Thursday, October 29, 2015

Cops in School: A Case Study in Social Responsibility

Here's a story:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Tuesday, October 27, 2015

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

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

Let's not hide from this question.

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

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

I looked at the chaos, heard the sobbing.

Something terrible has happened.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

So many were there. But God?

"Why wasn't God at the parade?"

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

"But that's exactly what we were."

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

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

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

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

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

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

Maybe there is no God.

Maybe. Maybe.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Friday, October 23, 2015

Losing Our Political Perspective

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Tuesday, October 13, 2015

Love and Fear: Lessons Learned from Cantors and Good Samaritans

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Friday, October 9, 2015

On Biblical Inerrancy: Engineers Interpreting Shakespeare

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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