Bringing People Together to do Good

Blood on Our Hands, Grace in Our Veins

Terry Pratchett is best known for his Discworld novels. The world that they’re set in is reminiscent of fantasy epics like Lord of the Rings, and Pratchett riffed on the tropes of those worlds to bring humor into a setting that is often far too dry to be believable. And while the early books rely on medieval stasis (e.g., some alchemists may invent movies and threaten to awaken an eldritch abomination, but everything goes back to ‘normal’ in the end), later books see change come to the Discworld. Personal digital assistants (powered by imps), network communications (via semaphore towers), printing presses, and other technological wonders were slowly changing the Discworld before Pratchett died in 2015.

In Going Postal, Pratchett introduced Moist von Lipwig. Moist is a conman and charlatan whose death was faked by the ruler of the city-state of Ankh-Morpork so that he could be recruited to revive its postal system. Since this is a fantasy novel, a golem parole officer has been assigned to him. They have this memorable exchange (Mr. Pump capitalizes the first letter of each word, even in speech, and pronounces Moist’s last name with a ‘v’ instead of a ‘w’):

“Do you understand what I’m saying?” shouted Moist. “You can’t just go around killing people!”

“Why Not? You Do.” The golem lowered his arm.

“What?” snapped Moist. “I do not! Who told you that?”

“I Worked It Out. You Have Killed Two Point Three Three Eight People,” said the golem calmly.

“I have never laid a finger on anyone in my life, Mr Pump. I may be — all the things you know I am, but I am not a killer! I have never so much as drawn a sword!”

“No, You Have Not. But You Have Stolen, Embezzled, Defrauded And Swindled Without Discrimination, Mr Lipvig. You Have Ruined Businesses And Destroyed Jobs. When Banks Fail, It Is Seldom Bankers Who Starve. Your Actions Have Taken Money From Those Who Had Little Enough To Begin With. In A Myriad Small Ways You Have Hastened The Deaths Of Many. You Do Not Know Them. You Did Not See Them Bleed. But You Snatched Bread From Their Mouths And Tore Clothes From Their Backs. For Sport, Mr Lipvig. For Sport. For The Joy Of The Game.”

And I’ve been thinking about that, lately. Mostly, I’ve been thinking about it in relation to Manuel Antonio Cano Pacheco.

Pacheco was a high schooler in Des Moines, Iowa. He had been brought from Mexico to the United States when he was three years old. He was undocumented. He was protected by DACA. He was a DREAMer.

But last fall, he was stopped for speeding and arrested for driving under the influence, an immigration judge revoked his DACA status for misdemeanor offenses, and he was arrested as an undocumented immigrant by Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE). He was given a choice: be deported and take all of the penalties of a deportation, or ‘return’ to Mexico voluntarily. To avoid the penalties and leave the possibility of returning to country he grew up in open, he chose the ‘voluntary’ route.

He was escorted to Mexico by ICE. Then he was murdered.

It’s easy — and right — to put the blame for his murder on the people who slit his throat, whoever they may be.

It’s easy — and right — to put the blame on ICE and the administration that empowers it. They may not have known that Pacheco would be killed, but they knew that they were deporting him to a country with a murder rate nearly four times that of the United States (thought Des Moines has a surprising amount of crime). Even if he hadn’t been killed, ICE knew that they were sending him to a place where life would have been harder, and in a myriad small ways they were hastening his death.

And it’s harder — but no less right — to put the blame on everyone who participated in the process, and on everyone who failed to stop it. The unfortunate fact is that a lot of people have a share in the death of Manuel Antonio Cano Pacheco.

And before we get complacent and say that at least we have nothing to do with it, all of us have hastened a few deaths and hardened a few lives in a myriad small ways over the years. All of us have a share in some slaves, all of us have a share in some murders, all of us have blood on our hands.

Moist von Lipwig killed 2.338 people. I don’t know how many I’ve killed. But the fact is that I have some repenting to do. So do you. So do all of us. Maybe this is what original sin is: the fact that we are all embedded in systems of death and destruction, whether we know it or not.

Maybe this is what original sin is: the fact that we are all embedded in systems of death and destruction, whether we know it or not. Click To Tweet

But maybe the opposite is true, too. Maybe we’re also caught in webs of grace, whether we know it or not.

Last year, I quoted a post by Addie Zierman, where she wrote this about giving what seem like small gifts:

Most of all, I remember the jolt of understanding that fell across my heart as I stood in that shipping container house and realized that the answer to the open wound of poverty is not, in fact, some Extreme Home Makeover (Move that truck!). It is not some lavish gift or building donation. The answer is not even to move into the heart of poverty and live some martyr-ymissionary version of life.

The answer is a lot of average people doing a lot of average things.

The answer is donations that feel completely inadequate in the face of the world’s great need. $10 here. $20 there.

It’s money for eyeglasses or for a new coat. It’s letters in the mail. It’s community leaders and public servants who care deeply and have the resources to enact their passions. It’s programs like World Vision’s “Go Baby Go,” that gives mamas like Ani information about child development and resources to foster learning and creativity in their children.

The fact is that most of us are not murderers or robbers or human rights violators, even if we have a share in murders and robberies and human rights violations. And the fact is that most of us aren’t heroes or great philanthropists or life-savers… but we also have a share in heroism and philanthropy and saving lives. Giving a few dollars to a panhandler matters. Talking to someone who doesn’t get enough company matters. Being compassionate to someone who is feeling down matters.

Through a myriad small kindnesses, we repair the world.

Giving a few dollars to a panhandler matters. Talking to someone who doesn't get enough company matters. Being compassionate to someone who is feeling down matters. Through a myriad small kindnesses, we repair the world. Click To Tweet

But I want to be clear about a few things. First, I don’t think these balance out. I don’t think that every share in kindness counts against a share in death so that doing one cancels the other. Morality isn’t a balance scale, and it’s not so nice and mechanical. Doing something nice doesn’t get us off the hook. Plus, that’s the kind of thinking that can lead to scrupulosity, and that would be a bad thing.

Second, we need some bigger kindnesses. I’ll admit that I haven’t done my part. But we need more people to stand up for immigrants like Manuel Antonio Cano Pacheco. We need more people to stand against gun violence, sexual harassment and assault, mass incarceration, and the myriad other ways we hasten the death of others.

The fact is that we have a lot of work to do to get the blood off our hands and share the grace in our veins. Let’s get to it.

On Hymns and Local News

I am a nerd.

I’m a nerd about my faith. I read the Bible, I study theology, I talk to people about Christianity in general and mainline Protestantism in particular.

I’m also a nerd about news and politics. I read the Washington Post and Vox.com and other news sites and blogs. I listen to Crooked Media and On Point and other podcasts that cover politics. I watch national and local news on television. And I study the issues.

And here’s the thing. I know that other people in my congregation aren’t nerds about their faith, and I know that other people in my community aren’t nerds about news and politics. And the people who aren’t nerds include both people who agree with me on things and people who don’t. But the fact that people aren’t nerds about these things does not mean that they aren’t consuming information about these things. 

That’s one of the reasons that I’m particular about the hymns and other songs that we sing in worship on Sunday morning. Most people — especially the people who aren’t nerds about it — learn the tenets of their faith through songs. When we sing about the Jesus being a sacrifice to make atonement for our sins, we learn that that’s what Christianity is about. When we sing about justice and charity for the least among us, we learn that that’s what Christianity is about. As much as I might like to believe that sermons and classes make a difference — and they do make a difference — songs are where people really learn about their faith. So it matters what songs we sing.

As much as I might like to believe that sermons and classes make a difference — and they do make a difference — songs are where people really learn about their faith. So it matters what songs we sing. Click To Tweet

And local news does something similar.

On the front page of one of my local news broadcast’s website right now there are stories about a man who was arrested for smuggling firearms, the number of guns that have been recovered by police, a boil order for a nearby town, and another town that’s giving away free lots to people who will build homes on them. There are local weather forecasts and alerts. And there are links to state and national stories from their broader network. On tonight’s broadcasts, local anchors will report on these stories and more, forecast the weather, and give us the sports highlights.

But local news does more than report on the community. It also tells community members what they should pay attention to. When my local station reports on a local nonprofit, it is saying that that local nonprofit is important. And when it reports on sports (and not so much on the arts) it’s saying that sports (and not so much arts) are important. Local news matters because it is informative. It’s also important because it shapes what its viewers think matters.

And that’s why Sinclair Broadcasting is dangerous.

Sinclair Broadcasting is an unabashedly right-wing, pro-Trump media corporation that owns about 200 local television stations in more than 100 media markets. Right now, it reaches about 39% of U.S. households. It’s also trying to buy Tribune Media, which would expand its reach — both through its own channels and through agreements with other channels — to more than 70% of households.

That’s dangerous because Sinclair Broadcasting issues must-run segments to its local newsrooms. Some of these are identified editorials from Sinclair Broadcasting’s own staff, like former Trump administration special assistant Boris Epshteyn. Others are read by local news anchors, as highlighted in this video from Deadspin. That means that the same people who objectively report on local politics, community events, and sports, are also reading politically slanted stories. And they are not always telling viewers what is coming from their local station and what is coming from Sinclair Broadcasting.

Democracy relies on informed citizens… and on citizens who know where their information is coming from. A politically biased corporation crafting news stories and editorials, and putting those stories and editorials in the mouths of local anchors who are usually objective and credible, undercuts democracy. That’s true regardless of which side of the aisle that politically biased corporation is on. But right now is it a right-wing corporation mandating that local news broadcasts toe its line.

A politically biased corporation crafting stories, and putting them in the mouths of local anchors who are usually objective and credible, undercuts democracy. Local news matters. Protect it. Click To Tweet

So, what should we do about this?

First, find out which of your local stations are owned by Sinclair Broadcasting and get your news from somewhere else. Both Wikipedia and Vox and help you find those stations.

Second, let people in your community know what Sinclair Broadcasting is doing and encourage them to do the same thing. You might share this post, but I also recommend sharing this segment from John Oliver’s Last Week Tonight.

Third, as always, pay attention to your media diet. I know that I tack to the left, and I make sure that I seek out media that offers a different viewpoint. I also make sure that I look to reliable news sources before I believe a story that’s too good — or too bad — to be true. These include the New York Times, the Washington Post, the BBC, and CNN. Always double check stories.

Local news matters. Protect it.

Scenes from a #MarchForOurLives

Winter decided to throw one hopefully-last storm at us on the Saturday before Palm Sunday. But despite the rapidly accumulating heart attack snow — it’s called that because it’s wet and heavy, and people push themselves too hard when shoveling, inducing heart attacks — hundreds of people from the Quad Cities of Iowa and Illinois gathered at Vander Veer Park.

We were invited into St. Paul Lutheran Church (ELCA), where we took up two rooms. Speakers — including students, teachers, and community members — spoke in one room and then the other. Then we headed outside to march around the park showing our signs. There was chanting, cheering, and — since the park sits between two of the busiest streets in the cities — honking.

Hundreds of thousands of people — maybe more than a million — marched in Washington, D.C., and around the country. And I’m happy that a few hundred were willing to march in bad weather in Davenport, Iowa. Far too many people are injured and killed by guns in this country. Some of those injuries and deaths are from mass shootings. Many more are from guns used in crimes and suicides. As a country, we need to admit that we have a gun problem and begin making the kinds of changes that can address it.

As a country, we need to admit that we have a gun problem and begin making the kinds of changes that can address it. And I strongly suspect those won't be little changes. Click To Tweet

And I strongly suspect those won’t be little changes. They will need to be big, sweeping changes. Things like outlawing some kinds of guns, creating real licensing programs based on everything from the kind of gun to the individual’s training and mental health status, red flag laws, and banning both open and concealed carry. 

Yes, that will inconvenience some people. And yes, it will feel to some people like their rights are being taken away. But, in reality, it will simply be a reassertion of the second amendment’s own words. Gun ownership and use will be well regulated. And that will mean that our children — and all of our friends and neighbors — are safer.

Pragmatic Progressivism

It’s no secret that I’m on the political left. It’s no secret that, as much as there’s a left-right divide in the church, I’m on the theological and ecclesiological left. I support things like a robust welfare state, universal healthcare, a universal basic income, an emphasis on diplomacy, and a host of other progressive causes. More than that, I support a charitable society; I hope for a world where there is not a needy person among us, because we share freely with each other as there is need.1Acts 4:32-37

I also recognize that, given the current political climate and the broader culture of the United States — let alone the world — many of these things are unlikely to happen without direct divine intervention. We live in an imperfect world. While I can hope — and work — for the Kingdom of God, I know that the most I will accomplish in my lifetime will fall far short of that.

Which bring me to the point I made in this post: there is eschatological hope and there is immanent hope. My eschatological hope is for the Kingdom of God. My immanent hope is for more immediately attainable things, like winning elections.

That is to say: I am a pragmatic progressive. I am interest is furthering our movement towards a world of greater justice and mercy, and I recognize that doing so may mean accepting imperfect incremental improvements. That doesn’t mean that I abandon my eschatological hope. It simply means that I don’t make the perfect the enemy of the good.

Footnotes   [ + ]

Timothy Burke: Enough

If America is not great, it is not for a lack of attention to our sensitive right-wing snowflakes. They said: hands off our guns. Well, we stand now at the moment of the most intense judicial restraint on any attempt to restrict gun ownership and use in the history of this republic. They said: lower our taxes! We are the least taxed liberal democracy on the planet, we are 37 years into a national regime of ceaseless tax reduction. They said: cut the welfare state, get rid of the safety net! The safety net has been cut, the great revolution of the late 19th and early 20th Century in favor of public goods is nearly totally undone. They said: stop teaching our children what we don’t want them to know. Creationism is back in schools, the government is actively hostile to science, it’s ok for the top leaders of this country to endorse historical falsehoods and insist they be taught to the nation’s children. They said: we’re too free to see pornography and get divorced and live together outside of marriage and take drugs. And where is it that pornography is most popular and adultery flourishes and opoids and meth take hold? In Trumplandia, where people apparently need the Nanny State to stop them from doing what they blame on others who do it far less. They said: stop crime at all costs! And thirty years later, they’re still afraid in a country that locks up more of its own people than any other comparable nation, that allows cops to kill black men with impunity.

Carl Sandburg (‘A Revolver’)

Here is a revolver.

It has an amazing language all its own.

It delivers unmistakable ultimatums.

It is the last word.

A simple, little human forefinger can tell a terrible story with it.

Hunger, fear, revenge, robbery hide behind it.

It is the claw of the jungle made quick and powerful.

It is the club of the savage turned to magnificent precision.

It is more rapid than any judge or court of law.

It is less subtle and treacherous than any one lawyer or ten.

When it has spoken, the case can not be appealed to the supreme court, nor any mandamus nor any injunction nor any stay of execution in and interfere with the original purpose.

And nothing in human philosophy persists more strangely than the old belief that God is always on the side of those who have the most revolvers.

Before Anything Else, They Are People in Need

If you’ve been paying attention to the news at all, you know that Puerto Rico is in crisis. While President Trump as tweeted attacks on the mayor of San Juan and other Puerto Rican leaders who have criticized the government’s response, FEMA and other agencies – both public and private – have been working to help the people of Puerto Rico. Whether the response has been adequate or not, untold numbers of people are waiting for food, water, medicine, power, and other necessary resources. It will take decades, perhaps even generations, to fully recover.

And because the need is so dire, many of my friends are reminding people that Puerto Ricans are Americans and that many are veterans.

And that’s true. Puerto Ricans are, by law, American citizens (even though residents do not have a vote in Congress and are not allowed to vote in presidential elections). And tens of thousands of Puerto Ricans have served in the United States military since World War I. If we are grateful for the service of American veterans, we are grateful for the service of Puerto Ricans.

But none of that matters.

All that matters is this: Puerto Ricans are people in need. Before anything else, they are people in need. That should be the sole criterion on which we base our response.

So go, donate. I recommend the United Church of Christ’s disaster ministries 2017 hurricane fund, which will support efforts in Texas, Florida, Puerto Rico, and wherever else help is needed. The reason I recommend them it simple: in a few months, memory will fade and other disasters will dominate headlines… and the United Church of Christ will still be working where help is needed today. The United Church of Christ provides the longterm support that is needed in disaster recovery areas.

John Pavlovitz: I Am the Alt-Left, Mr. President

Heather marched on behalf of people she didn’t know, but valued greatly.
She spoke for people who are so often silenced by people like you.
She stood for those who are pushed to the margins of this life by people like you.
She declared the worth of all people, regardless of the color of their skin or their sexual orientation or their religious beliefs.
She lived this way; open-hearted, generously, sacrificially, humbly.
She died proclaiming that another life was as precious as her own; that every human being is intrinsically valuable, that every person is worth dying for.

And if that is the Alt-Left, Mr President—you can count me in.

Come Get Your Boy

Donald Trump isn’t a Republican issue or a rich people issue or a human issue. Donald Trump is a white people issue. Whenever Ben Carson says batshit crazy nonsense, Black people rise up, and let him know that he needs to STFU. Whenever Raven-Symone pops off, we put her cap back on. We even handled Rachel Dolezal for you. Yes, we also make jokes and come up with clever memes and hashtags, but at the core of all that is that we are letting these people know that they are embarrassing us as Black people. It is time, white people, for you to finally step up and recognize that you also (even more so) have a responsibility to your race. It is up to you to silence Donald Trump. Don’t just insult him and make fun of him. You have to connect it to your race. Recognize that he is embarrassing you as a white person. Simple snark won’t win here. You have to feel it. You have to use words like “as a white person” and “he is an embarrassment to my race.” Stop acting like Trump isn’t the pinnacle and the result of America’s history and tradition of white supremacy. And again, P.S.: Simply put, white people, come get your boy.

W. Kamau Bell

As a rule, I try not to write about things that are happening right now. This is especially true when there are big issues at play. I’m a slow thinker. I need time to let ideas percolate, to find the right words, to parse complicated ideas into simpler terms. And, of course, there are other people who are more gifted at saying the right thing in response to events quickly. I think both approaches are important. Someone to say something now, someone to keep talking after everyone has moved on to the next big thing.

But, right now, I need to say something: white people… we need to come get our boys.

This weekend, white supremacists marched in Charlottesville, Virginia. They did not wear hoods or masks. They marched with weapons. They marched with flags. They marched with salutes. They marched with banners and slogans. They marched in polo shirts carrying tiki torches.

As a friend of mine put it on Facebook: “So… I’m a white man in my 30’s. Today I’ve seen photos and videos of men who look just like me actively inciting violence against anyone who doesn’t look like they (we) do.”

Those of us who are white – and, especially, those of us who are white men and who are white Christians – need to take action here. We saw people who look like us on television representing us in a way that is awash with hate and ugliness. Some of us saw people we know. Some of us saw friends and family members. And we need to do something about this.

We need to tell people that it is shameful to fly the flags of hatred. We need to tell people that it is shameful to give the salutes of genocide. We need to tell people that it is shameful to threaten the innocent and the oppressed and the marginalized. And not just in general terms. We need to tell our brothers and sisters and parents and children and aunts and uncles and cousins and friends and colleagues and everyone.

These people who marched with the symbols of hate and oppression should feel ashamed. They should feel stigmatized. They should feel marginalized. They should repent of their ways or skulk back into the shadows.

We need to take responsibility for these people to look like us. And we need to do that every day. We need to come get our boys.

I Am Pleased to See That John McCain Did the Right Thing

The Senate rejected an attempt to repeal the Affordable Care Act last night. And, despite my somewhat cynical expectations, Senator John McCain did the right thing and voted against the bill. Credit where credit is due: well done John McCain, Susan Collins, and Lisa Murkowski.

As usual, the folks at Lawyers, Guns, & Money put it best:

This blog is proud to have always recognized and admired John McCain’s fiercely independent statesmanship.

…Susan Collins and Lisa Murkowski deserve a lot of credit too. Deserving even more are every member of the Democratic caucus, who were unwaveringly opposed. And the most credit goes to ordinary citizens who went to the streets, called, and wrote, and made this bill politically toxic. Cheers. The war for universal healthcare is far from over, but this is a huge win for the American people.

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