Friday, October 21, 2016

The Profile of the Despot

Yesterday, as the nagging, snarling cough that has made the last week of my life unpleasant finally abated, I went down into the basement workout room/workroom/place to store random [stuff].  Finally, finally a chance to lift weights without sounding like a TB victim.

But while down there, I became distracted by something in a box that I was putting back where it belonged.  It was a box filled with the old comic books I inherited from my uncle.  Mingled in with them, I found an old magazine.  It was "Current History," which is still published today.  This particular issue, however, dated from July of 1928.  It contained a collection of essays about the world events of the day.  There were some pro-and-con back and forths from activists and constitutional lawyers about the Prohibition.  There were articles about global politics, and some writing about the upcoming election.

More fascinating still : a long reflection on a major global political figure of the day, written by an Associated Press journalist.  It is a character study, the observation of a seasoned journalist who had spent decades observing both the country in question and that leader in particular, and sought to report on this fascinating figure to an American audience.  What was he like, as a human being?  What drove him?  What are his demons?  Why was he so successful?

I read through the article, noting the key features of this historical figure's character.  From that snapshot in history, some of the quotes seemed particularly...relevant:
He is intuitive, but not profound; he has tremendous exploitative and organizing ability, but puerile analytical powers; he is forceful, but inconsistent; impetuous and at times incoherent, he is intelligent, but has no intellectual gifts... 
Here is a perfect extravert, a man always moving into his environment, never into himself, taking and transforming, but never giving.  He has no friends, no allies, no collaborators.  He is alone on [his] plane.  All others are lower, aides or assistants. 
[He] has little power of nature a man fitted only for action, loves the boom and blare of new starts as much as he loathes the boredom of the less sensational later steps....His activity has the regular irregularity of certain fever charts.  A new "stunt" every fortnight or month, to be abandoned soon afterward through boredom, a change in adviser or greater interest in the immediately following project. 
One of [his] seldom contested claims to fame, if not to greatness, is his apparently inexhaustible vitality, his constant and tireless activity...his working day is seldom less than ten hours.  Often it exceeds eighteen. 
He is a master at posing whether before one, a thousand or a million watchers.  His skill is tremendous and seldom fails him.  His bag of tricks is inexhaustible.  Perhaps it is true that he acts to satisfy the appetite for drama and melodrama of the...people.  Unquestionably millions of persons...are captivated and disarmed by his consummately effective histrionics. 
He adores publicity and gloats openly, childishly, in the interest he produces. 
[He] is simultaneously profoundly suspicious of flattery and tremendously susceptible to it.  His vanity is colossal.
The year, again, was 1928.  The leader?  Not Hitler.  Not at all.

The journalist was the Associated Press reporter from Rome, and the personality he was describing was Benito Mussolini.

"Those who do not know history," as the saying goes.  

Thursday, October 20, 2016

The Peaceful Transfer of Power

This last Saturday, my wife and I went for a long walk with our dog.

It was a strikingly beautiful day, clear and perfect and touched with the first hints of our late-arriving autumn.   And though we've got some beautiful parks and wooded paths near our little suburban rambler, we got in the car and drove.

Our destination: the lovely fields and forests of a nearby National Park, the park set aside as sacred ground to remember the first and second Battles of Manassas.  It's a long walk, a whole afternoon, across the varying landscapes over which those battles raged.

On one great sweeping rise, rows of cannon sat silent.  A young mother and father, he a person of color, she of European heritage, followed their inquisitive little toddler as he ran free across the field.  "Not so far," called the mom, reflexively, but there was nothing to fear.  The field went on, and on, and there was nothing more dangerous to a child than soft grass and earth.

In another field, where the grass rose tall and golden, a bright blue Ford tractor pulled a baler, as two farmhands neatly loaded a large wagon with the harvested hay.  At the top of the hill, a line of pickups waited, good solid workingman's trucks, hitched to fifth-wheel flatbeds, ready to carry the hay to nearby farms.

The path across the fields brought us to woodland.

Those woods were filled with other Americans, walking and talking in little clusters of two and three.  Some were running. At the bridge over Bull Run, a bride in white, flanked by her wedding party, the bridesmaids in surprisingly tasteful blue, a professional photographer and his assistant snapping those hopeful pictures for a future life.

We walked deeper through the shadows of the peaceful wood.  And in one place, we came to a sign, which we respectfully read, as we'd read all of the other signs before it.

On it, a quote from a Union officer, describing the movement of his men through that same forest, less than two centuries before.

"We advanced, and the woods were filled with the bodies of the dead."

I looked at the wooded ground around the path, scattered with fallen leaves, and I could see it.  I have seen it, in photographs taken of that terrible war.

Young men, no older than my own sons, shattered and cold and broken by grapeshot and musket fire, their bodies stiffening in their own blood.  Those old tall trees, so calm and quiet, touched with the remembered cries and stench of death.

So hard to see with your soul, on such a beautiful, peaceful day.  So hard to imagine, that such a thing could ever be.

And yet it can.

All it requires is for us to forget what violence really looks and feels like, for Americans lost in the dark spell of a demagogue to speak of revolutions and uprising as if they are fanciful abstractions, as if they are a game.

All it requires is for the reality of violent conflict to be glossed over by blithe romantic fabulism and the anger-blindness of our self-righteousness.

All it requires is for us to stop believing in the old good magic of our Constitution, to let cynicism and gossip-whispers tear down the trust and mutual respect that is the bedrock of our civil society.

How easy it is for peace to be broken, when we stop believing in it.

Friday, October 14, 2016

Do Not Write an Amusing Caption For This

I saw the picture, and at first captions popped into my mind, because that's what my mind reflexively does.

I blame Mad magazine, and MST3K, and, well, my fundamental nature as a mischievous little monkey.  I can't see most things without thinking something faintly inappropriate.  I am a silly person.

"Wouldn't that be funny," murmured my snarkiness subroutines.  "Shareitshareitshareit," hummed the neurons that have been coopted by Mark Zuckerberg.

But then...I couldn't.

The impetus withered and died, because I haven't been feeling quite that way lately.  So much of our political life is defined by comedy these last few years, as people behind desks or prowling a soundstage say amusing things about the people vying for the Presidency.  Audiences laugh, and it's all in such fun.

And perhaps, perhaps that's comedy as prophetic discourse, comedy at the the thing that skewers our cultural delusions.   Comedy can be that.  So often, that's a healthy thing.

Perhaps that's comedy as release, as the tension of living in a culture that offers us no sense of shared purpose pours its hive mind dissonance into us.  We need to mock, or we would go mad.

There are things that humor helps us approach.  Politics is almost always one of them.

But not for me, not now.  The political jesters and wags and wits who seek to amuse us with their wry or bawdy commentary do not speak to where I am.  I have stopped watching them.

I don't blame them for it.  It's not their fault.  Perhaps for some, that is still helpful.  Maybe it makes this whole mess bearable.  I do not judge those who still find they want to laugh.

For me, the time feels wrong.

Like cracking wise at the graveside, when a family has lost a seven year old child to leukemia.

Like making jokes while you explain to a trembling young woman how and why you're going to use that rape kit.

I don't feel like laughing.  Not right now, at this strange, surreal, dangerous time in the life of our nation.

Thursday, October 13, 2016

Forgiveness and Remembering

A few days ago, a friend posed the question:

"Where is the balance between forgiving and forgetting? Or should there be any balance at all? I'm having a hard time with God is somehow telling me to completely forgive, and pretend like nothing happened? Is that really what turning the other cheek, and loving unconditionally is about? Are we called to be door mats?"

I was meditating on this question yesterday, as I sat in a tightly packed row at Yom Kippur services.  It is the Day of Atonement, the day when the mother tradition to my own faith ends a year and starts another by asking for and offering forgiveness.

We sat and we recited litanies of regret, in English.  We listened to them sung in Hebrew, my fingers tracing right to left across the page as the old seminary classes helped me track along through the prayerbook.

It's an important holy day, the holiest of holies, because repentance and forgiveness are at the heart of faith.

Forgiveness is essential for our spirits, but forgiveness itself cannot meaningfully exist if we imagine it requires us to forget our wounds.  When we are harmed, we remember that harm.  We remember it fiercely and completely, remember it as our flesh remembers sharpness with a scar.  We remember it as our gut remembers the scent and flavor of a poison thing that left us retching and dizzy and folded around a cramp-tight belly.

We remember it because remembering harm on a deep gut level is how we were made.  It is how we learn.  It is how we survive.

When we are hurt, when we are wounded, we are not made to forget.

We Jesus folk, however, are commanded to forgive.  It's one of the hardest things we're asked to do as disciples, but everything...everything...rides on it.  If we do not forgive, we are not ourselves forgiven.

How does this work?  How can this work, when that pain still hurts every time we remember, and that anger still flares?

Here, as I grasp it, it is important to understand that forgiveness does not imply forgetting.  As creatures woven from narrative, those moments of pain and trauma are a part of us.  When we are hurt, when we are betrayed, when we are lied to and manipulated and abused, we are not meant to forget those moments.  We are not meant to pretend nothing happened.

Forgiveness, instead, takes that moment of pain and changes it.  It allows us to open ourselves to seeing the sin-blindness of the other, to seeing how their own anxieties and hatreds have driven them to harm us, just as they themselves were harmed and misled.

This does not happen all at once, and it does not happen cheaply.  Forgiveness is a discipline, and learning it is neither easy nor simple.  It requires us to acknowledge the anxiety and blind rage that rise from those things that have traumatized us.

Having acknowledged those experiences, it then begins to redefine them.  That takes time, and intentionality.  When we turn the other cheek, the cheek that was struck still burns red from the blow.  We are not meant to have forgotten this.  Nor can we have.

Because forgiveness is not "being a doormat."  It is a fierce demand for rightness in a relationship, one that reframes our reaction towards the possibility of restoration.  It is not passive, or acquiescent to injustice.

If it is reciprocal, then even the most broken thing can be healed.  If there is repentance, genuine and heartfelt and sustained, then forgiveness can remake anything.  That is the heart of the Christian hope.  If our forgiveness is not met with a changed heart in the other, the forgiveness remains in our own.

We are not required to stay in intimate relationship with those who view forgiveness as an opening for predation, who seek their own power and pleasure at our expense, who come demanding forgiveness with an unrepentant heart.

Those people, we can still forgive, so that our souls are not filled with a bitterness that will sour our other lifegiving relationship.

So to my friend, I would suggest that yes, we are called to completely forgive, to bathe our remembered pain in that intention, changing not just our understanding of our hopeful future, but helping us to come to terms with our wounded past.

Monday, October 10, 2016

"You'd Be In Jail."

I didn't sleep particularly well last night, in the way that you don't after experiencing something particularly traumatic.
The trauma was served up by Donald Trump, who began the debate by pulling a Maury Povich stunt to distract from his recently revealed reprehensible treatment of women. He "apologized," the way that you apologize for being abusive by saying ISIS is worse and then calling everyone who notices a hypocrite. He "apologized," in the way that you apologize by saying your bragging about molesting women was just you lying to impress people you just met.
Amoral as his belligerent unrepentance was, that wasn't what left me sleepless.
What left me sleepless was hearing Trump, in front of a whole nation, promising to use the power of the Presidency and the legal system to harass and imprison a political opponent.
This goes beyond the chanting crowds of the aggrieved at the Republican National Convention. He has now publicly stated that he will appoint a special prosecutor for the sole purpose of finding a reason to incarcerate his opponent.
This is a new thing for America. As the sun rose today, I read through the transcripts of another series of debates from a difficult time, the debates between Abraham Lincoln and Stephen Douglas as the two men vied for an Illinois senate seat. With the nation just two years from a bloody civil war, neither Lincoln nor Douglas made threats against the person of the other.
Donald Trump has crossed that line.
This is not America, or at least, not representative of any vision of America that any freedom-loving soul desires to see come to pass. It is utterly antithetical to the vision of liberty laid out by our Founding Fathers in our Constitution. What Trump said is monstrous. It is a definitive statement of the intent towards tyranny, and a fundamental threat to what makes America great and noble and good.
And in saying this publicly, for the first time in my nearly 50 years of life as a citizen of the United States of America, I'm aware that there's a potential risk to my person in my political opinions and political speech.
Because Trump has also said, repeatedly during this dark campaign, that he will use the legal system to silence the media when the media is "unfair" to him.
In this internet age, we are all the mainstream media. Right here, as you read this, I am the free press, as are you when you share your opinions on your blog or through social media.
If Donald Trump does something amoral or colossally stupid, and you post or tweet against it, and it goes viral? Read by thousands? Now, if he finds your words "unfair," that means nothing. You have your rights under the Constitution, and laws that protect your speech. But there is a chance--fading, but not zero--that Trump might have all of the power of an imperial presidency.
All that power, coupled with the stated intent to imprison opponents and silence free speech?
That cannot happen. His personal threats against her are a threat to all of our liberty, in a real and material sense.
So I felt awake last night, very much so. And as much as I miss the sleep, it's an important time for us to be awake.

Thursday, October 6, 2016

The Tax Genius

Every year for the last thirty years since I turned 18 and became a citizen, I've paid my taxes.

I remember in that first job, selling tickets at a dive theater for minimum wage, just what a big bite that felt like out of my meager paycheck. 

Every year, our household drops a decent chunk of change into the federal government.  It's what we do, because it's part of being an American. 

I've heard, recently, some folks attempting to defend Donald Trump's avoiding paying taxes as evidence that he's a "genius."  They argue that he should somehow be proud of using every trick in the book and then some to keep his money.

I dug around in our files, and looked for the biggest tax year we'd had recently.  Our fortunes have risen and fallen and clawed back up over the last few years, with job losses and transition.  In 2012, we were flush, at the highest income point in our family history.  So on our 2012 family return, we paid $27,389 in federal taxes.  Donald Trump, being the smartest man in America, probably paid less than that.  Or so we'll assume.

As a matter of public record, and on the tax returns that they released in the interests of transparency, Bill and Hillary Clinton paid $3.6 million dollars in federal taxes in 2015, every penny of what the highest tax bracket would pay on the $10 million and change they made that year.

Some would say that's dumb.  They should have kept what's theirs, like Donald Trump did.  But what does that mean, when you get right down to it?  Our nation doesn't run on magic beans.  You have to actually pay for things.  Like what?  Here are some examples:

- When a American soldier loses a limb in combat, the surgeries and hospitalizations and therapy and rehab for that soldier costs money.  Over the course of that young soldier's lifetime, that can cost $1.8 million dollars per wounded warrior.  Bill and Hillary Clinton's 2015 tax payments would care for two wounded warriors for the rest of their lives.  In 2015, Donald Trump in his genius probably gave our wounded veterans nothing.

- In the simmering low-intensity conflicts, special forces are increasingly essential.  Experienced and well-trained elite warfighters make the difference in dealing with ISIS and the Taliban.  Bill and Hillary Clinton's tax bill paid the salaries and benefits for a full squad of Army Rangers.  In 2015, Donald Trump in his genius probably gave our best-of-the-best soldiers nothing.

- A few years ago, I traveled to NASA's Wallops Island launch facility with my boys.  There, we watched America launch a rocket, a swords-into-plowshares repurposed ICBM that roared on a tongue of fire through the night sky, on its way to explore the moon.  As my boys and I whooped and hollered with the crowd, it was one of my proudest moments as an American.  Bill and Hillary Clinton's tax bill would have paid for 10 NASA launch specialists, those proud Americans who work together to make our space program possible.  In 2015, Donald Trump in his genius probably gave NASA nothing.

- For driven young men and women looking to advance their education, federal Pell Grants help make it possible for them to attend college, with no need to worry about repayment.  Bill and Hillary Clinton's 2015 federal tax bill would have provided nearly 600 students with the maximum award.  In 2015, Donald Trump in his genius probably gave these striving young Americans nothing.

- With a massive hurricane bearing down on Florida and Georgia, all eyes are on the NOAA/NHC meteorologists whose 24/7 dedication allows us to prepare for these disasters and saves countless lives.  Bill and Hillary Clinton's 2015 federal tax payments were enough to support a dozen meteorologists at NOAA and the National Hurricane Center, as well as the salaries for pilots, crew, and the operating costs for one hurricane hunter aircraft.  In 2015, Donald Trump in his genius probably gave these quiet, studious heroes nothing.

I'm a pastor, and have been for most of my adult life.  There's a saying among we Christians, one Jesus himself taught.   "Where your treasure is, there your heart will be also."

Donald Trump talks a whole bunch about how much he loves America.

But when it comes down to it, to the reality of what it takes to make America great and not just his sales pitch, he appears to love his money more.

That takes a special kind of genius.

Wednesday, October 5, 2016

Pastor Appreciation Sunday: The Body Count

Five years ago, we got our new pastor.  Never liked him much.  Too filled with big new ideas, always smiling, always pretending like he cares and wants the best for us.  He goes on and on about hope and love and Jesus.

He also keeps real quiet, keeps to himself, says he's an introvert.

But that's a lie.  He's not an introvert.  He's hiding something, something all of you need to know.

I know his secret.  I know what he is.

He's a murderer.  A stone-cold killer.  The evidence is all there, plain as the nose on your face.

As soon as he showed up, people started dying.

Out of nowhere, somebody got cancer.   And there he was, doing their funeral, getting paid money on the side for it, I don't doubt.

Then somebody else got cancer, and it's the same thing, all over again.  Who makes money off of that?  The pastor.

You got to follow the money.

Then there was this young woman in our community, pretty and lost, kind of a mess, you all knew her.  I saw him talking with her after church one time, and another time at the fellowship hour.  Next thing you know, they find her dead.  "Overdose," they said.  Yeah, right.

Pretty young woman like that?  I know what goes on.

Coverup, more like.

Because what had already happened?  Exactly the same thing, just twelve months before.  Young woman, related to a family of the church, and she suddenly dies.  "Overdose."  Who's at the funeral?  He is.  How much did he get paid?  Nobody knows.  There are no records.  Or they were destroyed, more like.

I went and I checked out his last church.  What did I find?  People died there, too, and there he was, doing the funerals, taking in money on the side.

And it gets worse.

He's got people coming to him all the time, telling him their secrets.  What's he doing to do with that information?  Use it for some nefarious purpose, like blackmail?  Given how many people die around him, you'd be lucky if all he did was blackmail you.

It's a clear pattern.  Once you see it, once you put all the pieces together, there's just no way around it.  Our pastor is a sociopath and a serial killer.

I've tried to tell you people at the fellowship hour, but nobody talks to me any more.  Everyone's drunk his Kool-Aid.  And every time I submit this article for the church newsletter, does it get published?

No.  Just part of the coverup, as his flunkies continue his corrupt reign.

How many people have to die, before people realize who this guy really is?

He's as bad as the Clintons.