bymark

Half-Mast

When I run, I pass a local college with a flag pole out front. The American flag seems to rest perpetually at half mast, a sign of our constant collective tragedy. This time it's for the dozen slain in a California bar, but it will be for something else soon.

The earth over which that limp flag hangs is sick, soaked in the blood of those sacrificed to self-interest and fear. It's a rotting place where we live now, a place where wounds are never allowed to heal. These hurts are once and future. We groan when they break open and ooze across our screens, but we do not mend them. They fester and we sigh as though there were no medicine.

We treat our violence not as a sickness but as a garden to be tended. We grow death in this country, nurture it and ignore its cost while we praise the blooms it brings. Entertainment, money, self-protection, "freedom" — we point to these as reasons to persist in madness, rather than acknowledge them as symptoms of a greater malignancy. What is there to do in such a time as this? Cry for the dead? Rage at the abyss that swallows them? Pray?

For those of us burdened by the Resurrection, we cannot help but remember our call to hope. We are to be people of the third day, people who have seen life on the other side of death. For us, our task is to remember that a violence done, even the ultimate violence, is not a story's end. We are an epilogue people.

And yet.

Even the Christ, he who yokes us with such a hope, does not return from death unmarked. He presents his exit wounds to his disciples, showing them that even if Death no longer reigns, Suffering and Pain still have their place in the narrative of our hope. Even in new life, there is no escaping the marks left by a system obsessed with its nails and spears. Even of Christ, we demand an open wound.

There Is No Future

My inability to change frustrates me. Recently, I’ve tried to avoid looking at Twitter or news feeds immediately upon waking. I used to tell myself that there was some good reason for doing so. Maybe I’d awaken to see that some national tragedy had befallen us while I slept; maybe the world was on fire; maybe aliens were at the door and I should get dressed.

But more often, I see what I’ve always seen, which is what you’ve always seen: maddening politics, inane entertainment news, and some sports talk. The sports talk is fine. This morning, predictably, my eyes adjusted in the middle of reading a New York Times article detailing the North Carolina legislature’s newest bullshit. Having lost the governorship to a Democrat after a protracted post-election battle, they decided it’d be swell to strip the governor’s office of several key powers, including the ability to oversee state colleges and their trustee appointments.

If irony wasn’t dead, I’d say how ironic it was that in the midst of this season of Advent, in which we look to the nebulous future, a time-not-yet shaped by our ability to be patient and hopeful and tense and a bit sorrowful about what we cannot see but hope we shall soon see, our societal life is filled with those for whom there is no future.

Immediacy is king in politics. Moves like the one in North Carolina mirror so many other political actions and conversations that they begin to run together. Surely our memory is not so short as to have forgotten the debate over the “nuclear option,” in which Senate Democrats were faced with option to neuter the filibuster so as to fast track certain decisions with a simple majority. A primary element of that argument was that such an action might be appealing now, but could (and most certainly would) be used by the GOP when it arose to power once more. We should, said some, think of ourselves as the future minority party and consider what powers we’d want in that situation. Such caution only kept Senate Dems from amending some filibuster rules, not all (though the changes that did pass will almost certainly come back to haunt them now).

Still, that kind of cautious thinking requires an acknowledgment of the future, which we collectively appear to have set on fire.

While conservatives tend to make the headlines for this kind of news, liberals are far from blameless, lest you think shortsightedness prefers red or blue. Resting assured that you have someone's support because you've historically had it—even though you've done little to nothing to see that support as an agreement from a human who has real human struggles and needs real human things from you—is as warped as anything I can think of. Couple that inflated ego with a decade-long unwillingness to stop the erosion of your influence and effectiveness on a local level despite believing in your moral superiority, and you've got a medically-diagnosable lack of imagination.

But imagination requires an acknowledgment of the future, which we threw out the window after we set it on fire.

Flaming acknowledgments aside, our current political reality couldn’t be much more opposed to our religious season if it tried. If Christians are to be people of hope, we must be those who consider a future, for hope is predicated on the to-be-but-not-yet. That’s future talk. Advent is a time of hope set against sorrow, a time when we feel both and seek resolution and reconciliation in the coming of Christ. Christ is born into our brokenness; that’s what Emmanuel, “God with us,” is all about. Not “God watching over us,” or “God up ahead from us,” but with us in all our present maladies.

One of those maladies is clearly our political climate, which isn’t some separate realm from our daily life. Politics is a complicated way to frame the simple idea that people live together and have to figure that out. Throwing out the notion of a future, then, becomes a disastrous way to handle our togetherness. For those of us passionate about our planet and the health of its natural environment, this inability to couple current tension with the possibility of future resolution (good or bad) has been our long-running source of high blood pressure. “How can you not look toward the not-yet and see the potential? The flourishing or the reckoning?” we cry.

But politics work in much the same way currently. Folks who feel no good future awaits them begin to see the lack of potential as no future at all; their decisions then become those defined by no possibility. And if there’s no possibility, why not burn it all down and see what happens? Why not operate as if today’s victory is ultimate?

It’s hard to be an Advent person right now, with the world seemingly antagonistic to the long view. But our faith is of the not-yet, of the to-be, of the possible but not inevitable. Which makes it all the more important to put our hands to the plow right now. Waiting is not stagnant, after all. Waiting is the sprinter hiked on the starting blocks. True patience is a tense state, one fraught with preparation and more activity than can be seen. Waiting with an eye on the almost-but-not-quite is combative and upending. Let us be ready. Let us be against those with no future in mind. Let us be Advent people.

The Middle Ground Is for Chumps

I don’t know why I feel the need to say anything about tonight’s debate. Or anything at all. I’m experiencing an unusually vicious onslaught of cynicism (which is significant, as I’ve got a high resting cynic rate), so I’m not sure what to say about the state of politics, or the social fabric, or my own ability to figure out how I feel about all things.

I have vacillated between what it means for a person on the far left (me, in this case) to vote in this election. I have been scolded for my privilege when I consider not casting a vote for Hillary. I have been called childish, foolish, idealistic, unsympathetic to the lives of women and minorities, and all other manner of accusatory names by those who consider a vote for Clinton and the Democrats to be the only option for someone calling themselves progressive in these excessively weird and troubling times.

I have tried to tell friends and acquaintances that my being further left makes it hard to stomach the Democrats' move to the center right. I have tried to explain to them that Hillary’s domestic policies and foreign decisions have made voting for her feel unconscionable to me. I am told that my critique of “warmonger” isn’t enough to justify my “protest vote.” I am told I’m making a protest vote.

I am told that my moral agency is nothing compared to my civic responsibility. I’ve been chastised for how they do or don’t line up in the eyes of those upset with me. But this is the new reality, the magnanimous duopoly. We are a people of A or B, of black and white, of love or hate. The middle ground is for no one.

I agree with this. The middle ground has proved itself inept. Really, that’s where we’ve been living for as long as neoliberalism has made our two major American political parties laughable mirrors of each other. However, admitting that the middle ground is useless doesn’t mean dualism is inevitable. Nondualism, theologically, politically, and socially offers us a three-dimensional way of being. Like the ship in space, we are not limited to forward or backward. We can also float up or down, shirking the bonds of earthly gravity in favor of choices not previously open to us.

You might say that I seem to have made up my mind about the worth of voting for Clinton rather than a minor party option who might offer what I believe to be more responsible and live-giving options on a range of issues. I mostly have, but I have my days. As Adam Kotsko recently pointed out, it’s giving this bourgeois, capitalist system I disdain a lot of credit when I so desperately seek a good candidate. If the system is as ethically bankrupt as I believe it to be, why not ride out the cynicism and vote for a candidate who I acknowledge is better in several key ways than her opponent?

It’s a logical point, albeit a relativist one I struggle to adopt. Holding my nose and marking a ballot for someone I believe to be directly responsible for military policies that left a lot of brown folks across the ocean—women, children, and men alike—dead is still a moral choice. And as I’ve never been one to prefer Mill to Kant, it’s one I’m not sure I can make. But I’ll admit to being unsure how to move as flawlessly as possible despite my being quite the flawed person in a tragically flawed system given power by an overwhelmingly flawed culture.

Nothing is easy here, at least not for me. I don’t begrudge you if it’s easy for you. I don’t give a shit if you’re mad at me because it is easy for you and hard for me.

I’ll probably watch the debates, if for no other reason than to be able to better articulate my own thoughts by engaging in (mostly) silent argument with the person speaking at the moment. I doubt they’ll put anything into focus for me except for, perhaps, my contempt for both candidates and my longing for a better political system that could and should produce a better servant leader. It won’t move me to the middle where most people say they live but so few actually do. Who can survive there anyway? Who’d want to? Not I. Give me the up, the down, the upside down any day. Duopoly and myself in the eyes of those who like the left, right, and middle be damned.

I Don't Pledge Allegiance, To the Flag

I guess I’m not patriotic. That’s what I assume, at least, when I find myself on my usual side of a controversy like the one that erupted recently when a school note involving the pledge of allegiance went viral.

The note was a waiver, sent home to be signed in case the parent/guardian wanted to opt their child out of reciting the pledge. On the paper, a disgruntled mother expressed her disgruntledness, while her brother-in-law, the child’s uncle, snapped a pic and shared it. The rest is news feed history.

The actions of the adults, and the thousands of comments found under internet shares of this story, point to a visceral anger that something is wrong with this country when nationalist traditions like the pledge are questioned. Those who don’t feel this way are deemed “unpatriotic.”

I am one of those who feel completely baffled and out of step with the vitriol. But I’m used to feeling out of step with current American sympathies. I’m a socialist. You know, the devil.

Any time I question our national obsession with capitalism, or our quickness to war, our sense of lofty superiority and international supremacy, or our constant failure of memory and imagination when it comes to our social ills, I’m immediately aware of who disagrees with me. Definitely those on the political right (Republicans, libertarians, alt-right, etc.), and often Democrats don’t like what certain folks on the far left have to say regarding the policies of our country (as well as the morality and ideology behind them). So I’m not surprised when something comes along that upsets large parts of the public but doesn’t bother me (and vice versa).

Still, this pledge thing bothers me; not because kids can opt out, but because it’s still being said at all. From a civics perspective, the pledge strikes me as both socially irresponsible given our global reality and naively jingoistic.

The problem with our culture's tendency to separate every issue into easy dualism (writ large as the two party political system) is that we're often quick to do away with nuance in favor of the snappiest soundbite. In this case, when someone says they don't like the pledge, it's the natural step for an opponent to say "well then you must not like America."

Which in my case is and isn't true. I guess we need some nuance.

The Pledge as Bad Policy

"I pledge allegiance to the Flag of the United States of America, and to the Republic for which it stands, one Nation under God, indivisible, with liberty and justice for all."

Though the pledge has gone through several iterations since its first, mostly permanent revision in 1892, this is the current one, last updated in 1954 to capitalize "Nation" and add "under God."

When it comes to the pledge, what we're talking about is a fealty oath, a demand by the State fulfilled by its subjects. The pledge requires loyalty, and unquestioning relationship to the flag and the specific form of government that it represents. The pledge doesn't beg our allegiance for "the best possible version of our Republic" or to "the basic precepts at the foundation of our Republic" but to the Republic itself. This, whether intentionally or not, makes the pledge a nationalist tool for keeping subjects in line whether the Republic is what it should be or not. The Republic is as it stands, and you're to pledge allegiance to it.

Hopefully it's obvious why such unquestioning nationalism is seriously problematic. When such beliefs have historically emerged as governmental structures, they haven't had the best track records. We don't often speak kindly of fascists, after all (except to cheekily note that they're good at getting trains to places on time).

This jingoistic turn is what separates the practices of saying the pledge from being or feeling patriotic. Patriotism, in its ideal sense, allows for careful and heavy criticism. You can love a place, feel a sense of ownership to it and pride in what it can be, and still be completely honest and aware of its failings. As noted above, the pledge doesn't allow for the kind of free thought, debate, or imagination that a healthy patriotism necessitates. Therefore, equating the pledge and patriotism just doesn't play.

The problem only grows larger when we consider how the conflation of the two has resulted in a terribly rigid sense of what it means to be an American citizen. The inflexibility, combined with the misunderstanding (or even willful ignorance), is what makes the dedication to the pledge dangerous to actual individual and social freedoms.

Justice Robert H. Jackson, writing for the 1943 Supreme Court majority decision[1] to overturn a previous ruling which allowed students to be compelled to say the pledge in school[2], railed against the ideological orthodoxy which would force any American into a prescribed behavior at the expense of other more important, though less tangential, ideals. He wrote,

"If there is any fixed star in our constitutional constellation, it is that no official, high or petty, can prescribe what shall be orthodox in politics, nationalism, religion, or other matters of opinion, or force citizens to confess by word or act their faith therein. If there are any circumstances which permit an exception, they do not now occur to us."

Prescribed orthodoxy is what makes the pledge a terrible idea in the first place. No formulaic, performative act can distinguish one citizen of a free republic from another—which is why the willingness to say the Pledge is a terrible assessment for political belonging. More than that, this is why it's antithetically American to support the pledge as that which defines loyalty. And if the pledge can't and shouldn't define loyalty, why have it?

The pledge is a false litmus for "true Americanism." This makes it problematic for all citizens over which it holds sway (which is to say all of us).

Unfortunately, the problems with the pledge continue, deeper and deeper down for religious persons. The show of parroted patriotism that is the pledge is one of special import to Christians[3]. Because not only is a pledge of allegiance politically troublesome, it’s idolatrous.

The Pledge as Idolatry

When God sent Moses down from the mountain with a list of commandments, the first two are, roughly, "I am God" and "thusly, no worshipping some other god." For those keeping with the Judeo-Christian heritage, it still stands as an instruction not to worship that which is not God.

Unfortunately for nationalism, this provides a distraction from the necessary worship of the nation. It also doesn't make capitalism too happy, as capitalism demands the primacy of currency, with people and their innate createdness being secondary to their role as money-makers then money-spenders.

Benjamin E. Zeller used the recent Colin Kaepernick[4] controversy to discuss Émile Durkheim's model of religion with the totem as the center. Our Americanism, our sense of civic religion, then, is centered on the flag, the "symbolic referent point for the nation’s self-worship." This symbol is given explicit power via the pledge. The flag is the symbol of the national god to be worshipped, the pledge its scripture, the national anthem its hymn.

Christianity gains its power from being a witness to the truth that Christ stands against the death dealt by national power in favor of the life offered by God. Peace and community are the eternal way, truth, and life. Rome will always only be the cross and the sealed tomb.

The Christian, therefore, cannot both accept the primacy of Christ and that of the state. The pledge is an acknowledgment of servitude above and beyond all else. Reciting it is, then, idolatry to the Christ follower.

This isn't a new concept, as the first Supreme Court challenge to the mandatory recitation of the pledge stemmed from Jehovah's Witnesses children refusing to say the pledge in school in 1935. Yet despite its age, the controversy is still fresh. It's so fresh that stories of people sitting during national anthems, or refusing to say the pledge, or politicians advocating fierce returns to Americanism continue to be front-page news.

The worship of the flag and the Republic for which it stands is at a fever pitch. There is no sector of American life untouched by the call to worship the Americanness of all things. Entreaties to "make America great again," to say the pledge without question, and to sing the national anthem with sacred reverence all require modern Christians to declare dual allegiances, using frighteningly similar religious and civic liturgies to do so.

The pledge is such liturgy. It simultaneously claims to be a marker of truth and of identity couched within truth. It demands that the flag be both witnessed and the cause of witness. This demand places the flag, for those who pledge allegiance to it, at the right hand of the empire which flies it. All of which makes unflinching nationalistic dedication hard to square when you also claim to worship a carpenter who said caring for the poor and sick, who said loving for God and neighbor, matters more than a flag and the Republic for which it stands ever will.


[1]: It should be noted that this ruling is what makes it ridiculous that a school or teacher need to send home a note to give permission for a child to opt out and not say the pledge. While it's helpful that the note gives parents and children an awareness of their rights, it's unfortunate that it's needed. They don't have to say it now, no opting out necessary. Thanks to a later ruling from the 11th Circuit Court of Appeals, children under its jursidiction (Alabama, Georgia, and Florida) don't have to stand for it either. (According to Snopes, the school in question sent the notice home in compliance with Florida law, which requires children know their right to refrain from saying the pledge and requires parents know they can excuse their child from saying it. Even though a teacher can't compel them to say it in the first place.)

[2]: Not only is this in keeping with the right to dissent protected by the First Amendment, it's pedagogically sound when teaching children anything as belief-based and intellectually complex as allegiance. Young children aren't fully capable of understanding what allegiances are, and we shouldn't be asking them to swear to anything based on the assumption that they'll support a specific brand of nationalist ideology in the future (which keeps with the sound method to "never teach a child anything you'll have to unteach them later"). To do so is to support indoctrination, something easily accomplished with young, impressionable minds. The Hitler Youth program was successful for a reason.

[3]: I absolutely do not mean to imply that "religious persons" and "Christians" are to be conflated here or in any context, nor do I intend to imply that the pledge is only religiously problematic for Christians. It's just that my context is Christian, and I can't speak for my Muslim, Jewish, Hindu, Buddhist, etc. brothers and sisters. But I'd like to think that any of those who feel the divine life trumps the life of empire would agree with what follows.

[4]: That this controversy has emerged from the world of American sport adds a layer, as the idolatry of the American state has intertwined with the idolatry by Americans of professional sport, particularly American football. The worship of both ride waves of liturgy, each with their own means of consecrating that which is most holy: the flag, the game. In recent years, the worship of these two pillars of Americanism have merged into codependent parts. Tom Suttle notes exactly this in his excellent recent piece.

A Short Story

Logan messaged me to tell me, somewhat excitedly, that he'd heard an ad on an old podcast episode for a magazine. This magazine specialized in very short stories, and would, shockingly, pay up to $1,000 per published submission. We were amazed. We both like to write short stories. We both like $1,000. Unfortunately, in the midst of our glee he checked and saw that they weren't taking submissions because the publication died two years ago. We were, understandably, not amused. So here's a very short story I wrote back in 2012, one which I could have submitted back then to this now-defunct pub had I been aware that such a thing was possible. It's titled "Tragedy."


Yes, it was oval. Still, he disliked the name and the carelessness of it. Names were important. Names were supposed to mean something. This office was supposed to mean something, and here it was with a name any five-year-old could have thought up. The leather of his chair gave the slightest protest as he leaned back, carefully lacing his fingers and lowering his eyes to the speech on his desk. He sighed to no one, picked up the piece of probably important paper, and slowly set it back down.

It didn’t matter. None of it mattered. Not when the leader of the free world couldn’t hold it together. She wouldn’t leave, but it would be better in some ways if she did. Of course, a failing marriage would be disastrous for his reelection campaign manager—he made a mental note to send that guy a ridiculous Christmas bonus—and the ensuing media field day would be politically insurmountable. Still, there were no pretentions left. She was never waiting up for him in the wee hours when the grip of the job quietly receded long enough for him to stumble to their room, sip from the tumbler of scotch he kept bedside, and drift off into a fitful, troubled sleep. Sharing a bed kept up appearances, but nobody who actually saw the charade bought it. Still, what was public office without appearances?

Their life together was crumbling, a shell of its former vital self, but he was polling through the roof in an election year. Probably for only a few minutes more, though. He chuckled at that. How different the situation would be if she left like he knew she wanted to. He still loved her in ways, though maybe that emotion was a residing sense of what a good and virtuous husband should feel. He was never unfaithful or cruel, and, in rare moments, was actively kind. Still, he couldn’t help changing; it’s what presidents do. At first, she had tried to understand the pressures of the position, but as time passed the effort was forced, then simply wasn’t there at all. He thought about that for a moment, but not intently. There was only so much room for ruin in one morning.

The impeccably polished brass buttons of his navy blazer caught a strand of light as he shifted in his chair, crossing his right leg and tugging at the crease of his pants. There was no need to get comfortable; any moment, someone would tell him it was time to go, time to deliver chaos with poise.

“Mr. President?”

“Hmm?”

“We should be going. They’re waiting.”

The walk was brisk and sure, though he wondered why it felt so slow. It must have been an illusion, a consequence of little sleep and self-medication. The door was opened for him, and he stepped into the harsh light of day. He avoided the garden when possible. She loved the flowers, and she often spent hours here humming to herself and forgetting him.

He solemnly stepped to the podium, feeling solemnity was the proper social response (though he wished his mind was clearer so he could be sure), and leaned in toward the microphone.

He started to speak and momentarily forgot the right words. They were never his words, and it was easy to forget. He began his speech, hoping he had recovered quickly enough.

“Today, we are marked by tragedy. Our pain is great, and our dead will be avenged. However, we must not allow our righteous anger to make us too eager for dangerous action. We must be careful with tragedy.”