Could We Just Stop Using the Label “Pro-Life”?

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I did not have a book ready for review today and so jotted down some of my own thoughts about the Texas school shooting and the claims of our politicians to be pro-life. If this is more controversial than you like, here’s your chance to take a pass.

The shootings at an elementary school in Uvalde, Texas have reinforced my conviction that as a nation we have decided to sacrifice our children on an altar of guns. And it is not just Uvalde. There has been more than one mass shooting a day in the United States this year. We have more guns than people in this country. You cannot turn on the news in my city without reports of a shooting, often resulting in one or more deaths. Most of those both killing and dying are young.

And no neighborhood is safe. I thought I lived in a “safe” neighborhood until a woman was murdered in her front yard by a stalker. This was little more than a block away. I heard the shots and thought they were fireworks. Until I saw the news the next day. No place is truly safe when there are more guns than people and people seem angrier than ever. I’ve learned not to respond to aggressive drivers. They could be carrying. Some live with this all the time. I predict more of us will.

What is most disturbing in my state and many others is that the very people who have aggressively promoted pro-life measures are the same ones removing all the safeguards on gun ownership. We now have a permitless carry of concealed weapons law in our state but there has been no action on “red flag” laws that would allow a court ordered restriction of the access of someone with mental health issues to a gun–a measure the overwhelming majority of the American public favors. Such orders may be sought by family or law enforcement, require a court ruling and due process, and have limits protecting civil liberties. Yet even such measures do not impair law abiding citizens from buying any gun they want.

That is why I want politicians to stop using the label “pro-life.” Almost none that I know are consistently pro-life. They are only pro-life in the areas their base wants them to be pro-life. Which, from what I can see is “pro-fetus.” I wonder how much most of them really care for mothers and the life they are bearing. I say all this as someone who is pro-life in this sense.

What would it mean to be consistently pro-life?

  • Protecting the life of the unborn, unless this endangers the life of the mother.
  • Pro-life means access to all mothers to good pre-natal and post-natal care and affordable, quality daycare.
  • Pro-life means access to quality health care for all of our citizens, no matter your zip code or economic status. Good preventive care may actually save money as well as lives, especially for urban hospitals where the emergency room is the doctor’s office.
  • Pro-life means addressing issues of mental health. Often, mental health is something discussed by those who oppose even sensible gun measures, but then nothing is done to provide good mental health care, especially for those whose conditions might lead them to harm themselves or others.
  • Pro-life cares about our addiction crisis. Over 100,000 drug overdose deaths occurred in the US in the period ending in April 2021.
  • Pro-life cares about elder care. The warehousing of the elderly and the high numbers of COVID deaths early on in the pandemic in congregate care settings points up the lack in our care for our elder population.
  • Pro-life cares about the world we live in, the air, the water, and the climate. In some parts of the world, extended droughts threaten life as do prolonged high temperatures.
  • And pro-life is committed to substantive measures to reduce gun violence. As long as guns are ubiquitous, so will be gun violence. Pro-life asks, “why do we want guns?” Certainly there are legitimate reasons, but I believe that when many buy a gun, they make an implicit decision that they are willing to take a life. Sadly, most often, it will be the life of someone they know, or even their own life. Guns turn a momentary angry or self-destructive impulse into a fatal act.

I know few politicians who affirm a consistent pro-life ethic covering all of life for all people, no matter their status. So I wish they would stop saying they are pro-life because in my ears it is a hypocritical statement. At the same time, the politicians we elect reflect the people who elect them. For most of us, we cannot claim to be consistently pro-life either. We are selectively pro-life. We are not terribly disturbed that people in another zip code in our city have a much lower life expectancy, just because of where they live, or that some small island nations may have to find another place to live because their homes may be submerged.

Maybe as a country, we need to face that we have embraced a culture of death. We celebrate it in our videogames, television, and movies. We seem relatively indifferent to the 100,000 drug deaths or a million COVID deaths or the gun violence occurring every day in any major city. It makes me wonder how quickly we will forget the 19 beautiful children and two dedicated teachers who died in Uvalde. Already, those who died at the Topp’s grocery store in Buffalo are fading from view. Equally, we are indifferent to the nearly 42 million abortions in the U.S. between 1973 and 2019.

Little wonder we do not have consistently pro-life politicians. They are simply a mirror reflection of the people who have elected them. They are a reflection of us. Let’s stop pretending.

Living Under a Nuclear Cloud

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I’ve lived my whole life under a nuclear cloud, as likely most of you had. Recent events in Ukraine, and the nuclear sabre-rattling of Russia’s president have brought this to the fore. Most of us with any understanding of European history have a sense of how this conflict could escalate in some truly horrendous ways. In a statement widely attributed to Albert Einstein, it has been observed: ‘I do not know what weapons the third world war will be fought with, but I know that the fourth one will be fought with sticks and stones.”

“I do not know what weapons the third world war will be fought with, but I know that the fourth one will be fought with sticks and stones.”

-Attributed to Albert Einstein

My 36 year old son asked my wife and me how we dealt with the nuclear tensions of the 1960’s. It’s plain all this has been bothering him. It’s been bothering us as well, triggering all those memories of civil defense drills of crawling under desks or going down to the subterranean designated shelter area in our elementary school. I watched President Kennedy on our black and white TV show overflight pictures of Cuban missile bases 90 miles from our southern borders, bases from which much of the eastern US could be reached in minutes. I remember the tense days when we wondered if these would be our last. I remember that my parents did not have much to say to assure us, but that my dad continued to sit with me as I prayed my nightly prayers, talking until I dropped off to sleep. I didn’t know what the night or tomorrow would bring, but for the moment I felt a measure of safety. Perhaps that’s all we ever have.

My wife and I looked at each other as we took in our son’s question. We both said, “This is worse.” Is it that we know more, and have seen so many more instances of the unthinkable happening? Is it our apprehension of the volatility of a war in east central Europe, amid a cluster of nations, knowing past histories of how more and more became embroiled in what became “World Wars?” Is it apprehensions of a Russian president who has assassinated political enemies, violated sovereign borders, and crossed moral bright-lines of protecting non-combatants and medical facilities?

How do I deal with it? I think I try to limit the amount of time I give it without ignoring it. But I woke up the other night thinking of how serious this all is, and all I could do was pray myself to sleep–praying that God would restrain evil, confuse the efforts of evildoers, and to pray for Ukraine and the Ukrainian people and the safety of those seeking to flee to refuge. I also pray for our leaders and others in the world. How does one communicate firm and believable resolve and yet work to contain and quench a fire that could destroy much of the world, without fanning the flames? I’ve known God to give wisdom in the moment, and so I pray that God will give in spades that kind of wisdom to those who act on our behalf.

Having said my prayers, all I know to do is get on with my life, to keep showing up in my work, to sit down with gratitude to meals with my wife, to tend to our home, cleaning up fallen branches and reveling in the coming of spring. There are the evening walks, rejoicing in sunsets, watching children play and praying over the homes in my neighborhood the blessings of God. I remember that we never truly have the promise of tomorrow, only this moment, and the opportunities of the moment. For all I know, the garden I plant and tend may be left to another. One day, for sure, it will be. But there is goodness in this day. And I will keep tending that garden in hope of flowers and vegetables.

The day of my birth marks both the anniversary of Hiroshima and the Transfiguration. I live between the powers of destruction and the one who makes all thing new. Some wonder how one can press forward under the cloud. I do as well. How do you live when the push of a button can wipe out our efforts? The Transfiguration reminds me that all our efforts aren’t about results but are at best foretastes of what’s to come, and more often, I think, simply rehearsals for our work in the new creation.

Do You Hear Your Mother’s Voice?

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Do you ever hear your mother’s voice in your head? I do at times, and one of the messages I hear most often is, “you don’t have to say everything you think.”

I’ve gotten tripped up more times than I’d care to admit when I’ve ignored that voice. It might be that testy thought that I share in a discussion with my wife when it would have been better to hold my tongue and use my two ears instead. It could be that unkind word about a colleague who is not in the room that gets back to them, leading to a much longer discussion.

Then there are the comments in online discussions. I’ll see that patent falsehood or cruel remark about another person. And it is SO-O-O-O tempting to jump in. Usually, that is a great way to waste a day, leaving me thinking, “why couldn’t I keep my mouth shut.”

I’m the admin for a book page on Facebook (also called Bob on Books). Most of the time it is a pretty pleasant place and most people participate to get away from the unpleasantries of the world, or even the rest of Facebook. We have a “no ad hominem attacks” policy toward any person–politicians, authors, or each other. Yet I still find I have to deal with the comments of the person who uses the most innocuous post to attack a public figure they don’t like (but that others might). I find myself wishing they’d heard their mom saying, “you don’t have to say everything you think.” She probably did at some point.

Then there are the people who like to spoil others’ good time. We may be talking about mysteries and in the middle, someone feels they just have to let us know, “I don’t like mysteries and never read them.” Couldn’t they have just scrolled past?

The one thing I wish I’d asked my mom would have been “when do you speak up about what you are thinking?” There are times when our silence is assent to something that is terribly wrong and against what we hold most deeply. I recall a time in an online conversation where a person known to me in real life as someone who shares my religious convictions was mocking someone for a physical disability. I felt I couldn’t let that pass and wrote that I felt this was unbefitting of his professed faith. I still saw political statements I couldn’t agree with, which was fine–the world doesn’t have to agree with me. But no more like this, and thankfully we are still at least Facebook friends.

Then there are the times when a thought or an insight as your team grapples with a difficult question may be helpful. My own approach tends to be the “reflective observer” approach. I like the saying, “I read books and I know things.” Sometimes, it is actually important not to keep them to myself but to put them out there, not as pronouncements but as proposals: “I wonder if something like this might help…?”

I think what our mothers (and our wives!) were (are) trying to teach us is what is often called EQ or emotional intelligence. My wife will sometimes turn to me after a social gathering and ask, did you see what was really going on in that room? I’m learning that when you don’t say everything you think, you end up paying more attention to your context, what is really going on, and not just what is being said, which may not be the most important thing. Then you have a better chance that when you do speak your thoughts, they are worth hearing.

I don’t think not saying everything you think will solve global warming or bring world peace. It could make the online world a bit more pleasant. Often, though, the best reward may just be all the time you save by not having to clean up your verbal messes or trying to defend them. Mom knew what she was talking about.

The New Wave of Book Banning

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I’m interrupting my usual posting of book reviews to write about a troubling trend occurring in towns and state legislatures across the country. Book banning. There have long been challenges to books selected for school classes, usually centered around race, gender, and sexuality. In the past, it was a parent or group of parents. Rarely was a book actually banned. Rather, it was challenged. I joked that it was really just a ploy to sell that book. Booksellers featured “banned books,” sometimes bolstering the sales of books that likewise would have not gotten a lot of notice.

It’s not a joking matter any more. States are threatening criminal charges against librarians who place certain books in circulation. Books, such as The 1619 Project, which chronicles the presence of slavery in our country’s earliest history, and Howard Zinn’s A People’s History of the United States, have been banned by state legislatures on ideological grounds. It extends to novels as well, including Margaret Atwood’s A Handmaid’s Tale, Toni Morrison’s Beloved, and even, in Washington State Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird, recently voted the best book of the last 125 years by The New York Times Book Review.

It seems to me that the fundamental notion is to protect students from exposure to certain ideas and materials. The problem is actually a version of my joke about bans promoting sales. When Art Spiegelman’s classic graphic fiction work Maus was recently banned in a Tennessee school district, the book immediately topped Amazon’s best-seller lists. One comic bookstore in Tennessee has offered the book free to anyone in the school district.

What is most troubling is the use of state power to dictate what books will and will not be permitted in libraries and classrooms. I am troubled because it seems that the targets are often frank discussion of matters of religion, of race, and sexuality. To limit the ideas that may be explored and discussed seems to me to be a profound abridgement of the First Amendment.

I know. Years ago, I was associated with a group facing loss of its privileges for what I would call view point discrimination. One of our allies was a First Amendment attorney who disagreed with our perspective but believed we needed to be free to hold and advocate it. I believe the same applies with books. We may not agree with the content of books but I believe we need to fight to protect access to those books.

You may have wondered about the picture of the Bible associated with this article. At least some who are seeking to criminalize defying a legislative ban claim to be Christians. I wonder if they understand how vigorously through history many governments have banned ownership and distribution of the Bible, and people have literally died to make the scriptures available or to obtain even a portion of the Bible.

And it can happen here, especially if we cross the bright line of protecting free speech in written as well as spoken form. The Bible, if one actually reads it, is not a tame book. It has unblinking accounts of rape and violence as well as elevated discourses on the nature of love. I know those who believe it is actually a danger to society. And I can easily see that if it becomes acceptable to criminalize the distribution of certain books, the same argument could be applied to the Bible. And any student of our politics knows that the pendulum will swing. We, of all people, should most oppose bans on books.

In the past, at least, the solution for speech that offends is not to ban it, but to allow more speech, where this does not incite violence or slander or deliberately mislead to the harm of another. It is to allow discussion and protect difference. With students, it is to teach them how to think critically–to recognize fundamental premises, to understand various rhetorical devices and when rhetoric substitutes for reason and evidence. The sad thing is our social media echo chambers only allow for more speech that agrees, that echoes the prevailing view. The danger is that we want to turn schools and universities into the same kinds of places, echo chambers of the left or right, rather than examine argument and counter-argument, narrative and counter-narrative. And so we perpetuate and deepen the divides so troubling us.

Working in college ministry, especially in the age of the internet, I’ve learned there is no way to “protect” people from ideas. As a parent, I concluded that we could not protect our son from any idea. Rather, we talked about them. And if I didn’t like the choices of books in every instance (and many times I did like them and discovered he was reading things I was interested in reading), I would share about others I thought were better. The truth is that to this day, we don’t agree on some things, and I’m glad. I oppose cloning human beings, especially our children!

Ultimately, the use of state power to ban books seems both to open the door to tyranny and is a concession of the weakness of the ideas behind such efforts. Instead of the power of an idea, we resort to the use of force and threat. And what we have lost as we do so is our democratic republic. Tyrannies of both the left and the right are tyrannies. The banning of books is the first step in silencing and marginalizing the people we don’t like. It is but a further step to strip them of their rights, and then their humanity or even their lives.

As I conclude, I would speak to my book-loving friends, many of whom cringe at even the destruction of books that cannot be sold. We have varying tastes and varying convictions. At very least, we ought be committed to affording protection to those of others that we would want for our own. None of us wants to see a beloved book banned, whether that be Fifty Shades of Gray, The Invisible Man, Pride and Prejudice or The Bible.

We cannot take comfort with the libraries with which we’ve surrounded ourselves nor the friends with whom we talk books. If this movement grows, we too could become a danger to the state. These efforts need to be resisted, challenged in court, and subverted, as did the comic book salesman, or those who slip banned books into Little Free Libraries or those at great risk who have smuggled Bibles or as those in Fahrenheit 451, who memorized great books. After January 6, 2021, I’ve concluded that the unthinkable can happen. Edmund Burke’s warning does not seem cliche’: “The only thing necessary for the triumph of evil is for good men to do nothing.”

Pandemic Reflections: The Omicron Edition

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I did not think that in January of 2022 that I would still be writing pandemic reflections. Now, I’m beginning to wonder when pandemic reflections will be a thing of the past. Right now, I wonder who else I will learn has COVID when I open Facebook each day (perhaps opening Facebook is my mistake!). I keep hearing Omicron is milder but we’ve never had so many in the hospitals where I live. Right now, over 700 are dying each week in my state. Tests are hard to get. I suspect there are far more infections than those recorded on our state’s dashboard.

Against this backdrop, it is hard for me to hear talk about “new normals” and “I’ve got to live my life.” When schools scramble to get teachers in the classroom and bus drivers to get the children there, when restaurants close because all their servers are sick, when sports teams cancel big games because of “protocols,” this hardly seems normal and I wonder what kind of life we are trying to live when it requires a lot of people to get sick for us to live it, or equally when it requires us to get sick. This all sounds off to me, somehow. It makes me wonder what “living my life” means.

For me it has meant a two year respite from getting on airplanes. It’s meant growing closer to my wife who is my bubble-mate! It’s meant treasuring those times when we have gathered with others. It’s meant working on our home. It’s meant near daily neighborhood walks, glorious sunsets, changing seasons, and getting to know people along the route. So many of my work years have meant getting on a plane or jumping into a rental car for a trip and I haven’t met many of the people in our community beyond my immediate neighbors. I’ve participated in virtual pilgrimages with people from all over the country–times to walk, and meditate on scripture, to listen to stories, and to pray. I’ve written nearly 600 blogs, engaged in hundreds of online conversations, worked with over 30 talented writers in my work, hosted online conversations with a variety of authors and online book groups, and read a few good books along the way (actually more than a few!). I’ve enjoyed plein air painting with my wife and a group of artists in good weather, and actually felt I improved. While I can think of things I wish we could do, I’ve lived, and I think lived well these past years. I even weigh five pounds less than at the beginning of the pandemic (not much, but I’ll take it!).

And by God’s grace, we’ve remained healthy. I don’t presume it will continue when I hear reports saying nearly everyone will catch this latest variant. But neither am I going to run out, plunge into a big, maskless crowd and “get it over with.” That’s the vibe I get as I listen to the media. When I talk to friends our age (late 60’s), we feel like the tornado sirens are blaring and right now we are going to our safe place until the storm of this latest wave blows through. We’re getting good at this. We’ve had a lot of practice and many of us have found the richness of life on the other side of “safe at home.”

Here’s how we look at it. No illness is “milder” when you get older. It takes longer for anything from a cut to a cold or the flu to heal. Even if our vaccinations and booster mean we don’t get sick enough to go to the hospital, that can still be pretty sick. And it is a crapshoot when it comes to after effects. And getting exposed and sick adds to the strain on testing, on our primary care docs, pharmacists, and if we get sicker, a host of others at a time they are all being pressed to the wall. As far as it depends on us, we’ll try to avoid becoming another case.

What’s hard is that as you get older, it is easy not to think of yourself in that way, especially when you see the world around you trying to get back to “normal” in the middle of a wave. It’s easy to start questioning whether you are too cautious. It helps to have other older friends who tell you that you are not nuts.

So for the time, we do takeout. We shop early, and only as necessary, don’t linger, and wear at least a KN95 mask. We won’t do any indoor, unmasked gatherings with a significant group of people. Perhaps for the next few weeks at least, no indoor gatherings outside our bubble.

We don’t take talk of things “levelling off” or “lessening” at face value. We watch infection rates as a rough benchmark. At one time in our state, our governor wanted to get below 50 infected out of 100,000 (1 out of 2,000) over a two week period (and we actually got down to 19.2 per 100,000 last summer). Today the rate in our state is 1818.8 per 100,000 (nearly 2 out of 100) infected in the last two weeks (and because of test shortages, that number is probably low). That means in a group of 50, at least one person is probably infectious. That feels to me that we are amid a storm.

When it was a few hundred cases per 100,000 we did discretionary shopping, and some indoor dining at off hours. Probably, we’ll wait to see things go below 100 per 100,000 to go back to “normal,” perhaps with an Omicron booster.

At the end of the day, I realize there is no sure thing about any of this. The choices we make, we do so out of prudence (God never invites us needlessly to imperil our health or life) and love for each other. My choices affect my wife, other loved ones, and indeed a wider community. But they finally do not make us invulnerable. I live each day grateful for this day’s life (something the pandemic has taught me that is itself a gift). As a Christ-follower, I do believe that someday I will rest in peace with Christ and be raised with him in glory. So I act, not out of fear but rather as one who both lives in hope and cherishes each day of life. I’ve also learned with this pandemic this wisdom of James 5: 15 which says, “Instead, you ought to say, ‘If it is the Lord’s will, we will live and do this or that.’ ” It seems that any predictions of what this virus will do are folly, and the best we can do is say, “if it is the Lord’s will.”

This reflection is neither an argument or judgement on other choices. Some of the choices we’ve made, we realize, are not possible for others. It is simply a reflection of how we are thinking and acting at this stage of the pandemic. If it’s helpful to someone else, I’m glad, and if you see things differently, I have no interest in a quarrel. We have to get through this thing together, so a fight is counter-productive. I suspect whenever this relents, we’ll all have a lot of sorting out to do, and who knows but that we may end up helping each other–or at least forgiving each other the unkind judgements we have made upon one another.

The Compelling Alternative

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It was a familiar conversation, one I’ve been a part of many times in recent years. How did white evangelical churches become so captive to one political party, welcome patriarchal treatment of women and cover up abuse, become militaristic, nationalistic, anti-science and anti-environment, and racially divided from those who believed as they did but had different colored skin.

There have been a proliferation of critiques, both from other Christians as well as the secular press. What I found myself wondering as I listened to this discussion is why the alternative vision so many of my friends and I pursue has had so little sway among so many that claim the identifier “evangelical.” This is worth serious study, but I have a few very preliminary thoughts–less “answers” than hypotheses.

One is that we have focused more on critique than an alternative compelling vision of pursuing the kingdom. We focus more on:

  • What’s wrong with “making America great again” than on magnifying the greatness of God and God’s global mission of forming a great people of every language, tribe, ethnicity, and nation.
  • Criticizing patriarchy rather than casting vision for what marriages of mutual service shaped by Christ are like and what churches might be like where women and men use all of the gifts of God to serve the people of God in shared leadership.
  • We join the chorus of #MeToo discussing abuse in the church and rightly so. However, I rarely hear about redeemed, chaste, and flourishing sexuality–mostly what I hear is silence.
  • We speak against the racism of “white” evangelicalism but still have a long ways to go in partnership with believers of color, learning even to submit to their leadership and repenting of white Messiahship.
  • We denounce political captivity to one party, but offer little more than political captivity to another. Rarely do we recognize that the church is its own polis, a people of the Third Way speaking prophetically without being entangled with any party, turning neither to the left nor the right.
  • We deride the anti-science attitudes of others but fail to convey the doxological wonder of exploring the incredible world God has made, sometimes falling into a greater confidence in science than in God.

As I keep pondering this, I wonder if it is more than a matter of who has the better way? Might it be that we are both wrong? I wonder if we are looking at a mirror image of each other, and that we all have abandoned the core values that made evangelicalism such a vibrant movement within Christianity over the last couple centuries, not only in the U.S., but globally. David Bebbington has articulated this as a quadrilateral of core values:

  1. Bible-centered. We affirm the inspiration, trustworthiness, and authority of the Bible. My sense is that there is very little Bible in much of evangelicalism–often only in misapplied proof texts rather than attentive listening to and meditating upon and even memorizing scripture. In particular, one challenge for us is to read scripture together with people of color and believers from other parts of the world who may not have the same blinders we have.
  2. Cross-centered. The cross challenges all our pretensions to power and influence–from gender relations to politics. The cross gives us all pause to recognize that we are sinners, and that this recognition is good news, because in the cross, the curse of sin is reversed, real pardon is possible. We believe “the ground is level at the foot of the cross,” that all of us meet without distinctions of race, gender, socioeconomic status, or anything else that separates people. There is no “othering” and certainly no fear-mongering that infers the inferiority of others. We are all both base sinners and the redeemed of God.
  3. Conversion-centered. The cross shows us we need something more than personal and social betterment. We are dying people who need new life, and our hope is in Christ’s death and resurrection. Period. That both moves us to be converted and seek that of others. What I notice is how little we speak of these things. Have we so lost confidence in the transforming power of the gospel that we have turned to meagre earthly things like politics, or efforts to control other people?
  4. Activism. Evangelicals were distinguished by gospel energized activism that effected abolition of slavery, the building of hospitals, the earliest social agencies, and the founding of educational institutions, among other social goods. I wonder if much of our activism, whether of the right or left is co-opted by political connections or shaped by what is in favor in our political tribe rather than energized by the Jubilee proclamation of Jesus in Luke 4:18-19.

I wonder if white evangelicals of the left and right are both apostate. Have we both renounced our birthright in Christ, which is what is truly compelling? Are we both worshiping idols, just different ones? I wonder if we might begin with common confession that we have turned from our first love, a common repentance. Might that be the beginning of the revival we urgently need, both within the people of God and spreading to a deeply divided and struggling nation? Right now, we are only amplifying the divisions that exist among us when, as reconciliation people, we ought to be healing them. Might the beginning be to admit our unfitness for the work, and how desperately we need God to heal us before we can begin to bring healing?

Important Things We Can’t Seem to Talk About

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Conflict is as old as Genesis 3 when Adam and Eve bickered over who was at fault for their joint act of eating the forbidden fruit. What strikes me about our present moment is that there seem to be so many things that are actually quite important that large parts of our society simply cannot talk about with other large parts of our society:

  • Public health measures in a pandemic.
  • How we will make the drastic changes to limit carbon emissions and mitigate the climate effects that are too late to prevent.
  • How we will face our deeply engrained history and patterns of racism and find ways to repair the damage and move toward the “beloved community.”
  • How we will stop “othering” those who are different than we are and recognize that common citizenship, whether in the nation or the world.
  • How we will address growing disparities of wealth and poverty; particularly when wealth has power to protect its position.
  • What it will take to move beyond gerrymandered politics in which political representatives must pander to extreme bases while the moderate middles that make up the majority don’t have anyone who speaks for them.

I don’t think this is a silver bullet for these really tough conversations. But I do think in our highly internet-mediated world we have forgotten how to talk with others, except those of our tribe. With others, we seem to have concluded that we can be nasty and dismissive and forget that they are human beings.

Tish Harrison Warren in a recent New York Times opinion piece suggests that we need to recover the art of small talk with our neighbors. I don’t have to leave my neighborhood to find those who see the world differently than I–political parties, social issues, race, religion, you name it. But we help each other find lost animals, share recommendations on home repairs, redeliver the mail our postal service regularly seems to scramble. Of course, we all share a love for our home town sports teams.

Can we extend that online? I notice that my “friends” who share what I think the most outrageous things, also share their personal joys and sorrows, the things common to all of us–the birth of a child or grandchild, a graduation, a serious illness, the death of a parent. Sometimes they will say things I can affirm. Do I ignore them, or express compassion or agreement.

We still haven’t gotten to the serious matters I mentioned above. That’s genuinely challenging and I am not sure I see the way forward, entirely, but I can’t help but wonder if caring for each other’s families, and especially our children and grandchildren is a decent common ground. The commonplaces that we love might just be a good enough reason to step into the hard work. The impasses that exist on so many important questions mean we very well could leave a pretty messed up world to those who follow. I so fear that part of my dying words, if I am permitted them, will be simply, “I’m sorry for the mess I’ve left you.”

While the scriptures say, “God so loved the world” they command us to love our neighbors. Neighbors are both tangible and situational. They are the people who live all around me. They are the ones with the immaculate yard, the barking dog, the kid who excels at everything. Neighbors are also situational. They are the ones who unexpectedly intrude into our life–like the girl at the fast food window who tells me she was hesitant to get vaccinated because of a relative who died shortly after getting one. There are logical answers to that and loving ones that recognize loss.

On a spring break urban project years ago with a church in St. Louis, we saw “re-neighboring” in action. In an area with a tenuous fabric of neighborhoods, people moved in, stayed, and cared and then worked to re-develop home ownership and mutual care in that neighborhood. We’re in a time as we struggle to emerge from the pandemic where we need to lean into “re-neighboring” both with tangible and situational neighbors.

Many of our global and national challenges do require concerted action. But I can’t help wonder if the basis for such action are healthy local communities that decide to really practice “neighboring” instead of being isolated into internet echo chambers susceptible to manipulation by the political machines and other nefarious actors. Maybe Mr. Rogers was right when he asked, “Won’t you be my neighbor?”

Ethics For Algorithms

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You are probably aware that the material that shows up in your newsfeed on Facebook or Twitter is only a fraction of what your friends and connections are posting, and some of it is sponsored content tailored for you. Have you every wondered why you are seeing what you are seeing? Algorithms (and a lot of data collected about you).

A similar kind of thing happens when you search on Google. I am surprised how often it works well and I find exactly what I’m looking for. But sometimes it goes sideways. Why for example, when Dylann Roof searched Google, following up a search on Trayvon Martin with a search on “black on white crime” did the top search choices come up as white supremacist organizations? Algorithms.

Why, when I search for a book on Amazon, do I receive a number of recommendations of books in the form of “because you looked at this, you might like this”? I have similar things occur at Barnes & Noble or at Thriftbooks. Why? Algorithms.

One definition of an algorithm I found is: “a process or set of rules to be followed in calculations or other problem-solving operations, especially by a computer.” Actually, algorithms are not some arcane mathematical art. They may be as simple as the process we use to solve a long division problem or the process we use in doing our laundry.

What is happening with all these algorithms is that somebody, an individual or group, has established a set of rules to determine what you see. What much of the world became aware of when Frances Haugen appeared on 60 Minutes this past Sunday night is that the ethic behind these rules that form the algorithms is very important. Haugen alleged, producing massive documentation, that Facebook has consistently chosen profit over safety on its various platforms. For one thing, it selected content that fostered anger on its newsfeeds despite the fact that it often spread misinformation and fostered division simply because this kept people on the platform longer, which was where the money is. Another prime example is the impact that it was aware of Instagram having on teenage girls. Not only do glamorous images feed body-shame, but they discovered that the shame and depression keeps girls on the platform in an emotionally destructive spiral. They knew this and did nothing to change their algorithms of what these girls saw.

Computer-based algorithms are widely used for everything from fantasy baseball to mortgage application processing to screening resumes to your FICO score. People are not directly making decisions about what we see online or about our finances or career aspirations. Machines are making the decisions, using the rules programmers establish in the code.

There are at least a few key ethical considerations that rise to the top, highlighted in Cathy O’Neill’s, Weapons of Math Destruction:

  1. How opaque or transparent are the rules used in the algorithm? Most of the time, the algorithms are highly opaque and we know that we’ve been affected but we don’t know why. Because of this, questions of fairness often arise–how do factors of race, gender, age, etc. get factored in?
  2. What is the scale of impact of the algorithm? FICO scores affect credit, auto insurance costs, getting hired or promoted, and being able to rent an apartment or buy a house. How will this algorithm be used in the marketplace and what protects individuals from wrongful harm?
  3. What is the damage this could cause? Where possible, this should be considered proactively. For example, on social media, under what conditions is more engagement harmful to persons or the broader social context?

This is not easily done, particularly because algorithms serve beneficial purposes as well as cause harm. At very least, identifying the real instances of unfairness and harm and eliminating these, or better, anticipating them, seems a place to start. What is most egregious about the content of Frances Haugen’s testimony was that internal studies were showing known harms from platform algorithms that were not addressed because of profit considerations. We should never use complicated ethical questions to forestall dealing with the clear-cut ones. Let’s begin here.

Community Doesn’t Stop At Your Feet

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I’m in the middle of several long books, hence fewer reviews in recent days. So I thought I might share one interesting idea from one of the books I’m reading. In Majority World Theology, theologians from around the world write on the major themes of Christian theology. The situation of various writers offers unique perspectives. One of these was from some Christians from Canada’s indigenous peoples. Writing about community, one writer observed that land for indigenous people was considered part of their communal life. For indigenous peoples, separating people from the land, as occurred with the Cherokee tribes who traveled (and died along) the Trail of Tears in U.S. history, is devastating

Certainly this was true of ancient Israel as well, and part of the grief of exile was the parting of people from their land. I wonder if this is actually true of many people in the world. It makes me think that many of us modern urban Euro-Americans may be the anomaly. We live on land but often think little about it. We live in places from which we draw our life but often think little about its care or future.

Even the quarter acre on which I live is vibrantly alive and I’m part of a complex community of microbes, creatures in the soil (including the grubs of the seventeen year cicadas who emerged this summer and created cacophony), and insects and spiders. Hundreds of species of vegetation draw nutrients and water from the soil and the air and return them as they decay. Squirrels, chipmunks, the occasional skunk, rabbits, possums and raccoons and birds from sparrows to vultures visit our property.

St Francis of Assisi spoke of the animals as his brothers and sisters and preached to the birds. Hildegard of Bingen commented, “Every creature is a glittering, glistening mirror of divinity.” John Paul II loved to ski and hike in his native Poland and urged an “ecological conversion.”

I wonder if our own lack of connection to the land and community with its creatures makes us less sensitive to those around the world who face displacement from their homes, and what a wrenching decision it is to flee one’s home. Even if they leave as a family, they leave a “family” behind, a part of themselves. As sea levels rise, as temperatures and drought in some areas, or inundations in others displace these “climate refugees,” will they find those who grieve with them or will we close our doors to them?

I’m struck that many of our burial rites even sever our relationship to the land. Where at one time, we committed the remains of those who died to the earth, now we keep them in columbariums, or even on a shelf in our homes. We believed “for dust you are and to dust you will return” (Genesis 3:19). In past days, churches had graveyards, where we remembered the “saints of old,” a communion of land, and people past and present.

Might a renewed awareness of our community with the land around us begin to teach us to love the wider world? And might that awareness help us care for those displaced, including those our own forebears displaced? I’m reminded every time I hear the name of a river in my state, and even the name of my state that people lived here long before it was “discovered” and “pioneered.” Many of our roads began as their trails. They left their impact on the community in which I live, even as I will for another generation. And the land ties us together.

The Freedom of the Christian

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I hear a lot of talk about freedom in our current pandemic situation where people do not want to accept mandates to wear masks or be vaccinated to hold a job or participate in a function. I don’t want to discuss that for the moment because I believe this reflects a different understanding of freedom than how I understand freedom as a Christian. When we discuss things from different premises, we often end up talking past each other–no wonder we disagree.

As a Christian, I understand freedom as freedom from and freedom to. Fundamentally the uses of freedom from in the Bible are either freedom from human bondage or freedom from sin. In the Old Testament, the outstanding case was the liberation of the people of Israel from slavery in Egypt. Exodus 20:2, the prologue to the Ten Commandments says “I am the LORD your God, who brought you out of Egypt, out of the land of slavery” (NIV). Even here, we see they are freed from Egyptian bondage for a relationship with God.

The other form of bondage is that to sin. The singular “sin” refers to the fundamental approach that says to God, “not thy will but mine.” Bondage to sin means a life of running from God, living under the tyranny of self, broken relationships with others, and the abuse of creation, fouling our own nest as it were. In one of the most famous passages, often misappropriated, Jesus said:

Then you will know the truth, and the truth will set you free.”

They answered him, “We are Abraham’s descendants and have never been slaves of anyone. How can you say that we shall be set free?”

Jesus replied, “Very truly I tell you, everyone who sins is a slave to sin. Now a slave has no permanent place in the family, but a son belongs to it forever. So if the Son sets you free, you will be free indeed. (John 8:32-36, NIV)

Jesus says elsewhere that the truth that sets free is “to believe in the one he has sent” (John 6:29) or in the immediate context, “If you hold to my teaching, you are really my disciples” (John 8:31). Jesus says real freedom comes in believing and obeying him.

That brings me to the freedom for. Real freedom is to be freed for right relationships: with God, with ourselves, with each other, and with the creation. Instead of rebelling against and running from God, we love God and believe that our highest joy is found in “knowing and glorifying God forever.” Instead of seeing ourselves at the center of the universe, we find that our greatest dignity is living as beings who reflect the character of the God who is. It is a great relief to realize that God is God and we are not. When I realize I’m not the center of the universe, I can get along better with others. When we accept that we are creatures entrusted with the care of a creation that belongs to the God who made us, we cherish what he made and seek its flourishing. We gain freedom from poisonous water, polluted air, unhealthy food, and, hopefully, a climate out of control. And other creatures of God gain their lives.

Paul’s letter to the Galatians may be called the manifesto of Christian freedom. Here is what he says our freedom is for:

You, my brothers and sisters, were called to be free. But do not use your freedom to indulge the flesh; rather, serve one another humbly in love. For the entire law is fulfilled in keeping this one command: “Love your neighbor as yourself.” If you bite and devour each other, watch out or you will be destroyed by each other.

Paul says that our freedom in the society of people comes not in seeking our personal wants but rather seeking for our neighbor what we want for ourselves. He observes that self-seeking at the expense of others is an exercise in mutual destruction. It deeply troubles me that people cloak this disregard of neighbor in an assertion of personal freedom against “tyranny.” Paul wrote these words under the tyranny of Rome that would one day take his life. The use of “tyranny” in our context is an insult to the sacrifice of martyrs to real tyranny around the world.

As I think about our present moment, freedom means freely choosing to do all I can to protect others from being infected by COVID. Masks block the spread of the virus to others. The vaccine can sometimes prevent infection, or if not, make me less infectious to others. No one has to require these of me. If they prevent my neighbor from getting sick, even if I do, that is love for my neighbor.

These verses challenge me in my response to those who differ. My temptation is to belittle their decisions, which I believe endanger themselves and others. I think my belief warranted, but my belittlement or angry reactions are also indulgences of the flesh and a form of biting and devouring. Where I have done this, I am in the wrong.

But I do want to question my Christian brothers and sisters who refuse to wear masks or receive vaccinations, despite their safety, for reasons of personal freedom, to explain how this freedom takes precedence over the love of neighbor and the humble service of others. I would love to know how you believe this is both love of God and neighbor for which you have been freed in Christ. I honestly would like to understand how an assertion of personal freedom that puts at risk the freedom, health, and possibly life of another is consistent with freedom in Christ. In our present situation, I am deeply concerned that this especially puts the children Jesus loves, and those with other illnesses, at greater risk.

My discussion is not with those who do not share my faith commitments but with those who say they do, who say they follow Christ. It seems to me that you are embracing a worldly rather than Christian definition of freedom. My concern is that when we embrace the worldly, we move away from right relationship with God, ourselves, our neighbors, and the world. Instead of freedom, we return to an embrace of bondage. That is even more deadly than COVID. I dare to raise these concerns not merely out of concern about a disease, but out of concern that you renounce the freedom that is in Christ for a poor substitute.