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Let me start with a disclaimer: I have not watched the play-by-play of the George Zimmerman trial in the last few weeks. This post is not about what happened at trial or why the women of the jury decided what they did based on the evidence they were presented. While I do think that the prosecution clearly failed, I am not about to dissect the legalities of the case. This is instead a commentary on the wider context of this trial, and what it says about the nation in which we live.

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Tonight, George Zimmerman is a free man. The basic story is not in dispute: Zimmerman saw Trayvon Martin walking in the neighborhood, and decided that a young black man in a hoodie posed a threat to his safety. He openly admitted to following Martin in a van, calling 911, and hearing the 911 operator tell him to back off and not get out of his vehicle. Yet he did get out, a scuffle ensued, and then Zimmerman shot Martin, an unarmed 17-year-old boy, because he was afraid of him. The jury concluded that this was not a crime, and Zimmerman is not guilty.

In other words, it’s legal to shoot an unarmed black teenager if you are afraid of him.

When you put it like that, it seems crazy. How is this outcome even possible?

This case is only understandable when viewed through the intersection of so many cultural narratives in our nation. I want to spend a few paragraphs naming and explaining those narratives, because they help explain how we got here, and why there is so much tension around this case.

1. Our culture loves guns, and the freedom to use them. We tolerate an absurd number of gun deaths, accidental and intentional, because we associate personal freedom with the ability to arm ourselves. No one questioned Zimmerman’s right to carry a gun, or to shoot someone who threatened him, even if that person was unarmed. If Martin had also been armed, we would have understood and tolerated a shootout on the street of a quiet neighborhood.

The best argument that the gun lobby has is that every American has the right to defend his or her life, liberty and property by carrying a weapon. But in this case, Zimmerman’s right to carry a gun overtook Martin’s basic right to life. Neither Zimmerman’s liberty nor his property were at risk, and if his life was at risk it was only because he provoked a confrontation. Their rights collided–and the verdict declared that Zimmerman’s right to defend himself with his gun was deemed more important than Martin’s right to life. Something is terribly wrong with that.

2. This case unmasks the living legacy of racism, especially the historic fear of young black men. If you doubt this case has anything to do with race, imagine if the man carrying the gun had been black and the dead boy had been white. Would the outcome have been the same? I doubt it. But it’s far more complicated than that. The U.S. has a long history of murdering young black men out of fear and prejudice and a perceived threat. Emmett Till comes first to mind. Or the fictional version in To Kill a Mockingbird, which shows that the story was common enough to be recognized immediately as a cultural reality–a young black man who was perceived as a threat, taken down by mob justice and never given fair hearing in a court of law.

We like to imagine that things have gotten better, that we are beyond the days of lynch mobs, that the Civil Rights Movement ended the fear of violence against African-Americans–but this case brings back all those bad memories and shows us that racism today is as violent and ugly as the black-and-white images of bygone eras. Trayvon Martin’s story is not new–it is very old. Many had hoped (and some had convinced themselves) it could not happen again, but it did. Those who recognize racism’s persistence were not surprised by Martin’s death, nor shocked that the jury refused to convict the man who confessed to killing him. It’s a familiar story–like all of these familiar narratives–even if Zimmerman was Latino and not a traditional white man.

3. This case makes us question our adoration of vigilante heroes and those who take the law into their own hands. As a culture, we worship lone rangers and nonconformists. Think of pretty much every summer disaster flick in the last two decades (or almost anything starring Bruce Willis or Will Smith)–it’s one guy (or a small band of folks) saving the world, because they refuse to play by the rules and follow orders. Whether it’s aliens or asteroids or giant bugs, we love to watch heroes who break the law in order to get justice. We don’t trust the system to take care of problems. We have to do it ourselves.

Except this time it didn’t go quite so well. Zimmerman followed his gut and took the law into his own hands, but he was wrong and he killed an unarmed boy. We turned to the justice system to make it right, but the system failed–just like Zimmerman expected. Just like the movies. Now there are predictions of mob justice for Zimmerman, or retribution by riots. Nearly all will publicly shake their heads at this vigilantism, but we all understand it, and many secretly support it. But do we recognize that it’s the same behavior that started this whole thing in the first place? Do we admit that this problem’s roots in American culture with our worship of individualism?

4. This case amplifies the confusion between the workings of the legal system and the idea of justice. We may refer to it as the “criminal justice system,” but the conviction and punishment of people for committing crimes is not synonymous with justice. Justice is much more than simply punishing people who do bad things. In common parlance, justice is a sense of fairness and equality before the law. In the Bible, it includes a broader picture that incorporates grace, forgiveness, abundance over scarcity, economic security, mercy and peace.

Our criminal justice system, with its “presumed innocence” and “beyond a reasonable doubt,” is designed to punish the guilty and exonerate the innocent, and has nothing to do with fairness or equality, much less the broader conceptions of justice. Even more, it is obvious to anyone who participates in the system that it generally does a bad job even by its own standards, regularly imprisoning the innocent and exonerating the guilty. Prejudice, racism, money, poor lawyers, good lawyers, aggressive police work, lazy police work–all these things can change the outcome of a trial, and none of them have anything to do with justice. Justice is not the same thing as legality. (If you doubt this, compare the Zimmerman verdict with this one.)

We may have been hoping for #JusticeforTrayvon, but only the most paltry conception of justice can be found in the legal system, and even that is a rare find.

These four narratives intersect in this case, just as they do in our culture. I found it helpful to pull apart the web and look at each one individually, as well as looking at the ways they influence and pull on one another in this case. They help me understand how a jury in 2013 can reach the conclusion it did tonight: that it’s legal to shoot an unarmed black teenager if you are afraid of him.

My brain can analyze and dissect and trace threads to make sense of it all, but my heart cannot. There is no excuse, no defense, no reason for the death of Trayvon Martin. The verdict feels like betrayal. I feel angry, sad, frustrated, indignant, powerless, heartbroken. I cannot imagine the grief of the Martin family, the first inflicted by Zimmerman’s gun, the second inflicted by a verdict that seems to say their son’s death was not worthy of consequences. The whole situation makes me want to weep at the sin and brokenness of the world, and beg for God’s “justice to roll down like waters, and righteousness like a flowing stream.” (Amos 3)

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I look at my own son. He will be 17 someday, and walk with that adolescent swagger, talk with that constant tone of insubordination. He may get into trouble, but his blonde hair and blue eyes will offer him a level of protection and privilege that his dark-skinned friends will not share. My heart aches for their mothers tonight, recognizing that this is not a new fear in their lives.

I pray for the safety of your sons, even as I pray for my own. I pray that they will do a better job than we have of negotiating the tensions around guns, race, heroes and justice. I pray that even though the legal system failed to act, Trayvon Martin’s death will have consequences, both for George Zimmerman and for our nation. I pray that a greater justice will indeed come to our land, that one day racism will be no more, that freedom will no longer be measured in our ability to carry weapons but in our ability to live together in peace. I pray for righteous anger that will spill over into righteous action rather than endless violence. I pray for ways to tell different stories than the ones we’ve always known, to free ourselves to truly build a nation of justice and peace, with liberty and justice for all.

Oh, dear God, the Oklahoma tornadoes. Such heartbreak. Christ, have mercy.

On March 2, 2012, forecasters anticipated tornadoes in our area. My son’s school let out early, and when the sirens started up we all huddled in the unfinished basement. The air outside our windows was deadly still, but the internet broadcast from our local television station told us that a large tornado was on the ground just a few miles away. We waited underground in folding chairs, my husband reading a book and my young son playing a video game. I kept my eyes on the screen as reports began to come in about damage in small communities populated by beloved church members and friends.

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Henryville High School, destroyed by March 2, 2012 tornado

Then the image changed: a school collapsed, no knowledge of how many students might be trapped inside. My stomach lurched, and I thought I might vomit. I silently ticked off a list of all the young people I knew inside that school, their young lives and fears flashing before me. I grabbed the laptop and slammed it shut—presumably to protect my son from frightening news, but probably also because I could feel the panic overtaking me. Since the storm, I have relived that terrifying moment awake and in dreams. As soon as the sirens stopped, I began to call for news, and passed several anxious hours with families waiting to hear if all were safe and well. Miraculously, no lives were lost at Henryville school that day, although children and adults did die in their homes as a result of the storm.

Today in Moore, Oklahoma, the story has a more grim ending. I know how traumatic the tornado was here, but I can only imagine how that distress is multiplied tonight in Oklahoma. My heart breaks for parents who have lost children, children who have lost parents, and a community gripped by shock and grief.

The recovery ahead will be measured in months and years, not days and hours. I have spent the last fourteen months working nearly every day on recovery efforts here in my community, a disaster much smaller in scale than tonight’s news from Moore and the surrounding areas. I am currently the chair of March 2 Recovery, the long-term recovery organization working to rebuild homes, address unmet needs and tend to the spiritual and emotional needs of our community. I’m not an expert, but I have learned some things worth sharing.

Sign outside Henryville, IN. Photo by Kylene Lloyd, The Courier-Journal

Sign outside Henryville, IN. Photo by Kylene Lloyd, The Courier-Journal

All compassionate people want to respond, to help, to do something in response to tragedy. This impulse is good, because the people of Moore, Oklahoma will require outside aid, volunteers and resources to help them in their recovery. However, many well-meaning people and organizations give “help” that is far less than helpful, and may actually be harmful to the recovery process. I went looking tonight for a list of “do’s and don’t’s” for how to help after a disaster, but I didn’t find any lists that were more specific than “send cash, not stuff.” So I made my own.

As one who has worked closely with tornado recovery efforts in the last 14 months, I would like to offer these DO’s and DON’T’s, so that you can help in ways that are the most helpful, and avoid the ways that are not.

DO NOT

DO NOT send “stuff,” unless you specifically know it is wanted, needed and has a clear destination. The avalanche of used clothing, toiletries, canned goods, furniture and household supplies that pours in after a disaster can become a “secondary disaster” for a community, as organizations are forced to set aside the actual needs of survivors in order to attend to the mountains of stuff arriving at their doorstep. People who have lost their homes won’t need household goods and furniture for many months, and don’t have anywhere to cook your can of Campbell’s Chicken Noodle.

DO NOT drive to the impacted area to help unless you are trained and credentialed by a recognized organization. Not only is the tornado debris field dangerous, the crowds of onlookers and unskilled volunteers get in the way of trained relief workers trying to do their work.

DO NOT say dumb things like “I know what you are going through,” because you don’t. Only if you’ve lost a child or lived through a disaster do you have some first-hand knowledge about what someone is feeling. Even then, be cautious. Not everyone will feel the same way you do. It’s doubly presumptuous to say you know what people are feeling if you’ve never even been in a similar situation.

DO NOT offer help in order to lessen your feelings of helplessness or make yourself feel better. Put aside your own needs and desires, and act only in the best interests of others. Don’t do what makes you feel better—do what best helps survivors.

DO NOT forget about this disaster as soon as another tragedy takes the headlines. Recovery will take a long time. Stick with it. The most helpful people are those who come long after the TV cameras are gone.

DO NOT try to theologize disaster away, or say that God did or didn’t do something. God didn’t need more angels, or have any kind of master plan that involved dead children. God didn’t save the children at one school only to harm the children at another one. That’s not how God works. Let God be God, and don’t assign your own motives to the Creator of heaven and earth.

DO

DO: Donate money. But not just today. While organizations like Red Cross and Salvation Army do amazing work feeding and sheltering people in the immediate aftermath, they do not rebuild homes or communities. Local leaders and faith-based organizations pick up the work of long-term recovery, and they will need major dollars for construction, case management, survivor support and more. Sure, send $10 via text message today, but wait to mail a check for $100 or $1,000, and send it to groups involved in long-term recovery efforts. Be careful to give to reputable, established organizations only. No matter what your faith or cause, there’s a group for you.

DO: Volunteer. But not today, or even in the next month or two. Thousands of people pour in to help in the first few weeks, but the work of rebuilding will last for a year or two. Volunteers, especially those with construction skills, will be needed far more urgently 9-24 months from now to help people get home again.

DO: Listen to anyone who needs to tell their story, no matter how many times they need to tell it. Survivors, first responders, clergy and helpers of all types will relive this experience over and over again. It helps to tell and retell it to patient, non-judgmental listeners. Make room for whatever people are feeling—sadness, anger (at appropriate or inappropriate people or institutions), grief, fear, anxiety, even laughter.

An example of messages of encouragement: 1,000 paper cranes that travel to places healing from violence, currently at the Old South Church in Boston, the site of the marathon bombings. Click picture for full story.

An example of messages of encouragement: 1,000 paper cranes that travel to places healing from violence, currently at the Old South Church in Boston, the site of the marathon bombings. Click picture for full story.

DO: Remind others that God is present even in the midst of destruction. Speak of God’s love that overcomes all barriers, even death. Give people room to have their own relationships with God, even if they’re having a big family fight with God right now.

DO: Send messages of love and concern. Whether it’s e-mail, texts, Facebook posts, tweets, letters, cards, notes, banners or children’s drawings, your words can be a source of great encouragement. Send them to local churches through your denomination. Mail them to the fire station or hospital or police station to encourage the helpers who are working 24-7 to aid their community. Share messages with people in the affected area who share your profession, whether it be insurance agents, funeral directors, electricians, servers or retail workers. Indicate that you do not expect a response, but merely send your love and prayers. It will be appreciated.

DO: Pray. It seems like such a small thing, but it matters. We could feel the prayers from around the world bearing us up and giving us strength.

There you have it. That’s what I’ve learned in the last year about life after a disaster—how your help can be most helpful. I’m sure I’ve left things out, and will count on you to add them in the comments section.

This is my small way of helping, through communication about what’s actually helpful. My heartfelt prayers are with the people of Oklahoma, now and in the long months to come.

I heard an interview on NPR’s Talk of the Nation last week with Louis Michael Seidman, author of a controversial New York Times editorial and forthcoming book entitled On Constitutional Disobedience. Seidman is a constitutional law professor at Georgetown whose editorial was called, “Let’s Give Up on the Constitution.”

The basic thesis is this:

Our obsession with the Constitution has saddled us with a dysfunctional political system, kept us from debating the merits of divisive issues and inflamed our public discourse. Instead of arguing about what is to be done, we argue about what James Madison might have wanted done 225 years ago.

Seidman argues that good government requires that we commit to certain principles (e.g. free speech, equality under the law) not because a document requires them, but because we all agree they are important. Notice he does not attack the Constitution or its contents, simply the obsession we have developed with adherence to the document and its principles, or the principles of its authors.

constitutionAs one might expect, his editorial has elicited a dramatic reaction, mostly negative. At the opening of the NPR interview, Seidman spoke about hundreds of e-mails he had received, the majority of which are abusive. Many include virulent anti-Semitism and some even threaten physical violence. The anger and hatred are clearly disproportionate to the weight of the editorial.

Seidman summarized his argument in the editorial—that we who are current residents of the country should be free to decide for ourselves what kind of country to have, not be beholden to a group of white men who lived more than 250 years ago. Host Neal Conan responded with a question that led to this exchange:

Conan: If you start ditching some parts because you don’t think they’re right, then how do you then make sure you keep the parts that you do think are right?

Seidman: …Over the years we’ve ditched many parts of the Constitution. There are lots of provisions that are not obeyed. And what we need to do is just acknowledge that fact and talk and make decisions for ourselves about the kind of country we want to live in.

Seidman went on to cite examples of sections of the Constitution we disregard, but it was in that exchange that I realized the connection. I have heard that exact conversation many, many times before, with a minor adjustment:

If you start ditching some parts of the Bible because you don’t think they’re right, then how do you then make sure you keep the parts that you think are right?

Over the years we’ve ditched many parts of the Bible. There are lots of provisions that are not obeyed. (Fill in the blank here: keeping a kosher diet, insisting that women cover their heads, mixing fibers, etc.)

I would argue that what Seidman is encountering in the harsh responses to his work is not hyper-patriotism, it is another variant in the wider worldview that is fundamentalism. Instead of fundamentalist interpretations applied to the Qu’ran or Torah or Bible, they are applied to the Constitution. The anger, defensiveness and either-for-us-or-against-us politics of Seidman’s harsh attackers resembles the decades-long rhetoric and practice of fundamentalist movements.

What-is-fundamentalism-300x199Fundamentalism traces its origins to a Christian reaction to modernism, but the term’s use has broadened to incorporate similar trends in other religious and theopolitical movements. To my knowledge, however, it has not been used to describe a non-religious political position or to describe the right-wing movement in the United States that understands themselves as defenders of the Constitution. However, a closer examination reveals that the sentiment represented by Seidman’s detractors, by some within the Tea Party, and by other right-wing coalitions maps on to the characteristics of other fundamentalist groups.

Karen Armstrong, in her landmark history of fundamentalism The Battle for God, does not give a definition of fundamentalism, but follows the lead of Martin Marty and R. Scott Appleby’s Fundamentalism Project and offers a set of characteristics of fundamentalist movements.

They are embattled forms of spirituality, which have emerged as a response to a perceived crisis. They are engaged in a conflict with enemies whose secularist policies and beliefs seem inimical to religion itself. Fundamentalists do not regard this battle as a conventional political struggle, but experience it as a cosmic war between the forces of good and evil. They fear annihilation, and try to fortify their beleaguered identity by means of a selective retrieval of certain doctrines and practices of the past. (xiii, adapted from Marty & Appleby)

Those who seize upon the purity of the Constitution also practice a kind of spirituality. They see central values like freedom, democracy, independence and patriotism (all narrowly defined) under threat from outside forces. Their inerrant scripture is the Constitution, and they appeal to the era of the founding fathers as the authoritative and idyllic.

The most important insight to remember when understanding fundamentalism is that it is a new phenomenon, in spite of its appeals to the past. Fundamentalism is a reactionary move against modernism, a way to fight the cultural changes that threaten former ways of knowing and living. Armstrong distinguishes between mythos and logos. Mythos is the truth that gives meaning to our daily lives. In pre-modern societies, it was the primary form of truth, and never intended to be taken literally. Mythos connects our experiences to timeless, eternal realities larger than ourselves and our era. Logos, by contrast, is the “rational, pragmatic and scientific thought that enabled men and women to function well in the world.” (xvi) Logos looks to control the environment and pursues new ideas and technologies. The pre-modern world placed mythos as the primary form of truth, but embraced logos as well. The modern world has all but dismissed mythos, and taken logos as the primary form of truth.

Fundamentalism is a particular and peculiar reaction to this modernity that seeks to take mythos and turn it into logos. As the mythos no longer matches the logos of science, they shore it up by trying to claim it is logos. For example, the story of a six-day creation in Genesis is a myth. Its primary purpose is to tell us that the world is God’s creation, that it is good, and that we humans were also created by God and reflect God’s goodness. It is a story about meaning. Fundamentalism takes that mythos and makes it into logos by arguing that the story of creation is a factual scientific explanation about the beginning of the universe. It is not even a return to something old (which would be a pre-modern coexistence of mythos and logos, with mythos as primary), it is a creative, novel reaction to modernity.

300px-Washington_Constitutional_Convention_1787One example of this kind of American Constitutional fundamentalism can be found in conversations about the Second Amendment. It has reared up strongly in recent weeks as the country talks about gun control in response to the shooting at Newtown, Connecticut. Many who resist gun control consider themselves defenders of the Second Amendment, and they grow agitated at any suggestion that we might want to control access to certain kinds of weapons or ammunition. Rather than making an argument about how access to those weapons nurtures a free society, they believe themselves to be beseiged, drawing dramatic lines between “us” and “them,” “real Americans” and those who should “leave the country.” Claiming to be standard bearers for the Constitution, this group of gun advocates appeal to the document and the founding fathers, and dismiss any who disagree as unpatriotic, unfaithful to the Constitution, and underminers of liberty.

Just yesterday, a Tennessee man named James Yeager made the news for posting videos on YouTube threatening to “start shooting people” if they tried to take away his guns. His interview with a local television station contains all the characteristics of fundamentalism listed above. Below is the raw interview with the local television station, in which he initially tries to calm his rhetoric, but eventually gets more agitated. (If you don’t want to watch the whole thing, at least watch the section starting around 2:10, where he talks about shooting people to defend the Constitution. You can also watch the edited news story here, which includes clips from his original YouTube postings.) Since that time, the state has withdrawn his gun permit in response to his threats, but as of this writing there has been no attempt to collect his weapons, and we do not know if he intends shoot people if they do.

Mr. Yeager is not unique. The rhetoric he spouts and the appeal he makes to the Constitution can be found throughout right-wing organizations in the United States, including the Tea Party, NRA, and the conservative radio, television and blogosphere. They are another form of fundamentalism, alongside Christian, Jewish and Islamic fundamentalist ideologies. Just as within faith groups, not everyone who is a conservative member of those groups is a fundamentalist, but fundamentalism is a unique segment found within those groups.

Many of us in faith communities have struggled against fundamentalist perversions of our faith for many years, but they persist and even seem to grow stronger. I’m not sure we have much to say that will open up the conversation or create useful common ground to move forward. However, it seems helpful and insightful to identify the parallels between the rhetoric around religion and politics, and to name both as fundamentalist in their reactionary characteristics.

My friend Rachel Small at Occupy Wall Street.

If Jesus were here today, it seems obvious he would be sympathetic to the Occupy movement. The Gospels detail his life’s work speaking out against the unjust economic systems and unfair distribution of wealth; railing against the burden of oppressive debt, taxation and extortion from the lower classes to line the pockets of the rich; attending to healing and building a new model of community; trying to change the same old conversation with subversive tactics of protest; revealing the collusion between wealth, power and violence; and taking sides with the poor, outcast and rejected. Among my progressive clergy friends, there have been multiple postings of a graphic saying, “Jesus is with the 100%.” While Jesus loved both rich and poor, he refused to comfort or coddle those who made exorbitant profits by oppressing the poor.  As my friend Rachel’s sign points out, Jesus’ own prayer aligns itself clearly with the stated hopes of the Occupy movement.

Jesus’ life and ministry was most fundamentally about inaugurating a new way of life. It was about building the kingdom of God here, “on earth, as it is in heaven.” Early Jesus followers were simply known as “The Way,” because they lived a way of life caring for the poor, forming new community and trying to do things differently. Beyond the notion that Jesus would have supported the Occupy protesters, this idea of “The Way” is the stronger connection between the Occupy movement and the heart of Christianity.  Occupy is not a Christian movement, but it is a movement about a way of life. The daily General Assemblies, shared leadership and direct democracy, sharing of goods and managing of community needs are all about incarnating in practice the ideas and visions of the community of protesters. They do not just carry signs and march down streets to encourage people to their cause—they are embodying the community they want to build by practicing a new way of doing things and being together. That’s an awful lot like our Savior and his followers.

I spent some time at our local Occupy movement, downtown in our city bordering on the south and midwest. I discovered that the experience shared even more parallels to the church—including some of its struggles. Ours was a small group, about 20 in all. When I arrived, they were in a meeting. The small, handwritten sign at the center of the circle indicated that this was an education session, which lasted every day from 1:00 p.m. to 7:00 p.m., with the General Assembly at 7:00 p.m. I stood at the edge of the circle for nearly 30 minutes, and felt completely lost. No one spoke to me, no one invited me to sit with them on a blanket (the ground was muddy), no one even acknowledged I was there. There were words I didn’t understand and strange hand gestures that left me puzzled. Everyone else clearly knew one another very well. The entire time I was there, I imagined that this is exactly the experience that many of these people would have if they walked into our churches for Sunday worship. It was humbling.

When at last someone stepped away from the circle (I couldn’t interrupt, didn’t know the proper hand gesture to be recognized to speak, and couldn’t wait five hours for a break in the action), I followed him and introduced myself. I chose not to start with my clergy title (after all, I did not come representing my congregation), but just my name and my interest in offering support—food, blankets, supplies, whatever was needed. He seemed displeased that I had bothered him, and said they had everything they needed. He did at least take my card when it was offered. I had planned to stay longer, but I felt so uncomfortable that my nerves took over and I left. I’ve been trying to renew my courage to return. Again, a humbling experience.

So, as Jesus-followers today, where do we fit in with the Occupy movement? When I first started writing this post two weeks ago (it’s taken me a long time to sort through my thoughts), there was little or no church presence at the Occupy movement, here or anywhere else. Many of the Occupy participants were (are) openly hostile to religion, especially Christianity, because they associate it with the harm of the radical, prosperity gospel, anti-sex, anti-body, anti-intellectual right wing version of our faith. In this short time, some of that has begun to change. In other cities, the progressive Christian community has rallied to organize itself in support of the Occupy movement, offering spiritual support, communion services, even processing a giant golden calf as a religious symbol of condemnation. (In the interest of full disclosure, many of these folks are my friends, and the links are from their own Facebook posts.) This clergy support work has been welcomed by Occupiers in Boston, New York, San Francisco and many other places.

The question still remains: what is our role as faith communities and Christians in the Occupy movement? I think part of our confusion stems from the fact that we are not at the center of this movement. For the last 200 years in the United States, churches have been the nurseries of movements for social change—abolition, women’s rights, civil rights, fair labor practices, temperance, education reform, on and on. Clergy have been on the front lines of shaping, inspiring and leading movements for social justice. I am a veteran of many protests, and as a clergy person I am used to being on display up front to add moral authority to the cause. Yet the Occupy Wall Street movement happened without us. This is new territory, and, like me hovering outside the Occupy meeting’s circle, we aren’t sure what to do with ourselves. We might even be dealing with a bit of a bruised ego over the whole thing—I showed up to offer my help, but no one wanted it. In order to connect, we must be willing to be outsiders instead of insiders, to be uncomfortable and take time to learn how things go.

There is an old joke about the radical French intellectual that hears the people marching in the streets and responds: “There go my people! I must find out where they are going so that I can lead them.” I am concerned that this will be the approach of the progressive church to the Occupy movement.  Many of us have years of experience in social movements, and it will be tempting to show up and offer ourselves as experts and leaders. I admit that one of my desires after my visit to the local Occupy site was to offer advice to them—about how to welcome newcomers, about how to respond to offers of assistance, about how to incorporate outsiders. I’m still not sure what to do with that impulse. I believe that wisdom might be helpful to the cause, but I also believe it is arrogant of me to step in as a newcomer and offer unsolicited advice about how to do things.

One of the great dangers facing the Occupy movement is whether or not it will be co-opted and assimilated by big money players like unions, the Democratic party, Move On, and others—or whether it can hold its own and do things a new way. One of the great successes of the movement so far has been its ability to change the conversation, to break open the dialogue in a way that those well-established players have not been able (or willing) to do.

While we aren’t as big a player as we’d like to be, I think that Christians may try to co-opt the movement in the same way. We should avoid the temptation to say to the Occupy folks, “Yes, you’re saying just what we’ve been saying all along, what Jesus has been saying for 2,000 years.” What usually swiftly follows this is an invitation to worship, or to join in something we’ve already planned that might interest them. We might even be tempted to think that this movement might be a way to connect with progressive young people and engage them in church. I’m not sure that is a bad thing—I do believe in evangelism!—but I also see an arrogance in it. It is definitely a good thing to show up and demonstrate that Jesus and his followers are not necessarily who you think they are, that Christians stand with the poor and the protesters, and that our faith motivates us to action against oppressive empire. It would definitely be a bad thing to believe that our churches are keepers of the vision protesters have been seeking all along, that going to church is a way of engaging the movement, or that we might hope to sign people up for our next progressive Christian rally.

In other words, I believe we should show up to listen far more than speak, to learn far more than teach, to support far more than guide. We can, and should, simply be one of the 99%.  What it means to be followers of Jesus is to do what’s right, without caring about whether or not we’re recognized for doing it. “The Way” we follow is about incarnating love, justice and peace—not promoting the church’s voice or even promoting  Jesus.   Brian McLaren wrote a similar thought this week in a piece entitled “Why I’m Joining the Occupation.”

I’d especially encourage Christian leaders to do so . . . not as a representative of your church or denomination, but as a human being . . . not to co-opt or control, but to contribute and to learn. As someone who’s had a lot of control (more than I realized) for a lot of years, I’m finding it a wonderful gift to simply be a participant, one voice among many, learning and listening and learning some more.

For this reason, I’ll be going back to Occupy again. Because it’s where Jesus would probably be hanging out today. Because it’s the right thing to do, not just as a Christian but as a human being. Because it’s good for me to know life as an outsider, and because I know that all human movements and institutions have their flaws. Most of all, though, I will go back because I am one of the 99%. I am also afflicted by and implicated in the unjust system the Occupiers call out, and I want this body of mine to be a part of incarnating a new way of being. My prayer remains Jesus’ prayer: “on earth, as it is in heaven.”

Some of our CSA vegetables from last summer.

A few weeks ago, I strung a clothesline in my backyard. Yesterday, I washed six loads of laundry and hung each one outside in the summer sun to dry on my new clothesline and a couple of drying racks that usually stay in the basement. I did not once turn on the dryer.

Last summer, I learned how to freeze all the fresh vegetables we could not consume from our CSA. This year, we are growing tomatoes. Next year, we’re talking about growing our own garden. I really want to learn home canning.

J is talking about baking bread. We are wondering why we should buy bread all the time when we can make it for ourselves, and it would taste so much better. It’s all part of our desire to get away from eating processed food. We love to cook together, to take raw meat and fresh herbs and whole vegetables and transform them into cuisine. We don’t measure or follow a recipe, and try to do it from scratch.

My friends all travel with skeins of yarn and knitting needles poking out of their bags, and sit in meetings and on trains and knit their own clothes. They make scarves and blankets and sweaters and baby things, for themselves, for their friends, for charitable causes.

We are trying to reduce, reuse, recycle, repurpose. We have a concern for the environment, for our health, for living more simply and consuming less and reducing our impact on the planet. And in the process, I realize I am becoming my grandmother.

My grandmother gardened, crocheted, cooked from scratch, and hung the laundry out to dry. She did it because she grew up in the Depression, and she learned how to make things stretch and last. I remember as a child watching her dig the last bits of batter from the bottom of the bowl, or rinse out the cottage cheese container to use as storage, or clothespin sheets to the line. I thought it was quaint and old-fashioned, when we modern people did not need to be so frugal. We threw out the plastic silverware and let go of leftovers and ran the dryer just to freshen something up.

Now, nearly a decade since my grandmother died, I am keeping house very much like she did. (Another grandmother still lives. She was raised in the city, but also practices many of these same habits.) Why run the dryer when the sun does the job for free? What’s the shame in hanging your underclothes outside, if it’s in the back yard? Who needs a recipe? Just pinch this and scoop that and do it until it looks right. No, I won’t throw out that plastic container, because I don’t want it to go to a landfill or even to recycling if I can use it again. Why use plastic at all when there are dishes and silver in the cabinet?

We do these things not because it is a financial necessity, but because it is a gentler, more careful and intentional way of living with the earth. The logic may be different, but the lifestyle is the same. What was good enough for my grandmother is good enough for me.

 

Emotional Reunion of Rescued Miner (Photo from cnn.com)

 

I have been captivated by the story of the trapped Chilean miners. I cried when I read about the note reaching the surface 17 days after the collapse of the mine, announcing all 33 were alive and unhurt. I cried again when I read that rescue might not come until Christmas. I rejoiced when the drill broke through, and rescue came early. I am crying again today at the beautiful sight of each one emerging safe and whole into the arms of his family.

The courage, faith and endurance of these men witness to the power and triumph of the human spirit. It is the kind of story that should be told and retold for generations as a testimony to hope and survival. I believe that what it means to be human is to possess these kinds of stories and understand our life through them.

 

Capsule Cam capturing the view from the miner's perspective riding up in the rescue capsule.

 

However, I do want to raise a cautionary query. As I have watched this drama unfold, I have been attentive to staging. This story has been presented to the world as though it were not unfolding before us, but as though it were almost already packaged for television and movies. Just today, as I watch the rescue, we are treated to a camera in the mine to capture the send-off from the other trapped miners, a camera in the rescue capsule that shows exactly what the miner is seeing in transit, along with multiple surface cameras to capture the emotions of the waiting families, the work and determination and encouragement of rescue workers and (of course) the presence and involvement of the Chilean president. Each of these cameras has been positioned with a Hollywood director’s care. Someone is directing this show.

 

Trapped Miners

 

The same has been true of the daily briefings and reporting throughout the ordeal. The way that each of the miners has been given a character and identity (the pastor, the musician, the medic, the MacGyver-like mechanic) mimics Hollywood portrayals of disaster and war stories, where nameless and indistinguishable soldiers take on unique archetypal identities. Each day, we get small bits of news unique to each miner, which have obviously been carefully crafted to portray them as courageous, strong and hopeful. This reporting is thanks to the work of three miners, who have been given cameras and sound equipment. One is the official cameraman, the other two are sound engineers. Another miner has been officially named the group poet, writing daily verse about their ordeal and praising rescue workers. (Excellent article here about daily life in the mine.)

Someone is crafting this story, and has been since the very beginning. The narrative of the rescue workers has been meticulously edited to avoid news of major mistakes, and no one is even talking about what caused the collapse in the first place. Here in the U.S., we are always searching first and foremost for someone to blame. This story is all about the hope and courage and ingenuity of the Chilean people.

 

President Sebastian Pinera with the initial note from the miners, holding it up for the cameras.

 

The lead hero of the story is Chilean president Sebastian Pinera. He has been at the forefront of every briefing, and taken the privilege of announcing every breakthrough. Today, as the miners are rescued one by one in that tiny capsule, he stands at the side of the families, second in line to embrace each one—right before the cameras. Having watched him throughout this media moment, I believe he or one of his closest advisors is responsible for the attention to media direction. He or someone close to him foresaw the captivating nature of the story (and, I add, without cynicism,) the political opportunity for Pinera to become a hero by connecting to the miners.

Here’s my ultimate question, however: is this a problem? Does it matter? We could have been exposed to every bit of the mass information and daily doldrums of this 68-day ordeal, or we could have been exposed to very little—just a pool camera at the rescue site. We could have received this information via a raw feed, or carefully orchestrated for dramatic effect. What difference would that make, ethically? Is there a requirement that we receive raw information? What amount of crafting and spin on a story like this one renders it inauthentic or unjust?

 

Picture-Perfect Moment

 

As a professional storyteller (aka preacher), I spend my time every week reading the Bible and trying to figure out how to craft and spin and retell it for dramatic effect, so that it moves the hearts of the listeners and opens them to the Holy Spirit. The Chilean president and his advisors have done the same thing here, except they are attempting to provoke national pride and honor instead of spiritual awakening. We both know that there is a difference between a great story and a great story told by a great storyteller. Is the story any less true because it has been carefully manipulated and told for maximum impact? Or is it an even better story that way?

Stories like that of the Chilean miners captivate us because they are great human stories, in the same way that great human stories of courage and hope have captivated us throughout human history. I praise God today for their rescue, and pray for their healing and peaceful reintegration into their families. And I also ponder these questions about their story and how it is being told. How much has my relationship and emotional response to this story been crafted and directed by storytellers? And how much does that matter? What do you think?

The first time I was in Summersville, West Virginia was at least 15 years ago. I went to college in the Shenandoah Valley of Virginia, and my friend K and I spent our free time driving around the back roads of West Virginia in search of beautiful vistas, quirky towns and unique experiences.

New River Gorge

We journeyed to Summersville one Sunday afternoon on our way to the famous New River Gorge bridge, taking a winding two-lane trail through nameless unincorporated communities. We were hungry, and had no cash. Cash was important, because the local restaurants along the road would not accept a credit card back then. Looking on the map, Summersville appeared to be a sizable town, and we believed there would be a 24-hour ATM there so we could get money for something to eat.

We arrived in downtown Summersville and found at least three different back branches, but not one of them had an automatic teller machine. Not one. We rolled down the window and asked a man walking down the street where we could find an ATM machine. “A what?” he asked. “A bank machine, where you can get money.” “Never heard of that kind of thing,” he said. “Maybe they have one of those down in Beckley.”

Our hungry bellies sighed at another 40 mile journey to Beckley, but we also reveled in the thought that there were still places, in the early 1990s, that did not know what an ATM was. It was exactly the kind of experience we sought in our travels, and I still remember it today.

I have returned to Summersville again this week. A friend and I have rented a cabin for reading, writing and quiet time with God. I was eager to revisit Summersville. The website for the cabin told me that they now had several fast food restaurants and a Super Wal-Mart, so I expected a changed place—at least now they would have an ATM, to be sure.

 

 

Summersville, WV along US-19. This is only one section on one side of the road--there is much more fast food and Wal-Mart just ahead.

I couldn’t believe what I found when we got here. Not only is there a Super Wal-Mart, the leader of cheap consumerism and cultural decline in small-town America, but there are strip malls at every turn. Along US-19, where there used to be rolling Appalachians speckeld with color this time of year, there are billboards and signs for every national chain store, hotel chain and fast-food restaurant you can imagine. We sought a local restaurant in downtown Summersville, and could find none.

While I am sure the people of Summersville and the surrounding hillsides are grateful to eat at Applebee’s, get lumber at Lowe’s, wander the aisles of the Dollar Tree and stock up at Super Wal-Mart without driving all the way to Beckley, I mourn the passing of another unique small town.

Bill Bryson’s book A Lost Continent, which I just completed and did not generally like (see review), describes his search for the perfect small town, which he dubs “Amalgam.” He describes its picturesque streets and quaint personalities, and delights in the fact that it could be located in any state in the union. He never finds that small town.

What I fear we have instead is thousands of Amalgams, only they are not the pleasantly perfect models Bryson imagines. In today’s world of mass consumption and large retail and restaurant chains, every town is Amalgam. Every town has the same restaurants, the same stores, the same products. Everything looks the same, tastes the same, feels the same. Something is lost when Summersville, WV looks just like Summersville, KY and Somersville, OH and Somersville, CT and Somersville, CA. I’m not sure why anyone bothers to leave their own town anymore, just to find the same thing in some other place.


About Me

I am a full-time pastor in the United Church of Christ, mother of a young child (B.), married to an aspiring academic and curmudgeon (J.). I live by faith, intuition and intellect. I follow politics, football and the Boston Red Sox. I like to talk about progressive issues, theological concerns, church life, the impact of technology and media, pop culture and books.

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