“What Will Peace Among the Whites Bring?”

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Frederick Douglass, Public Domain via Wikimedia

“If war among the whites brought peace and liberty to the blacks, what will peace among the whites bring?” Frederick Douglass, July 5, 1875.

I came across this statement by Frederick Douglass in David W. Blight’s biography of Frederick Douglass. He was speaking at a July 5 picnic in the black section of Anacostia, called Hillsdale. Douglass, escaped slave and abolitionist had spent the ten years after the end of the Civil War working with Republicans, especially under Grant, in advocating for the full civil liberties of Blacks in the South under what is known as Reconstruction. One of the things that broke his heart was the tendency of Northern whites to reach accommodations with those in the South–accommodations that turned a blind eye to lynchings and the suppression of the vote and hindered black citizens in their efforts to get educated and make economic progress. These accommodations were the “peace” to which Douglass referred, and what Douglass foresaw were all the odious outcomes of Jim Crow.

I wonder if things have really changed. I would contend that whenever a white person points out evidence of the continued racialization of our country, and our unwillingness to truly face the original sin of racism that has passed from generation to generation in our country North and South, one can expect a smackdown. Whenever one speaks against abuses of civil rights of people of color, whether it is racially-profiled traffic stops, the shooting of unarmed “suspects,” or keeping refugee children in cages, one can expect pushback.

On social media, this often comes in the form of “trolling” and “gaslighting” comments that are broadsides interested neither in substantive discussion nor truth. I’ve had this happen when I’ve written on such things. The social pressure is to toe the line, and stick to posting cute pet videos.

One thing I notice when this happens. All of the people making these kinds of posts and applying this social pressure are whites as I am. Increasingly, this makes me wonder what they are afraid of losing or what injustices they are complicit in that they just do not want to face. I wonder why they are so bothered they feel the need to do this. Have I disturbed their peace?

I’m a middle child, and so peacemaking comes natural. But Douglass alerts me to a kind of peace we cannot make. We cannot make peace when it allows the exploitation or subjugation or unjust treatment of other human beings. Making this kind of peace, “toeing the line,” as it were means turning my back on the suffering of fellow human beings whose difference from me is something as superficial as skin pigment.

I’m not one of those who is constantly writing on issues. I prefer writing about books I’ve enjoyed or my beloved home town of Youngstown. But there are times when I realize that refusing to write to keep the peace (as well as engaging in other forms of advocacy and engagement) is to buy my peace at the expense of others.

Someone has said, “may the peace of Christ disturb you.” I think that is right. We should be disturbed when we see people Christ loves being excluded from the wholeness, the flourishing, that biblical peace involves.

So don’t be surprised if I don’t pay attention to your attempts to get me to keep the peace and toe the line. It’s not that I don’t like peace. I just like it for all human beings and not just “my kind.”

Getting Impeachment Right

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The Impeachment Trial in the Senate of Andrew Johnson, Theodore Davis, Public Domain, via Wikimedia

In 2016, I mentioned to some friends that I feared with either candidate, that there was a good chance we might see an impeachment process. It appears that my fears were warranted. Having lived through the preparations for impeachment after Watergate that led to the resignation of Richard Nixon and the impeachment trial of Bill Clinton, I was saddened, because I realized that no matter the outcome, in our present climate, it was going to get messy, and perhaps ugly.

I have no interest in discussing whether impeachment proceedings are warranted or not with this president. What concerns me at this point is that our elected officials in both houses of Congress need to cease to see themselves as members of political parties and understand their roles in upholding the Constitution, the rule of law, and separation of powers, and the public good. The more that both House and Senate members (and Justice Roberts, who will preside in the Senate if the House passes articles of impeachment) can see the president as neither of their own party or the opposition party but as a citizen holding high office who, at the time of writing, may be accused of “high crimes and misdemeanors,” the better.

I realize that in our present climate, that seems practically impossible. Yet given that climate, it is all the more urgent that leaders of both parties determine how to go forward where they act as a separate branch of government, and not as partisans for or against the president. Right now, the role of the house is akin to a Grand Jury, examining evidence to determine if charges that must be tried are warranted. When it comes to a trial in the Senate, the Senators become jurors. I’ve been a juror on two trials, one a murder trial. I had to approach this as “innocent until proven guilty” (and if I could not, to disclose this), and to be willing to find a defendant guilty, if the charge was proven beyond reasonable (not all) doubt.

What our system asks of ordinary citizens is to serve the interests of justice with as much impartiality as humanly possible. Now we need to ask our elected officials to do the same. Many of those in the Senate are lawyers. They understand well these responsibilities. What seems to me crucial is that those of the Democrat party should ask themselves if they, on hearing all the evidence, would vote any differently were the President of their own party. For the Republicans, they should ask themselves if they would vote any differently were the President not a Republican. I’ve written asking such of my own elected representatives.

I think at this point the American people do not believe party members of either House capable of acting in this fashion. [I will acknowledge that eventually the House will designate “managers” who will prosecute the charges or articles of impeachment, and that the President will designate those who will present his defense. Those individuals obviously have to be zealous advocates in an impeachment trial.] Most expect this to play out along partisan lines in both houses, merely reinforcing and deepening the existing political divides.

What concerns me in all this is the weakening of Congress as a separate branch of government, acting for the public good while seeking to uphold the constitution. Leadership in both houses need to think about the long game of our republic’s future and not the upcoming election. If majority and minority leadership in each house fail to come together, the result will only be the diminishment of their own power and the expansion of presidential power. While little may be legislated, the trend of the last several presidencies of the use of executive orders will increase.

We feared an imperial presidency in the time of Richard Nixon. Increasingly there are those who clamor for one now, seeing the weakness and perpetual conflict within our legislative branch. We have had a system where the president is answerable to the legislature and the courts. How the leadership of both parties act in the coming months, regardless the outcome, will determine whether this balance will hold and whether they will enjoy the increased or diminished confidence of the American people.

It seems to me a perilous time. Those who are people of prayer ought devote themselves to this. And one hopes that those who represent us also recognize the time we are in, and rise to greatness rather than retreat to “politics as usual.” While we have survived past crises, that does not mean we will this one. All I can do is hope. And pray.

[I know it is very tempting to argue one side or the other of these issues online. I believe these are matters for our elected officials. Any partisan comments on this post, either on this blog or on social media, will be taken down without comment. Use the time you would spend writing engaging your elected representatives.]

The Insects are Coming!

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Maize weevil, U.S. Department of Agriculture, [CC BY 2.0], via Flickr

The other day, we had a delivery scheduled at our home. A young man was directing the driver as he backed into our driveway when suddenly he yelled, “Stop!” He pointed up, and low and behold, there was a nest of bald-faced hornets hanging from a branch in the maple tree by our drive, about twelve feet from the ground. Concealed partially by leaves, we had not noticed it. I’m glad this young man did, because bald-faced hornets are nasty insects when aroused. They can sting repeatedly and respond in large numbers when their nest is endangered. Not something any of us wanted to deal with.

Because of the location, near a sidewalk where many people, including school children walk, we had no safe alternative but to call a pest control company to remove it. If the nest had been on a part of our property remote from house or walks we could have safely left it a few more weeks because the first frosts would have taken care of it. The young man who came out, wearing protective gear, quickly took care of it. We were chatting about the warmer temperatures and changes in growing seasons and then he made an interesting comment. He said, “I don’t know about this climate change stuff, but it sure has been good for our business.” He deals with things like termites and ant infestations as well.

Much of the focus in discussions of climate changes have focused on rising sea levels, melting glaciers, warmer temperatures, drier or wetter conditions, more severe weather events and so forth. Another consequence however is greater problems with insect pests that eat crops, that carry disease, and invade our homes. My pest control man is already seeing the difference in his bottom line. I guess climate change isn’t bad for everyone!

It is bad news for the world’s food supply. Insects are ectotherms, which means that their metabolisms speed up as it gets hotter. They eat more and reproduce more quickly. Some projections suggest up to a 46 percent increase in wheat yield losses, 31 percent for corn, and 19 percent for rice. This compounds potential losses from weather events, drought, and other climate-related problems.

Two other factors also stand out. One is that insect ranges are changing. As once-temperate zones get warmer, tropical and subtropical insects are able to move into these zones. Also, in northern areas, like the one I live in, many insects don’t survive stretches of sub-freezing temperatures. Some always do, but more will with milder winters.

While the most critical impact could be on crop yields, we can’t ignore the increased prevalence of insect-borne diseases and the need to deal with more insect pests invading our homes.

It is possible that various pest management approaches and insect-resistant plants can offset some of these impacts. But it also means we should be prepared to spend more addressing the problems these pests cause. It might be extra cost for increasingly scarce food or even food shortages. Or it might simply be extra production cost. Wearing insect repellents may become necessary whenever we go out. Pest inspection and control measures may become a cost we factor into home maintenance.

A saying I remember from the first Earth Days in the 1970’s was “there is no such thing as a free lunch.” We may have fueled our high energy economy relatively cheaply with fossil fuels, only to find we have merely deferred the cost of our actions, perhaps long enough that our children will be the ones to pay them. If nothing else, it appears they may face a buggier future. I doubt they will thank us for it.

One Writer’s Journey (So Far)

Writing

Photo by Free-Photos via Pixabay

I discovered that the post that will go up on Bob on Books on Saturday will be number 2000 on the blog. In the interest of truth, a handful of these have been contributed by a guest reviewer, for which I’m thankful. This is in a bit over six years. The biggest surprise in this has been to discover I am a writer, that this is at least a piece of my calling. Six years ago I would not have described myself this way, which has been one of the biggest surprises of this journey. I will leave judgments on the quality of my writing to others.

What I’ve noticed about myself over the years is that at times I’ve had the knack of distilling the sense of what people are trying to say into something with a bit greater clarity. Some of that I’ve done at work in emails and memos, letters and documents, or in research papers in grad school or talks given in collegiate ministry. It is often the case that in the writing, I figure out what I want to say. Myers-Briggs people will chalk it up to my INFJ type. Usually it has just been work that needed done. I never thought of myself as a writer.

The blog grew out of posting reviews on Goodreads. I started that mostly as an exercise in remembering what I’ve read and what I thought of it. The exercise of reducing hundreds of pages to 500 to 800 words (usually) was a good way for me to see if I had grasped the essence of the book. Eventually I added summaries where I reduced it to a sentence. That is hard. Enough others found it helpful that I was encouraged to attempt the blog to make the reviews available to those not on Goodreads.

I can’t review a book every day. So I wrote posts on reading and on life. Some of the latter provoked a good deal of comment as I wrote on things I care about such as the captivity of the evangelical church to politics, the environment, immigration, and on different issues in higher education. Here again, I had the strange experience of hearing from people that I had given words to the things they thought and felt. I had a younger friend recently thank me for being an older (!) voice affirming things she held deeply.  Of course there were those who took issue with me. Most of the time, I was just working out my own ideas on the things about which I was writing.

Then I started writing about my home town of Youngstown. I initially thought it would be a post or two, until I made the mistake of writing about food! Youngstowners love food (don’t we all?). That work has been a combination of putting into words what a good place this was to grow up in during the years I lived there, and exploring the people and events, and forces, natural and human, that shaped this place. I’ve had the privilege of interacting with hundreds if not thousands of Youngstowners who have added so much to my understanding of the place where we grew up, while discovering that so many of my memories resonate with theirs. Now I’m working to put some of this into book form under a contract with a publisher.

This “side hustle,” as it were, led to another interesting turn in the road as I took on a new assignment with the collegiate ministry for which I work. In July, I started directing a “digital first” effort to develop resources and network aspiring scholars who want to connect their faith and academic lives, living out their God-given callings. That means both more writing and work with others writers, as well as other kinds of collaborations.

I admit that I muse on what this all means and I have even less clue today than six years ago where this will go. What I have concluded is that I am a writer, if by that you mean a person who writes. I want to get better at this work and put time into it nearly every day. I love finding words for ideas.

Some things I’ve been learning along the way:

  1. The only way to improve at writing is to write…and write…and re-write!
  2. Reading and writing are inextricably linked in my life, not only because I review, but books are part of the community that feeds my own imagination. When I find writers I like, it is fascinating to figure out what in their writing I like.
  3. Speaking of community, I draw so much from both local and online communities. While actual writing at times requires solitude, it is impossible (at least for me) without others.
  4. Facility in writing comes with practice–writing begets writing.
  5. Story-telling is vital even in non-fiction. The only difference is making sure that the story you tell is true. Even ideas have a story, a history.
  6. It’s amazing where curiosity will take one. I’ve probably found this most in writing about Youngstown. How did a place get its name? Who is the person it was named after and what did they do? Recently I wrote a post about a place I passed many times but never knew what happened inside (nothing nefarious!). Finding the answer to that, and the history behind it was sheer delight.

Finally, I would say I’ve written about what I like and am interested in. Why would you do otherwise? I guess I believe that if you work hard to convey your interest in something, you don’t need to worry about whether others are “interested.” I would also say, don’t wonder about whether you are a writer. I think one discovers that in the writing. At least I have.

 

 

Do We Need a New Andrew Carnegie?

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By Theodore Christopher Marceau – Library of Congress, Public Domain, via Wikimedia

Andrew Carnegie was a steel and rail baron of the nineteenth century who made a fortune, and then spent the last two decades of his life giving much of it away. All told, he gave away approximately $350 million (the equivalent of $65 billion) in today’s dollars. Some say he was atoning for the ruthless practices involved in acquiring his fortune. He was a pioneer in developing the vertically integrated industry in which rail, coal, steel, and steamship lines controlled every aspect of production.

After selling his industries to what became U.S. Steel in 1901, he turned his focus to giving away his fortune. One of his major investments was libraries. His idea was to give his resources so that the poor could help themselves, and libraries were a key component of his philanthropic strategy. His first library was built in Dumferline, Scotland in 1883. He built libraries in Great Britain, Canada, other English speaking countries and in the United States. The first in the U.S. was in nearby Braddock, Pennsylvania, opened in 1888.

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Source unknown, widely attributed to Andrew Carnegie

According to Wikipedia, by 1923, 1419 grants totaling $45,865,440.10 resulted in the building of 1647 libraries. An NPR story puts the total at $60 million building 1689 libraries. Worldwide, his grants funded construction of over 3,000 libraries. In addition, he invested in educational institutions, including Carnegie Institute of Technology (now Carnegie-Mellon University) and Tuskegee Institute (a historically Black college). He also invested in pension funds for his workers and in the arts.

Many of the library buildings constructed with his grants are still standing, often among the distinguished architectural structures in their towns, whether still in use as libraries or not.

So what is the situation today? Libraries offer a tremendous array to Carnegie’s working man or women and their children. In addition to books, a variety of digital resources are available for lending, children’s programs, tutoring programs and a variety of adult education programs are offered in many communities that assist with job skills and job hunting. Computer resources provide online access for those who cannot afford these or have only limited access. Most libraries are providing ever-growing numbers of people with greater numbers of services, often at fairly static funding levels, making them among the most efficient organizations.

The funding picture of libraries is primarily through state funding and local property tax levies. Ohio, where I live recently raised the percentage of its state budget going to libraries from 1.68 to 1.7 percent. This money provides roughly half of library funding overall. The reality though is that while some municipalities invest heavily in their libraries, others, often in cash-strapped rural settings, live almost entirely on state funding. The good news is that there is a great return on investment in library funding. A recent study found that $1 invested in Ohio libraries returned nearly $5 in economic value and Ohio has the highest per capita library use in the country. Federal funding for the Museum and Libraries Services was recently renewed and increased by $11 million, despite Trump administration opposition.

So while there is some good news on the U.S. funding front, many small libraries are struggling, and I hear of some that have closed, leaving “library deserts” in some areas of the country. The situation is worse in the United Kingdom, where nearly 130 libraries closed this past year and many are being run by volunteer staff. Certainly, the situation is more dire yet in other parts of the world.

Could philanthropists play a bigger part? For twenty years, the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation did that, but announced in 2018 that they are winding down their program after funding free internet access in U.S. libraries, and greater technology access throughout the world. While some places like Harvard have huge endowments of $36 billion. A Washington Post article reports that by contrast there are only several billion dollars nationally in library endowments. The case has been made for a National Library Endowment with a goal of $20 billion. How could it happen? The Post article notes that the top 400 wealthiest in this country are worth $2.4 trillion. In other words, less than one percent of this wealth could fully endow this fund at $20 billion, and continue to build it in succeeding years. This could mean hiring librarians in cash strapped urban systems, expanding digital access, developing school libraries, and enhanced technology for research libraries. Mackenzie Bezos has committed a portion of her Amazon fortune to The Giving Pledge, organized by Warren Buffett to encourage just this kind of philanthropy.  Wouldn’t it be a bit ironic if she gave this toward a library endowment? Stranger things have happened.

Libraries continue to provide huge benefits to their communities and serve as “springs in the desert.” Who will take up the mantle of Andrew Carnegie in this generation? One hopes the day may come where alongside Carnegie’s name, we see those of Zuckerberg, Buffett, Bezos, Brin, Ellison, Bloomberg, Winfrey, and Cuban. All it would take is for these folks to put their heads–and their money–together and decide to make it happen. The whole country would be richer for it.

Planetary Denial

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Our only home. Image credit: NASA

I’ve lived long enough to walk with friends facing terminal illnesses. One of the most character defining things is how one faces one’s death. One of the most relationship-defining moments is how the friends of the dying walk with their friends in those moments. One thing we do know is that denial never helps. Sometimes, denying a life-threatening illness averts treatment that can save life. Denying that one is dying prevents one from concluding one’s life well. Pretending a dying friend will get better prevents the conversations that allow people to say what is needed to finish well together.

I’m convinced that the planetary systems that sustain life on our planet are in a serious crisis. If you are not convinced of that, I really have no argument for you. Chances are, you’ve heard them all and don’t credit them.

I do. The rapid planet-wide rise of temperatures that corresponds to the rapidly increasing levels of carbon dioxide we have poured into our atmosphere already is having consequences. The death of coral reefs. An arctic free of ice. Coastal cities and inhabited islands that will be submerged. Droughts. Catastrophic fire seasons. Melting glaciers. Melting permafrost adding even more greenhouse gases, accelerating the process.

I’ve lived one place for thirty years. I garden. I’ve seen our growing season extend two to three weeks in that short period. We have more insects. Rains and storms are more intense. Winters are milder. Thirty years is a short time to see some of these changes on a year in, year out basis.

What I read, what I learn from politically impartial scientists who are friends, what I see around me, even what I feel, tells me I am not living in the world of my youth just fifty to sixty years ago. If there is anything to what I read, these changes are only going to intensify in the years ahead. We have yet to see all the effects of the carbon dioxide we’ve already emitted, let alone what we will emit in the years ahead.

In my childhood, we learned to live under the cloud of a nuclear holocaust. The apocalyptic consequences of a nuclear war, at least so far, have stayed the hands of those who could unleash one. In one way, instant incineration, or a quick, if painful death from radiation sickness may be easier than what we could be facing.

The scenario before us seems to be one of survival of the fittest and devil take the hindmost. Drought and famine will likely increase taking many by starvation, or others in wars for food and water. The migrations we have seen in recent years will likely increase, and the confrontations at borders become more violent. We will be in an increasingly unstable world, and even within national borders, tensions will increase. Living near the relatively abundant water supply of the Great Lakes, I wonder what tensions we will face even from other parts of our own country stressed for water. Meanwhile, food pressures or environmental degradation will mean rapid species die offs of other creatures. Imagine a dawn without bird song but simply the intensifying of unremitting heat. As oceans rise, the question occurs to me of where will all the people in our coastal cities live and work?

It won’t all happen at once, which gives us the illusion that somehow we will escape the apocalypse. No doubt, this is what assures the powerful that they can get by. And maybe they will. Those in power today will likely die a natural death, as probably will I. But if the predictions hold, every year will get a little worse. Within a generation, we will know we are in an unremitting global crisis that will take generations or millennia to reverse. In two generations, many places on our planet will be hellish, and it seems credible to me that our social order will not sustain the brutal struggle for survival that will ensue.

I think we all hope for an amazing techno-fix. This seems like our hopes for miracle cures, or even miracle diet plans! Given the complex systems, and planetary scale, and how far down the road we are, I think the best we may do is prepare for the future, and do what we can not to make it worse. From what I can see, we’re not even doing that, and we crucify anyone who seriously talks about the drastic steps needed just to keep planetary temperatures from rising “only” 3 degrees Celsius.

As a Christian, my belief that Jesus is Lord of all challenges me to bring all my thoughts about this under his Lordship. I’m wrestling with what this means when I’m pretty convinced we face an existential crisis as a species we’ve not faced. For starters, I think this means continuing to live by faith. It means that I bring this crisis, and how I live to Him. If I believe all things were created through and sustained by Christ, that means that I do not stop looking to him when things appear dire. It may be that our hope is only in the “new heavens and new earth” of which scripture speaks. That’s not up to me. What is up to me is to continue to live as a responsible steward and caretaker of God’s world. I am increasingly aware that I, and all of us will answer for how we cared for the world, for the species, and fellow human beings who died because we did not care for it well. It challenges me to do all I can and to cherish and preserve the beauty of the earth while we can.

My faith teaches me that love of God and neighbor are intricately intertwined. As Christian communities, I think we will need to wrestle more deeply with how we will care for neighbors who experience loss and need. Will we adopt a “lifeboat ethic” or a “lay-down-our lives” ethic?

It seems to me that Christian communities need to begin talking about these things. These are end of planetary life conversations, and as desperately important as any other end-of-life conversation. It may be an easy escape to hope for the return of Christ to deliver us from all these things. But Jesus says we cannot know the day or hour of this, and we cannot count on this coming before things get bad. What we can count on is that there will be a reckoning for how we lived in these bad times.

There are some who will think all this is extreme. I so hope you are right. I would love to be proved wrong. But all that I know, see, even feel in my bones tells me we face something as serious as humanity has ever faced. The planet will survive. Whether we do is another question. It may depend on whether we face the hard truths before us, and on how we live whatever life is given us.

“America is Addicted to Wars of Distraction”

Barbara Ehrenreich

Barbara Ehrenreich, by David Shankbone [CC BY-SA 2.5] via Wikipedia

Barbara Ehrenreich, a writer who has described herself as “a myth buster by trade,” made this observation in the Times of London on April 22, 1991. I don’t know the context of the quote, although this comes toward the end of the first Gulf War. Whether Ehrenreich (of whom I’ve not always been a fan) is referring to America’s actual wars or some of the metaphorical wars of political discourse, I wonder if she has a point.

I wonder if so many of the conflicts on our political landscape, whether intentional or not, are distractions from larger issues, ones that, if true, are really uncomfortable to face. Perhaps the biggest of these is the future of life on the only place we really have to live. It seems to me that it would be like arguing about the size of the iceberg if you are a passenger on the sinking Titanic.

Every year seems to be the record hottest for the planet. Cities like New York, Washington, DC, Miami and our naval base at Norfolk could be the new Venices. Summer temperatures in some parts of the world inhabited by millions are reaching levels that pose significant dangers to human life. Often, the populations most affected by the changes that have already happened or that will happen are the least equipped to handle them. There have already been massive species die-offs. Are we being presumptuous to think we are exempt? It may be more comforting to us to keep fighting about all this, calling each other tree huggers and climate deniers.

I could go on. I cannot help notice that there are deep flaws in a society where life expectancies are declining, where deaths from suicide are on the rise, where we have more than one “mass shooting” incident a day, where large swaths of our population are wrestling with substance addictions. Are we concerned with the disparities of health outcomes that depend on zipcodes, and that life and death (or bankruptcy) often depends on the health coverage one has, something that could change with a merger or a layoff.

It’s not that people aren’t talking about these things. They are. They tend to be fighting about them. It seems to me that often fighting is like turning up the car radio when the car starts making unusual noises we haven’t heard before. All our political arguments seem like distractions that mask or divert our attention from the ominous noises our society, and our planet are making.

I disagree with Ehrenreich in one important regard. Creating “wars of distraction” is a human rather than American thing. We all do it to avoid facing unpleasant things. The problem is that distractions can kill if they are ignored long enough. On the other hand, silencing the distractions and paying attention to the big scary thing that seems insurmountable is actually empowering. Getting to the hospital at the first sign of a heart attack can save one’s life, and subsequent lifestyle changes may extend it.

Instead of the arguments that distract us from big hairy problems in our world, perhaps it is time to stop arguing. We may not know what to do (or we may have some notions). What if we shut up long enough to really pay attention to why our life expectancy in the US has been going down. What if we paid attention to gun violence long enough to wonder why so many mostly young men in good health are choosing to end their own as well as a number of other lives, which is often the way these things conclude.

If you notice, I’ve said nothing about political party proposals or government solutions. Right now everyone is talking past each other, mostly distracted from the realities they are arguing about. What if we started paying attention to what is happening in the world instead of fighting about it? What if we started taking personal steps on the basis of what we see? I suspect we all might notice things that have been hidden in the arguments of others. We might conclude that things are urgent enough to start listening to each other and stop fighting. I just hope it is soon enough.

If you are tempted to argue about climate change, or gun violence, or other realities I mention in this post, you’ve not understood the point of the post, which is that our arguments often distract from the things we are arguing about. I will take down argumentative comments in the interest of promoting paying attention to the things we have been arguing about and considering what personal action we might take.

Would the Apostle Paul Have Written a Blog?

blogging-blur-communication-261662I’m working out some ideas here, so I’d love to hear what others think about this. I recently was appointed the director of a national effort of the collegiate ministry I work with that we describe as a “digital first” effort to encourage and engage aspiring scholars who want to link their faith and academic life. It has me thinking about the place of online media in forming communities around similar interests; in this case around faithful Christian presence in the university world and what that looks like.

Much has been made of the movement of people from “on-the-ground” communities in particular places to online, or what some would call, virtual communities. Many think these online communities are poor substitutes for “on the ground” community, which for some is real community. Church attendance dwindling? Blame it on the internet. That sort of thing. Inevitably, online forms are opposed to “on the ground” forms, and labelled inferior.

A book I’ve been reading recently, Ecologies of Faith in a Digital Age has me re-examining assumptions. One of the most startling insights for me came from their attention to the letters of the Apostle Paul. Paul, like all of us, could only be in one place at a time. Over the course of his life, his travels took him from modern day Syria through Asia Minor and Greece, to Rome, and perhaps onward to Spain. He wrote to groups of believers where he had started churches (in Galatia, Corinth, Ephesus, Thesalonica, and Philippi, and to groups he had never visited (in Colossae and Rome). Twenty-eight percent of the New Testament consists of Paul’s letters and he wasn’t the only letter writer! What is striking is that Paul both seeks to communicate spiritual truth and instruction with those he is not with, but also assumes deep friendships and collaboration. He describes the Philippians as “partners with” him (synkoinonia) and the Romans as people he “longs to see.”

I wonder if Paul would have been a blogger today. Or would he have used podcasts to stay in touch with and instruct those he was away from for whom he cared? Maybe they would have used video conferencing or Facebook groups (I’m not sure he would have used Twitter–have you seen some of his sentences, particularly in Greek!). Then Paul would come visit, or perhaps gather leaders from many places at a single location for a conference

I wonder if a better way to think about these things is to see face to face and remote communication as complementary means of sustaining community and maintaining the values and mission we are engaged in together. Rather than either-or, there is a both-and engagement that is rich and substantive and two-way or even networked, whether we are together or not.

There are educators I know who have taught both in the classroom and online, and often have found the online interactions superior in terms of thoughtfulness of responses, and the engagement of quieter students who may not speak up in classes. Much hinges in how you set up what the book I mentioned earlier calls the “ecology” of a given context. While social media is justly vilified for echo chambers, bullying, and toxic discourse, I’ve also seen online contexts where differing perspectives are aired with both candor and mutual respect, and where people extend genuine and deep care for each other on and offline.

Finally, I’m struck that what makes this work, for Paul, and for us, is genuine affection and deep regard, even love. for those one is interacting remotely with. I’ve received many warm and thoughtful online messages. I remember those messages when I see the people who have written them, and it strengthens the bonds we share.

It is true that all forms of communication with those remote from us cannot easily convey all that we would be able to express verbally and non-verbally face to face. Actually, it makes me more intentional, more thoughtful. It makes me think and work harder, and read and listen more carefully. To write a response, particularly if it is not a tweet, requires more deliberation than off-the-cuff statements.

Yes, my hunch is that Paul would have written a blog. What do you think?

Learning Questions

Question Mark Questions What Why How Where WhoI sympathized with a Facebook friend who posted the other day a statement that said, this is not for “discussion but for declaration” and that he wished there was a feature on Facebook that allowed for turning off comments. I have wished for that feature many times!

There are times when I’ve posted a comment, sometimes on a controversial issue, or an article, that reflects my own thinking and convictions, and immediately it is beseiged with arguments or counter-posts or even hi-jacked. Trying to engage in an intelligent fashion often seems futile. I honestly feel the commentators just want to shut me down. Sometimes they succeed. I understand why many people only post pretty pictures and cat memes on Facebook!

Frankly, I think it is rude to assume that I am inviting an argument. Sometimes, I just want to express what I am thinking or feeling or share something that I believe is reflective of my convictions that says it better than I could. I see plenty of things I take issue with on others’ profiles. If it is an article, sometimes I stop by and read. Sometimes I learn something. I guess I’ve never assumed the person was inviting an argument, unless they explicitly say so. However, the capability built into Facebook invites argument, wanted or not. Most of the time, it accomplishes nothing except inflaming the feelings of all involved.

I’ve seen a few places where this works, mostly closed and moderated spaces with clear ground rules for online discussion. One of the differences between the futile arguments that proliferate on so much of social media and healthy discussions, is that healthy ones are characterized as much by questions and listening as by statements and speaking. These discussions don’t always exclude efforts to persuade, but do so from a foundation of respectful listening and learning and questioning, and an openness to learning from another, even if this means change. It’s rare, and it leaves space for people to make up their own minds without rhetorical bludgeoning.

One of the marks of such conversations is that they are characterized by learning rather than leading questions. Learning questions are genuinely curious and really want to understand what a person thinks and feels and values and why. Leading questions are trying to maneuver a person into a place where one can assert the superiority of one’s own ideas and beliefs. Learning questions are open and open-ended. You really don’t know what the other will say or where the conversation will go. You might even discover something that changes you. Leading questions have already decided where you want things to go and what you want the other to say.

While I think it could happen in a Facebook comment box, I think it is far better face to face. Here are some of the kinds of questions one might ask:

“I’d love to know how you came to think the way you do about this question?”

“This is something I didn’t quite understand. Could you tell me more?”

“That’s really interesting. Could you say more about the basis for this idea?”

Who or what has been most influential in leading you to these conclusions?”

What has your way of thinking about this meant for how you live?”

So what should you do if you still think differently and would like to have a conversation about that difference?

First, a good test of whether you’ve really understood the person is that you can re-phrase what they think and they say, “yes, that’s it.”

Second, ask yourself if you really want a discussion of your thoughts in the same way you’ve been learning from your friend. Are you willing to be asked questions and to explain yourself so another can understand.

If so, then I think there is one more learning question that might be something like this:

“I think we differ about what we’ve been discussing. Would you be open to discussing how we might differ?

We cannot assume that another wants to have this discussion. Here, too, it seems we need to learn. We are inviting someone into a situation where we are having a good argument, one in which we differ, and are seeking to understand the difference and whether one of these is superior to the other (it could be that there is another way of thinking that has occurred to neither of us!).

Theoretically, one might do this on Facebook, but it would take a lot of typing! I think that is one of the problems with the format. It is designed for the quick response, not the deliberate step-by-step process by which two people understand each other. It is often a free-for-all with many people who know nothing of each other throwing in their two cents worth. No wonder it is usually a hot mess.

I do think Facebook can be a place where we learn something about what each other think. What would help me, and perhaps help this space, would be that if we disagree with what we’ve read, we ask first, would you be willing to discuss your ideas about this? That’s a learning question, as well as a courtesy. Then, if we want to, we can figure out the best way to do that, which might not be on Facebook. Would that be so hard?

 

 

The Greatest Thing de Tocqueville Never Said

512px-Alexis_de_tocqueville

Alexis de Tocqueville. Artist Théodore Chassériau [PD US + France]

I’m writing this on July 29. It is the birthday of Alexis de Tocqueville, who wrote Democracy in America. Each day, I post on my Bob on Books Facebook page a literary birthday of the day, and a quote by that person. I am learning that one must verify the source of quotes one finds on Google–many that are attributed to individuals for whom there is no record of them actually saying what is attributed to them. I discovered this to my chagrin with de Tocqueville. He was reputed to have said:

“America is great because she is good. If America ceases to be good, America will cease to be great.”

My chagrin is that I made this discovery after posting the quote, which cannot be found in his works. Note to self: always double-check the source of quotes!

It has become popular to quote this with all the “make America great again” rhetoric, perhaps as a counter, asserting that only a “good” America can be a “great” America. It turns out that a number of U.S. presidents including Dwight Eisenhower, Gerald Ford, Ronald Reagan, and Bill Clinton quoted it attributing it to de Tocqueville. Hilary Clinton used the quote in her debate with Donald Trump. So I am in famous company. I’ll leave you to decide if that company is “good.”

A friend’s comment got me to thinking further about this quote. At first glance, it seems like an elevating idea that our greatness is a reflection of our goodness. And indeed, some of our ideals, including the equality of all human beings (at least all “men”), equal protection under the law, inalienable rights, and so forth, are good ideas. I think our “first freedoms” are good ideas.

The truth though is that we have never entirely lived up to these “good” ideals, and what is not good is the pretense that we have. In fact, the pretense may be more dangerous than our failures because it prevents us from honestly facing them. Despite our beliefs in equality, for the initial part of our history, we considered blacks to be three-fifths of a person for representation, and in a number of states, merely property to be bought and sold. We protected property rights, except that of the original inhabitants of the land. With them, we repeatedly broke treaties and seized lands. We interned our own citizens of Japanese descent during World War II, even the families of those who served in our military.

We actually are a better nation when we recognize the ways we have not been good, and take steps to rectify them. Often, these steps are ones we take with the children or grandchildren of those wronged. In some instances, we’ve never fully faced the wrongs we’ve done, or even denied the wrongs.

It seems to me that we are at our most dangerous when we are blind to the ways we have not been or are not good. When people of the north sat in their churches and railed against slavery while benefiting from the cotton trade, there was a blindness to our complicity with evil. When slave owners sang hymns to God after coming from beating their slaves, there was a blindness to participation in evil.

I think rather than boasts of greatness or goodness or rating ourselves against other nations, I would be content if we would spend more time measuring ourselves against our good, but imperfect, ideals. And rather than pointing at others and how they might be better, it seems a healthier and more honest stance would be to look at those ideals and how each of us might be better. Oddly enough, that might be a “better” that is actually pretty good–good for us, good for the nation, and good for our reputation in the world.