Reading Maps and Splitting Stones

Reading Maps and Splitting Stones

This continues a short series on re-thinking how the church might consider its relationship to politics. More here. What do I mean when I say ‘the church‘? Rather have it all summed up in a song?

In America, we like to boast that our government represents the will of the people. At least, that’s what the winners love to say. More cynical observers suspect that our governing powers—and, more broadly, our cultural powers—actually have an agenda of their own which they dupe, swindle, and strongarm people into abetting. It’s an interesting idea and makes for great storytelling, but I don’t believe even such a power could really lure people somewhere they didn’t already want to go. In the end, I would argue that the law of our land does indeed reflect the will of the people. And, for the church, this is highly useful.

Mightier than the sword
Yesterday, we considered the image of the government bearing a sword. Of course, this is a true image, but I remain convinced that it is tricky territory to imagine the church as playing a part in wielding that sword through its vote. So, I’m going to propose a new imagery to help us understand our American political moment. Instead of bearing the sword, let’s imagine our government bearing a pen.

If our representative government does indeed reflect the will of the people, then that would make the work of our government—making and enforcing laws—something like that of a cartographer, drawing a map of the cultural landscape. If the law of the land shows a vast plain of sexual ethics, looming mountains of identity politics, or a remote badlands reserved for Biblical morality, that tells us that those things already exist.[1] They originated in the desires of the people and the government merely drew the map to get people where they wanted to go.[2]

If you can believe that this is true, then it would be lunacy to try and ‘use’ the powers of government to change the culture. It would be as sane as re-drawing a map of the United States with the Rockies over on the east and expecting that the mountains themselves would pick up and shuffle across the continent. The government may set boundaries that effectively guide some people, but by and large, people tend to go where they want to go and the government eventually catches up. Look at the trend of marijuana legality for a good example. People want to get high, lower incarceration rates, and raise some tax revenue, so they did the work of making a marijuana-friendly culture. The government is now following along, making it law. It’s not always perfectly clear, but the basic pattern of demand leading to supply is fairly reliable in our country, even in politics.

So, instead of fighting tooth and nail in an ugly war to draw a lunatic map of wishful thinking, what if the church admitted that the government is only sketching out what already exists in the wishes of our neighbors? That campaigns and polls are things to be read and studied, but not fought for as if our lives depended on them? When all of the dust of every nasty campaign settles[3], we may not have the elected officials we would choose, but we do have one thing: a crystal-clear map of our mission field. What can we make of our votes in light of this?

An orientating experiment
Well, we can make our votes something of an experiment. No longer seeking control, which all-too-often involves awful compromises on integrity masked as tactical decisions, we could submit our vote into the maelstrom as a little beacon of what we value. toy-boatThen, we see where our values end up on the map and we watch where other values land, too. Alongside this, we listen. Politics, after all, involves a good deal of talking. Listen to how people talk about their values, how people talk about what threatens their values, and how people talk about what means are acceptable for enshrining their values in Law. This should give us a pretty clear picture of where we stand, where we might like to carry our good news, and some paths we might take to get there. Then it’s just a matter setting out on our journey. And this is one place where over-investment in politics can actually hinder. If we are too wrapped up in winning, too fearful of losing, we might just lose our courage[4] to bear any sort of good news in the world at all. That would be a grave error.

My desire here is to offer the church a way to think about campaigns and elections that leaves space for us not to succumb to the hysteria around us. We have better hope than politics, so we can definitely cool our jets. Sabers will be rattled, doom will be prophesied, mocking degradations of complex human character will be passed off as righteous condemnation. It’s all brief and momentary noise.

The subversive art of resistance
What makes this kind of political engagement so challenging is that, one, it asks of us a quietness in the face of a lot of spittle-lipped and purplish rancor[5] and, two, it asks of us a good deal of patience. It’s perfectly understandable to feel threatened in our political climate. People seem awfully volatile, and it’s easy to read in rumbling signs and wonders of a renewed faith in totalitarianism. When we feel threatened, we want to shout back in the face of each accuser, to reach for something strong to defend ourselves. In fear and unease, we face our most critical time for discernment. We must not panic. We may have to bite our tongue and endure scoffing or even abuse, but wasn’t this the very way of the Jesus we claim to follow? If no ‘winning’ power is worthy of the church’s support, it remains a worthy choice to align with no power and work in exile. After all, even seemingly helpful powers should be kept at a wise distance because power is fleeting and fickle. Christianity is not a faith of direct power, anyway. There are two ways to crack a heavy stone. There is the noisy expedience of the hammer and there is the quiet patience of the tree root, and our faith is a likened to a seed.

In the end, I’m not advocating for political withdrawal. I am absolutely advocating for a renewed political restraint. We must take serious note of how Jesus related to the powers of his day. To say they were odd bedfellows would radically overstate the relationship; they were nowhere near the same bed. If Jesus resisted Satan’s temptations to earthly power in the desert and later stayed on the cross, and if Paul and Silas stayed in jail after the earthquake, if Stephen saw fit to be stoned to death, and if all the other etceteras are true and yet Christianity survived, surely we can see that there is something of the power of this world that Christianity does not need and in fact refutes.

Living in a country with a fairly representative democracy does afford the church with opportunity, but it’s an opportunity to understand, not to control. The church must seriously engage the work of unclenching the fist of political control and embracing its real mission of loving neighbors and proclaiming relief from the troubles of this world. What might this look like?

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[1] To say nothing of the high and steep cliffs off which our technological wonders can blindly, blithely drive us.

[2] This, of course, puts us as a citizenry in the rarely enviable position of getting what we wish for.

[3] As much as it can settle now in our crazy days of infinite campaigning.

[4] Or our compassion

[5] Or in the face of smug dismissal.

Music as Salve for Campaign Burnout

Music as Salve for Campaign Burnout

As a great artist does, Gillian Welch has expressed most of what I’d say about politics in a three-verse song, and with far more poetry. I’ve listened to it often in the past weeks. ‘Hard Times’ is the perfect song for when apocalyptic prophets climb up on the politician’s stump. When you’re working hard because of the hope hard work gives you; when you’re sheltered from the worry of the world by some kind of pleasure; when hardship has truly overtaken you; the refrain above it all should be, ‘Hard times ain’t gonna rule my mind no more.’ The skill and repetition of the plow preaches the same gospel that Jesus gave to our worry. Each row has enough worry of its own. Just get to the end before you turn around and start back the other direction and you’ll be all right.

Have a listen and enjoy.

 

Democracy With All the Trappings

Democracy With All the Trappings

This is the first post of a short series that sums up what I’ve been thinking about regarding politics for some time, but for which this present election cycle provided a flame plenty hot enough to boil it down. These posts to come are primarily directed at the church, but I hope they can at least be seen as reasonable, maybe even helpful, to someone who wouldn’t associate with a church. What do I mean by ‘the church’? Basically, this.

Politics has gotten downright scary. This is puzzling and sad because the American Republic has so often been a model for debate, compromise, and bloodless transition of governance in an otherwise bloodthirsty world. Anyone measuring the state of the Republic lately, though, would have to admit their confidence in continued social stability is waning.[1] This over-heated culture in which people are clamoring, suing, and spewing venom in order to win out their ideals is a pretty crisp illustration of why yearning for power is a bad look for anyone who claims to care about people the beings, not people the instruments. This goes double for the church who have exhaustive reasons—theological and historical—to look sidelong at power. Yet there go so-called Faith Leaders riding the coattails of whomever concocts the best pander and commercials. After watching so many people go cheaply and headlong after power, and this is on the so-called left and right, I have come to believe that representative democracy was a clever little snare for the heart of the American church.

Give us a king!
Certainly, the allure of power has always been a danger for God’s people stretching all the way back to the garden and continuing unimpeded up to this very moment. Power lures with an offer of autonomy. More power equals more doing what pleases you, so the promise reads. This appetite to live unimpeded is deeply human and therefore subject to the same depredations and corruption as anything else human. Autonomy is the Fruit of fruits so pleasing to the eye, and when we do not personally have the power and autonomy we want, we say ‘Give us a king!’ and live out our power dreams by vicarious means. This has been the case basically forever, but American democracy has presented us with something new, or at least took something old and magnified it in new ways. That new thing is the vote.

Christians, taking Jesus as their template, have always been called to long and steady faithfulness to God’s Kingdom that endures deepening difference with power, even to the point of exile or death. That is the exact pattern of Jesus’ life, and so it is the exact pattern of what the Kingdom of God looks like in this world: final rejection. In the days of emperors and kings, the culture within which Christianity arose[2], this was easy to accept. Power acted as it would and it was unchangeable, unreachable even, by ordinary people. That the Gospel came into the world under these of all circumstances gives a strong indication that it’s fundamentally about loving your neighbor, not influencing your government.

Then along comes representative democracy (albeit a bit later) and the levers to influence the government are apparently lowered within reach of ordinary people. Suddenly there’s this new idea of the church being faithful to its mission, not to the point of ultimate difference with this world, but to the point of ultimate success in controlling this world. A spirit of ‘effectiveness’ spread across the church, it looks to me, like a black fog.

Gagging prophets
Seeking brief and momentary comfort by cozying up to power has long been the enemy of the church’s credibility as a prophetic voice in human history. The love of Jesus tends to result in a rapture of the heart and mind out of the fulfillment narratives of its native culture—be those narratives of sexual fulfillment, identity politics, or even ascetic ethical codes—and brings our affections to rest on things above. I’m saying, following Jesus will lead to standing out more and more as our citizenship in a new Kingdom takes root because we buy into the logic and promises of this world less and less. Standing apart is awkward at best, and at worst very painful if not lethal. It’s a predicament to be caught between two kingdoms. The conflict between solutions, between assimilation and differentiation, will always stalk the church, so the church should always be alert to it.

With the power of a vote, American Christians find ourselves with the cudgel of law in our lap with its whispers of a third way out our predicament: power and influence. We don’t have to assimilate. We don’t have to stand out. We can win. Would that our love for the restraint Jesus showed might give this development its rightfully squirmy feeling. He did stay on the cross despite invitations to wriggle free, after all. But, we are too human. Legislative clout is an enticing tool by which Christians could hammer out a society into which we could blend seamlessly and painlessly, but also without apparent compromise. That this tool can only be used to hammer the people that comprise a society is conveniently overlooked. The opportunity of a vote raises serious questions, the chief of which is this: is the Law the best means to seek the good around us? Embedded in this question is another question: is the church meant to stand apart by seeking good or to resisting evil? Both questions are important.

I think that the answer to the second question about the mission of the church is obvious. It’s an inextricable situation. You can’t seek good without resisting evil and you can’t resist evil without seeking good. It is good and important work to do both, and like all good work, it is worth spending enough thought to do it well even at the expense of doing it quickly. Is the law of the land the best tool for seeking good and resisting evil?

American Swordsmanship
One argument that I have heard in favor of Christians leaning on the government to enact laws that reflect Biblical morality draws from Romans 13. Here, Paul writes that government is a sub-authority to which God has given the power of bearing the sword to restrain evil. This argument puts a great deal of weight on American Christians to stack the government with the right politicians who will build the right sword to restrain the right evil. That’s a lot of pressure to place on a conscience, and so I can see why this argument is so compelling. The weakness I see in the argument, though, is that it’s too linear. It presumes that a vote leads directly to a policy and, in turn, that policy only enacts its intended consequences. So, I would complicate the Romans 13 with two ideas.

First, if you believe the Bible is true, then you have to believe that Romans 13 is true no matter what. Whether the government consists entirely of sage, orthodox theologians or hedonistic Dionysians, it still bears the sword and restrains evil. Romans 13 won’t stop being true if Americans vote wrongly, for one thing because it was true long before most people had anything even resembling a vote.

See, when we look at what evil we suffer, we forget that we can never know what evil is simultaneously being restrained. We can’t see it because it was restrained and never came about. I would point to 150 years of disagreement and power transfer without war in the streets as a sign that some evil has been restrained in our country (that’s not to say there hasn’t been blood in the streets and plenty of other places, but we have been spared all-out civil war for some time). My point here is that what evil the government restrains[3] might not actually rely on how we vote. It’s not all waiting on us.

The second complication is that we have to vote for people who want power. We never pick the best person for the job of governing, we pick from the pool of people who want the power to govern. Knowing what the church claims about the human heart and knowing even the broad strokes of human history, this calls the whole idea of Christians influencing governing power for good with any certainty into sharp question. I find it too difficult to believe that I can vote the best person into a position of power because the best people I know are highly wary of big power.

Our government itself, by its system of checks and balances, admits that power dangles a lure to corruption in front of any one person. And, despite these checks and balances, there is plenty of abused power to be found in various pockets of the government precisely because you cannot check and balance a broken human heart. The link between vote and policy is a byzantine maze of influence games, pork, and ambition. Human frailty is far too big a variable for me to put any faith in my vote. I still vote, though.

I believe that a cause/effect reading of Romans 13 is emblematic of the temptation for American Christians to pursue their ultimate hope—a Kingdom come—by means of lesser hopes, namely politicians and power plays. We have been lured to over-invest in politics. We thought that government was lying inert like some great marionette waiting for Christians to take up the strings rather than seeing governing power as something very much alive, and at work pursuing an agenda of its own for which it might just have a use for American Christians. We might have been rope-a-doped.

Paradise Lost
I fear that the American church has taken on a role like that of Satan in Milton’s Paradise Lost. With our vote, we think we have the strength and the devices to make a play on the throne of Power. We took our shot because we’re tired of bowing when it says bow. In Milton’s poem, Satan had that same weariness when God declared the angelic host would not only bow to him, but bow to his Son as well. Satan stirred up a revolution, and they had a good go of it for a couple of days. diabolic-cascadeBut, when the Son of God got off his throne and into his war chariot, it was a total rout. On that celestial battlefield, there were two powers at play and they did not mix. Brought head to head, they repelled and a whole cascade of angels fell into a hell made just for them.

I think the church can take a lesson from this. The throne of power in this world is not a hill to be taken in God’s name. In entering such a fight, the church would have to exchange the very nature of what power it does have—the subtle and mysterious power of the Spirit—for some attempt to mimic the kind of brute, blunt power that currently lords over our world in endless cycle. The church’s so-called losses in the culture war point to a great repelling resulting from such an exchange, and our influence is in exile, banished in a rout just when it seemed the Moral Majority was winning.[4]

Doubling down on that same quixotic tilt, prominent mouthpieces of the Religious Right have displayed a stunning adherence to bald-faced power even as it has lately been offered in the form of a rather grotesque figure. Not that the political right is the only place certain church leaders have gone headlong after power. I’ve seen plenty of folks on the political left back some alarming ideas an icons in order to stay vassal at the heel of their chosen powers that be.

Something ought to cry out plainly. Power always makes a tool of the church in the end, using ecclesial endorsement to legitimize its own ends. This distorts the church’s distinctive character, making pawns of prophets. The church can never turn the tables by force. Nor should it, for in any attempt to do so, the church swaps out the means of an eternal Kingdom—faithfulness, perseverance, love—in favor of a the means of our present kingdom—deceit, invective, war. Why give up hope for what we wait for in favor of hope in what inevitably dies around us? It’s a bad trade.

Please, allow me to introduce myself
The notion that democracy is a trap begs the question: who is the trapper? This is where I might just go off the rails for some of you, but I feel like it has to be said. I actually believe that the trapper is the Devil himself. You can’t believe in the supernatural, but only in the nice ones. Now, I don’t think that the Devil had some sovereign hand in the drafting of the Constitution. I believe that our Republic was formed by well-intentioned people trying (and succeeding) to do some good. What I do believe is that the Devil is clever and saw the pitfalls scattered throughout even a good endeavor and set to whispering here and there, sowing corruption.

As the surest sign that this is true, I see people in the American church feverishly worried about this election, just like everyone else. And I see those people acting out of fear, which probably explains why they’re acting so out of Christian character. Dwelling on the bad news of politics, at least in public, almost at the expense of anything resembling good news. A Christian, by my estimation, should act almost bulletproof, a level of confidence that must be at the root of anyone who can repay good for evil. Where is our belief that our struggles are brief and momentary? Where is our offer of drink for thirsty souls? Where did this apocalyptic fear come from? Surely it came from propping up wooden saviors on the stump to speechify and villify our opponents, promising to make America great again if we just believe in our hearts and confess with our mouths, “I’m with her.”

So, I have to walk back the sensationalist claim that democracy itself is a trap and just say that our American democracy is riddled with traps and one of the cleverest is the idea that we can use our vote to wield the sword of government against evil. I won’t read Romans 13 as a call to cast the right ballot for the purpose of disenfranchising errant ideology. Instead, I’ll read it as comfort that no matter how the ballots tally, evil is in check, even in spite of noxious ideologies. Even, perhaps, in spite of our votes.

I find a great deal of freedom in this. I am not shackled to whatever major party panders most to my fears or my arrogances (of which there are many). I don’t feel like I have to make compromises in order to win other battles. I feel safely on the right side of history before anyone even launches a campaign, to say nothing of election day, because my sacred text tells me that evil is restrained and a bigger game than politics is always afoot.

Coming up: If, then, representative government does not put the levers of influence within reach of the church, what does our representative government do? How can we approach this bedeviled democracy without getting snared?

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[1] Some of this may be due to past sins coming back to reap a payment. It’s an imperfect republic built on the backs of brutalized slaves and given to a dangerous admiration for ambition on the brink of greed and possessed of insatiable appetites that have lead to all kinds of trouble. It’s an imperfect republic that, though it at least manages to hold back domestic war and genocide, is certainly ready and willing for any war abroad. That’s a lot of darkness to try to restrain.

[2] It’s worth thinking about the time and place of the Incarnation. At the very least, it shows that every technology and every social change that has happened since year 0 is absolutely unessential for the church. This is something that I often see forgotten or ignored as the church seeks to engage the people of the 21st century. Perhaps these are thoughts for another day.

[3] Another truobling line of thought here is that, if this is true, even Nazi Germany might have been credited with restraining some evil. It’s truly fearsome to imagine what evil might have been restrained when you consider the evil they let loose. And this raises an important point. Government, Power, can cause as much evil or even more than it might restrain. Might even unleash one evil in the name of restraining another. We should consider that carefully when we think about using our vote to empower a government to bear the sword.

[4] I mean, there are still parental advisory warnings on CDs, even doled out song by song in digital stores.

What do I mean when I say ‘the church’?

Especially in my recent posts on politics, I drop the phrase ‘the church’ or ‘the American church’ pretty often. What do I mean by the church? I mean people who call themselves Christians and who pray to God, with a straight face, ‘Thy Kingdom come, Thy will be done on Earth as it is in Heaven.’ This does, of course, presuppose that people be humble and diligent about seeking and submitting themselves to a rigorously holistic vision for such a Kingdom, even and especially the parts that make them uncomfortable. After all, if the Kingdom is going to come to Earth, a journey that would require making some changes around here, it would have to come to each of us, change each of us, since we are of the Earth. That means the Kingdom is going to irritate each of us in some or other ways. The church is the people who choose to be so irritated without resorting to an editorial stance, scratching the itch with a blade that trims away sound and historic doctrine at the same time it trims away prodigious grace.

And, I might add that the church is made up of people who pray this prayer with an idea that they are active participants in the coming of the Kingdom, and this again circles back to humility and diligence, seeking and submission.

A Superhero (costume) Lament

A Superhero (costume) Lament

Tis the season for costumes and make believe. Personally, I don’t dress up anymore (though I did craft a pretty stellar Shaun of the Dead costume a few too many years back, complete with hand-carved cricket bat and a dart lodged in my head), but my oldest son is getting to the point where he has definite ideas about what he’d like to dress up for on Halloween, and for all the various little candy-getting enterprises that crop up at the end of October. It was at one of these trunk or treats that I observed something that has troubled me as I’ve looked back on it: my son got embarrassed.

We have had a bug costume sitting around our house since my son’s first Halloween five years ago. He loves it and wears it often. So, when he chose it for the recent trunk or treat without hesitation and with a big smile on his face, it wasn’t a surprise. We put it in the car and headed for the party. When we arrived, though, his enthusiasm for the bug vanished. At first, I chalked this up to his typically-reserved demeanor in big crowds. But, as I watched, another explanation came to the surface. All the other boys (all of whom were older, but not by much) were wearing either Star Wars or Marvel costumes. I’m afraid my son suddenly looked at the bug suit he loved and found it alien and ill-fitting in a room full of superheroes. I get a sharp pang when I consider what this might have felt like for him. Did he feel childish? Did he feel foolish? Did he feel like he had made the wrong choice? All I can say for sure is that he wore the bug suit only very briefly and at every costume party since, he’s opted for his Iron Man or Spiderman suits.

I know some of my son’s change of mind comes from the natural conformity that exists to a greater or lesser extent in all of us. We like to feel like we’re among peers, that we’re in a welcoming community, so we all pitch ourselves towards what we perceive to be normal. In healthy circumstances, this is a good thing. It helps bind us together. My son’s sudden change, though, has left me feeling sad, like he was manipulated somehow. That his feeling of exclusion was an intentional act. Not by the other kids, they were all friendly as can be. Still, my protective instinct has raised its hackles.

Making hay out of the community instinct
I remember back when Disney first bought Lucasfilm and Star Wars. A friend with daughters expressed his concern that Disney was poised to do for boys what it had already done for girls: homogenize and aggressively. Raising a son has me reporting from the front lines of boyhood that I believe this is absolutely coming to pass.

I think Disney knows full well that kids tend to want to fit in, so they set out to create pop culture products scientifically engineered to hit all the right pleasure centers in a kid (and their parents) so that their audience will reach a critical mass and become the thing that kids want to conform to. This outcome would, obviously, be great for their sales, but I don’t think it’s good for our communities. Not at a Disney scale.

Paving over pleasure
A while back, a friend of mine, Mike Cosper, wrote of his family’s recent trip to Disney World with their two daughters. He called it ‘Grinding Through the Pleasure Factory’ and I highly recommend it (reading it may even help some of the following make more sense). He drew out some insightful and alarming parallels between Disney’s marketing practices and the observations of Hannah Arendt on consumer culture, mass society, and totalitarianism. Please, read it.

I did find myself parting ways with Cosper at the end. He, being generous and, probably, wiser, sees space in the Disney machine for intimacy, joy, and the formation of human connection. His family enjoyed those things on their trip. I, being cynical and, definitely, grumpier, see the existence of joy and human connection in the Disney-fied world of mass-marketed childhood as things that happen despite the marketeers’ best efforts, as an unconscious act of defiance

Of course, Disney and its subsidiaries take great pains to present a diverse cast of characters so that nobody feels left out. But, is it important that nobody feels left out or that no dollar is missed? Disney is so aggressive (and effective) in their marketing efforts that another subtle message is getting through. Though there be an array of characters for us to relate to, they’re each trademarks registered to the big mouse. Disney isn’t in the business of making space for joy, for discovery, for human connection. Disney is in the business of making money, and they method they have chosen is akin to paving.

Disney goes to great lengths to pave over us all, taking the normally craggy and faceted surface of culture, with its peculiar local inflections and sub-species, and smoothing it out into a monolithic, unblemished demand for the pleasures the corporation sells. Just read about the layers of quality control—focus groups, test screenings, animation rules, market research, advertising, co-branding and crossovers, etc.—that Disney employs to keep their product pure and potent. They are hard at work making sure everything is dialed in to make their products as appealing as possible to as many people as possible. It’s almost as if their ideal vision is on single mass organism lining up to purchase as often and as much as instructed.

That we still find moments of joy, that we find characters that echo things we feel ourselves, that we find ways to connect to each other, all of this speaks to an irrepressible power of humanity. Not unlike a weed growing through a sidewalk speaks to the fierce determination of nature and says nothing of the civil engineer’s desire to incorporate green space.

Totalitarian economics
It’s easy to contrast what Disney does with a totalitarian political regime, replete with brutal policing of dissent, and not see much overlap. I’m not so sure that they don’t have plenty in common, though. Both the marketeer and the dictator want to control something. One seeks to control our actions, the other seeks to control our desires. In that light, economic totalitarianism is quite terrifying even if no blood is shed.

Economics is not just about how we spend our money, it’s root is in our affections. Any attempt to herd us as people into demographic audiences, reducing is as much as possible into that single, predictable mass in order to more efficiently sell us things, must be done by manipulating those affections. While a dictator may control our movements, they do not often gain access to our hearts precisely because their power is focused on restricting our bodies. In the totalitarian voodoo of marketing, the implications for our liberty are, if anything, more alarming than those presented by any state precisely because they are so invisible. The manipulation waged by the market is done at the soul level. Our very desires are the target, our very hearts, and this is a serious threat no matter how freely we can move.

This manipulation is complemented with the artifice that we are always free to choose otherwise. Try to figure out a way to live outside the influence of our industrialized, urban-leaning, sustained-by-money-alone economy, though, and this ‘freedom to choose otherwise’ begins to look like a myth. The economy works hard to make sure our most viable choices stay within the economy itself. Sure, you can eschew the spate of Disney characters, and the economy will gladly offer you another set of characters. Fox has the X-Men. There’s Harry Potter. Lego has a whole multiverse. Pixar has its own thing going (oh wait, that’s Disney, too). It’s still all in the family, all part of the consumer economy. Just don’t go further afield, or you’ll be The Outsider. And doesn’t the mainstream have a whole arsenal of ways to make The Outsider feel their otherness keenly and as derision?

And here it all comes back to a little bug costume. It’s one of those things that doesn’t easily compute in the mass economy. It doesn’t tie into a movie franchise, it doesn’t beg the purchase of more stuff. As a plaything, it’s an island. It stands alone and is satisfying to my son. At least it was. Of course, Disney didn’t have anything to do with my son’s choice. All they did was convince enough people to buy into their universe of stuff so that my son suddenly felt weird. That desire not to feel weird is something that Disney and the larger mass culture can count on and exploit in a thousand subtle ways while keeping their own hands squeaky clean.

Raising boys in the pleasure factory
I don’t know the solution as a father. I am trying to help my son fall in love with other things than the TV, like working in our garden or building things or books. Already, though, these branded characters have already staged a hostile takeover of our public library. They pervade every shelf, drowning out the diversity of the well-crafted one-off characters with the flood of the franchise. Good lord, though, so many of those franchise books are terrible.[1]  Poor writing, though, is surely a chink in the armor that Disney will soon stitch up. They’ll use the power of language just like they use all of their other creative tools: as expedients of their bottom line.

I feel a bit helpless in teaching my son to seek better against such a tide of the branded, flashy, and popular. But, I have seen the line between what he’d choose on his own and what he chooses in the crowd, and it stole away a piece of my heart. I see anew that there are enormous corporations trying to sculpt his preferences toward the fattening of their own bottom line. It certainly spooked me. And I feel an invigorated sense of mission to help my son grow into the kind of courage that can stand out, that can resist the paving-over force of mass culture. It doesn’t matter all that much with a costume, but someday it’ll matter about truly important stuff and I hope I can help him be ready.

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[1] Particularly horrible are the Star Wars early readers books. No plot, no characters, just endless exposition of various characters and locations and the end. It’s so obvious the only goal is to keep these commercial entities ‘top of mind’ for the kids. If it were about developing the pleasures and skills of reading, they’d be better-written.

Anonymous Is Not Your Friend

Anonymous Is Not Your Friend

Every once in a while, Anonymous pops up on social media being feted for publicizing some list or other of dirty deeds and ghastly associations which they’ve uncovered on a server somewhere. The last one I saw claimed to report members of law enforcement who were also members of the Ku Klux Klan. The general consensus when these unveilings circulate is one of celebration. People seem delighted that this faceless entity (if it can even be called an entity, disorganized as it is) has the power to drag bigotry out into the light where it can be properly brought to shame. As for me, I’m skeptical.

Not too long ago, I happened to catch part of a documentary about Anne Braden on KET. Anne and her husband landed themselves in a bit of hot water back in the 50s when, on behalf of a black family called the Wades, they bought a house in a Shively, a white neighborhood in Louisville, KY. The Wades had been stonewalled in their attempts to purchase a suburban home on their own. As you might imagine, things got hot and were pretty quick about it.

carl-and-anne
Carl and Anne Braden

Someone(s) burned cross in the front yard either the night the Wades moved in or some night shortly thereafter. Before long, someone actually bombed the house, put dynamite right under the window of the room where the Wade’s young daughter slept. God’s mercy, the family was out at the time and nobody was hurt.

What brings this to mind when I think of Anonymous sifting the ether to expose Klan affiliations is the obvious issue of racism, but also this. The 50s weren’t just a time of racial upheaval, this was also the McCarthy Era. Communists were lurking inside ordinary-looking Americans like lit dynamite ready to explode and rip apart the fabric of our society. The Braden family were witch-hunted as such. Anne’s husband Carl was tried and jailed for sedition for buying a house that persons unknown tried to blow up because of the skin tone of the inhabitants. There was a right and a wrong way to think and the halls of power were at work to get everyone thinking in line.

One might think that their mutual opposition to racial animus puts the likes of Anne Braden on the same side as those whomevers in Anonymous, but this couldn’t be further from true. The Red Scare was driven by an institutional fear of ideas that thrived on the clamor of people accusing each other. When you look at 50s as a time when the relatively secret wheels of government power churned in an effort to make mincemeat of scary thoughts, it seems plain to me that Joseph McCarthy’s legacy runs right to Anonymous via a straight, unbroken line.

On the subject of Klan affiliation, Anonymous opposes what I oppose. But, they are not my ally. Their chosen methods make them a foe of another stripe. When power is exercised behind the blank slate of anonymity, that has all the totalitarian trappings of a police state. By delving into citizens’ private lives and policing privately-held beliefs, dredging up some muck to be brought to shame and, I’m sure they hope, retribution, these digital thought police are a disgrace to liberty (and this is not even getting into the fact that just posting a found database with no context or actual reportage shows a complete lack of journalistic integrity that makes a gossip and a mockery of the standard of press a free society requires). But, Anonymous gets away with it because they have cherry-picked an easy ideology to attack. They exploit our cultural blind spots to make alarming power plays.

Consider the Nazis. Nobody would say now that hunting down Jews and their sympathizers was a noble thing, but within the bubble of Nazi Germany, it was the height of national pride to do so. I mean, they threw some pretty damn extravagant parades to celebrate some pretty damned egregious acts. Point being, it’s hard to see your gross totalitarianism when everyone agrees with you. And to act so from a place of hiding is beyond bad, it’s frightening.

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Let’s take a full stop here. Racism is a moral wrong. I personally anchor this thinking in the belief that the same God made us all and that gives us a terrific depth of dignity not to be mocked. I do not in any way believe that we as people should leave racist ideas unchallenged, especially in places of authority like the justice system. I do in every way believe that we as people should listen to our neighbors when they’re hurting and angry and join with them in seeking reconciliation. I shy away from using the word justice here because that term is so fraught and so righteous that I pale to think of human attempts to exert it. Let justice roll, but don’t ask me to roll it. I’m unqualified. I like the idea of reconciliation better because it implies a mutual work on all sides. But! I believe this mutual work should start in the camp that’s hurting least, because the camp that’s hurting most needs people to listen and care.

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Back to faceless hackers. You might say that ordinary people need the protection of anonymity to stand up to tyranny, and that may seem true. But, can individual acts of tyranny actually resolve institutional acts of tyranny? Put another way, if the people succeed in changing the balance of power in their favor, will they then give up their own tyrannical power or will they double down to ensure that the world stays as they like it? I’m not a trained historian, but I know enough about my own human nature to bet on power preserving power, not virtue.

What it comes down to is this: privacy is threatening. Who knows what evil lurks in the hearts of men? These days, we all do. Our always-on, always-wired-in world has given us a vision for much more darkness than we could have ever imagined even 20 years ago. Not only has the Internet revved the news cycle up to redline levels of horrors per minute, but it has given people a space to air out the darkest corners of their hearts and minds. Complete depravity is but a comments section away. Seeing the havoc in the human heart on full display shouldn’t necessarily be surprising—especially for those like me who take something like the Sermon on the Mount at face value—but it is certainly bracing. I understand the impulse to stamp out the flames. Privacy is threatening.

So, we need to have courage. We need to have the secure conviction that resists fear. To begin with, we need known people working to know each other. We need to have compassion and persuasion in our arsenal. About that word. Arsenal used to simply indicate a wharf, a place to dock and repair boats. It literally means a house for craft or skill. These days, though, we use the word indicating a place to make and stockpile weapons. This seems to illustrate our tendency to weaponize all craft, to make our human arts into instruments of power and victory. I imagine this drift in meaning might have come as ships became more instrumental in conquesting war, fighting abroad, and the industry of shipbuilding came under the claim of warmakers. Maybe it’s that we can’t travel without fighting because we find contrary cultures so threatening. In any event, it’s a shame that we feel the impulse to weaponize every tool we have for handling injustice and disagreement.

I propose we de-escalate a bit. When it comes to handling distasteful and even horrific ideas, let’s make our arsenal back into a house of craft. Not the craft of war, but the craft of peaceableness. I’m borrowing that word from a hero of mine, Wendell Berry, because I like it so much. It doesn’t presume that the success of peace is guaranteed or even always possible, but it it puts the weight on us to make peace an option. As scary as that is in the face of the horrors of the human heart, it’s pretty sound advice. If two parties are armed for war, war it will be. Inevitability. If one party is willing for peace, there is actual possibility. When it comes to opposing racism, we must resist the pull of war in our gut. War we have. Making peace, the art of reconciliation, is a much more complex path. It is choosing vulnerability while insisting on dignity. It is a high calling and it is risky, but it is good. And it takes far more courage than hiding behind spoofed IP addresses, proxy servers, and nameless names.

A Quick One On Hope

A Quick One On Hope

I believe that in order for a society to flourish, there has to be an unshakable trust that anyone can be reached and turned aside from violence. Even if this turning aside does not always actually happen—and surely it hasn’t, and surely it won’t—the possibility that it could must live among us for us to be sane in the root sense of being healthy. This is about believing that anyone can be redeemed, but I don’t mean redeemed to Western, progressive, liberal consumerism. I mean redeemed to the far less debatable truth that people are important and shouldn’t be killed by other people.

What happens if we don’t believe this particular redemption is possible? First, we become suspicious. People become potential threats. This starts out in the abstract, but it does not stay so removed. We become suspicious of communities and groups that unknowable by their very remove and so are obviously different from us in some way (geographically, ethnically, religiously, culturally). This is the root of our assent to any manner of foreign war. fishy-friendsBut, suspicion follows us home. We begin to distrust people in our own cities and towns because they, too, look different or live in different circumstances. And here’s the problem: once one barrier to our belief that people can be redeemed goes up, once we start being suspicious of people we don’t actually know just because they’re other than us, there is no real place to re-draw a circle of trust. We stop risking relationship. Instead, there is a slow creep of us keeping our guard up until even neighborly relationship becomes difficult. Look at homes going up for sale in a rich neighborhood if a black family moves in. Look at the distance people will keep if someone on the block keeps their house or yard in disarray or keeps odd hours doing odd things. Such behavior is not rooted in the belief that you can forge a strong enough relationship with any kind of person that will bind you together in mutual thriving and even affection. Such behavior is rooted in the belief that anyone could be out to get you.

Another troubling thing. As the list of people we trust with our own care dwindles, the list of things we fear balloons. Now, we no longer fear just murder, but theft, home invasion, rape, riot, or someone not returning the rake they borrowed. We no longer just fear that someone here from a foreign land might be building bombs and laying them out in the streets, we fear anyone we meet for an exhausting list of possible threats they might pose. It’s a crazy way to live.

I know there are awful things in the world and people are the ones doing them. I’m not saying we should be naive and completely regardless of our safety. I am saying, though, that there’s a hard thing here that must be embraced. Relationship is the only hope for defusing some of the people that would otherwise harm us. Certainly, strict separation from the ‘others’ either by rejecting them from our vicinity completely or cordoning them off into ghettos surely isn’t going to prevent anything. In fact, such separation will surely only intensify any animosity some may already feel, and might even sow fresh animosity where none was before. Imagine, though, bringing people near and seeing to their flourishing, not just economically buy relationally as well. Of course, this is an individual act, not a ‘societal’ one. This kind of hopeful activity wold necessarily be personal, the act of caring for those around us and possibly going a little beyond what’s easy and comfortable in order to care for just a few more. That is the way to urge someone away from violence, to build a relationship that would not easily be violated. It is the only way. It cannot be legislated as a big solution to a big problem, it can only be lived out on a scale that seems almost microscopic in our supposedly ‘global’ world. We can remember, though, that it takes good microbes in the dirt to grow a crop. We may still get burned, perhaps even literally, but we as a people would still be able to hope for better and not resign ourselves to worse.

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These thoughts were originally sparked by the issue of our country, our neighborhoods and cities providing harbor for people fleeing war-ravaged places, hence the immediate issue of violence. What is violence, though, but the ultimate in a long list of ways we can reduce other people? I think you can take our fear of violence and how we react to those whom we fear will bring it and pretty easily translate those fears into understanding how we reduce people to ‘enemies’ just because we disagree with them politically. That is to say, I don’t think fearful people on the so-called ‘right’ are the only people who are letting suspicion and disdain metastasize among us. We all have to fight our inherent xenophobia both foreign and domestic, even people on the so-called ‘left’ who seem to be talking about Trump supporters in about the same apocalyptic terms a Trump supporter might talk about a Syrian. Just something to think about.