A Proposal for a Violent Entertainment Decision-Making Framework

Enjoy the clip above from the film Gladiator, if you can. I pray, literally for Christ’s sake, that you can’t. In our year of “devolution” and “getting small” so far in 2017, we’ve been repeatedly confronted by the link between Mammon (which wears late capitalist clothes these days) and violence, and somehow we’ve been consistently surprised by the extent to which both are embedded not only in the culture of U.S. empire, but also in the church. I’ve written a lot this year about our efforts to resist Mammon, however halting they may be, and I’ve written a little about our efforts to resist violence. It’s actually pretty interesting. Both efforts- to resist Mammon, and to resist violence- are apparently offensive. What’s interesting about it is the fact that it seems that they’re most offensive to “church people,” to otherwise well-meaning would-be Jesus followers. It seems that if we say, as we now do, that we think it’s utterly essential to following Jesus that we recognize that the U.S. is a violent, Mammon-serving empire more powerful than violent, Mammon-serving Rome of Jesus’ day and that therefore our relationship to U.S. empire must be similar to that of Jesus and his first followers in regard to their relationship to Rome, then such a stance is received as implicit judgment. We do not mean for our actions to imply such judgment, but the fact of it is revelatory. That said, this is not the focus of this post.  

What I do want to focus on is violence, and specifically violent entertainment. It has become clear to us this year that, as Brian Zahnd says, “God is like Jesus; God has always been like Jesus. We haven’t always known this, but now we do.” At the core of this truth is the fact that Jesus is the Prince of Peace and therefore among the many meanings of his death on the cross is this one- that on the cross Jesus absorbed the world’s violence without retaliating and so violence was put to death along with Jesus. Thus we knew that in a multitude of new ways we had to re-double our focus on peacemaking and nonviolence. It only followed then that if we were to be transformed in this way, our minds needed to be renewed, as they have begun to be. For this to fully take effect, though, we knew we needed to stop filling our minds with violent entertainment. If violence is something we are to renounce and resist so that we can better join God in restoring his image in us and in all whom we meet, then it cannot be a source of entertainment. It’s no coincidence that our violent culture is filled with so much violent entertainment. The two go hand-in-hand. Violent images and words normalize violence. They re-wire our brains to accept it as a fact of life.

 Even if we try to take what amounts to the moral high ground in this culture by asserting that violence is to be avoided when possible but is nonetheless acceptable as a last resort when confronted with violence, we still wind up condoning some measure of limited, hopefully proportional violence. This is the myth of redemptive violence, and it is a fallacy. Violence begets violence, after all, because the means are the ends in the process of becoming. Some folks misread Scripture and think it tells us to spank our children. It does not. However, for the sake of argument let’s say it does. Remembering that spanking can only ever be punishment, not discipline- for the only thing it can possibly “teach” is how to avoid getting hit by your parents in the future- would you then hit (spank) your child for hitting another child on the playground? Of course not. It makes no sense to do the thing you’re trying to get your kid to stop doing in order to get them to stop doing it.

The myth of redemptive violence is pervasive, however. From “The War to End All Wars” (it didn’t) to the NRA promulgated argument that “good guys with guns” can stop “bad guys with guns,” we see it everywhere. The crowd’s endorsement of this “logic,” however, does not actually make it logical, and I give you Star Trek of all things to make this point:

 

 As the alien said, “your good and your evil use the same methods (violence), and achieve the same results.” What are the results? Well, for starters:

“He pulls a knife; you pull a gun. He sends one of yours to the hospital; you send one of his to the morgue!” So again, violence begets violence, but though one might hope that the violence that violence begets would be proportional and limited, it seems to me that it usually does not work out this way, as the “Untouchables” clip and quote above reveals. The only way that violent force can overcome an opposing violent force is if one side escalates the force. This “win” by one violent side can only ever be temporary, however, and at the very least the threat of overwhelming violent force must be maintained by the victor perpetually. It’s why nation-states maintain standing armies, and the U.S. empire seeks to maintain the biggest, most violent military of all. Gandhi knew this, of course, when he said: “I object to violence because when it appears to do good, the good is only temporary. The evil it does is permanent.” This pernicious myth of redemptive violence must be rejected outright. One of Dr. King’s most famous quotes is that “Darkness cannot drive out darkness; only light can do that. Hate cannot drive out hate; only love can do that.” Often missing, though, is the context:

The ultimate weakness of violence is that it is a descending spiral,
begetting the very thing it seeks to destroy.
Instead of diminishing evil, it multiplies it.
Through violence you may murder the liar,
but you cannot murder the lie, nor establish the truth.
Through violence you may murder the hater,
but you do not murder hate.
In fact, violence merely increases hate.
So it goes.
Returning violence for violence multiplies violence,
adding deeper darkness to a night already devoid of stars.
Darkness cannot drive out darkness:
only light can do that.
Hate cannot drive out hate: only love can do that.

So the quote isn’t just about darkness being ineffective in driving out darkness or hate in driving out hate; it’s about violence being ineffective as a means of stopping violence. But I digress.

So then, if following the Prince of Peace must mean resisting violence in all its forms, especially the form that lays neural pathways in our brain without us even being aware of it (visual entertainment), how can we do so, when the culture of U.S. empire is saturated with so very much violent entertainment? Until I find something better, I propose a violent entertainment decision-making framework that involves asking three questions:

  1. Is the violence gratuitous and unnecessary?  Can the same story be told without it?
  2. Related to #1, what do I most look forward to about the entertainment? Is it the violence? (Think light-saber duels or space battles.)
  3. Does the entertainment promote the myth of redemptive violence?

If the answer to any of the above is yes, I shouldn’t be entertained by it. Let’s unpack these questions, though, and try applying them.

Question #1: Is the Violence Gratuitous?

Answering this question seems fairly straightforward. A proxy question might be: “Was the movie directed by Michael Bay?” If so, being entertained by it can’t be a faithful choice, it seems to me. Bay is famous for making needlessly violent movies full of “big explosions.” The violence in his films, of which I’ve seen probably more than a few, in my experience almost never moves the story very well. It may heighten the tension, but only artificially, and it makes the storytelling disjointed at best. You don’t learn much you didn’t already know about the characters, and I suspect many viewers would have to admit that what they’re most invested in is not a positive outcome for the “good guys with guns” in the story. Rather, what’s most interesting is how big the explosions are, how many things get blown up, how amazing the violent special effects are, etc. This brings us to question #2.

Question #2: Is the Violence What I Most Look Forward To About the Entertainment?

This question is very much related to question #1 above, but I think it must be addressed as well. (As I write, I’m aware of the violence in language. In writing the sentence just above, I wanted initially to say, “but I think it must be tackled as well.” When I realized that didn’t work, the next phrase that came to mind was “wrestled with.” It was only on my third try that I came up with “addressed.”) Let’s continue using Michael Bay as an example. You would have a hard time convincing me that most people who are most excited about his films aren’t most excited about the “big explosions” in them. The man likes blowing things up on film, and he has legions of fans who are ready to pay top dollar (ah…there’s that ever-present link between violence and capitalism) at the multiplex to see him do so. I used to be one of them. I’ll talk more about Star Wars later, but I think this is at the heart of why I’ve had to give up my life-long love of Star Wars, and try to quell my sons’ growing love of it. When I think about a Star Wars movie, I have to admit that what most excited me about seeing one is a “good ol’ fashioned” light-saber duel, or a “force fight,” or an epic space battle. I have to, therefore, conclude that being entertained in this way is not a choice that is faithful to the Prince of Peace.

Question #3: Does the Entertainment Promote the Myth of Redemptive Violence?

I spoke at some length about redemptive violence above. It’s the idea that essentially “good guys with guns” can stop “bad guys with guns-” that violence, while regrettable, is sometimes necessary as the only possible way to stop violence. The logic of this argument is flawed, short-sighted, and betrayed by experience. The “war on terror” is an Orwellian perpetual war for lots of reasons, but one of them is because for every alleged terrorist blown up by a drone strike, many more are made. This is true not least because of the “collateral damage” such strikes inflict, and perhaps most because of the horrifically evil practice by the forces of U.S. empire of blowing up an alleged terrorist first and then when not just his associates but family and children and neighbors and friends gather for a funeral, your secular government (if you’re a U.S. citizen) then will often blow up the people at that gathering too. This practice is so evil that one wonders if it isn’t intentional. It surely insures that the “terrorists” (and let’s be clear, the violent forces of U.S. empire are no less terroristic than any violent jihadi) will keep coming, and therefore insures that the ever hungry military-industrial complex will continue to have a steady market for its products. And there, yet again, is the link between violence and capitalism.

Making Decisions With This Proposed Framework

Star Wars
Picture Credit: Brian Stauffer

I’ve already said above that I concluded that I couldn’t be entertained by Star Wars any more, because I had to admit (question #2) that what I most looked forward to about a Star Wars movie was the violence. Whatever else I would say here, I won’t say it as well as Roy Scranton did in his seminal New York Times essay, “Star Wars and the Fantasy of American Violence.” Scranton, an Iraq War vet, writes:

“Star Wars” managed a remarkable trick. Two years after the fall of Saigon and America’s withdrawal in defeat from a dishonorable war, Mr. Lucas’s Wagnerian space opera recast for Americans the mythic story so central to our sense of ourselves as a nation.

In this story, war is a terrible thing we do only because we have to. In this story, the violence of war has a power that unifies and enlightens. In this story, war is how we show ourselves that we’re heroes. Whom we’re fighting against or why doesn’t matter as much as the violence itself, our stoic willingness to shed blood, the promise that it might renew the body politic.

The literary historian Richard Slotkin called this story “the myth of regeneration through violence,” and he traces it from the earliest Indian captivity narratives through the golden age of the western, and it’s the same story we often tell ourselves today. It’s a story about how violence makes us American. It’s a story about how violence makes us good.

Looking out over Baghdad on the Fourth of July, I saw the truth that story obscured and inverted: I was the faceless storm trooper, and the scrappy rebels were the Iraqis.

Indeed. What Star Wars may get right is that there is an evil empire that should be resisted. What most Americans get wrong is that we are that evil empire. Moreover, as Chris Hedges makes clear in the title of his book by the same name, “War Is A Force That Gives Us Meaning.” Ask any U.S. President with a flagging domestic policy agenda; what better way to boost your poll numbers is there than getting involved in a war somewhere? Scranton’s essay is worth the read and I urge you to do so. I think it’s clear, though, that Scranton is talking about the myth of redemptive violence and how it sits at the heart not only of Star Wars, but the collective consciousness of U.S. empire. Thus, my family has given it up.

“American Football”

I grew up in the Dallas/Ft. Worth Metroplex. Therefore, loving the Dallas Cowboys was as central to the identity I was nurtured into as viewing Texas as better than other states but otherwise being a patriotic, flag waving, apple pie loving “American.” So, for the first time in conscious memory now 2 years into my fifth decade, I am not following the Cowboys this season. (Again, I’m aware of my own language. Why would I have “followed” them in the first place? Aren’t I supposed to be following Jesus?) I do not know what their record is. Sundays are not spent hoping the Cowboys are on national TV or wishing I had NFL Sunday Ticket instead. No longer do I even put on a game I might be less interested in simply so that I can stretch out on the couch on a Sunday afternoon and fall asleep to it. Why? Because “American football” is needlessly violent (question #1), and again if most fans were honest, I think they’d have to admit that the violence is among what they most look forward to about football (question #2). It’s needlessly violent because the sport can be played without violence. Pudgy middle-aged guys like myself (well, almost middle-aged) play touch football in parks across the country nearly every day, and especially on Thanksgiving. Kids and adults play flag football frequently too. Tackling and hitting need not be part of the sport, though the NFL would not be the billion dollar industry it is without the violence, and there again is the link between violence and capitalism (do you see a connection here, as I do?). What’s more, the evidence is daily mounting that there is also a link between the violence in “American football” and devastating health effects on those who participate in it, including violence on the part of those afflicted by CTE towards others and themselves. Finally, while I may not follow the Cowboys any more, I do follow the news; so I know that Cowboys owner Jerry Jones recently, though unsurprisingly, picked sides in the debate surrounding activism and free speech as it has surfaced in sports especially since Colin Kaepernick began protesting violence, discrimination, and the devaluation of black lives during the national anthem when it is played during football games. Jones recently said that team unity was not nearly as important as “respecting the flag” and so any player who he thought was disrespecting it would be benched. This patriotism toward the symbols of U.S. empire over/against any symbolic resistance to the evil that empire has subjected its citizens of color to is abhorrent, and it makes it that much easier to not be a Cowboys fan any more.

Star Trek

Can you tell I’m a sci-fi fan? I’ve loved Star Wars from a young age, but that love was nurtured by my older siblings, who probably love it more. I came by my love of Star Trek, though, all on my own. My mother liked it, if memory serves; so I suppose that’s a characteristic that I’m willing to admit I share with her (my long dead mother was the abuser in my dysfunctional, though “Christian,” childhood home). Still, I appreciated Star Trek for lots of reasons that were all my own. For starters, there was simply literally more to love. With now 6 live action television series, 1 animated one, and I think 13 movies, I’ve been exposed to a lot of Star Trek in my life. Gene Roddenberry’s (Star Trek’s creator) progressive vision of a multi-racial future in which everyone (at least on Earth or in the United Federation of Planets) largely gets along or at least tries to and (by the second television series) in which war and famine and poverty have been eliminated on earth even had a fledgling critique of capitalism, as again by the second television series it was stated that most Earth citizens lived enlightened lives in which they were free to pursue their most meaningful life. As Captain Picard said in the episode “The Neutral Zone:”

A lot has changed in the past three hundred years. People are no longer obsessed with the accumulation of things. We’ve eliminated hunger, want, the need for possessions. We’ve grown out of our infancy.

It’s quite debatable whether this ideal is carried through throughout the series, but it’s at least posited as an ideal that humanity achieved to some degree. Still, there’s plenty of conflict in Star Trek, even war (apparently not all species and cultures are as enlightened as futuristic humanity), and though I like Star Trek just a little more than Star Wars, I must be consistent and ask of it my three questions above.

Regarding question #1, I think some Star Trek is certainly needlessly violent. I will confess that I like the revival of the movies that J.J. Abrams started before moving on to Star Wars, but they’re violent, and probably gratuitously so. Thus, I won’t be watching them again. Likewise, I was excited about the latest iteration of Star Trek on TV, the capitalistic snare it represented (you have to sign up for CBS’ streaming service to watch it) notwithstanding. So I watched the first couple of episodes. It quickly became clear that the new series would be set in a time of war. That doesn’t automatically mean that it fails my violent entertainment decision-making framework, but it doesn’t make for a good start. By the second episode, though, a full on special effects laden space battle had occurred with many casualties. Lots of money was no doubt spent on those scenes, and they were no doubt very entertaining. For some viewers, those “big explosions” may be what they most liked about that episode, and thus question #2 is failed. Really, though, I only needed to get as far as this scene in the first episode, in which the central character said:

240 years ago, near H’Atoria, a Vulcan ship crossed into Klingon space. The Klingons attacked immediately. They destroyed the vessel. Vulcans don’t make the same mistake twice. From then on, until formal relations were established, whenever the Vulcans crossed paths with Klingons, the Vulcans fired first. They said “hello” in a language the Klingons understood. Violence brought respect. Respect brought peace. Captain, we have to give the Klingons a Vulcan “hello”.

This is the myth of redemptive violence in a nutshell, literally. In the quote above there are only four words between “violence” and “peace,” and they’re packaged in a nice little chiasm:

Violence

Brought

Respect

Respect

Brought

Peace

Thus, I won’t be watching the new series. There’s still some question, though, of re-watching some of the older series, particularly Star Trek: The Next Generation (TNG). My boys and I have been re-watching this show together. They look forward to it immensely. My stance since our conversion to rejecting violence in all its forms, including violent entertainment, has been to withhold judgment regarding TNG. There is certainly some violence in it. What may be redeeming about at least some Star Trek, though, is that this is not the focus of the show. Many episodes are spent on character development with little violence thrown in, even for “good” (not really) measure. And when violence does come up in TNG, so far at least as we’ve re-watched most of the first three seasons, there’s some actual thoughtfulness involved, and even some questioning of the myth of redemptive violence. Take, for example, the third season episode, “The Enemy.” Wikipedia describes the episode:

In this episode, Lt. Cdr. Geordi La Forge (LeVar Burton) is trapped on an inhospitable planet hazardous to human life with a Romulan. The two adversaries must work together if they wish to survive. Aboard the Enterprise, Lt. Worf (Michael Dorn) is faced with a conflict between his duty as a Starfleet officer and his Klingon prejudice against Romulans, and Captain Picard (Patrick Stewart) must contend with a Romulan warbird intent on recovering their own personnel.

So on the planet two enemies must work together to survive, challenging their stereotypes about the other along the way. Meanwhile, Worf must decide whether to help save a Romulan’s life, a decision made all the more difficult by the fact that Romulans killed his family. Finally, Picard must work to avert a violent confrontation with a Romulan ship. In this exchange Commander Riker and Worf (indirectly) discuss the myth of redemptive violence:

Lieutenant Worf: I am asked to give up the very lifeblood of my mother and my father to those who murdered them!

Commander William T. Riker: So you blame all Romulans for that?

Lieutenant Worf: Yes!

Commander William T. Riker: Forever? What if someday, the Federation made peace with the Romulans?

Lieutenant Worf: Impossible.

Commander William T. Riker: That’s what your people said a few years ago, about Humans. Think how many died on both sides in that war. Would you and I be here now like this, if we hadn’t been able to let go of the anger and the blame? Where does it end, Worf? If that Romulan dies… does his family carry the bitterness on another generation?

And then, in this exchange Captain Picard interrupts a potential cycle of violence before it begins by choosing to extend trust to a would-be enemy threatening violence:

Captain Jean-Luc Picard: Commander, both our ships are ready to fight. We have two extremely powerful and destructive arsenals at our command. Our next actions will have serious repercussions. We have good reason to mistrust one another; but we have even better reason to set those differences aside. Now, of course, the question is… who will take the initiative? Who will make the first gesture of trust? – The answer is, I will. I must lower our shields to beam those men up from the planet’s surface. Once the shields are down, you will, of course, have the opportunity to fire on us. If you do, you will destroy not only the Enterprise and its crew, but the ceasefire that the Romulans and the Federation now enjoy.

Captain Jean-Luc Picard: [to Worf] Lieutenant… lower the shields.

I was very grateful when the boys and I watched this episode. Though clothed in futuristic storytelling, this is at least to some degree not only a serious show wrestling with serious issues, but is one that is at least in part willing to question the myth of redemptive violence. For that reason, we will warily watch on.

Not a Rule, a Guidepost

As Captain Picard himself said, “There can be no justice so long as laws are absolute. Even life itself is an exercise in exceptions.” Or, as I like to say, “rules are for relationship.” So is every war movie out for me? No. It’s possible, I suppose, to tell a war story that is not needlessly violent because the violence is an essential part of the story and the story could not be told without it. Questions 2 and 3 above then would still apply. If I find myself being entertained or most looking forward to the violence in our proverbial war movie, then I probably shouldn’t watch it. If not, I look toward question 3 for guidance. Does the movie promote the myth of redemptive violence? If not, if it ultimately tells a tale that shows how violence does not achieve its stated ends, that it only perpetuates itself, then this proverbial war movie may be one I can still watch and think myself faithful to the Prince of Peace as I do so.

Nonetheless, these are hard questions to ask, let alone answer. It takes work to resist violence in all its forms, but it’s necessary work that I’m glad to do. I follow the Prince of Peace, and I want to be transformed by him, to have my mind renewed. Lord, I ask that you would “make it so.”

P.S. Let’s Not Forget The Doctor

In all my geekiness, I came to enjoy Doctor Who as I binge-watched it during a particularly cold Christmas break some years ago in NE Ohio. The show can be scary and is known for featuring monsters, and yet is quintessentially British, which maybe is part of its appeal for me. Notably, The Doctor does not usually employ violence. He does not have superheroic powers (except the ability to “regenerate”), and does not carry a weapon. His tool of choice is a “sonic screwdriver,” which is good for making sounds, unlocking things, and scanning things, but often is not very good even at that. The Doctor’s most powerful “weapon” is his tongue, and his monologues are epic. Anyway, while researching for this post I did a search for “Dr. Who Nonviolence.” That search led me to this post, at what is now one of my favorite blogs, “Experimental Theology” by Richard Beck. His site is worth checking out. I especially appreciate the header at his site, a quote by Thomas Merton:

You are not big enough to accuse the whole age effectively, but let us say you are in dissent. You are in no position to issue commands, but you can speak words of hope. Shall this be the substance of your message? Be human in this most inhuman of ages; guard the image of man for it is the image of God.

Perhaps you might imagine why this quote would be meaningful. “You are not big enough to accuse the whole age effectively” is a good word to one who is trying to “get small,” and the encouragement to speak words of hope in “this most inhuman of ages” is a helpful reminder. Anyway, in the short post I referenced above, Richard tells a story about an interaction with his son regarding Dr. Who and nonviolence. He thought it worth sharing, and so do I:

Let me quickly apologize to Doctor Who fans for the title of this post as it might have excited them. I’m sorry that this post isn’t a theological analysis of Doctor Who and non-violence. But please link to good work in this area in the comments.

This post is simply a funny exchange I had with my son Aidan on this subject.

Aidan loves Doctor Who. I’ve only watched one episode. So the other day I was asking Aidan lots of questions about Doctor Who and what he liked about the show.

As Aidan shared I quickly discerned that in most episodes the good Doctor has to deal with a variety of creatures, aliens and monsters.

And then Aidan says, “But Doctor Who doesn’t use violence.”

I’m intrigued, “He doesn’t use violence?”

“Nope.”

“Well,” I ask, “then how does he fight all these creatures if he’s non-violent?”

Aidan pauses and then says, “Well, he runs away a lot. There’s a lot of running away.”

We Should Be A Little More Treasonous. But That’s Nothing New.

 

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Post election subway therapy, New York

As with so many things in my life, I’ve long known what is good for me, what would be best for me, but have long failed to muster the will to act on this knowledge. This is true when it comes to eating right and running every day just as it is for how I entertain myself.  This can go on no more. For example, whether I believe that the “mainstream media” has a “liberal” bias or not, I know that it is biased, by the dollar. It’s a capitalist endeavor. It responds to market forces. Especially in the age of media consolidation, it’s literally owned by large corporate interests. This is no less true for media that caters to those who lean “left” in the sphere of secular politics (MSNBC viewers) than it is for those who consume Fox News. In both cases, they (the corporate interests that own the media) crave eyeballs. They’ll gin up whatever controversy they can to get viewers. Once their audience is captivated by the spectacle they’re broadcasting, they can sell it something, which is their most important agenda. I don’t doubt that there are some heartfelt pundits out there and even some legitimate journalists who serve in the field of broadcast media, but if they work for any of the big media companies- in other words, if you can find them on TV- they have corporate masters they must serve, and those masters value the dollar over anything else. These capitalists made Trump a household name as a TV personality and endlessly covered him “for free” once he ran. Trump is a product to be sold as much as he is anything else. Once he ran, the corporate overlords he serves repackaged him to gin up support for his candidacy on Fox News, and on the other side they repackaged him to gin up opposition on MSNBC, and most of us tuned in, whichever story about him we preferred to hear. We’re still tuning in.

Pick a metaphor. If Trump is a bully, he craves our attention, good or bad. While we must vigilantly inform ourselves of his actions that harm or oppress others, again he wants our attention, and we do ourselves and those he would harm or oppress, not to mention the world, a great service when, as much as we can, we ignore him. Here’s another metaphor that paints the same picture. If Trump is a fire, he needs oxygen. When we again pay attention to his bombast- his ignorant, racist, sexist, and hurtful comments, we give it to him.

Let’s stop doing that.

We can start by turning off our TV. We can inform ourselves in other ways. Subscribe to your local paper. Take the time to read it. Many of them are owned by big corporations too, but that consolidation is driven by market forces like everything else; so let’s create a market for local, independent media. Of course in the internet age, at least so long as freedom of speech and of the press persist in the U.S., we can find many, many sources online that can help to keep us informed about what truly matters while limiting the chances that we’ll be reduced to mere consumers in the process.

As I write this my phone alerted me that the Dow Jones closed at a record high today. Markets plunged as Trump’s election became ever more a possibility and then a reality, but now that the reality has begun to set in, they seem to be doing just fine, at least for now. Why? Because the market isn’t interested in the betterment of humanity. Capitalism doesn’t care if people of color suffer and refugees die while trying to get to a country where the rigged economic system is rigged for (some of) its inhabitants rather than against them. The love of money is indeed the root of all evil, and now that the uncertainty about the election is over, capitalism will churn on just like it always has, serving those who know how to “game the system” like Trump literally at the expense of many, many others.

Let’s act to change that. The old axiom is true. We vote every day, in no small part with our dollars. Do you know where yours go? Do you know what kind of future you’re buying with them? If you don’t, find out! Learn something about the corporations that make the products you most consume every day. Whether or not you believe “corporations are people too,” our government and economic system seems to. So find out what kind of (global, usually) citizen they are. If their supply chain involves child labor on the other side of the globe, or the woman who sowed your sweatshirt worked long hours for minimal pay in unsafe conditions with no healthcare, this makes not calling such workers “slaves” a distinction without a difference. So stop buying that brand from that store. Act! Demand better. Support your local MCC Thrift store, for example.

I mentioned turning off your TV above in the context of not letting big corporations be the primary way we get our information, and thereby letting them be the primary shaper of our opinions. There’s another reason to turn it off, though. It’s just too easy after a stressful day at work and a long commute for some of us to plop in front of the TV to let ourselves be entertained, even if “thoughtfully” or “artfully.” Look, there’s some good entertainment out there. I know. There’s even some that makes me think and challenges my worldview. There may be some good to this. But let’s not be deceived. Even the thought-provoking entertainment is a product we’re being sold, and to the extent that we go along with this we again reduce ourselves to mere consumers. Whether we’re consuming the next heartwarming drama or cable news, it’s our self-interest that is being catered to and commodified, whether “enlightened” or not. So I’m challenging myself as much as I may be challenging you to cut the cord, whether Comcast delivers your Netflix via your cable box or cable modem. Let’s turn our TV’s off for a while. Let’s read a book or go for a run. Let’s meet a neighbor and get to know them, especially if they had a yard sign for the candidate you didn’t vote for. If enough of us did this, we’d be much better able to resist the stories Trump’s corporate masters want to tell us about ourselves and our neighbor and the world we live in, for if the election taught us anything, it’s that we can’t counter Fox News with MSNBC. We just can’t. It won’t work, and it never has. And even a (second) Clinton presidency, however much more enlightened it may have been, would not have enabled us to overcome the partisanship that divides us so that we could actually create the kind of world we hope our kids grow up in.

Let’s look at a few issues:

I don’t doubt that a Trump presidency will likely be devastating for the environment, for the good world that God made. A Trump presidency that favors fracking and reducing the reach of the EPA will likely accelerate the processes that are destroying our air and water. But let’s be honest. A Clinton presidency would likely have only slowed that destruction. So we can kill the planet quickly or slowly. We’re right to be upset that a quick death seems to be what the country voted for, but it’s hypocritical if we wouldn’t have been just as upset at a Clinton presidency that might have slowed the process but likely would have done little to change its root causes.

A Trump presidency will likely be devastating for disadvantaged communities in the U.S. Even/especially if Trump winds up acting on the economic principles that Paul Ryan might want him to, I don’t believe that ever more unfettered consumer capitalism in the form of an efficient market with little regulation and few or no taxes will create the conditions in which the poor through their hard work and thrift can rise above their circumstances to achieve the “American dream.” This won’t happen because a more efficient market will do nothing to root out systemic racism and misogyny, while it will more efficiently grow the school to prison pipeline, for example, because there’s a market for it. The prospect of Attorney General Giuliani instituting stop-and-frisk nationwide is truly horrific. It’s been shown not only that this program doesn’t work but that people of color are disproportionately targeted by it, no doubt worsening the mass incarceration of people of color. That said, is it likely that Clinton, even with a cooperative Congress,  would have not only shut down the for-profit private prison industry but also created a system that equitably funds every school across the country while simultaneously providing a living wage for every single USAmerican while eliminating racial bias in our law enforcement and justice systems and fully funding childcare and early education systems so that every child, especially children of color, live in an environment that enables them to achieve academic success commensurate with their potential? Sadly, I don’t think there’s a market for this. It just wouldn’t have happened. So are we really so upset that poor folks will stay poor because of “conservative” policies and principles instead of staying (maybe a little less) poor because of “liberal” ones?

Let’s take just one more issue(s). If Trump follows through on his promises, the U.S. will become even less welcoming to refugees fleeing war and immigrants seeking a better life than it already is. Compare our response to the refugee crisis to that of rest of the world, for example. There is no comparison. In mid 2015 the U.S. had 0.84 refugees per 1,000 of our own inhabitants. Germany had 3.10. Chad had 30.97. We have more (stolen from Indigenous peoples) land and resources than any single European country by far, but have accepted far, far fewer refugees than most European countries, which is to say nothing of countries in other parts of the world. Speaking of Indigenous peoples, it’s the most sinful hypocrisy that we European descendants took a continent from its native inhabitants while committing genocide against them and partitioning off their descendants on virtual concentration camps could then say this land is “our” country and further have the gall to say that others can only come here under conditions that suit and don’t inconvenience us. While a Clinton presidency may not have resulted in a giant wall along the border with Mexico or cut off all Syrian or Muslim refugees, a hawkish President Clinton may have only exacerbated the Syrian conflict that is making its citizens flee, and even if not, the conflict that perpetually roils that region is often fueled by an interventionist U.S. foreign policy motivated in no small part by economic interests. Trump says he’ll just “take the oil.” Clinton likely would not have done so but would have perpetuated the systems by which global corporations with strong ties to the U.S. do, all so that we rich Westerners can keep enjoying our “freedom” to drive wherever we want to, whenever we want to. Is there really much of a difference?

Likewise, whether NAFTA gets rescinded or renegotiated or not, the economic conditions and crime that drive Mexicans to risk their lives to cross the border illegally are unlikely to have been dramatically improved under a Clinton presidency. We USAmericans like our way of life but won’t admit that it’s unsustainable and that it’s literally impossible for everyone to live this way. We consume far too much of the world’s resources and create far too much of its waste. “All boats” cannot rise to the level of comfort some of us here in the U.S. enjoy. If devastating poverty around the world is to be really improved, we rich USAmericans must move down the economic ladder a bit. Our standard of living must decrease so that the standard of living of the world’s poorest citizens can increase. Put simply, we must be better at sharing. I don’t think a Clinton presidency would have seriously addressed this. Do you?

I will confess that I was and am devastated by the results of this election. This surreal, dystopian moment we find ourselves in, in which the nation’s first Black President has to give up the “White” House to the KKK endorsed candidate is the stuff of nightmares. There’s already talk- and evidence– of press access to Trump being restricted, thereby limiting our ability to watch this dangerous man with the scrutiny he deserves. Meanwhile, the “Trump effect” has taken hold in the nation’s discourse as civility has gone out the window and racist, misogynistic rhetoric is normalized, perpetuated, and encouraged. There are ever more reports of minorities being harassed and women being harangued. I have a conservative Evangelical co-worker whom I trust loves Jesus very much and believed he was following him as best he can as he voted for Trump. Yesterday as an incident of school bullying attributed to the Trump effect was described to this co-worker, he asked incredulously “…and this is Trump’s fault?!” The answer is unequivocally yes. Trump’s “locker room talk,” his racist “dog whistle” rhetoric, his deplorable descriptions of whole people groups as criminals and rapists and calls to ban whole religions from entering the country has emboldened and encouraged those who think this way. Worse, it’s influenced those who may not have previously thought this way, at least consciously, to perhaps consider this an acceptable way of speaking, let alone acting. This is deplorable, even if the people who would let themselves be influenced in this way are not. I could go on and on about all the reasons to be sad, angry, and terrified at the election of Trump, and I’ve described some of them above.

I need to be honest, though, and clear in my own thinking, as I’ve also described above how a Clinton presidency would have been obviously better about some of these issues, but only to a point, and not nearly to the point where the deepest and most entrenched problems might have been solved. I long ago disabused myself of the notion that USAmerica was a “city on a hill,” a “new Israel” by which the nations of the world might be saved or healed (there are people who think this, unfortunately, and I grew up under their influence). The world does have a rescuer, however, and even now he beckons us to join together and love his world by living like he did and doing the things that he did. Jesus got violently angry when capitalists tried to institute a market economy in a place of worship. In the midst of a political and economic system that demanded total allegiance he said to “give to Caesar what is Caesar’s” because Caesar’s face was on the coins Jesus’ followers would have paid their taxes with, but simultaneously he said to “give to God what is God’s,” thereby implying that Caesar could not own everything and therefore Caesar’s authority and power was limited and marginal. In this same culture it was common to say that “Caesar is Lord” again because he demanded such total allegiance and subservience from his subjects. Therefore, when Jesus followers proclaimed instead that “Jesus is Lord,” they were saying that Caesar is not, and they were likely guilty of treason. This was a profound political statement and should carry the same currency (ha!) today.

Today whether Trump is Caesar, or Hillary is, neither of them are Lord. So let’s live like Jesus is Lord, like he is our Commander-in-Chief. Let’s make government-run social safety nets superfluous because we feed the hungry, clothe the naked, and serve the poor so well that they have no need for government assistance. Let’s visit, befriend, and advocate for the prison population so overwhelmingly that for profit prison corporations abandon the industry just because they’re sick of dealing with us. Let’s stand with Standing Rock in such force, with such relentless peaceful protest and nonviolent civil disobedience (if need be), that there simply aren’t enough officers from neighboring states to arrest us all. Let’s flood the mailboxes and email inboxes of Congress, the President, and the oil companies with so many petitions and requests that they abandon their work and respect the rights and treaties of Indigenous people, again simply because it’s easier than dealing with us. Let’s care for the sick among us so well that Obamacare becomes irrelevant and there’s no profit in healthcare for the big corporations.

I could go on, but these are just a few of the things we would do if we really believed that Jesus is Lord rather than Caesar, the market, or our own (enlightened or not) self-interest. To do this, of course, we’ll need each other. We’ll need to be organized, motivated, and informed. We’ll need to stop “going to church” (as if that were possible) and start being the Church. We’ll need to share our resources and ideas, our homes and our income and our lives. We’ll need to resist the evil that will occur under President Trump, just as we ought to have been resisting the evil committed under (the much more likable, respectable, intelligent, and civil) President Obama (drones, record deportations, and DAPL come to mind, for starters), and just as we ought to have resisted the evil that would have occurred under a would be President Clinton. As one dad apparently wrote to his son after the election and which has been making the rounds on social media:

“Trump won. Don’t panic. The world won’t end. The country won’t fall apart. We’re just underdogs now, caring about women, minorities, decency, and truth. You’re going to have a job now: Be Extra Moral. Rebel against meanness. Be kind. Heal things. Inspire people with optimism. Most of all, LOVE.”

The truth is we’ve always been underdogs whether we’re resisting overt individual racist acts under President Trump or more subtle systemic racism under President Obama and all the presidents who came before him. We’ve always been underdogs whether we’re resisting the DAPL or the 85% unemployment rate that exists on some reservations. If we who would follow Jesus ever find ourselves in the position where we’re not underdogs, we need to open our eyes and look around. Chances are Jesus is nowhere in sight.

He’s not hard to find though. He’s always on the margins, with the “least of these,” eating and drinking with prostitutes and sinners, working to heal the sick, not the well, and sometimes breaking the (religious) law to do so. It’s more important than it ever has been to pay attention to what God is up to, what he’s doing in this moment in history, so that we can join him in his mission to love, heal, serve, and save the world; so that we can join him in his ministry of reconciliation. He beckons us to follow him, even now. Let’s go.

On Becoming, or “Run, Barry, Run!”

“What you’ve become is wonderful, a miracle even, but it won’t make bad things stop happening to you. Even The Flash can’t outrun the tragedies the universe is going to keep sending your way. You have to accept that, and then you can truly run free.”

I’ll just straight out claim my geek cred. and admit to being a Flash fan, really a fan of most things Geek. That said, aside from “with great power comes great responsibility” (aka “to whom much is given, much is required“), I try not to get too much of my wisdom for life from superhero TV shows, but when I heard the quote above while watching The Flash, I was struck by it. Without getting too much into the details of the show, in the scene Barry/The Flash is talking to a representation of his long dead mother. I suppose I in particular was struck by this because my own mother is long dead. That may be where the similarities end, however. Barry/The Flash loves his mom and was forever changed by her untimely death when he was a child. My mother, on the other hand, abused me and her death when I was in my early 20’s has yet to have that sort of impact on me. I’ve always said it’s almost as if I never had a mom; so when she died it was simply more of the same, the continuation of a through line. Still, I know there’s a deep part of me that oddly yearns for her to be proud of me, which again I’m sure is why the scene above (if you watch the whole thing) is so powerful.

Obviously, I’m not a superhero speedster, but running has repeatedly changed my life, and by the grace of God and with the help of some key people along the way, I’ve overcome some arguably long odds. I wouldn’t say that I’ve become something wonderful (I know too many who might say just the opposite), but I would say that for all my faults and failings whatever meager “success” I’ve achieved is near miraculous given my upbringing in a mobile home in Texas as the son of an abusive mother and devoted, but co-dependent and largely unavailable father.

There’s much to be said about that abusive upbringing in my mother’s home, but I’ve said a lot of that elsewhere. From that shaky foundation, though, enough has happened to fill several other lifetimes. Here’s some of it:

  • To the extent that I survived growing up in my mother’s home and proved resilient in the midst of it, much of it had to do with the love and support I received from a family I was connected to through school, and that of my youngest but much older half sibling, Lee. Shortly after I left home around the age of 18, Lee disappeared and was missing for the next three+ years.
  • While in college, I spent a summer in Philly doing a program that was then known as Kingdomworks (it’s now called Mission Year) during which, I always say, I “was able to build a bridge between my own personal suffering and the suffering that’s out there, in the world.”
  • In the year after doing Kingdomworks, I met and married Kirsten and we left college and the Boston area to start a life in Philly where I worked at Pizza Hut for $7.60/hour and she went to nursing school. Thanks be to God, we’re looking forward to our 20th anniversary in little more than a month.
  • While still in Philly the first time and in the midst of nursing school for Kirsten, I paid less than $100 to a company I saw I think a TV ad for, and they found Lee in Michigan. I reached out to her, and she was reunited and slowly reintegrated into our very dysfunctional family system.
  • Just after Kirsten finished nursing school we moved to MN to be near her family of origin as her dad quickly died of brain cancer. The day after he died, my mom in TX died. Their funerals in two different states bookended a weekend.
  • By the grace of God and via my own circuitous path I finished my Bachelor’s degree in MN finally through a degree completion program for working adults and started seminary. In the meantime I quit my last foodservice management job and went into social service, vowing to only pursue “meaningful” work from that point forward.
  • While in seminary, I participated in a weeklong leadership training in Chicago during which I discovered that that “bridge” I had built “between my own personal suffering and the suffering that’s out there, in the world” could be traveled in both directions as the suffering in the world led me to become newly aware of my own brokenness. I quit the MDiv program I had been pursuing and graduated with an MA instead.
  • We moved back to Philly to be part of Circle of Hope again, the faith community we had discovered in our first stint there that did so much to form my imagination about what Christian community could look like. While there, we lived “in community” in a house with others that we were trying to live “intentionally” with as we pursued a common dream for “life together.” Samuel’s exceptionally premature birth occurred in the midst of all that. His birth was very disruptive, but in a good way. It laid bare all the dysfunction and brokenness that was at the heart of all those good relationships we were trying to build, and we were confronted with a choice. We could do the personal and relational hard work that growth required in that moment, regroup, and Lord willing see the community we were building in that home and as a part of the larger church and in Philly itself be strengthened and reinvigorated as a result; or we could retreat/escape and nurse our wounds someplace else, delaying the pain of that growth we needed to endure and thereby delaying our growth too. For good or ill, we chose the latter.
  • So we moved to NEOH and bought a house while we still could just before the market tanked.
  • Homeownership forces a measure of stability that in some cases isn’t available otherwise. Following our move to OH, we had a measure of that, for a time. After a painful job search there, I found something that I was able to settle into and experience some success at for some time (in educational administration, working with mostly low income Special Education students/families), for which I was grateful.
  • Four years into our time in OH, however, we found ourselves abruptly moving to TX to be present for my dad’s cancer death. His cancer death was much slower than my father-in-law’s had been, however, as it was over 15 months after we got there that he finally passed. In the meantime I pursued and received teacher certification and spent a very painful year in a charter school there. There’s a lot to be said about it and much that was beyond my control, but I was not successful in the classroom…or, arguably, out of it. Dad’s death did not go as predicted (do they ever, I suppose?) and again there’s much more to be said about this, but somewhere along the way I became a villain to my all much older half siblings. I suppose that’s what I set myself up for when I swooped in to “rescue” them all. They all- all three much older half siblings, plus my same age niece and her teenage twin sons, and my Dad- all seven of them were living when we first got down to TX in the by then ramshackle, roach infested trailer I grew up in. I couldn’t stomach that being where my Dad was consigned to die; so we worked to find them other/better housing. However big or small my role was in all that, I pushed for it, and Kirsten and I paid to help make it happen. When my dad’s slow death finally progressed to the point where hospice was advisable, I pushed for and helped make that happen too. My half siblings accused me of trying to kill him.
  • Thus, once Dad died, we moved back to OH and the home we had been renting (at a loss) while we were gone. This may or may not have been another “escape” from an opportunity to learn a painful lesson and grow as a result. In this case, that’s less clear to me. Either way, we came back to OH with a life changing gift, our second son, Nathan. Whatever brought us there and whatever trauma contributed to our exit, we were in the right place at the right time with the right doctor to help us through a second, high risk pregnancy, and we thank God every day for our little Texan. Nathan was born about two months after Dad died. I describe them as “ships passing in the night.”
  • Back in OH, we returned each of us to the jobs we had left and the house we still owned, and resumed relationships with the few, but very, very good friends we had there. Within a couple of years, though, there was new turmoil for me at work. I was twice encouraged to apply for a promotion, including for one position that was allegedly created for me, and both times I was not selected. I wound up with a new boss and the job I did have became much more demanding, so much so that I couldn’t keep up anymore. Eventually, I found myself in an untenable position and had to leave. I tried to leave gracefully, but failed at that too and found myself on the receiving end of some revelatory character assaults on my way out. It took several months to find another job, which came with a roughly $17,000 pay cut.
  • In the meantime, we had found a new, just starting faith community in NEOH that was rich with much promise. The “manifesto” that was the core of its website and, we hoped, its vision, is still one of the best things I’ve ever read and one of the best visions I hoped to be a part of aspiring to. I’ve written elsewhere about this too, but as a community that church did not live up to its own vision, and as a participant and contributor, neither did I. The church faced a crisis that I need not get into, but much like the crisis my family and I faced in the wake of Samuel’s birth before we left Philly and Circle of Hope, this crisis served to lay bare the dysfunction and brokenness that was at the core of many of the relationships within the church. I think in this case I made an effort to do some of the hard work that growth required in the moment, but I did it poorly, and as before, it didn’t end well…and as before, another cross country move was in the offing.
  • During the relatively brief time we were part of that faith community, however, several significant things happened. We tried our hand again at an “intentional community” of sorts. Wanting to make good use/be good stewards of the small but “bigger on the inside” home we owned, we invited a young couple to come live with us in an effort to help them with their finances, among other things. They wound up living with us for only about four months, and their exit was part of the dysfunction and brokenness I alluded to above, part of which was related to our offer later on to have someone else move in too.
  • That “someone else” was a young teacher friend we made through that faith community whose mother was quickly dying of cancer, an experience we were all too familiar with. We worked hard to support her, sacrificially so even, but few in the larger community could understand this and our motives were no doubt mixed as they inevitably must be always be “this side of Heaven,” perhaps driven as much by the need to make sense and find meaning in our own parent deaths as by our still genuine desire to love and support our friend through hers. After her mom died, the couple that had been living with us moved out, and our friend moved in. It wasn’t all that long, though, before the larger faith community we all were part of experienced that “crisis” I alluded to above and began to unravel around us, again exposing the dysfunction and brokenness that much work was required to move beyond. As I said, I made a halting attempt at some of that work, but I did not do it well, and it was not well received…and again I was faced with no small measure of revelatory character assaults on our way out.
  • Consequently, after 9+ years of homeownership in OH (including that sojourn in TX), we struggled mightily to sell our house there at a significant loss and moved to MN. This was motivated as much by all of the above, I’m sure, as it was by the reality that Kirsten’s mom was in declining health and it was time to be present to her and Kirsten’s family of origin here as they all faced what was next for her mom.

Looking at that laundry list of life events above, I’m struck by the fact that if anything is “miraculous” about any “success” I’ve experienced, perhaps the most miraculous thing about it is that I keep trying. I keep showing up. So much of the wounding I describe above is self-inflicted, rooted in my brokenness. Every healthy parent-child relationship is marked by the development of the child in such a way that the child’s first steps are halting and not very “successful.” The child takes a few steps, falls, and with encouragement and support, gets up to try again. Eventually the infant becomes, literally, a “toddler.” As the toddler becomes more proficient and independent as a walker, they journey further away from their parent with each successive trip, hopefully growing each time in their proficiency and independence. No doubt they still fall from time to mine, but each “failure” is a learning moment and stepping stone to growth. There is an ebb and flow to this. I see something similar in the pattern above.

Failure can be the building block for future “success,” if the learning/growth that failure presents the opportunity for is embraced. Of course, that learning/growth comes in the form of hard work, and I stubbornly resist that work far too much of the time. This is true for me no less with running than with life itself. Amidst all the life events above, I got fat, ballooning from well under 200 on my wedding day at the age of 21 to well over 250 at some point not all that long into our first stint in MN from 1998 to 2003. In 2009, hearing that the growing swine flu pandemic seemed to be disproportionately affecting obese people like me, I started running. I just did it, on a whim. I could barely shuffle around a block or so, but I kept doing it. Day after day I could go a little further, and pretty soon I was counting calories and running 5k’s. Less than a year after starting running in OH, after a run in the TX heat on my 35th birthday, I weighed in at 150 pounds and had lost at least 100 pounds. I ran more 5k’s and a 10k, but I eventually did my first half marathon in part because the weight was already starting to creep back on. I struggled through that race, the Rock’n’Roll Dallas Half Marathon in 2011, but finishing it was a huge “success” for me.

Still, again amidst all the stress of the “life” that kept happening as I described above, the weight kept creeping back on, and by Christmas of that year I weighed 217 pounds. I joined TNT then and re-dedicated myself to running, and I got back down to 170 pounds when I ran the Canton Half Marathon in 2012. I felt good for that, my second half marathon, and looking back that may have been the high point of my running “career.” Not long after that race I broke a toe, and then tore my meniscus (and later broke another toe), and thus began almost four years of not being able to run at all during which I ballooned to 262.6 pounds.

I finally underwent surgery on my meniscus last fall (a partial meniscectomy), but still didn’t feel ready or able to run pain free. What I could do was count calories, and walk, and walk I did. I got a Fitbit (and wi-fi scale) at the end of this past November, when I weighed in at that 262.6. Since then I walked about 3 miles a day as many days as I could through the past winter and spring, and exclusively through walking and daily weigh-ins while keeping  my calories as low as possible, I lost about 60 pounds. I told myself that once I got to or near about 200 pounds again, I’d try running. I started running again about mid-April, and each time I get out there I vow not to “screw it up again.” I may not do a half marathon again, but I don’t need that kind of “success” to prove myself. If I can get out there and run about 3 miles most days of the rest of my life, that will be a well-nigh miraculous success, and will have come as a result of much growth and development and much, much hard work.

Like someone in recovery, I know that I have to take it one day at a time. I know that cardiovascular health and fitness can be lost within days if it isn’t renewed by continuing to get out there every day. I speak often of love (and forgiveness) being a choice, a choice that must be made every day. A marriage of 20 years, as I hope to celebrate in about a month, isn’t made by making a choice once and then somehow “sticking with it.” It’s made by making a choice every single day. I think forgiveness can work that way too, and I know that health can, does, and should.

Each day I have to choose to watch what I eat, and I have to choose to get out there and run. I’ve lost another 10 pounds or so since I started running again (about 70 total this time around, my third time losing weight), but have a ways to go before I’m at a “normal” weight. I know too that weight loss cannot be my goal, not because it can’t be achieved (it can! I’ve done it three times!), but because it can. It’s very, very hard to maintain though, because it’s not an end in itself and isn’t even really a means to an end. It’s more of a byproduct of an end. The end is a healthy lifestyle. The end is treating my body like the “temple” that it is and being a good steward of it. The means are those hard choices I must make every single day- eating right, running, getting enough sleep, etc. Weight loss, maybe even lasting weight loss, is a byproduct of all this good, hard work.

Becoming a person who can do that will be wonderful and miraculous, and maybe even my long dead mother will be proud of me. However, part of the process is knowing that the “becoming” never stops. I’ll always be on the way, in no small part because as with The Flash, this “won’t make bad things stop happening to me.” I can’t outrun them. I have to accept this in order to run “free.” Maybe acceptance is part of the becoming too. In the meantime, “run, Barry (Robert), run.”

“Well, I guess it’s just us now.”

So I just got caught up on the latest episode The Newsroom. I like the show, its naysayers notwithstanding, but then I’m an Aaron Sorkin fan and The West Wing is a favorite. I appreciate the smart, knowing dialogue in both shows. For example, in this last episode of The Newsroom two characters were talking about how long it takes to get from shame to rage, and one of them remarked something to the effect of, “Well it took Germany 15 to 20 years.” But I digress. The episode dealt with a number of things, but one of the subplots had to do with the death of Will McAvoy’s elderly father many miles away. McAvoy is a (the?) main character in the show, and is a news anchor on cable television. He receives word of this father’s passing while he’s on air. In fact, during the course of being on the air that night he went from first having heard that his father was ill and being taken to a hospital to ultimately hearing that he had passed away. We learn too that Will has a difficult relationship with his father, such that there was great turmoil about what lengths to go to in order to make peace with his dad before he died. Unfortunately, after a previous aborted attempt (all of this taking place during commercial breaks while still on air), when he finally resolves to try to reach his dad in the hospital again, he gets his sister instead and learns that it’s too late. Seconds later he’s back on camera on live television, and in that moment he struggles to speak or even look at the camera. After many seconds he does, with obvious tears in his eyes, and before moving on with his broadcast he remarks, “Well, I guess it’s just us now.”

 

Well I guess it’s just us now. I’ve been feeling like that for over two years, since my own father died, but in my case there is no “us.” It’s just me.

I know I’m not alone, but my feelings don’t seem to care much. Now for more news…

I’m Not Amused; Nor Do I Want to Be

I’ve been thinking a lot about Neil Postman over the past 24 hours or so, since I read this by Glenn Greenwald, who is a new hero of mine. I beg you, please read the article of his I just linked to above. It’s well worth your time, and might change your life, or hopefully at least your outlook. It’s that important. Seriously. What I write below will make much more sense against the backdrop of Greenwald’s article. In summary, though, Greenwald contends that the “war powers” the government has usurped in order to carry out the “war on terror” in order to “Keep Us Safe” are, like the “war” itself, now permanent. He writes, “Those powers of secrecy, indefinite detention, mass surveillance, and due-process-free assassination are not going anywhere. They are now permanent fixtures not only in the US political system but, worse, in American political culture.” Greenwald concludes his worthy article by quoting, reluctantly, from George Orwell‘s classic, 1984, as a means of “explaining how states secure tyrannical power and pacify its citizenry.” As quoted by Greenwald, Orwell wrote:

The social atmosphere is that of a besieged city. . . . And at the same time the consciousness of being at war, and therefore in danger, makes the handing-over of all power to a small caste seem the natural, unavoidable condition of survival. . . .

It does not matter whether the war is actually happening, and, since no decisive victory is possible, it does not matter whether the war is going badly. All that is needed is that a state of war should exist….

War, it will be seen, is now a purely internal affair. . . . The war is waged by each ruling group against its own subjects, and the object of the war is not to make or prevent conquests of territory, but to keep the structure of society intact.

Greenwald then cannot help but rightly ask, “Does anyone dispute that these passages are an exact description of the posture of the US government and its permanent war on terror?”

So that’s what brought Postman to mind. I’ve read 1984, Aldous Huxley‘s Brave New World, and Postman’s seminal work, Amusing Ourselves to Death. Postman’s foreword to Amusing Ourselves to Death reads:

We were keeping our eye on 1984. When the year came and the prophecy didn’t, thoughtful Americans sang softly in praise of themselves. The roots of liberal democracy had held. Wherever else the terror had happened, we, at least, had not been visited by Orwellian nightmares.

But we had forgotten that alongside Orwell’s dark vision, there was another – slightly older, slightly less well known, equally chilling: Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World. Contrary to common belief even among the educated, Huxley and Orwell did not prophesy the same thing. Orwell warns that we will be overcome by an externally imposed oppression. But in Huxley’s vision, no Big Brother is required to deprive people of their autonomy, maturity and history. As he saw it, people will come to love their oppression, to adore the technologies that undo their capacities to think.

What Orwell feared were those who would ban books. What Huxley feared was that there would be no reason to ban a book, for there would be no one who wanted to read one. Orwell feared those who would deprive us of information. Huxley feared those who would give us so much that we would be reduced to passivity and egoism. Orwell feared that the truth would be concealed from us. Huxley feared the truth would be drowned in a sea of irrelevance. Orwell feared we would become a captive culture. Huxley feared we would become a trivial culture, preoccupied with some equivalent of the feelies, the orgy porgy, and the centrifugal bumblepuppy. As Huxley remarked in Brave New World Revisited, the civil libertarians and rationalists who are ever on the alert to oppose tyranny “failed to take into account man’s almost infinite appetite for distractions”. In 1984,Huxley added, people are controlled by inflicting pain. In Brave New World, they are controlled by inflicting pleasure. In short, Orwell feared that what we hate will ruin us. Huxley feared that what we love will ruin us.

This book is about the possibility that Huxley, not Orwell, was right.

I’ve always found this to be incredibly insightful on Postman’s part, even prescient. I still agree with him, but I can’t help but wonder now if he was only partly right. My fear, I suppose, is that Huxley was indeed right, but that somehow Orwell was too. We have not only our “bread and circuses,” but also the type of oppressive government measures that Orwell feared- from the AP scandal (The New Yorker even includes a reference to Big Brother in the title of its article about it here) to the 1.6 billion rounds of ammo purchased for Homeland Security to the “secrecy, indefinite detention, mass surveillance, and due-process-free assassination” that Greenwald alludes to. All of it is designed, I fear, to keep us entertained while we become our own worst enemy, and if we won’t be entertained, there is the ever growing threat of much, much worse. This, for the record, is just a part of why I have long been pleased to count myself as a citizen, hopefully, of God’s kingdom first and foremost and only secondarily as one of the U.S. I have long known, of course, that “freedom isn’t free,” but that doesn’t mean, I suspect, what a lot of people think it means. In fact, I fear the price of our “freedom” (to consume, to be “SAFE,” to exploit the earth, to have cheap goods and oil, etc.) is simply far too great, perhaps for our servicemen and women, but most especially for the rest of the world. Its time for us to wake up, to shuck off our entertainment and, in whatever way we can, work for change. God help us; God help us, indeed.

Toby

Toby Ziegler is my favorite West Wing character. Kirsten and I came to the show late, but once we started watching it on DVD, we couldn’t stop. Of course, we like the politics, but the show was critically acclaimed, and for good reason. Like all good shows, it’s character driven, and quite literally well played. I like Toby because he’s smart and he’s a writer. He’s also a bit of a cynic, which means that like many cynics, he’s a failed idealist. He’s also very, very sad. Obviously I identify with all of these traits, and so with Toby. I’m thinking of Toby today.

The actor who played Toby wondered (at first) what made him so sad. This element of mystery, this monumental gap in the character’s back story, intrigues me. I think I still wonder this about myself. On the one hand, I “know” what drives my melancholy, but the source of it is an (almost) objective, remote fact. It isn’t felt, or remembered, and that’s (mostly) how I like it.  Of course, what’s great about Toby is that he’s a pretty functional guy, being a power player in the White House and all. His relationships are a mess, but he manages to hold down (for a long while) an important job which he uses to change the world for the better, or at least he desperately tries. This is one of the (I’m sure) many areas where I fear Toby and I differ. I don’t feel very functional these days, and I haven’t for a while…and I’m not sure that I’m changing the world much for the better. Some may try to dissuade me of this last fact, but I remain unconvinced.

Naturally, I have some idea of what I need to do. Therapy could help, some, but I’ve been down that road many times. Perhaps I haven’t ventured down it far enough to see the results I might hope for, but it’s not like I haven’t tried it. I know medication might help, but I don’t just suffer from depression, I suffer from anxiety too, and one of the things I’m anxious about is, you guessed it, medication. So that really isn’t an option for me, and I know, I know; that may be all the more reason to give it a try, but in a word, NO. It’s interesting too as I write this that somehow it’s easy to talk about depression and anxiety, but a bit more daunting to discuss the umbrella diagnosis that they’re likely symptomatic of- (Complex) PTSD. I’m just throwing that out there. It’s an observation; I don’t intend to do anything with it. Nonetheless, what I “need” to do is quit thinking about myself, be grateful for my family and our privilege as rich white Westerners, and start pitching in to help those who don’t enjoy such privilege.

I know I need to do this, and yet it’s so, so, so, so very hard. It’s not that I don’t want to help or even (so much) that I don’t know how, though the latter plays a role. It’s that it’s hard to get out of bed every morning. It’s hard to care for myself in even the most basic ways (quite simply, I’m not). My meniscus tear and the resultant inability to run for a long while has certainly played a part, but before I couldn’t run, I didn’t, and that’s the bigger sin.

In the meantime, there are lots of situational factors that exacerbate my depression and anxiety. Of course, I’m keenly aware of the increasing likelihood that the next pandemic may be on the horizon whether from bird flu or novel coronavirus or something unknown, but none of that will matter much if the world is mired in WWIII, perhaps started by a N. Korean blunder; or if the weight of consumeristic crony capitalism finally leads us to global economic collapse after all. On a more personal level, as we continue to struggle with the economic hardship resulting from our sojourn in TX and a sudden need for full-time daycare, I’ve been reminded that debt collectors don’t care if you’re depressed or that it’s better not to get their calls while at work or that you have philosophical hang-ups with the mere existence of their industry, let alone how they conduct their business. But I suppose I digress.

I keep talking about how tired I am. I’m tired of telling my story, tired of struggling with my weight, tired of depression and anxiety. I’m tired of trying to build community, tired of wanting to try to follow Jesus, in community, but feeling unable to. I’m tired of being angry at “the church” and even God for lots of really good reasons, and I’m tired of being tired. I’m tired of waiting for something to happen, for my life to really “start” in some way. I’ve passed a lot of the big adult milestones. I got married almost seventeen years ago. My mom died. My father-in-law died. I went to seminary, and my dad moved in. We moved into my mother-in-law’s house, with my dad, in an effort to help them both (obviously, that didn’t last long). We had a child, and bought a house. My mother-in-law moved in with us (that didn’t last all that long either). We moved to TX, temporarily, to watch my dad slowly die. We had another child. I’ve been a part of a couple of great church communities (and many more that sadly were not so great). I’ve done lots of higher education. I’ve had a grown-up job with the potential to be meaningful for (off and on) seven years. What, in the world, could I possibly be waiting for?

“Have Fun Storming The Castle!”

I was briefly Instant Messaging with my new friend Tony tonight, and he asked what I was doing. Among the list I gave in reply, I said that I was "generally imagining ways to foment revolution!" So then as he signed off he said "Have fun fomenting!"- which reminded me of one of my favorite lines from the Princess Bride, which is quoted in the title of this post. Anyway, I thought I’d share…

The Truth is not only strange; it’s mundane…

 
…unless you have eyes to see and ears to hear.
 
Kirsten and I snuck out again this evening to see a movie. We watched "Stranger than Fiction," starring Will Ferrell, Emma Thompson, etc. I am surprised and delighted to say that this was one of the best movies I’ve seen in a long time. Kirsten wouldl tell you that this is indeed high praise coming from me, as I am loathe to name favorites or even indicate a strong preference for anything. To do so would be, for me, to reveal far too much, as this puts me in a position of vulnerability and gives the other some power over me. There are some new-found critics in my life who would be quick to say that this is related to my upbringing and the kind of abuse I suffered at the lips of my mother, and this is, to be sure, quite true. Even so, what I am able to say about this, if I were to say anything at all, is simply that it is what it is. When it comes to the "little things" regarding what I like or don’t like, etc., I remain intentionally ambiguous. Having said all of that, I will say again that I really enjoyed the film, and- in a not unrelated note- I can reveal that Frederick Buechner is one of my favorite authors. This is no great admission as for anyone who knows me remotely well this is a well-establsihed fact, and I didn’t say above that I never revealed favorites, only that I was loathe to. In Buechner’s case, I don’t mind being known as one who appreciates his work, and were I still a child in my mother’s home, I’d like to think that I’d be willing to endure quite a bit on account of this fact. I mention Buechner because I would call "Stranger than Fiction" quite Buechner-esque. It’s clever, thoughtful, and understated, and there is a moment in the film-as I remember it- where the narrator refers to the main character’s difficulty with recognizing the significant moments of his life in the midst of all the mundane ones. However, the moment the narrator happens to speaking about is one in which the main character is aware that the mundane thing which has just occurred is truly significant, indeed. It is the awareness of such moments that I think is the focus of much of Buecner’s work, as he himself has alluded to in perhaps his most well known (and my favorite!) quote. It just may be, after all, that the truth is stranger than fiction, and that the greatest truth any of us will ever know is hidden in the simple joys of a freshly baked cookie or a lover’s sleepy embrace. For it is in such moments that the truly awake among us take note of the grace which imbues each moment with meaning, and I would suggest that it is these everyday moments that give us the strength perhaps to willingly face our own mortality, to lay down our life for another. More on this later…