Wednesday, July 28, 2010

Water Park Complexity

Yesterday, I'd scheduled a shift in my usual work week to take the boys to Splashdown Water Park for the annual end-of-swim-season festival. It's a good time for all, as my lads join hundreds of other kids in shrieking down waterslides or drifting in an endless circuit around an artificial river.

As it so happened, I wouldn't have been able to do my usual Tuesday church office hours anyway. The intense storms that hammered DC on Sunday afternoon left much of Montgomery County without power for days and days, and my church office was dark and devoid of the go-juice that makes phone calls and emails and web site updates possible.

I partook of the waterpark goodness for a little bit, drifting around the faux river and sploshing down the slides. Then I went to take a few moments to be centered, focusing myself in a shaded area. Or, rather, unfocusing. During meditation, I often simply resist the desire to see one thing, and try instead to see the whole thing. In front of me was a river full of shouting kids and teens, floating by and squealing. To my left, towers that lead to slides drew a stream of kids. To my right, park attendees lined up for overpriced and underwhelming food.

It was a highly complex scene, dynamic and loud and whirling with energy, like leaves stirred riot by a storm.

I let it wash over me for a while, and then looked down. There was a small patch of grass. I looked at a single blade. It wasn't moving. It was a bit small, a bit wan, having been trod upon by what must have been an endless succession of kidlings.

But as the sun rested upon that blade, I know that within it there is a churn of complexity, as solar energy stirs a vibrant, messy process of photosynthesis within. I know that minerals and water are flowing up into the blade with the same wild rushing abandon of the river of splashing, screaming, laughing human beings that flow before me in an endless circuit.

It's just easier for our eyes and ears and minds to miss if we're not paying attention.

Beloved Spear Bible Puzzler: The Chosen

My discarded sermon concept for this week came in my reflections on Luke's story of the teaching of the Lord's Prayer. In keeping my message nice and simple and straightforward with a memorable takeaway, I neglected to pitch out this little Calvinist puzzler:

In Luke 11:1-13, Jesus presents his approach to prayer. That involves an attenuated Lord's Prayer, followed by a statement on the value of persistence, followed by the assertion that the thing we are to seek in prayer isn't bling or success, but the Holy Spirit. It's clear that what matters is the intent underlying prayer, a desire for connection and meaning that stirs an individual to seek after and pursue relationship with God.

As I reflected on that desire for the Holy Spirit during my sermon prep, I found myself wondering about the theological tautology that seems implied in this section. Desire for God is, I would hold, a gift of the Spirit. But if only those who are stirred by the Spirit seek the Spirit, and it is the seeking of the Spirit that is necessary for humankind to be in right relationship with God and one another, that seems to create a closed circle of engagement with the Creator. Almost, it seems, to the point of necessitating the use of terms like the "elect."

My Bible study on Sunday wrassled with this one for a bit, and folks came up with several interesting responses and reactions. I managed to avoid the use of the term prevenient, despite having spent seven years at a Methodist seminary.

What thinkest thou?

Tuesday, July 27, 2010

Toy Guns

This last weekend, I served as the Party Bus Dad for a minivan full of boys. My little guy was turning 10, and rather than one event, he wanted a smorgasbord of a party, a great heaping tapas plate of fun.

Stop number one on this multi-event delight involved unloading my bad self and six fired-up pre-teens at the local laser tag emporium. Both of my boys, and their dad, are most fond of laser tag. It's a hoot. The tactics and strategery of simulated combat are exhilarating. It doesn't hurt that we're not half-bad at it. Of the 45 players in the arena that afternoon, my oldest son rocked the highest score, my little guy came in slightly behind, and yours truly...who specializes in lower-scoring base defense...came in third. Our team, "Team Green," managed to completely rout our opponents. Of course, they were mostly panicked clusters of eight year olds whose grasp of close quarters combat tactics were woefully lacking, but why let a little detail like that dilute the glory? Hoooah!

That fascination with things martial extends deeply into the games my boys play. And, frankly, the games I play. Unlike many progressive parents, who hover and micromanage and try to get their boys to play with happy homemaker sets, I'm quite happy to have my pups charging around with giant squirtguns, or firing Nerf projectiles at one another. I, too, was once a boy. So long as they're aware of the difference between toys and real weapons, aware of the deep difference in cost between play combat and the blood and muck of real war, they know what they need to know.

I do wonder, though, just how many Americans grasp that difference. That wondering particularly applies to members of our Tea Party movement. One of the more dominant threads in American conservatism is the Second Amendment thread. It asserts, as was the intent of the folks who wrote that portion of our constitution, that unrestricted ownership of firearms is necessary if citizen soldiers are to be prepared to defend our nation. Every once in a while, one of the folks who are affiliated with that movement will darkly grumble about the need for us to have that Glock in our dresser drawer to throw off the yoke of tyrants.

I understand that desire to defend the homestead and the nation. I also understand that fascination with weapons. What I can't quite understand is how you can 1) support gun ownership on the basis of the second amendment and 2) be utterly and uncritically supportive of our current approach to national security. America's warfighters are, by the standards of militaries throughout history, without parallel. Our immense and sprawling defense budget may include a whole bunch of waste, but it has also produced the single most ferocious fighting force in human history.

Because of our engagement in Afghanistan, that budget is increasingly dedicated to developing tools for use against insurgent populations and local militia. Sophisticated drones and Joint Direct Attack Munitions are really rather effective at disposing of little groups of human beings bearing small arms. We're a very short step away from a revolution in military robotics, one that is being actively funded and pursued and could be the biggest game-changer since iron swords sliced through bronze shields like they was buttah. The fantasy of local militia being able to put up any kind of meaningful resistance against an unfettered mid-21st century army is just that. A fantasy.

What I just can't quite figure out is how folks who ferociously proclaim that they own small arms because they don't trust the government to provide health care are simultaneously eager to provide that same government with the most impressive destructive tools in the history of humankind.

Human beings are strange, strange creatures.

Friday, July 23, 2010

America's Always Done It That Way

America is, or so we are often told by people who should know better, a Christian nation. It's a fairly common refrain among those on the far right, those who would self-describe as ultra-conservative. They see resisting change as a battle against the forces that are gradually, insidiously turning this country into some unrecognizable socialist horror. You know, like the People's Republic of Canada. Change is to be resisted.

I found myself yesterday musing at the irony in this.

Conservatives in America tend to be church folks. And church leaders know that the kiss of death for any church comes when it is governed by one particular and pernicious phrase: "We've Always Done It That Way." As a theory for the primary cause of church demise and decay, it's well tested. If a congregation is not open to change, not open to responding creatively to the new challenges in its community and the world, then it will die. It might take a while. But that church will eventually calcify and crumble and fail, because it has ceased to be a living entity.

Here I'm not talking about changing the central governing values of the church. I'm talking about changing the structural and procedural mechanics of church. You know, the crap that doesn't matter. Big, vibrant churches...which, paradoxically, are often the conservative ones...know this. You modify the form, while maintaining the essential content.

Observing the intensity of the resistance to some seemingly obvious and necessary structural changes in our country, I marvel that a nation filled with successful churches should be so ferociously resistant to change. Take, for instance, our approach to transporting our selves and our stuff. A car-based system of mass transportation is obscenely inefficient, abusively wasteful of both our time and our natural resources. But we LIIIIKE it. It's the way we've always done it. It feels comfortable. So even though it can't be sustained, we resist any efforts to change it. Just drill more! Just make more long as you don't make us pay for them. And keep gas cheap, so we can drive our big lumbering Suburbans just the way the Founding Fathers intended.

We choose to ignore that things are changing. We refuse to realize that the easy and abundant energy that comes from carbon-based sources of energy was the only thing that makes the inefficiencies in our system possible. We close our eyes to the approaching end of the Oil Age. We are, as a culture, like that college-town church that clings to organs and stained glass and high pulpits and robes. It might, for a time, survive. But eventually, clinging to forms and structures that no longer reflect the reality around us will be the end of us. Assuming we're not dead already.

Any halfway competent pastor could tell you that.

Thursday, July 22, 2010

Memories, Data, and Dreaming

Yesterday, I unearthed some memories. That happens a fair amount in my wet-ware memory, as words or sights or scents serve as trigger events for a cascade of recollections across my neural net. Sometimes that's cause for a delightful reverie. Sometimes that makes me wish for the services of the Haitian.

But this remembering was different.

In puttering around straightening things up in the basement, I found an old Palm organizer. By "discovered" I don't mean it had been lost, or that it was anything other than in plain sight. It had just been set aside, as its function had been supplanted by a sequence of increasingly schmantzy smartphones. Its rechargeable batteries were depleted. It was abandoned.

But when I picked it up with the intent to perhaps recycle it, I reflexively hit the power button. And it turned on.

I noodled through the old familiar menus for a moment, and in seeing the icons, recalled that there were videos on the thing. Not in the puny onboard memory, but in a 512MB SD card that was neatly slotted into the top. As I recalled that, the charge punked into nothing, and the organizer shut down.

I popped the card out, and went downstairs to our iMac. I chunked it into the card reader that's integrated into our printer, and went a-hunting through the file menus. QuickTime managed to handle the arcane file format, and what I found were memories.

They were pixelated and crude, the output of a sub-megapixel camera, but real. Two little boys, playing in a snow fort. A fifth birthday party for the now-almost-ten youngest son. A shot of big brother walking little brother to the bus stop on his first day of kindergarten. "If you're feeling shy, or scared, don't worry," said big brother. "I'll be there."

As I meditated on these electronic recollections this morning, I wondered about the impact that this new way of remembering has on us as human creatures. Across the span of human existence, our ability to recall things across time has gone through significant change. First, there were stories, told and remembered and retold. Then, language took on symbolic form, and those stories were written...and history began.

Now, our remembering is more than just writing. It is aural and visual. We hold onto a moment, to its sounds and the play of light across a face. Voices and song and laughter still echo from a hundred years ago. Or from the faces of little children who are no longer little children.

This is still a profoundly new thing. We forget how briefly it's been around, how the last 100 years is just a tiny flicker of who we are as a species.

I wonder if that remembering will make us wiser, as the accumulated visions and images give us a stronger sense of who we were, who we were created to be, and what purpose underlies our existence.

I wonder if the accumulation of that remembering will drive us mad, as a great weight of images and thoughts pile up in our collective subconscious, building and building into a vast inchoate mass until they overwhelm us and we can no longer discern the real. Cultures, after all, do not sleep. They do not dream. So they do not sort, and do not learn.

Some combination of the both, I shouldn't wonder.

Tuesday, July 20, 2010

Living In Samaria

As I preach weekly, I'm very often stuck with leftovers. Leftovers are those ideas that come pouring out of my study and reflection on the texts, but that don't really fit within the theme and focus of the day. I can't stand long meandering brain-dump preaching myself, so I'd never intentionally inflict it on others.

After two weeks of preaching from the prophet Amos, one of the big "leftovers" has to do with sociopolitical context. It's clear that one of the major issues for Amos was an unsustainable imbalance of economic power. In the eighth century BCE, Israel was experiencing a time of prosperity...sort of. Wealth and power were accumulating, but that accumulation was occurring primarily around the urban centers, like Samaria and Bethel. Those who served the king did quite well. Those who sold to those who served the king did quite well. The scribes and the priests and the merchants were rolling in it.

But everywhere else, things bit. Exorbitant prices and punishingly high taxes were the price paid to insure that the centers of power stayed powerful, and that the merchants and the merchant's wives lived in the standard to which they were accustomed. So the majority of the people...the farmers and the laborers...knew suffering, while a few islands of prosperity flourished around power.

I live in such an island. I was born and raised in the DC suburbs. That's not to say that there aren't shuttered businesses and foreclosed homes here inside the Beltway. But as our homeland security infrastructure blossoms and spreads and sprawls, most of those jobs are here. More and more military suppliers and contractors are re-siting their headquarters here to DC. Best to be near where the money is if you want to make a few bucks off of our Forever War. And so our area does really rather well.

Of course, prices here are higher. And while the apparent taxes on y'all outside the Beltway aren't punishingly high, your actual tax levels are masked behind debt, debt that is being incurred on the basis of your credit. Meaning, you are, in fact, being punitively taxed. You just don't grasp it, because the bill keeps not being sent, because America only elects cowards who tell us that we can get something for nothing. Only you don't get that something.

And so when I hear Amos laying into the wealthy, I hear him laying into the god of security which we worship. And from which my community profits.

The peskiest thing about Amos is that the stone mansions and the vineyards that he describes could be in the neat neighborhoods of Mclean. Or in the stately McEstates of Loudon County. Or in Bethesda, in the beautiful multi-million dollar homes that surround my church.

So I haven't quite gotten around to preaching about it. It's hard to turn that poison cup into a Practical Lesson for Your Life Now (tm). It's too hard a word. But though Amos suggests that the prudent remain silent in evil times, it does seem worth at least blogging about it.

Mental Illness and the Courts

This last Friday, I began my day by going to court. It was, finally, time for the hearing for the young man who...impelled by voices...barricaded the entrance to my church. Though the church itself did not press charges, the state did. Law enforcement tends not to smile upon people who refuse to respond to a direct request.

We'd been praying for him in worship, but prayer needs to stir action, and so I'd doing more than that. I'd visited with his family, and visited with him in the state psychiatric institution where he was involuntarily admitted.

So it felt rather peculiar to be subpoenaed by the prosecution as a witness against him. That felt particularly odd as I sat in the courtroom with his family.

The courtroom experience was interesting. There seemed to be two clear types of case before the court that morning.

Most of the folks there were there on minor charges, like possession of drug paraphernalia or DUIs. They came in under their own power. Most had either lawyers or public defenders. Things for them went rather quickly, usually with a guilty plea followed by a commitment to do a treatment program.

Then there were other folks, whose charges were equally minor...typically trespassing. But they didn't enter the court on their own.

They were brought in handcuffed and in shackles, with officers flanking them. These folks appeared to have one primary thing in common. No, they weren't supervillains. They weren't unusually violent, or charged with heinous crimes.

Instead, every one of the shackled souls were rather obviously mentally ill. Several were homeless, or had been until they'd either disturbed the peace or been arrested for trespassing on private property. They were coming from custody at state run institutions. Some seemed to really struggle to understand what was happening to them. Others seemed clearly disoriented and/or agitated.

It was clear that for most of these individuals, cycling endlessly between incarceration and homelessness was the norm. It was the pattern of their lives. One fellow in particular had been through the court more than 25 times. If anything, the whole system seemed woefully dysfunctional, part of a feedback loop that crammed the docket of the court and left, really, no-one for the better.

Back in the middle part of the 20th century, folks like this were typically part of either state-run institutions or homes. But in the 1980s, as part of the "everything government does is wrong" movement, those institutions were defunded and shuttered. The idea was noble: let's put people out into their communities. Let's have localities care for them. Of course, localities didn't have the resources or the infrastructure to deal with the folks being dropped on their they didn't. Now, thirty years later, our mental health system is, for the indigent, desperately threadbare. Left to wander unsupervised and unmedicated, they are funnelled into our system of justice...and out...and in again. They do not compute.

The young man whose actions brought me into court that day seemed more lucid, and had served time, and was released into the custody of a confused but caring family. My hope and prayer is that he escapes the pointless, benighted cycle that our society inflicts on those afflicted with mental illness.

Thursday, July 15, 2010

The Higher Education Bubble

In a very slightly self-congratulatory way, the Washington Post's local section today affirmed what any inside-the-Beltway denizen already knows: we are the most educated region in the nation. Yeah, I know, y'all assume Washington is just a gray and sorrowful land in which soulless bureaucrats sit and fill out endless, pointless paperwork in tiny little offices like extras in Terry Gilliam's Brazil. And maybe we are.

But we do so because of our superlative levels of higher edufimicashun.

In the DC environs, 46.8% of residents have undergraduate degrees. 21.9% of us have graduate degrees. That beats every other region or jurisdiction in the country. This surfaces something of a puzzler. On the one hand, Americans who live outside the Beltway are fond of railing on the DC area. We are "those Beltway insiders." We are not "real Americans."

On the other hand, the goal of most Americans is to get what is increasingly viewed as a prerequisite for success: a college degree. That's your ticket to the good life, or so the story goes. It's a sign of attainment, of intelligence, and of stick-to-itiveness. By that standard, DC must be, by definition, the place inhabited by the most successful, driven, and capable Americans.

Only there's a problem with that, one that goes deep into an underlying dysfunction in our culture. There is, to my eyes, a problem with the whole "college as a prerequisite for life as a viable human being" thing. Undergraduate education, at least for me, proved profoundly useful. It was in my Religious Studies program at UVA that I began finding my way into a faith that could engage both my heart and my intellect. Seminary prepared me to go deeper, and to teach, and to preach.

But what my undergrad and graduate studies did not do was prepare me to work. Working prepared me to work. I learned the ethic that makes for successful work as a dishwasher. As a stock clerk. As a forklift-driving warehouseman. As a cabbie. I learned office skills as a fetch-and-carry intern. None of those things...not one of them...tapped into the knowledge I received as a student at Mistah Jeffahson's University. Or, frankly, in seminary.

Yet as our captains of industry offshore the industrial foundation that once provided blue collar workers with gainful, productive, lifelong employment, Americans are increasingly driven to attend college. You can't just work 9 to 5 on the line, and come home to your nice little house. There is no line. You need a degree to succeed. And so that becomes the goal, even if 1) it doesn't meet the broader needs of our society and 2) the number of jobs appropriate for a general college education no longer match the volume of graduates.

That cultural trend is, I'm convinced, is one of the primary reasons college education is growing so damnably expensive. It's a simple matter of supply and demand. With the collapse of our industrial base, the only jobs that can sustain our expected standard of living are for the educated. Knowing this, people are willing to undertake huge debt loads to finance their education.

Fueled by debt-driven spending, the costs of higher-ed soared, in the same way that housing costs soared. That was fine, though. You could pay off your loans over the years when that college degree reaped it's expected rewards.

Only, as anyone who knows anyone under 30 realizes, those rewards are now far from certain. The huge debt burden you undertook to get your English degree or your degree in Anthropology or Women's Studies or Architecture or Automotive Engineering gets you exactly nothing. The jobs for such souls aren't there. Nor, given the broader trends in the global economy, do they appear to be likely to return.

I find myself wondering if, at some point, people will realize this.

Sunday, July 11, 2010

The Open Table

The recent General Assembly of the Presbyterian Church (USA) surfaced all of the rows and sniping and argumentificating that I'd anticipated.

In our ever dwindling fellowship, there was the inevitable kerfuffle about homosexuality, as once again conservatives and progressives had at one another around the issue. There was argument about our approach to the endless fustercluck in Israel/Palestine, as leftists and right wingers did their thing. Not that what we say or do has any meaningful impact on the conflict, but squabbling over stuff keeps us from getting into any real mischief. It was, in terms of the disagreements that manifested themselves, pretty much same old, same old. It was familiar turf, and utterly expected.

With one exception.

One issue that I did not anticipate was a discussion about who can and cannot receive the Lord's Supper. For Presbyterian congregations that circulate the Christ-Crouton and the little plastic shot-glasses of Welches, the question was: who may and may not receive communion. Yeah, it wasn't the big flash point issue. It didn't strut down the middle of the event drawing attention to its fabulous self like some ecclesiastical Priscilla, Queen of the Desert. But theologically speaking, it was at least as big a deal as the flash-point [stuff.]

Where the PC(USA) is moving is towards an "Open Table," meaning it doesn't place any boundaries between folks who want communion from getting it. That doesn't just extend to other flavas of Jesus folk. We now won't even forbid an unbaptized person who desires to take communion from doing so.

This is something of an inversion of the traditional process by which individuals enter the Christian faith. Baptism is the moment of entry into the Christian faith, when through water and the Spirit, we are reborn. The Lord's Supper is our affirmation of Christ's willingness to share in the suffering of all being. In order to partake of the Lord's Supper, we need to have been Baptized into the faith. Right? That's what Jesus taught, right?

Problem is, when I look at the core texts that establish the Lord's Supper in the Gospels, I see no evidence in Christ's teachings that give credence to that as a requirement. Matthew 26:26-29? Nope. Mark 14:22-25? Uh uh. Luke 22:15-20. No siree. The synoptics, unsurprisingly, all concur in the absence of any razor wire fence around the table. They make no explicit mention of limitation at all.

John 6:51-58 significantly elevates the practice, making it sufficient for eternal life...yet with no requirement for baptism pre-stated. In fact, where Jesus talks about the communion meal in John, it almost seems...well...sufficient for establishing right relationship with God in and of itself.

Where Paul echoes Luke in 1 Corinthians 11:17-34, he lays in to those Corinthians about their abuses of the meal. But those abuses had everything to do with the Corinthians obsessive one-upsmanship, their creating power imbalances at the table. Unlike in the Gospels, there is guidance from Paul that would indicate who should or should not take the eucharist. We find that boundary in 1 Corinthians 11:27-32. There, Paul says nothing of the community excluding or forbidding or fencing or checking baptismal certificates. He says, instead, that those who partake should "examine themselves." For what? For whether or not they perceive and desire the body of Christ in the bread and the cup.

That's it. That's the guide and measure of whether or not to participate. If an individual seeks and hopes and desires participation in the Body, then they are welcome. Otherwise, they should feel free not to partake.

Acts 2 also talks about the Lord's Supper, and it is in two verses there that we take our pattern for the relationship between the two sacraments. It's clear from Acts 2:42-43 (and elsewhere) that we enter full participation in community through baptism. It's also clear that a defining aspect of that ongoing participation is the communion meal.

Yet there appears to be nothing within our defining texts that would prevent a seeking soul from sitting down at that table with us. So long as they want it, feeling moved by what it means and did and is, then the table is open.

The eucharistic meal is something that exists for disciples, true. But as I see it, you begin being a disciple of Jesus of Nazareth when the Holy Spirit begins moving you towards Him.

Since I started in ministry, I've always pitched that out as the requirement. Any table I'm responsible for will be an open table. Yes, baptism is the sacrament that marks full entry into the life of our community. But the Supper stands on its own. If you feel the Spirit move you to partake, if you discern that in this sacred moment, something important and transforming is happening, then I can see no warrant to forbid it.

As far as I'm concerned, the meal we share is not just something that we do after we're "in." It nourishes us and strengthens us for full participation in our fellowship, but I see it...can do the same in preparing us for that participation.

Friday, July 9, 2010

Tightening Our Belts

Over the last six months, I've been trying to get back into shape. Pastoring is a sedentary vocation, and by the end of last year I had managed to amass some pretty considerable mass. At five nine point five and one-seventy, I wasn't technically obese. I was only on the very cusp of being overweight.

But the weight I had was all nearly entirely fat. I still had the stick-like legs I've always had, but muscle tone was barely discernable. I'd fallen out of the habit of regular and intense exercise, through a combination of my own inertia and the stressors of life and church. I wasn't doing or feeling well.

To my dismay, I found I couldn't even really run if I wanted to, which would not have served me well in the event of a zombie outbreak. Sure, I could have out-lumbered the old-school George Romero zombies, but anything faster than that would have been problematic.

My body was still a temple, sure, but that temple now involved several sprawling additions shoddily built by incompetent contractors.

I remembered my pastor friend Bruce, who let weight lead to depression which brought on more weight in a spiral that eventually killed him.

So for half a year, I've been slowly but surely whittling away at myself. I started at two workouts weekly, and then ramped that up to one day on, one day off. I've been ratcheting back on the carbs, meaning the pretzels and the chips and the beer, and replacing them with water, fruit, or protein shakes. It hasn't always been easy, particularly the beer. Sigh. It's hard kicking yourself out of a pattern of life.

But I feel better. Not only am I thirteen pounds lighter and now only two pounds from my goal weight, I'm also considerably stronger. Measured in what I can curl or press, I'm nearly twice as strong as I was at the perigee of my flaccidity. It has required effort. If I am going to continue to be leaner and stronger, that effort will need to be sustained. Permanently changing your pattern of life is the only way out of obesity and weakness and decline.

For the life of me, I can't figure out why America can't get this through our collective heads. Yeah, we're the Fattest Nation In the World (tm), but I'm here not thinking about our individual corpulence. Instead, it's our collective overconsumption of material goods, coupled with our willingness to go deep into debt to sustain that pattern of consumption.

As our current stimulus driven "recovery" sputters, and our jobless rate stays high, there is talk in DC of yet another temporary stimulus. Let's borrow more, say the pols, because it's all about jobs and getting back into our previous pattern of growth. "We can't cut back now," say they. "Americans need jobs! Now is not the time for financial austerity!" This is politically expedient, sure. If you're pouring borrowed money into your district, you're much more likely to get elected.

But it is also, in the long run, going to destroy us. There will never be a right time. Never. Not ever. In order to create the consumption pattern that existed before the market meltdown in 2008 and 2009, we financially overextended. It was false prosperity. It was fat. Relying on temporary stimulus after temporary stimulus to "jump-start" the economy reminds me of the person struggling with their weight who bounces from fad diet to fad diet, making no headway. We're popping pills and drinking Super Big Gulps full of diet Coke while snarfing down whole bags of Doritos.

Unless we change your whole pattern of life, eating right and exercising more, things ain't never gonna change in our Body Politic. At least, right up until that last massive coronary.

Wednesday, July 7, 2010

Clothes Make the Woman

As Washington DC smothers under a blanket of intense heat and humidity, my little family has been sheltering in place from the ongoing heat tsunami. We've spent the last few evenings in the cool comfort of our basement, watching movies together. Through the joys of streaming Netflix, we've been indulging in some blast-from-the-past cinema, delving into some of the best that the 1980s had to offer.

The boys, particularly my tweener, are often reluctant to explore the cinema of this era. It's old! It's stupid! The music is terrible! Their hair frightens me, Dad!

As I've not seen most of these movies in twenty years, I'm always a little reluctant to trust my memories of their quality. Sometimes, I'm pleasantly surprised, as when we watched the still delightfully entertaining "Little Shop of Horrors." Sometimes, I can't believe I paid money to see a particularly wretched movie, as in the case of the stinktacular "Conan the Destroyer." We ended up having to turn that one off when our brains started to bleed. Usually, though, I'm able to successfully predict whether the kids will like a film or not.

Last night, we settled in with "Short Circuit," a amiable bit of 80s fluff about a robot that comes to life. I'd predicted that the boys would love it, and I was dead on. The humor was right up their alley. But what struck both me and the missus was the lead actress. Yeah, it was Ally Sheedy, which was a blast from the past, but that wasn't what got us.

It was the way she was dressed.

She was the love interest. From the dialogue, it was clear that the men around her...and the robot...thought she was attractive. And she was. But her clothing was remarkable in it's modesty. Long flowing skirts. Comfortable, loose-fitting blouses. Long slacks. This was not a prudish movie, either. It had rather more profanity than I'd recalled. It's humor was indistinguishable from the humor in a contemporary action comedy.

Yet the female lead wore clothes that nowadays would identify her as a Mennonite.

The image portrayed of women and what constitutes dressing attractively was radically different less than a generation ago. I watched a smidge of Top Gun the other day. In that 80s-fest, Kelly McGillis was supposed to be over-the-top sexy. But she mostly dressed...well...rather demurely by today's standards. When I go back to pictures of that era, the yearbook images of the girls I knew who were wild , provocative, and a tiny bit dangerous...the clothing that at the time was so...err...intriguing...looks like a burqua compared to what I encountered the last time I went to the mall.

Back in the 80s, the area around my home church was one of the seediest places in DC, a meat market of porn shops, drug dealers, and prostitutes. The clothes that teen girls wear today to go out..and sometimes even to go to more skin than those on the streetwalkers who'd sometimes solicit me on my way back to my car after I left the church. I don't say that by way of judging the character of the young women who wear them. It is simply an objective assessment of the amount of fabric involved.

I do wonder what impact the significantly increased sexualization of women has on our culture. Even a significant portion of modern feminism seems to have conceptually acquiesced to the market-driven idea that women are primarily sexual beings. Sex is, or so the argument goes, an integral part of a woman's empowerment. That it is useful for selling product is just a side effect.

I don't quite buy that. I think...and not just because I'm an old fuddy duddy, dagnabbit...that the sea change in cultural expectations about women's appearance isn't a positive development for 1) the psyche of women and girls and 2) the way in which men and boys learn to view the women around them.

Friday, July 2, 2010

Power, Self-Interest, and The Way Things Are

As my reading of Saul Alinsky's Rules for Radicals slowly wanes it's way to conclusion, I encountered one of the primary conceptual challenges that I face as I look at how he does the organdizin' bidness.

That challenge comes when he throws out some key terms that need to be embraced by Alinskian organizing. These are words, Alinsky argues, that are generally viewed with some distrust. We must, however, wholeheartedly embrace them if we're going to effectuate meaningful change in our communities. Not redefine them, mind you. Alinsky is too gritty and hard nosed for that. We must swallow our qualms, and grab the bull by the horns, and embrace these terms and all that they imply.

Those words are Power and Self-Interest.

Power, of course, is just the ability to create change in the world. It's wielding energy and force to bring about a particular end. Alinsky argues that power is an inevitable and inescapable element of human life, and that any awkwardness we feel around the idea of wielding power is silly. We do feel some awkwardness, and for good reason. Where human beings amass power, the record of human history shows us that we have a propensity to do some nasty, nasty things. Alinsky notes this tendency, and then says we should just get the heck over ourselves. When confronted with Lord Acton's quote, "Power tends to corrupt, and absolute power corrupts absolutely," Alinsky says, "Aha! Notice how he uses the word 'tends.'" Power must exist if change is to occur, and therefore, we've got to be willing to use it.

As for self-interest, well, Saul's down with that too. Again, we tend to be a bit leery of the idea of self-serving people, particularly when those people have political or economic power. Bad things tend to happen when the selfish use power to get what they want. But Alinsky has no such qualms about selfishness. Human beings are all driven by their own self-interests, he argues. That's the nature of human beings, of both our political and economic systems. Therefore, the task of the individual seeking to organize a community and change a social system is to find ways to "bundle" self-interests, so that individuals support one another's goals as a way of self-interestedly furthering their own desires. In doing this, Alinsky is rejecting the idea that somehow self-interest is bad. It's the Way Things Are, says Saul, sounding for all the world like a leftist Gordon Gekko. We may as well accept it.

Oddly enough, this assessment of the nature of human social systems is pretty much in keeping with classical Christian understandings of the political sphere. The dynamics of power and the balancing of interests are, at least as St. Augustine's City of God expresses it, the nature of the state...and by extension, the purpose of the marketplace. All human endeavors revolve around power and self-interest.

Christians seek neither of those things. Our awareness of the transcendent foundation of all being leads us to see power as ultimately meaningless, and self-interest as solipsistic delusion. We aren't called to serve ourselves, but to orient our whole beings towards the good of others. From such a stance, power over others is inherently dangerous. Does it exist? Of course. We can't help it. But when we step out of self-seeking, and see the interests of the other as our primary interest, we approach power in a radically different way.

Because Christianity is radically subversive of the Way Things Are. It is...perhaps...far more radical than Alinsky.

Thursday, July 1, 2010

Alinsky, Gandhi, King, and Jesus

One of the reasons that community organizing schtuff appeals so much to progressive Christians is that it reminds us of the great and noble movements of the 20th century. We recall Gandhi's radical call to the people of India to peacefully liberate themselves through nonviolence. We recall Rev. Martin Luther King Jr., and how he applied those same nonviolent techniques during the civil rights movement. In those memories, Christian communities find significant inspiration. Both of those movements were defined by an ethic that is fundamentally sympatico with the central teachings of Jesus.

Whether you describe it as nonviolence or satyagraha or "soul force," the assumption of those movements was that violence begets violence. The only way for a powerless community to liberate itself from oppression was to abandon the violence that underlies all oppression. Instead of violence, the communities would aggressively apply nonviolence. That didn't mean inaction, but rather direct action that intentionally assumed that the opposing side was human, and capable of grace if confronted by grace. It's the whole "loving your enemies" thing, applied to the challenge of injustice.

As Rules for Radicals was written in 1971, I was curious to see just how Alinsky would deal with nonviolence as a central ethic for transformative community organizing. The answer was interesting. In his recounting of the movement for Indian independence and the civil rights movement, Alinsky makes it clear that he views nonviolence as a tactic, and not an ethic.

This is unsurprising. When he uses the words "morals" or "morality" in Rules for Radicals, he almost invariably "puts them in quotes." Ethics are, for Alinsky, imaginary things. If a moral code helps you effectuate change and articulate power in a community, then great. Stick with that moral code. If that moral code gets in the way of your goal, then to hell with it. All that matters is what works to move you closer to your goal of change.

From that worldview, Alinsky argues that when Gandhi used nonviolence, he only did so because it was a tactic that had a chance of working. Had the Indian people been able to throw off British rule with force of arms, then Gandhi would have told them to take up their rifles. Or so Alinsky suggests.

Similarly, the use of nonviolence by the civil rights movement was just a tactic that matched the needs at the time. If African Americans had the numbers and the clout to rise up in violent revolution and succeed, then they would have. He suggests, looking at where race relations were in 1971, that eventually such a path might be taken. By Any Means Necessary, as some used to say.

There is some truth in Alinsky's assessment of nonviolence. As he points out, nonviolence only works as a political instrument if your opposition is willing to accept a shared humanity. Nonviolent resistance would have worked rather badly against the Nazis. Then again, it did prove itself rather impressively in Imperial Rome during the first and second centuries.

Yet by claiming that nonviolence is just a tool in the organizer's toolbox, a tactic to be whipped out or packed away depending on the circumstance, Alinsky shows he really doesn't quite understand it. To successfully practice nonviolence, it has to be a defining ethic, both the ultimate goal and the value that suffuses and defines every moment of life.

Particularly the hard ones.

Alinsky, The Truth, The Tea Party, and Jesus

One of the more significant things that Saul Alinsky pitches out for those who want to start a radical movement is how to approach one's opponents. It isn't enough to disagree, and to work for consensus.

Alinsky, being a deeply realistic critter, argues that respectful disagreement is absolutely useless when you're trying to motivate a group of folks. People don't get fired up to march and shout slogans if you present them with an honest and balanced appraisal of the opposing position. If you have sympathy for the opposing party, if you see some of the merits of what they're saying and are willing to present their position with all of it's nuances and possibilities, then you're a crappy organizer.

Not because what you're saying would be materially incorrect. Alinsky acknowledges that human systems are complex and interwoven things, and that even opposing positions likely have positive aspects. In fact, he banks on it, as ultimately his goal is to have his mobilized communities negotiate with his opponents for whatever gains can be made.

But when you're rousin' the rabble, you don't say those things, even if you know they're true. The rhetoric of Alinsky's community organizing is apocalyptic, meaning it is radically binary. Once you've identified your enemy, you define them as 100% evil, and your own position as the ne plus ultra of virtue and all things good and right and true. When things are pitched out in those binary terms, it becomes much easier to get people motivated.

Three things strike me about this approach.

First, it requires organizers to do what Alinsky describes as being "schizoid." Meaning, saying and arguing and passionately shouting about how The Man is the source of all oppression and monstrousness and evil, while deep down inside you know that isn't accurate. As Alinsky was writing before we knew that schizophrenia wasn't the same as multiple personality disorder, let me suggest a more accurate description of that state of being.

It requires that you be a liar. You hold a truth in yourself about your opponent, and you knowingly misrepresent their nature to your own people to stir up passions. Hmmm. Perhaps that little shout out to Lucifer at the beginning of Rules for Radicals is more apropos than I thought.

Second, this approach works great. It's wonderfully successful in the political arena. What it is not, however, is limited to the political left. If you honestly compare the Obama's leadership style and the Tea Party against this metric of successful organizing practice, it is the Tea Party that comes across as more Alinskian. Obama always had this pesky habit of being moderate and circumspect, of noting that McCain was a war hero and a patriot and the like. But folks like Glenn Beck and Sarah Palin have no such compunction. Obama is Hitler. DemocRats are Nazis. Or communists. They will take your guns and kill your babies and make you drive a tiny little car and eat tofu and broccoli. They know how to rile Americans up.

Alinsky's methodology has won some significant admirers on the American right. When I read smart conservatives...meaning, ones who are talking openly about Alinsky with one another for purposes other than faux anti-communist polemic...they like what he has to say. They glom onto his methods. They see how useful he can be. They are now, in fact, using his methods in their training. So far, it seems to be working.

Third, this way of approaching one's enemies just ain't Christian. Yeah, I know, Jesus cleansed the temple and took on the powers that be and yadda yadda yadda. But what made Yeshua Ben YHWH such a powerfully different presence was not that he taught us to love and honor our friends and demonize our enemies. That's always been the way of the world.

It was that he pressed that love ethic out to include opponents. Yeah, they might be messed up. Yeah, they might be cause of much hurt and oppression and brokenness. But real transforming revolution only occurs when you can look at Dick Cheney or Sarah Palin or Nancy Pelosi or the CEO of BP and realize that you've got to love 'em.

It doesn't feel as good, sure. It doesn't fill you with righteous glazed-eye partisan fire. But that's not why Jesus lived and taught and died and rose.