Right & Left

I am slowly making a journey into Orthodoxy, with a small Antiochian Orthodox mission church here in Moses Lake. (Something I can do with my Arabic! Yay!) About this I will write more later.

But in today’s Orthodox lectionary (yeah, it’s not Palm Sunday for us), we have the following reading from Mark, the tenth chapter.

35 And James and John, the sons of Zebedee, came up to him and said to him, “Teacher, we want you to do for us whatever we ask of you.” 36 And he said to them, “What do you want me to do for you?” 37 And they said to him, “Grant us to sit, one at your right hand and one at your left, in your glory.” (Mark 10:35-37 ESV)

There is, of course, much more to this reading. In the preceding verses, Jesus tells his disciples what the whole point of going to Jerusalem is — to get handed over to the authorities, mocked and tortured and executed, and to rise three days later. In response to this, James and John can ask about glory, to sit next to Jesus on his right and his left side (“Δὸς ἡμῖν ἵνα εἷς σου ἐκ δεξιῶν καὶ εἷς ἐξ ἀριστερῶν” or “εὐωνύμων σου” according to a variant reading) — the places of glory.

It’s a lot to ask for, and Jesus tells them they will indeed drink the cup and share in his baptism, but “to sit at my right hand or my left (ἐκ δεξιῶν μου ἢ ἐξ εὐωνύμων) is not mine to grant, but it for those for whom it has been prepared.” And then he goes into a speech about gentiles lording it over others, and that those who are called are called to serve and not be heard.

But as I sat listening to the deacon speak about this, it occurred to me that there are, in fact, people who do sit at Jesus’ right and left hands in glory in Mark’s Gospel:

25 And it was the third hour when they crucified him. 26 And the inscription of the charge against him read, “The King of the Jews.” 27 And with him they crucified two robbers, one on his right and one on his left (ἐκ δεξιῶν καὶ ἕνα ἐξ εὐωνύμων αὐτοῦ). (Mark 15:25-27 ESV)

The thieves, who appear only here in Mark’s Gospel, with no speaking roles, sit on the right and his left. They have been appointed, and this is Christ’s glory, the cross, upon which he is executed. Thieves, who are silent in this account, who say nothing (though Mark reports they both reviled Jesus as they hung there at Golgotha with him), and who did not ask.

Perhaps, in this instance, being prepared to sit with Christ in his glory is to be condemned and unrepentant1, to fight the miserable fight and to torment the one dying with us. The sinless lamb has has come to take away the sin of thew world.

It is an odd glory we share, and an odd preparation, condemnation for our sins. This is not the glory that we, or John and James, were seeking. It is not the glory we wish for.


  1. It is the same in Matthew; in Luke, one robber repents, while John only mentions “two others, one on either side,” and they play no other meaningful role in John’s depiction of the crucifixion. ↩︎

Flags in an Alley

There’s an image I cannot shake from my head.

I came across many years ago, when I was in elementary school, in the Upland Public Library, in one of those Time-Life picture books, I think it was photos with a narrative by decades of the 20th century.

The one in my head was from Germany, and it was 1930 or 1931, and it was the alley of a working-class neighborhood in Berlin, row houses packed tightly together, facing each other across a narrow alley. On one side of the alley, all of the houses, or nearly all, flew the red, black, and white swastika flag of the Nazi Party. On the other side of the alley, each home (or nearly all) flew the hammer and sickle flag of the Soviet Union, the flag of the German Communist Party.

The caption told, something to the effect, about the street battles between communist and Nazi thugs, about the battle for allegiance among working-class Germans, and about the fear that violence inspired among the German bourgeois (I think the text used the phrase “middle class”).

That photo has haunted me since the 2016 U.S. presidential election.

I have always believed that the bourgeois, when given an obvious choice between real socialism and thuggish nationalism, will always choose thuggish nationalism. Always. I have looked through history to find some counter examples. Salvador Allende’s 1970 election as president of Chile seems a clear example of a contrary democratic choice, at least at first glance. But Allende only got 35 percent of the popular vote, and according to Chile’s constitution, the winner had to be decided by the country’s congress, which voted for Allende decisively. However, the center left withdrew their support, and spent the summer of 1973 trying to get Allende ousted prior to the September 11 coup that brought the Chilean army to power.

Perhaps the victory of the Labour Party in Britain’s 1945 elections is a good example. And there may be some other example in the chaos that was post-war European politics — Italy, Greece, France — where the United States intervened heavily to ensure communist and sympathetic parties could not achieve electoral majorities that prove this wrong.

But I’m thinking those are special cases, in which the very real rightist thuggery Europe had just spent nearly 25 years living under and then combating was simply not an option.

So no, I’m not sure real socialists — real Marxists — have ever been elected if there are alternatives. Bourgeois folks are simply too scared of what socialism means. Or what they think socialism means. Middle class Germans had a decade of Soviet governance to watch and consider, and while Stalin’s outlook culturally and socially was about as bourgeois as it gets, the taking of property, the destruction of the churches, the chaos of civil war, meant that bourgeois folks were not going to vote willingly for any party promising that kind of order.

I don’t know about America today. I really don’t. On the one hand, socialism (or what calls itself socialism) has a tremendous appeal given the failure of capitalism and the state over the last at least 18 years — the Iraq War, the 2008 Financial Collapse, austerity budgets. I take it as a given the elites who have run the Western world for the last 25 have failed spectacularly and been unwilling to admit or learn from that failure, which is why we are politically where we are. It is little wonder capitalism has lost its appeal among many of the bourgeois who believe they were promised comfort, purpose, and success as the managers of society only to be handed debt and austerity. It is little wonder they believe there can and should be something better.

On the other hand, socialism is an ugly term in the United States. A term of derision, one used to create fear. It seems to mean little except economic and social arrangements that are “un-American” or “anti-American.” What the folks above seem to want is a welfare state of some sort, and not real socialism, which I’m guessing few really understand. (If socialism means the collective ownership of the means of production, then I think we can assume no nation with a stock market is meaningfully socialist. Heavily regulated, corrupt, crony-capitalist, welfarist, highly taxed maybe — but if you can buy and sell shares in companies, even if the state owns a portion of those shares, then you don’t have socialism.)

Over at the American Conservative, Rod Dreher is working on his next book about the “cultural Marxism” that has engulfed our society, the high ground that cultural leftists — those who believe in both maximum personal autonomy and maximum personal “liberation” — have been imposed thanks to their long march through the institutions. I’m not sure its fair, or proper, to call any of this Marxism, but one of the promises of post-war Marxism has been “liberation,” and I think the spirit of Frantz Fanon is more alive and at work in the world than we can possibly imagine. So maybe the word is fair, and right. Who knows.

Which leaves me with the photo I cannot shake. (And which I could not find online.) The cultural revolution that has overtaken this country has been a very bourgeois one, however. My thesis is this: in American modernity, since the middle of the 19th century, the main role of the church was to be the guardian of citizenship. To be a citizen, one had to be a Christian, and that meant a certain moral uprightness, probity, frugality, industriousness, and a commitment to charity and uplift. By the late 19th century, citizenship was synonymous with being a white, bourgeois Protestant. Even the liberal churches, with their preaching and living of the social gospel, accepted this understanding of citizenship and nation.

For the first half of the 20th century, that conception of White Protestantism as the norm of what it meant to be a “good American” was stretched from the Methodist/Episcopalian/Congregationalist/Baptist core to rather fitfully include Lutherans, Catholics, Mormons, and Jews. Never easily, and never quickly.

The civil rights movement was an attempt to expand notions of good citizenship past the white part of White Protestantism.

It both succeeded wildly and failed miserably. It succeeded because many white Americans were willing, in fits and starts, to accept the changes to the racial order. It failed because enough of a white minority hunkered down and equated changes in that racial order to communism. They weren’t many, and they always lingered at the edges. But they were enough. They were motivated and networked, and they organized and voted.

Conservatism as a political project owes these folks far more than it is willing to admit.

At any rate, the church as the keeper of bourgeois citizenship began to break down in the late 1950s, a product largely of the core liberal churches embracing the civil rights movement. Changing the racial order of second-class or non-citizenship for black Americans was too much for many whites. Into that breach stepped the conservative churches, which kept an increasingly shabby pretense of defining citizenship going for three decades. But since the middle of the 1990s, the churches are no longer the keepers of bourgeois citizenship. The declining liberal mainline likes to think it is, and is trying hard to reclaim that spot, and they just may.

Rather, the very liberal and progressive social institutions that now run our society have become the de facto managers of bourgeois citizenship.

So the fight over gay marriage, and now transgenderism, and about sex in general, is not really about morality or right and wrong. It’s about what gets to be called ordinary, middle-class life, and who can be a bourgeois citizen in good standing. (“Can you be queer, something formerly disreputable, marginal, transgressive, and even punishable, and now be a respectable bourgeois citizen with a managerial job and a family and a mortgage? Why yes, now you can!”) And so far, the cultural revolutionaries have won just about everything they have fought for over the last 50 years.

Does this look like chaos to those who aren’t invested in that revolution? I don’t know. There’s grumbling, but little real agitation against it. But that’s why the alley picture haunts me. If given the choice between people who call themselves socialists, who aren’t ashamed of the name, and what it means, and the (right now potential) mob Donald J. Trump could probably organize, what will the millions of suburb dwellers and townhome owners and farmers and businesspeople who are invested in “order-as-it-is” choose? We didn’t face that real choice in 2016, and we don’t face it now. Trump may aspire to being an authoritarian, but so far, he’s been very bad at it, and we have his lack of discipline and focus, and the sheer corrupt incompetence of his minions, to thank for that.

But Trump is good at finding just the right exposed nerve and working it until it’s red and sore and bloody. He’s threatened to call out thugs, but could he actually do that? Americans don’t know much about socialism, and — at least from what I’ve seen online — conversations about socialism tend to collapse into arguments about free health care and high minimum wages on the one hand, and famines and gulags on the other.

We are a deeply unserious people — I think we in the West have been deeply unserious since the Blair/Clinton era. And that will likely save us. Because, I think, it’s impossible for as unserious a people as us to organize mass murder. (Mass suffering is another matter; that can be done carelessly, without thought, or even by accident.) But it doesn’t take much fear of chaos and disorder to push people to act, and we may be unserious, but we are a very frightened unserious people. If you think “The Year Zero” and “The Killing Fields” (or “The Nuremberg Laws” and “Auschwitz”) await if the wrong people win the next election, then you’re not going to simply sit by for the end. You will organize, and you will fight. Because survival is on the line.

And then we could very quickly become a deadly serious people.

Philip Dru, Administrator

I have just finished reading Philip Dru: Administrator, Edward M. House’s “Story of Tomorrow” from 1912, and while not a terribly good book, I think it’s a good description of what early 20th century Progressives — and those who followed them — wanted to and maybe still want to accomplish.

And how they view the world.

House himself (called “colonel” though he never served in the military and wasn’t from Kentucky) was a Texas politician from a wealthy cotton family and eventual advisor to Woodrow Wilson, and was one of the chief U.S. negotiators at the Paris Peace Conference that concocted and imposed the ill-fated Treaty of Versailles on Germany in the spring of 1919.

His vision of government, as set forth in Philip Dru, is what I call “Grand High Progessivism.” It is government by powerful, disinterested but rightly-guided and well-meaning experts. In the book, Dru is a West Point graduate of some renown who suffers a personal setback — he is temporarily blinded by a long desert hike in Mexico, leading to the end of his military career — that sets him on another path of social critic and commentator. Dru and his “beloved” Gloria (they do not marry until the end of the book, as Dru is married exclusively to his work) spend some time in a New York City tenement, and commit themselves to the betterment of humanity.

A powerful and wealth senator, Selwyn, uses his money and influence to get one Gov. Rockland elected president in order to preserve the interests of wealth. However, Selwyn accidentally records an interview between himself and Rockland on a dictaphone tube, which becomes public, and that sparks off the civil war. Dru leads the army of the western rebels, organized as they are against the undue influence of wealth, and in the Battle of Elma, not far from Buffalo (or Erie, Pennsylvania), defeat the government armies. President Rockland flees the country, Dru enters Washington, and then proceeds to rationally reorganize the government as an effective dictator.

“Administrator of the Republic” is his title, actually.

For House, wealth is the great problem that prevents the country from being efficiently and effectively governed.

Wealth had grown so strong, that the few were about to strangle the many, and among the great masses of the people, there was sullen and rebellious discontent.
The laborer in the cities, the producer on the farm, the merchant, the professional man and all save organized capital and its satellites, saw a gloomy and hopeless future.

House is not calling for “pure socialism,” an absolute equalization of wealth that would make it “not worth while to do more than the average,” in the words of Dru’s friend Jack Strawn. No, what House is calling for is less a material revolution than he is a moral revolution, as Dru replies:

I believe that mankind is awakening to the fact that material compensation is far less to be desired than spiritual compensation. This feeling will grow, it is growing, and when it comes to full fruition, the world will find little difficulty in attaining a certain measure of altruism.

We will be covered by a kinder, more altruistic, and more enlightened people, and in turn, because the stranglehold of wealth will be ended, the people will become more interested and involved in the affairs of government.

“When fear, hate, greed and the purely material conception of Life pass out,” said Philip, “as it some day may, and only wholesome thoughts will have a place in human minds, mental ills will take flight along with most of our bodily vill, and the miracle of the world’s redemption will have been largely wrought.”

It is a complex relationship portrayed here. We are held down from being our better selves by corrupt structures created by greedy people, but some people — a revolutionary vanguard, say, like Dru — will give of themselves, will arrive at that understanding first, and remake the world so that the rest of us may live there.

In the run up to the civil war, House notes something interesting. As Rockland plans his re-election, he focuses almost exclusively on the roughly 20,000 voters in 12 states who will determine the election, while his opponent squanders his resources on trying to convince millions of voters. And Rockland mobilizes early for war, though it doesn’t help him much.

The changes Dru ushers in with his new constitution are almost always written by five-member boards of experts, and it’s a full bottom-to-top rationalization of the country’s laws and politics. As with most progressive reforms, efficiency is the goal — corrupt government, government on behalf of moneyed interests, is costly government, and House promises a government that does a great deal more with much less. There are a lot of structural changes — a single, 10-year term for a ceremonial state president, investing most of the power in the House of Representatives, which would appoint an “executive” (really, a prime minister) to run the government, and lifetime tenure in the senate in exchange for being stripped of the power to originate legislation or vote on spending bills.

In addition, there are sweeping changes made to land ownership and tax laws, and all state constitutions look the same.

All of this sounds fine, I suppose, what you might make de novo if you could remake the country’s politics. I happen to believe we’d benefit from proportional representation and a parliamentary system, but that would only give us other problems.

House has the problems nearly all early 20th century progressives had. Among them is the racial and national hierarchy of virtue and ability, though even the benighted can achieve that virtue if properly tutored and governed. “In some states sixty per cent of the population were negroes, and they were as helpless as children and proved a heavy burden upon the forty per cent of whites,” House writes.

House is clearer about this when Dru turns his attention outside the United States, and especially to Latin America:

We of Western Europe and the United States have our own theories as to the functions of government, theories that perhaps you fail to appreciate, but we feel we must not only observe them ourselves, but try and persuade others to do likewise.

So begins progressive global evangelism about government.

By persuasion, House means war. At the Battle of La Tuna, Dru tells General Benevides, leader of the Mexican army,

“It is not our purpose to annex your country or any part of it, more shall we demand any indemnity as the result of victory further than the payment of the actual cost of the war and the maintenance of the American troops while order is being restored. But in the future, our flag is to be your flag, and you are to be directly under the protection of the United States. It is our purpose to give your people the benefits of the most enlightened educational system, so that they may become fitted for the responsibilities of self-government.

So, annexing your country is wrong, but invading you and changing your government, or even better, governing you directly, is perfectly okay. Because we cannot be seen to be gaining from the war. Dru is “liberating” Mexico from irrational ways of government (he promises land redistribution as well), not conquering it, and in a generation or two, Mexico will teem with people who “regard the battlefield of La Tuna as the birthplace of their redemption.”

Uh-huh, sure they will.

His work done after seven years as “Administrator of the Republic,” Dru steps down, Cincinnatus-like, marries Gloria, and leaves San Francisco in a steamship bound for distant exile. A truly selfless servant of the Republic, who wanted nothing for himself, and everything for the good of the people.

What’s the value of reading such a book? I confess to be a deep and almost militant anti-progressive. Twentieth-century progressivism was about selfless and scientific management, in the belief that management was both compassionate and efficient, and this usually meant treating people as things — inputs in economic and administrative processes. It’s that thingness I object deeply to, because once people become resources, they can be categorized, classified, utilized, bent, shaped, broken, or disposed of as needed.

However progressivism has morphed from a century ago, I believe at heart progressives still want a well-managed world in which people are cooperative and pliable things, mere objects and inputs. That without good government, we cannot be good people. And everyone, everywhere, seeks to be governed — and should be governed — as we are governed.

A Halloween Update

I’ve noticed an uptick in interest in this blog. Which is odd, since I’m not sure what has happened. But I won’t say no to the attention.

(Also, someone wanted to look at the Psalm 10 Ministries blog. Sorry, but no.)

I’ve been silent here simply because I’ve been busy with work, I’ve been deep in thinking about the follow-up to KESSLYN RUNS (which I will start writing soon), and I have been focusing my daily worship on Anglican morning prayer, which I have been live streaming every morning round about 0615 Pacific Time on my author Facebook page. That is, until Facebook/Chrome/Firefox simply started preventing me from streaming an entire worship service. Bleh. I can’t seem to get anything to work.

Plus, to be honest, I don’t have a lot to say. I mean I do — a soft authoritarianism seems to be sweeping the world, and it confirms something I’ve long felt but never really expressed, that the Likud and the BJP showed us what the future of democratic governance would look like. And rather than pound that into essays, I’ve decided to try and weave some form of that into The Emergency as I write the two follow-up novels. I tend to be a fatalist in the matter of politics, have seen dictatorship coming for some time (given what we invest in politics, I believe it was inevitable), and am not sure what can be done to stop it. (The Emergency is a centrist attempt to forestall conflict by imposing a settlement, anchoring and institutionalizing progressive social change in a very nationalist and militarist foundation.)

It has taken so long to get the sequel started simply because we had a shakeup at work, I’ve been dealing with some diet related problems (I have been slowly developing some annoying food sensitivities that mean I need to really watch what I eat). And I needed to spend some quality time with some firearms, in order to be able to write about them coherently. So, last week, I finally got to the shooting range in Ephrata with a Washington State licensed firearms instructor and shot a Sig Sauer P-320 (I’d never shot a pistol before), the Marine Corps’ Bernelli M4 tactical shotgun (also something I’d never shot before, though in the Army, I saw a demonstration of shotgun techniques), and a few military long rifles, mostly Israeli. There will be some gunplay in the next two novels, and I needed to have a feel for the weapons. It was fun, and apparently I’m good at it. I managed to keep a tight shot pattern on weapons that had never been zeroed for me, and the instructor told me after shooting the Sig Sauer, “You have no bad habits to unlearn and I could certify you right now.”

Oh, a teaser — I had been planning to keep “Kesslyn” in the titles to all the novels (KESSLYN RUNS followed by KESSLYN FIGHTS or something like that) but I didn’t really like where that was going.

So … the follow up novel will be called GETHSEMANE CHECKPOINT.

A blessed All Hallows Eve, everyone!

Orange is the New Black

One of the things I have been doing of late is reading. I don’t have access to real university library, or to a theological library, here in the middle of the deserts of Central Washington, so I have been taking advantage of the offerings on hand at the North Central Regional Library.

So, books. Mostly e-books using the Libby app, a combination of fiction and non-fiction (I love non-fiction). Since I’m trying to write thrillers, I am trying to read some as well. Jennifer recommended Craig Johnson’s Longmire series, and I just finished The Highwayman novella.

Along those lines, I also read Piper Kerman’s prison memoir Orange is the New Black, which was the inspiration for Jenji Kohan’s Netflix show of the same name. I figured why not.

Coming right off of reading Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird, Orange was a let down. It is not artfully written. Kerman does a great deal more telling than showing in her narrative (something I shrugged with in the first drafts of Kesslyn Runs and I think I handled pretty well in The Love That Matters), which means some things get tossed off quickly that really should have been turned into scenes with dialog. (For example, the long scene in Kesslyn at the checkpoint evolved from a paragraph describing checkpoints, and I felt it was better to actually show how these worked than tell.) There are a lot of simple, declarative sentences in Orange that make it a quick read, but not a particularly enjoyable one. It shows she’s educated but doesn’t really have the gift to write.

That said, Kerman possesses an honest self-awareness of the complete privilege of her position — she has resources and social standing others do not have, and so knows it.

But there’s something else I found in Orange that reminded me of my own memoir, and that is the sense that as a relatively privileged and aimless white girl, she’s a king-of tourist in the world. She’s not as disconnected as I was (it would be hard to be), and she has people of her own, but especially in her early post-college life when she finds herself drifting and floating through the world of this West African drug dealer, almost on autopilot, utterly unaware of the potential consequences and almost unwilling to commit to anything. Reminds me a lot of me. Prison seems to be a focusing event in her life, and good for her.

The one thing I found reading Orange is the book, for all its literary flatness, is way better than the Netflix series. And I credit that problem to Jenji Kohan. Now, I liked Weeds, mostly because Mary-Louise Parker is fun to watch, and I like watching Orange as well. Kohan has an art for creating vivid characters and making sure they are well cast.

Her plot lines, however, careen completely out of control, and for much of the time during Weeds, especially the last few seasons, I found myself wondering why everyone wasn’t already in prison or dead. There gets to be a point with shows about crime and outlaws where one must suspend belief in order to accept the drama necessary to make storytelling work in these situations (Sons of Anarchy and Oz had the same problems). Perhaps Kohan should work on projects more limited in scale, or not try to drag things out too long. Because danger and risk are essential to the drama, there’s no place to go but up, or more, or worse.

Kerman’s characters are more interesting than the counterparts Kohan creates, the relational aspect — her understanding that prison is not something she did alone, and she did it with the help of people she otherwise would never have met or become friends with had it not been for prison — a great deal more satisfying, and even the sheer tediousness of the plot was better. Granted, we generally don’t watch television (or even read novels) to relive our tedious lives. We want adventure and extraordinary, not the mundane that gently (or not) whirls around us. And we want to see characters triumph. I get that. But the realism of Kerman’s memoir was a great deal more enjoyable to read than the surrealism of Kohan’s series.

At any rate, I am writing a deliriously unreal series of novels in which my characters should all be in prison (they will have brushes with the law) but won’t be. So I should probably read some of what it is I am trying to write. Jennifer has some James Patterson in mind, and there is that Scott Bergstrom novel glowering at me on my bookshelf…

Home At Last

God settles the solitary in a home; he leads out the prisoners to prosperity, but the rebellious dwell in a parched land. (Psalm 68:6)

It has been an awful long since I have posted anything here. I must still confess that my job, while I’m not really allowed to work more than 40 hours per week, doesn’t give me the kind of time to blog that I would like. (For example, I have a meeting that starts at 0700 on Monday. Yay me!)

My devotions — I do the Church of England’s morning prayer daily, or almost daily, and when combined with the saint of the day, a reading from St. Benedict’s Rule for Monasteries, and the communion service scripture readings, takes a fair amount of time in the morning.

And I’m high maintenance when it comes to time. I need at least an or so of free time in the morning more than morning prayer. To read and listen to the radio and simply sit and contemplate. It’s something I know I need, and my days don’t work too well if I don’t give myself that time in the morning.

A few days of early morning meetings — my time workin in DC required a few very early mornings at USDA for monthly production and export reports — are easy to cope with. But I simply cannot do get out of bed, shower, and head to work without some time to center myself.

It’s just who I am.

The big news here is we’ve finally bought a house. It’s a trailer home, a single-wide, and we don’t own the dirt underneath, but it’s ours. Housing is very expensive in Moses Lake, and most of what is available is beyond our means, either in terms of rent or mortgage payments. I make about half the media income. Jennifer and I were able to pull this off because of what I inherited from my father last year after he died.

I don’t know the last time I had a place I could call home. I have been itinerant, decamping from one place to another in search of the next opportunities. I had hoped to be here only two years, and that deadline passed about a month ago. And not only are we still here, we actually invested in staying here. To be honest, I’m 51, and I have exhausted all my opportunities. I have no people, I have no institutions. I am in exile, I have been banished, and I have decided to thank God for that. Because it is mine. Because, for whatever reason, it is what God has called me to.

So we now have a home. A place where I can now hang my grandfather’s and his older sister’s paintings, my father’s charcoal drawings. I have no idea how long we will stay here, but it will at least be long enough to go to Chicago some time next year and haul the rest of our stuff out of storage. I have no idea what happens next. I have been toying with doing my morning devotions live on my author page on Facebook. I intend to begin work on the follow up to Kesslyn Runs soon, as scenes from that book are all I have been able to imagine of late.

And perhaps, at some point, I will start the Bible commentary again. Right now, though, I’m more content to simply listen to scripture rather than pretend I have something useful to say — or anyone who is able or willing to listen.

Right now I’m just content, and grateful, that I have a home.

The End of Relationship

I’ve seen some version of this Tweet making the rounds in the last few years:

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I don’t blame to author here. And there is a lot to appreciate in this tweet. It is not the job of women to fix broken, warped, or malformed men. To correct their misogyny, to bear their violence in hopes that doing so will show them the evil of their ways, to even train men on how to be civilized.

And yet, this tweet is also reflective of something I have seen a lot of in the last few year — an abandonment of relationship, that we have things to teach each other, and things to learn from each other too.

Once, long ago, when I was just learning how to be Muslim, I found that when I asked “how do I pray?” Or “what does this mean?” that some well meaning Muslim would hand me a book. “Read this,” he’d say, “this will teach you all you need to know.”

I tried, and I learned some things from books. But most of what I learned, I learned from Muslims willing to take time and effort and teach me. Like the Saudis at Ohio State, who asked me about this one day, and one of them remarked:

That’s now how any of us learned. We were taught, by people who took time and interest.

We form each other. We teach each other. There is no choice. It n 30 years of being together, Jennifer has taught me how to love Jennifer. And in doing so, she made a better, kinder, gentler, more patient man who, I think, understands women better.

I don’t think I was a badly raised man. But I was incomplete, lesser — as we all are — because what I needed to learn I could only learn in a relationship.

In various places online, I have seen queer, black, and transgender people express the same concerns — It is not my job to teach you what it is like to be me. There are books for that, which should be read first.

I get the frustration. It is difficult to be someone so many find imponderable (one reason I wrote the memoir I did) and incomprehensible. I know it is frustrating having to walk someone though what it means to be me on a regular basis, to know that I’m having to do this because I’m the misfit who doesn’t conform to the standard specifications. (And I’ve paid for it too.) It’s tiring, this work, and not always fulfilling. And not always successful, either. (My own mother doesn’t really get me…) It would be nice to be able to hand someone a book and say, “here, read this, then we’ll talk.”

And I actually have that book! But … it didn’t help me much, at least not with the church.

At any rate, I get the frustration. I would like it if people just “got” me too.

But there’s a big problem as well with the approach the blogger takes, the demand that so many have when they foist books off on people — they deny obligation and responsibility, and the power of relationships to form and change people.

In effect, we (in America, I cannot speak for the rest of the world) are reaching a point where we are increasingly demanding people already be formed before they come into our midst. There are no more others, just demands for ideological conformity, and ideological understanding. We are not allowed to be changed by human relationships, to be confronted with our own power and responsibility in the face of the difference of others. In fact, this is nothing less than a demand that others as the other cease to exist. Everyone becomes an abstract feature on a map, explained by a key, so there’s no need to actually get to know them. The shorthand tags of their identity tell us we need to know because those shorthand tags are already explained ideologically.

This is what it means to be pre-formed. It is each individual’s responsibility to get with the program, to understand and work within the key. The consequences are dire otherwise.

The question then becomes — what is to happen to the blogger’s badly raised men? I fear that our society has become one in which we determine they are to be discarded as threats, as too broken to fix, as people in need solely of professional help and management. “Go away by yourself for a while and then come back when you are fixed.” Not a helpful recommendation when the problem is … relational.

And may need relationship — love and belonging — to repair and heal what is broken.

Have we gotten so frightened of each other that we are incapable of learning from each other, unwilling to teach each other, and unable to bear each other if we don’t already conform to our ever-tightening expectations and demands? I fear we will find out.

I fear we are already finding out.

Not Quite Your Best Life Now

I have, as part of my devotional life these days, been reading Alban Butler’s Lives of the Saints, a 250-year-old book telling the stories of various early, medieval, and relatively late (canonized by the early 18th century) Roman Catholic saints. It is, like most books, a product of its time and its prejudices (Butler was an English Catholic priest writing in 1750s, at a time when England was still paranoid about Catholics, what with a Stuart pretender still out there lurking in the shadows somewhere).

Still, it’s valuable to read and hear such stories.

Today — Friday, June 1 — is the day that marks the martyrdom of St. Justin the Philosopher. He lived in the second century A.D., died around 167, and is said to have gone looking for God by means of philosophy, eventually he was led to the teachings of Christ:

“When I heard the Christians traduced and reproached,” says he, “yet saw them fearless and rushing on death, and on all things that are accounted most dreadful to human nature, I concluded with myself that it was impossible those men should wallow in vice, and be carried away with the love of lust and pleasure.”

None of these Christians are asking for $54 million private airplanes, apparently.

Justin was martyred during the reign of Marcus Aurelius by a vigilant Roman official ever on the lookout for impiety and atheism, and was one of a number of Christians put to death on that occasion because they failed to sacrifice to the gods of Rome:

The martyrs were forthwith led to the place where criminals were executed, and there, amidst the praises and thanksgivings which they did not cease to pour forth to God, were first scourged, and afterwards beheaded.

Not quite “we’re tired of being stepped on.”

There is something tawdry about the way both progressive and conservative Christians are battling it out for influence and control over the public square, trying to write out opponents as sinners beyond the pale whose sins endanger the well-being of the whole community by bringing down upon us the wrath of God. Granted, Butler wrote in Christendom and of Christendom (and in opposition), but so far, no one I have read in the last two months or so of saints days became a saint for how they governed (even if they were king of someplace medieval, and there are more than a few of those, along with a couple of cooks and a few hermits), but for how they lived. Granted, there are a few things common to all these lives — kindness, mercy and liberality to the poor, and continence (Butler’s good old fashioned word for celibacy) — and in ages where people could not live out their piety in democratic politics (a piety I find both increasingly hollow and cloyingly self-righteous), they could find a rough equality in kindness, mercy, and abstinence.

The more I read of the saints, especially those moved to found churches and convents and monasteries (apparently a frequent happening in late antiquity through the middle ages; you didn’t wait upon the institution, you started something, and then either appealed to the institution to recognize you or simply got too big and too influential to ignore), the more I want to do just that, to disappear from the world (also a frequent desire) and devote my life to worshiping God.

Broken

During my time as a reporter here in Central Washington, I’ve covered a lot of motivational speeches by people who want to encourage others to work hard, persevere, and succeed. Whatever success might mean.

(And for a lot of people, that definition is small — which is to say, very human — getting married, raising a family, having a good job that makes those things possible.)

The idea, and it’s a well-meaning one, is to inculcate in those facing greater obstacles the will to go on. Grit. Determination. A sense that hard work can and will pay off. That dreams are achievable.

The latest one of these came last week from the mayor of a West Side city who visited Ephrata, where he’d grown up. Jimmy Matta, who was elected the first Latino mayor of the city of Burien in King County last fall, returned to Ephrata High School to meet and talk to students. And he recalled that, as the son of migrant farmworkers, he was the only Latino kid in the third grade, and he was bullied a lot, and shuffled into special education.

Now, Matta has done well for himself. Even though he dropped out of high school, he eventually became a union carpenter, an organizer and a small businessman. And he attributed growing up with such adversity as “character building” (though I suppose it also contributed to his falling in with a rough crowd in high school, people who accepted him as he was, and his eventual dropping out).

“They didn’t break me,” he said. “Don’t let them break you.”

Which is fine advice.

But … adversity and hardship and suffering and a lack of anything resembling success are unendurable for some people (quite a lot actually), who are ground down and broken. Shattered.

I’m not talking about myself here. But I have, in my time as a reporter, met my fair share of people who have been broken, who feel like they have been left dead by the side of the road (and many have), for whom life has been all too much. Angry people, unsure exactly who they should be angry at. Bitter people. Tired and resigned people.

Broken people.

What obligations do we have to them? What mercy and kindness do we owe them? As individuals and as a community?

Because it’s all well enough to tell our children, to encourage our young people, to keep going and not give up. But life doesn’t necessarily hand out rewards for hard work, doesn’t necessarily recognize grit and determination. And many of them know that. Their eyes tell them another truth that our words only suggest when we say “don’t let them break you.”

Because they can break us.

Author Copies

So, in case anyone is interested, I have author copies of Kesslyn Runs in stock. I can sign them and send them out, $15. I also have copies of my memoir, The Loves That Matters, which I can do for $25. If you want both, I can send you the lot for $35. If you are interested, comment on this blog entry.

I know, I know, don’t all raise your hands at once. As I said, I’m going to sell dozens of copies… 😉

 

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