Trump based on the strategic-alliance-with-the-lesser-evil argument were hesitant to do the same in the case of Moore, because they were worried about the costs. Others were less worried.

So, here's the question: should evangelicals be worried about the costs of making deals and strategic alliances with morally compromised politicians?

One of the main costs is to credibility. At stake is whether evangelicals will be seen as a credible voice of Christian values in the public sphere.

Today I read a George Will essay, "Trump's Moore Endorsement Sunk the Presidency to Unplumbed Depths," and one paragraph in particular stood out for me. It was a paragraph about Will's take on American evangelicals.

Keep in mind that Will has long been a standard-bearer of conservatism in American public life. While his essays often mask logical leaps with brilliant rhetorical flourishes (and while he loves the art of the creative insult), he has been an eloquent defender of conservative political values for decades. He is not a fan of the Democratic Party, of the Clintons, of the progressive political agenda that evangelicals oppose. So it matters what Will thinks of evangelicals in way that it doesn't matter what, say, Bill Maher thinks of them. It speaks to whether evangelical credibility in public discourse is eroding.

Here's what George Will says:
Moore has been useful as a scythe slicing through some tall stalks of pretentiousness: The self-described “values voters” and “evangelicals” of pious vanity who have embraced Trump and his Alabama echo have some repenting to do before trying to reclaim their role as arbiters of Republican, and American, righteousness. We have, alas, not heard the last from them, but henceforth the first reaction to their “witness” should be resounding guffaws.    
Resounding guffaws. I am a Christian. I do not label myself as an evangelical (although I belong to the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America), because even though I embrace the term in its original meaning it has come to be associated with a kind of Christianity that isn't mine. Nevertheless, it pains me a little to hear George Will, a conservative staple, speak of evangelicals as a proper target of derision. I know that for many, evangelicals are the public face of American Christianity. They stand in for Christianity as a whole, such that derision directed towards them spills over onto Christianity more broadly.

The Christian faith is too beautiful, too important, to become the object of mockery. And to the extent that it becomes such an object, it loses far more than it can gain through short-term political alliances.

At its best, Christianity transcends partisan politics, nurturing a kind of human community that is not about the ugliness of political campaigns and us-vs-them conflict but aspires towards a beloved community that seeks fellowship across all such divisions. The the extent that evangelicals have become mired in partisan politics, tying their fate to one political party, they have lost touch with something essential. The same is true, of course, for progressive Christianity, which often weds itself too closely to the political successes and failures of the democrats.

But the problems become even deeper when Christians of any stripe are unwilling to be honest about the deep flaws of "their" candidate. When credible accusations against "their" political candidate are dismissed or whitewashed or trivialized in favor of political expediency, Christianity becomes a political movement infected by the partisanship and ugliness of politics, rather than a different kind of movement.

A movement defined by values at odds with the divisiveness of politics.

A movement that replaces the tribalism of human life with the understanding of all humanity and all creation as beloved children of the same God of love.

A movement that follows Christ, who refused to play partisan politics, who rejected in-groups and out-groups, who sought a different path than the path of political power--choosing instead to die for the sake of those who rejected and despised him.

Only when we reclaim Christianity as a non-political movement can we reclaim the moral authority to transform humanity's partisan impulses rather than be transformed by them. And this is hard to do. I am preaching as much to myself here as I am to anyone else.

As Christian voters we may be forced to choose between the lesser of two evils--and we will often disagree about which is which. Sometimes both evils presented seem sufficiently grave we may be obligated to "throw away our vote" on a third party candidate or a write-in; sometimes one evil is so grave compared to the other that we should choose the lesser evil. Again, we will disagree about when we face which kind of dilemma. 

But we should avoid, I think, political alliances and deals with what we take to be the lesser evil. Instead, we must retain the independence and groundedness in moral principle to speak against whatever evils remain in our political life. As soon as we choose the lesser evil, we must stand against the evil that resides in what we have chosen--and this is not something we can do if we make deals with the evil we have chosen, and so have been co-opted by the system of partisan politics.

(It goes without saying here that the "evil" should not be identified with a person, who is a creation of God, beloved and precious, but the wicked character that corrupts, the sinful agendas that can do so much harm, etc.)

We live in the world, and so we must engage with politics. But we need to find a way to engage while rising enough above it so that we can critique and transform it. And we must always think about the credibility and moral authority that is essential for that task.

Tuesday, November 14, 2017

Should Roy Moore Withdraw?

Should Roy Moore withdraw from the Senate race in favor of another Republican candidate?

There are different ways to approach this question. You could approach it as a moral question. Or you could approach it as purely a question of political expediency.

I think the question of political expediency is easily answered but far less important. If you're a Republican, then even if you care only about retaining the Republican majority in the Senate and nothing about the moral character of office-holders (hopefully that isn't true of my Republican friends), the answer would seem to be this: you should hope that Moore withdraws and try to convince him to do so. Democrats who care nothing about moral integrity (hopefully not the case for my Democratic friends) would likewise hope that he stays in the race.

The reason for this is pretty clear. In Alabama, the Republican nominee for a Senate seat would ordinarily be a lock to win. But now we have this growing body of allegations from both women and people in Moore's home town, all painting Moore as someone with a history (while he was an adult professional in his 30s) of sexual pursuit of teenager girls as young as 14. One allegation, if true, would be a clear case of sexual assault. This situation means that if Moore does not withdraw, a seat that is usually reliably Republican has become vulnerable. And so Republicans who care only about party victory should call for Moore to withdraw, and Democrats who care only about party victory should sit back and hope he stays in the race while the scandal grows.

But what should people who care about basic decency, regardless of politics, recommend? Here, there are two questions that seem relevant. First, how bad is it for a man in his 30s to chase after girls as young as 14, and what does it say about that person more broadly? I'm not going to explore this question because I find the answer obvious: it's very bad and says nothing good. This is why I've stopped watching Kevin Spacey, whatever his acting skills. 14 year olds are children.

The second question has to do with when we should believe a charge of this magnitude when it is leveled against someone. More precisely, when can I legitimately act on such a belief? Here, it matters what kind of action we're talking about. There's a big difference between locking someone away based on a belief, and withdrawing political support or urging someone to withdraw from a political race.

The question of whether to support a political candidate is a different question than that of whether to convict someone of a crime. We don't want to lock away innocent people, and so in a courtroom we should presume innocence until guilt is proved. But we don't want to risk having seriously morally compromised people wielding enormous political power, which is why "innocent until proven guilty" is surely too high a standard of evidence for decisions about who to support for political office.

Accusations are of course easy to make, and so uncorroborated accusations may be insufficient reason to withdraw support from a candidate. But when there are enough allegations whose verifiable details have been confirmed, all mutually reinforcing each other, to make a claim of this sort *credible*, that strikes me as enough to warrant withdrawing political support.

Of course, so much hinges on our trust in the journalistic integrity of those who report these allegations and the investigation into them. Here, it makes a difference to me that the story was broken by a venerable newspaper that, whatever its political biases, is known for having the highest standards in terms of gathering evidence and assessing the credibility of sources before going to print. The Washington Post (like every news outlet) may be influenced by political bias when it comes to choosing which stories to focus on, but when they report on a story their reputation for following journalistic standards is high.

Are there skeletons in other political closets that haven't been exposed and are just as bad? Probably. But we cannot ignore a skeleton that has fallen out of a closet because of hypothetical skeletons that might be hiding in other closets.

So: I think Moore is now a vulnerable candidate whose continued candidacy might actually give a Democrat an unprecedented chance of a win in Alabama. But I think Democrats should ignore this and join calls for Moore to step aside in favor of another Republican candidate even though this means closing a political "opportunity." And I think Republicans should call for him to step aside for a reason far more important than politics: because it's the right thing to do.

Thursday, November 9, 2017

New Interview about THE TRIUMPH OF LOVE--and some thoughts on the audience for my book

A few weeks back, Candace Chellew-Hodge interviewed me about my new book, The Triumph of Love: Same-Sex Marriage and the Christian Love Ethic. That interview, "Reconsidering 'Love the Sinner, Hate the Sin': An Interview with Ethicist Eric Reitan," is now posted over at Religion Dispatches.

On reading what I said in the interview, there's one thing especially that stands out to me: When asked about who I hoped would read the book, there's a category of people I didn't mention--a category that, as I've been reflecting on this question since that interview, has emerged as the one I most want to reach with the arguments in the book.

The problem is I don't know how. The problem is that I think on some deep level I was talking to a particular group of people as I was writing much of this book, but that the conversation was not merely hypothetical as I was writing, but will be largely hypothetical in reality.

The category I have in mind is this one: closeted LGBT people who are still part of very conservative Christian communities, who have internalized the idea that they are in some fundamental way broken, and who have not had any kind of meaningful or sustained exposure to the idea--expressed in my book and elsewhere--that Christian ethics doesn't have to be understood in the way that is causing them such anguish.

I'm talking about those who have come to see self-repression and mandatory lifelong celibacy as their only path forward consistent with being a faithful Christ-follower, and who have appropriated the language of "costly discipleship" to understand their own struggle and life story--so much so that the liberatory message of those LGBT Christians who have already found joy and meaning in a different vision just strikes them as "too easy."

I think that audience may actually have been the one I had in the back of my mind when I wrote my book--a book which engages seriously with the conservative ideas and arguments that this audience has been immersed in, ideas and arguments that feel not only like a cage, but like an inescapable one.

The thing is this: I have friends who used to live in such cages. And they were told that the bars of the cage were solid steel, that it had no doors, no way out, no escape that didn't lead to their own ruin. Some of them discovered that the cage wasn't inescapable after all, and they ran as far and fast as they could--rejecting the Christianity that had caged them along with everything that went with it. Others languished for too long before they discovered that the cage door was made of tissue, and that beyond it was a road that didn't lead to damnation but to something else: a vital integration of their Christian faith with who they are, a deeper and more joyful connection with God, the possibility of discipleship in communion with a beloved life partner--rather than a requirement of costly discipleship whose demands of self-repression serve as a constant and sometimes debilitating distraction from discipleship itself.

Sometimes I fantasize about what I might say to these friends if I could go back in time, back when they still felt trapped. What could I say, a straight Christian LGBT ally who hasn't been in a cage myself, that might be helpful--that might help them find that escape and that promising road sooner rather than later?

Dismissing the cage--refusing to take seriously the ideas and arguments that seem to bind them--wouldn't be enough. Many LGBT Christians who have escaped their own cages have little patience with the conservative arguments: taking them seriously enough to engage with them, even critically, is like stepping back into the cage in their imaginations. By taking the cage seriously they're giving it some power, some shadow of the kind of power that was once, for them, all-consuming. The refusal to give it that kind of power is not only understandable but essential.

But for those who are still in the cage, any approach that doesn't take it seriously feels like a denial of their lived reality. As a straight ally, I can take it seriously enough to show where the bars are tissue-thin, where there are wide-open spaces and no bars at all, where to look to see that the entire cage is really just a debilitating illusion. And I can do that without finding myself caught once more, even a little, in an illusion that once trapped me. I can do that because, as an ally, I was never a prisoner.

And as a straight cis Christian man, my message can't be dismissed as self-serving, as just an attempt to escape the costly discipleship to which I've been called. And so at least one of the conservative messages that helps to keep the illusion of the cage in place doesn't affect my voice.

Of course, there are so many things that LGBT persons have to say--about their experience, about the traditional Christian condemnations, about their journeys along the more promising road--that are so much more important than anything a straight ally can say or do. But that doesn't mean I'm not called to ask, "What am I uniquely positioned to say and do?", and then do it.

The Triumph of Love is part of my answer to that question. And when I think about the deepest motive for writing it, I picture myself speaking to a friend who's in a cage of teachings and arguments that seem so solid from within. I picture myself in that hypothetical place, saying what I wish I could say.

My hope is that it's not just hypothetical.

Wednesday, November 1, 2017


Because yesterday was the 500th anniversary of the start of the Protestant Reformation--marked by the publication of Martin Luther's 95 Theses--I've been thinking about the idea of reformation, and what significance that idea has for us today.

As a Lutheran, I belong to a church that was born through the efforts of Luther and Philip Melanchthon and others to reform the church. In taking that monumental step, not only did they stand against certain abuses of the church at the time while standing up for specific theological ideas, they also stood for the idea of reform itself.

Reform is not revolt or rejection. Reform begins with a spirit of allegiance. It begins with the idea that there is something here of value, but something that has become, we might say, deformed. We don't repair what we don't value. Instead, we throw it away. If a ship sets sail for a destination we don't want to arrive at, we may not be especially bothered if it has drifted off course.

The desire for reform is like the desire to heal the sick--something we wouldn't do if we didn't value them and their health.

In other words, there's something conservative about reform. When we heal the sick, we may try to cut out tumors or kill bacteria, but it's for the sake of the conserving the life of the patient.

But reformation is also about criticism and change. It is about identifying sickness and seeking a world where that sickness no longer distorts, no longer impedes, no longer puts us off course. It's about saying, "The way things are is imperfect. And these imperfections are not something we should just be content to live with. Even if perfection is beyond us, we can and must strive to move in its direction by identifying flaws and failures and correcting what we can."

Reform, in other words, is progressive. It is about valuing our inheritance enough to progressively identify and correct its flaws. To be a reformer is to criticize and correct.

And I don't think we can truly embrace the Reformation if all we do is embrace the specific criticisms and corrections of Luther and other reformers of that age.

Let me explore this point a little more deeply. Luther persistently declared that we are all in bondage to sin, and as my pastor reminded the congregation on Sunday, in the first of his 95 Theses Luther stressed that Christ "willed the entire life of believers to be one of repentance."

Repentance, like reform, is an act of change. It is a change of direction--the Hebrew word for it means "return," and is about turning back to God; the Greek term is about changing one's mind, or perhaps rising above one's mind (something that can only be done with the help of what is greater than oneself). To repent is to correct one's course or even rise above one's limits. When Luther claimed that the Christian life is one of repentance, he seemed to be envisioning an ongoing process of turning ever back to the only thing that can lift us above our limits, turning ever back because so long as our limits remain we will drift off course.

To become what we are meant to be--children of God who consistently reflect in our lives and our souls the loving essence of our creator--we must continually turn away from the pettiness and jealousy and bigotry and egotism that our broken natures incline towards. We must turn instead towards the God who is love, the God who loves us and calls us to love one another, the God who fills us with the power to love when we turn to God in love.

Or perhaps, in the spirit of Luther, I should put the point a bit differently: we must stop turning away from God, stop choosing the pettiness and jealousy and bigotry and egotism, stop hugging these things close to our hearts as if they were our god. We should, instead, let God turn us toward the divine love; and whenever we notice ourselves rejecting that love, as we will, we should again just stop.

To suppose that this is the proper life for the Christian but not the proper life for the church is to suppose that a community of people is somehow immune to the limits of individuals. And while it is true that communities can stand firm against things that individuals fall before, it is also true--as theologian Reinhold Niebuhr noted in his book, Moral Man in Immoral Society, that humanity in its collective life can fall prey to evils of a magnitude that no individual could ever dream of.

Human flaws play out differently in collective life than in private, but they play out with as much inevitability. Within a group, members can encourage and support mutual care in a way that makes us better towards one another than we might otherwise be. But often, as Niebuhr pointed out, the effect is to inspire us to channel our moral impulses so fully towards other members of the group that we direct none of those impulses towards the "other," towards people at the margins and members of other tribes not our own. Our tribal origins can lead us to restrict our moral sentiments so that we are moral only within our group. We fall prey to us/them ideologies that pit our group against others and that represent salvation as found in the defeat--the destruction or humiliation or oppression--of rival groups and communities.

Human communities are organized around institutions and ideas, social structures and systems of belief. And because human communities are made up of finite human beings with tribal impulses that create us/them divisions and limit our moral sentiments to "us", we are always in danger of shaping our communal social structures and belief systems to serve these tribal instincts. The way to overcome that is to never stop criticizing and correcting our own social structures and belief systems. And this includes the ones that are precious to us. In fact, it especially applies to the most important, the most valuable, the most meaning-enriching systems for organizing our social lives.

If there is a communal aspect to Christian life (and there is), it is the church. And so, just as repentance is a never-ending need of the individual, reformation of the church is the never-ending call of the Christian community.

It didn't stop with Luther and his allies. Luther was well-positioned by his life circumstances and unique talents to discern and speak out against a distinct set of abuses within the church. But like all of us, he was in bondage to sin, as is evidenced by his tendency towards rhetorical excesses that strayed out of the domain of passion into that of verbal abuse. More importantly, it is evidenced by the virulent anti-Jewish diatribes of his later life--diatribes that were used and exploited by the Nazis in largely-Lutheran Germany to fuel one of the most horrific genocidal evils of human history: the Holocaust that systematically organized the murder of millions of Jews (as well as gypsies, gays, and others).

I am gratified that my denomination, the ELCA, along with the Lutheran World Federation, in 1994 clearly and unequivocally repudiated the evil of Luther's anti-Jewish hatred and the deeper evils that it helped to breed. This reforming act was late in coming, and one might wonder how history would have gone differently if this act of reformation had happened sooner. But this very question speaks to the urgency of the reforming project. We are blind to so much, and we trivialize or put off what is far more important than we know. It becomes especially easy for our churches to capitulate to evils when those evils have seeped into and found expression within the church itself, and we have failed to take seriously enough the duty of reformation.

If we honor only the specific reforms that Luther called out for but do not embrace the spirit of reformation that Luther embodied, then we become mired in the limitations of Luther's vision. Worse, without ongoing reformation, those limitations are compounded by the distinctive limitations of each subsequent generation. Without ongoing reformation, each generation of the church has an opportunity to let its own collective expression of human sinfulness twist and distort and corrupt what it has inherited. Rather that progressively working to improve an inheritance that is inevitably flawed by human sin, we cement the flaws with our lack of critical reflection, and we layer onto them our own generation's unique ways of going wrong.

The Reformation isn't something that happened five hundred years ago; it's something that needs to happen over and over again. The Reformation was a reminder of a responsibility that all of us have at all times--something that the church did in fits and starts before Luther's 95 Theses were nailed to the Wittenberg Cathedral door, and something that we are called to do today. 

Thursday, October 19, 2017

The Fear-Mongering Dilemma

This morning, I read an article: "The Allure of the Far Right Demands Immediate Action." It was about the recent Values Voters summit, especially focusing on Steve Bannon's fiery address at that event. The author, Adele M. Stan, describes Bannon's speech as "a dark, apocalyptic address" featuring a "burn-it-all-down litany of grievances" that "set the house on fire." She went on to speak in frightening terms about the overall atmosphere of the summit:
A menacing undercurrent flowed throughout the Values Voter conference, not only in hyperbolic descriptions of the supposed threats to Western civilization posed by Islam and the American left, but in veiled threats, couched in the language of violence, directed at opponents of the Trump agenda.
What we are left with is a portrait of fear-mongers skillfully fueling the anxieties of a group of people, inspiring them to see themselves as under siege, as facing such dire threats to their existence or way of life that they need to take decisive action to defeat these threats.

The article left me feeling more frightened than I'd been before, less optimistic about the prospect of a peaceful future for this country and the world, and more worried about threats to civil discourse and civil society. The message of the article was that these fear-mongers and their followers pose a serious threat to our safety and way of life, and we need to take action.

Here is the dilemma. Fear-mongering is dangerous. It puts people in a defensive posture where they see others as a threat, a posture from which they are more likely to strike out violently. The more that fear is stoked, the more serious our conflicts become and the less likely we are to find peaceful, integrative solutions that meet everyone's needs.

And there are people today--and I an convinced that Steve Bannon is among them--who have elevated fear-mongering to an art form and are stoking the human capacity for fear by convincing those who listen that their lives or ways of life are in dire peril. They are fueling divisions and inspiring fear of those on the other side of the fabricated divides, and their rhetoric is laced with violent imagery and the notion that a violent confrontation is inevitable.

And then there are those who warn us about these masters of fear-mongering and the crowds sucked in by them. And their warnings put us in danger of a second-order fear-mongering, one that fuels fear of the fear-mongers and their followers.

And I can only imagine that this isn't the solution. Urging us to fear those who peddle fear, it seems to me, can only inspire feedback loops of escalating fear and defensiveness, bringing us closer to the brink.

In fact, I suspect that the fear-mongers are counting on this response. "If we sow seeds of suspicion and fear among those who are prone to follow us, there will be those who will become more afraid of us and our followers, afraid of the growing potential for violence that we represent, and will begin raising the alarms among those who weren't sucked in by our fear-mongering. This will start a cycle that will help our efforts to sow fear, as our followers feel the defensive anger of these others in a way that we can play on to magnify the defensive hostility of those we've seduced."

But what can we do? Fear mongering is dangerous. It is a threat to civil society. So how do we get people to take it seriously and stand against it without issuing warnings that become a kind of second-order fear-mongering that only fuels the fire of fear? How do we mobilize the forces required to de-fang the fear-mongers without stoking fear?

There is a difference, of course, between legitimate warnings and fear-mongering--but my worry is that once fear-mongers have gotten a sufficiently strong foothold in our polity, this line of distinction begins to matter less, and even carefully circumscribed warnings can become fuel for feedback loops of escalating fear. We can't avoid calling attention to dangers, so what do we do?

My answers--sowing seeds of hope, becoming love-mongers, building wherever we can bridges of understanding that ease fears--make sense in theory. But how do we implement them at the scale that is required?

Wednesday, September 27, 2017

Some Thoughts on Freedom of Speech in Our Polarized Society

If we care about the founding principles of this country and the values that many have fought and died for, we will stand up (or take a knee?) for the legal right of all citizens to make nonviolent political statements through words and gesture, especially if those statements criticize the government (since the freedom of speech means nothing if not the freedom to criticize the government), and even if we personally think the criticism is misguided. If the statement offends us, we have the freedom to explain why; gratitude for that freedom should inspire us to affirm the right of others to say what offended us without fear of legal punishment.

None of this means any of us has a duty to provide a platform for speech that we think is misguided or wrong. None of it means we are obligated to cut short our time at the microphone to make room for ideas we think are harmful. Part of freedom of speech lies precisely in this right to decide whose voices we use our power to amplify. Another part of freedom of speech lies in the right to vocally denounce and protest the speech of others. This can mean refusing to clear the stage for someone else--refusing, in other words, to cede to them a space to speak without competing voices to distract attention.

We have the right to be a competing or distracting voice.

But the question of rights is distinct from the question of what is the morally best and wisest way to exercise those rights. There are things I have a right to do that I shouldn't do. While my freedom of speech gives me the right to denounce what someone else says based entirely on an unfair misconstrual of their views, that doesn't mean I should.

I should probably try to understand what another person means to say before I denounce it. If another person isn't preaching hate, I might want to hear them out. If good will and human understanding and the cause of justice can be advanced by giving an opposing viewpoint a seat at my table or an hour on my platform, then perhaps I should do that even if I have a right not to.

I should probably make decisions about who to allow onto my platform in ways that enable me to listen to people outside my echo chamber, even though I have a right to shut them out. I should probably also protect myself and others from speech that is just about attacking or degrading me or others--protect myself by refusing to give it a platform. And I should probably make a sincere effort to tell the difference between speech that challenges my beliefs and speech that is just verbal abuse.

The flip side of the freedom of speech is the freedom to listen. The most basic and fundamental way I can amplify another's voice is to turn my attention to it. The freedom of speech is thus inextricably bound up with the freedom to decide who we listen to and why.

And just as with the freedom of speech, we should use this freedom to listen wisely. Cultivating that wisdom is a personal responsibility. One of my most basic convictions about wise listening is this: if people are honestly sharing something of themselves--their values, their experiences, their feelings, their stories, their perspectives and ideas--that calls for more attentive listening than when people are simply repeating party-line talking points as a display of group allegiance or are simply making judgments about others.

When people are simply repeating others' talking points or putting others down, asking honest questions can sometimes inspired them to share of themselves. And this can move us beyond speech that functions as little more than displaying allegiance to "us" while denouncing "them," and towards speech that advances human understanding and community.

What would it look like if we all made the commitment both to protect the freedom of speech and to use that freedom--and the paired freedom to listen--as wisely as we know how? (Such a commitment, by the way, is not a commitment to judging other people for being bad at exercising these freedoms well; it is, rather, a commitment to endeavoring in our own lives to use these freedoms wisely.)