Tuesday, July 19, 2016

Enemies in Politics

Below is the text of the invocation delivered yesterday at the Republican National Convention in Cleveland, OH:


When I wrote yesterday that I generally hate Presidential election politics and wouldn't be watching the convention, this is exactly why. In the eyes of this pastor - and, one can infer, in the eyes of the Trump campaign, since they have issued no denunciation - the Democratic Party is the "enemy" which must be "defeated" in order to "unite" the country.

This is just shy of calling for a politico-religious holy war. Democrats can only be "defeated" in the sense that they may lose some elections. Whoever wins in November, there will still be tens of millions of Democrats in the United States. How do you propose to "unite" the country once you've declared them the "enemy"?

This is terrible, awful, horrible on so many levels. It's bad politics, it's bad theology, it's bad liturgy. That this man would be invited to give such an invocation, and that these words would not be immediately denounced by the party that invited him, is proof positive that, for the Republican Party as it now stands, politics is no longer about trying to make the country better. It is war, a war against their fellow Americans.

I still choose not to be afraid of a Trump Presidency. And I choose not to be afraid of this man and his words of division and hate, uttered in the name of God. But I am saddened beyond my ability to express that our public square, our most visible civic spaces, have become the playground for hatred, division, and strife. I imagine sometime in the next few days someone at the RNC will refer to Democrats as "cockroaches", and the imagery will be complete.

Wake me in December.

Monday, July 18, 2016

Why I Hate Election Politics

We are entering the thick of the Presidential election season, and I hate it. The Republican National Convention opens today in my state (thankfully, up at the other end), and I will not be glued to my TV set watching. I intend to watch as little as possible, and to read only such news coverage as is necessary to follow the basic outlines of what's going on. Unless the convention doesn't nominate the Trump/Pence ticket, and unless there is significant unrest outside the convention hall, none of the rest of it matters.

The reason why I come to this conclusion, and the reason why I hate watching electoral politics in the United States, is that we have abandoned all pretense that elections are actually about anything other than tribes. This is not a comment about the two candidates this year - we've been speeding down this road for some time. I will write separately about why I think the two presumptive nominees are actually different, but that's a topic for another day.

For now, what bothers me so much about the whole mess is the extent to which elections have become an exercise in emotion-driven identity politics. This is true for nearly all people and across pretty much all issues. We want very much to think that elections, and politics in general, are about ideas, about figuring out what's best for the country. But very little that has been said over the past year, and nothing that will be said from here on forward, is really about any of that.

What we're really engaged in is a collective effort at ego protection, wishful thinking, and massive cognitive distortion brought about by emotion-driven biases. I feel Paul Ryan's pain. The poor guy actually has some ideas and wants to have a conversation about them, but nobody else wants to join in - including and especially his party's own nominee. Most Democrats have long since written Ryan off as a stooge for nefarious Koch Brothers schemes, or as simply hopelessly ignorant.

The same can be said, in spades, of Republican responses to Hillary Clinton, all of which boil down to "she's a horrible, untrustworthy human being who is the worst person to ever walk the earth". She, too, has ideas she wants to talk about - goals and plans and policies that she thinks are important. Like Ryan, she's a policy wonk. But the race from here on out is about the theological question of whether she's a demon disguised as a human.

We want so very much to think that we're an Enlightenment society, that reason and argument and logic and evidence are what matter most. But in reality, we have left that past behind (if it ever existed), traded for a modern version of the Hatfields & the McCoys. People have pointed out, with some justification, that Trump is neither conservative nor Republican, and that Hillary (until seriously challenged by Bernie Sanders) wasn't much of a liberal Democrat either. Things are so scrambled up that nobody remembers what we're really fighting about anymore. And what does it matter, as long as my side wins?

Limited government? Sure, except for ongoing wars and regulating sexual politics. Oh, and more police and prisons. Immigration reform? People are all over the place. We're tying ourselves in knots over race relations. And everyone wants more and better jobs. Forget trying to have a reasonable discussion about climate change or GMOs.

When confronted with this, most of us will blame the other side. We, of course, are the reasonable, rational, sane people. It's those other idiots who are insane, stupid, or bent on America's destruction. If only they would be reasonable, everything would be fine. But since they won't, well we really can't have a dialogue, can we?

All of this is confirmation bias and wishful thinking, not just sprinkled on top but thoroughly baked into the entire cake. Yes, we have reasons for voting the way we do. But what we really don't want to face is that most of those "reasons" are rationalizations tacked on the back end. They are the monkey riding the tiger and claiming that it's steering.

All of this is painful to watch and painful to participate in. Yes, I have preferences, and I believe there  are differences of kind (not merely of degree) between the two presumptive candidates (more on that later). I also believe that process is usually more important than outcome, that they way in which we go about seeking solutions has a great deal of impact on the kind of solutions we get, and that the process we are currently using - the scorched-earth, your-side-are-all-traitorous-thugs approach - is making things worse, not better.

So although I study political conflict for a living, I'll not be watching much this week or next. Nor do I think that the effect of the conventions will be positive on the American body politic. I'll try to spend my time instead reminding myself that there are no Democrats and there are no Republicans - there are only people. Gonna be a tough few months for our humanity.

Sunday, July 10, 2016

Who Is My Neighbor? We're Better Than We Think

With all of the difficult news of this past week (and, indeed, this past year), many are asking whether we are coming apart. There is so much anger, so much fear, so much hatred splashed across our headlines and televisions and newspapers every day. We feel more divided than ever. People are dying. And pain, it seems, is everywhere.

In the midst of this, I was witness this morning to a sign of how far, even in the midst of our brokenness, we have already come. I am attending a conference this week in Savannah, Georgia, in the very heart of the Old South. This is a part of the world that has seen much bloodshed and heartache, a place where the economy once ran on the backs of slaves, a place (like all places) with its own particular history of division and tribe and race.

In the midst of the city stands a church, Christ Episcopal Church. Founded in 1733, it bills itself as the "Mother Church of Georgia", being the first congregation of the Church of England founded in the Georgia colony. It may well be the oldest established congregation of Christian worship in the state. Its current building was built in the 1830s and then restored after a fire in the 1890s. John Wesley once served as its rector. It is a place steeped in history.

In that space on a bright, hot summer morning I saw black and white worship together. I listened as a white man, the very embodiment of the racial patriarchy that governed the clergy as well as other aspects of Southern society, preach about the Good Samaritan. He quoted the words of the current Presiding Bishop of the Episcopal Church - a black man - reminding us that God is a God of compassion for all, and "all means ALL".

I then witnessed as a black woman, another priest in the very same church, celebrated the church's holiest sacrament, proclaiming the words of institution of the Holy Eucharist, the bread and wine which we all shared.

And I was struck by the both the beauty and the ordinariness of the moment. This was a congregation at prayer as they do every Sunday, doing things they do week in and week out. There was no sense of revolution, no sense of their life together being somehow radical. And yet, barely a generation or two ago in this very same place, this very same service would have been extremely radical. It would have inflamed passions, ignited arguments, spurred anger and yelling and harsh words - maybe even violence. Today, it's just a part of the fabric of life in this community.

So for those tempted to despair at recent events: take the opportunity to look around with a sense of history. See where we are today, the things we regard as ordinary that not so long ago seemed out of reach. Give thanks for what we have achieved together, the everyday victories of love and community. In the end, the darkness doesn't win. As Martin Luther King Jr. reminded us, the arc of history is long but it bends towards justice - and, let us hope, towards peace and love as well.

Friday, July 8, 2016

How NOT to Deal With Our Broken Society

Less than 24 hours after someone shot a dozen Dallas police officers, somebody already wants to blame the President:


"Political correctness" has become a dog whistle term - not defined so much as it is used as an identity symbol to mark the boundaries between tribes.

If you really want to resolve the issues behind the recent violence, blaming the President is a meaningless act. It will turn away millions of people whose cooperation you need to help solve the problem. It further alienates, further divides, further inflames anger and hatred. It is a pointless gesture in every way - except one.

When we are faced with difficult circumstances, it is natural to want to "circle the wagons" - to fall back within our own tribe, the people we can "really trust", and shut the rest of the world out. Gestures like this meme are designed to circle those wagons and make those on the inside feel righteous. Who cares what those outside the dome thing? We feel better, and that's what matters.

If we lived in a world of small, self-sustaining microeconomies this would be OK. But we don't - we live in a highly interconnected world where most of what we enjoy about our lives is sustained only because we can get along and cooperate with each other.

It doesn't matter what side of the issues you're on - everyone can contribute to a solution, and indeed all of us must. These are complex problems with many points of view. If you really care about making things better, don't build walls - start conversations. Find the points of common value and build on those. Assume that the people you're talking to are people, not cardboard cutouts. Remember that everyone is some mother's son or daughter.

I expect the name-calling and the shouting and the yelling will continue, of course, magnified by all of our various media streams because shouting carries the day. But shouting will not solve our problems. Only talking will. Does anybody want to talk?

More Death, More Brokenness

More shooting. More violence. More death.

It has been a terrible week - not so much in terms of absolute numbers (with the number of annual firearm deaths in the US well north of 10,000, seven or so more doesn't really move the needle much) but because we are forced to confront them. We cannot look away. Most gun homicides and shootings in the US are invisible, often buried even in the local media, so we can pretend they're not there. This week we don't have that luxury.

More grieving. More spouses and partners left to put shattered lives back together. More children sobbing for their parent who they will never see again.

That the victims this time were police is a particular loss. Whatever else may be true of policing across the United States - and it is clear that there are a LOT of problems - police officers have tremendous potential for positive impact. They are role models. They intervene when no one else will, when someone is on the wrong track headed to destruction, and sometimes they turn those people around. And yes, they save lives. How many lives would these officers have impacted had their own not been cut short?

Early indications - and they are VERY early - suggest that the Dallas attack was in some way retaliation for the deaths of black men elsewhere at the hands of police. We know there are a few whites who, like Dylann Roof, would like to ignite a race war. It would come as little surprise to learn that there are a handful of blacks who feel the same. Time will tell whether that story fits the facts or not.

Rather than analyze or explain this specific event, all I can do is look at this in a larger context. I wrote yesterday that the world is broken, and that brokenness hurts. One of the greatest dimensions of that brokenness is our belief, held to the core of our bones, that violence solves problems. Those who carried out the attack in Dallas, whoever they were, decided that violence was their best option to create the world they want. Police officers who shoot first and ask questions later make the same decision, whether they think about it or not.

Of course race is an issue, in powerful and complex ways. There are no simple solutions to that problem - the chief of police in Dallas, for example, is black, which does not seem to have made the issue go away. Diversity among police is important, but it is not the cure-all.

But violence - that is the one thing that unites us. Our faith in the gun, in the efficacy of killing. In the right circumstances we cheer for killing for revenge, for "justice" (by which we mean far too often retribution), even for redemption. We exalt and celebrate those whose job it is to kill. Soldiers and armies may be a necessary evil in this world, but that doesn't mean that we should glory in the fact that we still have wars. Regardless of party or which side of these debates you're on, we almost all share a core belief that violence is a useful thing, a good thing. We only disagree about the appropriate targets.

This is where I think we need to reconsider. I mourn for the loss of Alton Sterling and Philando Castile. I mourn for the loss of Brent Thompson and the other officers who died yesterday, whose names have not yet been released. I mourn for all of them, and grieve with their families, because it is clear that none of this violence is good. It is all brokenness.

If I knew more - if they weren't made invisible by our indifference - I would mourn for the thousands of others shot and killed each year in our country. If we examined their cases as closely as we examine the few that make it into the headlines, we would probably conclude that some were "justified". The suspect attacking a police officer with a knife. The criminal firing at civilians. We can easily call to mind these narratives, where the "good guy with a gun" saved the day against the "bad guy".

But we should mourn for the "bad guys" too - not only because Jesus told us clearly to love our enemies, but because when we hate and revile these people and cheer their deaths, we do so in the dark. We do not know them, or their histories, or how they came to be where and who they were. We judge in almost complete ignorance, knowing nothing about these people and yet absolutely certain of our moral righteousness in calling their death "justified". We're glad they're dead.

In my career I have attended many graduate ceremonies, and have heard a couple dozen speeches. None has ever been as good as the speech given at my own graduation from college 25 years ago by then-Yale Law School Dean Guido Calabresi. In his address he told a series of stories, one of which went something like this:
My third story also concerns someone in Italy, and also at the risk of someone's life. It concerns a farmer on some of our lands in Italy whom I went to see after the war. He had had the reputation that during the war he had hidden at the risk of his life allied servicemen who had been caught behind German lines and were escaping. Jews who were escaping from the Nazis. All the people on the right side of that conflict who were in trouble. But he had also the reputation that the moment things changed in 1944-1945, he hid the Germans who were running away. Now it wasn't at the risk of his life but when they came through, he hid them as well. And I went to see him because I was very young and I thought that this was terrible; that this was someone who did not understand the difference between right and wrong, that he couldn't distinguish between hiding people who deserved to be hidden and hiding criminals. I already sounded like a lawyer, I guess. And when I went to see him, I asked him and he said, "Politics, politics, I don't know anything about that. I don't know anything about those things. I don't care about them. When they came here, when they were running away, each one of them was in trouble. “Erun tutti e figli di mamma” -- They were each the child of some mother somewhere."

Each of us is some mother's child. Each of us is a child of God. What we do with our lives - good things, bad things, heroic things, terrible things - none of those things changes what we are.

When we cheer for violence, when we decide that this group of people needs to die, that those people over there deserve to be killed, we ignore this reality. We divide ourselves up and set upon each other with a zest and a zeal unknown almost anywhere else. We are one of very few species on the planet that kills its own, and we are far better at it than any other.

As we mourn and grieve for the lost, I hope (or wish, for hope is hard to find) that we will find the courage to talk about the things that really matter. One of those things is violence - our addiction to it, our beliefs about it, our misplaced faith in its power. We cannot heal ourselves through others' deaths. But until we really start talking, nothing will change. Tomorrow, and next week, and next month, and next year, more people will die by the hands of their fellow humans. And we will mourn again.


Thursday, July 7, 2016

Knowing Pain, Feeling Pain

In my field, I have spent many years studying conflict. One of the characteristics this breeds is a certain level of dispassion. Most conflict scholars care deeply about resolving conflicts peacefully and without violence. But we don't let those passions affect our day-to-day operation as scholars. This allows us to look at often extraordinary events with a certain level of detachment, which is useful when trying to analyze and understand using the tools of logic and science.

In the past few years, I have written about many emotionally charged incidents. I wrote about Trayvon Martin and George Zimmerman, and about Michael Brown and Darren Wilson. I've written about any number of cases involving the interpersonal use of force by both police and civilians. In most of those cases, innocent lives were lost, which is terrible and tragic. In my writing I've tried to follow the channels of logic and reason, to draw meaning out of complex and highly charged events and to suggest ways of thinking that might lead to new and better outcomes. I do this, of course, because I care. But I do it using the tools most familiar to the academic.

Yesterday we were treated to two new cases, in very different parts of the country but with depressingly similar outcomes. Two black men confronted by police for minor offenses. Both ended up shot to death by police. Both became immediate media sensations because cell phone footage was released to the public which strongly suggested that both shootings were unjustified. Here we go again.

We've been over this ground often enough that the paths are well-worn and familiar. Some (not all, but some) white conservatives will defend the police in both cases, and even blame the so-called "Ferguson effect", as if all of this were the fault of one young black man in an over-policed poor town in Missouri. The NRA and gun supporters everywhere, who at other times are not shy about arguing that everyone should have a gun for self-defense, will grow suddenly and eerily silent when two black men, both legally armed, are shot by police. People will argue about whether this was or wasn't about race - white conservatives will say it's not, blacks and white liberals will say it is. Marches will be held, speeches given. Few if any of our words will bring about much change, especially in an election year when we're already yelling at each other and calling each other names.

For the academic, intellectual side of me all of this presents an interesting puzzle. Given the inertia of the system around race, policing, the use of force, and our criminal justice system, how can it be changed for the better? What mechanisms could actually effect real and significant change? Those are important questions that should occupy some of our best minds, and to which we should all lend our best efforts.

But this time, for me, it's a little different. I heard about the Louisiana case of Alton Sterling first. The facts seemed similar to many other cases - black man peddling his wares on the street, confronted, then tackled and shot, by police. Shades of both Walter Scott and Eric Garner. Same puzzle pieces, just reshuffled a bit. Because of the video, maybe the police will be charged. The FBI has stepped in to do an independent investigation. All of the usual, dispassionate facts.

As the story was playing out on the radio, professional journalism reporting what was known, they came to an audio clip of a news conference. At that news conference, the mother of Alton Sterling was talking to the press - the injustice, the demands for transparency, the outrage of yet another innocent black man killed by men who are supposed to protect the community.

What transformed the case for me was not her words, but her son who stood by her side. Clearly audible in the recording, Mr. Sterling's 15 year old son stood beside his mother sobbing. He wanted his father back. It was nothing more than a raw outpouring of emotion.

And in his voice, I heard my own son.

I have a 15 year old son, exactly the age of that boy. And in that moment, I heard the sound that my son would make if I were suddenly taken from him. I heard the breaking of his heart, and it broke mine.

This is the edge of language and ability, where words begin to fail us. Having spent my life mostly writing dispassionate prose, I can't explain the experience of that feeling. It was, for a few brief minutes, painful beyond description. And that pain left an impression, a burning mark, which will not soon fade.

I am a white, upper middle class male. I live in a community that has been described, with some accuracy, as sheltered. I live in a larger metropolitan area that is, on the whole, extremely safe. I was raised my whole life in similar communities, by people of largely similar background. I am, in a great many ways, privileged.

Because of this happenstance, I live my life about as far away as one can from the daily realities of poor, urban black men. I don't understand the economy of making a living by selling CDs from a portable table in front of a convenience store. I have never been stopped by a police officer who was afraid of me. I have never had to give my sons instructions on interacting with the police, because it is very likely that they will do so only a handful of times in their lives and all of those encounters will likely be polite and pleasant.

But despite all of that distance, in that one moment of listening to a boy my own son's age sob his despair to the world, I felt a little bit of the pain of my brothers and sisters, my fellow human beings, who live lives so very different from mine. We long ago made the phrase "I feel your pain" into a punch line, but there are moments when we really do feel each others' pain, at least a bit. This, for me, was one of them.

And because of that, I probably won't have much more to say about the shooting in Baton Rouge, or the similar shooting in Minneapolis. What can I say? I now understand, at least a little bit, the pain, the fear, the anger, even the rage that flows through other families, other communities than mine every day. But I don't yet know what to do with that understanding.

I would end only with an observation, all I can muster as yet. This is what the church means when we say that the world is broken. These are the wages of sin - not in some individualistic, "he did a bad thing" kind of way. We are so mired in brokenness that most of the time we don't see it. People like me have done a remarkable job of building communities and systems so we don't have to, so we're insulated. We live under our domes and pretend that everything is fine.

But our domes are not the Kingdom of God. The world is broken, in all communities and in many ways. That brokenness hurts - as it should. Perhaps sometimes, the best thing we can do is share the pain with each other.

Tuesday, July 5, 2016

I Was a Stranger and You Did Not Welcome Me

I have written a great deal in the past about fear and the terrible things it drives us to do. I've also written a lot about tribalism and the evils of walling ourselves off in aggressively exclusive communities. (You can look for those terms in the search box in the upper left to find past blog posts).

This past week we have been treated to a case that encompasses both - an Emirati man in traditional dress taken down by local police in Avon, Ohio for the crime of talking on a cell phone outside a hotel.

The fact that the mayor later said that police were "following protocol" and yet claimed that the incident "does not reflect our community" is absurd. Local rules and protocols reflect exactly what kind of community they want. That's what representative democracy is supposed to do. If this is not the kind of community that the citizens of Avon want, their elected officials need to do a better job of translating those wishes into rules and actions.

It is tempting to blame this incident on Donald Trump. Initially, my thought was to write a blog post about this story titled something like "Living in Trump's America". But the reality is that Trump did not cause the paranoia, the fear, or the xenophobia. He's just using it for his own selfish ends.

In the days immediately following the Oklahoma City bombing, before Timothy McVeigh and Terry Nichols were identified and apprehended, Sikhs and Muslims across the country were attacked at random. In other communities and in days gone by it has been Hispanics. Or blacks. Or gays. Or Irish. Or Italians. This is nothing new, though it is no less shameful for that. We have not made nearly as much "progress" as we like to think.

It's easy to single out the frightened 911 caller here, and I'm glad that there may be consequences for someone calling 911 and claiming without evidence that someone is "pledging allegiance to ISIS or whatever". More problematic is the law enforcement response. Cranks call 911 all the time. That doesn't mean we have to provide muscle for their desire to lash out at others.

But beyond the obvious paranoia, tribalism, and xenophobia on display here, I want to point something out to a particular audience. For those of us who are followers of the Christian faith (as I am), and for those in particular who claim a desire for the United States to be a "Christian Nation" (I do not) - in the face of this story I am struck by these words of Jesus from the Gospel of Matthew:
I was a stranger and you did not welcome me (Mt 25:43)
This is the very antithesis of welcoming the stranger. The man was obviously from a foreign land. Rather than greet him with welcome, he was greeted with fear, xenophobia, and force. He was accosted and humiliated, made worse because it was done under the color of law by people who supposedly represent us all.

If you really want your nation, or your community, or the world immediately around you, to reflect the Kingdom of God, then you need to take this kind of thing seriously. It is not in sermons and Sunday services that faith lives; it is in our everyday actions, as simple as making a phone call or greeting a stranger.

The security-minded response - the voice that wrote those law enforcement protocols - claims that "we have to do this", that "this is necessary to keep us safe". And after all, what is the minor inconvenience of one man (he was released shortly thereafter, once it became clear to everyone that he was not a threat) next to the safety of the community?

You are welcome to that point of view, of course. I would make only two observations. First, it is a vantage ruled entirely by fear. If you are going to allow fear to own your decisions, admit to it. I prefer a different path.

Second, you cannot hold this position and simultaneously claim to wish for a "Christian Nation" or a Christian community of any sort. To take the "safety first/security above all" road is to give up on God and Christ entirely. Jesus did not say, "Invite in the stranger after he's been through a thorough background check and has been screened for weapons". 2000 years ago the world was every bit as dangerous, indeed far more so, than it is today. Yet his words are what they are.

We must all choose, every day, between fear and courage, between isolation and connection, between security and vulnerability. These are never easy choices, and there is room for compromise and balance between competing concerns. But we should make these choices mindful that every choice we make remakes the world a little bit, for good or ill. Next time, let's try welcoming the stranger rather than handcuffing him.