Notes for the white moderate…

Martin Luther King Jr. frequently expressed his frustration with the white moderate of his time and their preference for order and polite conversation over justice and direct action. After several days of social media dialogue I have a few frustrations with the “moderates” of our day, so I made some notes (thanks for reading):

We must stop making our conversation about racism about your political orientation of right and left rather than good vs evil. Racism is evil and those who attempt to divert the conversation or change the subject or offer whataboutisms are not neutral, they are advancing the interests of racists whether that is their intent or not.

There are some truly evil people who embrace racial conflict in pursuit of white supremacy, and those people want you to see violence and destruction as discrediting of the activist cause, so they are going out to incite more violence and destruction themselves. This has been documented many places and several white people already face formal charges for it. Not only is this despicable behavior but the fact that it works relies on a common error of thinking called ad hominem: That the truth or validity of a point is dependent on the character of the person advancing it. This is incorrect thinking. Evaluate the cause on its own merits not your perception of the person making the case whether they are looting or peaceful has no relevance to whether their cause is just.

Likewise the questions of whether black people on the whole have it harder in America than white people ought to have long been put to rest. Now that video cameras are omnipresent we have endless documentation of the claims black people have been making for decades that they face incidents of racism large and small with great frequency, often putting at risk their physical safety. We can also refer to endless statistics on the black experience in America that black people on average have fewer advantages and more obstacles to prosperity for all sorts of reasons both because of structural institutions and interpersonal biases. There are volumes of evidence to document these facts. Google is your friend (if you know how to evaluate reliable sources).

Saying All Lives Matter in response to Black Lives Matter is technically espousing a morally correct and true statement but doing it in a way that makes you a giant asshole. Our moral obligations to one another vary greatly based on the situational needs we face. We don’t tell starving children that all hunger matters, we don’t tell grieving widows that all husbands matter, and we don’t tell people raising a go fund me for their medical bills that all medical debts matter. We help them, because they are struggling and we can do something about it. We acknowledge their pain and take action to help if we can. 

Also the resistance that you feel to directly embracing the needs and desires of black people by merely uttering Black Lives Matter is itself a remnant of our long racist history. White attempts to use the language of “Colorblindness” to pursue a solutions to racial injustice mask the way those injustices came to be. It would be like seeing an angry mob burn down a house in your neighborhood and then suggesting a universal tax credit for home renovations will fix it. Sure that might be a small help to the person whose house just burned down, but what about that angry mob? How do we stop them from doing it again? And what will it take for the victim to actually rebuild their house? The sensible response to direct harm is not neutral policy, it is direct action to make them whole.

Even a cursory reckoning with America’s history of slavery, segregation,and discrimination over hundreds of years requires that we be honest that black people were uniquely victimized and in some ways should be uniquely made whole. The longstanding resistance of white people to this conversation because of the obvious sacrifices it would entail is at the center of our desire for less dangerous conversations centered on colorblindness and first principles rather than reckoning with history. All Lives Matter is not only a callous and tone deaf response, it is an attempt to divert us from hard and honest conversations and this fact is itself a remnant of racism. 

All this being said I want to acknowledge that conversations about intergenerational justice are messy and complex and hard. The duties we have to one another across history for the sins of our ancestors is a tough area of moral examination. But there are two things I would encourage you to keep in mind:

  1. Relationships are the key unit of change. American life is segregated in a multitude of ways and this prevents a majority of white people from having any real relationships with black people. Think about why this is in your own life and take steps to undo it. Structural things like where we live and the schools we send our kids to, the churches we attend the social clubs we participate in are often segregated for all kinds of reasons, some benign and some less so. At the core of many of these divides is white people’s subconcious acceptance of the idea that white spaces are safe and comfortable and diverse spaces are dangerous and uneasy. You must fight this instinct and work to overcome it through greater diversity of experiences. This will allow you to establish real relationships naturally with a broader set of people and over time to come to better understand their perspective.
  2. Approach questions of racial justice from a mindset of abundant mutual flourishing rather than one of zero sum scarcity. There are likely to be some short term costs and sacrifices to pursuing a more just society, but we are lucky to live in the most prosperous society in human history and we can afford to find the resources we need without overburdening ourselves. And in the long run, a world that is more just is a better world for everyone. It is a world with less tension and unrest, and where we can all actually start to set aside the burdens of our ugly history. The process of undoing racist institutions and opening hearts and minds to real relationships across these boundaries is unequivocally living into what we ought to be and an essential part of a flourishing society. Remember this when there is tension or difficult conversations, because they will come. But they are worth it.

America’s Soul is Saved in Community

In reflecting on the cultural dumpster fire that is our current civil society I began to wonder what is really behind much of the angst we are seeing in the conservative-liberal divide and I had a bit of an epiphany as I prepared for my small group: we are really fighting over how community works.

Culture is a funny thing, and it is often hard to grasp how it works or how it is going to respond to something, but one thing I think I can say about it with some certainty is that its mechanisms are primarily about what we share in common within a shared context. The things we can assume to be true for some universal “us.” And for that culture to be meaningful the set of those shared things must be sufficiently robust. A culture is not created every time two people like the same song for example. It requires some thickness to be achieved before it can satisfyingly be said to constitute a culture that is capable of bonding people into a community.

And so what I think many conservatives seems to be upset by is that the socially liberal-progressive movement has become almost entirely about eroding what we can take as a given in society. It has taken to defining any socially constructed category in such a way that it includes literally everyone, without exception. This is where transgender issues, for example, run afoul of most people: conservatives (and most independents and some left leaning folks if we are honest) express frustration with what seems to be the attempted destruction our most fundamental refuge of shared identity: male and female. More so than any animosity towards transgender individuals (although that certainly does exist), it is this cultural lament that is nearly impossible to overcome.

When conservatives lament “the good old days” it is easy to write it off as being desirous of a patriarchal, racist social system that benefitted them, and for some it certainly is that. But I think what is more often going on is a cultural conservatism that is evoked as one feels the erosion of community take hold in their lives. It used to be that when you met a stranger in the street you could assume a great deal about ideas you shared in common. Because of racist structuring of societal interactions the scope of who white men in particular interacted with was relatively narrow: mostly other white Christian, heterosexual men who came from similar backgrounds as them. Most social interactions were undergirded with shared religion, moral values, a shared sense of nationalism and pride, and thus they were easy, comfortable and common. This is the stuff a thick community is made of and these shared assumptions are the glue that bonds it together.

So imagine today how that same communal dimension feels when you are told you cannot take concepts as simple as what it means to be male and female for granted anymore. When the most fundamental identity questions become self referential, rather than culturally preserved.  It is unnerving at a deep level, not because it indicates some unconfessed bigotry, but because it is one more sense in which the community we inhabit must be thinned from the already disappointing gruel we are left with after 50 years of rapid social change. In some ways this is reflected in the lack of informal social engagement, how we (white people at least) almost never speak to strangers anymore as just one example.

We must make this important distinction that we previously have not: much of our sense of community, past and present, is built on the kinds of social interactions that formed us and for some those interactions were deeply shaped by racism or other forms of societal disfigurement. But that does not mean the mechanism of community is a bad one, just that it has been operating in a poisoned environment for generations. It must be recovered if we are to have any hope of rebuilding our society.

For all the social progress we have made as a country, in some ways we are culturally worse for it, and pretending that isn’t the case does not help anyone. Community is a deep human need, and it is a need that American society has gotten worse and worse at satisfying, even as it brings about new more just structural norms. I believe this is primarily because we have been inattentive to the ways that unjust systems were intertwined with our communal way of life. So when we cleared the American garden of various weeds of racism, misogyny, and bigotry, we pulled right along with it the flowers of community life without replanting anything in its place.

We must spend time in community and in doing so form again the soft bonds of culture with those who have become strangers to us. In some ways this will require a radical reengineering of a culture that used to depend almost entirely on familiarity of life experience, and learning to write a more beautiful script for what shared life across boundaries of race and gender and orientation and class and place of birth looks like. Because it is in these places where political differences can be bridged across communal bonds, rather than used to divide us into factions. But the answer to what ails us is not liberal or conservative, it is a vision of communal life rather than life lived in isolation. One I find is most perfectly expressed in Christian community, which is one of the key reasons I am a Christian: I believe that when we get it right, there is something going on there that restores and heals us in an objectively true way.

This is a hard task, and one our society has ignored for more than a generation, but if we are ever to get past this point where our politics has devolved into tribal commitments rather than actual ideas about our shared life, we must imagine a future where thick, inclusive community flourishes. Where people of all religious and political commitments open themselves up to this fundamentally human thing to take joy in colliding with the lives of others and to shape and be shaped by it. We must replant the flowers that we lost tangled amongst the weeds.

Intersectionality Won’t Save Us, But God Will

As a Christian who cares deeply about social justice I find myself dogged by a nagging question: why are white evangelical Christians so vehemently oppositional to most contemporary renderings of social justice? I mean no one really debates that justice is a major theme of the Bible. It’s a subject where even the theologically questionable practice of proof texting cannot credibly absolve a Christian of their responsibility to seek justice. It is literally everywhere in the Biblical text. Why then, do so many Christians seem to have a distaste for our societal conversations about justice?

After wrestling with this for a long time I think I may have actually found the culprit: intersectionality. For those who may not be familiar with the term, intersectionality is a theory within the field of sociology coined in 1989 by the leading critical race theorist Kimberle Williams Crenshaw. In it, Crenshaw suggests that our various categories of identity intersect to create an identity that is unique from any of its individual components. These intersections then become a lens through which we can understand systems of oppression, domination or discrimination that take shape in our social fabric.

This theory rose to prominence particularly on college campuses in the late 2000s and spawned discussions that resulted in the dialogue around “safe spaces” and issues of censorship and offensive language. It also coincided with a particular flavor of racial dialogue characterized by the concept of privilege. Privilege is the idea that these various identities confer advantage and disadvantage to those who identify that way. One result of this dialogue is a rhetorical structure in which subjective experience became the primary currency of ideas deemed valid. It is easy to see why this might be since the intersections of any given person’s identity are relatively unique, thus discussions about the validity of that person’s status in society are forced to rely almost exclusively on self-reporting of conditions, rather than statistics or economic data. A key issue here is that anecdotal self reporting is often not representative and thus creates a poor foundation for contentious discussions around race.

But the issue with intersectionality isn’t really so much about the merits of the theory itself. It has certainly contributed to a more nuanced discussion of the ways human persons constitute their identities and how those identities interact in society. The problem is actually with the defacto story that intersectionality leads us to tell about ourselves, almost without intending to.

You see intersectionality arose as a tool of critical race theory, so the questions it is preoccupied with are obviously oppositional in nature. That is clearly appropriate as there are a number of oppositional forces, both personal and institutional, at play in the history of race, particularly in America. However, once it became a theory not just about race but about justice, its underlying perspective became a normative lens, a way of discerning morality, for life generally. It became a worldview, and in that role it fails spectacularly.

You see, any worldview starts with assumptions about the nature of things. And intersectionality as worldview starts with the assumption that the primary dynamic of society is various forms of oppression. This is again an appropriate place to begin discussion on critical race theory, but not a coherent foundation for a worldview. If something is true of one context, it does not make it true universally. To distill it down to a narrative story would go something like this:

Human history is one long story of how we oppress one another. It has been narrated by and for those with the most power. And those power structures are preserved through the often unacknowledged use of identity to maintain advantage over others. The antidote to this oppression is awareness. If we acknowledge the various ways our identities advantage us, and actively seek to participate the undoing of that advantage, then the world will be more just.

It’s an interesting story, and one that seems true in certain contexts, but is that really a story that captures the whole of human history? Its soaring victories and its worst moments, its faults and its virtues? I think most people would say pretty emphatically no. In fact I would suggest that many people reject intersectionality and its various iterations out of hand, not because they don’t care about justice, but because the worldview it engenders seems to them deeply flawed.

Its flaws as a worldview are deep and many:

  • It insists upon an oppositional posture. If awareness by the advantaged is the only antidote, then accusation is the only means of proselytization.
  • It creates its own hierarchical structure. If awareness is the antidote then believers are elevated above the ignorant who refuse and the enlightened become self-righteous.
  • It insists that interpersonal or social power dynamics are to blame for all forms of oppression. This assumes that oppression can never be self inflicted. We know this is not true of many forms of addiction, or simply poor choices.
  • It inadequately deals with brokenness manifested in places that do not conform to an oppression narrative. For example, greed would only be bad in that it motivates oppressive behavior, not that it corrupts a human person’s soul.
  • It divides the entire universe into neat categories of oppressors and victims. We know that the world is far more complex than this. Everyone finds themselves in a mixture of these roles at some point.

For Christians who care about justice, it should be obvious that this is not the Christian story. The Christian story goes something like this:

God made all of creation by calling forth order from chaos and said it was good. God made human beings in his image, built for relationship with him and each other, and he called us good. But where it all went wrong was our sin. Instead of using God’s image within us to sustain the relationship we were created for, we instead sought to become like God ourselves. And so we broke the intended order of creation and we unleashed the chaos of our own will on the earth. But the antidote to this brokenness is a return to relationship, a restoration of who we were meant to be. Because Jesus gives us both an example of who God is, and the means to be forgiven for our rebellion. If we confess our sins, to God and to each other, we can be made whole.

This is a very different lens through which we might work for justice. We are not self-righteous accusers who call oppressors to awareness, we are sinners who plead with one another to follow in the way of Jesus. We beg one another to participate in God’s renewal of all things, rather than finding new ways to unleash the chaos of our own will as we impose ourselves on each other and on creation. The real root of the problems in this world are not because some of us are bad and they take advantage of the weak, those are but narrow symptoms. The cause is the sinfulness of us all, that we all want to be like God and inflict our own will on each other, not realizing the destruction we wreak on all of creation as we get our way.

And this fundamentally changes how we approach those we believe to be guilty of injustice. We do not get to accuse. We merely proclaim the truth: that we are all sinners who would rather impose our will upon others than seek real relationship with God and with each other. This is what Jesus meant when he said to turn the other cheek and to love your enemies. Oppressors are your enemies, and your posture towards them is not to be oppositional, it is to love them.

You will not transform anyone’s heart by accusing them of wrongdoing without first loving them. 

Read that a few more times and let it sink in because it is not something most people accept easily. This is the core shortcoming of our societal conversations on justice: if we pursue the narrative of intersectionality, where we must make oppressors aware of their privilege, we actually harden their hearts and our own. We make fellow sinners into enemies and instead of love we show them contempt.

There are a number of sociological phenomena that back this up. For example the fact that during a period of supposed social enlightenment, when conversations on race were happening almost constantly and often facilitated by having a black president, public perception of race relations declined and a majority believe things are getting worse. This is because awareness does not naturally lead to reconciliation, it leads to hardened hearts and bitter combatants.

It is also no coincidence that as this paradigm has taken root in our society political polarization has increasingly divided us against one another. Even twenty years ago the difference between the average Republican and Democrat voters was not terribly vast and there were huge areas of overlap. Today there is only a tiny sliver of people who overlap the median position of the opposite party. Because when accusation becomes the primary means of political advocacy everyone’s response is bipolar: you either get on board, or you turn your back. We settle into ever narrower camps where become insular and self righteous towards those on the outside.

This happens in microcosm in social media all the time. You might have a minor point of nuance disagreement with someone of similar political persuasion to you, and suddenly you can feel the tide shift against you. You have been made into an enemy, and your partner in dialogue has become your accuser. They then enjoin their social following to pile on against you and mob mentality takes over and two people who agree on 90% of things engage in an all out verbal assault over that 10% of nuance. This is a direct product of the intersectional awareness mindset. Because if the ultimate economy of the world, the one that really matters, is oppression and its solution is awareness then we are no longer co-performing a civilization to further human life, we are instead fighting a Hobbesian death match of ideas.

Regardless of what anyone thinks of Christianity, all people should at least be able to acknowledge that the Judeo-Christian tradition has spent the better part of 5000 years wrestling with the problem of human brokenness. The key question of Christian faith could be summarized as simply: What is wrong with us and how do we fix it? Sin and the salvation from it, virtually every tradition of Christian practice is built on a particular variant of answers to these questions. Even if you are not a Christian you should take note of these answers:

  • If you really want to heal the world, turn the other cheek. Be the one who ends the cycle of retribution just as Jesus became sin’s ultimate victim.
  • If you really want to heal the world, love your enemies. A warm embrace and sacrificial love bring real transformation where accusation and awareness have destroyed relationships.

You see the pursuit of intersectional awareness can easily become a means of coercion. Its evangelists will try and set boundaries around what is acceptable and aggressively censor those who violate their norms. This is because they conceptualize their task not in the human economy of relationships, but in the paradigm of ideas made manifest in society. The advent of universal communications in our world has inadvertently suggested to us that it is our ideas that are primary shapers of our shared life, and that we must align ourselves properly in the mental constructs we carry around before we might act justly.

Christian faith tells us precisely the opposite: that it is our very flesh and bones that were made for relationship with each other and with God. That it is our breaking of relationship that has polluted our ideas and caused injustice, sin and evil. And it is the physical body of Jesus as the means that God choose to reorient the world towards right relationship, through non-coercive, sacrificial love of even our enemies.

That is how we might actually bring about wholeness in this world. We confess that by virtue of our sin, we are all oppressors and victims at once and that only through confession, repentance and the restoration of relationships will we heal the world of its persistent brokenness. We must fight the temptation to self-righteousness with humility and engage even those who despise us as loved ones.

In some ways it is a much less satisfying story, where we do not get to be the heroes and where the desire for retribution is expunged from our hearts, but it is the only one that truly leads to life.

Father forgive me, for when I can’t even…

jesusI had a sermon point hit me like a ton of bricks this Sunday. It was a sermon about The Fall, when human beings became sinful through the eating of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil. We were lucky enough to have Jonathan Martin as our guest speaker, and his structured stream of consciousness preaching style occasionally intersects with my thought patterns and it is as if he is inscribing the words directly into my brain.

The tree wasn’t the tree of evil.

Let that sink in for a moment because this completely obvious detail is one I never really acknowledged. This foundational parable in which Hebrew scriptures explain where it all went wrong didn’t suggest that evil is some natural embodied force that we surrendered to. The root of all evil, brokenness and disorder on earth is our knowledge of good and evil. It is our ability to arbitrate and judge right from wrong, in from out, friend from foe, that makes us seek to dominate one another, to exclude those who don’t judge as rightly as we presume to.

This hits me so hard because life lately feels a lot like tribal warfare. It feels like we are waging righteous facebook battles to convince all who might remain neutral to join our tribe of right and good and reject those lost causes who surrender to darkness. The enemy has never been more clear, the brokenness and depravity never more pronounced. But what we have done is to bow down and worship at that tree of the knowledge of good and evil. We have allowed its intoxicating fruit to consume us with self-righteousness and accusation.

Jonathan pointed out in his sermon that the first formal mention of satan in the Biblical text is not actually in the garden of Eden but is in the book of Job. Here he is cast as the accuser who attempts to condemn sinful human beings and separate them from God. It is this spirit of accusation that is the very root of the satanic, the anti-thesis of God.

Just like the parable of the fall becomes immediately embodied in the story of Cain killing Abel, his brother, over a bowl of soup and a blessing, today we seek to rhetorically kill our fellow citizens, our fellow Christians, our fellow humans, over our politics, our certainty that we are right and they are wrong.

It is a tragic irony that it is in fact our own sin, my own sin, that lies closer to the root of the problem. I am sure I am right, and my desire to cast out those who are wrong, to dominate them, to shame them, to subject them to ridicule, THAT is where it all goes wrong. The world is in need of mending and it begins with me.

All of this is not to say there are not important moral distinctions to be made, and causes to be championed. But the story of God makes such hard demands on us in our pursuit of his reign on earth. It demands that we love our enemies, pray for those who persecute us. That we confess that ultimately the world is not set right by force or intimidation or protest or even public will, but by the unconditional, irresistible, loving embrace of all, even those who would sow our destruction.

I will admit I am an accuser by nature. I am often taken by the temptation to wield my rhetorical skills over those who disagree with me and make them look foolish. This is what defiles me and I must repent of it regularly.

I have recently become convicted that if I want to be about the transformation of the world then I should spend less time confronting, accusing, drawing lines of distinction between myself and those who see things differently, and more time embodying the loving embrace of both those in need and those who might despise me. Less time exchanging abstract ideas and more time sharing life. While I will undoubtedly fail at this at times, I think life lived in this strange way might at once transform me and those whose paths I cross, making us both a little more whole, closer to the fullness of life.

Father forgive me,
When I substitute my judgement for yours
When I turn an encounter with your precious children into a confrontation with a despised idea
May humility come quickly, and anger take its time
And may all who I encounter be restored to your wholeness rather than diminished by my harshness
In the name of the Father, Son and the Holy Spirit
Amen.

The Internet is Ruining Me

wile-e-coyote-acme-products

I am just barely old enough to remember life before the internet really took off. I got a Facebook account in 2007, when I was 24 years old and in graduate school. I am starting to think that is where it all went wrong. Trump’s election has helped clarify the problem for me. I no longer process things like a normal person, I start to have the internal monologue of a politician. I draft messaging, evaluate thoughts based on how well they would resonate with my audience instead of how well they capture my feelings. In some cases I am no longer even honest with myself about my thoughts that are mundane or conventional. This is both dehumanizing and anxiety provoking.

As I try and find ways to put my feelings about Donald Trump (BAD) into words in the isolation of my own head I have started wondering why I feel the need to put them into words at all and why I am doing this alone. Without exception the in-person conversations I have had about the election have been positive. We share our worries and our sense of loss and frustration and we connect, we perform our humanity together and it makes us more human, more connected, more understood and known.

On the other hand I have had some online interactions that border on the psychotic. Distant relatives or Facebook friends I barely know (or friends of friends I don’t know) who want to have a fight or just vent their frustrations and I serve as a good rhetorical target for them. These interactions demean us all, make us more isolated, cause us to retreat from one another.

Physical connections are better than virtual ones. Much better. Real relationships aren’t even made of the same stuff as online “friends.” I am not sure whether this point is obvious or novel to people, but it bears mulling over and considering deeply.

Online interactions distort us in so many ways. They shorten our tempers and diminish our manners. They make it ok to speak sharply to people you don’t know, and use one sentence as a rubric to judge a person’s worth and dignity. But worst of all they force us to substitute ideas as a hideous approximation of a human being.

You are not reducible to what you think or believe, and neither is anybody else, no matter who they voted for. And the goal of interacting with another human being shouldn’t be to colonize their mind and make them see things your way. It should be to understand what the world looks like through different eyes, to see something you may have missed, to catch a glimpse of life as you have never seen it before. This is the art we are losing, the art of being human and making real connection.

I need you to really hear me here, because this idea is more radical than it may appear on the surface. We have all become accustomed to treating ideas and beliefs as a substitute for character and personhood. We have allowed it to permeate our politics so thoroughly that we no longer disagree about actual human needs, but about disembodied policies tied to abstract narratives none of us are actually living. We don’t EVER look real humans from a different walk of life in the eye and watch their faces distort as we express our political ideas. We just post diatribes to Facebook and watch the likes pile up from our confirmation biased audience.

It feels good to do this. It allows us easy outlets to dominate one another, to find embodiment for our superiority. But it degrades us, and turns us into people we ought to fear. The fundamental unit of society, the building blocks that hold the entire edifice of civilization together are not ideas, but relationships. Some of them are mildly anonymous relationships of economics, but at their best all of them, social, political, familial bind us together in a shared destiny that we all have an interest in preserving.

But if we lie to ourselves and try to substitute our best ideas for our closest relationships, then the fundamental order of our world is by definition an abstraction, subject to the whims of whatever seems most expedient at the time. This is the recipe for social decay, and the undoing of even the most prosperous nation the world has ever known.

I am not sure exactly what is to be done about this, but I do know one thing: we should all be as slow as we can to cut ties with relationships over a difference of ideas. Doing so is both diminishing another human life, treating it essentially as if it were nothing more than a haphazardly written book we may not even bother to read, while simultaneously kicking over the building blocks that hold up our civilization and bind us in a common destiny.

We are all the problem, and we must remember what it was like to talk to a person instead of debate them, to watch their face and listen to their voice tell their parts of the story as they speak, and to hear a fully formed human life behind their words, every bit as rich and complex as our own. This is the only way forward, I just fear we may not be able to undo what Facebook has done to us all.

Let go of TRUTH and you might find it.

When I was a college student, all I wanted in an education was certainty. I wanted to know that my beliefs were the right beliefs and that I could justifiably look down on others flawed patterns of thought. What good is belief, I thought, if it isn’t TRUE? So I set out in search of truth, first via theology, then science, then philosophy. Each of them would disappoint me in their own way.

Theology was maddening to me in its cautious postmodernism. My professors would waffle about the nature of absolute truth claims and go on and on about narrative communities that give rise to meaning and truth within a particular context. I found myself longing for the self assuredness of a fundamentalist worldview. To be cozily bundled in a neat little package of ahistorical truth claims seemed so much less mentally taxing than all of this, aside from the fact that they clearly weren’t true. But I continued to press on with the same model for how we come to know things. Operating as if the fundamentalists only mistake was arriving at the wrong conclusions, rather than a fatal flaw in methodology.

Ultimately what caused me to abandon theology in my pursuit for truth was its insularity. It too often spoke only to itself. The vocabulary and “narrative communities” built up around arcane ways of speaking and living gave rise to something that seemed true but not TRUE in the grander sense. I was not satisfied with finding mere meaning, I wanted certainty. Its not even that I doubted Christian faith, or even disliked theology as much as I simply was not satisfied with a discipline that so quickly abandoned engagement on someone else’s terms. To argue with a theologian you must agree to a lot of ground rules, and thus preclude a great many questions out of hand. I searched for something that would claim truth from the grasp of atheists or Buddhists or physicists, and theology seemed mostly uninterested in these unstructured conversations.

So then I turned to science. “They have testable hypothesis and independent verification!” I thought to myself. Here, finally, I was certain that I would find TRUTH. But here is the thing about science: it too has a certain set of vocabulary and a limited “narrative community” to which it speaks, just of a different sort. Science gives access to a particular kind of knowledge, but actually the bounds of that knowledge are limited similarly to theology.

I have always been struck by the seemingly universal sense humans have that there is a imperfect relationship between TRUTH and observable fact. Essentially what science tells you is whether your experience of something is observable by others. Can it be quantified and measured, and then repeated? Is your experience of a phenomenon “the way things are” or merely part of your subjective experience? What often goes largely unacknowledged by those who speak the language of science is just how much of human experience lies out of reach of this sort of analysis.

Why do we find some experiences deeply meaningful and others tedious? What makes us passionate about something? Where does the idea of beauty originate? Why is human life so filled with experiences of hope, joy, suffering and love? These are questions ill suited to scientific thought but a life without answers to these questions would be a laborious one. Ironically these are the questions theology is often preoccupied with, sometimes to the neglect of what is objectively true.

And so I hoped philosophy would save me. Surely somewhere in human history someone has solved this! Thousands of years of recorded human thought, the answers must be in there somewhere right? If there is any particular lesson philosophy taught me it is that my questions are not new, and the answers are rarely straightforward.

I was particularly drawn to philosophy of mind and its ties to neuroscience. The concept of emergent properties fascinated me, like the way a human mind seemingly arises without obvious cause from a network of electrical connections in the brain. The way the human mind interacts with quantum states of matter and the various unexpected results of quantum physics gave me a much needed dose of humility. When humanity’s smartest minds are blown away by a subject, it is reasonable to pay attention I thought.

My studies in philosophy were often aggravating but enlightening. Studying ancient and medieval philosophy and wrestling with the same questions in a 21st century college classroom, forced into a stalemate with ancient thinkers despite a thousand years of human knowledge in our favor was infuriating. But at the same time there was something inspiring about wallowing in the shared human condition with our ancestors. There were few of the answers I sought to be found in philosophy, but I eventually discovered there were far better questions to be asked.

Ultimately it took many years of life’s lessons for me to realize the various errors of my ways. Getting older has changed me in many respects. I am far more comfortable with ambiguity, less concerned with being right and more interested in being virtuous. I realize now that the key flaw in my younger patterns of thought was mostly my arrogance, not only in my own abilities but a failure to recognize the limitations of human thought itself. The universe exists in all its glorious complexity and wonder, therefore a TRUTH regarding “the way things are” certainly exists, but there is little reason to believe that we might have direct access to it.

As wondrous as humanity’s mental faculties are, the universe is infinitely more complex and mysterious than any one of us could imagine. It is likely that much of it lies beyond our cognitive grasp and thus our search for truth amounts to grasping feverishly in the dark. But acknowledging that fact is actually quite freeing. If we admit that what seems true to us at best points into the mysterious void beyond direct human knowledge we can simultaneously cultivate that which gives us meaning: our religion, our philosophy of life, our wonder at nature, and yet acknowledge the beauty in other’s truth. We may see things differently, but we both grasp into the same awesome void.

To pretend that our knowledge is perfect knowledge is the height of human folly. It is a shaky edifice built upon both arrogance and ignorance, and it must be perpetuated via the constant rejection of new information and the degrading of those who see the world with different eyes.

It is actually amazing given the vast differences in human thought traditions and practices, just how similar our conceptions of a beautiful life tend to be: Love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, self-control. These are Christian fruits of the spirit, but they are ideas that speak universally to the human soul. They are found in most faith traditions and admired by the most hardened atheist. This gives me hope that somewhere, deep in the distant void beyond the limits of our understanding, lies the same truth towards which we all strive.

This is why I am a Christian, in spite of my doubts and frustrations and the messiness of ancient histories, I believe the story of Jesus captures a deep truth far beyond my capacity to philosophically explain or scientifically demonstrate. That true power and transformation comes from sacrificial love. That it is within relationships, friends and family, where the ultimate TRUTH -God- is revealed to our limited minds. That it is by losing ourselves in love that we discover something we can’t quite articulate about ourselves and reality.

At the same time this is why I try and wear my faith humbly, sometimes quietly, and I hesitate to impose it on others. Much like one piece of art might fascinate one person and repel another, my story is my own and my dim view of a distant truth might look very different from yours. A fully formed humility requires that I admit my limitations and frailties at the outset, and that I always graciously welcome other views of that far off truth. We might believe differently based on the revelations available to us, but whatever is virtuous points towards that which is true.

We would all be served well to take to heart Micah 6:8:
“He has shown you, O mortal what is good.
And what does the Lord require of you?
To act justly and to love mercy and to walk humbly with your God.”

To me, this means I can participate fully and faithfully in the Christian story, and yet admit that it is merely what it professes to be: God (that which resides in the incomprehensible void) made known to frail humans that we might be drawn closer to the TRUTH by participating in the story of salvation.

Why Bernie Sanders MUST be President

So I know that just about everybody hates politics these days, but now that we have survived a year or so of pre-election nonsense its actually time to get down to the actual business of selecting a President.

This election, unlike any I can remember (so this would be the sixth) is a stark choice about the future. It seems that many people don’t realize what is happening to the big picture around them and instead want to focus on the narrow interests of their own lives. Conservatives want fewer immigrants around who supposedly take their jobs or dilute their culture or religion, they want a smaller government that doesn’t help them get health insurance or try and redistribute income. From a narrow point of view those are at least understandable concerns, but they miss the very important larger context of what is happening in America.

Let me paint you a picture of America 20 years from now. New cars will be fully automated, which means that there will be no more professional drivers (taxis, limos, bus drivers, will all be looking for new work). Artificial intelligence will design websites, perform civil engineering tasks, write advertising copy and many more things unimaginable today and do it better than humans currently employed in those fields. Now ask yourself, “Who makes money from these things and how?” Uber will have a fleet of self driving cars and instead of taking a 10% commission on fares will keep 100% of them because there is no driver. The scientists who build a startup and program an artificial intelligence program will be able to do the work of tens of thousands of web designers, engineers, architects and writers. Suddenly 100 people can do the work of 10,000 and get paid for it.

Long story short, there is going to be less work that needs doing because technology will do it for us, and owning that technology will become exponentially more valuable. Now that can be good news, or it can be very bad news depending on how our government handles that transition. If we take the view that society at large plays a major role in producing these innovations and allowing them to bear fruit, then we must also redistribute some fraction of the benefits of these technologies to the rest of us. We should end up working less for more money.

To accomplish this we are going to need to move in the direction of a fixed minimum income. As technology becomes so transformative that it starts to make labor less necessary, some of us are going to need a supplemental income to ensure our basic needs are taken care of. There are also lots of supplemental benefits to this outcome: we spend more time with our families, we have the freedom to invest in creating art and music, and starting a new company becomes easier and less risky. The possibilities of our lives become broader and more flexible. This is what technology at its finest can do for us.

But the darker path is the one we have actually started down. As technology makes ownership more important, it raises the returns to capital. Whereas in the past starting an Uber required crowdsourcing drivers and sharing profits with them, it will eventually be a simple matter of buying autonomous vehicles and keeping all the profits for yourself. This pattern will repeat in many industries and the rich will get substantially richer (as they have for 30 years) and power will consolidate in fewer and fewer hands. We will all become subject to their economic whims and the plight of the average person will slowly (or sometimes quickly) deteriorate.

So back to today and the political choice in front of us all. There are really three choices in front of us: whatever conservative rises to the top of the heap, Hillary Clinton, and Bernie Sanders.

Conservative politicians in the race are all basically interchangeable and would have us focus on our narrow, immediate interests to make the short sighted choice of continuing down this road to a technocratic oligarchy. Regardless of your politics or position in life, it is a dismal choice that would worsen life for us all.

Hillary Clinton is really a convenient vehicle for powerful interests who want a carefully managed path to an oligarchy. They want to make sure that the coming changes are handled gradually enough to allow them to remain rich and powerful, while preventing a revolt by those who are losing the game. They realize they have to give out just enough government benefits to placate those in need and numb their sensibilities to the fact that they are being left out of our collective prosperity.

Bernie Sanders is cut from a different cloth. He sees that income and wealth inequality is already the defining feature of our modern political landscape. In a world where the Walton Family (owners of Walmart) are on their own richer than the bottom 42% of Americans combined we cannot continue down this road any longer. While a universal minimum income may be a decade or so away there are many steps we can and should take to getting there:

  • Single payer healthcare must happen eventually, now is as good a time as any. No other rich country in the world does healthcare like we do for very good reason: its unethical, inefficient, and cruel to the poor.
  • Taxes have to go up on capital gains and $1M+ incomes. The returns to capital (and being an executive in charge of deploying that capital) are so absurdly high and require so much less labor than they used to that we must balance the equation with higher taxes in order for society to reap a return for its investments in infrastructure, education and other services.
  • The financial sector must shrink dramatically. There is no reason that an industry simply intended to move money around ought to eat up 9% of GDP. It should be a rounding error not a major economic sector.
  • The cost of education has to be both tightly regulated and subsidized at public institutions. Because labor is becoming less important, some kinds of education are also becoming less economically valuable. The government has an interest in ensuring that diverse subjects are studied, even when the financial returns are not as high to further human knowledge and enrich our cultural life.
  • Paid family leave and mandated vacation is also a must. We should begin moving towards shorter work hours, and eventually a four day work week. Substantial paid leave is a good first step to working less.

These are not small adjustments, they are structural changes to our society that require a reimagining of our social contract. Conservatives are offering a step backwards towards the dismal future where we surrender to our anxieties and insecurities and impoverish our civilization for the benefit of the rich and powerful. Hillary Clinton is a hand picked administrator of the status quo ushering us towards a benevolent oligarchy that would have us accept the modest crumbs the rich deem us fit for. Bernie Sanders is our only path to a future where building our society and investing in our public life might render us all a decent livelihood. And given that oligarchs are consolidating power and becoming richer all the time, he might be our last chance to turn back. Thats why we all need to start to #FeeltheBern.

Christmas: The Narrative War

Every time you learn something or participate in something, you are becoming part of a story. And that story has a set of assumptions, that may never be spoken, but that shape those who participate in it. What is meaningful? What is important? What is good and bad? What has value and why? Every story has to answer these questions, even if the answers are never spoken aloud.

Take Black Friday for example. Ostensibly it began as the moment that we begin purchasing Christmas presents for friends and family. A ceremonious time when many family members go shopping together as a way to spend time together while they are all in one place. This would be a good story, but it is no longer the one that is being told.

The real story is being written by business who want to sell as much stuff as possible, and so the narrative takes on a different shape. The goal, we are told, is to find “the deal.” And that deal is such a special thing it is worth making huge sacrifices for: getting up early, or even staying up all night, braving huge crowds and hectic stores packed to the brim. And our reward, our victory, that which provides us meaning and validation, is savings. We got a good deal.

But anyone, with even a moments reflection can see that this story is a false one. The use of the word savings is an interesting maneuver. Savings implies spending less than one would otherwise and putting something away. “This is a good thing,” we think to ourselves. But what is really happening is that we are being told a story where consumption is inevitable, irresistible, a fact of life. And by finding “savings” we are consuming better, more efficiently, when in fact we are simply being trained to be better consumers. The person who seeks savings at great effort will never ask why it is that they must consume in the first place.

And so we get the modern Christmas narrative: our story begins with Black Friday and ends on a happy Christmas morning around the tree. Children tear gleefully into their presents, their natural joy bursting with the exuberance of consumption, like pouring gasoline on a crackling fire. Children form happy memories that will stay with them their entire lives, and the centerpiece of those memories is stuff, another generation of good consumers taught that their happiness is bought at a store.

I am just as implicated in this as anyone else. Growing up relatively poor meant that Christmas and birthdays were the only time I got new toys as a young kid. I rehearsed the rituals of consumption more thoroughly than most. I searched the house for months leading up to Christmas, hoping to find where my mom stashed the presents. Once wrapped under the tree my siblings and I would sort the gifts by who they were for and then in order of how excited we were to open them. We counted them, shook them, weighed them, really we worshipped them for weeks as Christmas approached.

This is the real war on Christmas. It isn’t a political one, or a religious one, it is war of narratives and meaning. It isn’t being waged by liberals, or atheists, or the politically correct, it is waged by us on ourselves as we participate in narratives that not only miss the point, but actively form us to the contrary. Because the real story of Christmas, of Advent goes something like this:

Israel, once a great a powerful kingdom, was lost in exile and occupation. They waited hundreds of years to be freed, saved by a redeemer. Generations had prayed for a victor who might overthrow the occupying Romans and restore their country to greatness. But God had other plans…

A peasant girl named Mary from the backwoods of Nazareth was pledged to be wed to a day laborer (like those today who wait outside Home Depot) named Joseph. God came to her and said she would bear a son conceived of the Holy Spirit. His name would mean Redeemer and he would be called Emmanuel, God with Us.

From the very beginning Jesus came into the margins of life. He was born in an animal stable, suggesting both poverty and social isolation. His family had no standing in society, he was a nobody. And he didn’t come to be a great conquerer, or a king. Instead he proclaimed an upside down kingdom of God, where the poor and the meek, the weak and unclean are the beloved of God. Where your enemies are to be loved, even if they would kill you and peace is brought about not by oppressive force, but through self sacrifice in love.

This is the story we are supposed to be living, participating in, celebrating and it is a hard one. It lacks much of the squishy sentimentality we love about the holidays and it is a horrible advertising slogan. But its answers to the key narrative questions are very different ones than we usually hear.

What is meaningful? Our redeemer, the conqueror long awaited, came to show us what love looks like. We find our meaning in the love of enemies, in the sacrifice of yourself to others.

What is important? Not status, or wealth, or consumption, but the poor, the weak, those who suffer, those who are forgotten. The beloved of God’s upside down kingdom are those on the bottom.

What is good and bad? We should look for our salvation not in the rich and powerful, but at the margins. This is where God chose to dwell among us and where he called us. Do not be seduced into looking to the elite or striving to find yourself among them.

What has value and why? This story more clearly than any other declares that we all have value. The least of us are God’s most honored and where he chooses to speak and act.

These are very different stories and they call us to very differently shaped lives. I am forever grateful than despite all the malformed habits the modern Christmas narrative foisted upon me as a child, my father insisted that every Christmas, before the presents were touched we read this story aloud from Luke 2. It was a reverent moment of quiet and deep meaning that still stands in my memory more prominently than any gift I ever received. As I got older I memorized the story and recited it each Christmas.

Now as I consider how Christmas shapes my 2 year old daughter I find myself straining to imagine a different story and I realize it is nearly impossible to do alone. It requires a church that tells that alternate story boldly and a community of friends who live differently shaped lives in response to it. After all, you can tell a good story by yourself, but its tough to live one alone.

Freedom isn’t really about you.

American communal life seems to be spiraling downwards lately. Our politics are bitterly divided, our culture teems with narcissism and selfishness, and my fellow millennials seem to run from marriage, religion, or any meaningful engagement in a shared civic life. I think all of this stems from the distorted view we have come to accept of freedom and its usefulness.

I am an old millennial. I am also a rather old fashioned person by modern standards. I married young, at 21 years old, and had a child at 29, very young by urban professional standards. So I have had a little over a decade to observe my peers come of age. What I have noticed is that many of them seem to value freedom in a bizarre way. It is as if freedom is an end in itself, that merely being not obligated to something should be our goal.

This manifests itself in ways big and small. People take much longer to settle down, if they ever do. They rarely own homes, and they often pick up and relocate their lives every 3-4 years. Many of them pursue an idealized life of a “digital nomad” where they literally remain unconstrained by even geography. On a smaller scale they are more likely to flake on social commitments, or remain noncommittal to the last moment.

These behaviors have tangible consequences. They almost universally erode a sense of community. If you don’t live in one place long enough you rarely get to know your neighbors, you won’t be as invested in the well being of the community. Relationships can suffer when they become more about whether you are having fun in the moment than whether you fulfill each other.

The implicit assumption underlying many of these trends seems to be that your life is fundamentally about your self actualization. It is not, and your pursuit of that goal will ultimately ring hollow, even if it seems like fun for a decade or so. You see, the beautiful thing about freedom is that it can be given as a gift to others. I like the juxtaposition of the concepts of freedom and covenant.

Covenant is the religious word around which the concept of marriage is usually centered. It is a commitment by which two people bind themselves together. They limit their freedom by giving some of it to another person. I think this is what many people find hard to accept about marriage when they are young because they have embraced the idea that freedom is the goal and becoming less free is a step in the wrong direction. But human beings were made to live in covenantal relationships. Not just with a spouse, but with a community, with humanity and with the earth itself.

And this is why marriage and kids seems so foreboding to your average 22 year old, because they have never understood themselves to be bound to anything prior to that point. But we are all born bound to the earth, we owe creation our stewardship and care because it is what sustains us. We owe our communities our participation because they shape us and give us life. We are bound to our families, whose loving care sustains us and whose bonds are to provide us comfort throughout our lives.

Freedom is a great thing. It gives us the opportunity to decide what to give ourselves to. But too often it seems that people pursue freedom as the goal, trying to realize even a freedom from giving of ourselves at all. This is not living well, and it is paving the road to narcissism and selfishness. Your freedom is only worth pursuing that you might have more of it to give away.

So volunteer, not to seem generous but to surrender your time to others as a gift. Invest in deep friendships that are found not by leaving your options open, but by intentionally investing a little slice of your freedom in people you love. If you get married, don’t do it because you are swooning with romance, but because you found someone who agrees that you are worth being bound to. If you have a kid, don’t do it because they seem cute, but because you know that a life poured out into others is better than a life striving for self actualization.

So many of our problems today stem from the myth that we are to be individuals in unabated pursuit of our own selfish ends. Our discourse lacks charity because we see other people’s ideas as an affront to our aims rather than fellow human beings to whom we have obligations. We can’t talk about race productively because our selfish ambition dulls our empathy to those whose reality places demands on us. We will never overcome these barriers until we see ourselves as embedded within a community that places covenantal claims on us.

You indeed have the freedom to choose from almost infinite communities, partners and friends to give of yourself to, and by all means use your youth to expand your world and see humanity in all its wonder. But never lose your orientation towards others. Always remember that your freedom is a gift meant to be given away. The freedom of youth is well spent finding the right causes and people and places to bind yourself to. And its when you do that, and put down roots in things that matter to you, that your freedom has truly found its purpose.

Don’t be Afraid of the Dark

Being an international relations scholar and a father sometimes intersect in strange ways. My daughter recently began having a fear of the dark. Its a totally normal part of childhood and is actually part of how our brains are wired. A fear of the dark is actually a survival mechanism, as we are more vulnerable to dangers we cannot see and thus a heightened sense of caution in the dark tends to keep us safe. She can’t yet articulate why she is scared, but she is obviously uneasy when she lays down to go to bed.

Sometimes I sit next to her bed as she drifts off to sleep, usually reading something on my phone while I gently rub her back. The other day I read an article on Daesch (a newly adopted pejorative term for ISIS) as part of my reflection on the Paris attacks and was struck by how our response to terrorism is really quite similar to my daughter’s fear of the dark.

There is something about acts of terrorism that connects with our unconscious brain to wreak outsized destruction on our psyches. Part of it is about empathy. Paris was so impactful to many Americans because it is easy for us to imagine being in their shoes. We all go to concerts or out to dinner, it could have been any of us. The things that really scare us are the things we can’t control, and something about randomized violence against people just like us, doing things we do every day, hits us deep in our unconscious fears. We become uneasy in our own skin for reasons we can’t completely articulate.

My daughter is likely afraid of the shadows cast on her walls that she doesn’t totally understand and the dark corners of her room that her amygdala tells her contain potential danger. Her executive functioning isn’t developed enough to tell her that she is in a safe house, behind a locked door in one of the safest places on earth. She can’t change the brain patterns that lead to fear because she lacks the categories and the ideas to cope.

We fear terrorism because we are very, very bad at assessing small risks. For example, on November 13, 2015  more French people died of coronary heart disease than terrorism on its worst day. There are over 2 million people in Paris. Even if you had known the events would take place ahead of time, going out that night was less than 1/4th the risk of death from working on a farm for a year. If someone told you that you could either face all the dangers of 3 months of farm work or you could surrender the privileges of living in a free society the choice would be pretty obvious. Yet somehow we let terrorism work. We are afraid of the dark.

It is time for us to learn to cope with terrorism. We work to thwart it of course, but when it inevitably succeeds, we must place it in context of its actual risk and respond accordingly. Because it is being used as a tool, not simply to inflict mental suffering on us affluent westerners, but to bend the human narrative towards destruction.

You see what Daesch wants is a fight, really more of an apocalypse. They want every Muslim in the world to feel that everyone else hates them and that their only resort is to join Daesch and fight as one for their survival. Their goal is to unite all the world’s Muslims into a Caliphate, and wage a 7th century style war to bring about the end of the world. So when we respond irrationally to these acts of terrorism, and let our amygdala’s fear response attach itself to our idea of Muslims, we are giving them exactly what they want. We are pushing the vast moderate majority of Muslims toward a fanatical radical vision of the future. Our hatred is their fuel.

The only way Daesch can win is if we allow ourselves to be provoked to hatred. Islam is not our enemy, our enemy is the band of radical psychopaths with a plan to watch the world burn. The battlefield is not the Middle East, it is within our western hearts and minds. We are being manipulated to hate a broad swath of our fellow human beings and to lash out violently in places infested with some small ratio of bad actors. We have been tricked into provoking an enemy of our own making by pouring fuel on a raging inferno.

We stop them by seeing them for what they are: weak, desperate, deluded, heretics. They are functionally Westboro Baptist Church meets David Koresh writ large. Rejected by the vast majority of the world’s Muslims, but strengthened by disenchantment with western power exerted in their homelands, or xenophobia and racism they sometimes face in ours.

We must learn to distinguish between that which makes us uneasy and that which truly threatens us. Islam makes us uneasy because of a small band of true believers living out their vision of a seventh century war of the apocalypse in its name. Our greatest weapon against them is to warmly embrace the Muslims who arrive at our doorstep, take in their refugees, feed those they have starved, give them hope for a brighter future. We must always remember that it is light that drives out darkness, and we have no reason to be afraid of the dark.