Saturday, December 8, 2018

The Sentinelese and Jesus

We've moved on, now, because things are only relevant for a few moments in our low-attention-span culture.

Yet today I found myself reflecting again on the death of John Allen Chau, an evangelical missionary who attempted to bring the message of Jesus to a notoriously violent tribe on an isolated island in the Sentinel island chain.

He was killed, of course, because that's what that Sentinelese tribe does to anyone who steps on their shores.

Was he naive and foolish?  Perhaps.  You can't convey anything to a people if you don't speak their language.  If you know that, and still go? Sigh.

Do I share the theological assumptions that drove his obsessive pursuit of this people?  Not entirely.  I'm sure he fretted that their souls would be lost forever if they didn't hear the Gospel and take Jesus Christ as their Lord and Savior.  That terror for the souls of unbelievers has been around for quite a while, inculcated into evangelicals at an early age.

But I found myself struggling more deeply with the response of some progressive Christians to his death.  There was clucking and shaming...on #twitter, of course, because that's what that medium does to our souls.  There was this odd willingness to condemn Chau for...for what?

For trying to share the Gospel, because colonialism racism indigenous peoples something something.  There were folks going so far as to describe him as manifesting a "white supremacist Christianity," which is odd, given that Chau wasn't actually "white," not by any current variant of that pernicious, false category.

From the current ideological framework of the decadent American Left, though, he was in the wrong.  But if you're a left-leaning Christian, there's going to be an inherent dissonance in your thinking on this one.  Because, well, let's look at the Sentinelese for a moment.  What do we know about them?  Meaning, let's set aside the odd skew of ideology, and consider them.

We know that they're "indigenous," meaning they're from there, having migrated from Africa centuries ago.

We know they're socioculturally isolated, with a language that is functionally unknown.

We know that they are few in number, with perhaps no more than 200 total individuals, and possibly as few as 40.  This means...after dozens of generations of isolation...that they are a genetically compromised population.  They're inbred, and likely to become more so.  Think about the locals in Deliverance.  I mean, really.  That's them.

We know absolutely nothing about their belief system, other than this:

Like the Deliverance locals, they murder outsiders.  That's their response to the stranger and the Other.  They murder them.  They've killed local fishermen whose boats have failed.  If you washed up on their shore after a plane crash, hungry and desperate with your clothes in tatters, they would murder you.

Chau was there to tell them about Jesus.  That was his thing, and in the dwindling, dying wing of progressive Christianity, proselytizing is a bad thing.  But...did the Sentinelese know that?

No.  No they didn't.

They had absolutely no idea why John Allen Chau was there.  They couldn't understand a word he was saying.  They knew he was Other, and so they killed him.

Herein lies the tension that seems oddly unaddressed by those Christians who wish to posthumously scold Chau.  If you believe that colonialism racism indigenous peoples something something gives a people the right to murder strangers, then that belief lies in tension with your claim to be a disciple of Jesus of Nazareth.  Such a community is not "good," not if "good" is understood in Christian moral terms.

Let's set aside the "getting saved" angle for a moment.

From what Christian ethical basis is the slaughter of the Other permissible?  Where, in the Gospels or Epistles, is permission given to attack and kill the stranger?

There are such texts, certainly.  You can go to the Deuteronomic histories, or to some of the more challenging scriptures in Torah.  You can make the case that the Zealots made, or that Ezra made when he demanded that foreigners be cast out so that the people could be pureblooded.  But is that where you wish to be?

The challenge, for the Christian Left, is this: there is nothing about the Sentinelese response to the Chau that jibes with the Gospel.  Nothing.  It's a fundamental Matthew 25 violation.  It was "tribal" in the worst way, insular and violent and brutal.

Does such a community have no need of the teachings of Jesus?  What about their cultural/ethical response to the stranger is inherently worth preserving?

It's as radically wrong and as in need of the Way of Jesus as, say, refusing to allow a shipload of Jews seeking refuge from the Nazis to land on your shores.  Or teargassing asylum seekers at the border.  Or letting a little girl die of thirst in your custody.

Such an odd, odd dissonance.

Friday, December 7, 2018

How I Learned to Love the "Vengeful Old Testament God"

For over a month now, I've been leading the Adult Education class of my wee kirk on a long, careful reading through the Psalms, those ancient spiritual songs of the Hebrew people.   Though we typically read one each week in our liturgy, it's rare that we stop and savor them, and it's been a remarkably interesting journey.

Part of the reason it's been so fascinating is the wild shifts in voice and tonality that comes from this millennia-spanning collection of sacred lyrics.  The Book of Psalms speaks from so many different contexts.  You've got personal anguish.  You've got pride in the power of the monarch.  You've got pride in the inherent blessedness of a nation.  You've got wisdom.  You've got woe.  You've got celebrations of creation, and wedding marches.

And intermixed in there, you've got a whole bunch of songs calling on God to kick in the teeth of those who oppose us.  My class has particularly struggled with these, as have I. 

Generally, the spiritual read we get from those texts is...nothing.  They feel more than a little brutish, more than a little petty, pulling the Creator of the Universe down to the level of our endless human squabbles.   It's easy, as one reads, to simply attribute such things to what is often described as the "Vengeful Old Testament God," which is to be distinguished from what theologians call the "Sparklefairy Wuv New Testament God."

I've never been comfortable with this distinction.  First, it diminishes Judaism, whitewashing the fundamental interconnection between the Torah, Prophets, and Writings and the person of Jesus.  This is just not kosher, so to speak.  Second, it assumes the Gospels and Epistles contain within them no smiting or wrath, which just ain't true.  Spend thirty seconds in the Book of Revelation, and you just can't miss that.  And if we're honest about the Parables of Jesus, well, they ain't exactly My Little Pony videos.

Where the Psalms start talking about personal or sociopolitical violence, it has always felt, to be honest, more like projection on the part of various Psalmists, as personal ambition or national pride has infected their view of the I Am That I Am.  

This last Sunday, we went to wrath again, as we read the 94th Psalm.  It starts right in with the vengeance.  "O Lord, you God of Vengeance," it begins, and we all rolled our eyes.  But then we read on.  It was...different.

Meaning, for the first time in a Psalm mostly about smiting, I was right there with the Psalmist.  Sure, the Ninety Fourth Psalm calls out for God to be vengeful, to wipe the wicked from the earth, but there were two key distinctives.

First, this is a Psalm that rises from a more universal framework.  It's not calling for God to be the god of a particular nation.  The God hat is invoked is not the judge of just one people, but of all the earth and all nations.  All of the Psalms that sing most brightly seem to share this characteristic, as the earth itself rises to bear witness to the One that is greater than any person or nation.

Second, the Psalm is expansive in its understanding of justice.  Sure, the Psalmist wants things to turn out well for them.  But their interest goes deeper than transactional selfishness.  They care about the damage done by corrupt, self-interested leaders, and the impact they have on the most vulnerable in their culture.  What matters is that justice be done...not simply justice for "us" or justice for "me," but justice for all, with a particular focus on the poor and the oppressed.

It's the cry of the powerless for some measure of balance, for those who lie and manipulate and trample over others to be held to account for their deeds.

And for once, that call on God to not let that stand felt...good.  It felt good.

Wednesday, November 28, 2018

I See It

This year, we have all seen it.

We have watched North Carolina, battered by storm-driven rain, roads covered, highways closed.  We watched Wilmington, cut off for days, as rivers rose and turned it into an inaccessible island.   We looked to the Florida Lost Coast, as what was a small tropical storm blossomed into a nightmarish beast, and entire coastal towns were obliterated by winds and the sea.  We saw record flooding in Texas, and states of emergency declared as the Midwest was overcome with rain.  Saw the Arizona State Fair cancelled at the height of summer, because it was underwater.

We saw California burn, conflagrations that have no precedent, as terrified Americans fled firestorms that roared through entire communities.   As they died in their homes.  As they burned to death in their cars.

These are the things that we all saw on our screens.  But there is a reality beyond what we see on our magic devil boxes.

If you live in the Washington DC are, which I do, you saw things that people elsewhere may not have seen.

Here in Washington, DC, we had a storm earlier this year.  For two whole days, the wind howled, 45-50 miles an hour, with higher gusts.  Trees were down everywhere.   We lost power for a day, and some of my nearby family lost power for multiple days.   The storm damaged roofs everywhere, tearing away siding, pulling shingles from subroofing.  Our own roof was damaged, as hour after hour, the relentless howling wind slowly peeled the vent from our roof as I watched helplessly from our front yard.  Many homes in our area weren't repaired yet weeks and months afterwards.

It was one of the fiercest storms I've ever seen in Washington, made peculiar by this:  it involved not a single drop of rain.  No thunder.  No lightning.  It was, during the day, partly sunny.  Yet with winds that never, ever let up, leaving destruction in their wake.

We saw this, in Washington, this year.

Here in the suburbs of Washington, DC this year, I grew my a garden in my front yard.  I grow greenbeans and kale and potatoes.  I have blueberry bushes, which mostly feed the birds, and strawberries, which lately have been a favorite of the chipmunks.  I've tried carrots, which have mostly not done anything at all.

I also seed-save my green beans, leaving pods on the healthiest plants, where they dry and provide me with next year's crop.

But this year, it rained.  It rained endlessly, sometimes for a week straight.  It is, in point of provable fact, going to be the single wettest year in recorded history in the Washington area.  Roads have flooded, over and over again.  The Potomac, overtopping its banks.  Some towns in the DC area were obliterated by apocalyptic deluges.  People died.

It rained so much that I lost the most of seeds I was saving, some to rot, but most of them to...seeding.  There, in their pods, the seeds sprouted while still on the plant, the roots springing out from the still unfallen pods.  I shared this with other gardeners, and they concurred.  It was weird.  Not normal.  Wrong.

I saw this, in Washington DC, this year.

There were other things.  We saw the trees, holding their leaves deep and late into a strangely delayed fall.  Among the trees, the oaks were masting, wildly overproducing acorns, which they do when stressed.  There were so many acorns in my back yard that they piled up in mounds.

These are the things you saw, if you lived in Washington DC and your eyes were open.  They are signs.

There are so many signs, in fact, that you'd need to be the world's greatest fool not to see them.

Monday, November 5, 2018

How I Became a Conservative

I've been coming to the realization slowly over the past few years, and it feels a little strange.

I mean, it does.  It's weird.  I'd always thought of myself as a little edgy, a little wild.  I fought the Man, or at least wrote snarky blog posts about the Man.  I was liberal.  My friends were liberals and leftists and anarchists and progressives.

They still are.

But I am kind of conservative now.  I mean, I am.  It's how I feel.  It's an odd thing, but I can't resist it.  While I still share significant common cause with my more earnestly prog comrades, I no longer  fully inhabit that realm.

It's probably because I am no longer young.  I no longer inhabit that place where I'm the prime demographic.  That, and I tend to creak and ache most mornings.

My wife notes it, as I gradually become more curmudgeonly.  "Honey, you really don't need to yell at those kids on our lawn," she'll say.  "But those are squirrels, dear," I'll reply.  "No, honey, those are kids.  You really should get your eyes checked," she'll reply, for the hundredth exasperated time.

That conservatism manifests itself in a range of other ways beyond my nascent presbyopia.  Like, for instance, I believe that individuality and personhood are more vital than systems, labels and categories.  I refuse to relinquish the idea that grace is a higher purpose than justice, and that the Good is a universal, not culturally subjective or personally relative.

I'm not convinced that deconstruction and disruption are inherently good.  I would rather have one true friend than a thousand "allies."

But two details of my newly found conservatism seem particularly important.

First:  I am a liberal.

It's an odd thing, a paradox, perhaps.  How can a liberal be conservative?  But it's my "lived experience."  I am a liberal, with liberal perspectives.  And the fact of my liberality makes me conservative.   I think that all things should be considered, carefully, before leaping to judgement.   I believe that bias in encounter with a new thing is unacceptable, and that we need to take and consider everything carefully and respectfully.

Not that I don't have opinions.  Lord, do I.  I also have a moral compass, one dictated by a deeply held faith.

But liberality has always meant leavening what you know with the possibility that the Other has something to offer.  It does not mean "left wing," because there has never been any functional difference between the bolshevik and the brownshirt.

Neither is liberal.  Neither is open to the soul and personhood of the Other.

And liberality seems a thing of the past in this era of social media hysterics, as our positions calcify and radicalize.  We are driven to be loudest, to be shrillest, to be roaring and bullying and mocking.  That's what gets the RTs and the likes and the shares.  That's what starts the fights, and fights draw our attention, and attention means our blog can be monetized.

Circumspect and measured?  Who wants that?  Dull.  Liberality has always been a little boring.  And so it fades into the rearview mirror.

Being that it's a thing of the past, well, that's where I'm conservative.

I hold on to a liberal worldview, because it's a good that should never have been lost, and that can't be forgotten if our republic is to stand.

Second: The current POTUS and his regime.

I do not use his name, not typically.  It seems to play into his brand, and his hegemonic black-hole ego-vortex ever-presence in media.  I never speak it in my sanctuary, because it would profane a sacred space.

But I can say this: Donald J. Trump has made me conservative.

Conservatism, after all, is holding on to the good.  Particularly the good that is threatened by misbegotten change.  Conservatism's best spirit sees where a culture has wandered from the story of its God-dreamed best self, and points the way back to that path.

I do not want the crass, false, boorish and bullying America that this presidency represents.  It bears no resemblance to the best graces of a nation I deeply love.

Donald J. Trump is a mark of America's decadence, and of our moral decay as a people.

I mean, sweet Mary and Joseph, look at him.  Let the scales drop from your eyes, and look at him.

See his story, crude and grasping and lascivious.  He shamelessly appeals to a leprous racial blight in the American soul, a sweet dark creamy rot in our national flesh that we've never fully excised.  He has no vision, no imagination, offering nothing but japing lies, transparent hucksterism, and brassy cruelty.

I want none of that.

Because I am conservative.

Saturday, November 3, 2018

The Common Ground

There is no point in seeking common ground, or so I hear said these days, by those who despair of our public discourse.   The assumption, in those statements, is that seeking common ground is what weak and mealy-souled people do.  You can't possibly find common ground with *them,* they say, from a heart of disturbed rage.  It is possible that this is so, although it has not always been.

Have we, as a people, reached the point where what once made America worthy and universal is now something worthy of disputation?  Where even the most essential things are now seen as something we won't accept?

I will offer you, American, a sample piece of common ground.   There are many emblems and symbols that mark our greatness as a republic, and this is one of them. It's a poem.  I love this poem, because it's speaks to the heart of our difference and goodness as a nation.  It is a proud poem.
Not like the brazen giant of Greek fame,With conquering limbs astride from land to land;Here at our sea-washed, sunset gates shall standA mighty woman with a torch, whose flameIs the imprisoned lightning, and her nameMother of Exiles. From her beacon-handGlows world-wide welcome; her mild eyes commandThe air-bridged harbor that twin cities frame.“Keep, ancient lands, your storied pomp!” cries sheWith silent lips. “Give me your tired, your poor,Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free,The wretched refuse of your teeming shore.Send these, the homeless, tempest-tost to me,I lift my lamp beside the golden door!”
There.  You've read it.  Of course, you should know it already.  It's "The New Colossus," by Emma Lazarus.  It's the poem inscribed on the base of the Statue of Liberty.  It represents, as does that statue, our national spirit, the best angel of our life together.  A nation of welcome.  A "shining city on a hill," as a president I cast my very first vote against once so clearly put it.

But how does it sound?   Does it seem politically charged to you?  Am I being "divisive" by quoting it right now? 

The answer is, now, of course.  Yes it does feel divisive.  I feel it, too.  These words read politically right now in American history, as an indictment of one political party's current anti-immigrant agenda.  And yes, I know, you're not anti-immigrant.  You just want them to follow the rules.  Rules which, at the same time, you want changed to reduce the flow of immigration, because they're taking jobs from real Americans.  So you're not anti immigrant.  You just oppose immigration in every way, unless it's "the best people."  Meaning, not hard working souls seeking freedom and escape from oppression.  Just rich people, who already have power and freedom of movement.

This poem is written against your way of thinking.  Which is why it may prick a little.

In fact, it may sting so much that you might even be fiercely Googling Emma Lazarus, trying to find reasons why she and her political agenda are suspect and unAmerican.

It would satisfying to do so, no doubt, to punch back against the thing that challenges you.

But then do not ask, or expect, me to seek common ground with you as an American, because that's not the common ground.

Here.  Let's try something else.  It's not a familiar text, although it is one that every American citizen needs to have read all the way through at least once.  At a bare minimum, we should know the beginning of it, which establishes the fundamental principles of our lives together in this Republic.  So.  Here it is:
All persons born or naturalized in the United States and subject to the jurisdiction thereof, are citizens of the United States and of the State wherein they reside. No State shall make or enforce any law which shall abridge the privileges or immunities of citizens of the United States; nor shall any State deprive any person of life, liberty, or property, without due process of law; nor deny to any person within its jurisdiction the equal protection of the laws.
This is not a regulation, a rule, or a policy.  This is, of course, section one of the Fourteenth Amendment of the Constitution of the United States.  It is the fundamental governing document of our great Republic.  

Perhaps you do not like it.  Or perhaps, from current context and your position on immigration, you'd like to be rid of it.  The political process for fixing immigration is too hard, you might say, and it's too easy for people to claim citizenship.  We need to change that!

There is a long history of such thinking, from people eager to preserve America for themselves, and to keep out the undesirables, the Wops (Criminals! Gangsters! Violent and Dangerous!) and the Micks (Illiterates! Drunks! So Violent! My Ancestors!) and so many others.  I know you cannot possibly be such a person.  My gracious, of course not.  But still, you have been made to fear, and fear does not think.

There is a process, of course.  The Founders, in their wisdom, put one into the Constitution itself:
The Congress, whenever two thirds of both houses shall deem it necessary, shall propose amendments to this Constitution, or, on the application of the legislatures of two thirds of the several states, shall call a convention for proposing amendments, which, in either case, shall be valid to all intents and purposes, as part of this Constitution, when ratified by the legislatures of three fourths of the several states, or by conventions in three fourths thereof, as the one or the other mode of ratification may be proposed by the Congress; provided that no amendment which may be made prior to the year one thousand eight hundred and eight shall in any manner affect the first and fourth clauses in the ninth section of the first article; and that no state, without its consent, shall be deprived of its equal suffrage in the Senate.
This is article Five of the Constitution of the United States of America, which lays out how that gets done.  But that's too slow, you might say.  We need someone to cut through all of that and do what needs to be done!

And there, perhaps we do have a problem. 

If you view the Statue of Liberty as unAmerican, and you reject the Constitution as a means of mutual governance, then how can I, as a proud and patriotic American, be expected to find ground with you?

Is that my doing?  Have I made that choice, by honoring and abiding by the Constitution and holding the great symbols of liberty dear?

Can we stand on common ground as Americans?  I can answer that question for myself, with certainty.   Yes.  The common ground remains.

It is where I have chosen to stand.  I will not move from it.

Monday, October 29, 2018

Secret Edict Seventeen

The knock came against the great oak door, once, then again.  Not demanding, not a hammering, but precise and clear.  A polite, clear request.

The old woman roused herself from a half slumber.  A guest?  But none was expected.  Everything was such a mess.  She was such a mess.  She sighed, and spoke a word over her unbrushed and thinning hair.   It sorted itself into a semblance of order as she heaved her old bones upright.

"Who is it," she said, just loudly enough that the door could hear.

"Director Hermione Granger-Weasley, of the Ministry of Magic," thrummed the door, officiously.

The woman's eyes brightened with pleasure.

"Well, let her in!"

The door complied with equal pleasure, opening in a single well oiled motion, proudly unsqueaking.

A trim and neatly dressed woman in early middle age entered, her all-business demeanor slightly subverted by a barely controlled storm of grey and chestnut hair.

"Minerva," she said, with a soft smile. She approached, and took the old woman's proffered hand as she struggled to rise.  "It's been too long.  And please, sit, sit."

McGonagall returned the smile, and eased herself back down into her chair.  Hermione settled into onto the ottoman that had helpfully crawled up behind her.   The retired professor clapped her hands gently, and whispered a word, and a tea service floated across the room, the tray heaped with jellied biscuits and magically fresh scones.  A cup of perfect Earl Grey settled in on a side table.

"Would you care for some, my dear?"

"Yes, but not quite yet."

"Oh, Hermione.  It has indeed been too long.  How are you?"  Her eyes leapt to Hermione's hair.  "I mean, other than you all of a sudden going rather impressively grey."

Hermione gave a short snort at the familiar, friendly poke.  "Things are well.  And we shall talk, we shall, but..."

The old woman's lips pursed.  "A business call, is it?  Ministry business?"

"Only partially.  But yes, yes it is."

McGonagall laughed.  "Right to the point as always.  I'd expect nothing less.  We can talk pleasantries later, I suppose.  And it's nice to know my old bones are still useful to the Ministry.  You will stay for tea after, won't you?  Gryffinsrest is lovely, but, well.  One grows weary of being alone."

"Of course, Minerva.  That's mostly why I'm here.  For tea, and for you.  But business before pleasure."

Before McGonagall could reply, Hermione continued.  "I've been reviewing the Wizarding War Archives.  Part of a larger research project, of course.  The history I'm working on, you know, the one I mentioned the last time I was here.   I came across something, well, something that you did while working with the Ministry when you were part of that effort.  The files are incomplete, and it''s troubling me."  An uncharacteristic hesitancy entered her voice.  ""

"Well, out with it, my dear."

"What do you know about Secret Edict Seventeen?  I'd always wondered, you know, why it was that everyone wouldn't speak his name during his initial rise.  I mean, there was the fear, and I understood that.  But it seemed too...neat.  Too consistent.  Too accepted as the way things needed to be.  Must not be named?  But why?  Why did everyone just not say it, for so very long?

And then I stumbled across it in the archives, in the files of the Special Circumstance Team of the Ministry.  SE17.   Utterly secret, of course.  Only two dozen wizards appear to even have known of its existence.  The records, just fragments.  Most of them destroyed."

The old woman's voice, a firm whisper.  "SE17: Of Deepest Secret.  A Semiotic Dweomer, Contramaleficent, Antidynamus, Silentium, Polis Pacebis."

"You helped write it?"

"Yes, my dear.  Yes I did.  That's why my name is on it."

"And Secret Edit Seventeen was the real reason none of us could bring ourselves to speak his name, not until Harry started doing it?"


Hermione leaned in closer.  "But why?"

"There came a point, my dear, when we realized that it was necessary.  We had no choice."

"I'm not sure I'm following, Minerva."

"It was at the height of his rise, you know, before that moment when he failed to kill Harry.  Before his curse rebounded and struck him down.  He was everywhere.  Every single page of the Daily Prophet, his name, his leering, confident face, his confident, lying words.  And if it wasn't about some horrid thing he'd done or said, it was an earnest writer or commentator reflecting on it or lamenting it or in full fledged panic about it.

Even the Quibbler, my gracious, he was even there, mixed amongst all the delightful Lovegood silliness.  His name, carried by every owl, spoken of in every tavern, souring the froth of a first year's first taste of butterbeer.  His name, whispered and shouted and muttered until it was all you could think about.  All you could dream about.

And with the endless repetition, there was the fear.  It was palpable, that fear, among those of us who knew what he was and could become, and fear became the curse itself.  Among the Death Eaters, the name was power, pure power.  It affirmed them, told them they were important, sang to them a dark song, a song that tore at everything the Wizarding world was and had been, and put their hatred up in its place.

For months, my dear, months, it grew.  Until, finally, some of us working with the Ministry realize that it was..."

Hermione settled back, her head nodding slowly.

"A spell.  His name was a spell."

McGonagall's eyes twinkled behind the thick crystal depth of her lenses, a flicker of a prim smile on her thinning lips.  "Precisely.  Nice to see your years in Ministry bureaucracy haven't dulled your lovely mind, Hermione.  His name itself was a subtle spell, one no-one at the Ministry was ever able to replicate or grasp.  I was part of the team that found it, that worked to break it, and...well...we just couldn't."

"But a Secret Edict?  Minerva, shouldn't we have been told?  Why hide it?"

McGonagall sighed, a gentle deflation of her age-slightened frame.

"Of course, ideally, yes, people should have been told.  Flitwick argued for more openness, because of course he did.  Filius was such an idealist, even more so than most Ravenclaws.  His goblin side, no doubt.  But  In the end we realized that it could not be so.  His spell was crafted against such countermeasures.

Do not think of X, we would say, because X is a secret dark curse blighting your soul, we would say.  'His name is a spell, one that builds his power each time you speak it,' the Prophet would publish.  'Beware!'  And everyone would know it...and we would only have made it worse." 

"Worse?"   Hermione frowned.  "How?"

"The minds of muggles...forgive me, dear...and wizards are not so different.  Telling everyone not to think the word of his name...the word of the spell...would only magnify the collective incantation.  Experiments at the Ministry confirmed it. "

"Like saying, don't think of a Nimbus 5500," said Hermione, softly.  "And all you can think of, at that moment, is..."

"Is this year's most excellent broom," finished McGonagall.  "Yes.  That's quite it.  It's a spell that preys on that same basic weakness of the human mind, our fundamental reliance on the symbols that both represent reality and allow wizards to cast the spells that shape it."

"And so the Edict was meant to quiet things?  To weaken the fear?  To still the power that the endless cycling of his name-spell gave him?"

McGonegal sighed again.  "That was the Ministry's intent.  SE17 wasn't just a regulation, of course, or even a law.  It was a spell in its own right.  Complex and deep, and one that required a dozen of us to cast."  She paused, considering something.

"I had my part, of course, particularly as the Ministry came to the decision to cast it.  But the design of it, the intricacies of the casting?   That was mostly Severus.  I'm not quite sure if it worked. But for a while, it seemed to make a difference.  His face, gone from the Prophet.  The Quibbler, back to babbling about oddities.  Evil things happened, but his name wasn't bound to them.  Talk grew less.  For a while, it weakened him.  People felt, well, almost normal again.  Even with all of the terrible things going on."

"And then he made the mistake of trying to kill Lily's little baby boy.  He didn't make many mistakes then, my dear.  I'd like to think that our dulling his power blinded him to his inevitable failure.  To the trap he was setting for himself and his blighted, fragmented soul.  Perhaps, in a small way, it helped."  She paused.  Hermione sat still, watching her.

"Perhaps," said Hermione, breaking the silence.

The old professor cupped her tea in the papery flesh of her hands, feeling the warmth of the Earl Grey within.  She sipped it, and gave a short exhalation of pleasure.

"Oh, that's nice."

Hermione's lips pursed, puzzling over something, her mind busy beneath her partially contained mop of graying frizz.


"Yes, my dear?"

"We haven't used his name, not once, this entire conversation."

The old woman raised her chin.  Lowering her glasses, she narrowed her eyes and gave Hermione a piercing look, one which sparked and danced with a lingering fire.

"No, my dear.  No.  We have not."

Monday, October 15, 2018

Of Silence in an Evil Time

It was a sermon remnant, an odd outlier that required attention.

I was reflecting on the book of Amos, one of the fiercest prophets of justice in the Hebrew scriptures.  Most of the message worked with what I was preparing, reflecting on how socioeconomic power disparities create additional suffering in times of ecological crisis.  And, of course, how pleased Jesus is at all the unnecessary suffering our greed creates.

A nice, light, sermon, in other words. 

But one verse from Amos just stuck in my soul's craw.  It didn't mesh.  It needed more attention.

"Therefore the prudent will keep silent in such a time, for it is an evil time."

From one of the fiercest and loudest prophetic critics of greed and injustice in scripture, that was...strange.  "Enigmatic," as my study bible so helpfully offered.

I mucked about in commentaries for a bit, and found the sort of disagreement that tends to arise when scholars are really just kind of spitballing at something. 

A minority suggested that this meant that the "prudent" folk are privileged cowards, who from their cowardice refuse to take up the mantle of condemning injustice.

Many, though, took it a different way, because prudence is a fundamental biblical virtue and all. 

The wise soul offers what can be heard, and speaks when there is hope that a soul might listen and be moved.  Wisdom does not speak to hear the sound of its own voice, or from a place of ego, or from desire to control.  It speaks to teach, and to improve, wherever such an opportunity arises.

In times when evil walks loud and proud on the earth, it is the wise course of action to lay low and say little.  Why?  Because evil does not listen.  Evil is sure of itself, even more deeply so when it holds the power for which it hungers.  Evil will not be moved, or changed, or turned.  The words of the wise...or of a prophet...mean nothing to the fool, the bully, or the tyrant. 

In such a place and time, wise words are both pointless and very potentially dangerous.

Reading back deeply into historical commentaries, this seems to be the consensus.

Not a particularly reassuring consensus, I'll admit.

But one worth hearing, particularly in our current cultural context.  If we're in a moment in our life together where patience, grace, and justice are parsed as cowardice, weakness, and treason?  How can we meaningfully speak truth to those who wish to hear only their own power?

Wednesday, October 10, 2018

The Edifice Comes Down

It was going to be days of work.

There, on a wall of our little brick rambler, the English ivy had grown out of control.  Nearly all the way to the roof, a great thick mass of it, with tendrils and growth extending out two to three feet from the side of our house.

What had first looked like our house was rocking a lovely-English-cottage-look had started looking more like we were going for Abandoned-Ruins-of-an-English-Cottage-after-a-Global-Pandemic. 

Which isn't the best look.

It had to come down.  I waited the summer out, because, well, there were birds nesting in it, and I'm a softie.  The idea of dislodging a nest and seeing sad little doomed chicks was motivation enough to procrastinate a while.

But once the last brood of sparrows and chickadees had grown and flown, it was finally time.

I'd cut the roots last month, hoping to weaken it.  But English ivy is a fierce critter, and it happily continued to grow in the absence of roots and soil.  No browning of leaves.  No real change.  It'd have to be mano-a-tendril.  I figured days of painstaking removal, up and down the extension ladder, chiseling away at it with a flathead screwdriver and shears, peeling away the clinging rootlets inch by inch.

For an hour, then another, I labored in the back of the house, up and down the ladder, doing just that.  In the incongruous late September heat, I sweated and sweated.  The plant was tough.  It was going to take as long as I had thought.

Then, dripping sweat and staring up at the verdant jungle affixed to the side of the house, I got an idea.  I bundled and then pulled at a group of large vines at the base.  Just a wee bit of tug of war, because I wanted to loosen it.   Maybe that would work faster. 

More came down than I expected.  One particularly large clump peeled away from the wall, all the way up, the vines borne down by their own weight.  They were all woven up together, a thick mat of interconnections. 

And I thought, hummm. 

So I made a larger bundle of four or five of the largest severed taproot vines I could find.   I bound them together with a heavy rope.  And then I pulled.  Some came away.  And pulled a little more.  There was the sound of rootlets rending, as thousands of them failed.  And then really put myself into it, heaving and tugging, worrying it back and forth like a terrier.

My efforts and the weight of what I'd torn loose combined.

And the entire wall peeled away in one giant mass, like flesh peeling from a particularly bad sunburn.  Like a green glacier calving.

What had to be half a ton of it, crashing down in a cloud of dust and pollen in which I blinked and coughed. 

I stared at what I'd done.  Well, sort of done. 

Almost nothing remained on the house.  Once the weight of the great interwoven edifice of ivy started working against it, the collapse was startlingly sudden.  Almost dangerously sudden.

There's a metaphor in there somewhere, I fear.

Friday, October 5, 2018

Rest In Power

It's a benediction, one I hear of late, among a subset of bright eyed bolshy church droogs for whom faith and the polis are conjoined.

It is invoked over the mortal remains and memory of the passed, as a blessing politic for those who have struggled for power in this life.  I understand it, and the earnest intent that drives it.

But I hear it through another filter, in the voice of an old, mad friend.  When the benediction is offered, I hear his words:
And do you know what “the world” is to me? 
Shall I show it to you in my mirror? 
This world: a monster of energy, without beginning, without end; a firm, iron magnitude of force that does not grow bigger or smaller, that does not expend itself but only transforms itself; as a whole, of unalterable size, a household without expenses or losses, but likewise without increase or income; enclosed by “nothingness” as by a boundary; not something blurry or wasted, not something endlessly extended, but set in a definite space as a definite force, and not a space that might be “empty” here or there, but rather as force throughout, as a play of forces and waves of forces, at the same time one and many, increasing here and at the same time decreasing there; a sea of forces flowing and rushing together, eternally changing, eternally flooding back, with tremendous years of recurrence, with an ebb and a flood of its forms; 
out of the simplest forms striving toward the most complex, 
out of the stillest, most rigid, coldest forms striving toward the hottest, 
most turbulent, most self-contradictory, 
and then again returning home to the simple out of this abundance, out of the play of contradictions back to the joy of concord, still affirming itself in this uniformity of its courses and its years, blessing itself as that which must return eternally, as a becoming that knows no satiety, no disgust, no weariness: 
this, my Dionysian world of the eternally self- creating, the eternally self-destroying, this mystery world of the twofold voluptuous delight, my “beyond good and evil,” without goal, unless the joy of the circle is itself a goal; without will, unless a ring feels good will toward itself— do you want a name for this world? 
A solution for all of its riddles? 
A light for you, too, you best-concealed, strongest, most intrepid, most midnightly men? 
This world is the will to power—and nothing besides! 
And you yourselves are also this will to power—and nothing besides!”   
― Friedrich Nietzsche, The Will to Power

Rest in Power is not a blessing.

Wednesday, October 3, 2018

The Church, The Amish, and Health Care Provision

And all of a sudden, just like that, my family was vulnerable.

The income that was the supermajority of our household revenue was gone, as my wife stepped out of an unsatisfying, overstressful position and started up her own business.  The transition time wasn't what concerned me, because we're fiscally prudent and deeply conservative financially.

We never spend above our means, and keep a healthy reserve of savings for emergencies or job transitions.

We had plenty of reserves to carry us until her new business found its legs.

But what we couldn't handle, should it happen, would be any significant medical emergency.  One major injury, one unexpected and unwelcome diagnosis, and even the nearly two years of reserve we keep on hand wouldn't be enough.  A lifetime of prudence and caution with money would mean nothing when that first hospital bill came in.

Well, maybe the first.  But not the second, and then the fifth, and then the eighth, all utterly indecipherable, all for the same procedure.

One twist of ill fortune, and it would be hard not to avoid bankruptcy, because that's America right now.

I'd stepped out of my denomination's health and pension plan a couple of years back, because the burden on the congregation just seemed too great.  As costs for health insurance expanded and expanded, they were biting into our mission, and as my wife had coverage, I figured, why not?  I blanched at the idea the church should pour resources into a benefit I neither needed nor used.

That was true up until our coverage vanished.

I approached the lay leaders of my little church, because, well, my wife and I were a little freaked out.  And they, well, it was humbling how willing folks were to step in and commit the resources to help my family.

So we're going to be fine, but the thought lingers in my mind:  why is this the responsibility of the church?  Why should they be responsible for providing health insurance?

The argument could be made that it is a Christian responsibility, that a community should care for individuals who have committed their lives to serving Jesus.  Feed the oxen as they tread out the grain, as ol' Uncle Paul would put it, and be sure they've got access to a bovine dental plan, too.

While there's some truth in that, there's also the truth that we don't extend similar care to all members of a church.  Which Christian among us *shouldn't* receive health care?  Is a pastor more worthy of that care than any other member?

I'm not.  No member of my church is unworthy of medical care.  No member should fear for their children's well being, or their own.

And therein lies a conundrum.

Providing health insurance to employees could be seen as extrinsic to the core mission of congregations.  It's the church compensating for a societal failing, one that is immaterial to our core mission.   It's the same burden that falls on every business in America, as employers large and small are forced by ideologues to absorb a cost that is unrelated to the product or service they provide.  It's the burden that sits heavy on countless entrepreneurs, who have a great idea for a new business but are forced to remain in less satisfying work because individual insurance is too expensive.

The analogy, as I see it, has nothing to do with compensation practices.  It's about the provision of a basic need.  No enterprise that involves humans can operate effectively if said humans are rendered incapable of participation.  It's why you need a viable network of roads for commerce.  It's why you need power, water, and communications infrastructures.  Some of that can be provided by utilities, of course.  But utilities are...ideally, at least...regulated by government.

Why, again, are congregations and employers responsible?  Because of a governmental failure, one that shifts the costs of care into the least efficient...and thus most profit-heavy...model of service provision.

Given that the most efficient approach to care involves the largest possible pools of individuals, single-payer is just inherently superior.

But as much as I wrestle with the idea that my sweet little church should have to absorb my health care costs, that principle got me to thinking. 

If "the larger the pool, the more efficient the system," why *wouldn't* churches offer health care?  I mean, not just to employees, we Jesus-gigolos who get paid to do the church thing, but to every single member?

As much as I think...from both the research and personal experience in the worry free environment of countries that have nationalized health care...that it's the best way?  Healing the sick and care for the ill among us is very much a Christian thing.

Jesus, as I recall, did it all the time.

In researching the dynamics of the Amish for my recent novel WHEN THE ENGLISH FALL, Amish health care provision was an interesting subnarrative.  The Amish do not participate in any "English" health care plans, because of course they don't.  They also don't participate in social security, or stand for the National Anthem, because they're Amish.

If you're Amish and mildly ill, you either rely on home remedies or pay for doctor's care out of pocket.  If that cost becomes burdensome, the community or settlement pitches in.  When they require hospitalization or find themselves seriously ill, the Amish fall back on a more formal system of mutual support: the Amish Hospital Aid plan.

Operated entirely by the Amish, the AHA is crisis insurance that covers 80% of all medical expenses,with the remaining 20% picked up either by the family out of pocket or by medical support reserves sustained by the congregation.  Cost are staggeringly low.  For individuals, it's $125 a month.  For families?  Total cost is $250 monthly.

There are reasons for this.

First, it's just crisis coverage.  Hence the "hospital" part of the plan.

Second, the AHA has a large pool of participants, and actively negotiates price discounts with hospitals and care providers.   With large families, many are young, and all engage in a lifestyle that is physically active.

Because the Amish are Amish, that negotiating stance also includes a 100% guarantee that there will never be any accusations of malpractice, or malpractice lawsuits.  No lawyers, ever, period.  As far as the Amish are concerned, doctors are flawed human beings trying their best, and if a mistake is made, so be it.  For a hospital administrator, that's pretty much your ideal patient.

Third, the AHA has extremely low overhead costs.  By "extremely low" I mean zero.  None.  It's run by a board (all men, because, you know) and hundreds of local administrators.  They are paid nothing.  All of them are volunteers.  Their participation is viewed as a religious obligation and fundamental duty to their Ordnung.  Bureaucracy is kept to a minimum, and only the barest and most essential processes are implemented.  All it has to do is work, and that's fine.

As a Presbyterian, that's almost unfathomable.  A complex system that operates without bureaucracy?  What strange witchery is this?

More details and interesting nuances can be found in this recent study by the National Institutes of Health, which I wish had been around when I was working on my manuscript.

There are other denominations and orders that do similar things, of course, and those models of mutual aid are equally fascinating.

In the context of a national debate that is locked down by blind ideology and a health care "system" that is perversely oriented towards both inefficiency and profit maximization, it's a countercultural model worth reflecting upon.

Tuesday, October 2, 2018

De Nile is a River in Egypt

An Open Letter to My Fellow Egyptians

From Amen-Ra, Chief Press Adviser, Court of Ramses


You guys need to get a grip.  Everywhere I go these days, I hear people panicking, going on and on like it's the end of the world.  This is nothing more than hysteria, plain and simple, and if you stopped for a moment to really think about it, you'd see things like I do.

I mean, the word on the street is that somehow this has something to do with the Hebrews, and not "letting them go."

But do you have any idea what impacts "letting them go" would have on the economy?  You can't just abandon slaves like that.  Our whole system of production and transportation relies on human chattel.  Who'd be left to build?  Who'd be left to cook and clean?  Who'd be left to slop through the mud in the fields?   It'd be a catastrophe.  Clearly, that kind of radical change is not possible.  An ideal, perhaps.  But right now we can't be wrapped up in impractical, pie-in-the-sky dreaming.

If that's what this were, but honestly, it isn't.  It's more pernicious than that.

Honest free-thinking Egyptians can't buy in to the hysteria fomented by Moses and his cronies, who are clearly manufacturing this "crisis" for their own benefit.  Think for yourselves!

I mean, let's look at this with a critical eye.

So the Nile turned red, and there was a big fish die off.  I mean, this happens all the time.  Totally normal.  Dead fish are always washing up places, and sometimes when there's a big rain upriver, the clay washes into the water and it looks red.  Not blood.  And sure, a friend of your uncle swears the water was really blood, but he's the same guy who swears Osiris told him to invest in five wheeled chariots, and we know how that worked out.

Next thing, y'all are panicked by frogs.  I mean, frogs.  We live by a river.  Of course there are frogs.  Sometimes more.  Sometimes a lot more.  But really, is that any cause for freaking out?  No.

Then there were those mosquitoes.  I mean, yeah, annoying, but totally normal.   Nothing to see.  Did I mention before that we LIVE BY A RIVER?  Sweet Bouncing Baby Bast, what's wrong with you people?

Then your cow got sick, and your neighbors goat died.  Which is sad for the cows, and not great for the economy, I'll admit, but sickness just happens.  What, you think cows don't get sick sometimes?   That, plus boils?  It's not any fun.  Granted.  I'm no fan of boils.   But when was the last time you went ten minutes without seeing a skin disease?  We live in the bronze age, for Ra's sake.  Most of us are mud encrusted 24/7, and that mud ain't clean.  Half the time, I'm not sure it even is mud, if you know what I'm saying.

The hail thing?  Hail on fire?   That was pretty weird.  I was a little baffled myself at first.  But there's a totally reasonable explanation.  Clearly, it was one of those shooting stars, one that collided with Ra's mighty sun chariot on the way down.  The more that I think about it, the more obvious it is.  That happens all the time.

And, yeah, it's been a little weird here in the darkness.  But Ra does what Ra wants, and if he's taking a break, that's just what the gods do.  And anyway, that totally works with my chariot theory, which...let me tell also shared by many people who know what they're talking about.  Don't panic.  Don't curse the darkness.  Just light an oil lamp, and carry on.  Really, it's nothing at all unusual.

Things just are what they are, and this is all completely normal.  The very last thing we need to do now is change our pattern of life just because some rabblerouser types are creating a false narrative about "Yahweh" and "destruction."  We know they're just doing it out of self-interest, and to sabotage our Egyptian way of life.  Which we love!  Why should we change?  I can think of a thousand reasons why we shouldn't.

This whole "nine plagues" thing is just a manufactured, overhyped, and completely false narrative.  Believe me.

As the firstborn son of an old and noble family, you can trust me on this.

Wednesday, September 26, 2018

Gospel Reset by Ken Ham

So there it was in my in box, because I am the pastor, and I get these sorts of things.

It was a slight little volume from Ken Ham, the founder of Answers in Genesis, a free gift to me.  I assumed that pretty much every pastor in America must have gotten one, because it ain't like my sweet small church is particularly well known.

That turned out to be right.  266,000 copies, mailed out to churches in America.  That's a whole lot of printing and postage.

Answers in Genesis, in the event you don't know it, is a Young Earth Creationist outfit, the folks who brought us the Creation Museum and that great big ol' reconstruction of the Ark.

The book's claimed purpose is simple: to reconnect Americans with the message of Jesus.  It operates from the premise that America is an increasingly secularizing nation, a premise that is objectively and empirically true.  To get to that starting premise, Ham cites research that supports conclusions that pretty much every strain of Christian has also discovered.  In a society where Christianity and the broader biblical narrative are no longer a given, traditional strategies for conveying the message of Jesus are no longer viable.  We can no longer rely on the culture to automatically yield church going folk.

Something new is needed.

Oddly enough, up until this point, I was pretty much there with Ken.  He's not wrong.

Then, to set the stage for his plan for evangelizing America, Ham sets out what he views as the biblical precedent for how one successfully engages with cultures that are not your own.

As the linchpin of his argument, he lays out two contrasting passages from the Acts of the Apostles.  The first, Peter's preaching to the Judeans in Jerusalem in Acts chapter 2.  The second, Paul's preaching to the Athenians on the Areopagus in Acts chapter 17.

This was also odd, because, well, that's totally what I would do, too.  It's exactly the right parallel.

So far, Ken and I were two for two, and that in and of itself was a little freaky.  I read on.

As Ham describes it, Peter succeeds because the Jews that hear him share his culture and his knowledge of the texts of Torah.

But Paul?  As Ham initially describes Paul's engagement with the "Greeks," Paul is completely rejected.  They scoff and laugh at Paul.  He fails to reach them, because they don't have a basis of common understanding.

This comparison is the fundamental groundwork for Ham's argument, and the basic tension of the book.  To spread the Gospel, Ham suggests, we must "de-Greek" our listeners, relentlessly and aggressively tearing away all of their culture.  Christians must obliterate the idea that science is valid.  We must never compromise, or yield.

For a while it seems like Ham's argument is that we must not fail to spread the Gospel as Paul failed to spread the Gospel.


Ham assumes we will take him at his word, and not bother reading scripture ourselves.  But here, being biblically literate helps, because Ham completely misrepresents Acts 17 read in its plainest meaning.  Ham misses the point of Acts 17...and misrepresents the history of the spread of badly that it feels a mark of near-epic exegetical incompetence.

Because while the Athenians do scoff and laugh in Acts 17:18, the story of Paul in Athens goes on.  If you read the whole story, they then say, hey, we've not heard this freaky Jesus stuff before.  They're interested.  And then they invite Paul to tell them more, so he goes to Mars Hill to join other philosophers who are presenting new and interesting things.

When Paul does so, he's not stupid about it.  The Biblical account shows him both being respectful to Greek culture, using terms clearly recognizable from Greek philosophy, quoting Stoic philosopher/poets, and putting the message of Jesus in a form that was comprehensible to his listeners.

From the basis of respectful dialogue that adapts the message of Jesus to a new culture, Paul interests some of them further.  After a few more conversations, some of those Athenians choose to be Christian.

That end result...Paul's successful culturally-relevant almost completely missing from Ham's interpretation.  It was Paul's greatest gift.  He knew how to find commonality.  He knew how to bridge cultures and ways of understanding.

The conclusion Ham draws, having danced his way around grasping the plain meaning of the text, is that what Paul was doing was the opposite of that.   What is needed, Ham argues, is to double down on the same methodology that has been used by fundamentalism since this whole fundamentalist/modernist thing started.  This works great with his presupposition, but it's materially, provably, and historically incorrect.  The "Jewish" church that he presents as the equivalent of the bible-believing model we should all double down upon?  It died.  Ceased to be.

Ham acknowledges this, because you can't miss it.  And there is an admission that, well, Paul kind of did succeed...which Ham then attributes to Paul's "de-Greeking."  The same Paul who spoke in Greek, used the forms and structures of Greco-Roman rhetoric, and knew philosophy well enough to...


The church that succeeded, that spread, that shared the message of Jesus with billions?  It was the "Greeked" church.  It was the church that adapted, that used whatever language, form, and understanding was necessary to share the message of the so-close-you-can-touch-it Kingdom of God that Jesus taught and incarnated.

The very last thing evangelically minded Jesus folk need more of is aggressive argumentation in defense of rigidly held presuppositions.

Where the message of Jesus stuck, it wasn't because of the bludgeoning of combative apologetics.  It succeeded in non-Semitic cultures when those who proclaimed it lived out the message of Jesus they were articulating.  The Gospel makes you live a different life, visibly and demonstrably.  That was what changed souls in the Roman Empire.  And in Korea.  And in Japan.  And in China today.

It stands in tension with every culture, and speaks truth in ways that scripture illuminates, but that is also affirmed by the experience of every human society.

Do we really need to accede to the self-evidently false idea of a universe that is 7,000 years old to grasp the idea of human suffering and brokenness, and the need for something radical to be remade in the human psyche?  No.  Clearly not.

That the Gospel speaks powerfully to the essential experience of humankind has always, always, always been how evangelism has worked.  The great strength of Christianity is that Christ's grace is gloriously adaptable, that it finds ways to work with the idioms of every culture.  It is inherently universal and pancultural, integrating every truth that resonates with the Gospel into itself.

The maddening thing about this little book is that it is exactly and utterly the opposite of what is needed.  "Salvation made Relevant," or so the book claims.  If we did what Ham has been doing for decades, and wants us to do now, the church would fail.  It would fail as it has failed for a generation in Europe, and as it struggles in America now, as earnest but tone-deaf verbal clubbings from well-meaning but misguided Jesus folk drive hearers away.

Even the title is misleading, because Ham suggests resetting nothing about how he approaches the Gospel.  There is no awareness of the damage his theology does, and how easy it makes it for those who despise faith to cast Christians as willfully ignorant and faintly psychotic.  There is nothing at all new here, other than the call to continue down a path that has driven millions of souls from the message of Jesus.

In his conclusion, Ham recounts a conversation he has with a young atheist.  He uses his method, aggressively presenting his apologetics, and getting that young atheist to understand that at the heart of their understandings of creation they have completely different foundations.

And then he doesn't quite get around to describing what happens next.  At the end of that story, that's it.  There is no story of respect for Jesus instilled.  No common ground established.  Not even a seed of respect for Christ's compassion for the outcast planted.  Just the creation of opposition, irreconcilable and fundamental.   And this, this is meant to spread the Gospel?

So.  This "free gift" from Answers in Genesis?  While I can appreciate the old axiom that you shouldn't look a gift horse in the mouth, I'm Greek enough to remember that didn't work out so well for the Trojans.

I do not doubt that it is well-intended.  But the road to irrelevance and evangelical failure is paved with such intentions.

Wednesday, September 19, 2018

Evidentiary Standards

Thirty years ago, I was a first year at the University of Virginia, and she and I had spent a portion of the afternoon walking and talking.

That wandering led back to her dorm room, where we found ourselves alone.  We'd gone to high school together.  She was slight and attractive and smart as hell, a tiny dancer whose writing was intense and odd and mature.  She was also an survivor of both physical and sexual abuse, coming out of a household that seethed with violence and darkness.  It hung about her like a cloud, manifesting in a couple of attempts on her own life.   Being a young fool, that brokenness seemed romantic and lost and fed into my ego-addled desire to white knight for someone.  I had been smitten with her for a large chunk of high school, in the hormone addled monomania that can often define late adolescence.

There had never been anything real between us, other than a few interesting and intense conversations and a festering swamp of quasi-obsessive teen angst on my end.  Even at that moment, I'm not sure if we could have been described as friends.

As we sat and talked more, she became more agitated, and the conversation turned to cutting.  Which, among other forms of self harm, was something she did.

She got out her cutters kit, a neat box filled with the blades that she would use to score her flesh.  It was her intent to cut, right there and then.  I attempted to talk her out of it, to go and talk with a counselor instead, but with little success.

Not knowing what else to do, I took the box from her.  We wrestled about for a moment, as she tried to get it back from me.  But I was stronger.

And then she set back on her bed, and looked at me, and told me, eyes bright as fire, that if I didn't give her the blades and let her cut, she would start screaming.

Unless I returned her blades, when people on her hall came, she would tell them I had been trying to rape her.

I remember her face as she said this.  It was not a pleasant look.  There was no question of either her intent or her commitment.  It was not an idle threat.

After a moment of horrified paralysis, I gave her back her box.  And then I left.

In the dorm stairwell on the way out, I passed a mutual friend who was coming up to see her.  I told him what to expect, and what she was doing, and he..not expecting that...was a little stunned.

I do not know what happened when he went up there.

That was thirty years ago, and to the best of my recollection, that is what happened.

But what are you to think of this story of mine?  How do you know that it's real?

It was a very emotionally intense moment, and so it has been burned to my own memory.  I have retold that story, to close friends, on occasions over the years.  But I know that my own memory is a tricky thing, meat being the unreliable storage medium that it is.

I cannot tell you, not now, much of the detail of that event.  If you asked what we spoke of, I could not tell you.  I could not tell you what I was wearing.  Or the precise time of day.  Or even what day of the week it was.

I could not tell you, in all honesty, whether in the years that have passed the dozen or so retellings have themselves shaped the form and character of that memory.   I also cannot tell you if she remembers that afternoon, just an immaterial blip in what was a deeply traumatic young adulthood.  If she does, I cannot tell you whether her memory of it is the same as mine.

Nor could the best of forensic science prove anything meaningful about that moment. 

In your hearing of this, and in the absence of empirical evidence, what do you believe?  Your engagement with this story will, in this polarized moment, be shaped by your political and sociocultural biases.

Do you believe that this sort of thing happens often, that women as moral agents sometimes misuse accusations to serve other interests or the crass demands of political power?  That would shape your hearing and receiving of this story.

Do you believe that women's voices are to be believed, and that a narrative like this serves no constructive purpose in an era when those who have survived sexual violence are finally speaking out?   Then you may hear it another way.

I take it for what it is.  An anecdote and an intense but faded memory, one that shapes my own self-understanding and my understanding of the dynamics of addiction.  Across the span of a third of a life, it does not speak to the legitimacy of other stories or claims.  It does not, for instance, mean that I do not believe that the young woman who threatened to accuse me of rape had not previously experienced sexual violence.

But it does, for me, reinforce two things:

For acts of violence against other persons, particularly acts of a sexual nature, the culture of shame in reporting cannot stand.  If justice is to be served, reporting such events...not to college administrators, or to a social media account, but to law enforcement...needs to be something victims can do knowing that they'll receive a fair, careful, and respectful hearing. 

And for our culture, so quick to leap to an assumption of guilt or innocence on the basis of ideology, bias, and passion?

I don't know. 

I have a reasonable doubt that we collectively care for truth at all.

Monday, September 17, 2018

A Lack of Magic

With the boys gone off to college and the house still and quiet, me and the missus are spending a little more time together, settling in to our now clean rec room to watch movies and shows together.

The other night, we were up for a quality horror flick, and so went to the critically acclaimed The Witch.

I'd seen the previews, and it looked good.  Meaning, not just generically scary, but with a particular director's palette and vision.  The premise: a family of recently emigrated Puritans settles in the American wilderness after getting cast out by their settlement.  As things start going ill for their farm, they run afoul of a witch.

Bad things happen.

It's a good film.  The commitment to establishing sense of place and to authentically conveying the particular language and faith of the Puritans was excellent, and the pacing was remarkably deliberate.  The actors are uniformly well cast and solid.  It was smart, well-researched, and thoughtfully done.

Was it perfect?  No.  It wasn't really all that scary, although perhaps that's just jaded me.  The striking young ingenue at the center of the story was a genuinely fine actress, but she was...well...also evidently the only one of her family with access to modern era hair care products.

But what do I know?  Shining, perfect golden tresses are probably worth the extra effort during a week-long descent into hellish demonic madness.

And the woods, for all of their eerieness, were obviously not the forests of precolonial America.  Old growth don't look that way...not that there's much a director can do about that.

From a faith angle, I'm also sure that the film wasn't well received by actual witches, as it' design...a film that evokes the mortal horrors of the Pilgrims, who understood pagan traditions as inherently monstrous and demonic.  As an artistic choice, I get it, and appreciate it.  But I'm sure someone out there took offense.

But there was something else that struck me, as it often strikes me in the premises of films evoking supernatural horror.  The Christian characters were basically helpless, their whispered prayers nothing more than the feverish mutterings of a schizophrenic in the face of a genuinely supernatural foe.  That's part of the horror, I suppose, the idea that "faith" is meaningless and the only real power lies in the dark intent of gibbering, feral things.

To be honest, though, the "Christianity" of the characters was of the sort that's most likely to fail in a crisis.  They were hard, fierce, and proud.  They prayed without ceasing.  But what they were not was loving.

When they were pressed, their trust in one another came apart in a wave of mutual recriminations.  They did not find strength in one another, bear burdens for one another, and work under the fundamental assumption of the God-loved goodness of each other.

Faced with evil...even evil that can take our lives...that's the deepest magic of our faith.  It gives us cohesion, hope, and strength, up to and past the point when all else is lost.

Instead, suspicion and accusation reigned, and they devoured each other.  They were to each other as much a horror as the strange blood-hungry things in the woods.

Good thing Christians don't do that to one another now.

Wednesday, September 12, 2018

The Forecaster


Just in and out, Jiun.  Slow and steady, Jiun.  You are modulated, Jiun.  You are focused, Jiun.  You are in control.  You are calm.  You are in control.  You are calm.  You know what the hell you’re talking about.

And she did.  Of course she did.  She had always known.  

Top of her class, or at least, close enough to touch it without stretching.   Professors who tumbled over themselves to recommend her.  Snapped up in a bidding war, almost kissing seven figures right out of her program.  Two years in at Econalytica, and the youngest senior analyst in their storied history.  At meetings, the overtalkers and the blowhards had learned to shut up when she spoke, because C suite had learned to listen.

And groomed her.  And welcomed her in, the youngest partner since the firm had been founded.  Senior Vice President of Climatometrics.   Four direct reports, all upper management, thirty two staff in her program, her work the beating heart of their business model.  And their primary profit center.

She was their best, and they knew it.

She knew it.

Still, there were the cameras.  

What was it about those cameras?

There was the studio, lights hot and overbright.  The scent of the Acela still lingered in her blouse, where it mingled with the slight but inescapable tang of stress pressing through the deodorant.  Jesus, they paid for the ride up, no Skype or ZoomMeet for her, she was a damn guest.

And there was Lamia Singh, right there in the for real, the familiar face from the best watched business program in the industry.  A little shorter than Jiun had thought she’d be, they were always shorter than you thought they’d be.  But no less stunning, and no less sharp.

Lamia had said a few words from within her swirl of production staff, so glad to have you, looking forward to your insights, heard such amazing things about your contribution to the industry.   Genuinely engaged, bright and smiling, decanting the same dessert wine flattery she undoubtedly poured for every guest.

Jiun centered herself.

“We’re on in three.”  Around her, the studio scuttled and flowed, a smooth practiced organic machine.  She was ushered to a chair, given water, a little touch up here, perhaps.  Told where to look, told she was great, thanked again, and then it was two.

Her primary.

Her primary was on.  She hadn’t checked it, had taken that vid from John about the quarterly reporting to General Electric, it was on then. And it would go off, because it always went off.

She fumbled in the deep pocket of her Gortex coverall, and powered it all the way down, as a memory of her mother’s gravel and corn husk voice flitted unbidden through her consciousness.  


“The day we finally got our damn pockets was the day the patriarchy fell,” Mother had said, and she was right.

When she looked up, Lamia was settling in.

“Ms. Kim.  Good ride up?  No delays?”   The familiar voice from the familiar face, the famous face, with it’s famously big, subtly asymmetric eyes, bright as dark polished pebbles, so large, distractingly anime eyes.

Jiun nodded, shaking off the spell.  “None.  Smooth and effortless.  No delays or interruptions.”

“Well, of course. That’s what you’re here to tell us about, isn’t it?”

Jiun’s attempt at a slightly witty response was interrupted by a producer.  “Ten seconds to live.  Ten seconds to live.”

The eyes turned away to camera, and Jiun managed a jagged attempt at a cleansing breath.  The theme and intro music was suddenly everywhere, all of a sudden everywhere, not just in her buds as she watched on the commute in.  

“This is Marketwatch Now, and I’m Lamia Singh.  I’m pleased today to have with us Dr. Jiun Kim, Senior Vice President of Climatometrics at Econalytica.  Dr. Kim, welcome.”

“Thank you, Lamia.”  Not an evident crack or a quaver in her voice.  The centering must be working.

“Looking forward to the third quarter, we’re looking at more bad news for the economy, already under stress from the catastrophic weather this winter and spring.  Dr. Kim, how bad is it going to get?”

“Lamia, it looks like the worst quarter in nearly a decade.  I’d go beyond that.  In fact, both the North American and our own proprietary New Combined Global model are showing the worst forecast in my career as a Climate Economist.”

Behind them, the screens spun up a globe overlaid with images of the anticipated storm season.  The model, there it was, her own New Combined Global, the most accurate forecast of the wildly chaotic churn of the planet’s weather.

What it showed was terrifying.

Nothing.  Not a single storm.  All along the Atlantic and Pacific, nothing.  

Jiun’s voice, terse and urgent and matter of fact.  “The impact on this year’s storm drought on the repair, reconstruction, and emergency supply industries is going to be just staggering.  This coming after a weaker than expected West Coast fire season, and only one fizzled blizzard in the Plains states this winter.”

“Why?  What’s going on to cause it?”

“It’s an entropic system, Lamia.  Obviously, we’ve had a run of great years.  Two seasons ago, Benito?  That generated nearly two hundred billion dollars of economic activity.”

Lamia interjected.  “Probably the most profitable category Seven in recent memory.  The New Shreveport projects alone pushed the markets up nearly five percent.”

“Absolutely.  What a great year.  Not at all what we’re looking at for the next few quarters.”

Lamia nodded.  “That’s exactly right.  The DOW is down nearly sixteen thousand points, and the S&P was off a similar two percent yesterday.  Weyerhauser’s stock was off almost twelve percent, and Caterpillar was down seven and a half.  What impacts are you seeing in the employment sector?”

“Obviously, huge.  General Dynamics and United Recovery Systems are already starting layoffs along the Gulf Annual Disaster Zone, which is on top of the layoffs on the Pacific coast.  In the Carolinas, Dupont is ramping down production at the Tyvek Repairboard shipping ports in Columbia, South Carolina.  Crop recovery and restoration efforts in the Midwest are at a standstill.  We’re talking hundreds of thousands of jobs now, maybe millions idled, in the sector that’s come to take up nearly sixty percent of the global economy.”

Lamia’s voice, now filled with carefully simulated human concern.   “With no homes and cities to rebuild, no infrastructure to restore, what are the prospects for the average worker in this sector?  How’s this going to turn around?”

“In the short term?  Things look terrible.  But the New Combined Global has verified multiseasonal reliability, and what we’re seeing for this winter season looks, how to say this?  Well, Lamia, it looks promising.  It looks good.   If we can run’ll see that there are multiple Eastern seaboard superstorms likely in both late December and into the…”

Jiun felt the answers pour from her, as Lamia nodded and those dark eyes glistened with admiration at her radiant expertise.  

She wasn’t nervous.  Those weren’t nerves she had felt.  That was pure energy.  She was on fire.  She was the expert.   

She was the global expert, in the world’s most important industry, and now the world knew it.

The ten minutes had flown by.  There’d been a handshake, a genuine offer of “having her on again soon,” and she was done.  A meeting with one of the NYC subcontractors, a quick snag of a bag from a vegan fazcaz place, and she was off.

Her primary hummed and buzzed.   Congratulations from colleagues, from John and Young Sik on the board, from a couple of her VPs.  Notifications from her bots, as the interview splashed and echoed across other media.  Picking up steam.

And after four days of losses, the markets, turning around.  Two point two three percent since this morning.  The chatter, as the market babblers pitched their daily rationalizations?

“Market turns after strong long term report from Econalytica.”  “Dow up nine hundred on analyst’s positive storm report.”

She was Atlas.  She was moving the world.

All of a sudden, she was hungry.  So very hungry.  The nervous tightness in her gut had unfurled and released, and now her stomach snarled and groaned.  She could smell the falafel, and lord it smelled good.  She fumbled with the bag.  

The pita was a great fat thing, thick spread with hummus and tzatziki, and she tore into it, feeling the tzatziki course down her chin.  She didn’t care.  No more meetings today, and she had always been the kind of girl who ate…

And Mother’s voice again.  “You eat like a wolf, Jiun.  Like a starving wolf.”  Not a reprimand.  Not a correction.  But smiling, the broad smile of a loud brassy ahjumma, so pleased with her fierce firstborn wolf girl.

Halfway through, she stopped for breath, took a deep quaff of her energy tea, and looked around.  The car, entirely full, rustling with the mutters and clicks of business.

Through the windows of the train, the landscape flickered bright and sun dappled behind the concrete and steel windbreaks.

Above, the sky was a perfect, cursed, unprofitable blue.

Ah well, she thought.  It'll pass. It’s just weather.