Wednesday, February 27, 2019

LGBT Acceptance and the United Methodists: A Case for Civil Disobedience

Note: What follows has been modified in the light of feedback.

At a special General Conference of the United Methodist Church this week, delegates voted down a plan (the "One Church Plan") that would allow individual congregations to decide for themselves whether they would embrace openly gay clergy and perform same-sex marriages. A majority of the delegates favored, instead, the "Traditional Plan," which doubled down on the marginalization of LGBT members of the United Methodist church.*

Back in 2005, the ELCA made a similar decision. At the time, I responded by walking away from my home congregation in the ELCA and becoming a kind of Lutheran in Exile, driving two hours every Sunday to attend church at the nearest open and affirming congregation to where I lived. While that decision was the right one for me, many progressives in the UMC are in a very different place than I was. And for these brothers and sisters, I want to suggest seriously considering a different path.


WHY I CARE

I care about all of this for several reasons. First of all, I recently wrote a book--The Triumph of Love: Same-Sex Marriage and the Christian Love Ethic--in which I argue that allegiance to the Christian love ethic calls for Christians to support same-sex marriage and abandon the traditional condemnation of same-sex relationships. So these events speak directly to my scholarly work.

But I care about these events for more important reasons than that. Some are personal: I know LGBT persons and allies within the UMC who are in anguish over this decision. And although I identify as a Lutheran today, I grew up in a UMC congregation, and some of my fondest childhood memories feature that red brick UMC church in upstate New York, the youth group canoe trip in the Adirondacks, and those UMC pastors and lay leaders who shaped my faith. I care about this community and the decisions they make, because a part of my heart remains Methodist.

Most of all, I care because I've listened to my LGBT neighbors with sustained, compassionate attention, and I've studied the research on how growing up in these "traditional" religious communities affects children who come to discover that they have a sexual orientation that puts them at the margins. These effects include more broken family relationships, more depression, more substance abuse, more suicidal ideation, and more dead bodies.

I care about this decision because, put bluntly, it is will mean more dead bodies.

THE APPROACH OF CIVIL DISOBEDIENCE

Of course, not everyone agrees. While there are some who support the traditional view from a place of homophobia, I prefer to believe that the majority are simply trying to be good people the best they know how. They see such things as the "One Church Plan" as a concession to secular culture or a weakening of constraints on sexual indulgence. They support the "Traditional Plan" not because they want to drive the next generation of young sexual minorities in the UMC into the closet of suffering and possibly to suicide, but because they think their stance aligns with God's truth.

I think they're wrong, but this post will not focus on developing the case for that. Anyone who's interested in that case can find it laid out with care in The Triumph of Love, and in less detail elsewhere. What I want to focus on here is a different question: What does allegiance to an ethic of love look like in the face of such sincere and trenchant disagreement?

What does it look like for Christians who are progressive on LGBT issues to love traditionalists, and to aspire towards maintaining loving fellowship with them, while those traditionalists are dictating policies that not only strike progressives as intolerable, but which we think we have to oppose if we are to love our LGBT neighbors in the way that Jesus modeled?

For those who share the moral conviction that I have, one option is clearly not on the table: acquiescence. We cannot simply agree to abide by policies that, in our experience, bear deeply poisonous fruits. To do that is to be complicit in the suffering and sometimes death of people we are called to love. So what are the alternatives?

One alternative is schism. As a Lutheran, I belong to a church that was born out of schism. I would not be a Lutheran if I did not believe that, sometimes, schism is the best choice given the options. But one of the fruits of that historic schism and the Protestant movement that it helped to birth is this: a proliferation of schisms. In some ways, it has become all too easy for churches and denominations to split when they disagree, rather than to struggle and wrestle and cry and weep their way fitfully towards some kind of unity in the midst of division.

It's certainly possible for progressive congregations to leave the UMC in protest, either individually or collectively. It's also possible for the UMC to plan a peaceful parting of ways between its conservative and progressive congregations, working together to create two new denominations. This option will require the collaboration of both sides of the conflict, and so may not be available. Some form of schism, however, is likely to be an option. But given its gravity, I think it is important to think seriously about the alternatives. And if acquiescence is not on the table, then what remains is civil disobedience.

In an earlier version of this post I unwisely commended civil disobedience to my UMC brothers and sisters--but as an outsider to this struggle, I have no right to urge anyone down a path so fraught (as we will see) with peril and hardship. To do so is to rightly invite the rebuke, "Easy for you to say! You're not the one who'll be defrocked or lose his church home."

These hard decisions are not mine to make. But as someone who has studied civil disobedience as well as issues of Christian love and same-sex relationships, I may have some insights about these hard decisions that could be of use to those who, in the UMC, now find themselves forced to make them. So, I offer these reflections not in the spirit of telling my UMC neighbors what they should do, but in the spirit of providing a perspective that may be of use as they decide what to do.

Civil disobedience is different from cutting ties. Civil disobedience takes place within the community whose policies you find morally intolerable. Civil disobedience means refusing to act against conscience even when your community demands it, and then accepting the consequences that the community imposes for such refusal. In the current case, it means refusing to follow the UMC's anti-LGBT policies. It means continuing to ordain partnered, open LGBT clergy. It means continuing to perform same-sex weddings and continuing to recognize same-sex marriages within congregations. It means doing these things without leaving the UMC.

The key point here is this: the practitioners of civil disobedience refuse to act against conscience and refuse to sever ties of fellowship. They know full well that those in power may force them out of fellowship, but they resist the urge to be the ones to initiate that break. Martin Luther King, Jr., stressed that nonviolent civil disobedience involved a willingness to suffer the violence done by others, by the perpetrators of injustice. In fact, civil disobedience is often a trigger for such violence.

And this brings us to the question of cost.

WEIGHING THE COSTS OF CIVIL DISOBEDIENCE

 Given the policy norms that seem to have prevailed with the victory of the "Traditional Plan," clergy in the UMC who practice civil disobedience--who enter into and are open about their same-sex relationships or who officiate at same-sex weddings--may be defrocked. I've had clergy friends in the UMC that this has happened to. When that happens, civil disobedience means that supportive congregations stand by those clergy, continuing to treat them as their pastors and continuing to pay them their salaries.

For progressive clergy who do not have supportive congregations, the costs of civil disobedience are going to be much higher and felt much more personally. The burdens of civil disobedience are always heaviest when it is practiced by just a few, and become lighter when more participate.

Congregations that join in civil disobedience may be kicked out of the UMC. And the costs of that might be high. They may lose the church buildings they have called home, losing not only money but tangible connections with previous generations, symbolic links to their own heritage as a community. These potential costs are diminished to the extent that leaders within the UMC join the civil disobedience by refusing to impose such costs on their neighbors and fellow Methodists who are sincerely pursuing their conscience. But when such leaders practice civil disobedience, they risk being stripped of their leadership roles.

Civil disobedience can provoke those with coercive power to wield it in costly ways. This is why King saw civil disobedience and other forms of nonviolent direct action as ways to unmask the covert violence of unjust systems. When good people defy unjust laws, the agents of injustice are driven to overtly coercive and destructive measures to enforce their unjust policies.

They bring fire hoses to bear on nonviolent protesters.

They strip people of their livelihoods and kick congregations out of their spiritual homes.

They impose weighty financial burdens on those who insist on loving their LGBT neighbors as themselves.

They use coercive measures to drive away those they are called to love as themselves, all in the name of being able to continue to exclude or marginalize their LGBT neighbors...and more, being able to continue to force all who belong to their community to exclude and marginalize them as well.

Civil disobedience can unmask this impulse towards Othering, exposing its ugliness to the light of day in a way that can stir the hearts of bystanders and move the consciences of the undecided. But it means, as King testified, a willingness to endure suffering. King drew on his Christian commitments to argue that this suffering could be redemptive. Those who take up nonviolent protest and civil disobedience invite the powers that be to heap suffering on them in response to their act of conscience. They do it anyway because they have decided that bearing that cost themselves may, in the longer or shorter term, help to bring the injustice they are fighting to an end.

In the case at hand, the deep issue is this: If progressive and traditional Methodists split, sexual and gender minorities will not magically end up being born only in the progressive denomination. They will continue to be born in the traditional one. They will continue to grow up immersed in the messages that cause such anguish. They will continue to face the choice between leaving their faith family in order to live authentically or endure the closet or fruitless ex-gay gyrations in order to stay with the faith community they know and love. They will continue to kill themselves at higher rates.

Those who choose the path of civil disobedience invite the institutional and social forces that inflict such harm to focus on them, to heap costs on them, not simply to be martyrs alongside their LGBT brothers and sisters but in the hope that doing so as a symbolic act of conscience will have redemptive and transformative power.

As I said, this approach is not for everyone. There are both psychological costs and more practical ones. Self-protection and self-care are important. The practical realities of being able to live one's life are important. And, to put it simply, when I faced a similar choice fourteen years ago I chose to leave.

When the ELCA voted against more inclusive LGBT policies in 2005, my family chose to walk away. We did it for complex reasons, but some of those reasons had to do with our own self-care. We became exiles for four years, driving 70 miles each way on Sunday mornings to attend an open and affirming congregation, until the ELCA revisited these issues in 2009 and changed its policies.

Perhaps, had we belonged to an ELCA congregation that was committed to practicing civil disobedience, or had there been one in the vicinity that was so committed, we would have stayed within the ELCA and joined in the challenges of fighting for change from within. But our home congregation offered few ways to express our conscientious opposition to the ELCA's ongoing pattern of marginalization, especially given that we weren't a gay family. Had we stayed, this could readily have been taken to mean that we didn't find the status quo so bad after all.

Sometimes the only realistic way to express one's conscience is to walk away. But in our case, we didn't merely walk away because it was the best way to communicate a message of conscience. We did it to take care of ourselves. Sometimes the weight of struggle within a community is so heavy that staying in that community feels like staying on the battlefield. The wounded may need, for their own sanity and survival, to look for healing somewhere else.

That was the case with us. And that, apart from any practical or financial costs of the sort that might be confronted by clergy and congregations who opt for civil disobedience, was enough to motivate us to leave rather than stay and keep fighting in the face of our pain and disappointment.

The same will be the case with many in the UMC.

But for others, civil disobedience is a real option. For some congregations, there may be a the kind of solidarity of will and community resources that make it possible to confront the challenges that civil disobedience imposes. They may be positioned so that their civil disobedience will do some good. They may have the will and the way to be a voice of protest from within. For those congregations, civil disobedience may be the best choice.

WHY NOT AGREE TO DISAGREE?

There are some who wonder why progressives can't just shut up and agree to disagree with their traditionalist neighbors--why they can't just accept the decisions of the majority and continue worshiping alongside traditionalists, accepting that they lost a policy dispute. Why are they such sore losers?

In other words, why can't we all just get along, and experience fellowship together despite our differences?

The reason is because the traditional policy is about who gets to experience fellowship on equal terms with the rest of us. It is a policy that, as we see it, shunts our LGBT neighbors to the margins, turning them into second-class citizens. Love for our LGBT neighbors calls us to stand in solidarity with them.

In The Triumph of Love, I talk about my decision to leave the ELCA in terms of a metaphor that can, I think, be helpful here. Here's how I put it:
Let us use the language of a dinner table, set for a feast, to explain my decision. For me, the feast the church offers should be radically inclusive in its invitation. Basic safety might impose some regrettable limits, but the feast we offer is not ours but Christ's, who died for the sins of the world. The feast is the feast of God, who gave life not because we deserved it, but as a free gift.
While I belonged to the ELCA, it was my table. And for me, love requires that I welcome my LGBT neighbors to my table on an equal footing with my straight neighbors--for all the reasons I've talked about here. I could not justify inviting them to anything less than the full feast. In walking away from the table, my aim was not to withhold my welcome from those who chose to stay, but to find a table I could call my own that fully welcomed my gay and lesbian neighbors. I walked away not because I was closing off fellowship from those I was leaving behind, but because I wanted to extend welcome, an openness to fellowship, that was wider and more inclusive than what I could honestly offer so long as I remained at that other table and called it mine.
If I'd had the power to extend an unconditional welcome to my LGBT neighbors at my home ELCA church--if I'd been the pastor of an open and affirming congregation ready to face the challenges, and so had the option to practice collective civil disobedience by celebrating together the same-sex weddings of our LGBT members and in other ways opening this small table to full inclusivity--I might have done that rather than walk away. I don't know for sure. But I do know that being a mere lay person without the power to determine the terms of welcome at my home congregation, I needed to find a church whose terms were as expansive as those my conscience required.

But there are pastors and congregations in the UMC right now who can extend that radical welcome to their table, despite the policies of the broader communion, through thoughtful civil disobedience to the UMC's policies. They are like a table in a banquet hall, where the leadership in that hall refuses full service to its LGBT members, requiring each table to withhold part of the feast. While they could choose to march out of the banquet hall and set up a table elsewhere, they can also say, "We will not break fellowship with those who share this hall with us, but we will also not give anything less than the full feast to those LGBT persons who sit at our table. If the owners of the banquet hall kick us out for this, so be it. But we will not be the ones who exclude."

There are circumstances in which something less than such radical openness to fellowship is necessary--for self-protection or the safety of those one loves, or for reasons of financial necessity. But when and where it is possible to refuse to walk away and to refuse to just agree to disagree, this option does the most to extend the hand of fellowship and sustain bonds of welcoming love.

BUT WHAT ABOUT THE DUTY OF CLERGY TO FAITHFULLY REPRESENT THE WILL OF THE BROADER COMMUNION THAT HAS ORDAINED THEM?

Some critics may argue that progressive UMC clergy have no right to practice civil disobedience, because by their ordination they made a commitment to represent a communion broader than themselves. If the clergy person can no longer represent that broader communion's collective commitments, then the proper thing for them to do is resign and walk away, not practice civil disobedience.

Again, this is something I take up in The Triumph of Love. What I say there is worth repeating, because it highlights the complexity of these decisions:
When it comes to issuing mandates to clergy, we need to keep in mind that clergy have voluntarily adopted a role that makes them an agent of a broader communion. They have agreed to represent the values of that communion in their role as agent. This fact means the broader communion does have the authority to establish rules and impose requirements on clergy acting in their role. If they cannot in good conscience follow those rules or meet those requirements, they are free to leave that role. But a decision to stay but defy the rules through civil disobedience can also be a choice that displays integrity--if the decision is rooted in continued allegiance to the community's deepest values combined with the pastor's conviction that the rules do not reflect those values.
If a clergy person or a congregation is convinced that anti-LGBT policies are at odds with the most fundamental values to which the United Methodist Church cleaves, then civil disobedience may well be the act that is most in keeping with their commitment to act as loyal agents of the UMC. Perhaps the majority has, unwittingly and without a full understanding of what they do, voted to enact policies that are at odds what the UMC is about at the deepest level. If so, loyal agents of that communion who see this truth have a responsibility both to refuse to abide by those policies and to try in their refusal to make this truth apparent.

In short, they are called to be prophetic voices that challenge the majority, calling them to repentance. One cannot be such a voice if one conforms to the very policies for which one thinks repentance is required. And so, a refusal to abide by these policies is essential. But a prophetic voice from within rings louder than one on the outside. And so, when it is possible and realistic given the circumstances, civil disobedience can be a more powerful prophetic act than walking away.

BUT WHAT ABOUT AN AMICABLE DIVORCE?

Perhaps the following outcome is possible. Perhaps the current UMC, with its conservative and progressive regions and congregations, can agree on a road to schism in which progressive congregations and clergy become part of a new Methodist denomination that is open and affirming. Individual congregations could then vote on which denomination to belong to, bringing their clergy and resources with them. In that scenario, progressive clergy and congregations can act on their consciences without disobeying institutional policies and without risking the loss of their jobs, their pensions, their church buildings, etc.

If this could be done, there is reason to take this option seriously. Living by an ethic of love means loving everyone who is affected by these choices. That includes those who, without a mutual parting of ways, would be forced to choose between ignoring their consciences and risking their jobs, their church homes, and other resources. A solution that avoids putting people into such agonizing circumstances is, all else being equal, the most loving solution.

The One Church Plan would have been such a solution, but it failed. Perhaps the next-most-loving option is an amicable divorce.

If so, does that mean that conscientious objection is just a kind of fall-back position, something to be pursued only if such an amicable divorce can't be obtained? Maybe so, but there are a few questions that those confronting these choices may need to wrestle with before reaching a definitive answer.

First, what are the costs of divorce? Even the most amicable divorce has consequences that can do serious harm. While the alternative of staying together may be worse, a consideration of these harms is crucial before making that decision. Some of those harms have already been mentioned. I can only imagine the anguish and struggle that many congregations will face if they have to decide which new denomination to belong to. Most importantly for me, what about the next generation of LGBT children, some of whom would be born into the conservative branch of that new Methodist world?

With the progressive voices gone to their own denomination, there will be no strong alternative voice within their community to challenge the dominant message. When, in adolescence, they come to struggle with the tension between their budding gender or sexual identity and the teachings of their faith, the path to integration of these crucial dimensions of their identity will be much harder to navigate. They are more likely to be convinced that, in order to be true to their religious community and Christian faith, they have no option but to suppress their sexuality, to live in a closet, to confront every day the agonizing choice between hiding who they are from those they are supposed to be closest to and being rejected by them.

Those of us who have listened with compassionate attention to our LGBT neighbors know what immersion in such a community can do. We know the legacy of poisoned fruits, the psychological distress, the lonely misery, the self-loathing, the brink of despair--the bodies that lie in ruins when we look over that brink. We know that this is a false teaching, immersion in which can kill. That is why we are fighting for change. That is why the UMC has faced a burgeoning challenge to its "traditional" stance. Because progressives have loved their LGBT neighbors enough to pay deep and sustained attention them, and to internalize the lessons.

The costs of divorce, even an amicable one, aren't trivial. That doesn't mean the costs of other options aren't worse. There are no good options here.

But this leads me to my second question. Even if an amicable divorce can be achieved--with two new Methodist denominations, one progressive and one conservative, rising out the ashes of the UMC--is there a way along that path to keep pushing forward with the long, slow, painful effort to promote change? Does conscientious objection play a role in that--for example, among congregations that are torn over which new denomination to choose? Could there be room for a congregation rich in progressive voices to choose to remain with the traditionalists? Could it make sense for some to stay behind, to face the challenges of being a minority voice within that polity and risk the punitive repercussions, for the sake of the next generation?

And if not, how can progressives not only escape the thrall of policies that defy their conscience but do the bigger, more daunting and comprehensive work that conscience demands?

If there is an amicable divorce, and if a new progressive Methodist denomination is born, the right choice for many if not most progressive Methodists would be to become part of that denomination and help to make it the most vibrant and soul-enriching Christian community it can be.

And maybe that's enough. But I remember what my friend Don once said, about why he became active with Soulforce.** He told me he had escaped the closet of his youth and made his way to a faith community that was open and affirming. But one day he looked around and thought, "This is just a much bigger and much more comfortable closet. Beyond these walls, the world still condemns who I am and has no place for me. I need to step out of this closet. I need to share who I am, share the truths I know, with those who do not understand them."

If there is a schism, and if progressives do form a new Methodist denomination, I invite my progressive Methodist brothers and sisters to wrestle with the question that Don's words evoke: How do those who have made their way into an open and affirming community make sure that it isn't just a much bigger and much more comfortable closet than the ones within which our LGBT siblings in conservative communities still painfully languish?


Footnotes:

* "Doubling down on marginalization" is not the wording that traditionalists would likely choose. They are more likely to speak of standing firm for holiness in the UMC or taking a stand for biblical values. But the stand they are taking means that a minority group within the UMC is excluded from privileges and opportunities made available to the majority. That's the very definition of marginalization. They may argue that the marginalization is justified, but they can't deny that it's marginalization without making some easily-refuted false claims about the nature of sexual orientation.

**Soulforce is an organization committed to using the nonviolent methods of Gandhi and King to confront the discrimination, marginalization, and suffering inflicted on God's LGBT children by churches and other faith communities.




Sunday, February 10, 2019

For the Love of God, Don't Baptize Evil

The other day, a Facebook friend posted a Twitter snapshot that seems to be making the social media rounds, at least among some people. He posted it with the caption, "Some Gods deserve atheism." I saved the image under the name "Terrible Theodicy." Here it is:


In case something happens to the image, here's what it says: "Abused as a child? God ordained it. Suffered a miscarriage? God ordained it. Lose your job? God ordained it. Robbed? God ordained it. Cancer? God ordained it. Rest, Christian. Every trial, every moment of suffering was ordained by Him who saved you. SDG." (The SDG probably stands for "Soli Deo Gloria," or "Glory to God Alone.")

This Twitter post captures a particular conception of God, one popular among many (not all) Calvinists, which lifts up God's sovereignty over all things, presenting it as the most important divine attribute. What we see here is that this conception of God is offered as a distinct way of "solving" the ancient and persistent problem of evil.

In brief, the problem of evil is the problem of making sense of why an almighty and perfectly good God would permit all the evils that we find in this world: all the child abuse, the miscarriages, the poverty, the criminality, the disease and the natural disasters and the wicked actions of our fellow creatures.

In the discussion that follows the posting of this tweet, the tweet's link to the problem of evil becomes clear. Most commenters (probably reflecting the dominant theology of those friended to the one who posted it) were horrified by the way the post seemed to make God responsible for the evil in the world, but a few brave defenders of the post rejected this take. Their view, which I suspect reflects the view of the original Twitterer and those who find comfort in his post, is basically that God ordained all these things for a good reason that we mere mortals cannot discern.

In other words, those who favor the view of God expressed in this post address the problem of evil by doubling down on God's supremacy, God's perfect knowledge, and insisting that any apparent imperfection is really just a failure to see the perfection of it from our limited perspective.

The idea is roughly this: "God works in mysterious ways, and even when something seems awful, it is all part of God's great plan. There is a good reason for everything that happens, no matter how terrible or wrong it seems to us." This supposedly comforting thought explains why the original Twitterer, after affirming God's responsibility for each of the evils named, says, "Rest, Christian."

My friend who posted the tweet, like me, finds little of comfort in this idea. In effect, the vision of God put forward here strikes him (and me) as unworthy of our worship because it sacrifices God's goodness at the altar of God's power. Better to be an atheist than to embrace such a God whose actions defy our most basic conceptions of what is good and right.

Of course, the defender of this theology will insist that it is not God who is evil but our conception of good and evil that is misguided. I find such a response deeply unsatisfying, for reasons I'll get to in a minute. But before I do that I want to step back and say something important: There is more than one "problem of evil." The one described above is what we might call the philosophical or theological problem, but there's also the existential one: How do we live with evil. At least some people find a comfort that I don't find in the image of God presented in the tweet above. In other words, for some people this image of God helps them live with the tragedies of life.

I don't want to trivialize that. But I do want to invite those people to consider whether the same resources for comfort might be found elsewhere, in a conception of God that has fewer troubling implications.

With that in mind, let me talk about why I think the implications of this approach to evil are so problematic.

My friend's caption for the post--"Some gods deserve atheism"--reminds me immediately of Simone Weil. Weil was not an atheist, but at one point she described atheism as "a purification." The idea is that to discover the true God, we need to purge ourselves of the gods we invent or construct and cling to so firmly that they fill up the space into which divine reality might enter.

I think the problem of evil, and the form of atheism that springs from moral revulsion to certain solutions to the problem and their accompanying God-concept, can be purifying in just this way.
But one needn't become an atheist to experience this purifying effect. What one does need is to hold onto a healthy skepticism towards "solutions" to the problem that baptize evil--in other words, solutions that, in an effort to "defend" God, urge us to set aside our most basic horror at the most terrible wrongs and insist in defiance of our moral conscience that they're really good in some mysterious way.

Once we make that move, we have silenced our moral sense so thoroughly that we are dispositionally cut off from the Good Itself and so from the kind of openness to the true God that is required to have an actual encounter with the divine.

At least that's how I see it. Any solution to the problem of evil that asks us to ignore our clearest moral intuitions based on some vague invocation of God's mysterious ways asks us, in turn, to shut down that part of us that is most directly linked to the divine. That, in turn, imposes the most final impediment to experiencing and connecting with God--with the truth that transcends our understanding, as opposed to our particular construct.

All of this is true, I think, even if we concede that our moral sense is fallible. What that concession forces us to do is be open to having our moral intuitions proven wrong in the light of a more encompassing perspective, not to develop the habit of ignoring our moral intuitions based on the bare theoretic assurance (offered by some preacher or theologian) that the more encompassing perspective, which we don't know anything about, really does defeat our moral intuitions (as if we know at least that much about the unknowable).

We are closer to God if we rage against God's apparent injustices, arguing with God or crying out "Why, God? Why?", than we are if we baptize the horrors we face and invoke the view that none of these horrors are really evil after all, that our moral sense is not to be listened to, that our conscience and our compassion and our heart should be set aside or put away in the name of vaunting God's glory.

When we harden our hearts against the evils in the world by calling them good in defiance of our instincts, we harden our hearts against God.

Friday, November 16, 2018

Pity for 45

The other day, as I read the news reports of our president's brooding bitterness and fury in the wake of the midterm elections, I found myself feeling sad. I cannot help but see in our president a deeply unhappy human being who has all his life been groping for happiness in things that don't provide true satisfaction: power and authority, money, fame, bodily pleasures, the accolades and praise of others (real or feigned).

And when he is inevitably thwarted in his pursuit of them--or worse, when they fail to satisfy, fail to fill the void that he believes this new thing will finally fill (a gorgeous porn star! a lavish penthouse! a hit TV show! winning the most powerful office on planet Earth!)--he becomes furious, smearing his distress onto anyone near him, calling names, blaming others for that dark emptiness in him that he doesn't know how to fill.

Maybe you don't see him this way. Maybe you see him as someone to be envied or someone to be hated. But what I see fills me with neither of those things. What I see fills me with that species of sorrow we call pity.

Some of us try to bring the world under our thumb, only to learn that this just makes our world as small as we are. The path to real meaning, real joy, lies in the other direction: appreciating how much greater than ourselves the world is and making ourselves greater by loving that world, by opening ourselves up to that which is not us, those who are different, those who are other, and by feeling the ultimate humility as we brush up against the infinite creative love that lies at reality's heart.

My prayer is that every living soul will discover that truth and be transformed by it. Including our angry, unhappy president.

Monday, October 29, 2018

"Do not fight hate with hate": A Reflection on a Saying

The Don't List:

"Do not fight hate with hate."

Do not confuse hate with anger, with the indignant cry of the victims or the protective fury of those who love them. Some anger is the anger of love, and this anger is an essential tool in the struggle against hate.

"Do not fight hate with hate."

Do not create false equivalences between the hate in the heart of anti-Semites and the reactive hate of those who have been brutalized by anti-Semitism. The call not to fight hate with hate is a reminder of how best to fight the evil of those who swim in the waters of hate. It isn't a tool to re-victimize those who have been splashed by these waters.

"Do not fight hate with hate."

Do not confuse the act of hating people with the act of hating injustice, hating evil, hating hate. While hating people is a poor weapon to fight hatred of people, hatred of hate is essential. We fight hate because we hate hate. We grope for ways to love the human filled with hate because we hate the hate that has consumed then and twisted their humanity.

"Do not fight hate with hate."

Do not let this mantra block empathy for the victims of hate. Do not speak it from a place of privilege, where you sit untouched by hate and tell its victims to be saintly while you wag your finger at them. Do not use this mantra as a test to judge which victims of hate are worthy of your compassion.

Do not fight hate with hate.

The Do List:

Fight hate by loving its victims, all its victims, including those who have been eaten up by it from the inside, including those who have chosen to live in hate as a way to find meaning, including those who have been murdered or orphaned or brutalized by those it has possessed, including yourself.

Fight hate by groping for the words and actions that will lift up the humanity of the person before you.

Fight hate by recognizing its seeds in your own heart: the disdain, the condescension, the dismissal of others based on where they're from or what they look like or what they believe or how they respond to the struggles of life. Forgive yourself for those seeds. Forgive others for those seeds.

Fight hate with the angry love that will not stand idly by while there is preventable suffering.

Fight hate with the mercy that can crack walls of defensive intolerance--mercy for the trembling child huddled beneath the layers of ugliness.

Fight hate with the grace that prevents minor failures from blossoming into larger ones.

Fight hate by screaming "No" to the darkness, and then by shedding what light you can.

Wednesday, October 24, 2018

Shoplifting: An Analogy

I believe we should have laws against petty theft, and I believe we should prosecute those who break these laws.  And I believe sensible steps to prevent petty theft should be taken.

But I do not believe that petty theft is such a serious threat to our country that it should be a felony, that police should devote detectives and forensic scientists to tracking down shoplifters the way they track down murderers, or that shoplifters should be sentenced to prison and separated from their families.

And if my local department store decided to spend millions to build the most high-tech state-of-the-art surveillance system throughout the store and to fill the store with dozens of security personnel, all to stop the occasional shoplifter, I'd advise them to think about whether their plan makes sense financially and in terms of creating a humane shopping environment that their paying customers would feel at home in.

Oh, and if there's a sudden uptick in shoplifting groceries because (a) the major employer in town closes down, resulting in hundreds of people suddenly without jobs or the ability to pay their bills, and (b) the town has no food pantries and provides no unemployment benefits to help the unemployed through this difficult time, then the major problem here is not the petty theft. And it would be inhumane for the town to address the issue by ignoring the economic problems caused by the factory closing down, ignoring the lack of food pantries or other supports systems, and instead spend hundreds of thousands of dollars ruthlessly policing the grocery stores and filling up the local jail to overflowing with shoplifters who were just trying to feed their families.

Not only would it be inhumane, but it would be counter-productive. A more human approach would probably cost less and do more for the town in the long run. Furthermore, I wouldn't be surprised if the laid-off workers started marching and protesting. And if the protesters became a mob that started to riot, I would not condone the rioting but I would encourage the town government to think about how they'd contributed to the crisis.  I'd tell them to refocus their energies on fixing the root problems, instead of treating those hungry people who shoplift canned tuna for their kids as if they're murderers.

All of this is common sense. Just plain common sense.

And everything I just said about petty theft can, with slight alteration, describe my views on illegal immigration.

Thursday, October 11, 2018

Do Not Return to Silence: A Plea

It's a lot to ask, I know, but still I beg it: Do not return to silence.

Christine Blasey Ford didn't want to go public because she didn't think it would do any good. She feared she'd expose herself and her family to all manner of pain and hardship, and it wouldn't make a difference. The engine had been gathering speed for a long time, and her voice would not be enough to stop it.

She was right.

Nevertheless, I beg: Do not return to silence.

There are many who say it's a good thing that her voice didn't prevent Kavanaugh's confirmation. They speak sincerely about witch hunts and the presumption of innocence, about attacking the integrity and honor of a man who has hit all the career milestones and achievements of someone striving to earn a seat on the Supreme Court. They speak of the hardship he and his family must endure because a woman shook off years of silence, stepped hesitantly into the public spotlight, and spoke with credibility and earnestness about a distant memory in which only a few things were utterly clear: his face, his name, the pressure of his body and his hand over her mouth, and the laughter.

We cannot let that be enough, they say, or we open a Pandora's Box of false accusations. We must make an example of her--show the world that her voice alone cannot derail this man's career trajectory--so that men like him do not need to fear.

And so, in the name of keeping men safe, the old social forces grind on, demanding silence.

Nevertheless, I beg: Do not return to silence.

Her words, spoken with such conviction and such power from a place of humanity and pain, were offered without the benefit of the kind of sustained investigation that might turn up corroboration. Never mind for the moment who is to blame, but her words were delivered in a context and with a timetable that guaranteed there could be nothing else, that it would be her words alone, her naked words against a man with the brass ring of a Supreme Court seat almost in his fist, a political party with the brass ring of majority control of the Supreme Court almost in its fist. And the decision-makers went through the ritual of listening to her bare words before delivering their inevitable verdict: "Yes, a credible witness. A sincere voice. No doubt something happened to her. But it's her words alone."

Nevertheless, I beg: Do not return to silence.

She became a target and a pawn in a polarized political battle. Some surely saw her as a tool, as an opportunity to exploit. Others saw her as a threat to their political aims. For a few brief moments, perhaps, as she told her story, they saw her as a person. For an a hour, perhaps, it was about her humanity. But before and after that hour she was one piece to be played for political points, and her humanity was something to be buried by those whose political aims were threatened by her naked words.

Nevertheless, I beg: Do not return to silence.

While some career politicians opportunistically exploited her, others opportunistically exploited the public's disgust with political opportunism and exploitation. They slathered this woman with all the ugliness of the partisan politics that swirled around her, as if she were to blame for it. It no longer became about her and her story and the question of Kavanaugh's character. It became, instead, about whether the Democrats were timing the release of her story for maximum political effect and asking for an FBI investigation to drag out the confirmation process until after the midterm elections. "Is she telling the truth?" was transformed to "Did the Democrats behave with propriety and decency in the confirmation process, free of manipulative tactics?" And the political cynicism that gives an inevitable negative answer to the second question was treated as, by default, giving a negative answer to the first. She was no longer just responsible for her own words, her own story, her own connection to the truth. She was made responsible for all the ways that others might use those words and that story and that truth.

Nevertheless, I beg: Do not return to silence.

The very President of the United States of America mocked her testimony in public. In front of a crowd of cheering supporters, he made the most painful moments of her life into the brunt of a joke. He laughed along with the crowd.

Nevertheless, I beg: Do not return to silence.

She was forced into a room by two boys, overpowered, pinned by the weight of a male body and afraid for her life when his hand pressed down over her mouth to keep her silent. And when forced by the weight of circumstance and her own sense of duty to at last break that silence, she was subjected to harassment and death threats of such magnitude that she and her family had to move out of their home for their own safety. There was no evidence that she was anything but sincere in her reasons for breaking her long silence; but an entire movement built up around the notion that Brett Kavanaugh was the true victim in this case. Images sprang up on social media of him and his family along with the caption, "Pray for this family." Senators waxed indignant about the abuse he suffered, apologizing to him as if he'd been subjected to the moral equivalent of sexual assault.

As if his life would be ruined if he wasn't granted the most highly respected position it is possible for one in his field to receive, forcing on him the indignity of finishing out his career in a position that is merely one of the most highly respected positions someone of his career can receive.

As if it is an affront to his dignity and honor to be required to confront this story, this harrowing story of someone who said she had suffered by his hand (and by the weight of his body, and by the sound of his laughter). Not required to face trial (that would never happen) or even a full investigation unhampered by rigid timetables, but simply to be part of a proceeding in which both he and she are given equal time to state their accounts.

How dare they! How dare they subject him to this witch hunt, this violation, this assault on his good name. As if requiring him to do it is akin to pushing him into a darkened room, tearing at his clothes, almost choking him in the effort to keep him silent.

Nevertheless, I beg: Do not return to silence.

It's asking a lot, maybe too much. I cannot demand it where the costs are so high. I can only beg.

I beg it because it is the only path that has the hope of bringing insight and understanding to a world so fogged by ignorance and confusion. It is the only path that has the hope of restoring balance and equality and the dignity of women and girls in a world that sits in the shadow of centuries of patriarchy.

I beg it because in a world where women and girls are silent, all women and girls are in greater danger of being victims (including the ones who hold my heart). In a world where men and boys can trust in silence, and in the forces that make examples of those who refuse to stay silent, men and boys will think they can get away with it. As they did with so many women I know (I name you in the silence of my heart, because it is not my place to break your silence).

As one of them might do, one day, with my daughter. And her classmates. And her gymnastics teammates. And her generation. Unless the forces meant to keep women silent are battered and battered again by women who refuse to stay silent.

It's asking a lot, maybe too much. Still I beg it. 

And unfortunately I beg it in a world where false accusations of sexual harassment and assault do happen. They are far rarer than the routine reality of sexual harassment and assault, but the forces supporting the status quo have an interest in making those false accusations loom large. I beg you not to return to silence; I beg it so that the truth will loom larger still. If all the real instances of sexual harassment and assault are made evident in a litany of honest voices sharing honest stories without agendas, the fable that the biggest danger is the false accusation will be battered down. False accusations loom large only in a world where the chorus of true stories go unheard.

That doesn't mean we shouldn't hear the voice of the one who has been falsely accused. I feel I must say this to those who are prone to misunderstand. There is a difference between shutting down the lie that false accusations are more common than rape and shutting down the person who says, "I have been false accused." False accusations do happen, and it won't serve the cause of truth to deny this or to pretend that we should do nothing to protect the victims of false accusations. What will serve the cause of truth is to recognize what the existence of false accusations calls for.

It does not call for us to treat every person who comes forward to share the pain of sexual assault as if they were a liar bent on ruining lives. What it calls for is discernment, and wisdom, and compassion.

Acting with wisdom and discernment and compassion means that when we are talking about a criminal trial where the accused faces punishment if found guilty, we should presume innocence until guilt has been proved beyond a reasonable doubt. But it does not mean that we must extend this "beyond a reasonable doubt" standard outside the courtroom. Depending on the nature of the case, a single witness, no matter how credible, may not be enough to send someone to prison for child abuse in the absence of any corroborating evidence. But one credible witness is surely enough to justify my decision not to hire that person to be my babysitter. It isn't wisdom or discernment or compassion to apply the standards fitting for the courtroom to every facet of social life.

And again, so that I am not misunderstood, I feel compelled to add that this doesn't mean there should be no standards at all. It doesn't mean we should be so credulous that any mean-spirited chronic liar can stop us from honoring a deserving person just by fabricating a story. It means that the standards should be determined by what is at stake, by what we risk by being wrong, by who is vulnerable and who is not, and by how likely it is that someone would, in the circumstances at hand, come forward as they have done if what they were saying was a lie.

Most of all, wisdom and discernment and compassion means this: in ordinary life, when someone speaks out about sexual harassment and abuse, we listen to them as we listen to others who share their stories: with a presumption of their innocence--a presumption that they are sincere and honest, not calculating liars aimed at unjustly bringing others down.

Of course that presumption can be defeated. We cannot ignore the character and credibility of those who speak, or close our eyes to the darker motives that may give them a reason to lie. But wisdom and discernment and compassion means we pay attention to whether there are such reasons to doubt credibility. It does not mean we permit sustained smear campaigns aimed, not at determining their credibility, but at undermining it.

What wisdom and discernment and compassion demand depends on context, on what is at stake, on who risks the most and what the harms of error will be. And the world will not understand what is at stake unless the victims of sexual harassment and assault refuse to remain silent, despite all the forces ranged against them.

And so I beg: Do not return to silence. A world defined by wisdom and discernment and compassion depends upon the voices of those with the courage to speak.

Monday, September 17, 2018

Why We Must Take Christine Blasey Ford's Accusations against Kavanaugh Seriously

Just as Brett Kavanaugh looked poised to handily secure confirmation of his Supreme Court nomination, the news broke: Sen Dianne Feinstein was in possession of a letter alleging some kind of sexual misconduct when Kavanaugh was in high school.

With nothing more to go on than that, I wasn't inclined to say much about the case. After all, whatever this was, it was something that happened decades ago while Kavanaugh was still a minor. I was imagining some kind of sexual harassment allegation. Sexual harassment of young women by young men in high school is a serious issue, but for reasons I'll discuss in a moment, I was hesitant to make too much of such charges when, it seemed, they were being dredged up decades later in an attempt to derail a political appointment.

But then the substance of the accusations came out. The accuser went public, taking ownership of the allegation and the risks that go with that. This wasn't a charge of sexual harassment but of attempted rape. And the way it came to public light didn't suggest a political motivation but a deeply personal one: a victim trying to find the voice to speak in a culture that too often shames and silences the victims of sexual assault.

Why We Shouldn't Support a Sweeping Policy of Smearing People for their Past Mistakes

Before turning to why we should take the Kavanaugh accusations seriously, I want to be clear about what I'm not arguing. I don't think it's useful for us to start digging through the pasts of every public figure, smearing them with the stains of long-ago wrongs--especially if our collective understanding of those wrongs has evolved dramatically over the time since they were done. When I say I think we should take these charges seriously, I don't want to be misunderstood as endorsing some sweeping principle of this sort.

To see why, consider an example from my own life. When I was in the seventh grade, I was standing behind a girl in the orchestra room before rehearsal started (I think we were standing in line to sign some kind of form), and one of the older boys swept past us both, slithered his arm past me, and "goosed" the girl. That's what we called it then: goosing. It was an innocent-sounding name for the act of pinching someone's buttocks.

The girl let out a gasp, turned around, and saw me. Her expression changed as soon as she met my eyes. Shock at having been pinched in the butt changed to a different kind of surprise. She said something like, "Wow, Eric, I never imagined you were the type to do that!" And she gave me a smile of a kind that I, being the smallest kid in my grade who still looked like a fourth grader, was used to. It's the kind of smile that the babysitter gives to the round-cheeked little boy who professes his love. She's letting him down, of course, but she finds it harmless and kind of cute and she doesn't want to hurt his feelings.

I blushed, but I didn't deny having groped her ass--because, although I'd never have done something so brazen myself, that had more to do with fear than a sense of its moral wrongness. I didn't see what had been done to her as a violation. I don't know how she experienced it--at least not before she decided that it came from a boy she classified more among those she'd babysit than among those she'd date. But I do know that years later, during my senior year in high school, my girlfriend arrived at school in tears, feeling violated and humiliated and furious. She told me that some guy had grabbed her butt on the bus.

It was the first time that I thought of that act as a violation. A part of me wanted to minimize it, to tell my girlfriend that she was overreacting, to say that the guy was just "being playful" or something like that. But instead I listened to her and thought, "Maybe I'm under-reacting." Others, predictably, called her hysterical.

I'm pretty certain that I never "goosed" anyone in the years between those events--but it was a common enough occurrence in the halls of my junior high and high school. It was usually the more confident guys who did it, the ones that looked older than their years, played sports, actually dated girls instead of pining for them while standing against a wall. The guys we were all supposed to admire and wish we were more like. And the girls would jump and then--in my memory of the events--would give the boys a "naughty-you" flirtatious look. And the boys would shrug and smile.

If I never goosed anyone myself, what held me back was not a sense that such an act was a form of uninvited sexual touching, and hence a violation of someone's bodily autonomy. What held me back was, in part, the near certainty that the look I'd get would not be a naughty-you-flirtatious smile but a look of contempt. Or, worse, the look the babysitter gives to the little boy when he professes his love.

When I think of it more deeply, there's another reason I didn't do it: I didn't feel entitled to. But this was a judgment about my own status: I wasn't an alpha male. I wasn't one of those guys we all admired, the guys who had tacit permission to goose anyone they wanted. In other words, I subconsciously internalized a worldview in which entitlement to touch women's bodies didn't come from women but from one's status in the male hierarchy.

If I had goosed someone in those years, it would've been because I'd finally decided to push myself off the wall, shake off my timidity, and "make a move." And I wouldn't have perceived that move as assault. It would have been a move up the ladder of male hierarchy, a move designed to show my confidence in myself and my worth. And if asked, I would've described it as a playful, flirtatious overture.

I don't see it that way anymore. In the years since then I've thought about the culture of patriarchy, a culture which socializes both boys and girls in ways that promote and facilitate the sexual exploitation of women. Seen through that lens, the practice of "goosing" is hardly innocuous. That girls are socialized to treat it as no big deal, to laugh off an uninvited touching of their buttocks, is not a harmless feature of their socialization. That young women like my high school girlfriend are characterized as "hysterical" when they respond as she did to being goosed--that plays a role in the creation of the culture of silence and shame that has enabled predators like Harvey Weinstein to get away with sexual assault for decades.

I don't remember ever goosing anyone. I'm sure that in many other ways I was enacting little rituals and ways of talking whose cumulative effect was to provide cover for the Harvey Weinsteins of the world. But suppose I did goose someone and I don't remember doing it. Should that be held against me today?

I don't think so, but this isn't really about me. There are men and women who are far more effective agents of social change than I am who, years ago, were part of the problem they are now working to change, who routinely and without much thought acted out the oppressive and exploitative scripts they'd inherited. Back before they woke up.

If we hold everyone individually accountable for such things, we are in danger of dealing with our collective guilt by scapegoating individuals who may not only have been less responsible for our culture's wrongs but who may now be part of the effort to change it for the better. And it's fine to say that those people should come clean about their pasts and the things they used to do which now they stand against. But the deeper we are socialized into a pattern of behavior, the more invisible it is to us. I don't remember everything I did in high school, especially not those actions and events where everything conformed to the established social scripts. What I'm likely to remember the most are the moments that forced me to confront my socialization--the challenges to them, or those moments when the darkest aspects of my socialization became apparent. What I will remember are those events that called me to decide whether this was who I wanted to be.

The more routine expressions of our social scripts are likely to fall into the fog of our personal histories. If the things lost in that fog are held against us today, now that the wrongness of those things has become clear, it's more likely an effort to scapegoat individuals than an effort to take collective accountability for making things better. And beneficiaries of the status quo are more than happy to protect the exploitative regime by encouraging such scapegoating sacrifice of those who are fighting for reform.

This is why a sweeping policy of holding individuals accountable for mistakes made long ago, mistakes that express collective sins for which we should take collective responsibility, is troubling to me. Our decision to hold someone accountable for the wrongs of their youth cannot be based on such a sweeping principle. But it cannot be selective based on party affiliation or group membership, because then it's just partisan hypocrisy. It must be more nuanced than that.

Which brings us back to Kavanaugh.

It's Sexual Assault, Not Sexual Harassment 

The accusation leveled against Kavanaugh is not that in his youth he recited routine scripts of sexualized talk that we now recognize to be verbal harassment. It isn't that he participated in common rituals--such as goosing--that we now see as part of a deeply troubling pattern aimed at training women to quietly accept uninvited sexual touching (or to minimizing it on pain of being dubbed "hysterical").

The accusation is one of attempted rape.

Goosing, and the accompanying social pressure to treat it as harmless or playful, is part of what has come to be called "rape culture." As I understand it, that term refers to all of these smaller things that cumulatively both encourage patterns of sexual exploitation and make it easier for sexually exploitative men to get away with rape (and other crimes of sexual objectification and humiliation). It is one thing to be unconsciously complicit in such a culture, to blindly perpetuate patterns of thought and action that provide cover for sexual predators. In cases like that, what we need to do is cry out, "Wake up!" And if they've already woken up, then we must urge them to be part of the effort to change things for the better.

But it is one thing to be a banal and mostly oblivious participant in a cultural evil. It is something else to take advantage of that culture, to be among those who use it as cover to victimize and abuse. Even if it's a one-time offense. Here, it's important to distinguish between two kinds of one-time offenders: those who realize their error, repent, do penance, and forge a new path; and those who duck their heads and enjoy the advantages of a social system that hides their crime. Those who pursue the latter course have not merely violated another human being and gotten away with it. They are by their actions endorsing the social forces that enabled them to get away with it.

Even if they never again practice overt sexual assault, their relationship to the system that enables perpetrators has changed. As beneficiaries of that system, especially if they use those benefits to rise to success, they become its cheerleaders, however silently.

If you attempted to rape someone and then rose to power and prominence because the culture of shame and silence kept your crime a secret, you are wearing that culture of shame and silence like your own private invisibility cloak, valuing it the way the Harry Potter valued his. If you act as if it's just fine to enjoy your privileges, then you're acting as if the things that made those privileges possible are just fine, too. And if what made those privileges possible is a culture of shame and silence, then you're its secret fan.

This is why what Kavanaugh did or did not do so many years ago matters so much. Because it's about who he is today. If he is guilty of the charges leveled against him, then he has been benefiting all these years from that culture of shame and silence that kept his crime hidden from the high school teachers who wrote his letters of recommendation, from the colleges that gave him his degrees, from those sitting on his confirmation hearings, from everyone who ever had a say in his rise to prominence and power.

You cannot benefit so much for so long from rape culture without a part of you being its silent cheerleader. And if Kavanaugh really did commit this crime so many years ago, then his current behavior--his unwavering denials--means that even now he is hoping that rape culture will come to his rescue, that it will help him rise even higher, to one of the most powerful positions in the world.

If Kavanaugh really did do this thing so many years ago, it is not an isolated aberration from his youth but something that he has continued to underwrite and support every day of every year since he committed that terrible crime. The choice to enjoy the protection of his invisibility cloak is an ongoing choice that he makes anew every day. If he did it and came clean all those years ago, repented and sought to do penance for it, then we could call it a thing of the past. But he's done none of those things. So either he is not guilty, or he has been benefiting year in and year out from social forces that have enabled him to get away with attempted rape. And he seeks to benefit from them now.

This is why we need to take Christine Blasey Ford's allegations seriously today. It would be different if the nature of the allegations had all the marks of a smear-campaign. But there is a clear history of Ford talking about this trauma from her youth in contexts that had to do with personal and relational healing, not political opportunism. And events unfolded in a way that indicates that Ford herself, after considerable struggle, had decided against going public for reasons of personal welfare. This narrative fits the profile, not of political opportunists, but of those who are struggling to stand up to a culture of shame and silence, one that has kept them from speaking publicly for a long time and that threatens to beat them down if they speak today.

It is a different matter whether political opportunism on the part of others played a role in these allegations becoming public when they did. I'm sure there is plenty of political opportunism to go around. But these allegations have their origins in something very different. They are serious. They speak to who Kavanaugh is today, not just to what he did so many years ago.

And so the allegations must be treated with gravity and attention, considered on their merits, before Kavanaugh is elevated to the highest honor attainable to any person in his profession.

Thursday, August 9, 2018

It's Not About "Redistributing Wealth." It's About Correcting Inequities in the System.

The founder and CEO of Amazon, Jeff Bezos, is now worth more than $150 billion. Meanwhile, there are people in America who work two or three jobs and can't afford to cover their bare-bones bills.

You don't have to be a socialist or a Marxist or some kind of trenchant anti-capitalist to think that this sort of inequity is a problem, or to think that there is something amiss with a system that allows such extreme concentration of wealth in the hands of a few, while others struggle and work in vain to dig their way out of poverty.

This is the point being made in a recent line of argument--its author obscured--that recently appeared in an image passing through my Faebook newsfeed. Here's the image:



Let us grant that Amazon contributes real value to the contemporary world and that its founder and CEO has worked hard and made risky choices and investments that justify him receiving very, very healthy financial rewards. In other words, let's assume that's there's nothing wrong with a system that enables some people to become filthy, stinking rich, maybe even LeBron-James-level rich. We're talking so rich that it's hard for any ordinary human being to imagine what to do with such abundance. Rich beyond what any human being needs for health and happiness and security. So rich that, to the extent that money can contribute to happiness, the person has enough wealth to buy the material contributions to lifelong happiness many times over.

Let's take that as our starting point.

The reality is that we live in a system where some people can come to possess personal fortunes so enormous that they numerically dwarf the unimaginable wealth described above. That is, we live in a system that allows wealth to keep pouring into the personal accounts of individuals who have long, long ago exceeded that point at which more money can do them any personal good in terms of human happiness. And the money keeps pouring in while single mothers are working multiple jobs to feed their children.

Sometimes, I suppose, this happens with people who are of such extraordinary virtue and wisdom that they regard this spigot of wealth as a source of enormous personal responsibility. They research how this enormous wealth can best serve the world, and then invest their money and give it to charities and causes so wisely and well that they make the world a better place for all.

I'm not going to remark on whether Bezos is such a person, because I have no idea. Maybe he is. But the point I want to make here is not about Bezos. He's just a convenient example because, at the moment, he's the richest person alive. The important thing for my purposes here is to note that our system is not designed so that only these paragons of wisdom and virtue are the beneficiaries of such wealth. Many who become exorbitantly rich channel their excess abundance in ways that are of questionable value at best.

Nevertheless, such disparity in wealth might be justified if (1) we believe wealth should be distributing in accord with merit, and (2) some people merit a personal fortune of $150 billion, while others merit $7.25 an hour, money that is gone before the end of each month meaning that they end up with no personal wealth, only debt.

While I'm not sure about a strict meritocracy (I'm too influenced by the Christian ethic of love and the call for charity and grace), I do think that merit should be rewarded. I think we need an economic system that does that. If so, we need some idea of how to measure merit. My guess is most of us would point to two things: how hard and diligently one works, and the value of what one produces through one's work. In other words, economies should reward labor and people's contributions to society--two things that are connected in complex ways.

Here's the problem. My wife is a public school teacher. Her salary would not be sufficient to sustain her and the children. We live modestly, but my income is essential for us to make ends meet, let alone build any personal wealth. In fact, if one weighs our assets against our debts, even with my salary in the mix, I'm not sure that one could say that we have any real wealth to sustain us should our salaries disappear. And if it were my wife's salary alone, her labor would at best generate a life of paycheck-to-paycheck penny-pinching with $0 in accumulated wealth--vs. Jeff Bezo's $150 billion.

But let's be generous and treat her yearly salary as wealth. Even on that assumption, Bezos's fortune is not hundreds of times or thousands of times greater than hers, or even hundreds of thousands of times higher. It's millions of times greater.

My wife works hard and diligently. I'm sure Bezos does, too. But does he work millions of times harder, millions of times more diligently? I know how devoted my wife is to her students, so let me just say I'm skeptical.

But what about the value of their respective contributions? We can't make the mistake of comparing the value of my wife's contribution to society against the contribution of the entire Amazon corporation, because there are more than 560,000 people working for Amazon to help generate its cumulative contribution. What we need to do is compare Bezos' piece of that cumulative effort to the value of the work my wife does.

But let me reframe the question in the following way. There are about 42,000 teachers in Oklahoma, and the average teacher salary in Oklahoma is about $38,000. That means teachers in Oklahoma are, taken together, receiving about $1.6 billion a year. Again, most of this goes to making ends meet rather than accumulating wealth, but let's treat it as wealth for the sake of argument. If we do, then Bezos has about one hundred times the personal wealth of all the teachers in Oklahoma combined.

So the question is this: Is the value of this one man's contributions worth one hundred times as much as the cumulative worth of all the teachers in the state of Oklahoma, diligently working to educate the next generation and make them ready to face the world, to contribute, and to succeed?

If you're as skeptical as I am about this, then we can agree to set aside the idea that, regardless of the inequities that exist, our system is a fair one because people are rewarded in proportion to the merit of their contributions. We don't live in a world where people's wealth is proportional to the merit of the work they do.

To put it starkly, the rickshaw puller in Calcutta works harder than I have ever dreamed of working but makes the tiniest fraction of what I make--and in terms of quality of life, the difference between me and that rickshaw-puller is enormously greater than the difference between my quality of life and that of Jeff Bezos. This is because, the more money you have, the less it substantively contributes to your quality of life. Lots of middle income people are blissfully happy and could give lessons to some of the very rich. But the poor struggle, their poverty grating at their capacity to enjoy their lives, no matter how wise they are in terms of getting their priorities straight.

So where does that leave us? It leaves us with a system that does not distribute wealth in proportion to either human need or the merit of those who contribute to society through their labors. Wealth gets concentrated in ways that can't be justified by the greater merit of the wealthy. This means our system is prone towards unjust concentration of wealth in the hands of some while others who work hard and diligently and make valuable contributions get far less than they deserve--and, in many cases, far less than they need to live a decent life.

What causes this problem? There are many forces in play, and I won't claim to understand them all. Part of it, of course, is that luck sometimes rewards those who take important risks--and we need to accommodate that in our system if we want people to take those risks (although, for the same reason, we should also work to cushion the costs to those who take the risks and fail). But a non-trivial part of the problem is that those who get rich often do so at the expense of the poor, because the system is set up to exploit the labor of the poor, working them hard and paying them less than their labor is worth.

In other words, part of the reason why there exists such wealth inequity in our system is that our system is set up so that the "haves" can leverage their privilege into more privileges while the "have-nots" are left competing for scraps. And this is not a comment on Jeff Bezos as an individual. I'm not saying that he is in some unique and special way getting rich by choosing to exploit others. What I'm saying is that he is part of a system that works this way--that he doesn't need to deliberately scheme to be monstrous to his employees in order to pad his exorbitant wealth while they get paid less than the value their work adds to Amazon's success. The system is set up so that this happens, without Jeff Bezos or other corporate billionaires having to take any nefarious steps to make it happen. 

So how do we fix the system to remedy this? I don't know the answer, although I'm pretty sure it will involve the thoughtful use of such standard tools as income taxes and various regulations on business, including anti-exploitation laws like minimum wage laws. I'm pretty sure it will involve robust protections on workers' rights to collectively bargain, along with societal support for the efforts of those who work hard for a living to secure a living wage.

But my aim here is not to say that some specific combination of higher taxes on the very rich and a higher minimum wage, along with state protections of collective bargaining, is what is needed. Rather, I want to make the following more modest point: when people talk about raising taxes on the wealthy and raising the minimum wage, they are often painted as if they want to take money from the rich--money the rich have earned--and give it to others who haven't earned it. Thus, these measures are sometimes described as "wealth redistribution."

But if everything I've pointed out above is true, that's a misleading characterization of what these measures are about. The point of such policy proposals is to correct a systemic problem in wealth distribution, a problem that leads to wealth getting unfairly concentrated in the hands of people who haven't done enough to warrant getting THAT huge a piece of the pie.

Suppose there's a pie on the table, and four people around it who have worked hard to earn some of that pie. Suppose there is some machine set up to distribute pie according to what each person deserves. Imagine there's a guy who worked hard enough to earn half the pie on the table--but the machine gives him all but a sliver of the pie on the table as well as every single pie at every single Marie Callender's restaurant in the city (we're assuming the machine has supernatural powers). Meanwhile, the guy at the table who has done enough to earn a quarter of the pie gets the sliver, and the last two people at the table, who have done enough to get a slice each, get to fight over the crumbs.

Now suppose the owner of the house, seeing this happen, steps in. She sends the two hundred and ninety pies that are filling up her living room back to Marie Callender's, takes back a sliver less than half the original pie from the first guy, gives a quarter pie to the guy who earned that, and makes sure the last two each get their slice. Has she taken the first guy's pie(s) from him to redistribute to the others? No, she has corrected a glitch in a machine that unfairly heaped on him more pie than he knew what to do with while leaving others with less than their fair share.

When you're doing that sort of thing--when you are looking for ways to correct wealth concentration inequities but adjusting a system that is prone towards such inequities--that's not "wealth redistribution" in any problematic sense. It's not taking what the rich have earned to give it to the poor.

It's trying to make sure the system gives everyone what they've earned.

Monday, August 6, 2018

The Pope Condemns the Death Penality--and thereby challenges us anew to rethink out partisan packaging

A few days ago Pope Francis declared the death penalty "inadmissible," thereby strengthening the Roman Catholic Church's opposition to to the practice. In the process, the Roman Catholic Church continues to defy America's partisan packaging of positions on social issues. Didn't Pope Francis get the memo that if you oppose abortion you're supposed to support the death penalty?

But seriously, I'm often puzzled by America's distinctive notions about what counts as a "conservative" stance and what counts as a "liberal" one. Although I don't agree with the Roman Catholic Church on many things (ordination of women, LGBTQI+ issues), and although there are terrible crimes on its record, the Roman Catholic Church at its best has much to offer the world, much of which is on display in the current Pope. And one of the things it offers is a challenge to dominant Western conceptions of "right" and "left."

That challenge is evident here. While there is no outright contradiction between opposing abortion while supporting the death penalty, the two things don't go together logically and inevitably the way one would suppose if one looked only at US political allegiances. The Roman Catholic Church's core ethic, combined with certain metaphysical beliefs, leads to an opposition both to abortion and to the death penalty. So does that make the Catholic Church liberal? Conservative? Moderate? Or does it, rather, expose the artificial and historically contingent nature of these labels?

I suppose that some forms of libertarianism--often described as "fiscally" conservative but "liberal" on social issues--teach the same lesson in a different way. Again, there is a core belief system from which this distinctive libertarian combination of "left" and "right" derives.

I'm not saying that conventional American conservatism and liberalism are incoherent and can't be justified by some unified philosophical commitments. What I'm doing is pointing out something about our distinctive American understanding of "right" and "left," which have so much power and influence and which both divide us from our neighbors and pressure us to conform to "our" side.

This way of dividing up positions on such issues as abortion, the death penalty, gun control, single-payer healthcare, etc., is not the only way. And I suspect that at least some of the sharp polarization in our country would be lessened of we kept this mind.

A Word of Appreciation for Journalists Today

I just want to express my appreciation for the devoted journalists and news editors who work hard every day to uncover and report the stories that matter, who strive to live up to the standards of journalistic ethics, who are devoted to checking their sources and correcting errors when they make them, and who face the risks linked to exposing the truths that people in positions of privilege and power would rather went unreported.

I'm talking about the reporters and journalists who investigate, who gather the news and tell the stories about what is happening in our world. I don't mean the pundits and op ed writers who give their spin on news that others have gathered. There's a place for them, too, of course. But right now I want to appreciate those who go where they might be unwelcome in order to hear what's being said and see what's being done, who ask the questions that some don't want answered, who keep pushing to get those questions answered even at personal cost, who demand transparency in government even when government doesn't want to give it, who immerse themselves in a community and interview diverse voices and travel to distant places to see what is happening with their own eyes. And who then put the pieces together and find the words to bring the story to life for the rest of us.

Like all of us, they are imperfect. Like all of us, they have points of view that inevitably impact what they focus on and what they overlook, which stories they tell and how they tell them. But like all of us, the vast majority are well-meaning and sincere and devoted to working hard and doing their jobs honestly and well. And like most professions, the news profession has standards of professionalism and responsibility and a collective commitment to living up to them.

Their job is not one I would want, especially at a time when they are being vilified with blanket put-downs and sweeping, undefended accusations, a time when pretenders uncommitted to the profession pump out vapid junk while too many consumers believe the junk and call the real thing fake news.

That they persevere is a testament to the human spirit. So today I want to say thank you.