Friday, October 2, 2015

Trying to Be Happy

We are in midst of the holiday of Sukkot and we are commanded to be happy.  But once again we find ourselves dealing with the all too common events of another mass shooting.  This time I watched the President of the United States show a measure of anger that many of us feel but it was quickly beaten back by the legions of voices who think the answer to gun violence is more guns.  At least I have so far avoided the evil rhetoric of Wayne LaPierre of the NRA.

What is amazing is that I had a busy day yesterday and I got home later and watched the so-called news channels to get more information.  I switched over to Fox News during a commercial to see the same old tired nonsense.  One woman was saying that gunmen choose these targets because they know no one else there has a gun.  I heard the same thing repeated on a couple of morning shows.  However in Oregon, the law allows for students with concealed carry permits to bring guns onto state campuses so it not only wasn't a gun-free zone but the gunman had no way of knowing that someone wasn't armed.  I don't think he cared if they were.  Most of these shooters are not stable enough to think through the situation and frankly are looking for glory that may well involve them ending their own life and taking others with them.  That is there desire.  They want to stop whatever pain they feel and for once in their life be someone.   They really want to feel important and leave a mark.

So the argument is that he wouldn't be able to kill as many people.  That is not proven by facts.  There was a fire fight with campus police at Columbine.  But studies show that the vast majority of civilians when confronted with an active shooter do not have the ability to react fast enough and in some cases not only make themselves a target if they pull their weapon but helps keep the shooter armed.  In some cases we hear of brave people who do fire back and subdue or kill the suspect, but in many of those cases the hero was an off duty police officer or military.  Again the vast majority of people hesitate or are in shock when faced with a loaded weapon pointed at them and the idea of a room full of confused or scared armed individuals does not comfort me.

Even more so is the idea that these so called good guys with a gun as the NRA likes to talk about are not great shots and sometimes do more harm.  Early this week an armed person tried to stop a car jacking and instead shot the victim in the head and fled the scene.  Think about it.  You are being car jacked and you give up the keys and the perp is about to leave you alone, all you lost is your car and someone thinking they are a hero shoots you.  How is that better?

Like I have written before American gun violence occurs on many fronts and has many causes and the answers to stem this violence is not easy.  Be it gang violence of the inner-city, mass shootings like this one at the college in Oregon, heat of passion violence that is so common in domestic situations we don't see it on the news if not in our neighbors or any kind of dispute that ends with shots being fired, the common denominator are the access of guns by people who may not have the capacity to handle such a lethal piece of equipment.

We must find a way to stop these kinds of attacks while preserving the rights that helped make this country what it is.  But like I have said time and again, it starts with a conversation.  The vast majority of this country agrees with me if polls are to be believed.  Let's hold our elected officials to it.  We don't need to ban all guns or violate the 2nd amendment in its current interpretation to talk and find compromise.  Hell, leave the NRA and the Brady people out of the conversation but have the damn talk.  Children are dying for no reason, we can't call ourselves a great country anymore if houses of worship, college and high school classrooms, and movie theaters require armed guards and metal detectors.  We are talking about sending people to Mars how is this harder?

Get involved, be you and anti-gun advocate or a gun owner you can help by just talking, not being a jerk and thinking for yourself.  I promise you will lose nothing just talking.  Who knows you may have the brilliant answer that is eluding all of us.

Ufros Aleinu Sukkat Shlomecha ופרש עלינו סכת שלומך — Spread over us Your shelter of peace  May this Shabbat find peace for all of us.

Thursday, September 3, 2015

And So This Happened...

Kim Davis is the elected county clerk of Rowan County Kentucky.  Among her duties is to issue marriage licenses to those who qualify by law to marry.  Recent Supreme Court ruling on this issue of people of the same sex marrying means those laws, already on the books apply to same sex couples and those that the block same sex couples from getting married are null and void as they violate the Constitution of the United States.  Davis has decided that her religious convictions do not allow her to issue these licenses.  That is her right, but the thing is that since her job as a government official is to allow others to have access to their rights the conflict should not be resolved by her not doing her job, but getting out of the way so someone else can do it.  She can resign and walk away from the situation she can’t comfortably do or face the legal consequences. 
We found out today that those legal consequences are jail.  I am sure this is what she wanted.  She seems to be edging toward becoming the martyr that the anti-gay marriage crowd wants.  It didn’t take long until there were people all over the airwaves and social media saying that this was persecution of liberals.  Included in those voices were people who want to be President of the United States. 
Davis is not going to jail for being Christian, she is going to jail for defying a court order. She is going to jail for contempt of court. She chooses to be a county clerk, she must follow a legal order or face consequences. People supporting her are using fallacious arguments and are missing the point. She can claim her Christianity and stand on any street corner and preach but she can't use her government office to enforce her vision of Christianity on the entire county.
There are plenty of times when we must stand up for our religious freedom.  The government should not stand in the way of worship or belief.  But that is not what is going on here and this is not a case of someone standing up against the tyranny of the state.  This is about someone who has decided her particular view of Christianity supersedes the law.  That is not an American value and anyone who tells you it is, is either lying or ignorant. 

So this county clerk will sit in a cell.  People in Rowan County will be able to get marriage licenses from deputy clerks.  The right wing noise machine will have faux outrage, and people will explain the role of the Supreme Court and the 14th amendment.  In the meantime, real religious persecution will go unreported and people who claim liberty as the center of our culture will argue that discrimination is a Christian value.  Is that really what our country needs?  

Sunday, August 30, 2015

Mourn the Death and Fight Like Hell for the Living

Earlier this week we were all stunned by the live on TV murder of a local Roanoke Virginia news team while doing a remote report.  The stunning video of the news feed quickly bounced around the internet and news directors had to decide to play it or not.  Then came the video taken by the gunman posted by him showing his point of view as he took the lives of two young people.  It wasn't long until we realized that this man, a highly disturbed individual, did this in a twisted form of revenge.  A former colleague who had been fired for his belligerence and failures as a reporter.  In fact we learned he was known for out bursts and difficulty and had threatened some of his co-workers.  When he was fired he had to be escorted from the building by the police.  In his manifesto he cited his world view that racism played a role in his failure and that the reason church shooting where a young white man wanted to start a race war was the straw that broke his proverbial camel's back.  He was going to further that cause.  

This story struck me hard because in fact the angry man, failing and fired, blaming racism, is the story that 28 years ago changed my life.  When Jamie Morton reached out to the white guy that lived across the hall only to find his soon-to-be fiance.  He killed Linda and later stated because of how the white folks treated him and having just been fired from his job.

I have lived an entire life since then, a generation has passed and still the same story comes out.  Only now, social media and 24 hour news channels make this a far bigger story and a way for these people to promote their own personal struggles and delusional visions.  We will never end this kind of violence because it doesn't make sense.  The way the mind of some of these individuals work is not rational and cannot be reasoned with at all.  We often talk of people snapping, but later we realize that is not the case.  We see signs in many aspects of their life that lead us to think there is something wrong and yet it isn't our business so we move to a safe distance.  In the case of the recent killing the manager of the station were the victims and the killer worked had to have police physically remove him from the building and other workers feared for their lives for months after he left and still, nothing.  But time did not mitigate that threat and two years later he killed two people on live television in what I am sure to him was a crowning glory.

Our country and culture is based on a set of personal freedoms that allow for a wide variety of ways of living one's life as long as other's rights are not violated.  While that is a simplistic statement for sure, we do require a high level of evidence of danger of a person to isolate them from society.  A person who gets angry upon being fired and forced from the building is not guilty of a crime that would require incarceration.  But what is threats were?  What if simply suggesting that you were going to come back and kill people was enough to get you locked up?  Sounds extreme I know.  The last thing I want to see if more people in prison.  But we lock people up for far less and some for their entire lives for far less.  Can we at least have a conversation about it?  I hear Presidential candidates talking about tracking people in the country on Visas, and hunting down those in our country without proper documentation to deport them, even revoking birthright citizenship to applause and cheers.  What if we did a serious effort to find, engage, treat and/or isolate in a humane way, people who have a track record of threatening behavior and are prone to violence outbursts?  What if we developed a culture that instead of ignoring and pushing aside people like this to stew in their delusional world view we tried to help them crush their demons?  What if we didn't laugh about the guy who took offense to a joke and teased him behind his back but asked the questions to understand why he was offended?  There is a lot there to think about.  But when we look at the news the stories are boiled down and dumbed down to a few platitudes about race or guns.

The world has changed a great deal since I lost my Linda, but the way we think really hasn't.  Since that horrific live TV murder we have heard many stories of violence taking lives, including the assassination of a deputy sheriff in Texas.  Each new story washes away the horror of the previous one and replaces it with a new patina of outrage.  But do we ever really get into the cause and more importantly the stem the tide of these events.  All I know is that I will keep the Linda's memory in my heart this week as I think back on the life not lived.  This year carrying that of others who were cut down by a failed culture that cannot seem to find its way to true peace.  But I also know that we should never stop striving for it.

Monday, August 10, 2015

Donald Trump is Frenchy Martin

Donald Trump is turning the GOP campaign for the Presidential nomination into an old style Pro-Wrestling show.  A show where everyone pretends what is being done and said is real but we all know that it is simply theatre.  While as entertaining for many it will be to see Trump rage on TV and tell us how good he is at everything, there is a certain amount of seriousness that needs to be addressed by those wanting to lead this great country.   Instead we have this despicable misogynistic drowning out the debate.  He has taken on a role of a heel that would thumb his nose at the fans, the referees and the crowd.  Any everyone loved it.

The character he is playing however is not the big name heel of the heyday of wrestling but he is a caricature and the perfect person is Frenchy Martin. A Canadian wrestler,  Frenchy Martin,  was a wonderful wrestler who became a manager speaking for his beloved Quebec, bringing French Canadian wrestlers out to fight the American babyfaces.  Frenchy was known for carrying a sign that said "USA is Not Okay".  He would called the American political leaders stupid and rail against America's failures, sound familiar?   He would tell people how smart he was and would attack anyone who questioned him.

But even more Frenchy once wrestled as the Masked Cyclops and when unmasked one time he ran around the ring as the announcers said "It's Frenchy Martin", he said, "It's not me".   This is Trump, says stuff and when caught says "I didn't say that, It's not me.".

I said earlier that the media, and specifically the right wing media, has created this guy.  His tone is typical of the loud mouths that are not attacking him.  Erik Erickson is a great example, Google his misogyny and bring a bucket.  Trump is taking the model that has screamers on the radio and Fox News making millions and bringing it into the arena of real life politics.  But here is the thing.  Back in the day of Frenchy, the wrestlers all pretended that everything is real.  All knew they were playing a character.  They were all actors and some very good, with the intent of drawing out emotions without showing just how scripted and structured it was.  Trump seems to be like those all style wrestlers who got angry when someone challenged their so-called sport.  I am still convinced the Trump is not only not a real candidate but is simply enjoying the attention.  When asked questions he deflects, doesn't answer and attacks the questioner.  Just like Frenchy would do both as a wrestler and a manager.  Maybe someone should ask Vince McMahan to call him and tell him in the 90s the current was pulled back and we all know that the wrestlers are putting on a play.  Oh and maybe he can tell Trump to tone it down, I mean wrestling and politics have become family shows.

Monday, July 27, 2015

God Was In this Place

Yesterday I made my annual trip to North United Methodist church for a service led in part by our Duke interns to the Global Interfaith Partnership's Umoja project.  For those who do not know the Umoja project is an interfaith program that provides support for infants and vulnerable children in Western Kenya.  As a long-time board member I have seen the project mature and every year.  As part of that growth,  we have two interns from Duke Divinity School spend several weeks in Kenya at the project schools where we support these youth. Elizabeth Styron and Kadeisha Kilgore were the two women who went this year. They offered their ability to minister to the families in Kenya, give an American presence that helps continue to cement the relationships we have developed with our congregations, the teachers and the guardians in Kenya that make the program work.

Our interns always bring back information that is hard to collect from shorter visits and certainly from this side of the world.  This year was no different.  They told stories of a young girl taking her national exam to earn her opportunity to further her education,while her mother lay dying at home. As this young woman was trying to advance her own life her mother lost hers.  This tragic story is an extreme one based on a common theme.  The students we support in Kenya know that education is the way that they will transform their own lives and the lives of their community.  Their energy toward getting good scores, which are necessary to move on in school, is remarkable.  This story stunned but did not surprise me.  Many of the students I met and others have seem laser focused on school, when not having to find ways to meet the basic needs of life (food, shelter and physical safety).  The interns allow for seeing those moments in a day-to-day action and thus not simply a snapshot of a moment.  We learn a great deal of how our program is doing something powerful in Kenya.

At times there are doubts about the efficacy of our program in any important way.  We can say feed 3000 children, providing school fees for 100 students, and so on is something, but we can also think of thousands more that could use the support.  Worldwide we see daily places where our time, money and energy can be put to use and even at home there is hunger, abuse, and undereducated children we pass on the way to work.  However, one of the things the interns always bring back for me is the nature of the relationship, the connection of souls.  We aren't simply providing access to food and school, we are building community together.  That girl who is working on her future, knowing her mother is dying at home teaches us the power of what we are doing.  Watching our graduates who are off to university and coming back to change their community shows me that our small, directive and personal program is doing something far more than trying to create a giant program that dumps money into a community without the connection.

There are times I have had doubts about what we are doing, when there are problems with securing food, when we hear about the failed ability to help all who qualify, when it just seems like a drop in the bucket I can listen to the interns who come back and I am reenergized.  I see it in the eyes of a girl taking a test, a guardian who proudly shows off a test score or a boy who smiles and says God will provide for me and God brought you to me.  Hope is a slippery thing to grab onto at times, but today I have hope.  Thank you to Keisha and Liz for bringing that back from Kenya for me.  It is better than any carved wooden giraffe.  

Sunday, July 12, 2015

Donald Trump, the WWE candidate

Donald Trump is at the top of several Republican primary polls going into the debate season which starts in August.  It means that he will be seen as a legitimate candidate and be on the stage when some former and sitting governors and senators will not.  Several pundits have acted like this is somehow surprising and attempt to explain it away.   I don't understand their surprise.  Donald Trump has been part of celebrity culture as long as I can remember.  He is a larger than life figure and plays that role very well.  There was a time when people looked at Trump as a symbol of American Capitalism. However his personal life, TV shows and of course his bombastic speech have made him the perfect symbol and champion of the followers of the right wing noise machine that is built on constant outrage.  Will he get the nomination or be elected?  No he won't.  In fact once votes start to mean something the more establishment Republicans will rally around a single candidate they think could win.  Likely Scott Walker or Jeb Bush, both with executive experience and good relationships inside the party and can appeal to some moderate Democrats.  But as this Sunday dawns the morning shows have made Donald Trump the opening statement across the board.   
Donald Trump is a celebrity who is acting like a candidate.  An egomaniac that has spent his life looking for adulation, telling us how good he is, how wonderful, smart, sexy and virile he is.  He in fact is like a template for a pro-wrestling heal who people love to hate but will cheer for him when he turns on someone they hate more.  And that is exactly what Trump is doing.  Tapping into an anti-establishment feeling that has been the bread and butter of the right wing radio screamers, Trump is getting the followers that feed off his fame and angry language. 
For some Trump's celebrity can be seen as a negative, but as a culture we tend to worship celebrity. Right now it is part of what drives those that show up at his rallies and tell pollsters they like him.   Celebrities have become like house gods.  People try to connect with celebrity more and more and with social media it has become easier.  We look to those people who are famous for what to wear, how to talk, and sometimes seek their divine intervention on our lives using connections to them as good luck charms.  I once saw a woman in a casino cover a slot machine with pictures of a particular boy band to the point she couldn’t even see the wheels.  As she pulled the lever she would call to the members to help her win.  While that is an extreme I think there is an unconscious idea that fame means the person is special, bigger than us.  Trump is a perfect storm in that his celebrity and wealth has been admired and worshiped for decades and now he is the voice of so many who feel put upon by a culture that is less comfortable open bigotry that Trump is embracing.  A group of people who daily are bombarded by childish rhetoric designed not to inform but to bring out emotion.  So Donald Trump makes sense in our current culture.  That is sad.  It will be fun to watch for a while.  If you aren’t the target of his hateful rhetoric.  Now we just need a face to rise up and take him on.

Wednesday, May 6, 2015

Let's Talk About Sex

While I know it has been a while since I have written here I feel like the world has made it difficult to actually express myself in any real way.  I cannot understand how to express myself on some matters but several recent stories in the news and in my life has me thinking once again about how screwed up our culture has become about sex and sexuality.  But the story that has pushed me out of slump is one that would make me angry if it wasn't so clearly comical.  You see it is another example of the failure of the lack of sexuality education that is meaningful.  In Texas a high school has had a huge outbreak of Chlamydia.   Their approach to sex education is "Don't Do It" and they will talk about if for a total of 3 days each year.  This does not prepare young people for the reality of the fact that we are born to be sexual beings and that those drives, feelings and subsequent behavior is often ignored. 

We are born to have sex, it is a primal drive and it extremely pleasurable.  It is also something that uncomfortable for people to fully discuss in our culture.  Virtually everyone is sexual to some extent and those that aren't often see themselves as wanting to be able to explore that part of themselves.  In fact it drives much of human behavior throughout our evolutionary history and sexual desire can be blamed for both great tragedies and great accomplishments over the millennia of human civilization.  But as we evolved as a species and as societies developed, how we approach our sexuality has changed.  Most human cultures don't simply act on sexual desire without conscious thought and we can find someone attractive and even desirable without abandoning the civility that has created our own structure of how sexuality works.  While there are in fact some communities that open sexuality are the norm, they are often hidden from the larger society and even when known are seen as an aberration and not ubiquitous.  But we know that we all have the desire and even if you are married and deeply in love you can still easily find someone else attractive but that doesn't mean you have to act on those feelings.  That is what it means to be human.  One of the things that clearly separates us from the other members of the animal kingdom is the fact that we have evolved beyond that need and we can control our desires, sexual and others.

so what does that have to do with education?  Well that is a learned thing.  The social contract that we all agree to, especially in Western culture, is that we are not rampant sexual beings and we approach our sexuality as more than a physical thing.  Our behaviors must have thoughts associated with them.  We can talk about being in love, but in the current human condition, expressing our sexuality requires us to take on responsibility.  For young people, understanding that responsibility means learning about it.  The physical, emotional, and dare I say spiritual aspects of being as sexual being are all learned and how we incorporate them into who was are as a human being is an important goal. 

Now one can argue that this should be the exclusive purview of the parents.  Frankly I wish that were something that was done. It use to be.  Parents talked to their children about sexuality, to various degrees. Mothers helped daughters understand what to expect from their first sexual encounter and some cultures, even today, teach how to pleasure a partner when they are married or coupled in the fashion of that culture.  Human sexuality was part of the education even in religious cultures that spoke of sexuality as part of the covenant of marriage.  But like many things we have professionalized the most basic of human growth and development.  I fear most people are no longer equipped to have serious conversations about sex and sexuality with their own children.  Evidence of this is a commercial for an anti-drug campaign.  A boy comes home to find his dad with a display to talk to him about his surging hormones, the discomfort is abated when the topic switches to talking about drugs instead of sex
It appears talking to our kids about sex is so taboo we would rather do anything else.  Thus we want the schools to do it, but that became classes about plumbing and disease.  The problem is there is another aspect of our culture that revels in sexuality as a sales tool and sign of popularity.  It sells so much that a horribly written fan fiction of Twilight that had a BDSM theme sold a million copies and currently is spawning two movies that we titter about.  So young people who see value given to the child stars they followed coming out of their shell and doing explicit performances like Brittney Spears,  and Miley Cyrus or the fact we have made cultural heroes of people like the Kardashians confuses students when the only learning they are given is to have a teacher emphasize waiting to experience sex until marriage.  (Leaving out the fact that many places some of those kids can still not get married).  We also question young men who pledge virginity but that is a different post.

So what do we do?  I wish I had a magic bullet, no one does.  But what we know is that comprehensive sexuality education from an early age will in fact help make our young people grow into more mature and responsible sexual beings.  Discussions of sex not as a necessary evil but as a much of a pleasure of our existence as anything else; while at the same time discussing the amazing responsibility that comes with being sexually active at any level.  That is what works in other countries including Canada and frankly much of northern Europe.  We can do better.  Perhaps we need comprehensive sexuality education for all of us, at every age.  We can discuss not only how to view our own sexuality but how we pass down needed information and support for the next generation.  I don't know.  But stories like the Texas school are not as rare as we think.  Two decades ago it was suburban Atlanta that caused a firestorm.  Then came the idea of rainbow parties and high school kids playing a scary game on the internet meeting strangers for sex in an online 7 minutes in heaven kind of game.  As a culture we must continue to try to understand the issues of sexuality and the fact that we cannot stop young people, especially with the freedom they have today, from exploring their own growing sexual desires at younger ages.  We must also not assume that saying no is the answer.  Can we get past our own discomfort and find a way to do it?  What do we need to do it?