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.”

The Passenger Thinks Aloud

A couple weeks ago, I flew to Portland from Nashville by way of Chicago. I went for work, and now I’m back. I apologize for the lack of Beard updates, but between my cross-country shenanigans and Logan’s fatherhood which is actually a thing that can legitimately take up your time, we just haven’t been able to make it work. But we’ll get back on schedule somehow, mostly because we’re proud of the site. We’re happy with what we put out there most of the time, and we’re especially happy when it makes someone else happy. Or reflective. Or less stupid. Any impact will do.

I knew the flight would be long, so before leaving I stocked up on several podcast episodes, both backlog eps from my favorites and a few new shows I’d been meaning to try. I’d heard great things about Song Exploder, so I found a few episodes I knew I’d like based on the artist featured and downloaded en masse.

I got through a few before arriving at the Long Winters’ John Roderick talking about the song “The Commander Thinks Aloud.” I rested my head on the stiff cushion and listened to John, which I do regularly on his podcast with Merlin Mann, “Roderick on the Line.” It’s hilarious, and smart, and all the things two people talking to each other should be. Logan and I should take notes.

I listened to John talk about the song, both from a technical perspective and from an emotional one. He described what went into recording the instruments and what philosophy guided the lyrics. The song is about the 2003 Columbia shuttle disaster, in which a crew of seven were killed upon reentry as their shuttle disintegrated. In the interview, John reveals that what the commander is thinking aloud is (and I paraphrase) that all he wanted was to bring back a message. A message that says, “I saw the everyday minutia—boys and girls in cars, dogs and birds on lawns—and from up there, up in space, it was simple. It was borderless. Up in space, we humans were doing our best work. We were taking it all in and understanding what matters. And I wanted to tell you that.”

But he didn’t get to. There was a problem. The astronauts knew something was wrong, but not to what extent. That’s because NASA knew to what extent, but wouldn't tell them as they believed the crew couldn’t risk the fix. So they all had to hope for the best. And upon reentry, the ship burned up and splintered apart, killing all aboard. And the message was lost until John sung it to us.

Song Exploder ends the episode by playing the song you just heard about. By this point, I had lifted my head forward to gaze out the airplane window. Stretching for miles I saw an undisturbed, thick blanket of clouds save three giant scars upon its surface. Mounts Hood, St. Helens, and Rainier rose up to remind me of the earth below. They challenged my moment of forgetting where I was, my desire to imagine that I was disconnected from life on the ground. John began to sing in my ear, over and over, “The crew compartment’s breaking up. The crew compartment’s breaking up. The crew compartment’s breaking up.” I realized I was crying steadily, for the joy of the borderless miles, for the death of the crew years ago, for the people down below who I loved or knew or did not know, for the minutia of my own life. I wanted to tell anyone, everyone, how perfect the snowy peaks and blue sky and marshmallow clouds were, way up here. That’s all I wanted to bring home to you.

31

I turn 31 next week. It’s fine. It wasn’t fine last year. 30 was a milestone I felt completely unprepared to reach, one which pitted me against my self-doubt and unsteady outlook on the future. I was in the midst of a divorce, which didn’t help matters much. I was already struggling with the idea that I’d accomplished very little, while others my age were set in careers or thriving in their hobbies or starting families. Meanwhile, my life was being rearranged and I didn’t feel like I had tangible things to offer the world in exchange for a safety line. I, in my mind, had very little to show for the 30 years I’d been walking around, taking up air and space on sidewalks.

Turning 30 was hard.

31 isn’t shaping up to be troublesome. Rather, it feels insignificant but also exciting. And what’s odd, it feels exciting in the face of its obscurity. I read an article today giving more details about how exactly the six-mile-wide asteroid crashing into the earth killed the dinosaurs. The intricacies of the ripple-effect were fascinating, but they gave me pause. “Wow,” I remembered, “I am quite small.” I am one among seven billion, all of whom would have likely never evolved had a big rock not hit a bigger rock floating in a vacuum filled with trillions upon trillions of rocks and gases and wondrous pockets of absolute emptiness. I am less than a grain of sand upon the biggest beach I can imagine.

And I’m happy.

I’m surrounded by goodness in the midst of my life which hasn’t, for the majority of it, felt all that meaningful. And maybe it’s not. But I’m meaningful to a small group of lovely people—a partner and friends and family and the best dog, yes, better than your dog, I know I know, you don’t believe me but this really isn’t a competition so don’t take it personally—and that makes a life. We are wonderfully made in our relationships.

So while I’m not making the difference I imagined I would be in the world, and I’m not where I thought I’d be had you asked me a decade ago, I’m exactly where, and who, I should be: a flawed person, important to some, dedicated to making the most out of the short time I’ve been given. With my few gifts and talents, I can make my relatively insignificant mark on the world around me, drawing a small doodle that may not last beyond my lifetime. But it will be significant to those I so dearly wish would see it that way. They love me, and I love them. It took 31 years, but I finally learned something worth knowing.

True Idiocracy

If you haven’t taken the time to seriously consider your ineptitude, to truly face your ignorance and your failings, especially those which can be addressed and fixed, do that now. Then embrace the hell out it and join the American political process.

It shouldn’t be surprising to me at this point, having watched the slipping quality of dialogue and participation when it comes to the life of the community, which is what politics is at its core, for the last decade. I’ve seen the progression. My elders have noted it before me, often stamping a start date on Nixon’s forehead. Some say it’s been happening a lot longer than that. Today, we nervously joke about the decline by drawing parallels to Idiocracy, by feeding the “entertainment” that is laughing at bumbling public figures. But we don’t turn the channel. We feed it. We make reality stars of the dumbest among us, and chortle, and feel smart as we become stupid.

The celebration of ignorance isn’t new. I’m not unique in calling it out. It’s just frustrating as hell, is all, and sometimes one has to speak their frustrations to give them form and better understand them. I didn’t grow up with much money, but I was always taught that supreme value existed in my education. Anything I learned was mine, something earned which could not be taken away. I lived out this philosophy by gathering every bit of knowledge I could, parlaying the hunt into good grades which I then used as a basis for my identity. My parents never shamed me for a bad grade alone, but they did rain down the guilt when they felt that bad grade was associated with a lack of effort to learn. They were upfront with me that all knowledge, whether little or great, was power. Schoolhouse Rock wasn’t lying.

Academia and the ranks of the educated liberal elite, the stereotypical yuppies and college professors, are in some ways to blame for their own reputation among the uneducated masses typically found in the lower class. If you sneer down at someone, they generally don’t like you. However, the vilification of these privileged ranks has been, at least in parts, misplaced. The uneducated often blame the educated for their judging gaze, both sects resenting the other for classist ills which get represented by false social narratives. Yet the blame on an unbalanced and underfunded education system goes unplaced, which is mightily convenient for politicians (themselves usually educated and elite) who rely on the poorly educated voting against their own self-interests in order to stay in office. Cultivating this dichotomy has bred a desire among the ignorant to shun knowledge itself as the forbidden fruit; take a bite and you might find yourself “livin’ above your raisin’,” as we Alabama folks say. And in a room of have-nots, no one wants to be accused of thinking themselves better-than.

This toxic mix of shame, jealousy, and foolish pride has settled on the split between ignorance and information like a blanketing pesticide, clouding the actual issue with poisonous misinformation. Cable news feeds people opinion in lieu of facts, and when actual facts are presented as counter-evidence, the knee-jerk reaction is to angrily disbelieve. Intelligence and novel thought are no longer trusted, leaving us a culture of hearing what we want to hear and nothing else. This is precisely why presidential candidates can say whatever they want, beholden to no truth, and amass unthinkable voter numbers. Donald Trump doesn’t have to actually answer a question; he can just spew nonsense and feel superior. And his supporters will see him that way. Any attempt to highlight his idiocy will be met with vitriol aimed at the “elites” trying to inject factual knowledge into a situation where gut feelings reign supreme.

I wish there were some positive spin I could put on this, but the unfortunate reality is this isn’t going away. Even if the smartest, most honest person in the race wins the White House, the ignorant hordes who lift up liars and morons like Trump aren’t going anywhere. They’ll be around in four years. They’ll be around in twenty. We’ve made an idol of ignorance in this country, one supported by classist columns and draped in fear of the other, and until we truly confront it, we’ll just stand around in horror as millions of our friends, neighbors, and family members bask in the glory of their own unknowing, pleased as pigs in shit.

An Economy of...Something

A friend sent me this story about an recently-invented language built on the simplicity of expression, relying on 123 words and good ol' nonverbal communication to carry the tricky thing that is having contact with another human.

I dig this idea. I'm not surprised, as I've always gravitated toward the idea that we can simplify. It's a marvel then, that I somehow ended up studying theology, a field which thrives on complexity and nuance. Still, I can remember doing an architecture project in the 4th grade. We were to study different styles and draw up plans for our own house. I went minimalist, naturally, and scoffed (I was a 4th grader who scoffed, which is why you would have rightfully hated me) at the overwrought, decadent displays my classmates came up. "Why do you want so much stuff in your house?" I'd ask.

I have too much stuff now. I'm still in pursuit of a simpler life. Not just simpler in the new-age, self-help sense. Not in the "let's appropriate Zen Buddhism but where we get to keep capitalism" kind of simple. A real kind of simple. Where I have an economy of language, of thought, of action. Where I'm intentional about each waking moment, but I don't even think about it as it's so fluid and natural. Sounds like a dream. I doubt I'll ever get there.

This is why I find the current political circus infuriating and damaging. It's not new, but we're definitely experiencing a heightened flavor. The rhetoric is bombastic, manic, stark-raving...so many words saying so very little. Not only is it unnecessary, it's damaging, dangerous, menacing. In not seeking together a simpler road forward, we've opened the bag wide to every form of insanity and called it liberty.

Which isn't to say that I don't want a diversity of thought, expression, players and thinkers; I do. I just want that very diverse group to be able to sit together, quietly, and think before they speak. I'd love to hand them 123 words and have them try to communicate their hate or their ignorance or their indifference. And when that became too hard, I'd like them to use 123 words to find a way to be in the presence of the other and marvel at the fact that we can exist together. Ideally, they could get that down without words at all.

Theologically, I drift toward the apophatic and, if I'm being honest, the mystical. In this way, words don't get to the heart of who or what the divine is. But we have to get through all the words before we can realize that we need less of them. Perhaps this is a model for our pursuit of communal life.

This is my dream of the economy of words, deeds, language, thought, and spirit. I'm not naive enough to believe it's how we can conduct ourselves on global, wide stages. It's also important to say that I love words. I love language. I write on a blog, for heaven's sake. Jokes, wordplay, and exposition are my daily tools. I don't want our ability to express to diminish in any way. But I would love some added value on silence and simplicity. I would love us to seek such things out, in any little corner where they might live. Maybe I'll shut up now and listen for how I might do that best.

Really Not Really Alone

Logan sent me a tweet a few days ago of an image which has since gone viral, retweeted and commented upon and analyzed. It was this image. In it, you can see the end of days, the beginning to every horrific piece of dystopian science fiction you’ve ever encountered. You might hear the Imperial March when you look at it. Maybe you just feel cold, like that kid who could see Bruce Willis (poor kid).

Maybe you’re completely unlike me, though. Maybe you see within those pixels an image of the glorious future, of technology spreading its benevolent arms until we’re tightly wrapped within them, choking out our last bre—I’m sorry. I’m ruining something good for you. My apologies.

Of course, I felt a similar sentiment when I looked at this brilliant cartoon last week. I laughed a lot, and then I set my jaw and felt intensely grim; I was laughing because it was all so damn true. The realism of our current world feels inescapable, and it feels especially so when fantasy and imagination don't provide the outs they once did. It’s harder for me to lose myself in a book or a movie than it once was, or to lose all sense of time staring off the porch at the swaying trees, their limbs stark naked in the late-winter air. Partly, I’m out of practice. But I feel the other part is that we’re not afforded the ability to be alone.

This could be what scares me so much about a bunch of slack-jawed goobers fawning over VR headsets in eager hopes of making WALL-E non-fiction. It could be what scares me so much about the current U.S. political climate. Don’t they want to step back? Don’t they feel crushed by all that forced connectedness? Don't they want to just take a breath?

Everything is constantly in our face, and even what looks like an ingenious technological escape to some seems like a Philip K. Dick novel to me. I don’t mean to sound like an old person on a cable news channel railing against the kids and their smartphones. I’m a millennial, though on the outer edge; I get the arguments my peers use for why they’re always looking at a screen. Some say it allows them this sacred loneliness of which I speak, that even in a crowd of distempered people then can retreat via apps. Others go the other way and use devices to wax poetic on the newfound ability to find community anywhere and everywhere. I get those arguments, too.

The problem is, it’s a trap either way. Just like so many of our political/social/religious modes of being, we’re fed two narratives and are expected to pick one. Rarely do we talk about a third thing. Leaving the party to read an article on your phone doesn’t make you anymore alone than the Oculus wearer. You’re still tethered, a string of data and ideas and intention swiftly and firmly grasping you from the end of the writers’ pen, from the coders’ fingertips. Where is the escape hatch, really? Maybe it was never there. Even the desert mystics went to commune with. Did even they get a moment away from God? Did they want one?

I’ve previously searched for a balance between connection and solitude, thinking that I could straddle the line between the high values I place on community and relationships as well as on my own needs as an introvert and generally “in my head” feller. But perhaps I was misguided. Perhaps I should’ve been striving not for a balance, but for a mode of living that supports both, sans dichotomy.

What would it look like to practice loving relationships in a community that encouraged your need for true solitude? What would it look like to be truly happy in a moment of complete disconnect, knowing that your appreciation of the inevitable reconnect was just as profound and just as worthy? Maybe what I’m describing to you sounds like a monastic experience, which it might be, but I’m thinking of something different. I’m thinking of a societal shift which would build us from birth to be completely at home in the realms of the "totally alone" and the "totally with" because it never believed they were two separate realms in the first place.

We’re jumping away from the practical here, I know. I said recently that I’m trying to give up cynicism for Lent, which is incredibly difficult when you’re constantly bombarded by reality, doom-flavored as it typically is. But I think that effort contains just the seeds I’m looking for when trying to figure out how to cultivate a nourishing and fruitful way of being for myself and others like me who wish desperately to be both tethered and untethered.

The seeds are those of hope, wonder, and love. When we allow ourselves to be fully opened in relationship with another, be it God or your significant other or your neighbor, maybe then we can be released—and feel comfortable releasing—into the void. We take the space walk without a cable because we are connected by something less tangible but more powerful. Your hope in who I am, my love for who you are, the wonder we have at how that can even be…that’s our breadcrumb trail back. We can go be alone, and know we’ll get back if and when the getting back is necessary. How lovely.

Feel the Bern, Feel the Ash

“Seems like the best way to decide if someone is electable is to hold an election.” — Logan


Lent begins today. I pass people with ashes smudged across their foreheads, reminding me of a time when I observed the start of this holy season with a different attitude. I used to spend the weeks leading up to Lent figuring out exactly which thing I should give up which would strike the delicate balance between “will make me suffer” and “really doesn’t make me suffer at all because suffering sucks.” I wanted to feel like I was doing something meaningful without actually doing something inconvenient. Eventually, I stopped thinking of God as someone who gave even one damn about what I did or didn’t give up for a month and a half. I became especially convinced that God didn’t care what I gave up when what I gave up was so trivial, so privileged to begin with, so utterly materialist in my attachment to it anyway. Unfortunately, while I stopped thinking of Lent in those terms after I finished high school, most of American Christianity kept right on going.

Overall, I’m a cynical person. I don’t give the benefit of the doubt often, especially when it comes to folks expressing their religiosity, or, as they more likely see it, their innermost personal faith.[1] I realize that Christians who still approach Lenten practice as “I’m going to give X up for the next few weeks” are, for the most part, genuinely trying to get at what the church is asking us to do during this time. I think they're missing the point, but that's judgmental of me. If I'm assuming the best of them, which I'm terrible at doing, I should admit that they’re working at self-denial as a means to reflection and contemplative faith practice.

That goal is a good one. But I’ve long lost the ability to trust in our modern means of reaching it. I tend not to trust a lot of things the church in my context does, foremost because I see American Christianity (the only version Christianity I know personally) as irredeemably tied to the capitalist economic system that drives our everyday lives. Church and faith culture so often fall into the traps of selling us a false scarcity, of perpetuating the need to belong “rightly,” which is usually to say “uniquely,” though the actual vision of the Kingdom is supposed to be universal. It seems, therefore, a little trite to think about how giving up your favorite soda is doing anything at all. But I suppose in an environment which says consuming is everything, not consuming is supposed to be something.

My cynicism stretches beyond the bounds of how others practice Lent. It’s in overdrive right now given the amplifying political spectacle at work. It won’t be a surprise to anyone who knows me—and shouldn’t be to anyone who reads me—that I’m a staunch Bernie Sanders supporter. I feel the bern. So when I’m constantly faced with arguments on why this particular candidate isn’t “electable,” all I want to scream is “Anyone is electable if you go elect them!” I’m in a struggle to deny what I know about the American political landscape and instead choose a vision of the future, a vision I believe Bernie and many others share, which emboldens communities to be better at being communal. I’m keeping my cynicism at bay so that I can carry on doing the work of seeking a compassionate way forward in this time and place in which I live.

In a way, it’s probably the most obvious Lenten observation I’ve made in years. For the first time in so long, I’m denying a part of myself in favor of the work all Christians are called to do, namely the work of building the Kingdom here on earth. So as long as I’m putting down the cynicism, maybe in the same way you put down chocolate[2], I guess I’m participating in a tradition I thought I’d left behind long ago. I’m preparing for a vision bigger than myself, bigger than one election or one person seeking an office, or even one movement which is trying to bring about specific change in a specific region. Rather, I’m looking toward a future in which all are lifted up as created ones, valued and cared for, a world inherited by the meek. It’s a resurrection vision, an Easter-people’s hope.

Take the offering of my cynicism, Lord. I’ll try to give it up as long as I can.

[1]: See what I did there? I’m rich in cynicism. Loaded.
[2]: Dammit. I did it again. Don’t take it personally, please.

Comforted By Doubt

“It’s okay to doubt. That’s how you learn.”

I wish I could remember exactly what age I was when I questioned the existence of God. Not too old, not too young is about as close as I can get. But that was my mother’s response. “It’s okay to doubt. That’s how you learn.”

I can’t remember how I responded, or what specifically prompted my anxiety in the first place, but I do remember the comfort I felt, sitting on the bed beside my momma and hearing her give that answer. It wasn’t the answer a mother and woman of Christian faith had to give more than twenty years ago in rural Alabama. Flannery O’Connor liked to use the phrase “Christ-haunted South," which is a brilliant way of getting at how fear dominates the Southern religious imagination. My mother could have fed me some bad theology along those lines. I suppose that’s why I came to her so upset in the first place; I felt the Jesus specter lurking among the trees, waiting for my inevitable failure.

Doubt is a palpable idea for us Southerners, but it’s rarely positive. Many of us, especially rural white folk, are asked to set doubt aside to make way for rose-colored memories of our antebellum history. Doubting the moral supremacy of our secessionist ancestors didn’t always make you a lot of friends. It’s easier now than when I was growing up. Events like the Charleston shooting have led to an overthrow of the hesitancy in some ways, though not in others. Lots of people I know are still clinging to their hateful symbols, though they’re probably a bit quieter about it now. They can’t let doubt creep in, lest it shake their identity to its core.

Religion around here gets a similar shake, which is why I’m still surprised and grateful for my mother’s response to her doubtful child. She affirmed that my doubt was as natural as the red clay stains on my shoes, that the Christ who followed me through the woods, creeping and insidious as kudzu, was only able to haunt me if I didn’t turn around and ask him where he was going and why. I could look at him and doubt him. That’s how I’d learn.

These days, I see my faith as orbiting her own, tethered to her in a way I can’t really explain. It’s my own, but it’s still remarkably unsettled. My mother anchors and calms it with her own blessed assurances. It started when she gave me permission to question. She set me on a course to be comfortable with the uncomfortable, something I need daily to love and deal with many aspects of myself and where I live. She set me up to be both broken and reconciled. I have no doubt that’s a good thing.

Snow Days

Humans are ridiculous. Fickle, impulsive, and nonsensical. Ridiculous.

And we’re aware of it, usually more than we’re even willing to admit. There’s nothing like a good snowstorm to make you assess the reality. I spent the past three days trapped at my house thanks to the momentous amounts of snow and ice moving through the South on its way to the coast. First, I must say that I recognize the privilege of having a home where I could stay warm, of having enough food in the house to outlast the weather and then some, of having a job that pays the money to have any and all of these things. Which is why I know it’s a ridiculous thing to have so desperately hoped for a few “snow days” on Thursday only to stoop—literally stoop, with some scrap metal for a makeshift ice scraper in an effort to free one of the cars, any car would do—to desparate measures in order to escape our driveway three days later. Our driveway, fully covered with a half-inch of ice underneath at least nine inches of snow. Our driveway, first my friend and excuse to miss work, then my nemesis.

I’m describing a familiar topic. In our modern world, we’re well-versed in the language of angst, of existential discomfort. Sometimes we couch the smaller episodes in sarcastic phrases like “first world problems,” which is problematic in its own way. Other times, we chalk it up to the natural human tendency to be dissatisfied, especially in an age where many of us in developed countries actually have the time to be bothered by too much down-time, by forced relaxation or minimal confinement.

In any case, even though I was not alone during the few days I was snowed in, it was so nice to get out Sunday night and have dinner with friends in a humming, busy restaurant. It was also just as nice to go home right after dinner and crawl in bed for a hard, fast sleep.

I wish I could explain this sense of unease. People much smarter than me have been at it for as long as humans have been critically thinking about their humanity, so I could just look to them. Or I could be content to accept my base introvertedness with its moments of manic need for group interaction, my occasional longing to be somewhere else just because its not where I currently am, my overall distrust of the big, open night sky tempered by my desire to be folded into its mystery.

I’m fickle, impulsive, and nonsensical. I’m ridiculous. I’m a human. Leave it to the smallest dose of cabin fever to remind me just how much.

Star Wars and Good Stories

Caution: spoilers might lie ahead. Maybe you don’t want to read what’s coming if you’re worried about something being “spoiled,” though I can’t say that will happen nor can I say you’d actually mind if it did. If it’s something you’re keenly worried about you could stop reading. Though if you did, I think you’d be admitting something about both the story you don’t want spoiled and about yourself.

Last week, I finally saw Star Wars: The Force Awakens. I’ve loved Star Wars for as long as I can remember, eagerly playing with my brother’s action figures (oh how if had been left in their boxes, then used to pay for both our college educations) and watching our VHS copies of the original trilogy enough times that even the VCR cleaner fluid ran low.

They were stories that resonated with me deeply, introducing me to the interconnected world of myth-making, world-building, thematic construction and presentation, and the most basic elements of storytelling. Which is why I was disappointed when, in my lifetime, Episodes I-III appeared in theaters. Many people don’t love those movies for lots of reasons. But for me, it wasn’t bad acting (though there was that) or overly-used CGI (there was that, too), or even clumsy attempts to add to pieces of the world which already worked so well (midi-chlorians). Rather, what I disliked so much was the move away from what makes storytelling work, and what has made it work for as long as our ancestors have been telling stories: people.

What makes The Force Awakens so refreshing is its clear attempt to move the series back to a place where it can tell stories about people at their most people-y. Stories about a group of individuals; their hopes, dreams, fears, pains. Stories about lives lived. You and I can’t connect emotionally to intricately woven plots about trade negotiations and senatorial upheaval any more easily than we could emotionally connect to a newspaper. But a story about a boy, lonely, eager to do something special with his life, who finds friends and adventure, who feels the crushing disappointment over his father's identity on top of the grief he’s always felt for his absence… these experiences we can get. These are things any one of us might actually live through.

Good stories are about people. When a story isn’t about people (or at least people-like things), for better or worse we have a hard time figuring out why we should care. Good stories, as those which connect us to other people across time, culture, distance, or even reality (when we’re talking works of imagination), also connect us to our deeper selves. We love the tale because we see ourselves in it. This connection rings so deeply to who we are as humans, it pulls taut the line between us and the first storytellers, passing words around a campfire about gods, humans, and the nature of the seen and unseen world. In this way, we are also connected to the divine, inasmuch as the desire to create comes from Createdness itself.

This connectedness to Being through story and myth is also an answer to one of the more prominent critiques of the new film. Some feel that Episode VII lacks originality. While I agree that the plot follows the same structure as the first movie, A New Hope, I’m just as quick to say that this isn’t cause for critique. Rather, it’s what works about The Force Awakens. The new film is resetting the myth, not reinventing it. This is what we do with good stories. We develop them, not scrap them. Han Solo takes the place of Obi Wan. Rey is our new Luke. The story isn’t unoriginal for these facts because originality doesn’t always come from inventing new themes; in most cases, it comes from using myths we already know to develop new strands of the tale through old character growth and new character perspective.

When familiar structures are used—such as in both Episodes IV and VII when an older, wiser figure gives advice to a young hero afraid of their destiny—the audience feels a sense of comfort. That comfort is necessary for the storyteller to play. And play is critical for good stories, as nobody gets tangled up in learning a new set of rules. We can start right away with the elements we know and begin building something both familiar and unique together.

Of course, this also means that future audiences might have to do some work, as we do when we read pieces of Shakespeare that included cultural nods with no outright explanations. Still, that’s the work demanded of us as participants. Storytelling is an old, old game, and newcomers simply have to learn as they go.

Hearing or telling a good story is part of our identity as human beings. It’s a deeply tribal thing we do. It’s a world-building, society-sustaining thing we do. Which is why no one should be so worried about hearing spoilers. Storytelling is rooted in oral repetition, in finding out why things happened more than what happened. So the new villain Kylo Ren is Han Solo’s son and, by movie’s end, Han Solo's murderer. Finding that out isn't the important part. The important part is understanding why and how he's that person.

Good stories give us the why and how if we listen enough times. They're made to be told, heard, watched again and again, each time bringing us deeper and deeper into a relationship with the themes at work, each time revealing more of ourselves to ourselves. The better the story, the better its ability to hold a mirror up to our most lovely and hideous selves. We are people, and our best stories will always be about our nature. They will be personal and essential. Which is why the only way someone can spoil a good story for you is to make sure you never get to know it.

Winter Nights

Someone I knew, someone I held and cared for when he was a baby, then a whip-smart child, took his own life last week. This is the third time a person I’ve known has passed beyond the veil in this way. I should not be surprised at how weary the news makes me now, or has made me each time. But in the midst of the Christmas season, when the manger holds a baby, a bringer of peace and light, I am reminded that plenty of us stand outside the stable, shivering under bleak stars, wishing a bit of their heat would be upon us if only for a minute.

Encountering the darkness of winter nights, especially when life feels daunting, is a profound thing. When the cold bites, commanding you step back from the door and return to your quilts, you get a taste of the bitterness. When you step outside, especially if you’re away from the lights and crowds of the city, you find yourself enveloped by the ink-black, frigid air. You are at its mercy.

Much like humans encountering the Fay in our old stories, we can admire what’s enamoring about these evenings while also knowing, even if it’s only in the way back of our minds, that they are dangerous. We are not of them. They are not for us.

These nights are the embodiment of our disconnected nature, marked by a sense of fear and loneliness that's only amplified when we are hurting. I’m not implying that there isn’t healing to be had, warm arms to embrace those so frozen they ache—most of us wouldn’t get through if there wasn’t such a hope and if the hope didn’t come to fruition from time to time—but the presence of one doesn’t negate the reality of the other.

It can be hard at Christmas, just as it is hard at other times. We can lose loved ones. We can see the poor huddled under overpasses. We can see the pain of our world as clearly on December 25th as we can any other day. Better, maybe.

It’s a reminder, is all. A reminder that our cold winter nights are beautiful in their darkness, but they are frightful, too. Our lives together are simultaneously troubled and lovely in much the same way. Forgetting a piece does the whole a disservice. So be a little sad at Christmas. Shed a tear at the altar in solidarity with your hurting kin. Admire the broken beauty of a story that lifts up love incarnate, born into a night dark and terrible, lit up and wonderful.

Advent Lament

It’s been a busy month for the cycle of awful, devastating news. A guy shoots up a Planned Parenthood. A couple shoots up an office party at a center for the disabled. A leading presidential candidate advocates for religious persecution. We have seen lots of hate. Lots of death. Lots of blood. Events happen before, the same day, and after that we don’t even hear about. We’ll see more.

It’s difficult, even as it makes a kind of sense, to see all this in the light of Advent, a season where we are waiting on the bringer of Peace. We wait in a darker world, hoping it gets lighter. Not only do we wait, we are active in our preparation. We have our role to play. But the weight of that role seems heavier when the shit, deep and horrifying, rests itself on our daily lives. How can we anticipate the new when the tragedy we see every day is anything but new? It’s old hat at this point.

Our society is used to seeing people die on the other end of a barrel. We are used to seeing hatred spread across the faces of our neighbors, an entrenched hatred for the other who is also our neighbor. We are caught in between feuds that, more often than not, only one party knows exists. This is the world in which we do Advent.

I am weary. I spend more time than most reading the words of, and interacting with, those who cannot agree with me on the pacifist nature of the Gospel. Over the years, my faith has taken large turns, some lovely, many tragic. It is unrecognizable from what it once was. I’m happy about that for the most part, but not for everything. Still, while much of what I felt I agreed with and understood about Christian life has left me, the commitment to non-violence has remained. Such a pity, then, that I should maintain this tenet in a world obsessed with violence. More the pity that I live in such a callously violent nation, especially one which so arrogantly touts its love of civility and lawfulness.

Things are dark in these Advent days. This is as it should be. The light of Emmanuel, God With Us, is not yet here. Oh, that it would be here. Oh, that people could see the gift that is our ability to lay down our swords for ploughshares. If only it were a world of our readying work, of our actions to bring about Love, Joy, Hope, and ultimately Peace. If only it were a world that kept the lamb close and let the lion roam. If only we remembered to continue the work on December 26th.

Peace. Peace. Peace be with you.

Trees

"Paris! Paris!" they shouted.
"Beirut, Beirut," some whispered.
"What can we do?" I asked.
"Bear the storm & seek the sun," said the trees.
"But Trees, do you not snap from the force of the storm?" I asked.
"Sometimes," they replied. "All the more reason to be rooted together."
"That is a wise thing, Trees. But what of the hurt? You lose so many," I said.
"The losing will always hurt. But the standing helps."
"That's also a wise thing, Trees, but hard to do."
"The world is a hard place. It is why we forest & grove together, making the soil soft."


I wrote this yesterday in pieces via Twitter. Sometimes, it’s easier to work out grief and tired frustration in tiny bits. I shared it with a few people, and it seemed to resonate. So I share it with you.

From Beirut to Paris to Yola (and minutes ago Kano, another Nigerian city), it’s easy to lose yourself in the emotional exhaustion. How, unless it is our loved one, do we keep up with grief in this world which seems so content to hand us so much? At some point, we just don’t. We accept the numbness to the violence, to the images of death and hate, and we live our lives as best we can knowing that we’re surrounding by terrible things that await just beyond the light of our tiny campfire.

Which is why I talk to trees about it. Or to the breeze or the stars should the trees be otherwise occupied. But the trees are the best listeners. They remind me that time is long, stretched to accommodate ring upon ring upon ring. That time is hard, hell-bent on stripping protective bark. That time is lonely, content to outlast the best and the worst of us until all our noise is the quietest quiet. We can learn a lot from the trees. I think we have to, lest we give in to our anxieties about how we can possibly make it in this hard world. And maybe some of us will give in. Some just do. But if we collect ourselves, grow ourselves collectively, then maybe it’ll be that much easier. Maybe we can love others when we can’t love anything else. Maybe they can do us the same kindness. Maybe. And then, maybe the world will be a place of trees again, which is a nice thought.

Assaulting the Disobedient

I taught 4th grade at a rough inner-city school for a year. Plagued by the effects of poverty, racism, and the caste system that is our broken education structure, this elementary school held kids prone to a wide range of social, economic, and mental issues. I quit after that first year for a lot of reasons, but none of them were “because I didn’t want to work with the kids.” In fact, that’s the reason I want to go back one day, when I’m more educated and better trained. You may read that and think, “Well you had a really positive experience with those kids at least.” That’s partially true. But mostly WRONG. WRONG. I shed tears, felt beaten down, and questioned everything about my abilities and motivations for nine months straight. I loved those kids by the end, but they didn’t make it easy most days. They acted on their ADHD, their ODD, their hunger, their anger, and their fear. Daily. They were obstinate. They were obnoxious. But I wanted to teach them. Which is why, with the exception of holding children in a gripped hug to break up fights, I never laid a negative hand on them.

The recent case of a South Carolina police officer assigned to a school assaulting a disobedient student is disgusting. And, typical of the internet and its role to give equal voice to the stupid and intelligent alike, there’s a ton of defense for the officer. The girl wasn’t listening, they say. If you don’t want the consequences, do what the authority figure tells you, they say. She played a role in her assault, they say. It’s really her fault when you think about it, they say.

In my classroom, I was the authority. Usually an island of it, given the ineffective administration downstairs. But never did I use physical force on a student to demonstrate or defend that authority. It didn’t matter that they were 4th graders; I would have looked at teens with the same regard. I’ve also worked with teens, and while they are developmentally young adults, they’re children in ways, too. Impulsive, stubborn, often straight-up jerks. And when they were jerks? Nope, still didn’t sling them across the room. I’m a big guy, so it’s not out of the question, either.

Despite my adult identity as a left-wing socialist commie nut job, I grew up in a moderately conservative household (politically and religiously) where spanking was a legit method of short-term punishment. And maybe because of the way my parents went about it, I don’t have the immediate negative reaction to spanking that many of my friends do. Good parents do the best they can with the information they have. Given that many voices in the psychological/sociological world that now say spanking teaches the wrong lessons, I probably won’t spank my future children. But I sure don’t begrudge my parents for the quick pop on the back of the leg I often got. Why?

Because a spanking and abuse look different to anyone with a lick of sense. And because the physical act, which quickly halted my bad behavior, wasn’t the lesson in and of itself. The lesson ALWAYS came after. My parents talked to me. They explained which choices I should have made, and they let me know that they were keeping watch to make sure I made them. They taught me. Especially by the time I was a teenager, I was guided by words and reasoned lessons. That’s how my parents led me into adulthood. I’m busted, but that's not their fault. They did a great job.

Teaching how to be is the point. The real point. Teaching kids the information wrapped up in a liberal arts education is secondary. But if you’re teaching correctly, you are molding young people to be good adult people. You do it knowing that the stupidity they exhibit as still-forming persons won’t be there forever if you show them the proper way to grow and learn about and from the world around them.

This is the role anyone has who works with children. Whether you lead the classroom, take calls at the front desk, or patrol the halls as a police officer, you are there to teach. And violence does not teach, at least not the lessons you think. Violence teaches violence, never compassion. Violence erodes trust. You think any of the kids in that classroom we see in the video are going to trust the next school officer? Or the one patrolling their street? Trust in leadership and authority figures isn’t maintained through an iron hand. If you believe that, I hope you don’t have kids. If you do, I hope you rethink how you parent them.

Did I ever want to fling a kid I worked with? Yeah. The frustration those who work closely with children feel is real. Would I have ever done it? Hell no. Children and teens are volatile, but they’re also rather easily influenced. Talking to them like they’re a person goes a long way. Most situations can be deescalated just by talking. I remember one day when a 5th grader got mad at being assigned detention. He tore apart the office, throwing papers everywhere and knocking over a chair. He started to leave the school grounds. I was nearby, and, being a male and also of size to match up to this rather tall young boy, the principal asked me to do something. In fifteen minutes, we were back in the office where he was sitting quietly and apologizing. Why? Because I talked to the kid. I asked the right questions. I said the right things. He responded to the humanity I showed him. And of course there are situations, as there were in my school, where the threat of violence a student poses, to herself or others, warrants physical restraint. But restraint is not assault. Proper restraining holds do not harm. You’d never confuse them for assault.

Our children are not in our care to be criminalized. They are there to be taught real lessons by trained and patient adults. And if you’re not a trained and patient adult, like the just-fired officer in this case, you should never have an authority role with children. Or any authority role that deals with everyday people. Helping humans become better humans is a goal we can all share, and we can all take practical steps to do it correctly. It just takes time and information. But who am I kidding? Who in America wants actual information or will devote the actual time to get it? At the very least, “the adults in our schools” would be nice.

To Hell with Civility

Trolls used to be a phenomenon relegated to the comments sections of the Internet, lurking there to call someone a name when they disagreed, construct a straw-man argument, be nasty for an unrelated reason, etc. The confidence to be an asshole to strangers was based in confidence afforded by anonymity. Did you know it’s super easy to be a jerk to someone when you're not face to face?[^1]

The evidence that the anonymity no longer matters is all around us. Look at Ben Carson and Donald Trump. Just the other day, Ben Carson chided the victims of a mass shooting because they didn’t do enough to stop from dying. Can you imagine somebody letting their idiot flag fly so proudly even just a few years ago? Donald Trump trolls a new group every week, so you can find your own examples there. These are just two. Just two. There are a multitude of other examples to show that civility, while needed and necessary, is a relic of our shared past.

I’m an editor by day. I write and edit web articles, and I moderate the comments that appear beneath them. This is to say that I’m acutely tuned in to how people talk to each other online, even on a site dedicated to faith. Some of it is done under the veil of semi-anonymous profiles, but some isn’t. Like the guy, using his real name, who condescendingly told me to “keep reading and studying” and to “please dig a little deeper before you write your next article” because he “expected better” of me as an editor. I don’t begrudge him his opinion, and—to his credit—he certainly could have been a lot nastier. Still, I think I’d have been happier being called a “libtard” than have someone speak down to me with such pomposity.

I’m not sure things were ever civil. Maybe that’s just a view of history tinted by nostalgia. But even if social interactions weren’t more civil, they were at least contained to local spheres through lack of technology. Now we hear what everyone thinks from every corner of the globe, and, in keeping with human form, a ton of it is utter nonsense.

I don’t know the answer. I don’t know what it’ll take for people to return (or get there the first time) to a sense of relationship to the person(s) they’re speaking to. Entering into relationship with someone is usually the best way to not treat them like garbage. That’s the empathy piece Matt was talking about. But until that plays a major role, our corrosive politicking (by which I mean the way we do all things social) will continue to be tiring for me as an individual and exhausting for our culture.

I don’t have a ton of hope for some glorious turnaround of these behaviors. This unpleasant way of talking to and relating to one another seems to be the new norm. None of this is to say that we can’t be passionate, that we can’t be bold about saying how we feel or what we believe or what we think needs to be done to take care of people and the world we share. But there has to be a healthier way to do that, right? Because if not, what’s the point of being the body politic at all?

And that’s the crux: maybe this idea of the body politic as a healthy, functioning entity is doomed, and the best we can hope for is some form of hospice care for it. That remains to be seen. In the mean time, I’ll step back, walk in the woods, be silent, and try to cultivate a small bubble of kindness that hopefully spreads to one neighbor, then two, then communally until I don’t feel like saying “to hell with civility” anymore.

[^1]: Louis CK talked to Conan about that once.

The Anger and Outrage

We’ve devoted space here on The Beard to the subject of outrage, to the increasing acceptance of wasted or misplaced emotion boiling over and making no tangible difference whatsoever. But since it’s still a major part of our modern social reality, and it seems like it’ll continue to be, there’s still something to be said when this outrage modifies, or even directs, the major events we witness.

I do my own share, of course. I like to believe it’s all righteous anger. In some cases, it is. I’m angry that Kim Davis is some twisted Christian anti-hero. I’m angry that I still get comments on my recent gun article that are tragically misinformed and, in some cases, so unintelligent that it’s legitimately scary. I’m angry that “all lives matter” is a thing. Still.

These, I like to believe, are examples of righteous anger, upset born from witnessing injustice toward and hatred for beings of worth. But I’m also guilty of indulging my own form of worthless outrage, outrage done for its own sake. I get riled up by what certain politicians say, even when I know they’re saying it to get a rise. Or maybe they actually believe the stupid thing they’re saying; either way, it’s predictable, boring even at this point, and it’s not something I should spend energy hating.[^1]

But this isn’t the real problem. I can parse out these moments of faux upset and make myself think carefully about why I’m mad when Mike Huckabee is a moron. He’s a moron; why be mad when he acts like it? The real issue is when my legitimate anger bleeds beyond the boundaries of righteousness and becomes a caricature of itself. Anger, in that situation, is the singular tool that I let take over and run the entire machine.

You can make progress that way, but it’s unsustainable. Emotionally, it’s draining. Intellectually, it’s unstable. Spiritually, it’s dangerous. Anger has to transition at some point. And really, it can’t be the initial driver anyway. Righteous anger has to arise from love first; it’s not righteous otherwise. Love for what matters is the origin for our rage when what matters is threatened. If we do not love, our reaction will be indifference. Really, that’s what makes faux outrage so terrible; it’s indifference masked as emotion, aimed at something to elicit personal gain. All this is to say that starting from a place of love is threatened by not returning to love.

What does that mean practically? It means that even the most righteous of causes can be corrupted by our outrage over harm to those causes, over ill-will others have for them. Instead, we must harness our outrage and employ it as a catalyst to spark the engine that sets us moving. If we do not, that spark can become a fire beyond our control. The righteousness of anger can only be marked by its fruits, by how we put it aside in favor of working for the betterment of who or what we felt anger for.

So I get to be angry that Kim Davis thinks that her brand of faith trumps the inclusive nature of God. I get to be angry that a bunch of people agree with her. That anger can spur me to think and act in ways that address the issue. But if I don’t let that anger recede back into the love for the humanity of others from which it comes, then I can’t live or act in ways that express that love. And if I’m not doing that, I’m no better than the crowd, waving cardboard crosses and rallying around their collective, beloved fear.

[^1]: I mean, I’m gonna do it though.