The Cult of the Gun

I don’t have anything left in the tank, so here is what I wrote for the church newsletter. 

Luke 22:35-38

Jesus said to them, ‘When I sent you out without a purse, bag, or sandals, did you lack anything?’ They said, ‘No, not a thing.’ He said to them, ‘But now, the one who has a purse must take it, and likewise a bag. And the one who has no sword must sell his cloak and buy one. For I tell you, this scripture must be fulfilled in me, “And he was counted among the lawless”; and indeed what is written about me is being fulfilled.’ They said, ‘Lord, look, here are two swords.’ He replied, ‘It is enough.’

As I was preparing for our Ash Wednesday service, the news came through – yet another school shooting, this time in Florida. Speculation, and then numbers began to come in, the body count of the wounded and the dead. Newscasters on the radio were crying, unable to finish their own sentences. On Twitter, kids who have survived their own school shootings were trying to talk these kids in Florida through what was happening happening, giving them advice on how to survive, while the shooting was ongoing, and after. Terrified school kids sent texts, like, “If I don’t make it, I love you.”  

The final count seems to be 14 wounded, 5 of whom suffered life-threatening injuries, and 17 dead.

This is, according to Everytown for Gun Safety’s records, the 18th school shooting so far in 2018, and the 8th school shooting to result in fatalities. (1) As I write this, it is only February 15th, so by the time you read this Perspective article, that number of school shootings will already be higher. Every 2 or 3 days, on average, we can expect another school shooting, and every 5 days or so, a school shooting in which children and educators are killed.

I have long since lost track. I am not even able to grieve these shootings, because they happen so often and so relentlessly. And each time, there are tears, and questions, and “thoughts and prayers”, but no change.

The school safety industry is now a nearly 3 Billion dollar one, as companies scramble to develop curricula and training programs around mass shootings. We can no longer, I think, act surprised when these shootings happen. School shootings are now a normal part of life in the United States. All over the country, in elementary and middle and high schools and colleges, kids are going through regular training in how to respond to an active shooter. All the way from Poppy in kindergarten in Royersford to my friend Carol’s daughter in high school in North Carolina, children are training in how to survive a mass shooting.

I wish I had hope that our situation would improve in this country, but I think back to the Sandy Hook shooting in 2012, where 20 children were killed, along with 6 teachers who died protecting them. At the time, a British journalist reflecting on our lack of response wrote the following: “In retrospect, Sandy Hook marked the end of the U.S. gun control debate. Once America decided killing children was bearable, it was over.” We decided, in particular our political leaders decided, that we would rather endure the deaths of hundreds of children than change our relationship to guns.

Since Sandy Hook, more than 400 people have been shot in more than 200 school shootings.

I know that a pastor taking up this issue for a newsletter article is a risk. It seems risky to bring up gun control and gun violence in the United States. But on the other hand, we are not having a gun control debate. We are not having a gun violence discussion. We have decided.

The research on gun violence is compelling, and it is summed up in a November 7, 2017 article in the New York Times titled “What Explains U.S. Mass Shootings? International Comparisons Suggest An Answer.” The article is available online if you’d like to read it, but the shortened version is that mental health has no correlation to gun violence (actually, a negative correlation). Video games and other media have no correlation to gun violence. The racial makeup of a nation, whether it is homogeneous or diverse, has no correlation to gun violence. The rate of non-violent crimes has no correlation to gun violence.

The only thing that correlates to gun violence, worldwide, is how many guns are in a society, and how easy it is to get them. Switzerland is a country where an above-average number of people own guns, but it is much more difficult to become a gun owner there than in the United States. Yemen is the only country on earth with anywhere near our number of guns per capita, and our ease of ownership, and they have a comparable problem with gun violence. (And we must remember that Yemen is in the midst of a man-made humanitarian disaster and civil war) We are a society with over 270 Million firearms, and we have the fewest restrictions on gun ownership of any country on Earth. And we are the only country on Earth that has the mass shooting problem we are seeing, and the only country on Earth with the school shooting problem we are seeing. In fact, our gun homicide rate is 50 times higher than countries with comparable wealth and standards of living.

Other countries have mental health issues, and violent video games, and violent media, and ethnic diversity, and crime, even at higher levels than we do. But none of them have the relationship to guns that we do. I would call that relationship, if I’m being honest, an idolatrous devotion to guns.

The passage from Luke that I quoted above is Jesus at his most warlike in all of the Gospels. This is the most approval Jesus ever gives for carrying or using any weapon. Every other time Jesus mentions a weapon, it is clearly metaphorical, but this time, he seems almost literal when he says ‘sell your cloak and buy a sword.’ There are three problems with seeing this passage as Jesus approving of owning weapons, however.

The first problem is that the “sword” in question, in Greek machaira, commonly referred to a large knife used for slaughtering animals. Picture a butcher’s knife, maybe at most a machete, and not a military weapon. A tool, not designed for killing people but for cutting up meat. (The Greek word for the war-weapon a soldier would carry was spatha)

The second problem is that, when presented with only two such knives, Jesus immediately says “It is enough.” In the NIV translation, they are more clear, and translated the Greek as Jesus saying, “That’s enough!”

The third problem is that, if Jesus really is promoting weapon ownership among his followers, it is in direct contradiction to everything else he has taught and done throughout his entire ministry. When Simon-Peter wields one of these butcher knives to wound a servant of the Temple, Jesus immediately rebukes Simon-Peter, and heals his enemy. That single wound is the entirety of Jesus’s followers’ violence and use of weapons.

So, my reading of this passage is actually that Jesus is speaking of swords metaphorically, the way he has done in other passages. A couple of his followers take what he says literally, holding up butcher knives as if they are part of some great army, and Jesus says “That’s enough!” Did Jesus think that two butcher knives were enough to overthrow the Roman Empire? I doubt it. He was also mindful of prophecy, and I believe this is an instance where he is doing and saying things so that they fulfill prophecies that referred to him, and would tell people what would happen (though seemingly none of them quite understood).

What I’m left with, for us, is the question: when will we have had enough? Sandy Hook wasn’t enough. The 200 school shootings since Sandy Hook have not been enough. The 400 deaths in those school shootings have not been enough. I doubt this most recent shooting in Florida will be enough, and I doubt the next shooting that will inevitably follow will be enough. We will get “thoughts and prayers”, and partisan bickering, and then a few days later, the next school shooting will happen.

Jesus hit his limit when two of his disciples pulled out butcher knives, and the moment someone actually used one of those butcher knives on another human being, Jesus rebuked the wielder and healed the enemy. If he is our example for what our relationship to weapons should be, where does that leave us?

At the beginning of Lent, traditionally a season of repentance, I think this is a good question with which to begin.

 

(1) Some people see the number 18 as inaccurate, and don’t agree with how Everytown defines “school shooting” as any time a weapon is discharged on school property, so I included the count of 8 that included fatalities.

Profiles in Positive Masculinity: DeRay Mckesson

I think that these profiles have been a little celebrity-heavy lately, and one of my goals is to focus on an attainable idea of positive masculinity. The problem being, of course, that it is hard to find non-celebrities who are people everyone knows about, or who I can describe in a brief blog post if they aren’t widely known.

One person who came to mind is DeRay Mckesson, a leader in the Black Lives Matter movement who has been on TV a lot but was a community activist first, and only became something of a celebrity because of the political situation in the United States. A community organizer even as a teenager, he ended up being a school administrator, before quitting his job to move to St. Louis. He had been spending all of his free time working with people in Ferguson, MO, in the aftermath of the fatal shooting of Michael Brown.

First, here’s a manly image of Mckesson, one of many times he was arrested in Ferguson (and Baton Rouge, and other places):

Mckesson didn’t start the Black Lives Matter movement (three women were the originators: Alicia Garza, Patrisse Cullors, and Opal Tometi), but he did quit his job to move to the Ferguson area full-time as an activist and leader. He brought to the Ferguson movement a lot of skill with social media and communication, and rose to a position of visibility. He is one of the go-to voices and faces of BLM in the media because of what he has written and what he has risked.

I like what I know of his story, because what he has done is something that anyone could potentially do. Mckesson is not (to my knowledge) a world-class athlete; didn’t come from a prominent, wealthy family; he isn’t a celebrity in some other area who is lending his face and name to BLM. He didn’t strike it rich or have a particular string of luck – I mean, he is partly well-known because of how often he’s been arrested, and that’s not something anyone enjoys. He’s also not some kind of Everyman, but in his passion and commitment I think we can see the best of ourselves.

Black Lives Matter, and I support that movement, because I see it as a continuation of the Civil Rights Movement, which has been ongoing for generations now. DeRay Mckesson’s words and actions also matter, and the relationships he has built matter, and his arrests matter. His struggle matters and his suffering matters, and through him, we are able to get a window into a whole movement. Anyone who gives themselves to a cause can matter in these ways, and one thing he does is show us that. Anyone can fight for what’s right, and one doesn’t have to hurt anyone, or threaten to hurt, or have a lot of political clout.

For showing us what commitment to a nonviolent struggle, and integrity, and eloquence can do, even for those who don’t come into the world with any particular advantage, DeRay Mckesson is our Profile in Positive Masculinity.

Tear Down Every Confederate Monument

Image result for tearing down confederate monument baltimore

Why Tear Them Down?

There are so many reasons to tear them down. They were erected primarily to intimidate black people in the South. Monuments went up at times we can best understand by looking not at the history of the Civil War but at the history of the Civil Rights struggle in the South. Preserving them has nothing to do with preserving history – books exist, and there is no chance of erasing the Civil War from American history, which is something that precisely no one wants to do. Confederate monuments do not preserve history, but they do seek to preserve white supremacy.

Image result for southern poverty law center confederate monuments

The Southern Poverty Law Center studied Confederate monuments and concluded that they are overwhelmingly placed in order to support white supremacy. 

Who is defending them? We have recently seen in Charlottesville and elsewhere that Nazis, the KKK and other white supremacist terrorist groups are the ones literally up in arms defending the Confederate legacy. Those are the people who are stepping up to defend these monuments – all the more reason to tear them down. Nazi support alone is a reason not to do something, and if we find symbols that Nazis and the KKK feel they can rally around, we should tear down those symbols and replace them with symbols that, ideally, Nazis and the KKK will detest.

Image result for jews will not replace us statue fans

The South Has A Lot to Be Proud Of

Maybe it’s hard, sometimes, for some Southerners to find things to be proud of, but I think that’s only because a significant number of them insist on trying to be proud of the Confederacy. It’s like a Robert DeNiro fan insisting on being a fan of The Adventures of Rocky and Bullwinkle, or insisting that Ben Kingsley’s greatest film was The Love Guru. The same people who decry participation trophies seem to desperately want to erect monuments to that time they were on the wrong side of history and lost a war. I have a lot of family in the South, and they don’t have to dig around for something to be proud of, nor do they need Nazis and white supremacists to tell them about their heritage. 

The Right Side of History

Most of the people who risked the most, fighting on the right side of history during the Civil Rights Movement, were Southerners. All Southerners can be proud of what black Southerners have fought for and achieved, and of the white Southerners who marched and fought beside them. But the people who showed the greatest courage, and fortitude, and restraint, and who achieved the most progress in the Civil Rights Movement of the 50s and 60s were Southerners. Where do you think they learned the values that carried them through that struggle? Where did they learn to fight like that?

Image result for montgomery bus boycott

American Music

American music has largely been defined by the South. Jazz, blues, bluegrass, country, folk, gospel and rock music all originated primarily in the South. While hip-hop originated in New York and LA, multiple strands and sub-genres have developed in the South. Most of the music we hear every day would not exist without Southern artists, and that has been true for at least a century.

Related image

Natural Beauty

The South includes places of incredible natural beauty. The Gulf coast, the Ozarks and Appalachian mountains, the Florida Keys, the barrier islands of the Atlantic coast, Daniel Boone National Forest, the bayous and waterways of Louisiana, the Craggy Gardens of North Carolina, and more. The South is beautiful, whether you like historic places or natural beauty. If we made more of these beautiful places into state or national monuments, it would also protect them for generations to come.

Image result for appalachian natural beauty

Writers and Storytellers

Many of the best American writers and storytellers have been, and are, Southerners. You might think of William Faulkner or Flannery O’Connor, or more recently Cormac McCarthy. We could be here all day listing great Southern writers, and the novels that many consider to be “great American novels” are largely representative of the South as well. In many ways, the voice of American storytelling is a Southern voice.

Image result for william faulkner

Tear Them Down and Replace Them

Of course people in other parts of the country have things to be proud of as well. They have music and art and natural beauty and their own history of struggle. That isn’t the point. The point is that the South does not need Nazis and the KKK and other white supremacist bigots to tell them what to be proud of. They don’t need white supremacist bigots to stick for them or tell them how to honor and protect their heritage. And they definitely don’t have to fall back on the Confederacy as the last great Southern moment. The South is good. The South should be proud. Just not proud of white supremacy and slavery.

So tear every Confederate monument down, and replace each one with something to truly be proud of. 

 

Profiles in Positive Masculinity: Jimmy Carter

Similar to my profile of Justin Trudeau, this is not about who James Earl Carter Jr. was as President of the United States. I’m more interested in someone who can maintain their integrity, even having risen to the highest position in the most powerful nation on Earth. (Or at least one of the two most powerful, since we’re talking about the 70s.) Before we go on, though, we need a manly picture of former President Carter:

Image result for jimmy carter building a house

The way that we structure power in most societies rewards toxicity – aggression, deception, tribalism and so on. Politics is, and always has been, rife with controversy and corruption because there are a lot of harmful behaviors that are rewarded. Normally, political leaders are judged on a different moral scale when compared to the rest of us. We expect a certain background radiation of scandal and abuse of power. When we find hypocrisy, we think “Well, of course, this person is a politician.” What this means is that it is all that much more difficult, I think, to be a genuinely decent person who rises to power in a modern society. You are competing with people who will have advantages over you. It’s like being in a boxing match where everyone else can hit below the belt. If you become a champion under those circumstances, that is noteworthy on its own.

But what happens after you’ve risen to power? In Jimmy Carter’s case, what happened was that he returned to his peanut farm in Georgia. He wrote books and taught at Emory University. Most interesting to me, though, is that he has spent the last few decades working with Habitat for Humanity, working with his hands to build houses for the poor, and serving as a face for Habitat in the world.

I find it a compelling story, that someone like an ex-President, with so much potential power and influence, would choose to work with his hands. It is easy to see this as a mistake, as a waste of time. Couldn’t someone else build those houses? Why not do something like fundraising, which excites so many other politicians? Or be a highly-paid speaker? Cultivate wealthy friends and establish a philanthropic fund of some sort? Instead, he picked up a hammer and saw.

I like that Jimmy Carter has remained connected to simple things, despite having one of the most complex jobs on Earth for four years. Whatever one might think of his presidency, his life after the presidency says a lot about who he is. Justin Trudeau seems to be a highly effective liberal politician – more effective than Carter was, at least so far, and one who often remains true to his stated values. Nick Offerman is an incredible craftsman who builds genuinely beautiful things in his workshop, and a reflective person who has things to say about life and how to live it. Jimmy Carter just builds basic low-income houses. But of the three, Jimmy Carter is the one that inspires me the most. To rise to power, and then be cast down publicly, and then devote one’s life to helping others says a lot about who Carter is.

Of course it matters how someone uses power, but it also matters how someone reacts to the loss of power. His decisive loss to Reagan ended his political career. So what did he do? Among other things, he picked up a hammer and got to work, on behalf of the most vulnerable people around him. That says a lot. If nothing else, Jimmy Carter is a 92 year old man who builds houses for the poor with his own hands. At that age, I’d be proud to be half that manly. Heck, I’d be proud to be half that manly now.

 

Profiles in Positive Masculinity: Justin Trudeau

Image result for justin trudeau yoga

Not hard to find a manly picture of Justin Trudeau. I like this one because it is strong but also flexible and playful, not just flexing in a mirror after being misted with faux-sweat or something.

And as I move on from Michael Forbes to my second Profile in Positive Masculinity, I need to clarify a few things. One is that I’m not a journalist, and I already work 60 hours a week and am a dad, so I don’t have time to do what I’d prefer, which is to go out locally and find unsung heroes of masculinity. I have to work with people who are famous one way or another. Second, I’m not advocating for or against Trudeau’s politics. That isn’t what this profile is about. In fact, I am going to focus on two specific instances of positive masculinity and leave it at that. I don’t know everything about Trudeau’s life, any more than I knew all about Forbes’ life.

And lastly, remember, this is not meant to be flawless masculinity. Just positive masculinity.

The first instance of positive masculinity I want to highlight came during Trudeau’s interview for the Daily Show with Hasan Minhaj. It’s your standard Daily Show interview, and kudos to Trudeau for accepting the interview in the first place, since he had to know they were going to try to get him to say or do something silly. Hasan Minhaj is no Stephen Colbert, though, so the tables in the interview quickly turn.

What’s interesting is the moment that comes at 5:40 of the video posted below. Just…just watch.

See that moment? Hasan Minhaj has come to roast Justin Trudeau, but he gets shut down immediately. There’s a moment where Minhaj is clearly thinking, wait, did shit just get real? And it did not get real. Well, maybe briefly. But what I liked about that moment was just the quiet confidence that Trudeau showed, shutting down even a playful threat without bullying or blustering or threatening in return. He just says, “You might find that a little more difficult than you think.” Maybe I’m just a little jealous of someone who is that self-possessed. Maybe I’m reading reading too much into a situation where Trudeau is surrounded by armed security, sitting in his own capital.

The second moment I wanted to highlight is the moment when Trudeau does something almost no other world leaders seem able to do – he reached a handshake detente with Trump. (And yes, I will regularly present positive masculinity in contrast to Trump)

First, let John Oliver break it down for you with lots of examples of the Patented Trump Yank-and-Pull Handshake.

So, we see that pretty much every time Trump shakes hands with someone, especially another man in a suit, he yanks their hand over towards him, and sometimes leans in aggressively as well, and is probably squeezing as hard as he can as well. It’s clearly something he heard about from someone, as something that real men and strong leaders do. He shakes hands like an asshole, is what I’m saying. Almost invariably.

Forward to the most recent meeting between Trump and Trudeau. Trudeau knows about this handshake move, and he’s come prepared. Here is a video with a little bit of analysis:

He’s prepared for the adolescent power-move. He moves in close immediately, keeps his right hand close to his body, and puts his hand on Trump’s shoulder as a brace. Trump tries to drag on his hand awkwardly a couple of times, then kind of gives up and leaves it in a state of detente.

So, clearly, Justin Trudeau is singular, the Prime Minister of a whole country. Not a goal most of us are going to reach. But all of us have to deal with assholes in our lives. Adolescent jerks who want to awkwardly show dominance, or punk us, or whatever. Stereotypical masculinity has a response to that – escalate. But I think there is a more powerful, positive response as well – what one might call quiet strength, and a little preparation if you see an asshole coming your way.

Man or woman, being self-possessed is compelling. Being at home in your own skin, and being committed to maintaining your dignity without having to fight back or one-up someone.

We can’t all be world leaders, obviously, but we can be a little bit more like Justin Trudeau, today’s profile in positive masculinity.

 

 

Eco’s Echo: Resisting Fascism

15355795_10205721144707646_2530311394502412198_n

I came across an article: Umberto Eco Makes a List of the 14 Common Features of Fascism. Eco grew up in Mussolini’s Italy and is an irrefutably smart guy, so I was curious. Here is his list:

  1. The cult of tradition. “One has only to look at the syllabus of every fascist movement to find the major traditionalist thinkers. The Nazi gnosis was nourished by traditionalist, syncretistic, occult elements.”
  2. The rejection of modernism. “The Enlightenment, the Age of Reason, is seen as the beginning of modern depravity. In this sense Ur-Fascism can be defined as irrationalism.”
  3. The cult of action for action’s sake. “Action being beautiful in itself, it must be taken before, or without, any previous reflection. Thinking is a form of emasculation.”
  4. Disagreement is treason. “The critical spirit makes distinctions, and to distinguish is a sign of modernism. In modern culture the scientific community praises disagreement as a way to improve knowledge.”
  5. Fear of difference. “The first appeal of a fascist or prematurely fascist movement is an appeal against the intruders. Thus Ur-Fascism is racist by definition.”
  6. Appeal to social frustration. “One of the most typical features of the historical fascism was the appeal to a frustrated middle class, a class suffering from an economic crisis or feelings of political humiliation, and frightened by the pressure of lower social groups.”
  7. The obsession with a plot. “The followers must feel besieged. The easiest way to solve the plot is the appeal to xenophobia.”
  8. The enemy is both strong and weak. “By a continuous shifting of rhetorical focus, the enemies are at the same time too strong and too weak.”
  9. Pacifism is trafficking with the enemy. “For Ur-Fascism there is no struggle for life but, rather, life is lived for struggle.”
  10. Contempt for the weak. “Elitism is a typical aspect of any reactionary ideology.”
  11. Everybody is educated to become a hero. “In Ur-Fascist ideology, heroism is the norm. This cult of heroism is strictly linked with the cult of death.”
  12. Machismo and weaponry. “Machismo implies both disdain for women and intolerance and condemnation of nonstandard sexual habits, from chastity to homosexuality.”
  13. Selective populism. “There is in our future a TV or Internet populism, in which the emotional response of a selected group of citizens can be presented and accepted as the Voice of the People.”
  14. Ur-Fascism speaks Newspeak. “All the Nazi or Fascist schoolbooks made use of an impoverished vocabulary, and an elementary syntax, in order to limit the instruments for complex and critical reasoning.”

I read this, and I thought, OK, if these are the common features of Fascism, what would happen if we inverted each of these features and took them as guidelines as we resist the rise of authoritarianism, white nationalism and our own brand of Ur-Fascism in the United States?

  1. Anti-cultic innovation. Or, in a word, art. What by its nature contends against traditionalist thought? What teases out and highlights differences by making them compelling? Art.
  2. Embrace, if not modernism, then at least rationalism. Or whatever we want to call that which contends with irrationalism. No alternative facts. Call lies, lies. Support responsible media with dollars and attention.
  3. Contemplation for contemplation’s sake. Rest, Sabbath, and time alone or in small groups in contemplation.
  4. The discipline of disagreement. Where we can, have public disagreements, even on hard issues. Seek out interaction with those with whom we disagree as a discipline.
  5. Embrace, and seek out, difference. This can be exhausting – resistance is exhausting. But this doesn’t just mean different ethnicities or sexual orientations among middle-class, educated progressives.
  6. Solidarity between working class and middle class. We have been taught to ruminate on our socio-economic frustrations, and they only deepen. Middle-class people must seek out working-class people and join with them as allies. If demagogues lose the ability to play off of our economic schisms, they lose. But we are the ones who have to bridge those divides – we being middle-class people.
  7. Openness and transparency. Those who believe they are always under siege foster this sense in order to lock down, stamp out dissent, and close off information. We have to do the opposite, which is to remain open and, yes, vulnerable.
  8. The enemy is composed of words, actions and people. Be specific and precise. Point fingers. Shout people down. But do so with precision. “They” aren’t neo-Nazi dirtbags; Milo Yiannapolous is a neo-Nazi dirtbag. Steve Bannon is a neo-Nazi dirtbag. Jeff Sessions is a neo-Nazi dirtbag. And we can say why, in detail.
  9. Pacifism is necessary. The slightest act of violence cedes the moral high ground, in the eyes of many, to the enemy.
  10. Take up the cause of the weak. We must look to the most vulnerable people in our society and take up their cause. The disabled, the mentally ill, the desperately poor, trans people of color. Whoever is the most vulnerable must be the center of our attention and action.
  11. Everybody is educated to become empathetic. I actually agree that we should educate people to become heroes, but what kind of heroes?
  12. Sex-positive Feminism. We made a lot of progress here as a culture, and that’s part of what set these Ur-Fascists off, whether they are taking the Red Pill or GamerGating weaseling their way into the National Security Council, sans qualifications.
  13. There is no Voice of the People, no mandate. It’s so easy to feel like we are one of a vast number of people, because social media allows us to connect to far larger numbers of compatriots, even if one is a Flat Earther. Numbers don’t mean as much anymore.
  14. Build up instruments for critical thinking about complex ideas. We have to be unapologetically smart, and listen to unapologetically smart people, and ignore stupid people or people who talk down to their audience.

I can expand on each of these ideas, but I thought I’d leave them in this pithy form for now, and see what your thoughts are. So.