“Everything’s wrong says he. That’s a big text. But does he want to make everything right? Not he. He’d lose his text.”
—George Eliot, from Felix Holt
What’s my text? What’s yours?
It’s not a question I ask myself very often…maybe never. But I’m asking it today and I’ll throw it out there for you to consider if you will.
Over the past couple of years, I’ve been hearing a particular text being thrown around: some form of, “they are wrong…they are scary”. Much is due to our current emersion in partisan politics and a very contentious election between two extremely polarizing figures. There could only be one winner.
Having come out of that election with a “winner”, it’s obvious that nothing really has been settled. We are still a country divided. Neither side claims the other side’s President as their own. Both sides have protested something. However, it seems when distilled down to the common denominator, each side is operating from a very similar text: “they are wrong…they are scary.” At least we have some common ground. (Insert darkly ironic sarcasm here.)
I’m not talking about individual policies or issues. On that there is much diversity. Much passion. Much thought. Many many words written and talks given. Much scholarship and study, and prayer on behalf of both sides. I’m not trying to deny those differences. I have my own positions on those issues that I hold passionately and thoughtfully. And quiet frankly, I’m right! (Roll your eyes…snicker if you like, but you feel the same way about your positions on “the issues”.)
But what I AM writing about here is the common text we seem to have devolved into following: “they (the other side) are wrong…they are scary”. I’ll not hear anyone try to tell me that their side doesn’t do that. All sides are doing it. But is that all there is to our text. Is that really the only option? The other side is all wrong? Really? Is that all we got?
George Eliot points out the reason this text has become so dominant. In an odd way, seeing the world through this dualistic (and extremely simplistic) text relieves the tension. We don’t have to solve any problem as long as we can demonize the other side and rest comfortably in our little nest of “answers”. But, meanwhile, we are all on the verge of “unfriending” people we have loved all our lives and calling people names we know probably do not fully apply.
I ran across this article while digging deeper into a topic in a book I’m reading. Krista Tippett, the author of the book, who had been living in Berlin for quite some time and whose job it was to keep her finger on the pulse of relationships on both sides of the wall, observed: “…it was possible to have freedom and plenty in the West and craft an empty life, it was possible to ‘have nothing’ in the East and create a life of intimacy and dignity and beauty.” While the politicians and bureaucrats had some influence, it was ultimately the people who assumed and acted upon their freedom that brought down the Iron Curtain. Giving politicians power is akin to turning a 3 year old loose with power tools. It is ultimately people assuming and claiming the lives of “intimacy, dignity and beauty” for which they had been created that brought down the wall. I fear we give the political process entirely too much credit. To believe the rhetoric and live our lives by it is foolish at best. It is toxic for us to allow the narrative by which we live our lives to be defined by 3 year olds fighting over the power tools. It paints everything in a dualistic way that creates division and discord. We were created for so much more than that.
“…Whenever dissent is scattered and unfocused, and whenever mutual suspicion and hostility rule, the only way forward or back to communal solidarity…is to pick a joint enemy and to unite forces in an act of joint atrocity aimed at a common target. It is solely the community of accomplices which provides (as long as it lasts) a guarantee against the crime being named a crime and being punished accordingly. What the community will therefore not suffer lightly are such people as refuse to join the hue and cry, who by their refusal cast doubt on the righteousness of the act.”
In just about every context I find myself of late, when the issue of politics comes up, my friends and I are for once in a long while united. For the most part, people in my circles, be they conservatives or liberals, Democrats or Republicans, are decrying the rise of Donald Trump. However, looking at his numbers and at the delegates he has apparently “won”, chances are many of my friends and acquaintances are choosing Trump as their mode of choice to “make America great again.” Somebody, somewhere, is in fact voting for “The Donald”.
What was darkly humorous just a few short months ago has become a dawning awareness. A vulgar reality television personality whose accomplishments are nothing more than turning his name into a brand representing gaudy irresponsible opulence is about to be the Republican nominee for President of the United States of America. How can this be?
This question sent me to my book shelf to retrieve Zygmunt Bauman’s In Search of Politics—a book I purchased several years ago as assigned reading for a course I was taking at Fuller Theological Seminary. It has been a challenging read but also timely and helpful. In a section of chapter one entitled, A Prowler Around the House, Bauman recounts the story of Sidney Cooke, a paedophile, who had been released from prison and was returning home. He quotes a reporter from The Guardian who perceptively writes:
“If there’s one thing guaranteed to get people out on the streets today, it is the whispered arrival of a paedophile. The helpfulness of such protests is increasingly being questioned. What we haven’t asked, however, is whether these protests actually have anything to do with paedophiles.”
Bauman says that the reporter focuses on one particular town in which “the variegated crowd of grandmothers, teenagers, and businesswoman who had seldom, if ever, expressed any previous wish to engage in a public action had now laid protracted siege to the local police station, being not even sure that Cooke did indeed hide in the besieged building. Their ignorance concerning the facts of the matter took second place only to their determination to do something about them and to be seen doing it; and their determination gained enormously from the haziness of the facts.”
While there is no paedophile in this particular election, there is a strong perception by many, if not most, of the electorate that their government and the political process has failed them. And while, in my humble opinion, most of what Trump throws up against the walls of public opinion is simply false, unworkable testosterone fueled bravado, he has tapped into this “unfocused and scattered” dissent and channeled it into a wave he is about to surf right down the center aisle of the Republican National Convention.
As I process what Bauman has written, I recognize that our biggest enemy in this election isn’t Donald Trump. And it isn’t Bernie Sanders. Or Ted Cruse. Or Hillary Clinton. And it isn’t congress. Or Barack Obama. Yes, those ARE the enemies we all perceive to be “hiding in the besieged building”. Those are the ones we have all labeled as the prowlers around our neighborhoods. These political figures have all of us, regardless of party affiliation, riled up and angry and active. And, to paraphrase Bauman, our “ignorance concerning the facts of the matter [take] second place only to [our] determination to do something about them and to be seen doing it [mostly on our social media feeds]; and [our] determination [has] gained enormously from the haziness of the facts.”
I’m starting to suspect that what’s hiding in the buildings we have all besieged is actually a figment of our imaginations. What’s actually hiding in the building is our caricatures of the people we deem to represent all of our fears. We’ve reduced ourselves to labeling “the other” as “the problem” rather than placing the actual problem on the table between us and examining it with all of the tools we have available. Rather than solving anything, we have resorted to creating a boogeyman, and then we take to the streets (or our social media feeds) to call it names. I’m just beginning to read what I’m finding to be a profound book by Dr. David Dark, a professor at Belmont University in Nashville. Of labels, he says:
“When I label people, I no longer have to deal with them thoughtfully. …Calling someone liberal, conservative, fundamentalist, atheist or extremist is to largely deal in curse words. It puts a person in what we take to be their place, but it speaks in shorthand. When I go no further in my consideration of my fellow human, I betray my preference for caricature over perception, a shrug as opposed to a vision of the lived fact of somebody in a body. In the face of a perhaps beautifully complicated life, I’ve opted for oversimplification.” —David Dark, from Life’s Too Short to Pretend You’re Not Religious
Some of the most useful and powerful tools at our disposal to tackle the huge problems we face in our world today might very well be the perspective of someone other than ourselves. The tools at our disposal include all of us. All of our values. All of our beliefs. All of our perspectives. All of our creativity. I’m reminded of a great line from an Indigo Girls song: “The less I seek my source for some definitive, the closer I am to fine.” A little collective humility might be just what the doctor ordered.
Would some of these tools be more effective in solving our problem than others? Absolutely. Do I disagree with some of the propositions being proposed? Adamantly! I’m NOT simplistically saying, “It’s all good.” But what I am saying is that we’re all human beings. And the God I attempt to follow values all of these human beings — in fact my understanding of God holds they are ALL created in God’s image.
As I continue into the dark and cynical hole that is this election season, I’m going to attempt to ask a couple of things of myself:
To recognize that I’m not a cold, objective (and correct) observer. I have a bias.
To give myself and others a break. For the most part, we’re all trying to make sense of something extremely complicated that no one really understands. We’re all doing the best we can.
To, with the best of my ability, lean into the space between myself and others with grace and peace…with love.
Can I be so bold as to ask the same of you? I don’t mean to preach. I just happen to think the boogeyman is actually a collective “us”. While there are a lot of things out of our control, we actually do have choices. We can decide how we respond to our neighbors. We can decide the words we use. We can decide that a label doesn’t define anyone any more that it defines me. And ultimately, WE can solve these problems we’re facing. We have before. I’m confident we will again. Seems to be a better way to live than being afraid of the boogeyman. Especially when the boogeyman has probably been me the whole time.
My pastor posted the picture on his Facebook page this morning with the comment, “We have no idea.” And we truly do not. But on this Martin Luther King day, I would like for you to place yourself on that bus. Pick a role. You can be the African American entering the bus. Be the bus driver, just wanting punch the clock and make it through the day to return home to your family. Be one of the other passengers, recognizing or maybe not recognizing, the sea change that is occurring right before your eyes. If you are in a city with public transportation, take a bus ride and bring a copy of these suggestions and be transported back to a time not to distant when a document such as this was necessary.
As you read this document, imagine stepping onto a bus with these “suggestions” seared into your memory. The jolt of adrenaline and fear and nervousness that wells up as the door opens and you mount the first step. As you reach the top step, what does it feel like to see the seat you are to occupy and feel the all the eyes on the bus wielding looks that communicate the full gamut of possible emotions. There is hate in some of those eyes…but there is also hope in others. There is anger but there are others illuminated with the dawning recognition of what is right. There is fear but also determination.
I discovered a quote by Dr. King yesterday:
Courage is an inner resolution to go forward despite obstacles.
Cowardice is submissive surrender to circumstances.
Courage breeds creativity; Cowardice represses fear and is mastered by it.
Cowardice asks the question, is it safe?
Expediency ask the question, is it politic?
Vanity asks the question, is it popular?
But, conscience ask the question, is it right? And there comes a time when we must take a position that is neither safe, nor politic, nor popular, but one must take it because it is right.”
– Dr. Martin Luther King Jr
I would encourage and challenge you to think about what metaphorical bus you need to step into. What difference could you make if you allowed courage to spawn creativity and change? Allow your conscience to ask the question, “What is right?” and then step on that bus armed with these suggestions. They are still just as valid as they were in 1955.
Integrated Bus Suggestions Provided by the Montgomery Improvement Association for the bus boycotts.
“There must be a time of day when the man who makes plans forgets his plans, and acts as if he had no plans at all. “There must be a time of day when the man who has to speak falls very silent. And his mind forms no more propositions, and he asks himself: Did they have a meaning? “There must be a time when the man of prayer goes to pray as if it were the first time in his life he had ever prayed; when the man of resolutions puts his resolutions aside as if they had all been broken, and he learns a different wisdom: distinguishing the sun from the moon, the stars from the darkness, the sea from dry land, and the night sky from the shoulder of a hill. —Thomas Merton from “No Man is An Island”
It has been sort of a distracted morning, but in a good sort of way. I was down stairs pretty early…4:30ish. I lit the fire, got my coffee and settled on the couch to read. Upon opening my bag I recognized the number of I-want-to-take-time-to-read-but-never-seem-to-get-around-to-it magazines accumulating there were more than a little telling. I was probably never going to get around to reading them.
I pulled out a week-old edition of the New York Times I had purchased at Starbucks to read while waiting on a car to be serviced. Instead of reading that at the dealer, I think I played “FLOW” on my iPad, a challenging little puzzle game but a game nonetheless, and truly a waste of perfectly good waiting room time. I pulled out two issues of the Economist, an issue of Motley Fool Stock Advisor, the December 2012 issue of The Atlantic and finally the Dec. 30th issue of the New York Times Magazine. That was the one that sort of derailed my intensions for the morning.
On the cover was a photograph of Adam Yauch (1/3 of the Beastie Boys) and the words, “The Lives They Lived.” It was a collection of obituaries of notable people who had died in 2012. I’ve never been one who reads obituaries, although [Mr.}Tony Kornheiser says “[the obits] are usually the best writing in the paper.” I think that’s probably true, as a rule. Rather than some words about a forgettable story rushed to the page to meet a deadline, an obit is an attempt to communicate a snap-shot of a life. The fame and/or notoriety of the famous persons in this particular issue of “the magazine” are merely context. The writers are trying to distill meaning from these lives that have ended. Sometimes there is a clear rendering of the protagonist. Other times, the obit seems to be as much a window into the psyche of the writer as it is about the person who died.
I thumbed through the pages of 2012’s obit collection stopping on: Teri Shields (mother of Brooke and quintessential “stage mom”); Maurice Sendak (author of the iconic children’s books “Where the Wild Things Are” and “The Night Kitchen”…Brilliant piece done with 9 illustrations with bubble quotes from an NPR interview with the writer); Nora Ephron (journalist, screenwriter, playwright, best known popularly for “When Harry Met Sally”…a collage recreating “Meg Ryan’s soliloquy [from the diner] using letters cut from Ephron’s obituary in the New York Times.” (…yes…yes…oh God…”); Don Cornelius (creator and host of Soul Train pictured in full 70’s regalia of massive afro and equally massive silver silk tie. Interesting quote: “Long before the Huxtables…Vanessa Williams [1st black Miss America]…the Obamas…middle class white teenagers [were getting] their first glimpse of popular black culture…and…a peek at the future; by the 90s, black music and dance was the culture”); Adam Yauch (interesting take of his growth as an artist…but I could never get over the Beastie’s frat boy smirks and frat boy party/rap anthem from the 80s to take them very seriously).
My morning started with the Merton passage at the beginning of this post. It set the stage for my dip into the obits of 2012. On this morning, the obits provided a moment to put aside the plans, propositions and resolutions and do a little of that distinguishing work…”distinguishing the sun from the moon, the stars from the darkness, the sea from dry land, and the night sky from the shoulder of a hill”…life from death. It was by no means morbid. It was a pause that facilitated some much needed reflection. And while I do not aspire to a mention in the New York Times Magazine, I recognized the legacy that is my faith, my family, and my life’s work will ultimately be my obit. Even more than that, I was able to distinguish between “routine” and “extremely blessed” and give thanks for the blessing.
It’s funny how Thomas Merton always challenges me at election time…
The aggressive and dominative view of reality places, at the center, the individual with its bodily form, its feelings and emotions, its appetites and needs, its loves and hates, its actions and reactions. All these are seen as forming together a basic and indubitable reality to which everything else must be referred, so that all other things are also estimated in their individuality, their actions and reactions, and all the ways in which they impinge upon the interests of the individual self. The world is then seen as a multiplicity of conflicting and limited beings, all enclosed in the limits of their own individuality, all therefore complete in a permanent and vulnerable incompleteness, all seeking to find a certain completeness by asserting themselves at the expense of others, dominating and using others. The world becomes, then, an immense conflict in which the only peace is that which is accorded to the victory of the strong, and in order to taste the joy of this peace, the weak must submit to the strong and join them in their adventures so that they may share in their power.
(That is an awkward title to this post but I know if I use “HIV” or “AIDS” in the title people will probably not read it…hope you forgive me and continue…) I was privileged to attended the 15th annual US Conference on AIDS hosted by the National Minority AIDS Council. I attended as a volunteer for Samaritan Ministry which is a faith based ministry to people affected by HIV/AIDS operating out of Central Baptist Church of Bearden (Knoxville, TN). Wayne Smith is the director and has been actively engaged in the fight against HIV/AIDS for many years. He’s also a close friend and my personal guru when it comes to this issue. It was my third time to attend the USCA…first time was in New Orleans 3 or 4 years ago, last year in Orlando and then Chicago this year. (I’m hoping for an invite to Vegas next year!) Each of these gatherings have been formative for me as a person but more specifically as a vocational minister and as a practical theologian. (“Practical theologian” is not meant to be as pretentious as it sounds. I think one of the biggest problems of contemporary Christianity is the fact that we have solidified theology into a set of propositions to be debated rather than as lenses through which we understand God in the world. Rather than a minister who knows all the correct theological answers, I aspire to be a practical theologian continually developing my theological vision in everyday life situations. God is present and active in our world. God’s followers often fail to see this because we’re too busy debating politics and points of doctrine. But, I digress…)
This year, two particular things stood out to me at the USCA. First…this was a very hopeful event. (A disclaimer…I’m NOT an expert at what I’m about to write. This is a layman’s attempt to articulate some of the things I’ve learned.) (please check out the second thing I learned here…)
There have been a lot of advancements in our ability to control the HIV virus once it has been contracted. If we can get an HIV positive person aware of their status (more testing is needed) and then into treatment, their viral load (amount of the virus in their body) can be pushed down and their opportunity to live a healthy life increases greatly. This is wonderful news for individuals who are HIV positive.
The effectiveness of these drugs on the whole greatly reduces the spread of the virus. Studies are showing that with the proper use of anti-retroviral drugs, chances of transmitting the disease are reduced as much as 90+%…that is very exciting news. The effectiveness of these drugs shines a light on how important it is for people to know their HIV status and to get treatment if they are positive. However, this news is tempered by the sobering fact that nearly 56,000 new people contract HIV in the US each year…a number that has remained fairly constant for the last 10 years. Another sobering statistic was passed along to me today by another friend of mine working in this field. 20% (1 out of every 5!) of the people who are HIV positive in the United States don’t even know they have the virus. Simply knowing ones status and getting in treatment not only saves that person’s life but keeps the virus from spreading further. That is why testing programs are imperative.
One very disturbing bit of irony in all of this is the fact that the “Bible Belt” and the “HIV belt” are one and the same. 40% of the HIV population resides here in the southeastern US and yet funding for prevention is lower in this area. Some think our prudishness in talking about sex is a major contributor to the spread of HIV here in the Bible belt. With the church’s fear of saying words like “condom” or talking about “sex”, I would tend to agree with that conclusion. I’m all for abstinence…100%. But the church is being dangerously irresponsible by not talking more openly about sex.
However, another major factor in the southeast is poverty and access to proper care. If a person has insurance, most companies cover these meds. However, for those without adequate medical insurance, the cost of treatment is exorbitant. For the treatments to effectively manage the virus, these expensive drugs must be taken daily. I do not know enough to get into the debate for or against the drug companies about these costs (pharmaceutical companies are large, easy targets for stones to be thrown). One side will say that the drugs are saving lives and new and better drugs require expensive research, hence the cost. Others will say it’s unacceptable for people to be dying when life saving drugs are available but unaffordable. Taken together, those two positions represent the truth and we’re going to have to finish this fight together. We also can’t sit comfortably back and label this disease with our ignorance and our stereotypes. This is a public health issue. We’ve got to quit fighting each other and figure this out. We can’t solve the problem via political steel cage death matches. It’s about access to proper care. Let’s solve that problem together.
At the very least, it’s vital to keep funding stable for HIV testing, prevention, awareness, and research. Testing can now be done accurately with a simple oral swab…no blood needs to be taken. Once a person’s status is identified, life saving treatment is available. Once treated effectively, the chance of transmission is reduced drastically. Taken as a whole, the amount of virus in our community begins to go toward zero. The disease is on the run. We can’t afford to cut funding to these critical areas. They all work hand in hand in the fight to end this epidemic. It’s an over-simplification of a very complex problem but if the community viral load is reduced to near zero, the chances of transmission go to near zero and then the end is in sight.