Friday, December 28, 2012
Last week Wayne LaPierre, vice president of the NRA, spoke out in response to the horrible shootings in Newtown, CT, and for the first time, the public has responded with a critical eye to some of the logic La Pierre and his ilk have used in his response to the terrible tragedy. Let us be clear on a couple of things as we reflect on LaPierre’s words. First of all, we need to realize that he was not posturing; he truly believes what he said. Second, we need to realize that the NRA, the Gun Owners of the America and the gun industry will respond with all the resources at their disposal to confuse and distort the issues around guns; and those resources are sizable. Already they are hitting the airways with proposals designed to confuse rather than clarify the issue. So in this blog I want to provide a few talking points as we write our legislators and talk with our co-workers and friends about these important issues, and I will do so by taking the vary statements La Pierre used in his press conference.
First, La Pierre stated that there are already 20,000 gun laws on the books, so why do we need more. Now I am not sure where he came up with that number but there is no question there are a lot of laws because gun legislation is largely handled at the state level, and so there are 50 sets of laws. Congress and federal government have limited control of gun practices. What is needed is a comprehensive framework from the federal level to guide states. However, that is a long way off given the current polarity in the Congress . What Congress can do is ban assault weapons, coordinate a national database of people who should not be allowed to buy guns, and provide funding for enforcement through the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Narcotics (commonly referred to as ATF). The Congress also can provide funding for the Centers for Disease Control (CDC) to do research on the effects and causes of gun violence. Now while there are many laws, the NRA has actually been actively and successfully working to weaken existing laws and to pass laws allowing for individuals to carry concealed weapons in public. (Think George Zimmerman and Trayvon Martin). So some of these many laws have actually made guns more readily available rather than restricted. LaPierre conveniently forgot to mention that fact.
This leads to La Pierre next point that we just need to enforce existing laws, not pass new ones. That would be great place to start except the NRA has strongly pushed that the ATF be given reduced resources so that ATF does not have the people power to adequately monitor gun shops and other sources providing guns. The NRA have also sought to undermine the national database by having supporters in positions of influence at the state level not send in the information the database requires and because ATF is underfunded they can’t go after them. The NRA also pushed through legislation that de-funded gun-related studies of the CDC because those studies showed that the presence of a gun in a home actually increased the likelihood of gun-related injuries or deaths rather than decrease them. These goes against the bumper sticker logic of the NRA that guns somehow make us safer. The research just does not back that up claim.
La Pierre’s most outrageous proposal was to put arm guards in every school. Yesterday the NRA president David Keene altered that proposal by saying school personnel should be able to have a range of options for protecting themselves – arming teachers, principals, having police officers, private security, etc. The logic of this proposal expressed by La Pierre is that the only way to stop a bad guy with a gun is to have a good guy with a gun. This is the “wild west “ logic that the NRA has used for years, and is reflected endlessly in our movies, television, video games and media. This logic is like trying to plug the dam after the water has broken through. The goal should be to reduce the overall presence of guns, keep them away from children, felons, people with emotional problems and so on. Just yesterday three Clementon, NJ police officers were shot in the police station by an assailant. Trained guards do not prevent violence, that logic is too late. As the CDC study referenced above pointed out the presence of guns themselves present a threat; do we want these sorts of readily available in a school? I don’t think so.
La Pierre also criticized the entertainment and video game industry for promoting violence. For LaPierre, a representative of the firearms industry, to make such a statement would be laughable if it were not so tragically hypocritical. Like many other manufacturers and retailers, the firearms industry uses product placement in movies and games as a way of advertising their product. Just this week the NY Times reported that the website for video game Medal of Honor Warfighter was directly linked to the gun manufacturers whose weapons are featured in thegame. This is not an anomaly but standard practice for gun manufacturers to get their product out there.
Finally, the media keeps reporting that the public is evenly divided on the issue of gun control. That assertion is based on an ongoing Pew Research Study that asks the following question: What do you think is more important – to protect the right of Americans to own guns, OR to control gun ownership? In answer to this question the public is evenly divided. However, anyone who does research knows, the question you ask skews the results you get. The question asked by PEW set up a false dichotomy between allowing Americans to own guns and gun control. In Pennsylvania, a heavily pro-gun state, when more specific questions were asked a widely different result was received. When asked if that state ought to limit the sale of handguns to one gun per month per person, nearly 70% of people voted in the affirmative. When asked if persons should be required to report a gun that was lost or stolen there was a similar result. These laws are focused on straw purchasing, the major source of most guns used in crime. So in many ways the public is overwhelmingly in favor of common sense legislation which addresses parts of the problem without restricting others’ right to legally own a gun.
Hopefully these talking points can help you in talking with others about the tragic events in Newtown and elsewhere. For the first time our nation’s leaders are at least talking about the issue. We need to seize this moment to bring pressure to bear for legislators at all levels of government to take action that will make the likelihood of another Newtown, Columbine, Aurora or (fill in the blank) happening again. Groups like Mayors Against Illegal Guns, the Violence Policy Center and Ceasefire PA are great sources of the latest actions and information available. We can’t just sit on this one; we need to let our voices be heard.
Thursday, December 20, 2012
The feedback to my earlier blog “Making Sense of the Senseless” has challenged me to say a word about the mental illness dimension of the horrible tragedy in Connecticut. While the citizens of Newtown mourn, many folks in the media and beyond are trying to make sense of the tragic events of December 14 at the Sandy Hook Elementary School; they are seeking to understand why Adam Lanza acted as he did in such a devastating and destructive way. While the all-too-ready-availability of guns is a major contributing factor that is now finally getting some national attention at the highest levels, the other issue is the untreated and in some cases undiagnosed mental illness of the shooters in the high profile murders such as occurred at Virginia Tech, Tucson, Aurora and now Newtown. To that end a great deal has been made of Lanza’s supposed mental illness and the need for services that can better detect, treat and support those who suffer as he apparently did. Liz Long’s article “I Am Adam Lanza’s Mother," the testimony of a mother caring for her son whose diagnosis has been everything from autism to ADHD to oppositional disorder. has gone viral on the Internet.
I am neither a mental health professional nor one who has studied the issue, so I can only speak from my limited personal experience. My window into the world of mental illness came over 30 years ago when I was a student chaplain in a psychiatric hospital in Danvers, MA. Danvers State was a facility for the severely mentally ill, particularly those suffering from various psychosis such as paranoia, schizophrenia and the like. My job consisted of providing spiritual support to people who often moved in and out of lucidity, and who could be speaking rationally one moment and be living in a world that existed only in their mind in the next. In order to relate to these folks I had to try and follow wherever their minds were taking them and meet them there, while trying to offer some sense of God’s presence in their often troubled, confusing lives. While I do not know how much help I actually gave them, I learned a great deal about the human psyche.
The enduring insight I gained from that summer was that all people are crazy, it’s just that some of us hide it better than others. I came to realize that some of the more bizarre conversations I had with patients were similar to fantasies and dreams I had. The difference was that the patients thought those fantasies were real and acted on them, whereas I was able to recognize they were just in my mind, and not something I should act on. I saw that the anger, the hurt, the frustration and even the exuberance that my patients expressed were similar to feelings I had; I just was able to control my emotions and express them in socially appropriate ways. Moreover, whereas my patients often could not discern the real from the unreal when they acted irrationality, I was adept at supplying “logical” or “rational” explanations for my sometimes irrational reactions and behaviors.
At the time I wondered why my training for pastoral ministry required a summer spent on the psych wards, but once I got into the pastoral role I saw how valuable that experience was. Religion often draws on the emotional and imaginative side of people’s psyches and religious people often explain their strange behavior with Biblical or theological language. In my time as a pastor I had numerous opportunities to minister to people who were suffering various forms of mental stress and illness, which often got complicated when they inserted God into their rationalization for how and why they acted as they did. All too often actions that otherwise “normal” and “healthy” people took in their lives did not make any rational sense, and so I developed a working principle for dealing with folks: if it looks, sounds, and feels crazy, it probably is crazy – no matter how people sought to package it. Moreover, while I saw such tendencies in other people, I could not deny that I also saw such tendencies in myself. I came to realize we all are a bit crazy at times; some of us just cover it better than others.
Too often when we try and explain the tragic behavior of a person like Adam Lanza, our purpose is to put some social and psychic distance between us and him, to be able to say “well he acted that way because of A,B, & C” and therefore I am not like him. However, none of us are that far from where Adam Lanza was mentally and emotionally. We all have thoughts of exerting power thru violence whether in our silent thoughts or our night dreams. Violent movies and video games are the external evidence that is so. I confess there have been times in my life where the stress and confusion got so great that I literally thought I was “losing my mind.” I am not alone in that experience; at some level we are all potentially Adam Lanza.
In no way do I want to explain away or condone the tragedy of Newtown, CT. Rather my point is simply to say that we, the mentally ill and the mentally stable (relatively speaking) are all in this together. We may never know what possessed Adam Lanza to kill his mother and then go on a rampage in the school where she worked. What we can know is that as a human community, we are responsible for and to one another. We are responsible for and to the families, the caregivers, the teachers, and mental health professionals who seek to help those who struggle with mental illness. One day our psyches might break on the stresses of life, and just like Adam Lanza we will need someone to support us and save us from ourselves and the horrific impulses of our worst nightmares.
Friday, December 14, 2012
Whenever I hear of another gun-related killing, and especially when there is a high profile shooting like we have had recently in Oregon and now in Connecticut, I think of the line from Bob Dylan’s classic, “Blowin’ in the Wind” – how many deaths will it take ‘til he knows that too many people have died? The pattern is the same: a horrible shooting occurs, the reporters swarm on the scene, tears are shed, incredulity is expressed, and yet nothing is said about the all-too-ready–availability of guns. President Obama sheds a tear and hugs his beautiful daughters, but will he and the Congress take up the issue of America’s fanatical addiction to guns. Whether it’s Trayvon Martin or holiday shoppers in Oregon or twenty elementary children, there is one thing that could have prevented all the senseless deaths: gun laws that make it difficult for the average person to buy guns and then carry them in public. It is not that complicated to figure out, but extremely complicated to get that simple idea into the political discussion.
No doubt there will be those in the NRA, Gun Owners of America, and other pro-gun groups who will make the argument that this incident shows that we need more guns, that if there had been teachers in that school with guns, maybe Adam Lanza would not have killed the children. They will make that argument even though it does not stand up to the evidence. Gabby Giffords had trained guards around her and there were armed guards in the Portland shopping mall. They did not stop the killers in those situations. This is the false and dangerous logic that the gun lobby continues to sell to the public and our leaders, and IT IS A LIE.
“… America’s idolatry with guns [is] a confrontational belief system based on acquiring power over others. The system is buttressed by a fascination for and devotion to the violence guns provide. Those who believe need guns to prove themselves and others they are in control, to protect them from harm, and to give them a sense of security.”(emphasis original, p. 22)
Former NRA executive Warren Cassidy said that the best way to understand the NRA is “approaching [members of the NRA] as if they were a religion.” His words not mine. To suggest that guns themselves might be part of the problem is heresy in the holy temple of the gun. However, if we want to make sense of the senseless, this is where we must start.
I ask that you join me in contacting legislators at local, state and federal levels and demanding that the issue of gun ownership and the carrying of guns be put up for serious discussion. I did just that after the Aurora, CO shooting and got NRA sponsored clichés from both Democrats and Republicans except for my Republican state representative who agreed with the need to pass more restrictive legislation. We dare not give up. We are approaching the “tipping point”; change will begin to come when enough of us raise our voices enough times to finally drown out the senseless voices that continue to protect the “right to bear arms” at any cost, even the cost of innocent children.
The wealthy and powerful of the U.S. plutocracy have always positioned themselves to make out well no matter what. We forget that after Hurricane Katrina and oil prices shot up because the oil companies supposedly could not refine enough oil, Exxon-Mobil recorded the highest profit margins ever in its history. We forget that while banks were being bailed out during the recession, Goldman-Sachs and a small group of wealthy business types made a killing on that same recession. While the debate rages on about the Affordable Care Act (so called Obamacare), the health costs are not being contained and health insurance companies and drug companies will do just fine whatever way the political wind blows. While the Republicans say they want to balance the budget, they are fighting like hell to protect their wealthy backers, the 1-2% of the population with incomes over $250,000 that President Obama wants to tax at rates when Bill Clinton was president. So the issue is not about a balanced budget, but who calls the shots and who benefits, priorities and people.
The art of politics is compromise, so whatever comes out of these negotiations will be disappointing to anyone who has a strong opinion on the right or the left of this debate. No one group will get what they want, and so one must focus on what is most essential and most critical. This is why there need to be prophets to keep those principles before us.
Whether or not we see ourselves a prophets in the classic Old Testament sense, people of faith must honor and in some cases seek to speak with a prophetic voice that recognizes the political necessity of compromise while at the same time “hating the approximate” and “shunning the middle of the road.” Franklin Delano Roosevelt was reported to have told an activist who supported him in the presidential election: “Now hold me to the promises I have made”. The prophets are the people who hold onto and press the promises.
President Obama was elected on the promise of developing a plan that provides health care coverage to all citizens. He said he would allow the Bush tax cuts to expire for the wealthiest Americans. He said the federal government should support public education reform, especially in low income districts. He said we should create the conditions for green jobs, create alternatives to carbon-based energy and oppose the Keystone Pipeline project running down from Canada through the Midwest. With a prophetic voice we need to hold the president to these promises. They represent principles of equity, of a concern for the environment, and a curb on the wealthy powerbrokers. Moreover those principles should move us press President Obama on the places that he has not gone far enough, such as on immigration reform and regulations on Wall Street and financial institutions.
Parenthetically, I acknowledge that there are those on the other side of this debate who are as equally passionate about their issues. I find the America that many on the Right propose is not an America I want to support. And those who espouse a “Christian” position, support a Christianity I cannot endorse. So there are real divides and deep passions which I acknowledge. We as citizens need to have civil dialogue on these differences, not simply on the basis of the issues themselves, but the underlying principles and values that inform our positions.
My commitments are to the principles of providing equal access to all, holding the powerful and wealthy in check, caring for the environment and providing basic rights for all citizens regardless of color, ethnicity or economic status. How we live out and implement these principles is a matter of practical, political strategy.
The debate over the so-called “fiscal cliff” is at its heart a debate about values and deep principles. While the politicians negotiate, in the prophetic tradition we must press the principles that can make life just and fair for all affected.
Wednesday, November 21, 2012
Nearly 40 years ago when I was at college spending Thanksgiving away from home; as a result I was feeling alone and lost. To cheer myself up I began writing down the things in my life I had to be thankful for. Before I was done I had filled two whole sheets of 8 ½ by 11 inch paper listing people, events and happenings in the world for which I was thankful. Not only did that list lift my spirits, but it showed me just how easily I had overlooked all the things in my life for which I could be grateful. Ever since then that simple exercise has been my personal Thanksgiving ritual. Every year around Thanksgiving I sit down and make a list of all the people, events, and happenings in my life and world for which I am thankful, and every year I fill pages with my list. Every year I am reminded how blessed I really am. No matter how many struggles and disappointments I have had to endure, no matter how much I may have struggled with failure, no matter how many mistakes I have made, and no matter how angry and disappointed I am by events going on in the world, I have never failed to compile a lengthy list of blessings. The list doesn't erase the disappointments; it just puts them in perspective.
Now thank we all our God, with hearts and hands and voices
Who wondrous things hath made in whom our world rejoices
Who from our mother’s arms hath blessed us on our way
Through countless gifts of love and still is ours today
Given these high and lofty words one might think that Rinckart had a reasonably cushy life. Most people don’t feel they have been blessed with “countless gifts of love” or see “wondrous things” in their lives. This sort of language doesn’t come easily to most people; it certainly doesn’t come easy to me. So it was a great surprise to learn that in contrast to the picture these words might conjure up for us, Martin Rinckart had anything but an easy life.
Martin Rinckart served as a Lutheran pastor in the little town of Eilenburg, Germany in the 1600’s during the Thirty Years War. Not only did the residents of his little town suffer the privations and ravages of war, they were also beset by an epidemic that killed people by the hundreds. When Rinckart began his pastorate in Eilenburg in 1623, there were three other pastors in the town. As the town was ravaged by invaders, and beset with disease, one of those pastors left for a safer place, while the other two were felled by the fever. Rinckart was left to serve as pastor to the whole town. At the height of the crisis it was estimated that Rinckart performed on average 40-50 funerals a day, nearly 4000 by one person's count. The burden of sadness and concern he carried was unbearable by human standards.
If anyone had reason to lose faith, he did. Yet he continued to serve, and through the suffering he and those around him were able to see the grace of God in their lives and give thanks in the midst of their struggle. He was not immune or blind to the suffering around him. Rather he saw his life from the perspective of a God who suffered with him and did not leave or desert him. Thus the hymn asserts:
O may this bounteous God through all our life be near us,
With ever joyful hearts and blessed peace to cheer us;
And keep us in his grace, and guide us when perplexed,
And free us from all ills in this world and the next.
I teach courses on poverty, racism and social justice, and spend alot of time working on issues such as gun violence and educational equity. I find myself having to contend with unjust systems, uncaring legislators, and bruised and defeated individuals. The frustration and suffering I experience is nothing compared to what Martin Rinckart faced. Even so I find strength and inspiration in his overarching attitude of thankfulness in the face of suffering. Thus, this Thanksgiving I sing and pray with him the words of his great hymn that ends with these words
All praise and thanks to God who reigns in highest heaven,
To Father and to Son the Spirit now be given:
The one eternal God, whom earth and heaven adore,
Whoever was, is now, and shall be evermore.
Wednesday, October 31, 2012
At the risk of stating the obvious to some and “playing the race card” to others, I believe race is a central issue in this year’s presidential contest. However, I say that not simply or even because Mitt Romney (a white guy) is running against Barack Obama (a mixed race male who identifies as African American). Rather I say that because of what the two men symbolize and what is at stake for the poor and for people of color in this election. In terms of the numbers Obama is estimated to have received votes from 43% of whites four years ago, but is expected to only pull in about 38% of the white vote this year. Now this is not to imply that a vote against Obama means one is racist. However, we contrast that with the fact that 95% of blacks are expected to vote for Obama, and a majority of Asians, and Hispanics are also expected to vote Obama though not to the same extent of blacks. Add to that that according to the PBS special “Race 2012” 90% of people who voted in the Republican primaries this spring were white. Put this together and the picture that emerges is that the Republicans are an overwhelmingly white party, while the Democrats are attracting a diversity of voters.
Race is a major factor in this campaign.
Now we might chalk this divide up to embarrassing coincidence, but the fact that the Republicans neither can nor care to attract more voters of color is not something we can easily overlook. Oh yes they had Condoleeza Rice speak at the Republican Convention, Michael Steele was chairman of the Republican Party for a couple of years, and Clarence Thomas the only black judge on the Supreme Court was appointed by a Republican President, but that is colorful window dressing that apparently is not speaking generally to the needs and perspectives of people of color. Now I would contend that neither is Barack Obama. Except for his pre-presidency speech on Race during the 2004 Democratic primary and an oblique reference to Trayvon Martin last spring, Obama has not broached the topic of race either; maybe he doesn’t feel like he can, or maybe he chooses not to. Meanwhile he has surrounded himself with advisors who look and talk like the white power brokers that preceded him. However what is interesting is that according Chrystia Freeland author of Plutocracy: The Rise of the New global Rich and the Fall of Everyone Else, Obama sees himself as one of the plutocrats. (Notice how when he talks about taxing the super-rich, he always refers to “we”; i.e. he recognizes he is one of them.)Yet even so, people of color (and those whites who see themselves as allies) hold out hope that they have a better chance with Barack Obama in the White House than Romney. At least that is what the numbers suggest.
Race is a factor in this presidential election.
Four years ago when Barack Obama was elected president, many pundits in the media wondered out loud if we had entered a “post-racial society.” There is no question that Barack Obama’s election was historic because he broke the white barrier, but I was not among those who thought we had crossed the post-racial threshold. One could sense in conservative white America a fear that in some way Obama might “retaliate” for all the centuries of slavery, Jim Crow, discrimination and marginalization faced by African Americans through history. Gun rights advocates feared Obama would take away all their guns. Conservatives feared he would establish a socialist state. Look at the trailer for the recent film “Obama 2016” and you see some even feared he would retaliate for colonialism in Africa. His opponents questioned his credentials and even his birth certificate. The underlying racial fear was palpable if not ridiculous. To his credit Mitt Romney has tried not to play on those fears, but his conservative base still harbors them despite clear evidence that such fears were totally unfounded.
While I don’t think Obama’s election ushered in a post-racial era, as my colleague Nathan Corbitt has pointed out, his election was a “tipping point;” that is, with the election of Barack Obama we were served notice that white control of levers of power were beginning to slip. Now there is no question when we look at who sits around the advisors’ tables and who sits on the boards of major corporations and who occupies most of the CEO positions, white males are still very much in control of levers of power. However, the fact that a black man sits in the Oval Office and can set controls on their power, sends a very clear message that the rules of the game have changed. Obama signals a move toward a more diverse society where the white establishment is no longer in control. His push to provide universal healthcare, and his focus on increased education funding point to a strategy that moves from the bottom up, rather than the trickle down philosophy of Reaganites like Romney.
If one only looks at the policies of conservative governors in places like Wisconsin, Ohio and Pennsylvania, the pattern is clear: programs that serve the needs of the homeless, the disabled, the poor and the mentally ill are being cut, while tax breaks are being given to corporations and the wealthy. Young people of color committing petty theft get jail time, while bankers who defraud people out of millions in their pensions and mortgages get regulations loosened and receive bonuses. The rights of unions are being curtailed, while regulations on corporations are being relaxed (in spite of the actions leading to the 2008 recession). Public Education is increasingly privatized and vouchered, while these same leaders make sure their kids don't have to go to those schools. The issue is clear: do we adopt policies that continue to serve the wealthy and powerful, or do we redistribute to provide basic needs for all?
While the word has rarely if ever been mentioned by the candidates in this election, and only cautiously by the media, let’s not kid ourselves: race is a factor in this election, and the choices we make determine whether we close our eyes and hope for a past that never was to return, or move wide-eyed into the future of a multicultural America where the blessings of this nation are shared fairly and equally.
Wednesday, September 26, 2012
I recently completed David Margolick’s fascinating book, Elizabeth and Hazel: Two Women of Little Rock, which caused me again to reflect on the difficulty and challenge of authentic racial reconciliation in our country. Elizabeth Eckford and Hazel Bryan Massery were frozen in time by a picture taken in 1957 during the court-ordered integration of Central High School in Little Rock, Arkansas. Elizabeth was one of nine African American students who voluntarily chose to fulfill a court order to desegregate the all white Central High School. On the day they approached the school, the “Little Rock Nine” as they came to be called, were met with a vitriolic and hateful crowd of whites who berated them, spit on them and blocked their entrance to the school, as well as National Guardsmen ordered by Arkansas’s governor to prohibit them from entering. On that day for some reason Elizabeth was separated from the other eight African American students and had to face the mob on her own. In a famous picture that came to symbolize the white racism and hatred of the 1950’s South, Elizabeth walks in the foreground with the mob all around her. In the background, there is one white girl, Hazel Bryan, whose screaming face is filled with racist hate. Elizabeth and Hazel tells the story of that day and the chaotic first year at Central, and then chronicles the lives of these two women in the following decades up to the present.
Ironically, neither Elizabeth or Hazel actually graduated from Central High School (both were 15 years old at the time of the picture). Elizabeth spent a year at the school every day being harassed to the point of tears, hit over the head with books, and spit upon. While the acts of hate were performed by a small group of white students, the vast majority of whites simply looked away, and decades later have yet to own up to their collective responsibility for the emotional turmoil Elizabeth went through. The next year she transferred back to the all black high school, and eventually joined the Army before finishing college as an adult. She never married but gave birth to two sons, and continued to live in Little Rock. Hazel on the other hand, was withdrawn from the school by her parents (in part because of the efforts at integration) and went to a small rural high school, but never graduated as she got married while still an adolescent. She became a mother and a housewife, very active in her church, and generally avoided the turmoil just a few miles away in Little Rock.
However, the image of Elizabeth walking into a hostile crowd with Hazel screaming in the background was sent around the world and became the image of America’s inability to deal with racism. About eight years after the event when both women were in their twenties, Hazel called Elizabeth and offered a brief apology for what she had done that day. The conversation was brief, the apology accepted and little else was particularly memorable. Elizabeth, who had been a bright student with hopes of becoming a doctor or a lawyer, struggled with what much later was diagnosed as post-traumatic stress. She struggled with depression and went from job to job trying to recover. Then in the early 1990’s Hazel and Elizabeth began talking and meeting. Hazel reached out to Elizabeth and offered her both financial and emotional support that Elizabeth found empowering. Eventually they became “friends” and went around to schools and other public venues talking about the experience in Little Rock and the need for racial reconciliation. Their friendship became so memorable that in 1997 President Clinton gave them a special award on the 40th anniversary of the original event.
However, there was always tension between the two women. Through Hazel’s support and help, Elizabeth began to heal and come out of her depression, but as she did she became aware that Hazel seemed to gloss over the events 40 years earlier and had conveniently forgeotten some of things she said and did in those days when Elizabeth was being harassed. For her part Hazel felt Elizabeth was always bringing up the past and caught in negativity. Hazel also was publicly criticized and questioned about her sincerity; was she simply trying to rehabilitate her public image or had she really changed? Like many whites of her generation and even today, Hazel wanted to “put the past behind her” and move on without coming to grips with personal and historical responsibility for the suffering and pain that was caused by their hateful actions or their willful apathy. Hazel thought Elizabeth was stuck in the past, while Elizabeth thought Hazel only thought of the future to ignore what she had done. As a result the friendship eventually was strained to the point where neither woman spoke to each other. Margolick ends his book on that note, saying if the women every get back together it will have to be on their own private terms.
As I read the book, I was particularly troubled by the actions and attitude of Hazel. She seemed to minimize the impact of her actions or even the social milieu in which the events of Little Rock occurred. While she was directly involved in a way that many whites were not, her attitude reflects a general attitude among many, if not most, whites today who say that slavery, Jim Crow and the struggle for Civil Rights is past history, and that we don’t have to own up to it. Whites feel that they don’t have to recognize the tangible material and physical benefits that years of black oppression has afforded those of us who are white. Moreover, Hazel reflected to me the often shallow understanding of the pain and suffering still experienced by people of color in our society every day. We who are white don’t see that experience and so don’t acknowledge that it still exists.
The fact that Elizabeth and Hazel ends unresolved is not only the story of two women of Little Rock, but also the story of a nation which was built on the back of slavery, committed virtual genocide against its indigenous residents, used Asians and Hispanics for economic gain, and continues to vilify Muslims and exclude immigrants in ways that reflect the worst of our history. Elizabeth and Hazel reminds us we can’t have reconciliation without truth, and that until that happens we as a people will be a racially fragmented and divided people.
Saturday, September 08, 2012
A couple weeks ago I wrote the letter below to my primary care doctor, Dr. Jason Chen, thanking him for taking an approach that was much more humane and personable than most doctors I have known. Ironically, I read this article while waiting for over four hours for a small operation. In that setting I was treated a number on an assembly line – the exact opposite sort of treatment for which I thank Dr. Chen. After receiving the letter and thanking me, Dr. Chen asked that I publish the letter to get the word out about the need for reform in the medical profession. Here follows my letter with some minor amendments. I also encourage you to read the article for which a link is provided.
I was reading an article in UTNE Reader the other day on the controversy around so-called alternative medicine, and thought of you. While the efficacy of particular alternative treatments can be questioned, the same could be said about traditional remedies. What stuck out to me in the article was the importance of talking to one’s patients and taking a preventive, proactive approach to healthcare, rather the approach of waiting for symptoms and then prescribing medication – all approaches I have experienced with you since our first meeting last fall.
I thought of you because in our first meeting, as the article describes, you took over an hour to get to know me and my health history, as well as my perceptions, feelings and hopes regarding health care. In my case this approach, along with your ongoing concern, has yielded dramatic results: 30 pounds lost weight, lowered cholesterol and blood pressure, a return to a more active lifestyle and general overall healthier outlook on life. There have been some medicines and treatments along the way to my health recovery, but I don’t think any of that would have had the same effect without your holistic concern for me as a person.
This letter and article is my way of saying “THANK YOU” for your concern. At our last appointment, you seemed rushed and even said something about “working for the man” which suggested to me that you were feeling the pressures of our current health care system. As mentioned by one physician in the article: “The current system makes it nearly impossible for most doctors to be the nurturing caregivers who take the time to listen to us, bond with us, and guide us toward healthier lifestyles and lower levels of stress.” I hope you can fight that pressure and live in the tension between what you are sometimes required to do as part of the health system, and what you know and have shown to be most effective – at least in my case.
Wednesday, September 05, 2012
The recent shooting of off-duty Philadelphia Police officer Moses Walker, Jr. proves the point that possessing a gun and knowing how to use it does not prepare one to defend oneself when you are surprised at gun point. On the early morning of August 18 Officer Walker was heading home from his precinct when he was robbed at gun point by two men. While the details of what happened next are still being sorted out, Walker, who was armed, apparently tried to draw his gun but was shot and killed before he could get a shot off. Later his two assailants were caught and are currently being processed through the courts systems. Moses Walker Jr. was one of over 230 gun violence victims in Philadelphia this year, and one of over 32,000 nationwide.
Gun rights defenders – those who claim that having a gun protects you from would be offenders – should take pause. Moses Walker was a trained police officer, who as protocol requires, regularly practiced with his gun. Yet, even he was not able to defend himself.
Now some might say that such an incident means we have to have more guns in the hands of citizens and train people to defend themselves, but logic and the data suggests otherwise. While the National Rifle Association likes to regularly tell stories of gun owners defending themselves, the reality is that more often than not the opposite occurs. Insight into why this is so was made clear to me through a study done a few years ago with Muhlenberg College students who were put through the Pennsylvania State Police Firearms training. Some of the students were experienced gun users, others had no previous training or experience, but all passed the course. Then they were put in a situation where it appeared a gunman entered a classroom where they were in class; each of the students had their guns on them but none of them were able to get off a shot before they were “gunned down” with a paint ball. In analyzing the reasons for their ineffectiveness, the trainers pointed out that when accosted unexpectedly, our bodies go into a “fight or flight” mode, adrenaline kicks up and our heart pumps blood like mad to the extremities. The excess rush of blood hampered the trainees’ dexterity, and they were in some cases not even able to get the gun out of their holster. The trainers explained that it is only through regular sustained practice that trained officers are able to control their reaction enough to be effective in a high stakes situation.
The other reality is that pulling a gun on someone who pulls a gun on you, raises the stakes and creates a condition where injury is more likely to occur. Had Officer Walker not drawn his gun, he might have lived – minus his wallet. As a storeowner quoted by James Atwood (American and its Guns) said – "I don’t have a gun behind the counter so that I can live to the next robbery." Unfortunately, our “wild west” mentality is do deeply engrained and re-enforced by the media, it’s hard for us to see the simple logic of lowering the threshold to prevent unnecessary death
While there are not simple answers to the factors contributing to gun violence, reducing the flow of illegal guns to the street would be a major step. The city of Philadelphia and other PA communities have been blocked by the state legislature from enacting laws such as limiting the sale of handguns to one per month; requiring guns lost or stolen to reported to police; and putting a ban on assault style weapons. As a recent Philadelphia Inquirer editorial (August 23, 2012) pointed out “lawmakers in Harrisburg ….have steadfastly refused to pass legislation making it tougher to buy guns”, “have refused to clamp down on straw purchasers”, "have failed to close the 'Florida loophole’ which allows a person to carry a concealed gun in Pennsylvania even if his only permit is from another state.” Then it reports that Pennsylvania is in direct violation of the law when it says: “And despite a 2007 federal requirement, Pennsylvania has yet to give the National Instant Criminal Background Check System the records of 5000,000 people with mental illnesses who are barred from buying a handgun.”
The recent high profile shootings in Colorado, Wisconsin, and New York City coupled with the daily less-publicized violence that occurs in local communities must compel us to pressure our leaders and raise our voices against this madness. Polls show that most Americans agree with the sentiments expressed in this blog, but the concern has not risen to the level of acting and voting on those convictions. Until that happens and we get moving, the madness will continue.
(While this incident is several weeks old, I did not post this blog until now out of respect for Officer Walker's memory. By all accounts he was deeply loved and caring man, with a strong Christian faith. His "homegoing service" was a tribute to the character of a man who loved his community and lived his values every day.)
Friday, August 24, 2012
Like most of the folks who voted for then-Senator Obama to become president four years ago, I was sold on the promise of “hope and change.” While I have been politically aware and involved since my college days, I rarely had found a candidate who I could believe in and support like Barack Obama. He talked about bringing a change to government that would be more sensitive to the needs of the poor, and would move past the liberal-conservative debate. However, once in office faced with a huge financial crisis and surrounded by a group of former and present Wall Street bankers and financiers, Obama made some moves that both Democrats and Republicans supported (though now the latter disavow any part in it) to prop up the “banks too big to fail” while the gap between the haves and have-nots grew even widers. Along the way he proposed a revamped health care system, supported gay marriage, provided an avenue for Dream-ers to become legal residents, provided money for projects rebuilding infrastructure and sought to address the sagging public school system. While I have not always support the ways he went about these things, at least they have been on his radar.
Now that the Republicans have solidified their presidential candidate team with Romney and Ryan, there is no question that they have decided on a course of action that will benefit the wealthy and the corporations, deprive basic needs for the poor and indigent, remove regulations on banks and business, return to the flawed policy of primarily supporting carbon-based fuels, and generally run a government that will benefit the few at the expense of the many. Over the last four years, the Republican leadership under pressure from the Tea Party and big money have taken a no-compromise approach to government simply feeding the polarization that was there before 2008. In contrast the Democrats under Obama have sought to find a “middle ground” – either out of a commitment to consensus government or just plain spinelessness – I have never been really clear.
Well, Mr. President, its time to return to hope and change. There are many of us who still embrace your vision of a more inclusive, more just, more compassionate America. The issue for us is not more or less government, but what kind of government: a government that recognizes that poor people are citizens too, that wealthy people need to pay their fair share, that quality education and health care should be a right not a privilege, and that while business is an important part of our economy, government is more than simply about serving the desires of business at the expense of the general population. In a sense Mr. President, we want to hold you to your promises and to the vision that you presented four years ago.
In that way we don’t want you to spend your ad time and campaigning Romney/Ryan bashing, but rather presenting a vision of what you would and could do if given a second term. Every week I get phone calls, emails and junk mail from the Democrats bashing the opposition; I’m sorry but that’s not what motivates me. Psychologists tell us that fear and anger are short term motivators, but hope and love last over a long time. The change needed to transform this country is long term, longer than your next 4 year term. We are in a struggle for the future and soul of the country; more than that millions of lives are at stake when we talk about government initiatives in healthcare, poverty reduction, education and the like.
Like Reinhold Neibuhr I recognize that the work of government involves compromise and struggle, and that what government achieves will fall short of perfection. But like contemporary prophets such as Martin Luther King, and the Anabaptist peacemakers thru the centuries, I believe the role of people of faith is to call government, society and culture to a higher standard, even when I recognize it will fall short of reaching that standard. Mr. President, when you spoke of hope and change you pointed us to that higher ideal. I support your original vision – please return and you will have my active support. Continue to run negative ads and you will have my vote, but not much more.
Friday, August 17, 2012
Now that Governor Romney has picked Rep. Paul Ryan as his VP running mate for November's election, the Republicans have made very clear that they are not on the side of restoring social services or redistributing wealth, but rather to serve the greed of the corporations, big banks, and the wealthy 1%. This video clearly lays out the reasons for the disparities and points in the direction of a movement that must occur. I encourage you to take the seven minutes it takes to watch this video, and consider how you might get involve in establishing a "new bottom line.
Monday, August 13, 2012
I write this on my last night of two weeks (Aug 1-14) in Colombia with BuildaBridge and Eastern University Urban Studies students. While here in Bogota we have worked in collaboration with local community artists to run an arts camp for kids. Two of our members conducted a 3-day training for artists on the BuildaBridge Arts in Transformation model for over 50 local artists. A mural was painted on a site that had been the local trash heap. We also have visited community arts organizations in Bogota, and have been inspired and humbled by the dedication and creativity of those seeking to bring arts to kids in deprived communities. Throughout we have been partnering with a local Christian community development foundation, Communidad Vita. While we came to give our time and expertise, in many ways we have received as much or more than we have given.
|Before the Mural|
For me this has been an eye-opening experience as to the power of the arts to teach life lessons and inspire hope in people. I spent the week assisting the drama instructor, Stevie Neale. Stevie is a gifted theater improv artist. Along with her Colombian counterpart, Johany Mora, I was able to see kids with no drama training begin to grasp the essentials of the acting craft. We literally performed street theater, using a busy street as our drama space, since none other space was available to us. Several times every afternoon, we would have to move our props out of the way of an oncoming vehicle. While it was frustrating and disruptive for those of us teaching, the kids took it in stride. This was their life, their reality. This street was their playground, and despite disruptions and distractions, they were able to learn and put on a simple play about helping one another in their neighborhood. At the end, the kids and adults thanked us for our work, and yet they had been the teachers in many ways.
The most frustrating and therefore humbling, thing for me was being an English speaker in a Spanish speaking country. My elementary school Spanish was hardly sufficient to effectively communicate with the kids I worked with, shop owners we visited, or friends we encountered. Throughout our time here, I have learned a number of Spanish expressions, but in the midst of trying, I experienced the mental and emotional fatigue that anyone must feel when being in a place where their first language is not spoken. While I was able to get by often with broken Spanish, hand gestures, and a friendly English-speaking passerby who would help translate, in the end that part of the trip was exhausting. Not being able to communicate on simple matters, not to mention complex thoughts, after a while wore me down. While I have always tried to be sensitive to people in the U.S. for whom English is not a first language, I come away from this trip with a much deeper appreciation for the challenges non-English speakers face in the U.S.. Furthermore, to those who want to press for “English only”, I suggest they go to another country for a few weeks, and see how easy it is to learn a language when you are just trying to get by.
I feel like I have gotten to know my colleagues and students much better over this time. When you spend two weeks with folks in such an intense period, you see each other much more clearly. This probably has been the most gratifying part of the trip. Moreover, I feel like I have made some friendships here in Bogota, which I hope can be nurtured and continued. I came to this country with an open mind, and I leave with a full heart. I am thankful for those who made the trip possible, and for the many people I encountered and the things I have learned.
[All pictures used by permission of Nathan Corbitt and BuildaBridge]
Tuesday, August 07, 2012
This past week and next (Aug 1-14) I am in Bogota, Colombia with a group of Urban Studies students from Eastern University working with the arts organization BuildaBridge conducting training for community artists and running an arts camp for children alongside of some of those local artists. We are working with a local Christian church and foundation that is seeking to do community development in a neighborhood called La Montana (the mountain), which literally sits on the side of a steep hill that lies between a middle class neighborhood below and an upper middle class neighborhood above. Unlike the neighborhoods on either side of it, La Montana has no pavement on its streets, no garbage pickup or other basic services. The houses mostly are poorly constructed and many tap into power lines illegally for any electricity they might have. In fact many of the people came to live in this neighborhood simply by taking up residence without any legal permission to do so, and so could be removed at any time.
One of the things we have heard repeatedly during our time here from people in the community and community workers is the problem of violence directed at children. One teacher told us that in neighborhoods like La Montana that are desperately poor, children are required by their parents to bring home some food or money to help support the family; when they fail to do so they are beaten. Young girls are raped by their fathers and step fathers, and drugs are a constant problem. As a result many of these children grow up to pursue a life of drugs and violence and the cycle continues.
Running thru La Montana is a very steep path from top to bottom. While it is not particularly long, one can imagine at certain times of day or night, it might not be particularly safe for outsiders to the neighborhood without an escort. All of this has led me to reconsider the Biblical story of the Good Samaritan, told by Jesus in Luke 10. The point of the story is to illustrate the qualities and actions of a “good neighbor” and focuses on the selfless action of a Samaritan who goes out his way to help a man robbed and beaten by thieves. The actions of the Samaritan are contrasted with the callous disregard of a priest and a Levite who pass by without helping even though they see the man on the side of the road. However, I have never heard or read any comment on the thieves in this story, even by Jesus.
One of the contributions liberation theology makes to our understanding of how to read and interpret the Bible is the importance of reading the Scriptures in context not only of its time, but also in the time and place of the reader. Working in La Montana, a community of “thieves” and other illegal persons, causes me to ask “what about the thieves?” Like the path in La Montana, the road from Jericho to Jerusalem on which the story of the Good Samaritan occurred, was a steep and windy road with many places for thieves to lie in wait for their victims. For all we know it could have been a place where people not allowed into either Jerusalem or Jericho eked out an existence in the caves and rocks of that area. Perhaps that road was “home” to a number of people who survived by way of any means possible.
So what about the thieves? Why were they on the side of the road and what led them there? What were their lives like before this incident that they would be driven to a life of violence and anti-social behavior? What beatings, rapes and suffering had they endured at the hands of others? How had their worldview been shaped by desperate circumstances?
All commentators on this story, including Jesus, treat the thieves as an afterthought, yet this week I find myself moving among thieves and potential thieves who are 5-10 years old who are simply trying to survive in a world that has treated them as an afterthought. Through the arts camp we are attempting to teach basic art skills (music, dance, sculpture, theater, and painting), and essential life skills, and to plant seeds of hope that can be further watered and nurtured by local artists and community workers with whom we are working in an effort to direct the lives of these little “thieves” in other directions.
However, the issue is not just Colombian. In the U.S. we have criminalized nearly 12 million undocumented migrants to the U.S. who like the kids of La Montana are just trying to survive. The rhetoric around illegal immigration would make one think the so called “illegals” are just parasites and scabs on our economy. However anyone who has taken the time to learn the story of what it takes for people simply to get into the United States would know that scabs and parasites don’t risk their lives multiple times in multiple ways just to become a hanger-on. They don’t work for less than minimum wage and live in tight and crowded quarters just to “steal” someone else’s opportunity.
Catholic priest and writer Henri Nouwen introduced me to the theological insight that all persons are both sinners and sinned against. Traditional Christianity has tended to focus on the former and call people to confession, repentance and a change of lifestyle. However, what is often overlooked is that the “sins” that we and others often commit are a response to sins committed against us. For instance, we know that most people, who abuse children, were abused as children themselves. Their “sins” reflect the fact they were sinned against when they were younger. I wonder about the thieves in the story of the Good Samaritan, could it be their actions on that day were a response and result to the abuse and degradation they themselves had and were suffering?
Of course we cannot know, but it’s a thought that causes me to look at this familiar story in an entirely different light, and to consider again that the categories we often put people in dehumanize and objectify them in ways that make them an afterthought. Were I in the crowd the day Jesus told this story, I would want to say “Jesus, I get your point about the Good Samaritan and all, but what about the thieves? How should we regard them? Why were they there and how has sin been inflicted such pain and suffering on them that they could do such a heinous thing to innocent traveler? Of course, we can’t really know, but after this week, I will not be able to read that story without considering the thieves as real people with real stories too.
[All pictures used by permission of Nathan Corbitt and BuildaBridge]
After the shooting in the Aurora, CO movie theater I wrote all my state and national legislators urging them to pass laws to restrict the sale of military issue weapons, and to limit the number of weapons an individual could purchase. On the day I learned of the shooting in the Sikh Temple in Wisconsin, I received a reply from Rep. Pat Meehan, my representative in Congress indicating (in response to my earlier letter) that he agreed with Pres. Obama (one of the few times he ever has) who advocates strengthening the enforcement of existing laws. The fallacy of this position is that the weapons used in these and all the other mass shootings over the last few years (Virginia Tech, Fort Hood, Aurora, and Tucson) were committed with guns purchased legally.
Despite the rhetoric as to his being a threat to the gun lobby, Pres. Obama has done more to weaken gun laws than his NRA member predecessor George W. Bush. He allowed the assault weapons ban to expire and signed legislation allowing guns to be carried in National Parks. He has not put more teeth into the data base that checks on those who seek to purchase guns, even provisions regarding mental health on which has spoken but not acted. He has not challenged the Tiahrt Amendment, nor has he in any way challenged the gun lobby or the NRA or the gun industry to come up with real solutions to the proliferation of guns into the hands of people such as those who committed these and other heinous crimes. Furthermore, neither Congress nor most of state legislatures have done anything to limit the number of handguns or other weaponry that a person can buy nor given police proactive tools ( such as a law requiring lost and stolen guns to be reported).
The problem that these recent shootings highlight (yet again) is it that it is the laws themselves that are contributing to the problem. When non-military and non-law enforcement people such as the Aurora killer can collect an arsenal not only of guns but other explosive devices legally, the problem is not enforcement, it is the law itself. When para-military groups espousing white supremacist hatred can roam freely and gather weaponry, the problem is the law.
However, when these common sense solutions don’t even get a hearing, the problem is not just the law; it is a system of government that allows powerful lobbies with deep pockets like the NRA to buy silence and inaction from representatives. It is a system that has a Supreme Court that renders a decision like Citizens United which allows money to dictate who gets heard in Congress and who does not. It is a system that so broadly interprets the Second Amendment that owning a gun is a right without responsibility or just cause.
The problem is also us that we aren’t so outraged that we demand to be heard and that we are always reacting rather than seeking to disrupt this system that is so corrupt and so unresponsive to the real problems people face (here I refer not only to guns but also so much more), because it is only serving the needs of an elite few. I am not sure at this point what that disruption looks like, but it seems that is time for an Occupy Washington, and Occupy (fill in your state capitol), where we take up residence in the legislative halls and streets that supposedly belong to the people and demand action that our elites are not willing to take.
Saturday, July 21, 2012
Columbine, Virginia Tech, Fort Hood, Tucson, now Aurora. Add to this the dozens of school shootings in the last few years, and the shootings that take place almost daily in numerous urban communities. Have we lost our minds as a culture? What happened in Aurora is a tragedy of huge proportions, but our failure to act to these and previous shootings, speaks to a deeper sickness at the heart of our culture.
What happened Thursday night/Friday morning in the Aurora, CO movie theater is lunacy. This goes way beyond Second Amendment Rights. How does a 24 year old neuroscience PhD student legally buy an assault rifle, a 12 gauge shot gun and two Glock pistols? What justification is there for a young man with no military or police training to obtain weapons whose only purpose is to fight in war? What keeps our legislators from passing common sense gun laws that would require someone buying military-style weapons to undergo an extensive background checks and provide a justification for purchasing such high-powered weapons? We make truck drivers and bus drivers pass a more rigorous test, why not those purchasing high powered weapons?
See article "For Democrats, Guns Are Bad Politics")
The media line that there isn’t political will in the country for gun control is an oversimplification. Consistently, polls show that when asked, a significant majority of people in the U.S. prefer some sort of gun control, but it’s not a critical issue for most of them, one on which their vote might hinge. However, for ardent gun-enthusiasts, often whipped up by NRA propaganda, “gun rights” as they call them, are such an issue. They often utilize the slippery slope argument – that banning or limiting assault rifles will eventually lead to the abrogation of the right to own any weapon. Moreover, the NRA spends a ton of money, almost more than any other political interest group, to keep legislators at federal and state levels from acting on any proposed gun control legislation. Thus, politicians get pressure and money from the pro-gun lobby, and little push back from those who think we need common sense gun legislation.
However, there is more that goes unnoticed and unspoken. The shooter, James Holmes, obviously dressed up to look like Batman – dark suit, gas mask, bullet proof vest. Reports further indicated that a few years ago he also had a fascination with the Joker character in the previous Batman movies. We like to kid ourselves that the violence that regularly fills our movie, TV and computer screens has no effect on us. It is only when someone goes a little over the edge that we notice the violence that permeates popular culture. James Holmes simply allowed the violence to go too far – but all of us support it, pay for it, and imbibe it.
People of conscience can no longer fail to act. It starts with looking within and examining our own fascination with violence. How captive are we to shows like “24”, “Boardwalk Empire” or Batman that ooze with excessive and gratuitous violence? Moreover, what kind of pressure can we put on our state and national legislators to take action to at least limit the kinds of weapons people can buy and the frequency with which they buy them? We can demand that our legislators repeal the Tiahrt Amendment, and conceal and carry laws, while renewing the assault weapons ban. We can demand that our state legislators pass “one gun a month laws” and requirements to report lost or stolen guns (these laws would cut down on the illegal gun trade, the former would limit the legal gun trade.).