No justice. No peace.

November 25, 2014

My Twitter and Facebook feeds are full of thoughtful analysis, rallying cries, beautiful poems and prayers.  They are also full of grief and rage and frustration- as they should be.  Let’s pause and acknowledge what just happened:

A door slammed shut, a door that could have led to a better future.  Unlikely though it may seem, especially in retrospect, the law enforcement community could have used this moment and this momentum to transform themselves.  Prosecutor McCulloch might have done his job, which was to build enough of a case against Darren Wilson to make a trial a viable option.  Had the Grand Jury indicted Darren Wilson, last night could have been the first step on a journey toward greater police accountability, toward an acknowledgement of the pervasive racism in our ‘justice’ system and our nation, toward a peace built together.  It could have been a moment when ‘business as usual’ gave way to new understandings and deeper compassion.

Instead, not only was the verdict a slap in the face to everyone who has dedicated time, money, energy and love to the cause of securing justice for Mike Brown, it was delivered in such a way as to ensure that justifiable rage and grief would overflow into violence.  I am not a conspiracy theorist, but it seems to me that the steps the governor took during the lead-up to the announcement, the choice to announce at night, and the interminable and abusive thirty minutes that Prosecutor McCulloch spent saying things that HAD to have been deliberately chosen to inflame add up to a rather sinister plan to trigger riots and looting.  I am not a violent person, either, but I wanted to punch McCulloch.

Frankly, I wanted to punch President Obama, too.  His plea for a non-violent response felt like pure hypocrisy layered on top of a masterful campaign to turn things ugly.  What I wanted to hear my president say?  “We are horrified at this gross miscarriage of justice.  Rest assured, there will be a full investigation at the Federal level.”  Full stop.

This morning, all of us who care are still reeling.  I feel bruised and battered, and I know that my feelings as a white ally can only reflect a fraction of what people of color are feeling…and their pain is only a fraction of what the people closest to Mike Brown will be living with for the rest of their lives.

I think we need to stay here for a moment; we need to pause in the pain, the confusion, the frustration, the rage at the slammed door, the slap in the face.  We need to gather our strength and our resolve for a time.  Because when the way is shut, there is nothing for it but to turn, and find another way.

I don’t know what that other way might look like. I know it is likely to be a lot more difficult to find and to navigate.  Perhaps in places other than Ferguson, there is still hope that we can ease the door back open.  We can have conversations with police officers where we are.  We can talk about racial profiling and body cameras and anti-oppressive training.  We can serve on police oversight committees, and if such committees don’t exist, we can lobby our municipal governments to form them.

If none of that works, well, I have tremendous faith in the generation of brilliant young leaders of color who showed up in Ferguson.  They will find the new way.  The path will be carved out of hard, unforgiving soil; we have to excavate the depths of this nation’s racist history.  We have to be willing to start with ourselves, to crack open our hearts and dig out the lingering traces of defensiveness and privilege.  I am standing by, pick ax and shovel close to hand.

But for now, a pause, and a rallying cry that has turned into a confession:  No justice.  No peace.


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:

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:  

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.


When the verdict came in for the George Zimmerman trial last summer (was it just last summer?) I became painfully aware of the way violence perpetrated against unarmed black teenagers taps into deep fear and centuries of pain. Trayvon’s death woke up memories of whip-scarred backs and people hung from trees by white men in white robes. My eyes opened and my heart broke.

Actually, I could write a very long list of other books, articles, trainings, and stories that opened my eyes and broke my heart. (Like this article: and The New Jim Crow.)

Racism is a sickness that runs deep in our society, and I don’t believe any of us can truly be whole until and unless we admit that and find a way to heal it.

After Mike Browne was shot in Ferguson, the reports began streaming in about the police response. I watched video of tanks and tear gas and wounds from rubber bullets, horrified. I chose to pay attention, to keep my eyes open, and let my heart be broken again. It seemed the least I could do.

In the midst of the chaos, there have been moments of hope and optimism. I’m convinced this might be a turning point for us as a nation. There are ways forward that don’t involve killing more black teenagers. The Wall Street Journal (believe it or not) published this article on body cameras: I’ve signed petitions asking for a demilitarization of the police force, as well as outside investigation for police homicides.

But when the police in Ferguson are claiming this is a “Race War” and when they are raiding churches (CHURCHES!) to confiscate Maalox, petitions aren’t enough. The call went out asking clergy to go to Ferguson over Labor Day weekend, and I am moved to answer that call.

Now, normally, when bodies are needed, I don’t consider my body a good candidate. My Lupus limits my energy, and I have a lot of people counting on me. But it shouldn’t just be black bodies on the line. I am hoping that my presence, my middle-aged, white body can somehow make a difference. I know a lot of people who would go if they could; I’ll carry their prayers and well-wishes with me. And I believe it will be powerful and transformative to bring stories of what’s happening in Ferguson back to my congregation.

My understanding of what it means to be human and on a spiritual path involves keeping mind and heart open, and then responding mindfully and with authenticity. I try to walk my path one step at a time, and I try to trust the ‘still small voice,’ even when I am afraid or unsure. The voice is telling me I need to go to Ferguson to stand with the people there who are insisting that black lives matter. Because I believe that black lives matter, too.

No doubt many faiths around the world and in Idaho have longstanding traditions of man-woman marriage rooted in scripture. But not all religions share the view that opposite-sex marriage is a theological imperative. In fact, some of the Plaintiffs actively worship in faiths that recognize and support their unions. To the extent Governor Otter argues that Idaho has a legitimate interest in validating a particular religious view of marriage, that argument blithely disregards the religious liberty of congregations active in Idaho. “By recognizing the right to marry a partner of the same sex, the State allows these groups the freedom to practice their religious beliefs without mandating that other groups must adopt similar practices.”

This is my favorite part of Judge Candy Dale’s ruling which struck down Idaho’s DOMA and mandated that marriage licences be granted to all committed couples. Why? Because it is proof positive that it makes a difference when we stand up as people of faith.

Hence, this, my latest letter to the editor:

The Idaho Defense of Marriage Act impinges on my religious freedom. I am one of the many faith leaders who feel the bible’s many references to justice and mercy far overshadow the seven, highly disputable passages that are used to attack the gay, lesbian and bisexual community. My own denomination (Unitarian Universalism) has been performing religious marriages and services of union for same sex couples since the seventies. I assure you, we haven’t seen any lightening bolts or other signs of divine displeasure.

We’ve also been providing pastoral care and support to people who have been bullied and abused because of their sexual orientation or gender identity. We’ve walked (and cried) with people who have been shunned by their families. We’ve consoled people who have been banned from the bedside of the person they have loved and lived with for their entire lives because of the bigotry of the technical ‘next of kin.’ We’ve empathized with folks who have had to spend thousands of dollars to create and protect their family in ways that heterosexual families take for granted. We’ve borne witness to a tremendous amount of pain.

Because of that, I was elated when Judge Dale declared DOMA unconstitutional and issued the order mandating that marriage licenses be granted to same-gendered couples. And I am sick at heart and disappointed that the emergency stay was granted. I feel confident that eventually justice will win out; DOMA is basically legalized discrimination, which is contrary to our laws and our constitution. In the meantime, though, I bear witness once again to the pain of the gay and lesbian couples who dared to hope, only to be denied once again the 1,138 federal rights that come along with a marriage license.


Rev. Elizabeth Stevens
UU Church of the Palouse
Moscow, ID

Can I be honest? I’m getting really sick of having to write these kinds of letters. But I’ll keep doing it until the day when my gay and lesbian friends and relatives feel safe and at home in this country.

(Below is a “Letter to the Editor” sent to the Moscow-Pullman Daily News.)

What is religion for?

The word “religion” comes from the Latin root, ‘religare,’ which means to re-bind. The purpose of any religion, then, should be to strengthen the ties between people and their God and between people and their brothers and sisters. As we strengthen our ties to God, we deepen our faith, find strength and guidance in our living, and experience the deep peace and unconditional love that has traditionally been labelled ‘grace.’ As we strengthen our ties to one another, we practice compassion, kindness, and civility. We learn to love our enemies, embrace those who are different, and forgive those who have sinned against us. In fact, I, like many of the straight allies who advocate for Gay and Lesbian equality, am moved to do so by my faith.

I mention all of this because as an ordained minister, a “Christophile,” and a human being, I am deeply offended by the so-called “Freedom of Religion” act and some of the tactics and terms being used by its defenders. The biblical case against homosexuality is shaky at best, rife with incorrect translations and verses taken out of context. Even if one chooses to believe otherwise, there is simply no way to make the case that the bible teaches discrimination. Nowhere does it say, “Thou shalt not do business with people whose sexuality makes you uncomfortable.”

If people are advocating for the right to discriminate, I suppose they may do so. However, it would be more accurate to call the proposed legislation the “Freedom of Discrimination” act, or perhaps “Freedom to be Uncivil.” What happens between a person and their God is private. What happens in our bedroom is also private. In the public sphere, our national values are clear: all people are created equal, and deserve to be treated with dignity and kindness.

Luker Laws

February 11, 2014

Here is a letter I am sending off to Rep. Lynn Luker, with copies to Rep. Dan Schmidt, Rep. Lucinda Agidius, and Rep. Shirley Ringo.

Dear Representative Luker,

I am adding my voice to the hundreds of people of faith who are requesting…begging, really…that you reconsider your support of HB427. My primary concern is that it will undo the protections recently extended to my gay, lesbian and transgender neighbors by the Moscow city non-discrimination ordinance.

Many scholars believe that there is no biblical basis for homophobia, and that the homophobic lens is one that was superimposed over the text many hundreds of years after it was written. This is true in my tradition, but also in many others. I’ve studied with Catholics, Baptists, Protestants, and even Evangelicals who believe wholeheartedly that gay and lesbian love is as sacred and precious to God as heterosexual love. A closer look at the bible passages that people typically use to make a case for the sinfulness of homosexuality reveals an extremely shaky case.

The first passage is, of course, the story of Sodom and Gomorrah. The idea that God punished Sodom and Gomorrah for the sin of homosexuality didn’t enter Christian discourse until medieval times. In fact, there are several passages in the bible…one in Ezekiel, one in Jeremiah and one in the gospel of Matthew, that point to pride, excess, lack of care for the poor and needy, and lack of hospitality as the ‘wickedness’ that angered God- not homosexuality. The event described in the text is about as far from a loving, committed same-gender relationship as you can get: basically, we’re talking about gang rape. It’s a huge step to get from “God considers gang-rape a sin” to “God considers same-gender love a sin.”

The other passages that are frequently quoted are in Leviticus- 18:22 and 20:13 to be precise. A close reading of the text makes it clear that they are not referencing loving, committed same-gender relationships but designed to warn Israelites in exile against adopting the Canaanite practice of temple prostitution. Read in context, these two verses are part of a long list of rules that make up the ‘purity code.’ According to the code, adulterers and men who sleep with menstruating women are to be put to death, tattoos and piercings are forbidden, and all people should keep kosher. There are also rules governing the taking and treatment of slaves and concubines, and the passing along of widows to ensure a clear line of succession. To lift up just these two verses and to ignore the rest seems disingenuous, to say the least.

That’s it in the Old Testament. When we turn to the New Testament, we find absolutely NOTHING addressing same-gender love or sex in any of the four gospels. Paul has a few nasty things to say in Romans and First Corinthians, but again, careful reading shows that they seemed aimed at sexual excess and dishonesty (unnatural lusts) rather than committed same-gender relationships.

It begs the question how did people get the idea that the bible is ‘against’ homosexuality?

In the years leading up to the reformation, what is now the Catholic church (but which was then just ‘the church’ was full of corruption and nepotism. The way to get ahead, to get a desirable posting, was to have an affair with somebody above you in the hierarchy. In an act of blatant hypocrisy, the church launched what was basically a propaganda campaign, introducing anti-homosexual interpretations of the texts I just referenced, and imposing celibacy on priests. (Marriage among priests was common and accepted until 1129.)

Should a person disagree with these arguments, instead clinging to a belief that homosexuality is a sin in the eyes of God, it’s still a very big leap to discriminate against gays and lesbians. The teachings of the bible on how we are to treat one another are too numerous to list…think of the golden rule, the great commandment, and “As you do unto the least of these….” Jesus led by example. He broke almost all of the purity rules. He deliberately sat and spoke and ate with prostitutes and lepers and others considered ‘unclean.’

Nowhere in the bible does it say, “Thou shalt deny sinners health care,” “Thou shalt not sell sinners a wedding cake,” or even “Thou shalt not interact with people whose beliefs or sexual practices you find distasteful.” Who wants to open that door? “Let he who is without sin cast the first stone.” Would it be okay if doctors refused to treat addicts or even people who are overweight? After all, they’re guilty of gluttony, and that’s one of the seven deadly sins.

I know that some people are afraid that priests might be forced to perform a wedding, or sued for refusing. To be clear: there is a difference between religious sacraments and business interactions. Different faith communities have always had the ability to choose who can receive sacraments: we get to decide who gets served communion and who can’t. We get to choose when and how to baptize, and who we are willing to marry. I myself have refused to marry people when I felt their relationship wasn’t healthy. I wouldn’t want Native Americans to be sued because they limit participation in one of their rituals to members of the tribe. That would be a violation of the freedom of religion. However there is a huge difference between being allowed to participate in a sacrament or a religious ritual and having access to a basic service like housing or medical care. Everyone has an equal right to buy a cup of coffee, or go see a movie. This is what our ancestors intended when they declared the separation of church and state.

I am not as familiar with your faith as I’d like to be, and I’d be interested to learn why it is that you feel so strongly that businesspeople shouldn’t have to provide services to people whose lifestyle they see as sinful. One can believe that homosexuality is a sin and still learn and grow from the experience of treating someone who is different with kindness and compassion. I have had many former Mormons in my congregation, and I’ve seen the way the teachings on the sinfulness of homosexuality can rip apart families and damage people’s spirits. I confess I have a hard time believing that this kind of pain is part of God’s plan. Everything that I know of God points toward a desire for healing and love rather than discrimination and pain.

The anti-discrimination ordinance was a welcome step forward here in Moscow; I know people who have been denied service at local restaurants, as well as people who have had a harder time finding a place to live because of their sexual orientation. My faith teaches that everyone deserves to be treated with respect for their inherent worth and dignity. HB 427 runs counter to my faith and my conscience.

It hurts my heart to even think about it becoming law, thus rendering our local ordinance unenforceable. I know of a lot of good people…both gay and straight…who are ready to leave the great state of Idaho over this. I am not one of them; I will stay and become more active in the “Add the Words” campaign instead.

I appreciate your willingness to serve, as well as the time you have taken to read this letter. I would welcome a response, and would also be delighted to meet with you in person. I will be holding you and your fellow Idaho legislators in prayer as you consider this issue.


The Rev. Elizabeth H. Stevens


Let me begin by confessing:  I didn’t watch any of the coverage of the trial itself.  I guess I felt like the work had been done, the verdict was a foregone conclusion, and it didn’t much matter whether he got Murder 2 or manslaughter; the point had been made.   We may not be able to stop police from stopping young African American men for ‘driving while black,’ but we (meaning people who care about justice) can at least insist that vigilantes who do so and then shoot the young man are held accountable.

The first sign I had that something had gone wrong was seeing people holding a “We Remember Trayvon” sign by the side of the road on my way home from dinner.  I didn’t think much of it.  It was late Saturday night; did juries even deliberate on the weekends?   I actually went for a walk, still ignorant, and didn’t sit down and watch the news until about 9 pm.  Primary emotions:  shock and fear.  Shock that such a thing would happen; fear that it might lead to riots or violence a la Rodney King.

It’s been about forty-eight hours since then, and I’ve read many thoughtful reflections and checked out many powerful memes.  What stands out to me the most is the difference in musical selections.  My Unitarian Universalist friends immediately started sharing Sweet Honey and the Rock’s “Ella’s Song,” with its triumphalist refrain:  “We who believe in freedom shall not rest….until the killing of black men, black mother’s son, is as important as the killing of white men, white mother’s sons.”

Meanwhile, my friend Kelle Brown, a brilliant and dedicated African-American pastor, first posted “Strange Fruit”, complete with images of young black men who had been lynched, burned, or tortured.

  I almost didn’t make it through ‘Strange Fruit’ because the images were so violent and horrible.  But I thought to myself, “watching this is the least I can do.” 

The next day she posted “The Women Gather,” also by Sweet Honey.  I cried all the way through “The Women Gather”, and when it was over, found myself thinking that it was too bad that we don’t wear mourning clothes anymore.

I wanted to go into full mourning, complete black, not just for Trayvon, but for all of the young black and brown men and women through the ages who have been killed because of who they were, where they were, or the color of their skin. 

The questions this raised for me, though, included “Do I even have the right to do that?  Is this my grief?  It sure feels like it is.  But maybe I only have the right to bear witness to the grief within the African American community.  After all, I don’t have to worry that my sons might be shot on their way to the store because of the color of their skin.  I don’t know what it’s like to live with that particular fear.”  I added more tears to the water in the MLK memorial fountain in San Francisco, with the prayer that just as my little grief-drops contributed to the mighty streams of water that are symbolically wearing away the stone of injustice, I might find a way to channel my grief and find some way to be a good ally.

The thing is, I worry that it’s too soon for us white folk to start working for justice in Trayvon Martin’s honor.  It’s not about the verdict.  It’s not even about Trayvon, to some extent.  We need to begin by appropriately grieving literally millions of precious lives cut short.  Only it’s such a huge task, I don’t know where to start. 

The truth is that this country is built not only on those beautiful democratic principles, but also on a mass grave filled with slaves and exploited immigrant workers and violently displaced Native Americans.   It’s not just history, either; our society continues to depend on cheap labor, from the latest wave of immigrants and from young men (mostly men of color) who have been absorbed into the ‘prison-industrial complex.’  In response to this deep and horrifying truth, this sickness at the center of who we are, I can…what?  Buy local?  It just doesn’t feel like enough.

So yes, I believe in freedom, and I will keep on working for justice until every child…and I mean EVERY SINGLE CHILD…grows up safe and loved, from the day they are born until the day they die, ideally at a great old age.   And I will make the best choices I can.  But the question that is burning in me is bigger than that:  what do we do with this vast grief?

As the news began to pour in about the bombing at the finish line, I went through a familiar routine.  I lit a candle and started to pray, and then I began searching for information.  I let myself cry, and experienced the horror and the disbelief.  Like others, I posted reassuring words and articles.  I took comfort in accounts of heroism and the words of Mr. Rogers.  I turned off the television (because images are more upsetting than stories) and I went for a walk.  I hugged my children a little tighter than usual.  I gave thanks for my many, many blessings. 

However, this morning, a new and different emotional response has been bubbling up in me.  I am mightily pissed off.  My friends, we should not have to do this.  We should not have to mourn innocent victims of senseless acts of violence on a monthly basis.  Our culture is sick.  Our nation is sick.  Can we start talking about what we might do to help it heal?

Here are some of my preliminary thoughts:

1.  The media could take a good hard look at the way they cover tragedies.

People want information, so we are all glued to our screens when these terrible events occur.  That translates into good ratings.  However, it also means that the perpetrators get the fame and notoriety they are craving.  It also means that all of us watching wind up with secondary traumatization.  The media needs different priorities.  Ratings should not be the be-all and end all.  What would happen if the networks and reporters admitted that sensationalist coverage is making the problem worse, and then asked, “What can we do to make it better, instead?”

2.  We could have a nationwide campaign to ‘know your neighbors.’

In order to commit an act of violence, you have to de-humanize your victim.  That’s only possible in isolation.  Regular contact with actual people keeps us in touch with our natural empathy.  People with healthy and supportive social networks don’t kill people.  People who respect the inherent worth and dignity of all people don’t kill people.  And what enables us to respect the worth and dignity of others is the experience of being respected, ourselves.  Reach out to the loners, the lonely, the hurting, the isolated.  Don’t leave it to the government to weave the social safety net.  It’s our responsibility to make sure that no one slips through the holes.

3.  We could go cold turkey on war.

This country is addicted to war.  The military-industrial complex has convinced us that our economy depends on it.  Our identity seems to rest on being the biggest military power on the block.  But the truth is that we are being bankrupted, morally and financially.  As if the trillions of dollars we spend weren’t enough, the human cost of war is incalculable.  We need to pay attention to the damage our troops are doing in our name…the lives lost and the spirits shattered.  We need to pay attention to the damage done to our troops by multiple deployments.  Their lives and spirits and families are often shattered, too.  How can we create a domestic culture of compassion and respect for life when internationally, we are the ones with the highest kill rate?  We live with this cognitive, emotional, and spiritual dissonance between our stated ideals (“All people are created equal”) and our government’s actions on our behalf.  People ARE NOT ‘collatoral damage.’  They are people. 

4.  We could treat this epidemic of violence like the sickness it is.

The conversation about gun control is just the tip of the iceberg.  I want our nations best scientists to have all the money and support they need to figure out where this disease comes from, how it spreads, and how it might be prevented.  How do we immunize our children against becoming perpetrators?  Can the early symptoms be identified, so that sick people can be treated before the disease gets out of control? 

So today, I am remembering the helpers and enjoying the sunshine while keeping a candle lit.  The prayers and the tears keep on coming.  I will follow the stories, and learn the names of the victims, because we owe them that much, at least.

But I am also standing up and saying:  this is not acceptable.  I do not want to live in a country where almost every month we have the wind knocked out of us by yet another story of senseless violence.  I do not want to raise my children in a culture where bombs and school shootings are the norm.  And no, I don’t want to move, either! 

The “Take Back the Night” movement helped us mobilize against the rape culture.  We need to mobilize against the violence culture.  I want us to take back our society, take back our country, take back our peace of mind.  Who is with me?  And what ideas do you have as to how we can achieve this goal?

When I was in seminary, I spent some time doing street ministry with drug-addicted teenagers. We brought them sandwiches, clean socks, sterile sharps, and hot chocolate. In return, they offered their stories.

One young man in particular has haunted me ever since. Beautiful, intelligent, and articulate, he shared that he had a typical upper-middle class upbringing. He’d done well in school, and had gone on to get a Bachelor’s degree in Architecture. It was while he was working on his Master’s degree that someone slipped him some Heroin. Unfortunately, it only took once for him. Now, his good looks made him popular with the men who looked to hire him for sex. He had enough cash to keep himself in drugs, but he no longer had any hopes of making it out of his life. “I expect I’ll die fairly soon,” he said, with very little affect. “I’ve got to be HIV positive by now.” As I prayed with him and then later for him, I noticed that in the midst of the grief and sadness, I felt a healthy dose of fear. It hit me hard: there was really very little difference between his story and mine, right up to that pivotal moment where he became addicted. It gave the phrase, “There but for the Grace of God go I” a whole new resonance.

This experience became the seed of a key realization for me. When we hesitate to interact with the homeless, the disenfranchised, the suffering, it’s not necessarily because we are afraid of ‘the other.’ Rather, we’re afraid we’ll realize that ‘they’ are just like ‘us.’ We cling to an artificial sense of safety that depends on our ability to blame people for their misfortune. “I would never behave that way, and so what happened to them would never happen to me.” When we get to actually know the stories of the people who are suffering, that sense of safety falls apart, and we who are ‘successful’ realize that we were, in so many ways, simply lucky.

I offer this as an example of the way we are transformed and enriched by our experiences out in the ‘real world.’ As we allow ourselves to come into contact with suffering and loss, misfortune and injustice, our intellectual defenses are shattered, and we must embrace a more complex and realistic world view. Our hearts are broken, and we become more compassionate and empathetic. Our spiritual understandings are challenged, and in response, we reformulate them to be wider and deeper.

Meanwhile, people who spend all their time out in the world can easily burn out, or become overwhelmed by their feelings of grief and impotence. Spiritual practices that enable us to process our experiences are essential to our survival. We need the clarity and focus that can only come out of slowing down and breathing deeply. Our spiritual practices empower us to serve the world in the right way, and for the right reasons.

I believe there is a feedback loop that happens when we embrace both service in the world and a spiritual practice. Our experiences in the world give us fodder for growth in our spiritual lives. Our spiritual lives provide us with sustenance and focus for our continued efforts out in the world. Meanwhile, spirituality without service is shallow and brittle, while service without spiritual grounding leads to burnout and cynicism.

I’ll be preaching on this topic on May 19th. Please share your thoughts, feelings and reactions!

This morning, I spoke at a rally sponsored by the Palouse Peace Coalition on responsible gun control.  Here is a draft of my remarks.  Let me know what you think!

Remarks for the Rally Against Gun Violence

March 23, 2013


Good morning.  Thank you to the Palouse Peace Coalition for organizing the event.  Thank you to the people who took time out of their day to be here and reflect on this important issue.

On Sunday, July 27, 2008, a man named Jim David Adkisson walked into the Tennessee Valley UU Church (a church not that different than the church I serve, right up the street).  He carried a twelve-gauge shot gun in a guitar case, and partway through the service, he pulled it out and started shooting.  Why? In a statement to police, Adkisson said he had targeted the church because of its liberal teachings and his belief that all liberals should be killed because they were ruining the country.  Out of work and out of luck, he blamed the Democrats, asserting that they had ruined every institution in America with the aid of major media outlets.   Members of the congregation immediately responded by tackling Adkisson and taking his weapon away.  Two people were killed, and another six were injured. 

It was a horrible tragedy.  But it might have been much, much worse.  The service that day was a play put on by the children.  If Adkisson had been carrying an assault weapon, like, for example, a Bushmaster AR-15, the gun used in Sandy Hook this December, who knows how many casualties there would have been?

Gun control is a hot topic here in Idaho and across the nation.  Less than two weeks ago, the Idaho House of Representatives passed a law making it a crime for state and local police to enforce new federal firearms restrictions.  (The senate has tabled it.)  There’s a paranoid fiction that the government is going to come and ‘take people’s guns away.’  Nothing could be farther from the truth. 

The current conversation on gun control offers a golden opportunity for people to come together and address this complicated issue.  Together, we can find some common sense measures that will make our country safer.  

This is a state chock-full of responsible gun owners.  I know a number of people who hunt, who like to go target shooting or skeet shooting.  I know people who carry guns for protection.  They are law abiding citizens.  It is already a crime, here in Idaho, to carry a weapon ‘with intent to assault another.”  It’s also against the law to carry a concealed weapon while intoxicated or on school property.  The gun owners I know have no problem abiding by these laws.  None of the additional gun control measures we are proposing here today would interfere with responsible gun ownership.  They are designed simply to make it harder to perpetrate a mass shooting.

15 of the 25 worst mass shootings in the last 50 years took place here in the United States.  In second place was Finland, with 2.  Even one mass killing is too many.  We know that in our bones.

While it is true that guns don’t kill people…people kill people… guns do change how people kill people.  Guns make it a lot easier, and that is not a good thing.  The choice to aim a gun at a human being and pull a trigger might need to be made quickly, but it should never be made lightly.  Human life is sacred. 

Reinstating the ban on military style assault rifles and ammunition magazines with more than ten rounds would make our country safer.  Both of these proposals enjoy wide-spread support, including among responsible gun owners.  Let’s be honest:  short of military combat or a zombie apocalypse, can any of us come up with a scenario where one person would need to pull that trigger more than ten times in a row in self-defense?

Polls show that the third proposal, universal background checks, is supported by 80% of the people in this country.  These days, can you think of any other issue that 80% of us can agree on?  Other ideas that have been proposed include safe storage laws, requiring gun owners to carry liability insurance (similar to car ownership.)  “Faiths United To Prevent Gun Violence” (a group of 24 different national religious bodies) recommends that in addition to the restrictions on high capacity weapons and ammunition magazines and background check, gun trafficking be made a federal offense.

The power of the democratic process is that it allows everyone a voice.  I can’t figure out on my own which measures will make the biggest difference.  But together…that’s another story.  Harvard ethicist Arthur Dyck, in analyzing both law and morality, emphasizes the relationship of rights and responsibilities.  For every right we have…including the right to bear arms…we must be willing to accept responsibility.  The freedom to bear arms carries with it the responsibility to make sure that those arms are not used to harm innocent people.

The shooting in Tennessee Valley UU Church in 2008 was a tragedy; no one wants anything like that to happen here.  The shooting in Sandy Hook in December was an even greater tragedy, in part because of the kind of weapon the shooter used.   We owe it to the victims and families of the fallen to do everything in power to keep this conversation open and moving forward.  We owe it to the victims and their families to make this country a safer place for our children and our children’s children.  Thank you.