Tuesday, November 17, 2015

Go And Do Likewise: Refugees and the Good Samaritan

Today I saw images from Magnus Wennman's photo project, "Where the Children Sleep." It features photographs of children among the refugees fleeing Syria (about half of the 4 million refugees are children)--images like the two below, each paired with brief stories about the children depicted:

Take the time to scroll through all the images and accompanying narratives. Meditate on their meaning. These children are victims of ISIS and their ilk, victims of extremism and ideological hate, victims of the same agents of terror who attacked Paris on Friday. They are beaten and bloodied, stripped of their homes and possessions, some of them half-dead. They are lying on the side of the road.

And now meditate on these words from Luke 10: 25-37:

25 On one occasion an expert in the law stood up to test Jesus. “Teacher,” he asked, “what must I do to inherit eternal life?”
26 “What is written in the Law?” he replied. “How do you read it?”
27 He answered, “‘Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your strength and with all your mind’; and, ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.’”
28 “You have answered correctly,” Jesus replied. “Do this and you will live.”
29 But he wanted to justify himself, so he asked Jesus, “And who is my neighbor?”
30 In reply Jesus said: “A man was going down from Jerusalem to Jericho, when he was attacked by robbers. They stripped him of his clothes, beat him and went away, leaving him half dead. 31 A priest happened to be going down the same road, and when he saw the man, he passed by on the other side. 32 So too, a Levite, when he came to the place and saw him, passed by on the other side. 33 But a Samaritan, as he traveled, came where the man was; and when he saw him, he took pity on him. 34 He went to him and bandaged his wounds, pouring on oil and wine. Then he put the man on his own donkey, brought him to an inn and took care of him. 35 The next day he took out two denarii and gave them to the innkeeper. ‘Look after him,’ he said, ‘and when I return, I will reimburse you for any extra expense you may have.’
36 “Which of these three do you think was a neighbor to the man who fell into the hands of robbers?”
37 The expert in the law replied, “The one who had mercy on him.”
Jesus told him, “Go and do likewise.”
There are victims of terrorist violence lying on the side of the road. We might choose to pass on the far side, frightened by those who say that perpetrators of terrorist violence are hiding among these victims. Perhaps something along those lines inspired the priest: he saw the victim and thought, "The robber might be near, waiting to pounce if I pause to help this poor victim."

There are victims of terrorist violence lying on the side of the road. We might choose to pass on the far side because they're one of "them": Muslims, our enemies, part of an undifferentiated mass of "others" whose lives don't matter to us as much as our own. Perhaps the Levite thought something along those lines: "My life matters more."

"But wait," you say. "There are other reasons to stay on the far side of the road. What if the Samaritan had been traveling with his son? Would Jesus have praised the Samaritan then? Putting his own son at risk for a stranger? We have our own children to look out for. Our first duty must be to them."

I can't tell you what Jesus would have said had the expert in the law offered this "what if." Perhaps we've become better at justifying ourselves since that legal expert crossed paths with Christ. With enough time to meditate on His parables, we're better at coming up with rebuttals.

Could terrorists be lurking amidst the sea of refugees, masquerading as victims in order to slip into the US?

Sure. But that approach to piercing our borders would require that they risk their lives on tiny boats, court starvation on the road, sleep on the cold dirt for weeks alongside the weeping children and mothers who are the victims of their own acts of terror. They'd likely be placed in some out-of-the-way community not-of-their-choosing along with their victims, with few resources of their own and little control over whether they are situated with access to their terrorist network or the means of committing terrorism--assuming, of course, that they are still determined to commit acts of terrorism after months of surviving alongside their victims and building bonds of solidarity with them.

They might get in that way. Or they might recruit someone with a clean record who can secure a student visa. As noted in one article, "There are many ways to come to the United States. Comparatively the refugee resettlement program is the most difficult short of swimming the Atlantic." Of all the ways extremists might pierce our walls, this is hardly the most promising. There are so many other ways they might threaten our security.

Of course we must care for our children. But there are children lying on the road.

Of course we should be careful not to needlessly expose those in our care to serious threats. But threats are everywhere. Perfect security is impossible.

In a world with imperfect security, compassion is all the more crucial. The compassion of strangers may be the thing that saves our children in their moments of greatest need. It's certainly the only thing that will save those Syrian children in Wennman's photographs.

Let us not create a world where the vain pursuit of perfect security kills the compassion that is so crucial in a world of dangers.

This does not mean we shouldn't act to secure our communities. But in buying more security, how much compassion should we be prepared to sell for incremental gains? How many victims lying on the road should we hurry past? How many times should we offer rebuttals to Jesus' injunction to "go and do likewise"?

If rebuttals to Jesus are the currency of security, how many are we prepared to offer? A dozen? A hundred? Or--given the number of refugees--four million?

I don't know. What I do know is this: If the story of the Good Samaritan does not apply to this moment, it has lost its meaning.

Friday, November 6, 2015

US Bishops' Pastoral Letter on Marriage, Part 1: An Overview

Recently, my introductory ethics class was considering same-sex marriage. As part of that unit, I typically have them read key sections of the US Bishops' Pastoral Letter on Marriage, "Marriage: Love and Life in the Divine Plan."

The reasoning on display in that pastoral letter plays an important role in shaping much Christian opposition to same-sex marriage. As such, I think that any Christian who supports same-sex marriage, as I do, ought to engage with it seriously. Since I haven't done so explicitly on the blog, I thought I'd devote a series of posts to doing that.

This post is the first in that series. Others will follow as I have the time to develop them, which may not be right away. Here, I will simply offer an overview of what I take to be the key features of the views and arguments laid out in the Pastoral Letter, especially as they relate to same-sex relationships.

The Roman Catholic Definition of Marriage

The main aim of the Pastoral Letter is to articulate a Catholic vision of the sacrament of marriage, and to explore the implications of that vision. According to that vision, marriage is " a lifelong partnership of the whole life, of mutual and exclusive fidelity, established by mutual consent between a man and a woman, and ordered towards the good of the spouses and the procreation of offspring."

The Bishops argue that marriage is not merely a human institution but a divine one, authored by God for two interconnected purposes: conjugal union and procreation. That is, marriage serves to unite a man and a woman in a distinctive kind of bond characterized by mutual self-giving love, a love which culminates in the generation of new life and becomes the context within which that new life is nurtured into adulthood.

"It is the nature of love to overflow," say the Bishops, "to be life-giving." And so marital love is designed by God to produce new life: a child onto whom the love of the parents overflows.

The Bishops maintain that same-sex marriage violates God's purpose for marriage. In fact, they hold that it "poses a multifaceted threat to the very fabric of society, striking at the source from which society and culture come and which they are meant to serve." (By contrast, terrorism only kills people and destroys infrastructure!) To make this case, the Bishops rely on two key premises, what I call the Inseparability Thesis and the Complementarity Thesis.

The Inseperability Thesis

The Inseparability Thesis holds that one cannot separate the two purposes of marriage (loving union and procreation) without doing violence to the nature of human sexuality and the marital union. As the Bishops put it, these two purposes "cannot be separated without altering the couple's spiritual life and compromising the goods of marriage and the future of the family."

This inseparability cuts in both directions, according to the Bishops. It's not just that the procreative aim is harmed if mutual self-gifting love is absent between the sexual partners (because children are then brought into the world in less-than-ideal conditions, lacking the stability and overflowing love that conjugal love brings). It's also the case, they think, that conjugal love itself  is undermined if the couple's intimacy isn't properly directed towards reproduction. It is the latter claim that is particularly crucial for making the case that same-sex marriage (not to mention contraception) is unacceptable. Insofar as same-sex couples cannot be procreative, their intimacy cannot be directed towards reproduction. And this, the Bishops maintain, entails that the kind of love they can have for each other is diminished and cannot be of the marital sort.

The Complementarity Thesis

The Complementarity Thesis holds that men and women are designed by God to complement one another in a distinctive way, such that when a man and woman form an intimate partnership there is a natural fit, a way in which they complete each other. Male and female are, according to the Bishops, "distinct bodily ways of being human" that have personal and spiritual implications (since the body cannot be separated from the rest of the person). The result is "two distinct yet harmonizing ways of responding to the vocation to love." 

And these two ways of being  human were "made for each other," created by God to suit each other uniquely "as partners and helpmates." The idea is that there is a distinctive kind of union that is possible only between a man and a woman because of how men and women are differentially designed. And according to the Bishops, the conjugal union simply is this distinctive kind of union--and hence is not possible at all for same-sex pairs.

Key Concessions

In the course of developing their case, the US Catholic Bishops make a couple of important claims that I will call "key concessions." I call them concessions because they express strong moral intuitions that Catholics don't want to give up, but at the same time they create prima facie problems for the arguments sketched out above. In a sense, they are concessions to human decency, made because of human decency, even though they create some difficulties for their position. Typically, Catholic thinkers treat these as soluble problems: while they might appear to generate contradictions, this is only an appearance, one that evaporates when the right distinctions are made.

The concessions are these:

1. The Infertility Concession: Infertile heterosexual couples can have marriages that are in no way defective, but are fully valid and complete. The Bishops recognize that some married couples who learn they are infertile "may be tempted to think that their union is not complete or truly blessed." The Bishops reply that this is a false impression. "The marital union of a man and a woman is a distinctive communion of persons," they say in response. "An infertile couple continues to manifest this attribute."

2. The Gay and Lesbian Dignity Concession: The Church stresses that "homosexual persons" have a "human dignity" that needs to be treated with "respect, compassion, and sensitivity." Implicit here (and explicit elsewhere in Roman Catholic writings) is the acknowledgment that a homosexual orientation is not a perverse choice but a discovered condition--that just like a heterosexual orientation (or a bisexual one, for that matter), a homosexual orientation is a feature of a person's lived reality that they cannot ordinarily change. Although Catholics teach that homosexuality is "intrinsically disordered," what they mean by this is that it is a kind of disability in the way that blindness and deafness are. In this respect, it is like infertility: an unchosen feature of one's life that one can't wish away but must live with. This is why, in general, the Catholic Church urges gays and lesbians to pursue celibacy and "chaste friendship" rather than attempt a doomed heterosexual marriage (doomed insofar as a homosexual orientation would thwart the unitive end of such a marriage).

The first of these is a concession to the human needs of infertile couples. It is one thing to face the often difficult challenge of infertility, something else to be part of a religion that would dissolve your marriage over it (or forbid you from marrying in the first place if they knew about it in advance).  A Church that did that--that barred you because of some disability from pursuing your human longing for conjugal love and life partnership--would, we might say, be rather monstrous, certainly not a Church that seeks to faithfully live out Jesus' ethic of love.

Likewise for the second concession. It is one thing to discover that you are gay, something else to be part of a religion that vilifies you for something you can't help, casts you out and refuses to offer you a place of dignity.

Hence, I think it is quite clear that the Catholic Church should not back down with respect to either concession. They should insist that infertile marriages are fully valid. They should insist that gays and lesbians have a human dignity that demands respect. Were I feeling hyperbolic, I might say that failure to do either of these things would "pose a multifaceted threat to the very fabric of the Christian love ethic, and to the Catholic Church's claim to represent the love of Christ in the world."

But although the Catholic Church thinks these concessions to decency are wholly compatible with their broader argument about same-sex marriage, I think, on the contrary, that they are not. Together with other considerations, I think these concessions help expose some very fundamental problems with the Roman Catholic conception of human intimacy and sexuality.

More significantly, they highlight that an impulse born of love has only been incompletely carried through. Jesus' call to love has the power to shatters walls, to break down calcified ideas that get in the way of love's fullest expression. But sometimes love hits walls of resistance and only succeeds in making cracks. But the cracks have a trajectory.

Likewise, the concessions above have a trajectory. If we follow them, I think we will see that what Christian love demands is something more than what these concessions allow.

I will begin exploring why I think this in subsequent posts.

Thursday, October 29, 2015

Cops in School: A Case Study in Social Responsibility

Here's a story:

A teenage girl, recently orphaned and now in foster care, starts acting up in class. She refuses to follow the teacher's instructions and is disrupting the classroom environment--not because she is a spoiled brat, but because her life has gone to $#!T. And unless you're an unusually mature person (not common among teens), one thing you find yourself doing when your life goes to $#!T is that you start trying to rub some of the $#!T off on those around you, as if that will help. It doesn't, of course.

Like love, $#!T is one of those things that when you give it away, you don't reduce your own supply. You just make more of it in the world. 

But troubled teens don't usually see this, and so they handle their troubles by making trouble for those around them. And here it is, happening in the classroom. It's gotten so bad that the teacher can't teach. So the teacher calls in an administrator, who lectures and shouts at the girl to no effect. And so they call in a Sheriff's deputy assigned to the school as its resource officer.

When the officer arrives, he orders the troubled girl to get up and leave the classroom with him. She refuses. He lays hands on her and she strikes out. Not to much effect--she poses no physical threat-- but it is an expression of disdain towards his authority. He now decides to make her get out of the chair and arrest her.

Of course, this story is based on recent events at a South Carolina high school. The details may not be perfect, but I think they capture the gist of what happened. What comes next has been witnessed by many, thanks to students who captured it on video: a violent flurry of coercive force applied by a large adult man onto a much smaller teenage girl, one who may have been stubbornly refusing to follow instructions but was posing no physical threat to anyone.

How could such a thing happen? After viewing the shocking video footage, it's easy to blame the cop. Those who don't want to blame the cop instead blame the girl. And I'm not saying we shouldn't be concerned about laying individual responsibility where it appropriately lies. But I'm always suspicious of public conversations that focus too narrowly on which individual to blame without paying attention to the broader social realities that made the situation possible.

And there are broader social realities in play here. Let me approach them this way: A student is breaking school rules--not the law, but school rules. She is being disruptive--not posing a threat to the safety of other students, but disturbing the learning environment.

By all indicators, this isn't a criminal committing crimes. This is a school discipline problem.

But then a police officer is brought in to solve it. And police are trained to solve criminal problems. It is their job to enforce the law for the sake of preserving the rule of law and the public safety. Enforcement implies the judicious use of force--that is, making people do what they refuse to do willingly. That's part of what the police do: they use force and the threat of force to encourage obedience to the law and apprehend law-breakers. And when they decide to make an arrest, they have the legal right to use force to ensure compliance.

The use of police force may make sense when what is at stake is public safety and preservation of the rule of law. But school discipline? 

Surely there are or should be institutional strategies for addressing adherence to school rules and teacher authority, strategies that don't end up changing a school discipline issue into a criminal one by getting the police involved.

Let me clarify something: The schools my children attend have resource officers--police officers assigned to watch out for the welfare of the children at those schools and to address criminal activities that might affect that welfare. I'm glad they're there.

I think school resource officers are a great idea. But their job shouldn't be to enforce discipline in the classroom and ensure that students obey school rules.

Their job is, in part, to protect students from criminal threats (which may come from outside the school or from within it) and to enforce relevant laws for the sake of student safety and welfare. More importantly, their presence in schools can serve to build relationships between the community and the police in ways that encourage mutual trust and respect. They can help educate students through special programs related to their training and expertise--such as drug awareness programs.

But for the sort of day-to-day discipline that is linked to the school's role of educating and nurturing young people, something quite different is called for than what the police are trained to do. School discipline is part of its educational mission, not just something they do to make education possible. The way that schools discipline should therefore express this mission. Discipline should be (in part, at least) about giving students the resources to better manage their own behavior. It should give them insight into why such self-discipline matters. It may call for counselors trained to recognize when and how misbehavior is related to horrible things happening to kids, horrible $#!T the kids don't know how to handle.

Police may care about nurturing our young people, but this job of teaching personal responsibility and discipline isn't their job. Hence, putting them into the position of being classroom disciplinarians is a recipe for trouble. It's not fair to the officers or to the kids. Kids who are muddling through the messy business of growing up need a different sort of discipline to help them do it than what law enforcement provides.

Unfortunately, South Carolina has blurred these crucial distinctions by passing a law that criminalizes "disturbing schools." According to a CNN report,
South Carolina has a law that muddles the role of school resource officers, the sheriff said. 
"Unfortunately, our Legislature passed a law that's called 'disturbing schools,' " he said. 
"If a student disturbs school -- and that's a wide range of activities, 'disturbing schools' -- they can be arrested. Our goal has always been to see what we can do without arresting the kids. We don't need to arrest these students. We need to keep them in schools."
But the problem goes deeper than a single law. School is a kind of training ground for functioning in the adult world. It serves to teach children how to succeed in that world, and it doesn't do so just in the classroom but in numerous other ways.

If it takes a village to raise a child, then in our modern world it is the school that functions as that village. 

In other words, the school can and should function as a kind of extended family--especially for those who don't have significant family support at home, those who suffer from negligent parenting or have lost their parents. While this means expecting responsible behavior, it also means empathy and compassion and responsiveness to the unique needs of individual children. It means that we as a society think about school discipline not as the management of problem kids but as part of our collective responsibility to care for our next generation.

When I look at that video, this is the broader question that comes to mind for me: Are we living up to our collective responsibility to these young people?

Teaching discipline is different from enforcing the law, and requires different techniques. If we farm out that part of education to the police--to a social institution whose lob is law enforcement, not education--we are falling short of our collective responsibility to our kids. Teaching discipline isn't easy. Sometimes it can be truly frustrating. And I can certainly understand why, in the midst of such frustration, it might be easier to drag a resistant student out of the room kicking and screaming.

When I look at this video, I don't just see one child and one police officer in one classroom. I see a warning about the effects of our social attitudes towards the education of our children. Too often, we see some of our kids as nothing more than troublemakers. We focus our educational efforts on those who are easier to work with precisely because they need us less urgently, precisely because they have stable homes and responsible parents and the resources to succeed.

And those who really need "the village" to help them in their struggle to learn how to live in the world? Those are the ones the village calls the cops on, to have them dragged out of the school kicking and screaming.

This isn't something a particular individual decides to do. It's the cumulative effect of countless unconscious choices by all of us. We favor social policies that reward the privileged and ignore the needy. We celebrate the successes of the kid who grew up with everything while ignoring the struggles of the kid who grew up with nothing. We look at classrooms where the struggling kids cause disturbances, and we decide that the solution is to criminalize their cries for help.

My fear is this: When we look at this video, we are horrified by what we see because it makes vivid in shocking terms the logical extension of our prevailing social attitudes. And we don't want to admit that this is what our attitudes really entail. And so we point fingers instead. We focus on the cop's failures. We blame the girl.

We do everything but admit we might be looking at a mirror.

Tuesday, October 27, 2015

We Weren't Blessed: Reflections on the Stillwater Homecoming Tragedy

My daughter's friend, the tiniest girl on her gymnastics team, asked the question: "Why wasn't God at the parade?"

Let's not hide from this question.

I was at the parade. I stood with my family outside the Hastings store, yards from where the car would crash into the crowd at 50 miles an hour. My daughter and her gymnastics team had just gone by in their float, and I was running an errand to the van, which was just around the corner, to collect my wife's purse and my mother-in-law's keys.

When I came back moments later, the world had been transformed.

I looked at the chaos, heard the sobbing.

Something terrible has happened.

The kind of terrible that shatters lives. The kind of terrible that inspires children raised with a simple faith to see a world transformed. A world hollowed out. A world without God.

I was there. But on that bleak October morning, standing under a slate-gray sky with my wife's purse clutched in my fist, I felt the desolation that a child would later put into worlds. I was there. But God?

My son was there. When I dashed off to the van , he stood with my wife and his Grandma, watching the tail-end of the parade. He heard the explosive crash. He saw things flying into the air. He heard the screams. His ears, if not his eyes, witnessed death.

He ran. "I was sure," he told me later, "that someone had set off a bomb,"

My wife was there. When the horror struck, her thoughts flew to our daughter, whose float had gone by moments before. Reason told her the float was already well clear of the intersection, but once she saw that her son was safe, her mother's instincts urged her to reach the other child.

Doing so took her right through the carnage. When she called to say our daughter was safe, she sobbed into the phone: "Don't let him see! Don't let him see."

My mother-in law was there. She knelt with a weeping young woman who had been a few yards closer than us, and so had an unobstructed view of that moment that divided life and death, that tore into human flesh, that shattered lives. My mother-in-law asked the girl if she wanted to pray with her. She said yes. And so, while chaos swirled, they prayed.

One of my graduate students was there with his wife and young daughter. He'd stepped over to the stroller to get something, which brought him just far enough away to avoid injury when the car struck. His wife was treated and released. His daughter was hospitalized but will recover.

My son's classmate was there--a friend he's known since preschool. The careening car clipped him just before crashing into a pole. He was rushed to the hospital in the bed of Pistol Pete' pickup truck.

A theatre friend and her sister were there. Both hospitalized but recovering. The man my kids call Coach--their camp counselor and a former colleague of my wife--was there with his two small children. He suffered minor injuries. His children were hospitalized but are expected to be fine.

Others were less lucky. Nikita Nabal, a young woman from Mumbai, India pursuing her master's degree here in Oklahoma, was there. Bonnie and Marvyn Stone, 65 years old, were there. Lucas Nash, a two-year-old boy, was there. And because they were there, standing where they were, they're gone. Their loved ones now look at an emptier world, a world hollowed out.

And I think about what my daughter's little friend saw, trembling on the float as chaos reigned: A world hollowed out. A world without God.

So many were there, people I knew and people I didn't know. It was a family event. A tradition. A connection to a time before people's noses were buried in cell phones, a time when children looked out at the world and pointed at the wonders going by instead of fixing their gazes on a screen.

So many were there. But God?

"Why wasn't God at the parade?"

Let us, as people of faith, begin with that. When we confront horrors, let us begin with what my daughter's friend saw in the aftermath of the tragedy: A world hollowed out. A world without God.

Jesus praised the faith of children. He said that the Kingdom of God belongs to those with a child's faith. And when a child of faith looked out across what happened in Stillwater, OK, on that Saturday morning, what did she see?

Let us begin there. Let us begin with a child's shaken faith, because any other starting place leads to platitudes that don't do justice to the horror. Let us start with God's absence.

Let us remember that this little child's question is the same as the one that Jesus asked when he was nailed to a cross: "My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?"

A world hollowed out. A world without God. If anyone suggests that it is blasphemy to begin there, then they accuse Jesus of blasphemy. To hide from that starting point is to refuse to pick up our crosses and follow Him.

I waited out the tragedy's aftermath with my family in a coffee shop. We sat at a wooden table, stuttering out our first reactions to what had happened. Someone said we were lucky. Another said we were blessed.

"No. Don't say that. We weren't blessed."

"But that's exactly what we were."

"No. If we were blessed, then what about those who were hit? To say we were blessed is to say that God skipped over them."

"That's not what I meant. No, of course. I didn't mean that."

Silence at the table. The specter of survivor's guilt.

And the questions. How can we see God at the parade unless we see God playing favorites? How could God have been there in all the trappings of almighty power, unless God was protecting some and cursing others?

But what's the alternative to a God who plays favorites? If God does not play favorites, does that mean the toddler who died was blessed? That his mother was blessed? Dare we trivialize the horror? Dare we pretend that their world was anything less than hollowed out?

Maybe our God is a quadriplegic God, a God who cannot act in the world without borrowing others' hands. Maybe nature's laws are something God has set up as a kind of wall between Himself and the world, a wall he dare not shatter on pain of swamping finite reality with the vastness of its infinite creator. Maybe creation was an act of withdrawal, and necessarily so.

Maybe there is no God.

Maybe. Maybe.

My own faith has been shaped in part by the maybes of a Jewish/Marxist mystic philosopher named Simone Weil, who appropriated Christian ideas from her friend Father Perrin, a Catholic priest who begged her without success to convert to Christianity. Instead, she handed back to him his Christian faith transformed by the perspective of an outsider.

And what did she find in the story of Jesus' crucifixion? A God who crosses the infinite distance of time and space to inhabit that place where we can never go--that place where God is wholly absent. God at God's most human is there--paradoxically, impossibly there.

What Simone Weil saw in the Christian story was a God who cast off the trappings of infinite glory to inhabit that place in creation where God is missing, to step into that space of horror and desolation, and to cry out with all of us, "My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?"

Each of us brushes up against that place of absence. We are there, but God is not. It is a place where, in the ordinary sense of blessings, there are none. There is only good luck and bad. There is only the blind grinding of nature's laws, chewing out its victims one by one while others huddle in witness, grateful that they haven't been taken yet but sure that their time, too, will come.

It would be an assault on the concept of divine love to say that God blessed me by sending me on an errand at the crucial moment, so that I wouldn't have to hear the horrible sounds of death that my son clearly heard. It would be an assault on the concept of divine love to say that God blessed my graduate student by inspiring him to step towards the stroller and so out of the path of injury that his wife and child still fell within. A God who reaches down to spare my life but not the lives of others isn't the kind of God whose blessing we can cling to without a darkening of our souls.

To live in a world where God is hidden, where mechanistic laws and chance routinely strike down the good and lift up the wicked, blindly indifferent to anyone's worth--this is a reality we must recognize, despite our wish-thinking, despite the promises of prosperity preaching that offers us visions of terrestrial blessings if only we agree to ignore the plight of the poor and the sick (or say it's their own fault).

But there is the blessing of solidarity. There is the blessing of the one who sits and cries with us in the silence and the dark.

And there is the blessing of those who are urged by the voice of conscience, or perhaps the voice of God, to run to the aid of those in need, to nurture and care for the wounded, to grieve with those who mourn.

We need to begin with God's absence. We must affirm that a world of blind mechanism and chance combines with the darkest parts of our human wills to produce horrors. Horrors that can strike into the heart of innocent family pleasures. Horrors that can shatter the laughter of a parade even as children are pointing joyfully towards what's coming next. We need to admit that God isn't scurrying around shielding some from harm while letting others fall.

But we don't need to stop there. Because at that parade there was a little girl crying out, "Why isn't God here?" And in that cry we can, without assaulting the concept of divine love, hear the echo of God's anguished cry.

If we are to believe in a God who made the world and everything in it, an almighty God whose power and majesty defy comprehension, let us see that God as constrained, bound in ways we may never understand by the very laws God made. But let us believe that those bindings are not absolute. At the very least, let us believe that God's voice can urge us to be the hands of love. At the very least, let us believe that God can be there with us in the midst of tragedy, sharing in our anguished cries.

Whatever we think might bind God's power, let us not believe it binds God's love. Let us not believe it binds our own. Let us feel the solidarity of God's loving presence, and love each other unfettered even in the darkest places.

Friday, October 23, 2015

Losing Our Political Perspective

I’ve been thinking about political perspective and the challenges it poses. To see what I’m talking about, let’s consider an example.

Not long ago, conservative political commentator David Brooks bemoaned the state of the Republican party, arguing that hyperbolic rhetoric had escalated into a kind of obstructionist extremism antithetical to the real values of conservatism and incompatible with what is required for being part of political decision-making in a diverse society. According to Brooks,

Politics is the process of making decisions amid diverse opinions. It involves conversation, calm deliberation, self-discipline, the capacity to listen to other points of view and balance valid but competing ideas and interests. 
But this new Republican faction regards the messy business of politics as soiled and impure. Compromise is corruption. Inconvenient facts are ignored. Countrymen with different views are regarded as aliens. Political identity became a sort of ethnic identity, and any compromise was regarded as a blood betrayal.

As Brooks understands conservative values, they include “intellectual humility, a belief in steady, incremental change, a preference for reform rather than revolution, a respect for hierarchy, precedence, balance and order, and a tone of voice that is prudent, measured and responsible.” On this understanding, it is easy to see how conservatism would have a crucial place in any society, counterbalancing progressive voices that are focused on identifying and correcting injustices and imperfections in the current social order often to the exclusion of concerns about social stability and the unintended ripple effects of change.

But not everyone was impressed with Brooks’ piece. Among the unimpressed is psychotherapist Michael Hurd, whose blog of partisan political commentary seems to be especially popular among libertarians. Here’s how Hurd spins the very same practices that led Brooks to bemoan the dysfunction of the Republican Party:

When you disagree with another party in principle, then there’s not a whole lot you can do—other than hold to your principle. But that’s everything. Otherwise, there would be no point in having a separate party in the first place. 
Holding to principle is what Republicans have not done. They have caved to Obama on everything. This is what the minority in the Republican party does not like, and they’re entirely right.

According to Hurd, the problem with the Republican Party isn’t that they have forgotten how to compromise, but rather that they have forgotten how to do anything else. As he sees it, “The Republican Party does not act or function as a second party; it’s merely an extension of the Democratic Party.” His primary evidence for this is that the Republicans ended up permitting increases in the debt ceiling despite their principled opposition to ever-bigger government.

When I read Hurd’s piece, I couldn’t help but think of the strongest rhetoric among some Democrats, including Rep. Mike Doyle and (possibly) Vice President Biden. From their perspective, the idea that Republicans have been “caving to Obama” on everything is the very opposite of reality. From their perspective, Republican obstructionism has risen to such a level that it has become a kind of political terrorism.

This is especially the case with respect to the very thing that Hurd points to as a case of persistent Republican accommodation: the debt ceiling. For many Democrats, the Republican threat not to increase the debt ceiling is a prime example of right-wing radicalism: Because a failure to raise the debt ceiling could (would?) result in the US defaulting on its loans, (potentially?) producing an economic catastrophe the likes of which the US hasn’t seen since the Great Depression, imposing rigid conditions on raising it is seen as a strategy of coercion rather than political deliberation.

So, we now have three perspectives on the same phenomenon. According to an old-school conservative, core segments of the Republican party—no doubt in large measure as exemplified in the debt ceiling standoff—have lost sight of the party’s conservative values, undermining the party’s capacity for pragmatic engagement and reasoned compromise in the midst of diverse perspectives.

According to Hurd, the members of the “Freedom Caucus” of the Republican Party have simply been “standing on principle,” and the dysfunction is found not in their doing so but in the broader willingness of moderate Republicans to compromise in the end. Ignoring the question of what would have happened had no compromise been reached, Hurd represents moderate Republicans as accommodationists who can’t stand up for what they believe (and while he doesn’t explicitly mention Chamberlain’s accommodation of the Nazis, I suspect he had to resist the urge).

And according to some on the left, these same Republicans are the political equivalent of terrorists, insofar as they use threats with potentially calamitous national consequences as a tool to implement their agenda.

Meanwhile, the proliferation of news sources that reflect partisan perspectives has made it increasingly easy for people in society to live in an echo chamber in which their own perspective is reinforced and alternative perspectives are seen as absurd. Maybe that happened to me in this case—because when I first read the passage from Hurd quoted above, I thought , “Preposterous! Absurd!” I couldn’t even wrap my brain around the idea that years of Republican obstructionism systematically shutting down the government could be characterized as Republicans “caving to Obama on everything.” It would be like someone calling Gandhi a glutton or Syria a great vacation destination—something possible only if one were completely divorced from reality.

But maybe a certain distancing from reality has become an increasingly ubiquitous problem. Let me be clear: We can’t help but have perspectives. And some perspectives are more attuned to the realities of the world than others. But I worry that we have moved into a political world where our perspectives are less and less informed by an appreciation and understanding of opposing ones. And insofar as we fail to understand what it is that might generate an opposing perspective, we are to that extent distanced from reality.

This can be true even if your own perspective is right. Often when I come to see why someone has a perspective different from my own, my perspective remains unchanged—and yet, even so, I am wiser than I was before. I understand more than I did before. I can function in the real world more effectively.

I think Hurd is wrong. I think he is really, really wrong. And I think the depths and extremity of his error is largely explained by a world where polarization and media compartmentalization make it increasingly possible to simply reinforce our own perspectives in a way that is blind to the fullness of reality. But at the same time, I think that I am better, wiser, more insightful to the extent that I can try to understand Hurd’s perspective and where it comes from. Is there something in what is happening in our political world that gives his view—however wrong I think it is—some toehold in reality, one that I need to reflect on and appreciate?

We often encounter views which immediately spark in us the following question: "How could someone think that?" In the face of that question, we can do one of two things. We can just assume they must be crazy and move on, or we can try to find out why they think that. What I'm advocating is that we do less of the former and more of the latter.

Understanding does not require agreement. In fact, understanding helps us to better engage with those we think are mistaken, to explain more accurately what we take their error to be. And understanding can also inspire us to refine our own perspective, not abandon it but refine it in a way that makes productive debate possible, rather than just belligerent heading-bashing.

Here is my fear. Unless we become better at understanding others’ perspectives and where they come from, we are in danger of doing real harm. If one side sees themselves as standing on principle and the other sees themselves as courageously refusing to negotiate with terrorists, we wind up with a game of chicken in which neither side will blink. Each sees the other as wholly unreasonable. Each sees the situation as one in which, if disaster strikes, it will be the others’ fault for refusing to budge. And so neither side feels any responsibility to budge. And so disaster strikes.

Fortunately, we’re not quite there yet. But we are treading in that direction. Backing off from that trajectory does not require that we abandon our perspectives. Here, for example, is my perspective: I think the “Freedom Caucus” of the Republican Party is far more to blame for the current dysfunction in Washington than moderate Republican accomodationism or anything happening on the Democratic side of the aisle—although Democratic use of the rhetoric of terrorism is certainly unhelpful and should stop.

Understanding the perspective of the Freedom Caucus—reading the essays and arguments of their most articulate proponents, etc.—does not require me the abandon this perspective. Understanding why Mike Doyle (and Joe Biden?) called the Tea Party Republicans terrorists does not require that I stop calling it a mistake.

After all, understanding an argument is essential for knowing whether it is compelling or defective--and so, when I take the time to understand a defective argument, I come to know what is wrong with it in a way I didn't before. That's not going to make me change my view. Of course, if I learn that the argument is impeccable, I might be forced to change my view--but in that case, I should change my view.

Understanding can often inspire more modest shifts in my perspective—a nuancing of it—but it doesn’t always do even that. What it does do is enable me to see those who disagree with me as humans rather than monsters (perhaps confused humans, or misguided humans, but still humans). And even if they are guilty of intransigence and obstructionism, understanding what motivates that stubbornness might help me inspire them to be more open. At the very least, it can’t hurt.

So I'm not arguing that we should abandon our own political perspectives. But there is a higher-order perspective that we need to nurture, one that we are increasingly in danger of losing: the perspective on diverse and competing perspectives that helps us appreciate that there are different ways of looking at things, and that helps us see there might be something to be learned from understanding the perspectives of others even when they're dead wrong.

Tuesday, October 13, 2015

Love and Fear: Lessons Learned from Cantors and Good Samaritans

Many people are afraid of the influx of refugees in Europe, and there are those who feed on and fuel that fear. Not long ago, Fox News showed a video--falsely said to be recent footage of refugees--that depicts Muslims on a train chanting "God is great." The caption reads, "Terrorists Inbound?"

The news network is not here inventing fear, but playing to it. Many people are afraid that the influx of Muslim refugees will also mean an influx of potential new terrorists on European soil. Many argue that the fear is warranted. But for me, the question of whether it is warranted is the wrong question to ask.

Fear is rooted in our instinct for self-protection (and also for protection of those we care about). It inspires action meant to reduce our vulnerability to harm. But in acting out of fear, we often make the world more dangerous.

Fear doesn't change the world for the better, and too often it triggers mutual fear responses in a feedback loop of escalating danger: You are afraid of me, and so you adopt a defensive posture, ready to fight or flee. I see your posture and find it threatening, so I become afraid and adopt a similar posture. Our fear of each other makes us ready to hurt each other, and the more ready we are the more scared we become until our fear has created the very situation it is meant to protect us from: We are an imminent danger to each other.

What is the pathway out of that cycle? The answer is simple but profound: love, love that hopes for the best and works the best even though it puts the agent of love at risk. When I am no threat to you and you reach out to me with vulnerable love, I remain no threat to you. When I am a threat to you and you reach out with vulnerable love, you make yourself vulnerable--but you also create opportunities for transformation. You act in a way that can change the world, or at least your own small corner of it.

In 1991, a Jewish Cantor named Michael Weisser moved to Lincoln, Nebraska with his family. He was soon targeted for harassment by the Grand Dragon of the Nebraska Ku Klux Klan, Larry Trapp. Instead of responding with fear, he responded with love.

So what did Weisser do? His Jewish faith taught him that the best way to overcome an enemy was to turn them into a friend. and so Weisser started calling Trapp and leaving messages on his answering machine. Not messages like "Stop harassing me!" or "I'm calling the police." Messages like this: "Larry, there’s a lot of love out there. You’re not getting any of it. Don’t you want some?"

Finally, Trapp answered the phone when Weisser called. Because Weisser knew that Trapp was disabled, he offered to help Trapp with his grocery shopping.

The whole story can be found in Kathryn Watterson's book, Not by the Sword, but here's the end of it: Trapp converted to Judaism. He apologized to those he'd hurt with his hate. When his health deteriorated, he moved into Weisser's home, where a room served as a kind of hospice. Weisser preached at Trapp's funeral.

Today, Weisser is a rabbi in Queens, where he continues to reach out in a spirit of love.

If unconditional love can turn a Grand Dragon of the Ku Klux Klan into a Jewish convert, what else can it do? Today I saw a video of a Christian group, Samaritan's Purse, helping with the refugee crisis in Europe. Samaritan's Purse is an international relief organization inspired by Jesus' story of the Good Samaritan to reach out and help people in need. I've pasted the video here. Please take a few minutes to watch it if you haven't already:

Now imagine this: Imagine that every refugee landing in Europe (or elsewhere) is greeted with the kind of compassion on display in this video. Every child, every elderly person, every man and woman who decided the risk of death was preferable to staying where they were. Compassion and care without agendas, without hidden strings. Just humans helping humans in need. Imagine that this compassion doesn't end on the shore, but continues as the refugees make their terrified way in a foreign land. Imagine that it becomes a daily feature of their experience in their place of refuge.

If that happens, how likely is it that they will become agents of terror in their new home? How likely would this be if, instead of a spirit of love, they were greeted in a spirit of suspicion, a spirit of hostility and fear?

As I said above, there are those who ask how justified is the fear that the refugee influx will open Europe's doors to a new generation of terrorists. But I think that is the wrong question--the wrong question for Christians like me, for Jews like Rabbi Weisser, and for all of us regardless of our faith.

The right question, I think, is this one: How can we resist the spirit of fear that perpetuates distrust and hostility and in its place cultivate the spirit of love, the spirit that makes friends out of strangers, even those who (as in the case of Weisser and Trapp) might start out as our enemies?

It is important to be realistic about something: the decision to act in a spirit of love does make us more vulnerable to those intent on harming us. Love means risk. It doesn't mean foolish risk, like hiring a person convicted of child abuse to babysit your child. But it does mean creative risk--the risk that comes with acting out of the hope of building community and connection in a world where people are afraid of one another.

If we live in a spirit of fear, we create and perpetuate and magnify the threats around us, even as we make ourselves less vulnerable to them in the short run. If we live in a spirit of love, we do the opposite. But whatever risks creative love brings, such love is the only path to a better world.

Friday, October 9, 2015

On Biblical Inerrancy: Engineers Interpreting Shakespeare

It's not easy to figure out exactly what some people mean when they say the Bible is "inerrant." And it doesn't help when they explain themselves by saying, "God said it; I believe it; that settles it."

To see my trouble, consider the following. When I look through my Bible I see a collection of writings in a wide range of literary genres: poetry, short stories, transcribed oral histories, aphorisms, letters of exhortation, sermons, myths and legends.

Myths and legends? Short stories? Yes. I think the Bible contains symbolically rich, non-factual literary forms that (like the best fiction) illuminate the human condition and help us to deepen our understanding of our world and the meaning of our lives.

But when some people say they think the Bible is "inerrant," part of what they mean to say is that my view of the Bible is false. There are no myths. There are no short stories. Whenever the Bible says "so-and-so did such-and-such," we should believe that so-and-so doing such-and-such was an actual historical event. (Well, unless it's in the Gospels and is something Jesus is saying in one of His parables--Jesus is allowed to tell fictional stories, so long as we all agree that it is an actual historical fact that Jesus actually told this fictional tale.)

The story of Jonah, they say, is not an ancient Jewish short story with a message about the divine, but a perfectly accurate description of historical events--and, they argue, to think otherwise is to deny the authority of the Bible. And so it becomes all about whether a man was actually swallowed whole by a big fish and spit out alive three days later, rather than being about the extent to which we are like Jonah, resisting God's call to reach out to heal our enemies because we think they don't deserve to be healed.

The tale of Job, they say, is not a brilliantly edited synthesis of a folk tale and a philosophically pregnant poem. It's a record of actual events. And so it becomes all about whether God really made a bet with Satan and heaped suffering on Job for that reason (and then, later on, disingenuously told Job, "You can't understand why I do what I do!" even though the folk-tale part of the Book of Job lays out a perfectly understandable human reason why God, if He behaved the way some schoolyard bullies behave, would heap suffering on him).

When Job is treated as a factual record, the reader misses the meaning that might be found in the tension created by bring together two disparate literary forms, one (the poetic theological reflection) breaking into the middle of the other (the folk tale where God messes with human lives on a bet). Maybe the deepest and most profound divine inspiration in Job, the deepest insight into human suffering, lies in that editorial juxtaposition itself--the way the mystery and skepticism of the theological poem repudiates the pat, ready answers offered in the folk tale. If so, you'll miss the source of inspiration if you're committed to the dictum, "The text says here that God shattered Job's life on a bet, so it must be a fact of cosmic history that God shattered Job's life on a bet."

It's like a bunch of engineers without any literary imagination who have gotten hold of great literature.

Now I have friends who are engineers, and some of them love poetry and can appreciate fine art. Nevertheless, there are engineers who exemplify the stereotype of the literal, concrete thinker great at designing bridges but utterly tone-deaf to abstract reflection and literary interpretation. I'm sure you know such people. They slept through their humanities courses in college.

My point is this: Sometimes, those who claim the Bible is inerrant strike me as engineers of that stripe. It's as if they've set out to reflect on Shakespeare. We can imagine how this is likely to go:

"Well, the one guy kills the other guy. And then the first guy rambles on for fifteen minutes. Why can't these guys talk in plain English? I mean, you could probably get the whole play down to five minutes without missing a single plot point! They should let me write this thing. But anyway, then this ghost shows up. Then there's more pointless gibberish..."

But suppose that these same engineers have been convinced that Shakespeare's plays were inspired by God. They can't dismiss the monologues as long-winded gibberish anymore. What are they going to do? I can imagine it would go something like this:

"Alright, so one important lesson here is that there are actual witches in the world who say 'Boil, boil, toil and trouble.' If the text is inspired by God, then that's really true. Wow. Who knew? But what about this stuff about the lady walking around rubbing her hands and saying, 'Out damned spot'? Does she have a dog she wants to put out? Well, the important thing is that God here is telling us that there was this lady who said that, for whatever stupid reason. God said it. I believe it. That settles it."

My point is this: Fiction can be inspired, even if it's fiction. Poetry can be inspired, even if it isn't asserting any facts. But inspired fiction isn't explicitly asserting things that are true, even if it reveals truths. More significantly, the most inspired fiction requires interpretive engagement by the reader. While some are fables with a blunt, in-your-face moral, the best fiction isn't like that. Instead, it invites us as readers into the fictional world, to experience what something is like--experiential understanding rather than a set of facts--so that we can approach the actual world and our neighbors with a deeper sense of what life and reality are like.

What does it mean to say that fiction of that kind is "inerrant"? Maybe something like the following: "When we immerse ourselves in the story, live in its characters, and wrestle with their struggles, we come out of that with experiences that are true-to-life, as if they were things that really happened to us. And so we end up wiser than we were before, with a richer body of experience to draw from, better equipped to wrestle with our own struggles."

But what exactly is "inerrant" here? All of this is really just a long way of saying that "inerrant" is a category mistake. Inerrancy applies to factual accounts but not to fiction. So if you insist on treating a work of fiction as if it were inerrant, you are squeezing it into a literary form (factual account) different from its actual form (fiction). And when you treat it accordingly, you miss out on the kinds of insights that it's meant to provide. In the only (metaphorical or analogous) sense that fiction can be called "inerrant," treating it as inerrant encourages you to approach it in a way that prevents you from uncovering its truths.

If the Bible is inspired by God, then it matters a lot what kind of literary form we're dealing with at any particular place in the Bible--because if we get the form wrong, we'll be like those engineers reading Shakespeare. Those who say, "the Bible is the inerrant word of God" intend to lift up the Bible. But if, in saying this, they aren't open to the possibility that a biblical narrative is a myth or short story, then they are in danger of forcing the Bible into a mold that distorts its meaning. In the quest to earnestly uphold its truth, they shut out the truths it has to share.

By the way, this whole post is, in a sense, an argument for why Christians should support a broad liberal arts education. You know, the kind where engineering majors are required to take philosophy and read Shakespeare.

Wednesday, September 23, 2015

Imagining Universal Salvation: Seeing Past the Uglier Confusions

A social media friend of mine, a Christian with universalist sympathies, recently posted the following:
Thought experiment:
1.) Let's say it turns out that everyone will eventually spend eternity in the blissful presence and peace of God.
2.) You are granted the knowledge of this right now.
3.) How does this make you feel? What are your thoughts on the matter?
There were numerous responses, most of them expressing feelings of joy, some expressing concerns or raising questions ("Even Hitler?"). And then there was this one:
Being as how it will not happen and cannot happen......but if it did cheated and let down!!!!!! Because that wold make God a liar, a fraud,and no better than satan himself. It wold make The Word of God a lie, and mean that satan himself and all his demonic hordes would also be in Heaven and that Heaven would actually be hell!!!!!!!!!!!!
The response makes two claims about universalism (for my purposes I will assume we're talking about Christian universalism) that are worth reflecting on, despite being somewhat lost in a haze of exclamation-point fury. They are:

A. If Christian universalism is true and all are eventually saved, then God is a liar.

B. If Christian universalism is true and all are eventually saved, this means that the devil and his demons are eventually saved as well; and a heaven filled with the devil and his demons would be no heaven at all, but would be transformed into hell.

Let me reflect on each of these

Is God a Liar if Universalism is True?

The first of these claims is presumably based on views about the nature and content of the Christian scriptures: If you assume that the Bible is the inerrant Word of God, and if you assume that the Bible clearly denies universalism, then endorsing universalism amounts to saying God is either mistaken or a liar.

But the "ifs" here are big ones.

The doctrine of inerrancy is just one theory about how the Bible is related to God and God's Word, and a universalist might have a different theory. Alternatively, the universalist might--based on passages like Lamentations 3:31-33, John 12:30-32, Romans 5:18-19, Romans 11:32, 1 Corinthians 15:22, 1 Corinthians 15:28, and Colossians 1:19-20, or maybe based on a holistic reading of the biblical narrative--reject the premise that the Bible clearly denies universalism.

So it's a mistake to say that universalism implies that God is a fraud.

Suppose someone made the following claim: "If the Bible is the inerrant Word of God, then God is a fraud." You ask them why, and they say the following: "The Bible says in some places (e.g., Romans 5:18-19) that all will be saved and in other places (e.g., 2 Thessalonians 1:8-9) that they won't. One of those claims is true and the other false. If the doctrine of inerrancy is right, then God has said something false. He's either mistaken or a liar. In either case He's a fraud."

The supporter of biblical inerrancy would likely reply in something like the following way: "That argument assumes that the relevant passages can't be reconciled. Maybe you're misreading them! It's not inerrancy that implies that God is a fraud. It's inerrancy combined with your particular understanding of the Bible that implies this. But I don't buy your understanding of the Bible!"

Yes. Exactly.

Here's the lesson: Some people, when they try to imagine universal salvation, have a negative response to it only because, when it is combined with other elements of their broader theology, the implications are ugly. But that doesn't mean universalism is ugly.

Is Heaven turned into Hell if Universalism is True?

Some universalists exclude the devil and his demonic hordes from the scope of universal salvation, limiting it to humanity: God saves all humans. But let's suppose we're dealing with the version of universalism that extends God's love even to the fallen angels. Would that brand of universalism turn heaven into hell?

An important feature of Christian universalism is this: It does not say that creatures will come to enjoy eternal blessedness without being sanctified. On the contrary, most Christian universalists I know are convinced of several things: (1) To be truly blessed requires being freed from bondage to sin, such that it is impossible to enjoy the blessedness of heaven while still being a sinner; (2) We cannot free ourselves from bondage to sin without the grace of God working in and through us; (3) Everyone will eventually receive the divine grace necessary and sufficient to free us from bondage to sin.

This third belief comes in different forms, because of different theologies. Typically, Christian universalists believe that we won't the divine grace necessary for sanctification and blessedness without repentance. So long as we have our backs to God, refusing to take in what God is pouring out to us, we will remain bound by sin.

What universalists are convinced of is that God never gives up on even the most recalcitrant of sinners, and that God is infinitely resourceful and creative in finding ways to cajole and inspire them to repent. What universalists believe is that God will ultimately succeed in transforming the heart of every sinner, redeeming every fallen creature.

In other words, universalists believe, like traditional hellist Christians do, that only the redeemed are in heaven. Where they differ is in their conviction that all of God's creatures are redeemed.

Universalists believe, like traditional hellist Christians do, that there is no sin in heaven. Where they differ is in their conviction that at the end of history there is no longer any sin at all--that God finally succeeds not merely in sequestering sin in hell but in erasing it from creation altogether.

If universalists believe that Satan and his hordes ultimately enter into Heaven, it is because they believe that Satan and his hordes are ultimately redeemed, repenting and confessing their sins, and so restored to their original state as angels of God, channeling love and mercy and grace, celebrating the peace and majesty of God in communion with all the blessed.

In other words, no one enters heaven unless hell has been removed from their hearts. Universalists believe that as much as hellists do. Where they differ is on the question of whether hello continues to enternally stain God's creation, an endless den of sin's persistence--or whether, on the contrary, heaven comes to encompass all of creation in the end.

Put simply, to think that universalism turns heaven into hell is to be caught up in some serious confusion about what universalism says.

Here's the lesson: Some people, when they try to imagine universal salvation, have a negative response to it only because they are confused about what it involves. They imagine sinners enjoying blessedness while still being sinners, even though such a thing is impossible (impossible because being a sinner is the worst conceivable affliction any creature can endure, such that its elimination is a necessary prerequisite for enjoying blessedness).

These points aren't enough to show that when universalism is properly conceived, it is a beautiful thing that should tug at our souls, filling us with the hope that it is true. These points are certainly not enough to show that universalism is, in fact, true. But they do show, I think, that some of the reasons why people don't find universalism beautiful are based on mistakes.

And I do find universalism beautiful, a source of hope and delight.

Wednesday, September 2, 2015

Tone-Policing and Nonviolent Communication

I recently finished reading this essay, where Maisha Z Johnson uses the recent public clash between Miley Cyrus and Nicki Minaj as an occasion to talk about tone policing and the way that it's used to discount or silence black women's voices. As I was reading it, I was reminded of my study of nonviolent communication strategies. There are, I think, useful lessons to be found in thinking about tone policing in light of those strategies.

Tone Policing

The basic concern of tone policing is this: a member of an oppressed or socially marginalized group speaks candidly about their experience with oppression, speaking out against it, perhaps loudly, perhaps with discernible anger. Someone else (often a member of the privileged group) responds by complaining about the tone of the message. Johnson offers, as examples, the following kinds of responses:

"You're being too harsh"
"You're overreacting"
"You're making your cause look bad"
"I'm on your side"
"This is counterproductive"

"I'm on your side" is a bit different from the others on this list--a point I'll come back to later. But what all of these responses have in common is that they shift the topic away from the substance of what the oppressed person is talking about and towards something else: either the tone with which it is delivered (too harsh, hostile, or extreme); or the strategic failures of the speaker (counterproductive or alienating to actual and potential allies).

Strictly speaking, only the former is tone-policing. But the latter is sufficiently bound up with the former that it makes sense to treat them together. In both cases, the person offering the response distracts from the original speaker's message by complaining that how it was delivered will distract from its message.

It doesn't take much to see the problem here: If we really care about not distracting attention from someone's message, we won't respond in a way that distracts attention from their message. And that's true even if the way we distract from the message is by complaining about how the tone will distract from the message. Got that?

Nonviolent Communication

In its simplest terms, nonviolent communication is about finding ways to communicate with one another that encourage mutual understanding, reduce defensiveness, and help promote cooperative conflict resolution where everyone's needs and feelings are taken into account.

On one level, tone policing sounds as if it's about offering helpful advice with respect to these very things: "Hey, you! The way you're saying that isn't likely to encourage mutual understanding, may increase defensiveness, and may interfere with your goal of promoting cooperative conflict resolution!"

But even if that's true, talking about nonviolent communication isn't the same as engaging in it. There's a place for the former--including a place for pointing out to someone how they can be better at nonviolent communication. You might do it in a workshop about nonviolent communication strategies (or in a blog post about them). But if someone in a heartfelt moment expresses their frustration and anger about something, and I respond by saying, "You're a bad nonviolent communicator!", then I'm talking about nonviolent communication while failing to actually practice it.

When I actually seek to practice nonviolent communication, the focus is not on policing what other people say and how they say it. Rather, nonviolent communication is the effort to communicate in ways that move away from the language of judgment and accusation and towards the language of self-disclosure. And I do this both in terms of how I speak, and in terms of how I listen. The basic strategic tool for doing this is something called the "I-statement."


An I-statement offers a way to address my problems or concerns without making accusations (it can also be used to address things I'm grateful for, but that's another topic). The basic technique is to point out a situation or behavior that bothers or upsets me--in purely descriptive terms that don't make judgments--and then share how this situation or behavior makes me feel, and why.

An I-statement is about self-disclosure all the way down. When I share the reasons why I'm angry (or afraid, or sad) about your behavior, I do so in terms of my own needs, interests, significant desires, and core values (what I'll just call "needs" for short). I share with you something about myself that explains my emotional response.

Sometimes I may need to talk about my beliefs or perceptions as well--although there are dangers in this. It may be best to wait to talk about my beliefs for a time when emotions are less raw, a time when feelings and needs are in less urgent need of attention. But to fully explain my feelings and promote genuine understanding, sharing perceptions at some point is often crucial. If so, I should do it honestly and without judgment or accusation. It's one thing to say, "You're seeing racism that isn't there." It's something else to say, "It looks to me like you see the playing field as less fair with respect to race than I do." When we do share our perceptions or beliefs, we need to do so with humility, recognizing that our perceptions may be imperfect.

An I-statement usually culminates in a request. Not a demand or an ultimatum, but a request. The request is for something that would help me to meet my needs and resolve my emotional distress. When I deliver an I-statement, I understand that there may be more than one way to meet my needs, and that the request I'm making may be just the start of a conversation. After all, the specific way of meeting my needs that I've identified might not satisfy the needs of the other person. I need to be prepared for that, and ready to explore alternative ways that we can both get our needs met.

But if we're going to work together on finding ways to meet all our needs, it's not enough that you know what my needs are. I need to know what your needs are. This may require more than just talking in I-statements. A special kind of listening may also be needed.

Listening for Hidden I-Statements

In conflict situations, we're so used to talking in the language of judgment and accusation ("you-statements") that it's unlikely that when I share an I-statement, the other person will respond in kind. But as nonviolent communication guru Marshall Rosenberg has noted, "you-statements" can be seen as nothing but tragically failed attempts to share our feelings and needs. When I launch into a you-statement tirade, it's because I'm angry (my feeling). And I'm angry because I'm being thwarted in getting things that are really important to me (my needs). And I want things to change in a way that will resolve those feelings and meet my needs (my request).

In short, I can choose not only to express myself in I-statements but to listen for the hidden I-statements in what others say.

Of course, I might get it wrong. So, it's important that I check in: "Here's what I'm hearing. Is that right?" The trick is to try to identify the feelings, needs, perceptions, and requests of the other person, and then make sure I've got it right. If I don't, they'll correct me--maybe in more you-statement forms, but hopeful in a way that will deepen my understanding of them even as I invite them through my I-statements to a deeper understanding of me.

This kind of reflective listening--listening that's attuned to the self-disclosure behind the actual words--can be magical. When people feel heard, anger fades. When people feel understood, a cooperative spirit grows. Conflicts become shared problems that people work collaboratively to resolve, rather than a reason for animosity.

Tone-Policing Revisited

Let's return to the five tone-policing responses that Maisha Johnson talks about in her essay. It should be clear that all but one of them are clear-cut you-statements. They amount to telling the other person what is wrong with them. The exception is "I'm on your side," which I'll talk about on its own.

Tone-policing you-statements are a self-protection strategy. Someone has just said something angry, something full of feeling and deeply expressive of unmet human needs. And maybe their outrage encompasses me, and so I feel an indictment. Maybe the judgment is explicit, maybe not. But either way, my focus becomes immediately on that. I feel defensive. Maybe I agree in general terms with the judgment they're making, but I don't think it applies to me. And so I completely ignore their rich self-disclosure. Instead of listening for the feelings and needs and perceptions that lie at the heart of what they say, I launch into self-protection. I point the finger at them to deflect the perceived attack on me.

In short, I'm more concerned about avoiding blame than I am about listening. Or--as the case may be--I care more about whether you adhere to some standards of nonviolent communication than I care about what nonviolent communication is supposed to facilitate, which is deeper mutual understanding.

All of the tone-policing responses could be changed into I-statements, although in cases like this it may be far more important to listen to what others are trying to say to us--and to check to make sure that we've understood them--than it is to launch into our own self-disclosure. This is especially true in cases where the speaker is a member of a marginalized minority whose voice has been traditionally silenced, and we are members of a privileged group used to being heard. In such cases, there is reason to prioritize nurturing the voice that has been historically silenced over having our own say. There will always be time for us to speak.

But suppose I'm just too worked up to listen. Maybe I realize I'm being defensive, but that realization doesn't help. Maybe I'm even self-aware enough to know that my privileged position in society is part of the reason I'm getting so defensive. And it may well be true that I'd be less defensive, better able to listen, if the other party said things in a different way.

In that case, I might say something like the following. "I'm feeling frustrated, because I want to understand and digest what you're telling me but I'm feeling really defensive. Could you put your point another way?"

This is, in effect, an effort to unpack the hidden I-statement in the typical tone-policing you-statements. While such an I-statement might not be nearly as helpful a response as a listening one, if I'm not able to listen I don't do anyone a favor by pretending to. And this I-statement is a clear improvement over typical tone-policing responses in two ways: (1) it honestly reveals the speaker's issue rather than trying to cast blame, and (2) instead of silencing the other person by shifting away from the substance of their message, it is an invitation for the other person to continue sharing that message.

The response, "You are being counterproductive by taking that tone," changes the topic and invites everyone to ignore what the person is saying in favor of condemning its mode of delivery.

The I-statement response does not.

But what about "I'm on your side"? The problem here is a bit different. In many cases, "I'm on your side," is a comforting reassurance. But much hinges on context. When Johnson brings it up as an example of tone-policing, she has in mind Taylor Swift's response to Nicki Minaj's complaints about racism in the music industry. Johnson's worry is that, in that context, "I'm on your side" is a defensive response with an implicit judgment, namely, "You're wrongly attacking your allies." Even if the former is not in itself a you-statement, the latter is.

There may be an important difference in perspectives here that needs to be addressed. One person may voice a complaint that includes me as part of the problem causing them pain. By contrast, I see myself as their ally, trying to help them fix the problem. But when perceptions diverge like this, the solution is not to silence the opposing perspective with a forceful counter-assertion. The solution is to dig more deeply into the experiences that lie behind each perspective.

Imagine if "I'm on your side" were replaced with the following kind of I-statement: "I'm upset, because I want to be on your side in this, and I worry now that you don't see me as the kind of ally that I want to be. Could you tell me more about the kind of ally you need?"

This is not a rejection of the other person's perspective, but a request to understand that perspective more deeply. Instead of silencing or delegitimizing the other's message, it's an invitation to expand on it.

In short, tone-policing generally takes the form of you-statements. If that's true, one way we can avoid tone-policing is by committing ourselves to practicing nonviolent communication techniques in the kinds of situations where tone-policing so often rears its head.

Shouldn't we condemn those who say, "You're Tone Policing"?

I can already hear a critic say, "Accusations of tone-policing aren't good nonviolent communication. Anyone who labels someone else as guilty of tone-policing is violating the very principles that nonviolent communication tries to teach."

But here's the thing: Nonviolent communication strategies are intended to be used to guide our communication efforts, not as a template for judging the communication efforts of others. The moment I do the latter, I've abandoned nonviolent communication.

Yes, "You're tone-policing!" is a you-statement. But when I point this out, I'm talking about nonviolent communication instead of doing it. I'm mentioning its categories instead of using its strategies.

If I were using those strategies, I would never criticize or condemn those making the tone-policing charge. Instead, I'd do one of two things: (1) I might try to understand the feelings and needs and requests that underlie the tone-policing charge and then try to honestly express them, checking to see if I'm right (and then listening to see what I've missed or got wrong); (2) I might formulate an I-statement about how I feel about the tone-policing charge and why, in terms of my needs.

I think I've attempted to do the former in this post. It doesn't make much sense for me to do the latter, since I haven't been accused of tone-policing. But if I ever am, I hope I don't respond by saying, "You're overreacting! I'm on your side!"

Friday, August 21, 2015

#BlackLivesMatter, Abortion, and the Death Penalty

As the #BlackLivesMatter movement has taken off--largely fueled by a series of controversial cases involving police shootings of black civilians--I've been trying to get into the skin of those who are bothered by the movement.

Some are people I know. Some have been my students. And as I start another semester, in which I'll be teaching my students to think about such moral controversies as abortion and the death penalty, it occurs to me that abortion and the death penalty might offer some useful touchstones for thinking clearly about the #BlackLivesMatter movement.

As I see it, this is a movement that begins by identifying a social pattern--one in which black lives are given less weight, less importance, than white lives. And in the face of this pattern, the movement lifts up those devalued lives and says, "No. These lives matter, too."

I can see why such a movement would raise the hackles of overt racists, that is, those who really believe that black lives don't matter as much as white lives. But not everyone who is bothered by this movement is overtly racist. I'm talking about those who bristle or shift uncomfortably when they hear, "Black lives matter!" And they respond, "Shouldn't we say instead that all lives matter?"

One explanation for their discomfort is that they fail to see why it's so important to single out black lives, to say of those lives that they matter, as opposed to offering the more generic, "All lives matter."

Here, a simple analogy might be helpful. Some (many?) of those who respond suspiciously to the #BlackLivesMatter movement are strongly pro-life. They think that the lives of fetuses are being devalued by social policies that permit abortion-on-demand. In the face of this concern, they are ready and willing to say things like the following: "Fetal lives matter." (Well, okay, they don't usually put it in precisely those terms, but that's the clear message.)

Now imagine that you're pro-life, and you say something like this, and another person in the room responds with, "Well, all lives matter." Doesn't that response kind of miss the point? It isn't all lives that are being threatened by abortion-on-demand. The point of singling out the lives of fetuses is not to say that fetal lives are more valuable than other lives (although some critics of the pro-life movement argue that it sometimes looks that way). The point is to lift up those lives that you see as being devalued and say, "No. These lives matter, too."

In this context, "All lives matter" seems to be a way to deny that there is a special threat to fetal lives. "Of course all lives matter," the pro-life advocate is likely to answer. "But infants and toddlers and children and adults who have already left the womb aren't having their lives deliberately terminated in nearly the numbers that abortion statistics tell us is going on with the unborn."

Those who identify as pro-life see a society where fetal lives are systematically devalued. In response, they explicitly affirm those lives, lifting them up in an attempt to counteract the social forces that push them down.

As such, anyone who is pro-life has a ready model for understanding what is going on with the #BlackLivesMatter movement, and a clear basis for understanding why the "All lives matter" rejoinder is problematic: If you think there is a real pattern in our society in which fetal lives are systematically devalued, you're going to want to lift up those devalued lives--and the "All lives matter" response will seem like a way to whitewash the problem you're concerned about.

Likewise, if you think there is a real pattern in our society in which black lives are systematically devalued, you're going to want to life up those devalued lives--and the "All lives matter" response will seem like a way to whitewash the problem you're concerned about.

But this leads to another issue. Maybe some critics of the #BlackLivesMatter movement are neither racist nor confused about the implications of the "All lives matter" rejoinder. Instead, maybe they just don't see a pattern in which black lives, as black, are systematically devalued. Maybe they think the problem is overblown, and that the #BlackLivesMatter movement is responding out of proportion to the reality of the situation.

Here's where the death penalty comes in--because some of the best evidence that our society devalues black lives in a systematic way comes from how the death penalty is imposed.

When studying death penalty statistics in preparation for teaching my classes, what I found most staggering wasn't the fact that blacks are more likely to be sentenced to death than whites. They are, and that may certainly speak to the devaluing of black lives. But there is another death penalty statistic that, to my mind, more unambiguously highlights the social problem that #BlackLivesMatter stands against.

The statistic has to do with the race of murder victims. By an overwhelming margin, since the death penalty was reinstituted in the 1970's in America, the majority of convicts put to death were executed for killing white people. To be precise, in 77% of executions since 1977, the victims were white. The victims were black in only 15% of the cases.

Now this wouldn't be a shocking statistic if roughly 77% of murder victims in that time period were white and 15% black. But in fact, the evidence indicates that the number of white and black victims in that time period was roughly equal--this despite the fact that the black population remains a minority one in the US. The fact is that if you are black in the US you are far more likely to be murdered than if you're white. And if you are murdered, your killer is far less likely to receive the most serious sentence available in those states that impose the death penalty.

Other studies support this conclusion. A University of Maryland study a few years ago found that prosecutors are more likely to seek the death penalty in cases where the victim is white. A Yale Law School study showed a similar propensity for death penalty decisions to be influenced by the victim's race.

I'm not pointing this out because I think killers of black victims should be put to death at a higher rate than they are. I'm opposed to the death penalty. But the death penalty is the ultimate punishment, reserved in this country for murders that outrage us the most. The point here is that our country tends to be more outraged by the killing of white people than by the killing of black ones.

This isn't because prosecutors and juries are overtly racist. It isn't because they consciously believe that white lives matter more. It's because, all else being equal, on a gut level they are more outraged, more indignant, more horrified when the victim is white. They probably don't even notice this themselves. The whiteness of the victim doesn't leap out at them as a special reason to be horrified. They may consciously strive for impartiality and achieve it most of he time. But the judicial process is filled with judgment calls, gut-level decision-making where no mechanistic rules or objective measures can be applied. Unconscious prejudices, however small and minor, can creep in at every stage--and the cumulative effect of lots of small nudges by unconscious bias can be great.

And that is what the #BlackLivesMatter movement is about. It's about counteracting this unconscious bias by consciously affirming black lives. It's about calling attention to the fact that we live in a culture where, when we hear about a tragedy, our sense of its severity is influenced by the victim's race. And then inviting us to work towards changing that.