Saturday, January 23, 2016

Time for Authentic Leaders to Bring Us Together
Twenty Summit County experts gathered at the Summit County Medical Examiner’s Office for a thoughtful analysis of the nature of drug addition to call for reasonable reforms to help prevent addiction, treat addicts, and heal communities.

162 residents of Summit County have died of overdoses in the past year.  The article emphasized more than once that the victims come ‘from all walks of life.’

This is wonderful.  Seriously.  I am (again) proud of Sherrod Brown and Russ Pry and other leaders driving this conversation.  And my next comment has nothing much less to with them than it reflects on what happens when other leaders gather and call for action against drug addiction.

Even though the article is careful to emphasize that the victims come from all walks of life, the numbers indicate this is overwhelmingly a white, middle-class problem.  Of 162 dead only seven are black.

If…no stop, I do not need to imagine.

When the situation was reversed and the drug addiction problem was mostly black we saw different leaders gathering in different locations, uninterested in any analysis of the nature of drug addiction or reform, but instead calling for a ‘war on drugs’ designed to punish more and more severely the largely black victims of the crack epidemic.

The article concluded with an honest insight that begins to help us understand the vast difference between how we approached a drug addiction problem when the victims were largely black versus how we now approach it when the victims are largely white.

‘Many attendees said one of the biggest problems was the public’s failure to acknowledge addiction as a legitimate issue.
“Communities don’t think it’s a problem until it’s in their community,” said Jerry Craig, executive director of the Summit County Alcohol, Drug and Mental Illness Board.’ 

The AkronBeacon Journal is my local paper and I am proud of that fact--I enjoy reading it every day.  I am also happy to see the Editorial page challenge our police chief’s emotional claims about a ‘Ferguson Effect.’

But the challenge is weak and beside the point.  The partial and inconsistent evidence on homicides does not even begin to help us figure out if the chief is onto something that is actually happening or not. 

The chief’s own decision to adopt body cameras is much stronger evidence that the chief’s claim is mostly defensiveness from inside a professional bubble that is not accustomed to the kind of challenges to its authority we are witnessing today.

If police officers are now more likely to think twice before shooting a citizen, there is no universe in which that is not a good thing.  In the absence of data to the contrary, a claim that some small percentage of officers being more hesitant about shooting citizens is causing a rise in crime is, on its face, implausible. 

And it fundamentally misrepresents the relationship between effective police work and crime prevention. 

This moves the claim from implausible more than likely sound-bite sabotage, with deep roots in elites more interested in punishment than problem solving.

That is, it transforms into a claim designed to mislead us about what is actually going on, insulate and reinforce the power of those already with more power, and turn down the heat on those already in charge who would rather have more of a free hand to operate without scrutiny.

Steve Chapman provides a good, highly critical, analysis of Bernie Sander’s Medicare for All plan. 

‘His plan to replace our health insurance system with “Medicare for All” is in some ways a dramatic break with the status quo. But it rests on an old and thoroughly conventional formula: Promise voters they will get more and better health care without paying for it.

Michael Gerson provides some memorable phrases in his analysis of the populist anti-intellectualism (versus anti-elitism) in the Palin-Trump alliance.

‘Ted Cruz may have secured the coveted Duck Dynasty blessing. But Palin is the original and best representative of Kardashian conservatism. Her endorsement of Donald Trump was entirely devoid of policy content — a speech that did not even aspire to shallowness

Palin has been entirely consumed and replaced by her own bitterness against a Republican establishment she feels betrayed her, and against a media that mocked her. More than anything else she clings to resentment and rage. And her revolution, over time, has become comprehensive; not just a revolt against elites, but a revolt against syntax and taste and preparation and reason

Trump is not proposing obnoxious solutions to real challenges; he is promoting obnoxious solutions to fake or wildly exaggerated challenges. His anti-intellectualism is severing the ties between the GOP and reality. If Republicans choose to inhabit the Trump-Palin world, they will offer little of value to our own.

But, I wonder if any of this matters.  If traditional factors that drive elections were still behind the wheel here, Trump (and certainly Palin) would long ago have been booted out of the conversation. 

It feels great (and is accurate) to dump on Trump for his ignorance and Cruz for being a dangerous ideologue, but we are likely distracting ourselves from what we all need to do, D and R and more, to prevent our country from the profound harms that will result from a Trump-Palin presidency, even from a Trump-Palin general election campaign that they lose.

Moderate Republicans need to step up (as some already are) to definitively displace Trump from his place in this process.  Democrats and independent leaders and talking heads in the media need to do what is possible to make this more likely to happen, including enthusiastically (and honestly) praising the moderates (Kasich?) who do this as American heroes.

Finally, check out this Headspace meditation app (also covered in the ABJ today—love this paper and encourage all to subscribe).

Sunday, January 3, 2016

Image result for thomas merton chuang tzu

Unleashing the Good that is Already Within
Thomas Merton is man I like to listen to as he thinks out loud.  He has written two of my favorites books, Contemplative Prayer and The Way of Chuang Tzu (although it is twenty page introduction to the second volume that captivates me in that book).

In The Way of Chuang Tzu he tells us we can only understand CT in context, because this thinker was responding to, interacting with, other thinkers, his contemporaries and others from earlier ages.  “But before we can understand even a little of his subtlety, one must situate him in his cultural and historical context.”

This is a common claim among social scientists and cultural critics, though rarely followed through on as thoughtfully and intentionally and meaningfully as Merton does here.  In fact, Merton argues one might see CT as silly or profane or illogical if one did not interpret his words as responses, countervailing forces, designed to illuminate (both the strengths and weaknesses in the position being responded to as well as CT’s own position, without actually ‘taking sides’ in the traditional sense).
Which leads to one of my favorite passages (pages 22-24)…

Merton notes that CT is concerned about both the means and the ends that Confucians focus on, because “the whole concept of ‘happiness’ and ‘unhappiness’ is ambiguous from the start, since it is situated in the world of objects.  This is no less true of more refined concepts like virtue, justice, and so on.  In fact, it is especially true of ‘good and evil,’ or ‘right and wrong.’ 

From the moment they are treated as ‘objects to be attained,’ these values lead to delusion and alienation.

Therefore CT agrees with the paradox of Lao Tzu, ‘When all the world recognizes good as good, it becomes evil,’ because it becomes something that one does not have and which one must constantly be pursuing until, in effect, it become unattainable.

The more one seeks ‘the good’ outside oneself as something to be acquired, the more one is faced with the necessity of discussing, studying, understanding, analyzing the nature of the good.  The more, therefore, one becomes involved in abstractions and in the confusion of divergent opinions.  The more ‘the good’ is objectively analyzed, the more it is treated as something to be attained by special virtuous techniques, the less real it becomes.  As it becomes less real, it recedes further into the distance of abstraction, futurity, unattainability.  The more, therefore, one concentrates on the means to be used to attain it.  And as the end becomes more remote and more difficult, the means becomes more elaborate and complex, until finally the mere study of the means becomes so demanding that all one’s efforts must be concentrated on this, and the end is forgotten.

Hence the nobility of the Ju [Confucian] scholar becomes, in reality, a devotion to the systematic uselessness of practicing means which lead nowhere.  This is, in fact, nothing but organized despair: ‘the good’ that is preached and exacted by the moralist thus finally becomes an evil, and all the more so since the hopeless pursuit of it distracts one from the real good which one already possesses and which one now despises or ignores.

The way of Tao is to begin with the simple good with which one is endowed by the very fact of existence.  Instead of self-conscious cultivation of this good (which vanished when we look at it and become intangible when we try to grasp it), we grow quietly in the humility of a simple, ordinary life, and this way is analogous to the Christian ‘life of faith.’ It is more a matter of believing the good than of seeing it as the fruit of one’s efforts.

The secret of the way proposed by CT is therefore not the accumulation of virtue and merit taught by Ju, but wu wei, the non-doing, or non-action, which is not intent upon results and is not concerned with consciously laid plans or deliberately organized endeavors. 

‘My greatest happiness consists precisely in doing nothing whatever that is calculated to obtain happiness…if you ask ‘what ought to be done’ and ‘what ought not to be dong’ on earth to produce happiness, I answer that these questions do not have [a fixed and predetermined] answer’ to suit every case.  If one is in harmony with Tao…the answer will make itself clear when the time comes to act, for then one will act not according to the human and self-conscious mode of deliberation, but according to the divine and spontaneous mode of wu wei, which is the mode of action of Tao itself, and is therefore the source of all good.

The other way…is fundamentally a way of self-aggrandizement…CT is not against virtue, but he sees that mere virtuousness [of Ju] is without meaning and without deep effect either in the life of the individual or in society.

Once this is clear, we see that CT’s ironic statements about ‘righteousness’ and ‘ceremonies’ are made not in the name of lawless hedonism and antinomianism, but in the name of that genuine virtue which is ‘beyond virtuousness.’

Once that is clear, one can reasonably see an a certain analogy between CT and St. Paul’s…teaching on faith and grace, contrasted with the ‘works of the Old Law.’”

Saturday, January 2, 2016

Thinking About Those Same Old New Years' Resolutions
Very short video on keeping it simple as the root of a healthy lifestyle.  The Your Health page at NPR has a short story and the link to this video here as well.

Friday, January 1, 2016

The Call to Challenge Our Own White Privilege
Reverend Dr. Susan Brooks Thistlethwaite blogged recently on white privilege as a faith challenge.  You can get her full text at the link above.

Something Wicked This Way Comes is not only a sinister 1962 fantasy novel by Ray Bradbury, it is also descriptive of the malevolent and growing power of white supremacy in the United States.

This accelerating menace is an urgent faith challenge in 2016.
Here's where we are today: African American children and adults are killed with impunity, callously injured and incarcerated at rates that make the United States a world pariah. Conservative presidential candidates are getting explicit support from white supremacist organizations that have crawled out of the woodwork, drawn by hateful rhetoric against African Americans, immigrants and Muslims.

While white supremacy is by no means new, this is a new moment of accelerated marketing of fear and hate packaged as a promise that if you are a white person you can get a sense of control over your life. Never mind the real reason why you feel out of control is because your job went to China and your company executives spent your retirement. White supremacists, like the carnival barker in Bradbury's novel, know the secret desire for power in the human heart, and the buried fears that give rise to those desires, and they exploit them.
Across a vast and diverse faith community, we have to recognize this desire and its powerful emotional lure: feeling superior as a white person over those of other races, especially over African Americans, is formative for many, taken in sometimes with mother's milk and continuously fed through culture, law, politics, economics and religion.
Yes, religion. I know as a white Christian pastor and activist, I need to step it up, and confront this menace both within Christianity, as well as in society. A white God, a white Jesus, and a white church will never be allies in the struggle against white supremacy; they will, at best, be unconscious enablers….

If a white person would be a faith ally in the struggle against white supremacy, it is crucial to look inward at religion and…carefully to those who are being crushed. Don't blithely assume you can help.”
Then she draws from liberation theology and sociology…
“Liberation theology always starts with contextual analysis….  Let's start from the realization that white supremacy IS the context of the U.S., that it is a long-standing system of vast exploitation and immorality as Ta-Nehisi Coates wrote so powerfully….

Sociologists have described what they call wicked problems. These are problems that are driven by a vast number of interconnected forces that sustain and grow them. Wicked problems are characteristically difficult either to recognize or to solve….

Wicked problems "have no definitive formulation" as they have different patterns in different locations. White supremacy in Chicago, IL, for example, has important differences in terms of historical roots, as well as economic and political structures than the white supremacy of let's say, Charleston, South Carolina. Effective activists know this. They use this.
White supremacy is a "wicked problem" because it "bleeds." That means there are no boundaries to its causes or its effects. Instead, white supremacy permeates education, law, law enforcement, economics, politics, religion and, broadly speaking, culture….
The model of Wicked Problems holds that those who would engage them must "take responsibility" for the consequences of their interventions.
This is a big one for faith activists. Your good intentions don't, and I intend this in a theological sense, mean a damn. Don't just muck in. Study, care, consultation and coordination are a big part of being effective in dealing with even a part of wicked problems.
It is also important to realize there is no "solving" wicked problems, there is only creativity that can tackle its many manifestations, subvert and mitigate their most destructive effects and engage creative alternatives.
#BlackLivesMatter has rightly garnered respect and support from white faith organizers because of its specificity, creativity, analytical wisdom and strong actions.

But it is crucial that white people of faith engage our fellow white citizens, Christian and non-Christian and do a lot of work….
Showing Up for Racial Justice is a "national network of groups and individuals organizing white people for racial justice. Through community organizing, mobilizing and education, SURJ moves white people to act as part of a multi-racial majority for justice with passion and accountability."

There are others, of course, such as GroundWork….

Chicago Theological Seminary where I work, has been intensely focusing on racism and white privilege for several years. Many other seminaries have as well. Individual churches are making such commitments, such as All Saints Church in Pasadena….
There is good news. I believe no matter how powerful wicked systems can be, they are no match for grace shared in community and the love of God and neighbor.
But you can see the winds gathering, so we better work harder.”
Follow Rev. Dr. Susan Brooks Thistlethwaite on

Sunday, December 13, 2015

Star Wars and Our Common Language for Doing Politics

In today's Akron Beacon Journal there is a great commentary from a theologian arguing that as our common language for doing politics--for public debate--is eroding, Star Wars stands as one counter-example worth thinking about,  because that story continues to bring people together.

Here is a link to the commentary at the ABJ.  

First, I like using pop culture texts like Star Wars to help us sort out real world challenges. And I enjoyed reading this one very much.

Second, there is data showing that the divide Camosy points to here (polarization causing us to lose our common language for talking about politics) can be seen as a much more significant gap at the elite level. Average Americans still tend to be more moderate and pragmatic.  See Morris Fiorina for more on this.  This matters because framing this problem as an elite leadership failure directs us to very different solutions than framing it as a culture-wide problem (which Camosy at times seems to suggest is a problem with democracy--here I could not disagree more).

Third, the author's comment abouy sensitivity to race and gender undermining our capacity to use the ideas from our founding era seems wrong to me.  Yes, we can now see our framers were wrong on slavery, but our greater sensitivity to race and gender subordination today is (in my view) a reflection of how authoritative these founding ideas remain today--too often as more aspiration than reality, but that is a different point.

Fourth, the law is one of our most important common languages for 'doing politics.'  While we have always disagreed on the precise meaning of due process, equal protection, and free speech and religion...we still (following our founders) argue about these using the language in the Constitution, Supreme Court decisions, and laws passed by Congress and States.  

Our disagreement is certainly deep in some cases, but we are still using a common least enough to wonder if the central argument in this piece requires us to look at some data before we conclude that "our growing commitment to freedom" is driving a "disintegration of our political culture." As much as I like this piece, the central claim might be more a 'vague sense' than an actual observation.  

So, in this sense, watching (and discussion) Star Wars is yet another public sphere where we are all doing politics, participating in the ongoing struggle over the meaning of the law.  I do wish that the previous Star Wars episodes had included women and non-whites of the stature of Yoda or Obi Wan, but perhaps the new one will take a step from our founding era to today and beyond.  

Don't miss the movie as yet another opportunity to come together over the holidays!

Saturday, December 12, 2015

Being Assertive Without Being Aggressive or Avoidive is the Best of the American Way

"OK, there you are, waiting in line to get into the football game, and some guy from much farther back in line charges up to the man near you, demanding to know if he's "a refugee." How do you (safely) tell the aggressive so-and-so to get back in line and let the (embarrassed, frightened, native-born) man know that you're on his side? I'd like some suggestions because I'm likely to step forward and respond w/o thinking...."

This is an interesting scenario in a recent FB thread. I may use this in class, but even if I do not…I have learned a lot reading it, because the thread is filled with insight.  Here is an incomplete culling from the thread…in search of the core guiding principles we might use.  I apologize for typos or incomplete thoughts; I have a stack of papers to grade today, but still wanted to reflect on this anyway.

Certainly everyone deserves dignity and respect, so we want to be the change and enact our vision for a better world (and resolution to this conflict) in our response.  As Tucker put it, whatever we say or do we need to ‘be kind’ to everyone involved.  As Sherry put it, one key part of being kind and effective here is to ‘remain calm.’

And the audience often determines the outcome of a conflict.  In this case, a productive response would include expanding the scope of the conflict to include the audience.

But expanding the scope with escalating the hostility is a challenge.

I like Maura’s idea (for anyone with language skills, as a fellow Irish) with one modification informed by Keith.  Perhaps stand next to the victim and look another spectator in the eye and say something firmly but gently like Carl’s suggestion: “leave us alone.”  Janet’s Target story hits on this: stand between them, let the victim take your place in line.

Because Maura’s is a bit less inciting and we want to avoid Rene’s scenario where the intervener is now seen by the audience as the problem.  On the other hand, it is important to be fully present in the moment, and it is possible that a stronger statement like Maura’s would be needed to bring the audience in against the attacker.

In this sense, Nick’s post is (like others who agreed or shared similar regrets over staying silent in the past) on point:  we cannot know for sure what we might or should say ahead of time, but we do need to be prepared to say and do something. 

The preparation we can do is think through the dynamics as we are doing here, and work on language that feels like our own voice, and prepare to be both assertive and respectful, to both step in (in between) to protect victims and invite the attacker to see his words/actions as outside the crowd/community without feeling attacked himself.

This is where expanding the scope can help in other ways, because once one person intervenes it is more likely for others to do the same and this creates a dynamic where the attacker might see the value in claiming he was joking or just walking away.

Or, one of those from the crowd now on the intervention team might bring the most valuable tool—a good sense of humor—to the conflict and deflate the entire situation with a comment that makes everyone laugh and allows the attacker to escape with a bit of dignity by laughing and moving on.
Teresa’s comment (depending again on reading the specific situation) might fit the bill here, if said with a tone that encourages all to laugh:  “Unless you and I are Native Americans, we are all refugees here!”  Or Kevin’s (and Karen’s) “I am also a refugee!  Is there a prize?”  

Or Alternate Julie’s “Excuse me sir, can I see your ID?”  Or Terry’s approach using humor and distraction (yell O-H…).  Or Cindy’s “I'm sorry, dearie, did your poor mother not teach you manners? Because in the United States of America, the land of the free and the home of the brave, we don't make accusations to strangers. We welcome them. So, where are you from, anyway?

Or as Kimberly suggests: “In a calm voice I'd say, ‘Now, let's all take deep breaths and get to the real heart of the matter.’ I'd turn to the newcomer and ask, ‘Sir, are you a Browns fan (or whoever the home team is) or Steelers fan (whoever the visiting team is)?’ Hopefully, that would get a couple chuckles to defuse the situation. ‘Come on, we're all just football fans right now. Right?’

Another good ‘template’ type of response to keep in mind and practice in less stressful situations so you can get better at it, is the one suggested by Barb:  Ask a question. (But be careful you do not ask a question that invites the attacker to explain or justify or expand his attack. Tone matters here.)

Barb suggests asking “What is the problem?”  This is a good generic question to have in your template box, but in this case a slightly modified version might work better: “How can we tell that this person is not an American?  And no one has to be an American to like watching soccer.  What is the problem here?”  Cindy’s suggestion to ask a question kindly is important.

Asking a question in a situation like this is best combined with Keith’s point above:  Without pause, continue to ask 1-2 others in the crowd, making eye contact, “What is the problem here?

Or we might imagine a dialogue:
“What is the problem here?
She is the problem; she is a refugee.
In America, do we prevent guests from going to soccer games?”
(Making eye contact with 1-2 in the crowd) “Do we?” 

At this point, it is worth repeating:  we cannot know for sure ahead of time and in the abstract what would work, because we need to be present in the moment and read the situation to balance assertiveness with non-escalation, challenging the words/actions without challenging the attacker’s identity. 

We can (as we are here) prepare to do that well, but we cannot (in my view) find one universally applicable statement that will always work, even that will always work in this one scenario, because even this one set of facts can vary dramatically depending on the circumstances. 

And even a perfect question/intervention is not likely the end; we need to see these as conversations, as unfolding over time, and not look for a silver bullet to end the situation in one fell swoop.

Amy’s point is worth reflecting on as well, reinforcing the importance of being present in the moment.  Much of what we have said already is based on the assumption, highlighted by Kelly, that getting the crowd involved will mean that they will join our side. 

As Amy indicates, however, with leadership fanning the flames of racial and religious hatred we have to be less than entirely confident in that outcome—reinforcing the importance of balancing the tension between intervening and still respecting the attacker (and others in the crowd who might ‘agree’ with him).

Assuming what must be achieved (in this case, agreement that attacking a random stranger on the dubious presumption that she is a refugee and even more dubious presumption that being a refugee justifies the attack) will derail efforts to de-escalate and resolve.

Creativity, like humor already noted, is a powerful skill here.  Maureen (and Tina) has a good idea (if it fits your read of the situation):  greet the attacker as if he were an old friend and walk him away from the situation.  I am sure I do not need to note that caution needed in taking this approach, but I will add this—doing this might reduce the chance that the crowd comes to your aid and single you out in the attacker’s mind.

If your read of the situation is imminent danger of violence, then Mary’s idea emerges as worth considering: stand next to the person while dialing 911.  Or Patti’s idea: to stand with the person and invite others to join and surround her.

Brenda’s idea of starting with a gentle and kind but assertive “excuse me?” could also work.
Kevin’s point about no point trying to reason with a moron warrants consideration. 

Not because calling out moronishness will help us here, but because whatever approach we take might get an incoherent response, returning us to the importance of bringing in the crowd (expanding the scope) and respecting the attacker—if his response indicates low intelligence or Fox News Disease than simply separating him and the victim is likely the best possible outcome short of calling 911.

Lou’s idea could work:  “Whoa, whoa. Let’s turn it down a notch here.  Let it go and everyone get back in line.”  (Edy hits on a similar note.)  And then hope that ‘the sane guys in the gym’ or in the crowd here, react as expected and outnumber the attacker.

Bill’s idea has merit: “Sir, please calm down.  This person does not need to prove anything to you.”  And as he adds: ‘hopefully others would join me.

Ruth adds a good idea—moving to stand next to the victim and not addressing the attacker at all, only speaking with the victim.  Add Keith’s point about bringing in other bystanders with eye contact and this is likely to be a strong and safe response.

Jenn’s “How dare you?” is to the point and accomplishes the goal of asking a question—to put the burden of explanation on the attacker.  I like this one for its simplicity as well, as long as we are prepared for next steps—stand next to victim (ala Ruth) and/or bring in additional bystanders (ala Keith).

Cyd’s “Stop it!” And/or “Get back in line; you’re embarrassing yourself!” while seeking to expand the scope and saying to the victim “I am sorry this happened” both have merit. (Maxine hits on this idea as well.)

Jeannie has a creative idea: “This person is my guest, so please get back in line.” Rebecca makes a similar point.

Brian’s “Pardon me, but who are you to question this person?  Have you seen some official status?” has merit.

Pat’s “In America we do not treat people this way” could be an effective response.

Singing Tom Petty, like yelling ‘O-H!’ could be brilliant.

I also like Peter’s idea, speaking to both attacker and victim but with the point of bringing in anyone within ear-shot: “What in the hell are either of you doing in line for a Browns game?  Don’t you have something better to do with your time?”

Or as Pamela put it with more humor: “This is a Brown’s game.  We’re all refugees in this line.  The team might win one of the last few games, or maybe they can unload Johnny Football to another team.”

Cy’s “Excuse me but what business is it to you?” might work.

Reviewing these ideas is a great way to prepare.  Then practice using one or more of the ideas here in low-tension situations, so you make it your voice and learn how to use it.  Then, keep in mind that no one statement will always work, but trust your instincts because you are prepared:  speak up with kindness to all, humor if you can, to de-escalate.  Usually a question is a good start, as long as it is not an accusation and that is helps you expand the scope of the conflict.

As Bruce Lee says “master the principles without being bound by them.”  We prepare by considering scenarios like this and imagining how we might respond.  Talking with others as we are here, to clarify the core principles to keep in mind and sharpen our awareness of what is more likely to actually work.  Then remember that the principles only guide us, we still have to be fully present and humble and assertive.

Thanks for sharing your thoughts and experiences on this important question.

Thursday, December 10, 2015

There is no war on Christmas

A war on Islam alienates our potentially most powerful ally in the war on terror

But our leadership has been infected by the ugliest underside of American culture