Of Race and Men

Since Heather Heyer was run down and murdered by a racist while she was protesting Nazis in Charlottesville, Virginia, there have been more offenses to decency and democracy. It’s difficult to keep track. Like these three who were in Gainesville, Florida, stirring-up violence to show their support for white supremacist, Richard Spencer, who was also previously in Charlottesville.

I wonder if you see the pattern I see? When I watched HBO’s “VICE News Tonight” story on the spectacle and violence in Charlottesville, I was not surprised that the agitators were mostly young, white males. Let’s be honest: they weren’t protestors or free speech advocates, they were a heavily-armed militia. They want to overthrow civility and civil rights, which is essentially democracy. Their march was an exercise by radicals committed to intimidating anyone unlike themselves, or anyone even disagreeing with their self-serving, hateful ideology. Even the word ideology is a flattering description because it implies thought-out ideas, rather than the narcissistic trash talk it is. Their attempt to elevate white male supremacy to a political platform would be laughable, if it weren’t so dangerous. These are playground bullies, grown-up and armed, wearing their whiteness like a divine right.

 

I really can’t figure out why they are so perpetually pissed-off. From where I’m sitting, white males still have it easier than anyone else. But how we have de-evolved? Remember the good old days when it was frustrating to try and talk or work with men thinking with their dicks? Ah, simpler times…Now they’re thinking with their guns.

After Charlottesville, I watched cable news and listened to NPR podcasts. I read online stories and even had a complete stranger at the train station talk to me about the state of our country. Usually everyone on the train platform has their head-down with eyes and thumbs on their mobile device. I guess she was reading some news and just had to say something to someone. That is a feeling I understand. For me, it’s the additional confusion of disagreeing with the nothing less than the ACLU, which is quite rare for me. I send them checks. I consider them one of the organizations with the ability to impact some of the countless shames of the current president and his regime. However, they’re getting this one wrong. Very wrong.

These are not the good-old-days of street protests. Free speech is not relevant when there is an action by an armed militia. Make no mistake that Charlottesville was a coup rehearsal. The ACLU is trying to conduct business in a civil democracy that is currently operating like a Banana Republic. Stop being naïve. It’s not hip or enlightened to sanction a platform in order to give voice to violent radicals who intend to overthrow the very system that is allowing them this opportunity. And by the way, violence often starts with rhetoric. I wouldn’t fault the ACLU if they hosted a panel in the local school auditorium with speeches from both sides. Invite the damn Nazis to that. But you better have security at the door because these are the domestic terrorists with whom we now live. They are exploiting our commitment to free speech and an open society, in order to advance their mission to destroy our foundational values and democracy itself.

ACLU internal tensions

The article link that follows is about white supremacist, Richard Spencer, speaking in Florida. The University, the municipality, and the state spent lots of money to make the community safe from everyone his hate talk attracted. Yes, the same guy (one of them) who fomented violence in Charlottesville. Again, this is not free speech. This is allowing a forum for anarchy and oppression. Free speech does not mean we have to allow every thought into the public square. The photo below is Spencer in Charlottesville, and we know how that turned out.

Gainesville shooting and Spencer

Gainesville state of emergency

With all this news, things seem hopeless. I went to the Women’s March on Washington, and it was one of the best days of my life, but I don’t think I would have had the courage to go to Charlottesville. I am sad to say that since that immediately after Charlottesville, I heard a few white people try and rationalize by saying, well, there were actions on ‘both sides.’ (I don’t mean the racist president. I mean regular people.) Only white people would say something that outrageous. When you have an angry, armed militia of white men from all over the country invade a small town, then why is anyone surprised that some of the people protesting their presence would get upset? I ask you, who died? This is just about blaming the victim so white folks can excuse themselves from speaking-up.

I have been reading a Joan Chittister book from 1998, Heart of Flesh: Feminist Spirituality for Women and Men. Though I expected it to be dated, I found it sad how little things have changed. In writing about patriarchy and spirituality, Chittister said, “The patriarchal society, agreeable as it may be, is an essentially violent thing (p.24)…Patriarchy is built on the backs of the powerless by the powerful, who take all power to themselves, public, intellectual, and religious,” (p.27). I can’t do Chittister justice here, but bear with me while I try to provide a glimpse of all 175 impeccably written and researched pages here.

Chittister could not have imagined the current president (who could?) in the nineties. She wrote about narcissism (p.96-97). She said it was named as a disorder by the American Psychological Association in 1980. Then she gives us context when she describes narcissists, “They are the beginning and end of what is important to them; they can’t possibly be sensitive to, aware of, or concerned about someone else…it is also surely a by-product of a system that demands competition, ambition, self-aggrandizement, and superiority as a matter of course…Narcissism is a patriarchal disease.” And there we have it. This puts our angry, white males in context. They have drawn faulty entitlement conclusions and when the world is not indeed their oyster it pisses them off. And then they need someone to blame.

Chittister recommends a “feminine” approach to spirituality. She is smarter than me and I do get her point, though I am uncomfortable with defining feminine in traditional terms. I don’t see how improvement is possible until at our cultural core, we are willing to finally address the immorality of patriarchy. I have written of this before, so I hope you don’t find it tedious. But we live in a Christian-dominant culture and I challenge you to find a Christian church which isn’t praying to a god-the-father every Sunday.

“Women are subsumed, excised, erased by male pronouns, by male terminology, by male prayers about brotherhood and brethren, even and always by exclusively male images of God,” (p.116). So if we can’t count on the church for fairness and inclusion, where can we go? I don’t believe my fear of white men is irrational nor my concerns strictly anecdotal. I agree with Chittister that patriarchy is the root evil (my word, not hers). And if we don’t address the root evil, more people will die – which doesn’t excuse the everyday oppression. This white male entitlement is the biggest threat to our safety and society. Supposed Islamic terrorists are insignificant in comparison. And as one aside, why isn’t anyone asking about the religion of the latest white male domestic terrorists?

Mother God, please have mercy on us. -J.B.

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Innocence in a Culture of Bigotry

You can talk to family members separately and each person will offer descriptions that sound like none of them came from the same family. Given that acknowledgement, my story is that my younger sister was a bully who was skilled at presenting herself like a victim and as a result routinely enjoyed my mother’s indulgence and I her scorn. The endless arguments led my brother to decide to be Switzerland. It would have meant more than I can adequately express to have him defend my honor. Here’s the thing about the notion of neutrality, when it comes to bullies or outright evil: not taking a side, is taking a side. During World War II Switzerland had a policy of denying entrance to Jews trying to escape the Nazis. Tens of thousands of would-be immigrants died because they were turned away by Switzerland. That’s how neutral looked to Jews fleeing genocide.

Switzerland and the Holocaust

If you are willing to take a position and maybe even help, how do you decide? Who’s right? Who’s wrong? The challenge is that often identifying the true victim is challenging because not every wronged person makes an ideal hero. We want to cheer for the unjustly accused as long as they suit our idea of someone blameless. If there are any shadows cast on someone’s character or details from their past that make us uncomfortable, then it gets muddy.

In early 2000, Adnan Syed was sentenced to life-plus-thirty-years for the murder of his ex-girlfriend. His guilt or innocence has been debated for many years by countless people. The debate went viral as a result of the podcast “Serial.” I was among the record-breaking number of people who listened in 2014. It was compelling. But in the end, “Serial” did not leave me with a clear conclusion, just disappointment. (I never listened to season two.) My perception is that Adnan did not make the perfect wrongly convicted hero, but was instead a flawed human being and in many ways an enigma. His story was told by producers who did not sufficiently address the impact of cultural and religious bigotry. It was addressed, yes, but not adequately

“Serial” – season one

Since the 2014 podcast I had not forgotten about Adnan; then, earlier this year, I met author Rabia Chaudry who wrote Adnan’s Story: The Search for Truth and Justice After Serial (2016). In her book, she owns her bias as a family friend and advocate for Adnan. She has become an attorney since his conviction, and is the person responsible for convincing the “Serial” producer to take on his story. What I observed from the podcast in 2014 and I maintain now, is that I don’t believe that what happened to Adnan would have happened if he was a Caucasian/non-Muslim.

The bigotry began by the police not investigating the victim’s white boyfriend (or anyone else), and going out of their way to connect Adnan to the murder, while using his religion for motive. They chose their suspect then set about proving it. Claiming his religion was his motive is like saying that anyone who is Christian could have a motive for murdering an abortion doctor. The most shocking initial public display of apparent systemic bigotry was at his bail hearing. Prosecutor Vicki Wash argued that “…he has limitless resources…if you issue him bail you are issuing him a passport to flee the country…There is a pattern in the United States of America where young Pakistani males have been jilted, have committed murder, and have fled to Pakistan…” (p.97). There is no such pattern. And there was never any reason to jump to that conclusion about Adnan and his community. In place of evidence, the prosecutor used religious and cultural bigotry.

I was at a picnic last summer and somehow the subject of the plain Mennonites and Amish came-up. These women wear a yarmulke-like net cap called a covering. I compared it philosophically to a hijab. The response was that the Mennonites and Amish don’t commit honor killings. I hope that if you’re reading this, I don’t have to explain how far-fetched this assertion was. But just in case, the link below has actual data on honor killings which are not exclusive to Muslims or men commiting murder, though of course, it’s always women who die.

Honor killing awareness

What I am willing to say is that when I see women needing to take special measures in their dress to accommodate their religious and cultural customs, it disappoints me. I support their right to do so, but I wish they would make a different choice. I wish this of the Amish, and I wish it of women wearing the hijab. These practices exist in the context of male dominant cultures, which are many. Male dominance is so prevalent and so pervasive that we don’t always even see it. It’s just not conscious for most people. It’s one of those norms we have come to take for granted.

Our justice system is another norm we take for granted, with little questioning. We want to believe that people get what they deserve so we don’t feel vulnerable. But the system has a deep inherent flaw in that it is an adversarial system set-up to have winners and losers. Lots and lots of losers. And most of them are poor. Read their stories. The drive is not for truth or justice. It is to win. At any cost.

The Pennsylvania Innocence Project

I don’t know if Adnan did it. But I do know that he did not get treated justly because he is a Muslim. I choose to believe if enough of us care about making our defective system more just, it can happen. I believe if we send our intentions into the Universe things will happen, though not without us taking actions as well, of course. Don’t know where to start? I do. Start by reading more. If you read with the intention of impacting change, I promise you that the Universe will present you with ideas and opportunities. At least choose to not be Switzerland. -J.B.

Forever Young

I never met a situation for which there wasn’t an appropriate Joan Baez song. This is what made it possible to survive the vagaries of high school. Of course, when it is a Dylan song performed by Baez it is the best possible consolation. As I think of my mother, this song keeps coming back to me. In my harsher, younger years, I might have described her as immature and narcissistic. Now as she is coming very close to her last days, I am choosing instead to see her as forever young.

Several years ago after my mother was admitted to the hospital for what we now think was the beginning of dementia symptoms provoked by an infection, I had a dream. My brother and sister and I were in my sister’s house with debris up to our knees. My brother was standing by a map on the wall trying to point out directions. My sister said she had cleaning to do. And I just kept saying, “But a storm is coming.” Well, it came. But not as a hurricane. It came in squalls, cloudbursts, and occasional showers. The degrees of severity varied, but the frequency of the storms increased.

Having both worked and volunteered with different hospice organization, I know there are specific characteristics attributed to actively dying. I can tell you that my mother is actively dying, though not exactly by the clinical definition. She still has significant periods of lucidity where I can recognize her spirit and see a desire to be alive. But they are fewer. And physically, she has become much like a toddler in needing help to eat and with other bodily functions.

My mother had a shitty childhood. I don’t know many specifics because she claimed she doesn’t remember. There would be a few random stories that would creep out, and they were always sad. I know some of the darkness of her birth family, so I’m calling it: she was abused. Some people who come from a traumatic childhood become old quickly. And I think others, like my mother, become forever young. She functioned successfully as a teacher, parent, and overly involved church person. She never missed a wedding, shower, or reunion to which she was invited by extended family. But just under the surface there was an insecurity and perpetual, though usually mild depression. I think in her self-image, she never quite believed she was loved.

I am trying to value the time left for my mother while learning the lessons offered me and making every effort to meet what needs can be met before she crosses over. I was not her favorite and we were not close in the way that she viewed people being close. I am not the huggy-kissy type, so with my mother being a little over-the-top on that, it is a struggle for me.  I saw her last Sunday and spent most of the day with her and my father. She was in nursing care at their retirement community and he was able to return to their apartment at night, though at her side every other minute.

After a bad fall and likely a concussion, she had a relapse on Wednesday. After leaving my (new) job early, taking a train home, then driving for about two hours, when she stirred and saw me she said, “You’re here,” with surprise. I couldn’t understand why she would be surprised when I have been consistently showing up, with frequency. I promise that I have been front and center. But in my mother’s forever young, and now horribly bruised brain, because I’m not the smothering type she fears that maybe I don’t really love her. Having had lousy parents, she is never sure if someone loves her. For me, this is now a challenge to meet someone where they are. However uncomfortable it makes me, I must use this time left to figure out how to convince her she is loved – in a way she will understand.

It is especially at times like this that we get to see how people express their religion. I was not at all surprised to see two of my non-religious relatives respond with great compassion and spend nearly a whole day with my mother. Another drove from out of state just to spend one evening with her. I was not surprised to see my mother’s evangelical church folks absent. You see, they were busy with their “prayer chain.” My parents’ “pastor” has been showing up and offering public prayer, which to me was just showing off. At one point, when she was in intensive care, he made the relatives circle her bed and hold hands and for his meandering prayer. Had we been Roman Catholic I would have expected last rites to come next. I was grateful my mother was not aware enough to see this spectacle because it would have pushed her right over to the other side.

I can’t emphasize enough how much my mother has extended herself for nieces, nephews, and her church over the years. And where are they now? Their own Bible says, “Faith without works is dead.” She is an 85-year-old woman with a variety of unpleasant and frightening health episodes that keep occurring. I have outright asked her pastor to recruit visitors from his church. No one has shown up except for a couple of their own friends who happen to go to the same church and were already visiting. Where is that ‘community of faith’? They have demonstrated to me they are a social club with a religious theme and bad music, not a community, and not motivated to be compassionate.

I believe faith is exercised in how we treat each other. When we extend ourselves to do what might even be uncomfortable because that is what someone needs, it can be considered an expression of divine compassion. Keep your prayers, people – unless you are going to pray for me to learn to be more demonstrative. If Mother God is listening, I could use help with that.

And to my mother, I am sending her Dylan’s words, with Baez singing them in my head.

“May God’s blessing keep you always
May your wishes all come true
May you always do for others
And let others do for you…
And may you stay, forever young…”

Right now, it is time to let others do for you.

And to the verse that says, “May you grow up to be righteous, May you grow up to be true,” she has. As my mother nears crossing over, I pray that she transitions from a sad child to someone who is forever young, and at peace. -J.B.

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March on, Democracy. March on.

When you look up at the sky, what do you see? Meteorologists must see the presence or absence of clouds and the likelihood of precipitation. Astrologers probably think, “When are we finally going to rotate away from that sun so I can 16142735_10211738442004652_2931030917139632431_nsee stars?” Religious people often look up there and imagine God in Her heaven, wistfully, blissfully, earnestly, or desperately. I’m not sure what atheists see. Maybe they just say, ‘I’m glad I’m alive to look up at this sky.’ That’s close to what I was thinking on Saturday, January 21st when I was in our nation’s capitol for the Women’s March on Washington. I looked up to the sky and said, “I am glad I am here.” And just in case Mother God was listening, I said, “Thank you.”

When I first decided to march, it was to protest the election of a wannabe Emperor who has boasted about assaulting women and inspired millions to freely come out to express their inner bully and wide-spread bigotry. His character flaws and shocking mental health issues are too numerous to waste words here. As we got closer to the March day, I just wanted to make myself a better citizen. I traveled with three acquaintances whom I barely knew before the March and I now consider good friends. They stayed overnight at my house so we could make a 5:15 a.m. bus with as little pain as possible. The night before we all admitted to both hope and skepticism that the March would make a difference.

The March program opened with one of the most deeply spiritual expressions I’ve ever experienced  – and please note here I’m a religion writer who has been in quite of few religious gatherings in my life. The program started with what the organizers called a “song” but I would call a chant or a musical prayer. If YouTube is correct, it was the Native American Norine Hill from #IndigenousWomenRise. I hope you will find a quiet place and click on this link. Please imagine yourself outdoors under an overcast sky with people in every direction, and even in the trees. Then listen. I don’t know if there were words, or what her intention was, but I heard a call to all of our souls, to rise to the greater good.

Native American opening song

I don’t really like crowds. I like to be home where it’s quiet with my dog and cat at my side. It takes something to get me out, other than working for a living, of course. But the experience started much before daylight when three buses left from my small suburban community and joined 1,900 of them in the stadium parking lot. Then a very diverse river of people climbed stairs, walked to the Metro station, got in and out of subway cars, then inched out onto the street. All the while in the metro station there were sweeps of chants and a sort of woo-hoo kind of high musical sigh that was to your ears what the wave at a sports stadium would be for your eyes.

The YouTube video was shot close to where I was standing, which was blocks from the stage. You can see people actually climbed the tree to get a better look. This img_20170121_100727street was intended to be a route for the walking part of the March, but it was too crowded. After a couple hours of standing with a crowd pressing in, I got a little claustrophobic, so we inched our way from where the crowd was packed to an area where it was only slightly less packed behind the Smithsonian and toward the Mall.  All the while, people were pouring in from every direction. We walked about 10 or 15 blocks to find something to eat. The whole time we were walking away from the stage, people from every direction were streaming in. While we ate lunch we watched the March on a muted CNN in the restaurant and realized that it so much bigger than we could comprehend at street level. When we went to return to the marching part of the March, it was everywhere. It was not just one street, but many streets, all filled with people marching. There were spontaneous chants to fun rhythms (picture Bill Murray in “Stripes”). The one I’m still chanting while I walk my dog is: “This is how democracy works!” Oh, yes it is.

It was difficult to hear all the speeches while we were there, so I’ve been listening online. (Thank you New York Times; link follows.) I was able to hear most of Gloria Steinem and some Michael Moore live, and they remain my favorites.

New York Times online speeches

What was clear on Saturday, and is even more vivid listening online, is that the speakers were embracing multiple issues, not just their own agenda. The over-arching theme was democracy, tolerance, equity. These values were more powerful than the crowd’s clear disdain of the newly elected  “Groper-in-chief,” (quoting Jane Fonda on Bill Maher’s show). In fact, much more potent than the mass dissatisfaction with the incoming president was the urgent need to put common values in place that assure people are treated fairly and have more equal opportunity.

It’s important to ask: What started all this? One idea, from one woman in Hawaii on Facebook. Her what-if/what-can-we-do moment launched an important action for millions that was not just an expression but a movement to a more engaged populace willing to work to keep democracy vital. One woman’s idea started this. As Steinem told us, “…370 marches in every state and on six continents…” Check out the New York Times article with photos from around the globe and highlights of signs and chants.

New York Times global photos

The United States is a secular democracy with a constitutional commitment to the separation of church and state. I remind you that it matters because while all religions are protected, it assures you can practice the one of your choosing, or none at all, without fear of imprisonment. The new president is threatening to require Muslims to register. With no exaggeration at all, this is not unlike what Hitler did to Jews before he started the genocide. It’s also a short walk from registry to rounding people up for camps like the Japanese in this country after Pearl Harbor. Make no mistake that the current governance threatens to take us into very dark times. Are you going quietly?

In spite of the efforts of the White House to make shameless bigotry and greed the new policy, Steinem tried to give us perspective and said, “I have been thinking about the use of a long life and one of them is that you remember when things were worse…This, [she waved her hand across the crowd] this is the upside of the downside. This is an outpouring of energy and true democracy like I have never seen in my very long life.” Right with you on that, Gloria.

Saturday’s global March proved that we don’t need laws or religion to guide us into a secular morality that can be embraced by diverse masses. Click on the link below and scan the list of speakers, most of whom mentioned other issues in their own speeches. And when is the last time you heard someone running for office even talk about the common good? Well, of course, we can thank Hillary for: “Women’s rights are human rights and human rights are women’s rights.”

List of speakers

Rhea Suh, NRDC president said, “Each one of you is an individual that made a powerful decision – a choice to be here…because you believe in the fundamental principles that we matter…We are not helpless. We are still a democracy.” The March was a call to remember that democracy only thrives with engaged citizens, who are watching to assure the balance of power. Democracy also needs a free press to recognize and publicize corruption. Some work needs to be done there since they largely failed us in this last election cycle. But we need to do our part by buying newspapers and turning off fake news and reality TV. We need to demonstrate that as media consumers and citizens, we want more than unsubstantiated or un-investigated sound bites.

And, since this is a religion column, I am compelled to remind you that freedom of religion means you get to make your own choice and practice it as you want. If you want the government to impose your religion on others, then prepare yourself for the day when what they impose is not your religion. That said, if they really do impose a Muslim registry, I’m with Madeleine Albright and I’m signing-up as Muslim. -J.B.

New York Times photo: Chang W. Lee

 

“It’s Not About You”

I would like to be paid $5 for every time a friend, acquaintance, or co-worker gives me pop-psychology advice that has in it, “It’s their problem. It’s not about you.” I would prefer the money, because it would add-up to a very nice amount and I findits-not-about-you money useful. Recognizing the possibility of good intentions in those employing these presumed aphorisms, as opposed to the idea of just getting me to shut-up about my problems, I still say this advice is crap. The title statement is often followed by a close second, let’s say it’s only worth $2.50, that one is: “You aren’t the only one.” Then there’s the other classic: “Everything happens for a reason.” Please abandon these worthless comments. Better to be silent and pretend to listen.

Most often, using these clichés is a Western way of trying to sound Zen, you know, getting us to ‘own’ our problems. It may be an attempt to get us to recognize the crazy in others and try and duck. Good luck with that. In my experience, crazy needs interaction and finds the absence of such intolerable. No one is more driven than crazy people looking for a target.

Here’s the thing, if what’s troubling you is racist, misogynistic, workplace bullying, familial disrespect and manipulation, or any of the other miseries for which many of us are an unfair target – of course it’s about you. By that I mean, it is not your fault, you do not deserve it, but with no one to abuse, there is an absence of abuse.

I took a witchcraft class at Penn where we studied the historic torture and murder of women accused of witchcraft by the Roman Catholic Church. My conclusion was that the accused witches and the church had a symbiotic relationship. Without the churches accusations, the women were just practicing the old arts in relative obscurity. Ironically, the witch accusation elevated them, but then they started getting killed. The fabricated witch threat elevated the church to an assumed higher level of protection of the ignorant masses and wrestled away power from the women the community relied on for healing. You can say that old Wally Lamb quote that oppression ultimately oppresses the oppressor, but when it comes to alleging witchcraft to justify torture and murder, the male priests weren’t dying – just the women (and a scant few men who associated with them).

It’s almost always about power. Not necessarily overt power, but often interpersonal power, social power, or a sick psychological power, like the dark side of The Force. Though I write about religion here and I do believe there is actual evil, I think most of our miseries are caused by other people. I’m not dismissing the stupid stuff we do to ourselves, that’s just not my point right now. The fact is that there are a whole lot of people who have to put other people down to lift themselves up. I am willing to allow them compassion to recognize that they were most likely abused themselves, but what I’m complaining about here is bad behavior and part of me doesn’t really care why. I’m tired of trying to understand and get all centered and Zen about it. I don’t have a magic answer, I just want to remind all you cliché-bearers that it sucks and your pithy comments don’t really help.

The Starbucks barista offered me real wisdom this week when she said the best music comes from heartbreak. I will grant that for every time there was a situation in my life causing me angst, it produced some unexpected benefit. That is not to say it was worth it – it is just that it wasn’t without any value at all. You know, lessons learned and all that.

I do not want to lean on rescue fantasies, but I do think we could help each other out a little more. How about defending that co-worker you know the boss is bullying for entertainment? I mean out loud. Yes, it will be at your own peril. But if more of us did this, I would like to believe there would be less bullying. If you’re not up to that, how about at least taking the poor sap to lunch?

I read an online article on one of those career websites that recommended something I figured out only a few years ago for myself: passive-aggressive work slow-down. First, reasonably assess the situation and determine how closely you are being watched. There will be gaps in that surveillance, because there always are. Study the slackers in the office. Every office has them and they are rarely called on it. Once you have determined the gap, then use your best passive-aggressive skills to engage in a work slow-down. This is how you will protect yourself. Take your mind to another place and do something that enriches you but is not so task-oriented. In this moment, you take back your personal power. Now if your workload is unreasonable and you are relentlessly monitored by people who disrespect you, then you must find a way to leave. No job is worth giving-up your dignity. Take it from someone with gaps in her rèsumè, peace of mind is much more critical.

Then there’s racism, classism, and misogyny. No matter your age, can you picture the “I Have A Dream” speech at the Lincoln Memorial? That was a powerful speechmlk at a critical juncture of the Civil Rights movement. People took action, they came together, and they made sure their voice was heard. But the oppressed were not alone. Some would say that the turning point in the Civil Rights movement came when white civil rights workers started getting murdered.

If you are hoping for support from religious people on this, you may be disappointed. Religious expression in this country has de-evolved to ideology and condemnation. However, the doctrines of the major religions, and especially the Abrahamic traditions, have a lot to say about social justice. They expect their followers to work toward it, in case you are wondering. Religious leaders should be the voice for the oppressed, but in this country many prominent figures are joining the chorus of the oppressors, e.g. Franklin Graham or Pat Robertson.

When I think of the Martin Luther King, Jr. speech, as we approach his holiday, I think about the Lincoln Memorial. It is a different place to me now because they will not allow women there on January 21st. Truthfully, I don’t know who the “they” is but I think it was a request by the president-elect’s transition team to the National Parks Service. In spite of that, I will go to Washington and I will march lincolnmemorialfor social justice with thousands of others – especially women. But we will not be allowed to do so in the proximity of the Lincoln Memorial. There just aren’t enough of the non-oppressed standing beside the oppressed on this one. So yes, this IS about me. I am not the only one, but I will not be allowed at a national monument because I am part of the Women’s March on Washington. Not personal you say? This is as damn personal as it gets, just on a very grand scale. It is about me. -J.B.

“Hey, It’s Franklin”

Maybe it’s difficult to be the kid of someone famous. Gandhi’s son converted to Islam and was trading in British imports at the same time his father was calling for a boycott (“Father to a Nation, Stranger to His Son,” The Guardian, August 9, 2007). Not being able to reconcile with his son was one of Gandhi’s late-in-life regrets. While Gandhi was a spiritual and political leader, not such a hero of parenting.

Guardian article on Gandhi

Maybe desiring parental approval is an instinct, like with Franklin the turtle who helped in the garden so dad said, “Excellent job Franklin. That was real grown-up work,” (season one, episode four). His cartoons start with a simple, happy song: “Hey, it’s Franklin…” which always makes me smile. Very catchy. That’s why I get momentarily confused where I hear/read stories about Franklin Graham, the eldest son of the renowned evangelist, Billy Graham. He’s no Franklin the turtle.

Near as I can tell from (not at all exhaustive) Internet research, Billy Graham is alive and about 97. Just like Gandhi, Graham regrets not spending enough time with his family. When he retired, he handed his kingdom to his eldest son Franklin. In one of his last interviews after retirement he said: “I also would have steered clear of politics. I’m grateful for the opportunities God gave me to minister to people in high places; people in power have spiritual and personal needs like everyone else, and often they have no one to talk to. But looking back I know I sometimes crossed the line, and I wouldn’t do that now.” – Billy Graham, CT, January 21, 2011.

Article on Billy and Franklin Graham

It is estimated that Billy Graham preached to 215 million people in his lifetime. Ordained in 1939, his career took off in 1949 after charismatic preaching in revival tents. He eventually expanded to television, radio, print publications, and filling stadiums. His moderate interpretation of Christian evangelism had a stronger emphasis on God’s love than sin. In his day, as he likely would be today, he was criticized for “being too liberal and refusing to play into partisan politics.” Perhaps the only way for son Franklin to distinguish himself from his prominent father is to pander to the element who criticized him. I would argue that Franklin’s harsh rhetoric is more about proving something to daddy than theology – though I’m not sure it matters.

Billy Graham biography

Franklin has supported the Republican candidate’s proposed ban on the immigration of Muslims (Washington Post). He said, “We have allowed the enemy to come into our churches,” including all gays and lesbians as “the enemy.” Poor Franklin is not content with his nearly $1 million salaries (plural intended). He wants to be a political voice. And just like the Republican presidential candidate, he is willing to spew hatred and stir-up the people with the pitchforks to do it.

Washington Post on Franklin
CSN on Franklin on gays

Still, I can’t bring myself to pity those who have been handed the world. Franklin draws two salaries from separate nonprofits. The link to the article below has a photo of Franklin with Sarah Palin.  The Billy Graham Evangelistic Association pays him $250,000 and the nonprofit charity, Samaritan’s Purse, pays him $650,000. Having worked in nonprofits most of my career, I can nearly guarantee you he is not working 80 hours a week. And even if he is, I can’t think of a single nonprofit leader who deserves $900,000. I remind you he claims to follow Jesus, yet Jesus traveled the countryside with no possessions whatsoever and regularly advocated for the outcasts. Apparently, Franklin wants to talk about Jesus, but not actually be anything like him. Well, mission accomplished.

Huffington Post on Franklin’s salaries

Maybe right now you’re thinking of asking me who cares? You weren’t paying attention to the likes of Franklin Graham anyhow. It matters because he is part of the contingent that regularly confuses religion and politics. Part of the contingent supporting him are those for whom ignorance has become an ideology. Not only an ideology, but one that people are holding-up as admirable. Here’s a real live bumper sticker I saw in traffic a few weeks ago: “Fairy Tales Say A Frog Became a Prince ‘Scientists’ call it Evolution.” It was on a piece of crap car that also had a sticker on it for the Republican presidential candidate. I wanted to tell the driver that if you had bothered with a better education, you might have a better job, a better car, and not be so damn angry. These angry white folks are squawking about what they think they don’t have, yet the average Trump supporter makes $70,000 (Bill Maher). That is a far cry from people living in multi-generational poverty.

The latest book I’ve been listening to on the commute to work is Anna Quindlen’s Rise and Shine. You can read or listen to anything she writes without disappointment. In this one she uses the story of two sisters to teach us about New York and go inside of lives of those living in privilege and in poverty and she paints a fascinating picture. When the famous sister has a crisis and winds-up losing her job and her spouse in the same week, I found it difficult to empathize. I’m more of the thinking that those to whom much is given, much is expected. Like Franklin Graham: Franklin is just another self-promoting, rich white man with daddy issues. We have enough of those. Learn a lesson from Franklin the turtle whose best friend is Bear and plays soccer with Goose and Fox.

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The C-word

For five years I walked in the Philly “Race for the Cure” in memory of my sister-in-law’s mother, Jane. She was someone I really liked and spent time with when she was dying. When I walked I saw t-shirts announcing people who were there in memory of someone who had died. There were also special shirts for survivors. By profession, I’m a nonprofit fundraiser and I respect the astounding financial success of the Komen folks, but for me as an individual, the event became too big and commercial for something that I experienced as personal. And, by the way, I am totally sick of all the pink shit. Give it a rest already.pink-ribbon

In the nineties, I was a hospice volunteer at a cancer center for about three years, also in honor of Jane and my cousin, Robin who died from AIDS. I learned from that volunteer work that cancer is just not the worst way to go. I also learned that the most difficult deaths were usually due more to troubled relationships, or lack of any, than from physical pain. And the greatest pain at the end of life is usually from regret or guilt.

As I have written before, I reject what I consider the juvenile theology of a god fussing about every detail of my life. In fact, I had a lengthy discussion with a woman just a couple weeks ago who asked me to pray for the Eagles football team. I wish I was kidding. I wish she hadn’t been serious. I did tell her I thought god didn’t give a crap about football. Then she launched into a lecture on how sports contributes to our society and how praying for football helps bring people to god or some other such nonsense.

Last week I was in a meeting at a church exploring grant opportunities related to food security, i.e. feeding the hungry. I was talking to a woman who told me she chose this mission project in her church to honor her 42-year-old daughter who died from breast cancer. She told me how it hurts her to see those survivor-women celebrating. She was not being petty, I assure you. She just said, “I don’t know why God took my daughter.” We agreed that there are many mysteries in life that we just can understand. Just yesterday a close friend was diagnosed with MS and she is the sole support and caregiver of her mother with Alzheimer’s and her special needs son. No indeed, life is just not fair.

I do believe in cause and effect, and in karma. Though not the cause of every bad thing, karma can be social, with a lot of us paying for the sins of many before us. I think some cancers in our modern world are the result of our modern world. It could be the long-term result of additives in food, off-gassing from new carpet, years of vehicle exhaust in the atmosphere, and better examples my science-y friends can name without blinking. I accept the invisible, long-term consequence resulting in one in three Americans having a cancer diagnosis in their lifetime. Since I have two siblings, odds are, it will be one of us.  And if it means, not unlike Passover, it’s me and my siblings are passed-over, then I accept. And although bargaining with the Universe is probably pointless, when times are tough the desperate start negotiating. I’ll take one for the team. I don’t have kids and I’m healthier than my sibs, so I can handle the fight. That’s just pragmatic.

For right now, I don’t know if I am sick. The spot of the biopsy is sore, so every time I move wrong and I feel the soreness, it reminds me and I wonder if I have cancer. So many times in our lives we find ourselves in that place of not-knowing. This is a sacred space. I am not experiencing fear. Not because I am courageous because I am not. Not because I believe in a personal god. I do not. I am not afraid because I am lucky enough to have access to health care. That said, I am very afraid of it bankrupting me with my $6,000 a year deductible.

What I find so deeply disturbing, and what does bring tears to my eyes, is this raw and profound reminder of my vulnerability. Most of us function with an assumption of control. I think it is how we keep going, being productive, maybe even happy. Deep down, I know this is an illusion. Better than anyone, the Buddhists try and teach this to us. But I am very Western and want to believe I am the boss of me. Well, clearly I am not.

The other reaction haunting me is how few activities seem important right now. I can tell you I surely don’t give a damn about the dishes. Then there’s work. Normally I find it satisfying – at least some of the time. Right now I feel like I’m raising money to buy life rafts for the Titanic and it has already set sail. (Don’t over analyze the metaphor because I don’t know if the Titanic is me, or the job, or it’s all a mood swing.)

It is uncomfortable, but I am working to honor this sacred time and space by recognizing my fragile humanity. This place of not knowing is sad and lonely. Don’t misunderstand me, I am lucky to have numerous, wonderful friends who have already been supportive; but ultimately, this experience is a solitary one. I have been forced to stop and accept my lack of control, even over my own body. It is the lack of power over something so important and personal as my own body that has me unhinged. Have I been betrayed by the very vessel that makes this human experience possible?And where is God in all this? That answer is only relevant when you answer that for yourself. I do believe there is a Universal force of love. And I believe those whom I have loved and who have died might just be on the other side looking out for me. I hope so. But cancer is not god’s fault nor up to god to cure.

The irony nearly escaped me that this is “Breast Cancer Awareness Month.” I hope to celebrate by not having it. But while I’m in the place of not knowing, I will accept my fragile humanity with as much grace as I can muster, with my little dog at my side, and some really good human beings who have my back, not the least of which is my spouse. If you read this and find yourself, for any reason, in that place of solitude and not knowing then I can only tell you I get it and wish you peace. So on this Yom Kippur, Shalom to folks of all faiths or none. #

Dear Mother God

Candice Bergen was in a very smart sit-com, “Murphy Brown” (CBS 1988-1998). There was an episode where some of her acquaintances joined a support group for men. In response to this revelation she said something like “What do you do? Sit around and talk about how hard it is to have all the best jobs and the most money?”

I have written about patriarchy in previous columns and I’m certainly not finished ranting about the organizational and political evils of it. But there is The_Creation_of_Adamanother level that is destructive at a personal level I haven’t addressed before now. This came to mind for me most clearly when a young, white, male, gave a sermon on God the Father a few weeks ago. Most likely he was well-intentioned, but no male has the right to talk to me about God the Father as a good thing. I can’t see it as anything other than oppressive, or at least an ancient characterization of an energy or being that should be bigger than misogyny and gender stereotypes.

For the record, I practice Christianity, though I am frequently embarrassed or infuriated by the many who claim they have the only right interpretation. I find the Episcopal Church the most liberal, both socially and theologically, but with a structured liturgy that centers me. In spite of that, there is not a single mass that I am not deeply hurt by the male dominant language.

There are probably some of you out there saying, why not just walk away from that religion? For many people that is the choice they make, and I don’t fault them. Think of it this way: Most women in this country earn about .77 to every $1 earned by a man. Of course it’s not fair. We don’t stop working, though we do change jobs to try and achieve parity. In general, most of us keep trying to level things out in our own way. Unfortunately, religion is not always better than the prevailing culture. Every day we see examples of folks rising to be better, and those exploiting religion for personal or political gain. That is not new.

After that “God the Father” sermon, I promised myself to make a consistent effort to convert any pronoun possible to neutral or female in every service including every song. I’m a slightly loud soprano, so my personal statement does not always go unnoticed, but that’s not why I do it. It is like a meditation for me. I don’t feel as excluded and it is not as hurtful as the throw-back male pronouns.

What I am asserting is that if you spend your whole life praying to God the Father, and you hold Him as an example of the most revered, then how do you not at some level, assume men are better? It is inevitable. Now imagine the hymn “God of Our Fathers.” A very macho hymn. Not so much when I change the lyrics to God of Our Mothers. Yeah, singing that the one turned a few heads. I belted it out, too.

Now I do allow that Jesus was male and I retain those male pronouns. You know what would have happened if Jesus was a girl? Not a damn thing. There would be no Christianity. She would have been irrelevant. Maybe ignored or married-off with a man taking credit for Her work. Instead, Jesus defended outcasts and treated women like human beings. He challenged traditionalism, including patriarchy, and they killed him for it.

I mean no disrespect to my own human father, but I have never in my entire life felt comfortable with the God the Father ideology. It just never felt right to me. So my prayers are to Mother God. It has reshaped my spirituality. I don’t feel like an outsider in my own religious practice. As I have said before, I don’t believe in a personal god, but I practice my faith like I do because I don’t know how else to keep it real. My contemplation is with Mother God and more like connecting with a maternal energy who has a “Star Trek” kind of attitude toward humanity with Her own “Prime Directive” of non-interference.

I have included this before, but not for a long time. I have rewritten Christianity’s “The Lord’s Prayer.” This prayer is in every Episcopalian and Roman Catholic mass. Many Protestant churches use it throughout the church year. No one’s using my version, but you can if you want.

Mother and Father
In heaven and earth
Making all things sacred.

Your richness fulfilled
Your preference for us
On earth the same as heaven.

Your providence meeting
Our earthly needs
Teaching forgiveness by forgiving

Guide us from fear
Protect us from harm
That we not forget all is connected.

Your Spirit
Our Spirit
Forever

Amen

In the meantime, I will be expressing gratitude to Mother God for the many blessing I enjoy and pray She can exert influence on the Syrians to show each other mercy, in spite of Her Prime Directive. -J.B.

The Dark Night of the Soul

In the seventies, Dustin Hoffman played Jack Crabb in the movie, “Little Big Man,” as a white man raised happily by Native Americans who took him in when a different tribe murdered his parents. As Hoffman’s character said, “I wasn’t just playin’ Injun, I was living Injun.” While there are many ways to view his story, most often I think about it from the perspective of Jack Crabb getting crummy breaks, failing, and stumbling from one lifestyle into another. For some of us regular folks, doesn’t that kind of sum-up life?

I recently went to a memorial service for a popular teacher who was also instrumental in creating a successful drama program. Somewhere in mid-life he got born-again, so the seemingly never-ending memorial production was steeped in evangelical Christian rhetoric. There were three clergymen (men, of course) and it seemed we were never getting out of there. The last “benediction” (which meant more comments from clergy) started after we’d been there three hours.

Before the popular teacher went through his born-again phase (which I’m told lasted a long time but was eventually modified) there was a time in his life when I knew him to be a seeking person. You know, considering all the heavy life questions like the purpose of life, and the usual God questions. This was the brief period of time when I found him the most interesting. He was asteeple5_edited-2 seeking, humble, curious, feeling human being.

Ironically, it was at this very time in high school that I deliberately abandoned fundamental Christianity. Before that I used to carry my Bible around school every day – and actually read it. One day, I just stopped. I remember thinking, “This isn’t helping me. I’m tired of being depressed.” I did not permanently dismiss all of Christianity, just the version I was force-fed from birth, but I did leave organized religion alone for many years. As Jack Crabb said, “That was the end of my religious period.”

I sat at this memorial service thinking, “I wish I knew the guy they are all talking about.” The adoration was not less than epic. But I just didn’t see the same person they did. You could assess it as my flaw of being too critical. Maybe. When I think about him, I remember that period of time when he was searching and asking himself difficult questions. I was never among his favored protégés, so my perspective is that of the spectator. From my seat in the auditorium of life, I remember feeling disappointed that he so quickly abandoned seeking for easy answers.

There is something of potential great value in the dark night of the soul and it warrants careful consideration. When we feel lost or isolated, it is uncomfortable and painful. But when we are in that place we can see things, especially about ourselves, that are more difficult to see from the vantage point of lazy contentment. And even worse, when we adopt an ideology, we start reshaping our observations and thoughts to fit those notions, therefore cutting ourselves off from other possible understandings. In that mindset, I have watched people treat long-time friends with callous disregard because they got themselves a shiny new religion and new friends with it.

I understand what it feels like to struggle. Often when we are in that space we spend most of our mental energy trying to squirm free of the discomfort. I am suggesting that as difficult as it is, there is the opportunity to just stay in that uncomfortable space a bit and reflect. Breathe. This could be the angst before the break-through to a better direction, or thought, or understanding. And I will grant you that you don’t want to get stuck in that dark night. That’s called depression.

Respect the dark night of the soul. I think we should not be in such a rush to push out of it. Isn’t that really what Christianity’s lent and Islam’s Ramadan are all about? These two annual religious observances schedule a dark night of the soul in order for the faithful to take some time to reflect and reboot. Discomfort is built-in and used as a deliberate catalyst. What can we do differently? How can we make the future different than the past?

Any trip back to high school is uncomfortable for me, even seeing former classmates. I was recently humbled and saddened to learn I said some typical smart-ass thing once in French class that hurt a classmate. (Though I’m amazed my French was that good.) Now I haven’t been in high school since the seventies, so that’s a long-time for her to carry around the hurt I instigated. I do know that while I enjoy my own commentary on life, I just don’t need to impose it on others, and certainly not recklessly. I am grateful she gave me the opportunity to apologize. I’m not sure I’m any more careful with my comments, but I hope so.

Every life has a theme and a lesson. A lesson for the individual, and a lesson for the rest of us. The memorial service offered story after story. Good stories. Nice themes. The stories that I remember weren’t going to come-up. They are reserved for a few friends, in a small circle of people who know me and still like me. The stories are impacted by where you’re sitting and your view. French class? Memorial service? Lost in high school? It depends if you’re inside looking out or outside looking in. And if the lights dim, or the night seems darker than usual, just take your time. The dark night of the soul is a holy place. -J.B.

So many guns, so much time

Ralphie is about 12 years-old, a rescue cat from my local shelter. He’s been with me four years and has established himself as the boss. He was astounded that I apparently went somewhat insane and adopted a dog. Charlie is about 10 pounds, so Ralphie outweighs him even though they are about the same height. I have integrated numerous animals as a family over the years, so I am optimistic. What amazes me is that they manage to posture with each other, hissing and yipping, without anyone drawing blood. I don’t allow them firearms, so we have that going for us.

At the time of this writing, the latest mass shooting was of police officers in Dallas, TX on 1468100638-open-carryJuly seventh. (It’s even likely that before I’m finished editing there will be another.) Texas is considered an “open carry” state allowing citizens to walk around in public with a visible gun. When I was in Texas in December, more than one restaurant had a sign that they didn’t allow guns. I didn’t feel better. That they needed such a sign was upsetting. On July ninth, Dallas mayor was quoted in the Dallas Morning News saying: “It’s logical to say that in a shooting situation, open carry can be detrimental to the safety of individuals.” Oh really? I have to ask, how’s that open-carry working out, Texas?

Dallas Morning News

Back in January, BBC News online reported that way back in 2012 in the US (the most recent comparable data available), “the number of gun murders per capita was nearly 30 times the UK.” In 2015 alone, there were 64 school shootings, including incidents with shootings that did not include murder. I hope we are not so de-sensitized that we can’t see how outrageous school shootings are.  Here’s another nugget from the BBC: So many people die annually from gunfire in the US that the death toll between 1968 and 2011 eclipses all wars ever fought by the US. In that same article the BBC reported that the National Rifle Association boasted that after the Sandy Hook shooting (elementary school), its membership surged to five million.

BBC gun statistics

These statistics (and there are more) demonstrate that Congress has failed, capitalism without any regard to the common good has failed, and we voters (especially non-voters) have all failed miserably. It is time to not let another day go by without writing to your federal senators and representatives and let them know that if they don’t pass gun control legislation, you will work to fire them by campaigning against their re-election. Write an e-mail. Write a letter. Write it now.

And you know who should be leading the charge? Clergy. For those who speak to their congregants weekly, there is the consideration of whether to offer empathy (pastoral care and support), or whether to challenge the listeners to be better human beings (or more devout, if you are more comfortable with that word). And many, many, clergy simply enjoy the sound of their own voice. I worked at a seminary once and I can tell you that there are many different reasons individuals pursue religious leadership – and not all of those reasons are good ones.

There are very few churches showing strong leadership, but I would especially challenge Roman Catholics. I drove past a parish last week that had a sign in the front yard about how many abortions there were last year. I’m sure they used the word murder somewhere on that sign. I can’t find a way to understand why they are so passionate about their perception of “murdered” fetuses and so very mute about everyday gun murders of walking around realized human beings.

After the previous recent shooting in Orlando (one actually loses track), the Episcopal bishop of Philadelphia did call for gun control. I also read a Tweet about a Kansas bishops requiring that no guns are allowed in Episcopal churches, though I remain astounded that anyone has to make that a policy.

Message from Philadelphia Episcopal bishop

Kansas bishops ban guns from churches

Why are the religious zealots so noisy about policies and laws on women’s health and sex but so very quiet about gun control? I’m not saying there are no voices, kudos to the Quakers, I’m saying that if the majority of religious people got as activist as what we saw in civil rights movement, things would change. And I am not the first person to say that they are indeed related.

I read a Facebook post super-imposed over a white model that said: “How about all lives matter. Not black lives, not white lives, get over yourself no one’s life is more important than the next. Put your race card away and grow up.” These kind of comments can only come from white privilege, insensitivity, and ignorance. Look at who has been killed, who has been doing the killing, and who is in jail. The following link is a very in-depth story about the social conditions that have contributed to not only gross incarceration, but also the disproportionate incarceration of minority males. This is not white liberal guilt speaking, it is data. From the article: “The United States now accounts for less than five percent of the world’s inhabitants – and about 25 percent of its incarcerated inhabitants.

The Atlantic on mass incarceration – a must read

Not only do “Black Lives Matter,” there needs to be a whole lot more conversation on white privilege and classism across all races, because ain’t nobody likes being poor. Very often the fear of poverty is acted out in disdain for the poor. And clearly, for many people in this under-educated, unenlightened country, the response to mass incarceration is taking up arms, instead of considering root causes and social failures. Stop the madness.

I’m tired of reading these stories and more so of watching them online and TV. I especially hate writing about this. But I consider it my moral responsibility to challenge myself and you to write some damn e-mails, at the very least. I vote consistently and frequently campaign for a variety of candidates, and I will do more. But it’s not enough because systematic injustice is inevitable when capitalism is absent morality. Democracy without grassroots active involvement becomes oligarchy, which is pretty much where we have arrived. Religious organizations that are mute on social pathology, well that’s pre-World War II Germany when the Christians were silent while Jews were marginalized, persecuted, then murdered. I really didn’t want to mention The Donald here, but when a leading presidential candidate becomes more popular by spewing hatred against Mexicans and Muslims, we really are living in pre-WWII Germany. The front page of Sunday’s Philadelphia Inquirer said, “This is not who we are.” Really? Apparently it is.

I am left asking the same question so many others have asked: how many more shootings? How does that photo above not look both preposterous and terrifying? There are so many guns and it seems no urgency to change that. No urgency. Why? How many more shootings? How many more deaths? I’m calling all clergy (well, truthfully, I doubt they will read this, but you can tell them) to talk about gun control and keep talking about it until we have it. -J.B.

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