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.

Friday, June 26, 2015

What Should Christians think about Today's Historic SCOTUS Decision?

Actually, I don't intend to answer that question here. I can't. To do that, I'd need to write a book--well, probably more than one. (And I intend to.)

What I can do here is warn against certain sweeping claims about what Christians should think. More precisely, I want to warn against an all-too-common practice among Christians today when it comes to homosexuality and same-sex marriage: The tendency to think that all Christians, to be truly Christian on this matter, must agree with us.

First, an obvious point: While Christianity might have something to say about who we should and shouldn't have sex with, it isn't a religion about who we should and shouldn't have sex with. Christianity is about who God is and what God has done, who Christ is and what Christ did. Christians are followers of Jesus. And Jesus said nothing about gay sex.

The Christian debate about homosexuality and same-sex marriage is not a debate about the heart of the faith.

Beyond this obvious point, Christians need to move past false or overgeneralized claims about the motives of their Christian opponents.

Conservatives have a tendency to portray Christians who are progressive on this issue as sell-outs to secular culture. In doing so, they ignore the fact that Jesus' command to love our neighbors as ourselves sits at the heart of progressive Christian arguments on this issue.

By contrast, I have liberal Christian friends who dismiss conservatives on this issue as ignoring both Christ's command that we love our neighbors as ourselves and Christ's call not to judge, lest we be judged ourselves. But in offering such a sweeping assessment, they ignore my Christian friends who earnestly wish they could support the intimate relationships of their gay friends, who are pained by what they see as a divine requirement to condemn those relationships--who wish it were otherwise, but who can't see another way to interpret what they take to be God's word.

Let me be clear: There are plenty of conservative Christians who are not motivated by love for their gay and lesbian neighbors. There are plenty who invoke the slogan "Love the neighbor but hate the sin" without paying any attention to what comes before the "but". There are plenty of Fred Phelpses in the world. Many are just less honest and open about their bigotry.

But this doesn't mean that all conservatives on this issue are homophobic in their hearts. It doesn't mean that every conservative is insincere about the desire to love their gay and lesbian neighbors.

I believe, and have argued, that their belief about homosexuality operates as an impediment to their expressing that love properly--that they are unwittingly feeding their gay and lesbian neighbors poison based on the false belief that it is medicine. But I also believe that these Christians would weep and repent were they to realize that the doctrines informing their relationships with gays and lesbians really are as soul-crushing and anti-Evangelical as my experience with gay and lesbian friends teaches me they are.

Where I disagree with these Christians isn't at the level of their intentions and their sincerity. And while I take today's ruling to be a cause for celebration, I don't think every Christian who believes otherwise is therefore a bad Christian. I think they're mistaken, but that doesn't mean they aren't striving to live by the law of love as best they can.

Likewise, let me be clear that there are surely plenty of progressive Christians who haven't wrestled deeply with the issue of same-sex intimacy in the light of their Christian commitments and values, who are just going with the flow, following the prevailing trends. But to treat such motives as the core of the progressive Christian stance is to ignore or fundamentally misunderstand what progressive have been arguing for years.

The birthplace of progressive Christian support for same-sex marriage isn't found in secular culture. I would argue--and in fact have argued--that the causation moves in the opposite direction: Secular culture has come to see same-sex relationships differently because the spirit of agapic love has taken root there.

Gays and lesbians are not only a minority, but an easy out-group to scapegoat and marginalize. If you're straight, then a prohibition on gay sex is no prohibition at all. Hence, such a prohibition has, for the majority, the effect of offering easy righteousness. "I can feel morally superior without expending any effort, because whatever I do at least I'm not one of those fa**ots."

If there's a reason why our broader culture has moved away from this, it isn't because of an anything-goes secular permissiveness that would allow the heterosexual majority the moral freedom to have sex with people they have absolutely no desire or inclination to have sex with. It's because of empathy. It's because, over the last forty years, gays and lesbians have been really heard for the first time in history. People have put themselves in their shoes. They have asked themselves the question at the heart of the Golden Rule: What would I want done to me, if I were in their place?

Christian reformers on this issue argue that when we really pay attention to our gay and lesbian neighbors, it becomes increasingly clear that "How do we love the sinner while hating the sin?" is the wrong question.. The right question is this: What can we take to be a sin while still loving our neighbors as we should.

And loving attention to our gay and lesbian neighbors teaches us that calling all same-sex intimacy a sin is doing harm to them, the kind of real harm that love must stand against. Contestable biblical interpretations and natural law arguments must give way before what loving attention teaches, or we end up loving our own beliefs more than we love our neighbors.

This progressive view isn't about selling out to secular culture. It's about trying to live by Christ's command to love our neighbors as ourselves.

Christians may disagree with my take on these issues, just as I disagree with them. But these lines of disagreement can't and shouldn't be treated as the dividing line between real Christians and sell-outs, or between real Christians and homophobic bigots wearing the cloak of Christian righteousness to justify their prejudice.

All Christians should strive to love their gay and lesbian neighbors as themselves, and should wrestle sincerely with what that call to love demands. All Christians should strive to rise above the whims and vagaries of secular culture, informing their life and values in relation to God, not Hollywood.

But there are Christians celebrating today's SCOTUS decision who embrace both of these things. There are Christians bemoaning it who embrace both. Recognizing these facts should be a starting point for any serious attempt to decide what Christians should believe about today's historic decision.

If we don't start there, we will model pugnacity and prejudice instead of Christian love.

Tuesday, June 23, 2015

Racism and the Charleston Shootings: Individual and Collective Responsibility

Over the last few days I've seen the following meme reappear on social media. It shows up every once in awhile, usually when someone has done something horrible. This time, it's resurfaced in reaction to discussions about the tragic mass shooting at a black church in Charleston. Here's the meme:

This meme troubles me a lot. I'm a fan of individual responsibility and accountability. My worry is that this meme, in the name of accountability, functions to immunize us from it.

Let me explain. Clearly, the person directly responsible for the deaths in Charleston was the shooter, Dylann Roof. And he should be held accountable. He should be put on trial and, when convicted (which he presumably will be), sentenced harshly.

But when this Reagan quote resurfaces, as it has a tendency to do in the wake of horrific crimes, its purpose is not to encourage holding the agent of the crime accountable. It's purpose, rather, is to point the finger away from ourselves. "Hey, everyone! Look over there! Look at that deranged racist, that agent of horror."

If the trick works, we avoid having to look collectively towards ourselves and the ways in which we as a society contribute to the conditions that breed such agents of horror.

In Matthew 7:3, Jesus offers the following rhetorical question, intended to inspire us to look to ourselves, to see our own sins and not just the sins of others: "Why do you look at the speck of sawdust in your brother's eye and pay no attention to the plank in your own eye?"

Of course, Dylann Roof's sin is more than just a speck or sliver. People are dead because he pulled the trigger of a gun, again and again and again. He shattered lives. And none of us did anything as bad as that.

But there is a sense in which Dylann Roof is just a speck of sawdust. Because there is in America today the plank of racism, and what Roof did is a sliver off that plank.

"But I'm not a racist! I'd never do anything like what Roof did! What he did horrifies and outrages me!"

I like to think that every reader of this post thinks these very things, and thinks them sincerely. But racism isn't something that springs up in the hearts of individuals all by itself. Racism is learned. Racism isn't an individual thing but a cultural and systemic thing that takes root in individuals.

And all of us play some role in shaping our culture, for better or worse. All of us can take responsibility for fighting to make our society less racist, for identifying the subtle social forces that marginalize black Americans every day, for working to dismantle the hateful ideologies that make them targets for overt acts of violence.

I'm resistant to saying things like, "All of us a racists," because I think this sort of statement generates more heat than light. But even if we aren't all racists, racism is first and foremost a collective phenomenon, not an individual one. Social structures and cultural patterns conspire to make life harder for black citizens than for white ones--and these structures and patterns are bound up with implicit racial biases that most people don't even know they have. These biases are planted in our subconscious minds by broad cultural forces, coloring our choices and our thinking in ways we aren't aware of, ways which are at odds with our conscious values and commitments.

The grim truth is that many white people who aren't racist, who abhor racism, are victims of systemic and cultural racism in a different way than blacks are victims. White Americans who want to promote equality and justice are too often infected, against their wills, with cultural forces that compromise their own best intentions. That's why I prefer to say that those who harbor implicit racial biases are victims of racism, as opposed to being racists. But implicit racial bias is a problem, even if those who harbor those biases aren't individually responsible.

The evidence of this is clear all around us, and documented in study after study: Well-meaning preschool teachers who earnestly read "Martin's Big Words" to their students on Martin Luther King Day are nevertheless more likely to perceive black and white children differently in the classroom without even knowing it. They are, especially, inclined to perceive them as more responsible for their misbehavior. Liberal college professors who preach against racism in the lecture hall are nevertheless less likely to respond to inquiries from prospective graduate students if they think they're black. When I step on an elevator with a woman, she never unconsciously clutches her purse more closely to her body. But this happens to a black friend of mine regularly.

Why does this happen? What are the cultural forces in play? And how are these forces related to the forces that still today perpetuate the more overt forms of racism, like what we saw on display in Charleston? Dylann Roof didn't spring out of the ground. His racist ideology didn't come out of nowhere. What stew of social influences made him ripe for the more overt racism that found voice in his hateful manifesto and eventually drove him to kill? And what can we, collectively, do to change those forces?

These are questions that we need to tackle. If we want to stop tragedies like the Charleston shooting, we need to wrestle with how individual hate crimes are related to broader social patterns, patterns that won't go away just by punishing individuals. Unless we all take collective responsibility for the social force that is racism, that social force will keep giving birth to new Dylann Roofs.

Quoting Reagan may make us feel like we're off the hook. And that's the problem. We didn't shoot those people. And we may not harbor racial prejudices ourselves. But racism is a collective, structural, ideological, and cultural reality. And the only way to end it is if all of us take responsibility for asking the right kinds of questions, for listening to the stories of our black neighbors, for tackling the complex, thorny social issues that keep racism alive.

There's a plank in America's eye. We need to work together, all of us, to pull it out.

Monday, May 4, 2015

"Draw Muhammad" Contest Draws Fire

Yesterday in Garland, Texas, a "Draw Muhammad" contest was targeted by two gunmen, who were promptly shot and killed by police after injuring a security guard at the event.

According to Islam, images of the Prophet Muhammad are taboo, and such images are deeply offensive to most Muslims. So why host a contest in which the whole point is to produce such offensive images?

It was touted as a free speech event. Events of this sort have occurred several times recently, and appear to be part of a response to highly publicized terrorist acts--most notably the brutal attack of Charlie Hebdo--in which Islamist extremists have responded to violations of their taboos with deadly violence. This event was sponsored by the so-called "American Freedom Defense Initiative," whose executive director had this to say:

"This is a war. This is war on free speech. What are we going to do? Are we going to surrender to these monsters?"

I struggle with what to say about cases like this. Clearly, people should be able to mock what others find sacred without being the targets of violence, without being murdered for it.

But that doesn't mean we should mock what others find sacred, at least not without excellent reasons. Standing up for free expression, something we in the West find sacred, might be an excellent reason to do something offensive. But I worry that this reason serves as cover for some who just want to indulge in sticking it to their Muslim neighbors.

Islamophobia is a real issue in this country. Muslims I know worry about being the targets of Islamophopic attacks--if not of violent ones, then of more subtle assaults on their dignity as human beings who wish to live out their faith tradition in peace. The vast majority of Muslims are not going to strike out violently against a "Draw Muhammad" event. But they will be offended by it. In part, they will be offended because it violates what is sacred to them. But the deeper issue here is that figuring out what offends someone and then doing it just because it offends them is a gesture of disdain. It is a way to say, "I do not value you."

An event like the one in Garland offers the perfect context in which bigots can indulge their Islamophobia while feeling self-righteous about it.

Apparently, two men decided to strike back with violence. In so doing, they didn't just die. They valorized the participants of this event. While I fear that many of those participants were motivated more by Islamophobic nastiness than by any real interest in standing up for freedom of speech, the attempt to violently target such an event helps to transform them into symbols of the latter. At the same time, such an attack reinforced the prejudices that lead to the false vilification of all the Muslims who, in silence, endure without violence the mockery of their deepest values.

This is the absurdity of violence in all its blatant and subtle forms. It feeds what it aims to stop, producing feedback loops of violence and abuse. The overt acts of violence of a few are invoked to justify organized programs of mockery in which what a whole group finds sacred is belittled. This triggers a few more to act out with brutal violence (or attempted violence), triggering even more in-your-face, mean-spirited, and self-righteous mockery.

And there is collateral damage--emotional as well as physical--on all sides. A wounded security guard. Thousands of peaceful American Muslims who feel as if their neighbors are symbolically spitting in their faces.

Where can this lead? Nowhere good.

The right to free speech includes the right to mock. But just because we have the right to do something doesn't mean it's the right thing to do. Pushing the boundaries of what is acceptable, pressing up against what offends people, may be necessary in a struggle to affirm our deepest values. But sometimes offensiveness moves beyond what is necessary and become gratuitous.

Being new to Twitter, I attempted to express these feelings with a tweet that went like this: "You have the right to mock what I hold sacred just for the sake of offending me. You shouldn't die for it. Also, you shouldn't do it." Not sure if anyone got the reference. So here it is in blog-post form.  

Thursday, April 30, 2015

Before You Talk About Baltimore... this open letter (especially if, like me, you're white):

..and read this historical overview of how urban black ghettos were born, and why the problem is so much bigger than we like to admit (worth reading for context and understanding no matter who you are):

I believe in an ethic of love, and central to such an ethic is attention to the neighbor in need, the neighbor who is crying out. It is about listening with empathy and compassion. As Julia Blount puts it in her open letter linked above,
If you are not listening, not exposing yourself to unfamiliar perspectives, not watching videos, not engaging in conversation, then you are perpetuating white privilege and white supremacy. It is exactly your ability to not hear, to ignore the situation, that is a mark of your privilege. People of color cannot turn away.
Sometimes, when people don't hear me, I resort to shouting. Sometimes, when the privileged don't listen or listen with only half an ear, the frustration of Black Americans who are suffering under oppressive and marginalizing conditions grows to a point where they find themselves doing the collective equivalent of shouting.

When they do, modern white America often invokes the nonviolence of Martin Luther King, Jr., in the attempt to chastise their black neighbors and urge them to quiet down--as if King's nonviolence were not about shouting, about disrupting the status quo, about becoming so loud that the established powers were forced to hear if not to listen.

King has been sanitized for White America in a way that doesn't do justice to his radical strategy of relentless nonviolent resistance. While he thought rioting was strategically unwise, he understood the motivations behind it. While he found rioting to violate the highly demanding ethic of love that he claimed as his own, it was not nearly as morally problematic as the social and legal and economic forces that drove communities to that breaking point where outrage turns into shattered glass.

What King proposed wasn't that the black community set aside its sense of injustice, its frustration, its impatience. What King proposed was a strategy for channeling all of that into a shout that could not be dismissed or ignored, that forced the privileged majority to reflect on their own moral failings rather than hide from them by pointing fingers at the people throwing rocks.

Before you talk about Baltimore, listen to these words by Martin Luther King:

Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Synopsis on Riots

Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Synopsis on Riots"I'm absolutely convinced that a riot merely intensifies the fears of the white community while relieving the guilt. And I feel that we must always work with an effective, powerful weapon and method that brings about tangible results. But it is not enough for me to stand before you tonight and condemn riots. It would be morally irresponsible for me to do that without, at the same time, condemning the contingent, intolerable conditions that exist in our society. These conditions are the things that cause individuals to feel that they have no other alternative than to engage in violent rebellions to get attention. And I must say tonight that a riot is the language of the unheard. And what is it America has failed to hear? It has failed to hear that the plight of the negro poor has worsened over the last twelve or fifteen years. It has failed to hear that the promises of freedom and justice have not been met. And it has failed to hear that large segments of white society are more concerned about tranquility and the status quo than about justice and humanity.... There must be a recognition on the part of everybody in this nation that America is still a racist country. Now however unpleasant that sounds, it is the truth. And we will never solve the problem of racism until there is a recognition of the fact that racism still stands at the center of so much of our nation and we must see racism for what it is. It is the nymph of an inferior people. It is the notion that one group has all of the knowledge, all of the insights, all of the purity, all of the work, all of the dignity. And another group is worthless, on a lower level of humanity, inferior. To put it in philosophical language, racism is not based on some empirical generalization which, after some studies, would come to conclusion that these people are behind because of environmental conditions. Racism is based on an ontological affirmation. It is the notion that the very being of a people is inferior. And their ultimate logic of racism is genocide... we've got to get rid of two or three myths that still pervade our nation. One is the myth of time. I'm sure you've heard this notion. It is the notion that only time can solve the problem of racial injustice. And I've heard it from many sincere people. They've said to the negro and/to his allies in the white community you should slow up, you're pushing things too fast, only time can solve the problem. And if you'll just be nice and patient and continue to pray, in a hundred or two hundred years the problem will work itself out. There is an answer to that myth. It is the time is neutral. It can be used either constructively or destructively....Somewhere we must come to see that human progress never rolls in on the wheels of inevitability, it comes through the tireless efforts and the persistent work of dedicated individuals who are willing to be co-workers with God and without this hard work time itself becomes an ally of the primitive forces of social stagnation. And so we must always help time and realize that the time is always right to do right.Now there is another myth and that is the notion that legislation can't solve the problem that you've got to change the heart and naturally I believe in changing the heart..."-Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Full video: synopsis:
Posted by Afrikkan Unification on Monday, April 27, 2015

Wednesday, April 29, 2015

"Delinking" Marriage from Procreation: Some Thoughts on Weasel Words

I had a professor in graduate school who had a problem with "weasel words." By this, he meant words that are so imprecise that they interfere with clear thinking. They lend themselves to equivocal reasoning: they shift meaning in a way that obscures the unsoundness of an argument.

Yesterday, as I listened to the NPR report on Supreme Court arguments on same-sex marriage, I found myself thinking about weasel words--because the lawyer defending discriminatory marriage laws, John Bursch, used a doozy of a weasel word in his arguments: "Delinking."

What Bursch argued is this: If we extend marriage to same-sex couples, we are "delinking" marriage from procreation. And if we delink marriage from procreation, then it's only "common sense" that we will see an increase in out-of-wedlock childbirth.

Got that? If not, here's the argument in a bit more detail: If our society recognizes same-sex marriage, we thereby indicate that procreative potential is not necessary for marriage. Thus, we "delink" marriage from procreation. But people who have babies out of wedlock are also "delinking" marriage from procreation--not in the same sense, but ignore that in favor of the fact that the word "delinking" is imprecise enough that it can be used in both cases. Isn't it perfectly reasonable to assume that if our society officially stands by delinking in the former sense, we should expect to see more delinking in the latter?

John Bursch seems to think so, which just goes to show that lawyers sometimes need refresher courses in basic critical thinking. In fact, I'm tempted to use this argument when I teach critical thinking in my classes.

Here's the thing. One thing, P, can be "linked" to another, Q, in all sorts of ways. For example, P might be a sufficient condition for Q, the way that being born in Oklahoma is a sufficient condition for being born in the US. Then again, P might be a necessary condition for Q, the way that being born on planet Earth is necessary for being born in the US.

Notice that things can be linked in one way but not linked in another. While being born in Oklahoma is a sufficient condition for being born in the US, it isn't a necessary condition. You could, like me, have been born in California. Or Texas. Or Rhode Island. (You get the idea). That being born in Oklahoma isn't necessary for being born in the US tells us nothing about whether it's sufficient.

Being born in one of the 50 states is a necessary and sufficient condition for being born in the US. But suppose we were to make Puerto Rico the 51st state of the union. Then, we would be "delinking" being born in the current 50 states from being born in the US--by making the former no longer necessary for the latter. But the two would remain linked in another way: being born in one of the current 50 states would still be sufficient for being born in the US. The one kind of "delinking" does not lead to the other.

Of course, whatever link there is between marriage and procreation is going to be different from what we find in the examples above. Infertile couples have been allowed to marry in this country for a long time. For even longer, unmarried people have been making babies. So if there is a link between the two, it isn't that one is necessary for the other. So what is it?

Maybe it's this: We think that a stable, long-term intimate partnership supported by society and the law provides the best environment for child-rearing (all else being equal). Hence, it is best if fertile heterosexual partners restrict sex to marriage, because this would ensure that children are consistently born into the best environment for child-rearing (all else being equal).

If this is the link, we might express it as follows: If you're going to make babies, it's best that you do it within a marriage. Let's call this a normative link: If P, then it's best that Q.

This is, for example, the sort of link many see between being a gun collector and having a gun safe in your home: If you're going to collect guns, then it's best to have an appropriately-sized safe in which you can store them.

But notice that if we allow people who don't collect guns to own large safes suitable for putting guns into, we have in no way severed this normative link. Letting a non-gun-collector own a gun safe--because, say, it's good for storing the person's priceless collection of ancient scepters--does not threaten in any way at all the link described above. It remains true that gun collectors would be well advised to have a gun safe even if we make gun safes available to people who don't collect guns.

Put simply, if you think that all gun collectors should own safes, you'd be pretty silly to believe that letting non-gun-collectors own safes too will threaten this principle and lead to fewer gun-collectors buying safes. It isn't remotely "common sense" that by "delinking" safe-ownership from gun-collecting in this way, you will end up with more gun collectors lacking safes in which to store their guns.

Likewise, it isn't remotely common sense that if you extend marriage to a new class of non-procreative pairs (we already extend it to non-procreative heterosexual pairs), you will have more out-of-wedlock childbirth. "Procreation should be restricted to within marriage" articulates a different kind of link between procreation and marriage than "Marriage should be restricted to couples who can procreate." If we reject the latter, that has no direct implications for the former.

The only way to make it seem as if it does is to use a weasel word like "delink." Reference two different kinds of connections with the same word, and you can proceed as if they were the same. By this reasoning, I hope to convince you to bury all your money by the edge of Stillwater Creek. I'll tell you where. Trust me, it'll be safe.

Monday, April 27, 2015

Chasing the Illusion of Closure: Capital Punishment and the Aurora Shootings

I think most of us have felt it: hunger for the death of someone who's done something awful.

The trial of James Holmes, who shot up an Aurora, CO movie theater not quite three years ago, is about to begin. Driving to work this morning, I listened to an NPR report that included brief interviews with the parents of one of the shooting victims--a young man who chose to shield his girlfriend from the bullets. I imagined what it would be like to be the father of that man, to learn how he died saving the life of his beloved. I imagined it was my own son, several years from now.

I felt the hunger for death. But the father and mother of the dead young man were at best torn in their feelings about the impending trial. Whatever their hungers, they knew that the trial would not restore to them their son. They knew that their deepest longing wasn't for death but for restored life. And nothing anyone did to James Holmes could satisfy that desire.

They wanted closure. They knew the trial wouldn't give it. They knew the death penalty wouldn't give it. They knew that the delay in the trial was making it harder--was ensuring that whatever steps they'd made towards moving on were threatened by the demand by the court that they now go back. Perhaps they even understood that the court delays were in part caused by the death penalty itself. In cases like this, defense attorneys see it as their job to prevent their client from being put to death--and every delay is another day of life. Perhaps they knew that if James Holmes is sentenced to die, the appeals could continue for decades.

But still there is the hunger for death. And support for the death penalty in America is largely fueled by that hunger. There are other things driving that support, of course: views on deterrence, more dispassionate ideas of what justice demands. But the hunger for death that we call vengeance is what leads death penalty supporters to set up a grill outside the Oklahoma State Penitentiary in McAlester whenever there's an execution...and fry bacon as a human being dies.

Revenge stories play on that hunger. I can remember seeing some of the Death Wish movies as a teen, and feeling that distinctive kind of pulse-pounding satisfaction as Bronson's character pursued his murderous vigilantism.

But I've always been suspicious of that feeling. If it has a cognitive content, it's this: While a person's premature death is ordinarily one of the worst things there is, it is rendered intrinsically good when the one who dies is a murderous villain. Intrinsically good. Not a tragic necessity, but good in itself.

It's as if the villain's death can somehow fix what the villain has done. But of course it can't. A murderer's victim stays dead. The hole left in the world by the loss of someone beloved can't be filled by tearing another life out of the stream of history.

While hate can flood into the place where love once lived, hate is a poor substitute for love. It can't complete you the way love can. It can't expand your sense of self, making you bigger than your narrow ego. It can't bring joy. It doesn't gesture to the transcendent.

In the grip of hate, you don't feel as if you're on the cusp of understanding the meaning of it all.

Loss can lead to hate, which sparks the hunger for death. But feeding that hunger doesn't restore what was lost. That can't be done. What can be done is this: We can endeavor to live so that the loss doesn't kill what is best in us.

What's best in us is the power to love. And the cancer-spread of hate is the thing that most surely kills in us this power. To indulge the hunger for death is therefore inimical to realizing the most significant sort of closure. What brings real closure isn't death but forgiveness, because forgiveness is the victory of our power to love over the urgings of hate.

At least that's how I see it. And this is why I don't believe in the death penalty. I understand the death penalty, at least to the extent that someone who hasn't had a loved one murdered can understand it. I can vicariously appreciate the emotions that could drive someone to long for the death of the person who's torn their lives apart.

But closure is about healing. It isn't about feeding hungers born of hate.

I've heard the stories of people who have sought revenge, chasing the closure they think they'll find when the person who wronged them suffers in kind. Some of those stories were told to me by killers in prison, when I volunteered as a nonviolence facilitator in intensive prison workshops. Weeping, they told me how they hungered for the death of those who'd wronged them. Full of rage and hate, they struck out--sometimes at the real target, sometimes at a vicarious victim who represented those who'd tortured and tormented them.

But the act didn't bring the closure they were hungering for. The hunger for death tells us that closure will come by turning a living human into a corpse. But the hunger lies. It misdirects our energies, obsessively driving us away from what will really satisfy.

Some of these murderers eventually realized the truth. Some of them saw the futility of their path and knew that letting go of hate and vengeance was the real path to healing. Some realized that until they forgave the father who abused them, the drug-addicted mother who neglected them, the pawns of the system that marginalized them because of the color of their skin, they would have no closure from their anguished past. Rather, they'd be ruled by it. To move on, you must let go. And hate is about clinging on tight.

These are lessons I've learned from murderers, from the stories they've told me. And it didn't miss my attention that these murderers, when they killed, were motivated by the same psychological forces that drive our cultural enthusiasm for the death penalty.

The people who fry bacon outside the prison walls during an execution are closer in spirit to the one being killed than are those who stand a candle-lit vigil to oppose what's being done. The latter repudiate the spirit that led the murderer to kill. The former, unwittingly, stand in solidarity with the killer they revile.

They have allowed the spirit of hate, which tore their lives apart, to be a spirit that helps define them. This is like seeking to close a wound with a knife rather than with stitches.

I don't mean to suggest that forgiveness is easy. Nor do I think that victims can let go and release hate right away. I think that there are things we can do as a society to make it easier for the victims of horror to move forward with their lives, and that we aren't doing those things.

There are things the perpetrator of horror can do to make forgiveness a more real possibility for the victims. I think they have a duty to do these things, but to do them requires that they confront what they've done honestly and without excuses or illusions. And there are things a justice system can do to help make this happen.

Victims need to understand why. They need to know that the why wasn't good enough, and that the perpetrator knows it wasn't good enough. They need to witness the perpetrator's genuine cry of remorse, the anguished realization that they are responsible for horror. And they need to see the perpetrator take on penance, a sincere project of reform and restitution that can never restore what was lost but can express the depth of their remorse through endless efforts to do good.

I say "need," but I have witnessed victims of horrific abuse perform the miracle of forgiveness in the absence of these things. I've seen it happen in prisons: Inmates who were violently molested for years, forced to abuse siblings, thrown into foster care only to be sexually molested by foster parents--these same victims found ways to let go of hate and to forgive. I have seen the trajectory of lives change. I have followed their course in stunned wonder.

To witness it is to witness a miracle. It is a reason I believe in God.

I'm tempted to say, "If criminals in prison can do it, then so can we." But public policies can't be built around miracles. And such miracles happen most often after people hit bottom. So I suppose these miracles are more common for those imprisoned for their crimes than they are for the victims of crime who are trying to move on.

What we need is a criminal justice system that focuses more of its attention on meeting the needs of victims. And to do that, we have to stop assuming that victims' needs are best met just by punishing offenders. Victims have a right to confront perpetrators, to demand the things described above. They have a right to the help of trained facilitators who have the skills to challenge offenders to really hear their victims--without excuses or rationalizations, without hiding behind emotional walls.

In short, they have a right to something like the Victim Offender Reconciliation Program. The death penalty offers the illusion of closure. But the deeper truth is this: What victims get from the execution of a loved one's murderer is not closure but the opportunity to finally begin to pursue closure--an opportunity that has been deferred because they've believed that erasing the murderer from the world is what was needed. But they begin this pursuit of closure when much of what can help provide it--a confrontation with the killer culminating in the killer's remorse and repentance--is no longer possible, because the killer is dead. And so all they can hope for is the miracle.

For the survivors and families of the Aurora shooting, I wish for something more satisfying than the death of James Holmes, than years of deferring the search for closure while they wait for an execution that will not meet their needs. And if our justice system can't or won't help them pursue their deepest needs, then I hope they get the miracle.

Monday, April 13, 2015

"F**k Your Breath": Mistakes in Law Enforcement

The other day, another police shooting of a black man made headlines--this one in Tulsa, so it hit close to home.

It was all captured on video: An officer tackled a fleeing suspect, Eric Harris. While he was ordering Harris to roll onto his stomach, a reserve deputy--a volunteer with full law-enforcement authority--decided to subdue Harris with his Taser. Except that he wasn't holding his Taser. He was holding his handgun.

You can barely hear the "sorry" on the video. It's swamped by Harris's cries: "Oh my God, he shot me! He shot me!"

But if you listen closely you will hear that soft "sorry," and it has an oh-shit quality to it. So I'm confident the Taser story is true. The guy didn't mean to fire his gun. It was a mistake.

A fatal one. Harris died later at the hospital.

Another feature of the story isn't included in the video (at least the one I saw and that's linked to above). At the end of that video, Harris can be heard saying, "I'm losing my breath." And then the video ends. But according to reports, a deputy responded to that fading plea with crude disdain: "F**k your breath."

It's impossible not to think about Eric Garner, a black man who died last summer from a police officer's choke hold, whose last words were, "I can't breathe." Was the deputy thinking about Garner? Was his dismissal of Harris's life breath an expression of a deeper and broader disdain?

I don't know. But I can't help but think about lying on the pavement, bleeding, dying, crying out in pain and horror, and hearing my life and human dignity swept away with "F**k your breath." Perhaps they were the last words Harris ever heard, the final punctuation of his life story.

The man who said those words committed no crime. There will be no charges filed. One man shot Harris by mistake, and may face charges. Another sent him into death with a final message: You don't matter.

Both acts trouble me, but the latter strikes me as more inhuman, even if its consequences were less dire.

I don't like to define people by their worst moments. The officer who said to a dying Harris, "F**k your breath," should not be defined by those words. What he said may have been horrible and inhuman. That doesn't mean he was.

I like to think that right now he is mortified. I like to think that he lies awake thinking, "How could I have said that? What must it have been like, to hear those last words just before he died?" Maybe the officer was caught up in the adrenal rush of the moment: the chase, the unexpected gunshot, the furious thought that this would never have happened if the suspect hadn't run.

Maybe it just slipped out. A different kind of mistake.

I've known numerous police officers over the years, all of them good people with a sense of civic responsibility. They recognize the weight of the public trust they've been invested with, and they're committed not to abusing that trust. I can't imagine any of them saying "F**k your breath" to an apprehended suspect dying from an accidental gunshot wound. And I like to think that none of them would ever mistake the firearm in their hand for a Taser, and so fatally shoot a suspect who--whatever his mistakes--didn't deserve to die.

But mistakes happen. Especially when strong negative emotions overtake us, we say and do things we wouldn't do in wiser moments. It was a mistake for Eric Harris to flee the police. So why did he do it? Maybe he was terrified. Maybe he thought, "I might become the next Eric Garner, the next black man killed by the cops." And so he fled. It's not uncommon for fear-driven behavior to actually bring to life the things we fear.

Police work is dangerous, and the moments when police shootings happen are some of the most high-stress, high-adrenalin moments in a police officer's work life. And such moments are the ones when mistakes are more likely to happen. The right kind of training can reduce their likelihood. Did the reserve deputy who mistook his sidearm for a Taser get the same kind of training that a regular officer receives?

I don't know, but the mistake I want to focus on is the other one: the anger-fueled obscenity, the dismissal of a life. I'm going to assume it was a mistake--that is, something said in the heat of the moment and later regretted, as opposed to the calculated, self-righteous dehumanization of a dying man.

My question has to do with the kind of training that reduces mistakes of that kind. In the heat of the moment, with emotions high and blood pounding in our ears, how much more likely are we to dehumanize those we see as our opponents and our enemies? And what kind of training can ensure that even in those moments, we remember the humanity of those who run from us or talk back at us or lash out at us in anger and frustration?

In some cases, the failure to really see the humanity of a suspect might lead to a crushing remark that discounts a human life in its final moments. In other cases, that failure could mean the difference between shooting a suspect and holding fire. Police should fire when lives are at stake--their own, another officer's, a civilian's. But one of the lives at stake in every police shooting is the one who is shot. That life needs to be given its due weight, too. How do we ensure it isn't discounted? How do we ensure that lives aren't cut short or damaged because, in the adrenalin-fueled moment, those lives aren't valued as they should be?

Much of the discussion about this has focused on race--as well it should. There is rampant evidence of subconscious racism operating beneath the surface of our thoughts, influencing our choices without our knowledge. This isn't a police problem. It's been documented in college professors, preschool teachers, Northerners and Southerners, rich and poor, black and white. (Yes, unconscious bias--against blacks--even influences the thinking of blacks through the phenomenon sometimes called internalized racism.)

While there is also overt racism at work in many corners of our society--as the federal investigation into the Ferguson PD makes plain--the bigger issue by far is the covert kind of racial bias that influences the choices of good people without their conscious knowledge. Such racial bias--especially if we aren't aware that it's at work in us--can increase our likelihood of making mistakes of the kind I'm talking about. Mistakes in which we think less of people than they deserve.

Such mistakes are a problem wherever they happen. But they become a bigger problem in high-stress moments. And they become a potentially fatal problem when guns are involved. This means that we will be more likely to see the problem play out in dramatic fashion among law enforcement, precisely because they are in high stress jobs that sometimes require decisions about using lethal force.

This does not mean that police are somehow especially racist. It isn't "their" problem and it isn't "theirs" to fix. Its our problem. It's ours to fix. The social forces that generate implicit bias don't originate in police departments. They come from everywhere. And if we are afraid of the effects that such biases will have on police officers who need to make life and death decisions and may be influenced by unconscious biases, then all of us need to tackle the sweeping social forces that perpetuate these biases.  (We also need to root out overt racism, and not just in police departments.)

But in the meantime, we need to offer resources to police officers who do not want to be influenced by such biases, who are committed to being fair defenders of the public good. The power they're invested with means that if anything, they need to be better than the rest of us when it comes to such things. And the police I know feel the weight of that and want to live up to that weighty trust. What tools and techniques can we offer that will help?

As important as the issue of implicit racial bias may be, it isn't the only source of the mistakes I'm talking about here. Can we imagine the recent events in Tulsa playing out with a white suspect? Of course. The kinds of scenarios that awaken fight-or-flight responses also fuel adversarial, zero-sum thinking: It's him or me. It's us or them. And as soon as another human being becomes one of "them," their humanity begins to be discounted.

This tendency appears to be rooted deeply in our human instincts. And police officers are asked to throw themselves into the very situations that trip these instincts. It's their duty as police officers to step into danger, to confront law-breakers in a way that's inevitably adversarial. Caught up in the emotional intensity of that conflict, the suffering of the adversary might trigger a flush of righteous animosity, spilling out in words like "F**k your breath."

It's only human. But it's a mistake. A tragic moment of staggering inhumanity. The police officers I know want to be the best they can be, even in those moments that have a tendency to evoke our ugliest selves. What kind of training will help?

It should be clear that I'm talking about something very different from the sort of training that will help a reserve deputy keep his head enough to realize that he's holding a handgun rather than a Taser. What I have in mind is something rooted in our capacity to see and respond to humanity in the face of conflicts and emotional forces that have a natural tendency to drive out such responsiveness.

But there are layers of problems here. Police officers have dangerous jobs, and their survival--their ability to make it home to their families--may depend on responses that are rooted in the same fight-or-flight instincts that fuel our propensity to dehumanize. What kind of training can offer the right sort of balance between preserving those essential survival instincts while nurturing our human capacity to see the humanity even in those we are in conflict with?

That's the balancing act we are asking our police officers to perform. And they're being asked to do it in a society where racial biases and other forms of prejudice are being written into our subconscious responses to our environments from an early age.

It should be clear that I don't have pat or ready answers. My aim here, rather, is to ask questions that acknowledge the deep problems and the tragedies we face without drawing good-guy/bad-guy lines, without oversimplifying, without pointing the finger at the other guy.

The Tulsa case is human. It is human because humans make mistakes, and sometimes those mistakes are tragically wrong. It is also inhuman. Sometimes our mistakes lead us to fall short of our human potential, and to see our fellow human beings as less than human. When it comes to wrestling with such oh-so-human inhumanity, we need to be in it together, to ask what we can do to help each other be better than we thought we could be.

And that means we need to stop saying "F**k your breath," even to those who say it to others.