Ugh. Politics.

March 17, 2016

I have voted in every election I have been eligible for my entire adult life.  I vote even when there is nothing on the ballot I am particularly passionate about, and even when, statistically, I know my vote won’t make a difference.    I consider it a sacred responsibility.

I’m not at all shy about sharing my perspective, and as a result, people generally can guess where I fall on the political spectrum.   However, as a minister, I have an obligation to protect my church’s non-profit status.  That means I can talk about issues, but not candidates, at least from the pulpit.  I interpret the rules a little more strictly than some of my colleagues, and refrain from sharing my personal preferences, attending fundraisers or rallies where I know congregants will be present, or posting on social media in support of or opposition to any particular candidate.

I do talk about my deep commitment to civil discourse and cooperation.  The partisan divide in our nation breaks my heart.  I long for a time when statesmen look for middle ground, for the compromise that is the best possible fit for a diverse nation.

Needless to say, that time is not now.  Am I the only one who feels overwhelmed by the manipulation and fear mongering on both sides of the aisle?  Some of this comes from the media, but some of it comes from us, from the citizens who understandably feel that the stakes are very high in this presidential election.  There’s an intensity to people’s defense of their candidate and their rejection of other candidates that I find disconcerting.

The intensity is familiar.  I am still terrified by the moment, twelve years ago, when I almost yielded to the temptation to rear-end a truck with a political bumper sticker I found offensive.  That is not who I am or who I want to be in the world.  My faith teaches me to respect the inherent worth and dignity of everyone…no exceptions.

 

So here are a few truths I will be holding on to:

  • Voting is a complex decision, based on many different factors.
  • People have multiple perspectives, opinions, and priorities.
  • What seems true and obvious to me depends on my personal experience.
  • Multiple points of view are healthy and necessary.
  • We don’t have to think alike OR vote alike to love alike.
  • We can disagree without denigrating or dismissing one another.
  • The intensity, on all sides, comes out of a deep sense of patriotism.
  • Our government is set up with checks and balances.
  • Anyone who is over the age of 40 has already survived at least 8 years of living under the opposing regime.
  • The requirements of citizenship don’t stop at the voting box.  Rather, that’s where they begin.

The caucus for Idaho Democrats is less than a week away.  I find myself feeling caught between a rock and a hard place.  There is no way to avoid having congregants see which candidate I prefer.  I can’t deny that there’s a tightness in my chest.

I will breathe through that tightness.  I will trust my good folks to be accepting and to manage their anxiety.  I will manage my own anxiety.  I will beam love and compassion across the room.  I will remember the most important truth of all:  we are all in this together.

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What helps, what doesn’t

November 14, 2015

How do we process and respond to the stream of tragedies we bear witness to, day in and day out? This week, it is the terrorist attacks in Paris and Beirut that have captured our collective attention and broken our hearts.  But every week, there’s something.  How do we stay awake and aware, without succumbing to compassion fatigue?  For those of us who are religious leaders, how do we support people whose lived experience is that things are bad and getting worse?

When the trauma is acute, it helps to turn off the tv, the radio, the computer.  It helps to connect with the real people who are nearby, to remind ourselves of the love and beauty in our lives.  Later, it helps to look at the root causes and educate ourselves on the events leading up to the tragedy.  It helps to find concrete ways to contribute, whether sending money or attending a vigil or just saying a silent prayer.  It helps to take a long view, to step back and realize that people who are good and caring and responsible outnumber those who are hate-full and violent by several orders of magnitude.  It helps to pay attention to the outpouring of love and support that inevitably follows each tragedy.  Yes, Mr. Rogers, it helps to “Remember the Helpers.”

It doesn’t help to jump to assigning blame.  It doesn’t help to watch bloody footage over and over again, imprinting traumatic images on our brain.  It doesn’t help to chastise people for their way of responding to the tragedy; each person is entitled to their own reactions and responses.

It helps me to practice tonglen meditation.  I visualize breathing in the world’s suffering, transforming it, and breathing out love and peace.  But there are other individual practices that can help…walking meditation, lighting candles, expressing solidarity through images or art or music.  These days, we all need our ‘go to’ post-traumatic spiritual practices.

It helps us all, collectively to come together and lament as a community.  In the wake of every tragedy, attendance at churches, synagogues, mosques and other houses of worship tends to increase.  When we are hurting, we need one another more than ever.

As religious leaders, our job is to set the pace and the tone of communal mourning.  We need to be sensitive to the level of trauma in our congregations. Sometimes, our folks need us to be prophetic, to open their eyes and hearts to something they might rather ignore.  Sometimes they need us to be pastoral, to soothe and uplift.  Sometimes they need us to just acknowledge the feelings of pain, helplessness, and loss; to sit with them in the midst of the turmoil and to acknowledge how hard it is to be human just now.

These are challenging times, but they are also rich with potential.  As hard as it is to bear witness to the stream of tragedies sometimes, our broken hearts connect us in a way that has never occurred before, a way that is desperately needed.  I have unlimited faith in the resilience of the human spirit.  Together, we will figure out how to weave a web of compassion that embraces the whole human family.

A prayer…

September 6, 2015

The picture of the dead baby on the beach in Turkey brought me to my knees.  We already knew that there was a nasty war going on in Syria, that the hopeful spirit that permeated the so-called “Arab Spring” triggered a vicious crackdown, followed by an armed rebellion that turned into a godawful mess of a war.  I honestly haven’t followed it closely…just filed it away in my brain under “Heartbreaking situations far away:  nothing much I can do.”

But that picture- which was everywhere this week- online, on the front page of the paper, on television- demanded that I open the embarrassingly thin file, and dig a little deeper into the heartbreaking situation.  I learned that almost a quarter of a million people, half of whom are civilians, have been killed so far.  I learned that the international bodies that I trust to work on my behalf- the US government and the United Nations- have not been terribly effective, hampered by the danger and the complexity of the situation.  Sure, sanctions have been imposed- by the US, the UN, and even, in a historic first, by the Arab League- but they haven’t been successful.  11 million people have fled the country.  An estimated 7.6 million are internally displaced.  Consider that Syria’s pre-war population was only 23 million- 18.6 out of 23 million are displaced.  Over 80 %.  Those are huge numbers.  It’s hard to wrap our heads around them.

But we can wrap our hearts around a dead baby on a beach- a dead baby who could be our baby…child, grandchild, niece, nephew.  It breaks us open.

All of us are powerless in the face of huge numbers.  What moves us, what changes the world, are personal connections.  Stories.  Relationships.  Images that break our hearts forge bonds between us.  If we let it in, the compassion and empathy we feel for that one small human and his family transforms us, and we, in turn, help to transform the world.

But only if we ask ourselves, “what can we do?”  What can we do that is real? And helpful?  Only if we learn.

It may be that we’ll see more compassion toward undocumented immigrants here in the US as a result of this one photo.  It may be that people’s natural compassion for this family will cause them to reconsider their stand on immigration reform; to soften it if they are hard liners, to firm it up if they are in favor of compassionate reform.  (Even Trump knows better than to rant and rave about those ‘furiners’ who are ‘trying to steal our jobs’ right now.)

Maybe, just maybe, this is a moment of evolution for our species, as we all come to consensus that standing by while refugees drown trying to get to safety is completely unacceptable, and collectively find the will to do something about it.

Things I Learned in Ferguson

September 4, 2014

Many people are writing and reporting on the events unfolding in Ferguson, MO. I am tempted to simply list some of the more accurate articles; after all, I am just a white chick who jetted in for the big Labor Day protest and jetted home again once it was over. However, I learned a ton while I was there. By writing about it, I hope to both help myself remember what I learned, and to share these insights with the folks who read my blog.

Lesson One:  Don’t believe what you see on television. I expected to witness chaos, devastation, and drama. Instead, I saw a community coming together to try to address deep systemic issues and individuals trying to get back to their normal lives. The looters got plenty of screen time; meanwhile, we haven’t heard or seen much about the local folks who shut the looters down, and protected local businesses with their bodies. Yes, many people are angry (see below) but things are not out of control. And the folks who restored order were, by and large, the people who live there – not the people with the badges, guns, tear gas and tanks.  

Lesson Two:  The protests in Ferguson are not just about what happened to Michael Brown. They’re not even about the outrageous, out-of-control militarized response to the initial protests.  Protesters are hoping to shine a light on issues that run deep.

I saw a lot of families on the march, mothers who point to the very long list of people of color wrongly profiled and killed by police, and the very short list of officers held accountable for their actions. One woman (a college professor) said, “It basically feels like open season.  If things don’t change, it could be one of my boys that gets killed.”  Another woman, a pastor, shared the story of her son who was shot while handcuffed, the wound on the right side of his skull even though he was left handed. Yet the police insisted it was suicide, and six years later, she still has no answers and no justice.

People invest a lot of energy into trying to prove that these victims were ‘thugs’ or somehow behaved in a way that warranted such a violent and permanent response.  (This ‘thugification’ is, in my book, abusive.  Can’t we let the families mourn?  Imagine losing a loved one and in the midst of your grief, having the entire nation weigh in and judge him.)  Folks on the ground know that it’s not just ‘thugs’ that get killed.  They also know that even victims who ARE involved in drug trade/crime/etc. are theoretically protected by policies and procedures that keep deadly force as a last resort…and they know that those policies and procedures are all too often ignored in real life.  This means that no one is safe, and people are scared for their kids. 

People were talking about The New Jim Crow by Michelle Alexander.  They were pointing out that the US has 6% of the world’s population, but 25% of the world’s prisoners, disproportionately people with brown and black skin. I learned about the specific ways municipalities in St. Louis County persecute and exploit people of color. In Feguson, with a population of just over 21,000 people, the police issued over 32,000 citations, mostly for traffic violations. Fees from traffic violation are the second largest source of income in the city’s budget. Most of these traffic violations are pretty minor- and people of color are, of course, stopped at a disproportionately high rate.  If you happen to be poor, and can’t pay your tickets, the stakes ramp up pretty quickly…higher fees, then warrants for your arrest.  This article in the Washington Post shares a disgustingly typical story:  http://www.washingtonpost.com/news/the-watch/wp/2014/09/03/how-st-louis-county-missouri-profits-from-poverty/

Michael Brown’s story is one of literally thousands that have systemic racism as their root cause. As tragic as these deaths are, they are just the tip of the iceberg.

Lesson Three:  While the entire black community agrees that these problems exist, different folks have different ideas on how to address them.  Some people seem to distrust not just police and the justice system, but community leaders, churches, and organizations. Others are trying to mobilize political power by encouraging people to vote. Still others propose specific policies (body cameras, independent review of all police homicides) to address specific issues.  It was awkward to watch this tension play out, especially as an ‘outsider.’

Attitudes toward the presence of white folks varied, as well.  Many people expressed gratitude to us for being there, and no one was unpleasant to me personally. However, it was also made clear that there were spaces where white people weren’t welcome. After watching some really unskillful behavior by a couple of folks, I really understand why. It’s so important for people who aspire to being white allies to understand that none of this is about us.  We are not at the center of the struggle, or at the front.  At best, we can be quietly supportive.  We can pray.  We can show up.  

The most valuable thing we can do is to have those difficult conversations with other white folk in our family or our social circle who perhaps aren’t as aware of the effects of systemic racism…so that black folks don’t have to.  We can choose to be learners, always listening and processing and, hopefully, becoming more skillful in our attempts to support the black community and work for justice and compassion within our own community. Then we can pass on what we’ve learned in a caring and compassionate way.

We’re looking at a big, complex problem, and there are no magic bullets or easy solutions. I know that shaming one another doesn’t help.  I know that denial doesn’t help.  I know that white folk tend to be intimidated by black anger, myself included, and yet I also know that black folk have the right to be really angry. It’s not fair to expect people to conform to cultural norms which require calm, rational discourse.  The pain is raw, and so the anger is raw.  

So we can also work on developing our capacity to be present to that rawness.  It doesn’t help to take it personally. It really doesn’t help to reinforce and perpetuate a sick stereotypes of ‘the angry black man’ or ‘the angry black woman.’ Yes, some of the folks I met were angry and upset.  They were also intelligent, insightful, and working really hard to figure out a way forward.  I encourage you to read this account of ‘the Crew’ by Pastor Renita Marie:  

http://www.huffingtonpost.com/pastor-renita-marie-mdiv/love-always-wins_b_5757066.html  

I am still processing the experience, and there are new lessons being offered up almost every day.  Perhaps the most important is this:  

Lesson Four:  Change comes hard, and it takes a long time.  We need to continue to pay attention.  We need to resist the unrelenting push of the news cycle and stay focused.  And…we need to do the work of unraveling racism WHERE WE ARE, with the people we love and serve.  

This is “A Ritual to Read to Each Other” by William Stafford:

If you don’t know the kind of person I am
and I don’t know the kind of person you are
a pattern that others made may prevail in the world
and following the wrong god home we may miss our star.

For there is many a small betrayal in the mind,
a shrug that lets the fragile sequence break
sending with shouts the horrible errors of childhood
storming out to play through the broken dyke.

And as elephants parade holding each elephant’s tail,
but if one wanders the circus won’t find the park,
I call it cruel and maybe the root of all cruelty
to know what occurs but not recognize the fact.

And so I appeal to a voice, to something shadowy,
a remote important region in all who talk:
though we could fool each other, we should consider–
lest the parade of our mutual life get lost in the dark.

For it is important that awake people be awake,
or a breaking line may discourage them back to sleep;
the signals we give–yes or no, or maybe–
should be clear: the darkness around us is deep.

 

Richard Sherman got excited and ranted a bit after deflecting a touchdown pass into the hands of a teammate. Justin Bieber has been arrested for drag racing under the influence. And everyone has an opinion on both of these events, as well as opinions about everyone else’s opinion.

Here’s mine: good people, we are being snowed.

We are at war in two different countries. Climate change has almost reached the point of no return, with no sign of effective action to prevent it. Yet hardly anyone is talking about either of these issues.

As a survivor of campus rape, I should have been delighted by this headline from AP reporter Nedra Pickler: “Obama targets college sexual assault epidemic.” My reaction surprised me, though. As much as I admire Pres. Obama, I felt really ticked off at him. With all of the different causes he could have chosen to take on next, he chooses campus safety? Isn’t that the responsibility of college administrations? I’m not saying the college sexual assault epidemic isn’t important; I’m saying that it is not what the President of our nation should be focusing on. It feels like a ‘safe’ choice, as if the president and his advisors, exhausted by being continually under attack, said to themselves, “Is there anything we can talk about that won’t give the opposition any ammunition?”

A.J. Liebling has said, “The function of the press in society is to inform, but its role in society is to make money.” Sadly, this puts the burden on ‘we the people’ to make sure that we are informed, active, and involved. If we are going to do the job of the ‘free’ press as well as our own, we can’t afford to be distracted by fluffy celebrity stories, nor can we choose our priorities based on what is safe and non-controversial.