Questions Beyond Borders

Chain Link Border Fence

A couple weeks ago I wrote a post that started about the Handmaid’s Tale and ended up a reaction to the Attorney General using Romans 13 to justify the zero-tolerance policy implemented on our southern border, and by extension its effective separation of children from their parents. I don’t get a lot of comments on my blog (read into that what you will), but I did get a private Facebook message from someone.

This person – a childhood neighbor, fellow Christian, lover of beauty and creativity, and in my humble estimation an all-around good and generous egg – asked my thoughts on a couple questions.

  • What do think would happen if hundreds of thousands of Americans decided to enter some other country without “papers” (for lack of a better word)?
  • What if a child born in the United States (parents from another country) decided to leave the USA and take up residence in the Country of his or her parents?

These questions are sincere and important and immediately sent my mind spinning in a dozen directions. I want to answer (and expound on) them sincerely and respectfully. I am grateful to her for thoughtful engagement.

WITHOUT PAPERS

The author of The Handmaid’s Tale – the source material for the television series which was the genesis of my original sidetracked post – actually does tackle the idea of a sudden onslaught of refugees from the (former) United States into Canada. The Canadians accept anyone who can make it across the border. The hope of these refugees is to eventually to reclaim and resettle to their homes, but there is no indication that will be soon. However the question was what do I think would happen. Try as I might I can’t come to a more solid answer than … it depends.

But on what?

First, it depends on the destination country.

Different nations have different philosophies and policies around immigration, refugees, and asylum. The legal distinction among those classes is important. Germany, for instance, doesn’t admit just anyone outside the European Union as a migrant for economic or personal reasons, but it has been famously accepting millions of refugees fleeing conflict in the Middle East. Italy, on the other hand, has been less willing to accept such refugees. Both countries are party to the 1951 Refugee Convention – as is the United States, but only per amendments as of the 1967 Protocol which actually expands the definition of refugee – but all interpret their corresponding responsibilities differently.

Second, it would depend on the reason.

The United States is a wealthy nation offering more economic and personal security than most countries typically known for displaced refugees. Were that to change (a la The Handmaid’s Tale) due to natural disaster, civil war, economic collapse, or other circumstances, and if such changes created groups of people who were endangered with no recourse through the national government, U.S. refugees would probably be received as sympathetically as other refugees. But – and this is a big but – the last couple centuries of history of the U.S. as an extension of Western European development is that of the colonizer far more than of the oppressed. Native Americans brought to the brink of extinction, enslaved African Americans, and Japanese Americans interned during World War II would have certainly qualified as refugees from the United States under the definition of the Refugee Convention, but when we picture the possibility of “Americans” approaching foreign borders is that really who we’re thinking of? Under present circumstances, an approaching horde of Americans of Western European descent seems more likely to be seizing than fleeing. God forbid our fortune changes, but unless it does, people leaving the United States in droves is a far different scenario than people fleeing countries which have descended into violent narco-states ruled by murderous gangs.

Third, and this may seem like part of the first but I think it’s important enough to warrant its own consideration – what has been the extralegal, “wink-wink-nudge-nudge” history between the United States and the country in question?

Has it recently changed? For decades the U.S. has largely looked the other way when migrants from Mexico and other nations provided cheap labor to shore up industries like construction, hospitality and agriculture because no one wants to pay fifteen dollars per pound for apples picked at the legal minimum wage. As immigration authorities clamp down on such labor, many farmers are struggling to deal with labor shortages. This relationship has been symbiotic for many years. It hasn’t changed because of economics or danger, but because of politics. It seems to me the concern about “the illegals” has grown proportionately not with the number of Mexicans immigrating to the U.S. (the net is actually negative), but with the so-called “browning of America” – the increasingly large portion of legal, permanent (and native) Latinx residents as compared to whites.

It’d be disingenuous not to note the number of non-Mexican Latinx immigrants is increasing, but a large portion of those are seeking refugee or asylee status. If United States residents started migrating in large numbers to a country where we had been welcomed under the table for years and that country experienced an economic downturn, I expect we’d be far less welcome than we were when the country needed us to continue its flow of cheap products. Even if we weren’t taking the jobs people wanted, we’d be scapegoats. Xenophobia is ever only waiting for the right conditions to reveal itself. Populist movements in the U.S. and Europe are largely about the fear of foreigners changing the cultural and literal complexion of a nation.

BACK WHERE YOU CAME FROM

I don’t necessarily have to speculate about answers to the second question. There are at least a dozen countries that will grant you citizenship if you can prove your parents (and in some cases grandparents) were born as citizens of that country. Other nations would treat you as they treated anyone else who wanted to migrate.

To me, the more interesting part of the question is how we think of borders.

Particularly the borders of the United States. When Europeans began settling North America, the continent was already populated with people and their established territories. Borders didn’t seem to matter much to us as we acquired land through war and genocide. When we annexed Texas and invaded Mexico to expand into territory they would not willingly cede to us, we weren’t too worried about the sovereignty of borders. Until 1882 – nearly a century after the establishment of the US Constitution – there were no immigration laws. There were requirements for citizenship and naturalization, but when we were expanding westward and needed labor, whether people crossed our borders didn’t seem to matter much to us. The first U.S. immigration law – the Chinese Exclusion Act – was not because we wanted the limit the total number of immigrants, but because of the fear of the “Yellow Peril” – that is, Chinese people overwhelming our European heritage – as if somehow Europeans were more deserving of the land we’d stolen than were the Chinese. Other groups were excluded for various reasons, including health, literacy, and anarchist political activity. But we weren’t so worried about borders: we were worried about non-white people.

It wasn’t until 1921 – 134 years after the establishment of the nation – that we began instituting immigration quotas which roughly resembled the ethnic composition of the country at the time. (As an aside, that means anyone claiming their family immigrated “legally” before that time is making a moot point; everyone but Asians were allowed in through established ports of entry).

So what changed during those years?

There are many reasons for secure borders, but those didn’t change. What did change was that we outgrew the sense that we were in a state of constant expansion and unlimited resources. Stretched from coast to coast, bound on the North and South, we realized our limits of geography and resources and decided we didn’t want to share them with just anybody who showed up on the continent.

We basically shut down immigration during the Great Depression, and actually coerced hundreds of thousands of Mexican citizens to repatriate to Mexico. Not the Irish or Germans or English mind you – only the people who were native and who’s ancestors were here before the Europeans and just happened to involuntarily end up on our side of the border after the Mexican-American war.

People wanting to come to America were no longer seen as fellow pioneers in the Great American Experiment, but as threats. The quality of people outside our borders had not changed, but our jealousy of our resources had. Outside a slight concession to refugee resettlement in the 1980s, the focus of our immigration policy has been on maintaining employment and ethnic mix.

Now that we’ve got ours, borders matter to us.

Of course the economy is of national concern, but we need immigrants to maintain the economy. That makes the deciding factor ethnicity. There are plenty of successful people from countries which are mostly non-white, but in my experience proponents of “merit-based” systems rarely use them as examples, and are instead quick to point to mostly wealthy white countries which people have little desire to leave anyway. Our quotas and other immigration policies make implicit judgments about worthiness based on where people are from. Our talk of “merit-based” immigration is also disingenuous to the American ideal: no longer are we here for the huddled masses yearning to breathe free… but come on in if you’ve already made it big!

To me that doesn’t seem very “all men are created equal.”
It doesn’t seem very Christian.
It doesn’t seem very American Dream.

How many of us are here because our ancestors fled something?
How many wouldn’t make the cut today under the same circumstances?
How many railed against the discrimination and persecution they experienced here?
How are we more deserving of this stolen land than people facing the same situations?

THE QUESTION BEHIND THE QUESTIONS

Thinking about immigration as a matter of justice requires thinking about a much larger story than what is legal or illegal, convenient or inconvenient, or profitable or not profitable at this moment in history. Before I get to what I think is the big question behind the original two questions, I want to make a few things clear:

  • I don’t believe in lawless, open borders; I don’t personally know anyone who does.
  • I do believe we need to recognize the basic human dignity of everyone – not just citizens.
  • I don’t have a problem with prosecuting and deporting criminals.
  • I do have a problem with indefinitely separating and/or detaining children and families.

That last point shifted the focus of my prior blog post, which in turn raised the questions addressed in this one. My post was about exploiting scripture to defend the indefensible, and how that is neither conservative nor liberal but dangerously fundamentalist. I specifically didn’t advocate any policy, yet it raised policy-related questions for at least one reader. And the connecting thread between these questions was a deeper question…

What would other countries do?

My short answer to this question behind the questions is: I don’t think it matters.

I want us as a nation to do what is right and merciful, regardless of whether other nations would reciprocate. I’m not going to pretend I personally have the prescription for what is right, but it’s certainly something better than what we have now. As a Christian – as a human being – I can’t look at something as artificial and shifting and arbitrary and historically cruel as a border to restrict my compassion. I’m not advocating for some liberal theocracy (that would be hypocritical), but I think if Christianity does influence American politics it should be through values like mercy and sacrifice.

Make no mistake, I love my country. Heck, it allows me the freedom to write critiques of it, which in this world is no small thing!  But loving something doesn’t mean excusing everything it’s done or is doing. That’s flag-waving tribalism, which leads to stagnation, collapse, and – at its worst – genocide. We need to be vigilant about avoiding tribalism, about valuing or devaluing others based on their ethnicity, and about dehumanizing notions à la Manifest Destiny.

We may not have any more opportunities for geographic expansion, but we can still be pioneers of justice and dignity, even when it requires sacrifice. At its heart, that will be what keeps us a nation worth seeking.


Note: Regarding the history of U.S. immigration law, I drew heavily from this Wikipedia article. Yeah it’s Wiki, but they’re all sourced.

The Handmaid’s Fail: Fundamental Errors of Mercy

Well that took a turn.

A couple days ago I had worked out in my head an outline for a post on Hulu’s The Handmaid’s Tale. More specifically, about how some (self-identified) conservative commentators have characterized it as liberal fantasy and anti-Christian propaganda, or in an even further stretch as an indictment of the collectivism of the left. Due to the timing of its premier, many people all over the political spectrum have chosen to interpret the material as a comment on the Trump administration, though the first season of the series follows very closely the novel upon which it was based – and which was written during the Reagan Era. The author herself has said the Republic of Gilead (which she has named her dystopian America) is a product of neither conservatism nor liberalism.

I have recently become a big fan of the show and wanted to discuss the merits of its production and performance without bringing any references to the current administration into it at all. I thought reasonable people of different political and cultural understanding could discuss and recognize what seeds of this dystopia we could agree not to let root in America.

Then the Attorney General of the United States cited Romans to excuse immoral actions of the state.

My perspective took a turn. A hard turn.

Not Conservative

I’m what some might call liberal. And what others might call moderate. Unless someone far to the left of Rachel Maddow is elected president, I’ll probably never be labeled a conservative.

But I’m not so biased that I can’t admit none of the actual people I know who do think of themselves as conservative are represented by the fictional architects of Handmaid’s horrors. Sexual servitude is not a conservative value. Enforced caste systems are not a conservative value. Institutional hypocrisy is not a conservative value.

Traditional Western conservatism, like any political theory, has its pros and cons (which is which may vary by your personal outlook) but the people who truly study, understand, and embrace it are not by definition villains. Sure I could point to countless stories of conservative (or liberal) politicians and leaders caught up in scandals of corruption and hypocrisy, but that’s a product of politics and power, not conservatism.

The evil in Gilead is an entirely different beast.

Not Christian

To find an anti-Christian bias in Handmaid, I believe you have to watch with the assumption it exists, because – despite plenty of Old Testament quoting – it’s not there.

I’ve seen all the episodes (which is not necessarily true of everyone who chooses to comment in favor of or against it) and I’ve noticed the writers are very intentional about not having practitioners of the state religion of Gilead mention or quote Jesus. One scene in particular drives this home. Before dinner, a familiar grace is said: “Bless us O Lord, and these, Thy gifts, which are about to receive from Thy bounty…” and then it stops. It lacks the traditional ending: “Through Christ, our Lord..”

You know who does mention Jesus? Offred/June, our series protagonist. She says a prayer of protection and blessing over the scene of a massacre, and ends it with “in Christ’s name. Amen.”

The character whose red uniform has been borrowed by “liberals” as a symbol of oppression speaks of Jesus and angels to commemorate and mourn the dead. The oppressors can’t seem to reconcile Christ to their theology. That doesn’t say to me the writers are interested in bashing Christianity.

What is it then?

So if Gilead isn’t conservatism or Christianity run amok, what is it? It is (and I’m certainly not the first to say this) a fundamentalist theocracy. And like real-world fundamentalist theocracies, it starts from a familiar scripture which it then cherry-picks and twists to support the absolute authority of its civic leaders – who of course manage to find excuses to exempt themselves from the burden of the rules they use to crush others.

And like many fundamentalist theocracies it exploits the fear surrounding crises both real (in the world of Handmaid, toxic pollution and global infertility) and imagined (people unlike us are the source of our problems). Regressive fundamentalism expresses a desire to “return” to a set of values and norms which never actually existed. The only Christ-related message Gilead seems to cling to is the idea of removing a body part if it causes you to sin, except a) they are literal about it in a way Jesus never intended, and b) instead of self-regulation it’s the state that enforces the lopping, chopping, and plucking.

So if it’s not really Christianity or conservatism, why is it interpreted so?

Fundamentally Ruthless

Fundamentalism is not limited to conservative religions or ideologies. It occurs anywhere people decide their specific point of view must be enforced at all costs. Dress, speech, and reverence of symbols is prescribed and not only can one be punished for failing to follow that prescription, one can be punished (often worse) merely for questioning the system. Questions are the most threatening things of all, because once we allow discussion and analysis of ideas, no fundamentalism survives.

Yet even in the United States there are people who promote and long for a fundamentalist theocratic state. There’s a call to return to Christian values, as if Christian belief and practice is monolithic and unchanged in its expression. For the record, it’s not and never has been. It started with Peter, Paul, and James in stark disagreement over many basic issues and is all over the map today.

But when it comes to fundamentalists, Christianity itself is almost beside the point.

Somewhere in the human psyche, there’s a desire for the seeming order that fundamentalism provides. Certain people rally around it because it satisfies a tribal instinct which requires the “othering” of both outsiders and insiders who question the tribe. The instinct is not partisan. It makes our problems about the failings of other people and minimizes self-reflection. Its application is necessarily ruthless. From shunning to honor killing, mercy is removed from the equation. 99% adherence is 100% insufficient.

This is the exact opposite of what Christ taught. He certainly never suggested Christianity be forced upon anyone. Yet in the United States, a country where freedom of religion is a guaranteed right, there is an ever louder voice wanting to prescribe speech (the “war on Christmas”) and reverence for symbols (if you kneel during the anthem “Maybe you shouldn’t be in this country.”) There’s no question there is also a fundamentalist strain of liberalism which needs to be checked (no matter what you think of Ann Coulter and her execrable ideas she has the right to express them), but it lacks the  coercive religious component which claims to add the fate of your eternal soul into the mix.

When relative moderates align themselves with extremists to achieve political or social goals, chances are more likely that the extremists will influence the moderates than the moderates will constrain the extremists. It’s a lot easier to irritate an extremist, and they’re more willing to walk away from the table. The concessions to civility and human rights that such an alliance requires are almost never worth it in the long term. Thus we have conservative giants like George Will bemoaning the current state of conservatism, the Republican Party and this administration in particular.

The Handmaid’s Trail

Which brings me back to our Attorney General (and Press Secretary) using Romans 13 to justify enforcing the unjust, state-sanctioned practice of separating children from their parents – while conveniently ignoring plenty of other verses specific to the treatment of aliens and refugees. Now that I’ve seen the connection to Handmaid, I can’t unsee it.

First, our government is not based on the Bible, or any religious text. Specifically. And intentionally. The individual constitutions of the first thirteen colonies were based in thirteen different (and conflicting) flavors of Christianity. To become a union (which was ironically opposed by English loyalists citing Romans 13…) we wisely ditched theocracy. Bringing it back is a Gilead-style move.

Second, Romans 13 is not a call to enforce unjust laws. Remember that Jesus guy? He was crucified for sedition. He refused to bend to the prescribed speech of the Roman empire. He violated Sabbath laws. He valued mercy and principle above fundamentalism and paid the price for it. Your hands aren’t tied by Romans 13 unless you want to call Jesus a bad example. You’ll never hear the Commanders of Gilead quoting Christ’s calls to mercy above law unless it serves their desires.

Third, it’s hypocritical. Administrations (local, state, and national) prioritize what laws to enforce and how to enforce them all the time. Nobody opposed to same-sex marriage cited Romans 13 when Kim Davis refused to do her legal duty as an employee of the state, or when Joe Arpaio defied the Supreme Court. Inconsistent and hypocritical application of scripture is Gilead 101.

Finally, throwing up your hands and crying “What can I do?” in the face of injustice – especially when you’re one of the few people in a position to do something about it! – is about as unchristian as it gets. You can choose not to do the unjust but legally required(?) thing and pay the price of following Christ’s merciful example. You can decry the horribleness of a situation, confess how you have contributed to it, and repent by finding another way. A difficult or unattractive option is still an option; choosing it when it’s the right one is a matter of character.

There is always the option to the do the right thing and look for another solution. Declaring “this is terrible but I have to because the law” – when it’s something you really want to do anyway (or not doing so will exact a price you are unwilling to pay) – and then improperly quoting scripture to justify it, is not Christian. It’s not conservative. It does not show integrity.  It is a dangerously fundamentalist theocratic thing to do. It’s one of the basic conflicts in every episode of Handmaid, most dramatically addressed when Offred/June and the other handmaids refuse to stone one of their own, while the representatives of the faith insist it must be done because it’s the law and order must be preserved. If there was only some way to know which side of that dispute Jesus might land on…

No Balm in Gilead

Does anyone believe Jesus would say “Keep locking up those kids. Blame your predecessors and the refugees for tying your hands. Just don’t cause them to stumble.” To me that’s begging to be fitted for a millstone collar.

There are lots of things Jesus has to say about what we might be doing in this situation. Things like doing good to your enemy, and taking care of the least among you, and welcoming strangers. None of them coincide with unnecessarily ramping up a program you claim to disagree with and causing additional trauma to already traumatized parents and children. None of them require adherence to unjust man-made laws. They do require creativity, compassion, and a willingness to lay our political (and sometimes physical) lives down to a higher purpose.

A Christianity that doesn’t inconvenience you but tells you exactly how to detain, punish, or oppress everyone who isn’t following the rules  isn’t Christianity. It’s fundamentalist theocracy. It’s a pious yet somehow Christless Gilead.

No matter our political stripe, we must resist the temptation to ally ourselves with fundamentalists and theocrats. Because once we ride such an alliance to victory, we’ll find that insatiable beast hasn’t been tamed … we merely happened to be going in the direction it wanted to go, and now we’re being dragged along for the ride and holding on lest we also be trampled.

The Handmaid’s Tale doesn’t show us the end result of conservatism or of Christianity, but of fundamentalism. If we’re currently having as much trouble teasing those things apart as the Attorney General and his ilk would seem to hope, perhaps we should remember the whole premise of the Tale hinges on children being taken from mothers trying to survive desperate situations.

All legally.

And all declared the will of God.

Overcoming the Limits of Empathy

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Bumper Sticker Wisdom

A few days ago while sitting in traffic I saw a bumper sticker that gave me pause. It read: “There’s only one race: the human race.” On most days I probably would have read it and nodded in agreement with its message of solidarity, but my audiobook had just ended and I was alone with my thoughts.

The basic sentiment was true enough, but does its oversimplification contribute anything substantial to our social discourse? More than once when I’ve engaged in conversations about racism, sexism, homophobia, ableism or other systemic ills, some well-meaning soul or other has offered up a comment like: “We’ve all been picked on or bullied for our looks, or intelligence, or weight, or something. We need to acknowledge everyone’s pain and love each other for who we are.” And again, on the surface that is true enough, but it’s a conversation-stopper. Specific forms of discrimination have specific causes, specific effects, and specific solutions. Not every unkind word or instance of bullying has its roots in systematic oppression; sometimes people, individually and in groups, are just mean. An inability or unwillingness to see the difference is not enlightenment, it’s self-indulgence.

Woke or dreaming?

Have you ever heard someone say, “I don’t see race?” It’s almost always intended to be supportive of racial equality (though most of the time I cynically suspect it’s begging the rest of us to notice how woke the speaker is), but in practice it erases the experiences of people of other races. You or I may claim not to see someone’s race, but that person doesn’t have the convenience of forgetting about it; they have to live with the 24/7 reality of all the people who do see their race and treat them differently because of it. Truly seeing someone means acknowledging hardships they experience but we don’t, not pretending we’ve all had the same hardships and opportunities simply dressed up in different clothes.

Another example of erasing someone’s experience is woven throughout some men’s reaction to the #metoo movement. Right away we saw responses like “not all men” or “men are sexually assaulted too.” Both true, and neither is helpful to the situation being addressed. The first dismisses women’s experiences in favor of comforting men who can’t separate their defensiveness from the actual problem, and the second derails the conversation away from behavior that has become largely normalized and tolerated by equating it with behavior that for the most part is already unacceptable.

The Worst Offense is a Bad Defense

In a culture where we are encouraged to empathize with others, we need to recognize the boundary between empathizing with someone’s story … and trying to make it our own story. When someone tells us their story, we don’t need to figure out how to relate to it, we need to listen. By all means develop a strong practice of empathy – but also recognize its limits.

As uncomfortable as we might be with discrimination, when someone tells us it has happened to them, let’s suppress any initial instinct to discredit that claim (“oh that happens to white people too” or “maybe you’re being overly sensitive”). Of course we can and should think critically about the situation and information, but here’s an example where empathy applies: how do you feel when someone tries to tell you your interpretation of your lived experience is wrong? So how should people feel when you do it to them? Other people understand their own experiences as well as you and I understand ours, so let’s stop trying to tell them (and ourselves) otherwise.

We don’t necessarily launch these reactions from a negative place. Perhaps our intention is to be impartial. Or maybe our intention is to learn. Or to be an ally. Or something else that seems positive to us. The hard truth is, in interpersonal relationships, especially those entangled in the realities of discrimination, intentions might not matter. We feel like they should, but if the practical result of our reaction is that someone feels further alienated and tells us so, does it cause us any harm to consider how we might be wrong? If a conversation that starts with someone’s experience of discrimination ends in a discussion of our hurt feelings about their reaction – that is, if we need comfort because someone else has spoken about being oppressed – the empathy train has gone off the rails. And we have to own that.

The Bigger Story

Not every story has to be about or even relatable to our own story to merit compassion.

I’ve learned this the hard way, because I’ve been guilty of some flavor of pretty much everything I’ve mentioned. The one thing I’m wise enough to know is that no matter how “woke” I think I am now, there’s always more to learn, and that’s done by listening, not by explaining and defending.

As Christians, we are obligated to listen and to be compassionate because every human being is part of Christ’s story. Isn’t that what it means to see the face of Christ in everyone we meet? And isn’t that idea so much bigger and better than our own tiny story?

Let’s find commonality where we can. And where we can’t find commonality, let’s find Christ.

Why I Stopped Posting Political Memes

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Meme by William Loring. Used with permission and encouragement.

Of course I have opinions on politics. They are many and they are strong. And like the opinions of most people, they are not in point-by-point synchronization with some monolithic party platform. They do not neatly fall to one side or the other of what is fast becoming a high and impenetrable wall on the border between Liberalstan and Conservatica. Partly because a) not every idea is at its core a partisan one no matter how hard we try to make it so, and b) thinking people realize the framework of any “-ism” gets increasingly bent and banged and in need of modification the more it is applied to actual living persons and events.

As a matter of fact, I am seriously considering backing away from any use of “liberal” or “conservative” to describe human beings as individuals or groups. Maybe ideas can be classified so, but the person who observes no exception to an ideology is hopefully as rare as I would like to believe. Tempted as I am to paint an entire population of voters with a broad red or blue brush, people I actually know don’t fit into those categories. Yet sadly, many of the same people who complain about being painted with that broad brush don’t see the hypocrisy in using it to paint “the opposition” with the enthusiasm of a majority shareholder in Sherwin Williams.

And that’s where the political memes come in. Once upon a time, in the heat of the last presidential election and slightly afterward, I found a certain satisfaction in sharing ones that seemed clever. Things changed. Maybe it was me; maybe it was the political conversation. I’m not naïve enough to think politics hasn’t always been ugly (and historically speaking even uglier than it is now). Until recently, however, bad ideas took a lot longer to travel. We couldn’t correspond instantly with everyone whose ideas we found offensive. Serious disagreement required effort and forethought. For that matter, so did agreement. I imagine Lincoln and Douglas could find a lot of common ground in being mutually horrified that days-long debate had been reduced to a couple hours of sound bites further reduced by commercial breaks. Twitter would have seemed like the apocalypse.

PREACHING TO THE PARTISAN CHOIR

Political memes as we understand them aren’t actually meant to communicate. We may think they are because the original concept of a meme was an idea that spread like a virus, but that kind of meme wasn’t intentionally created. Just as viruses spontaneously occurring in nature have been engineered and weaponized, so has the meme. Political memes are meant to whip up the base, not to inform the uninformed. Sure they often pretend to address the snowflakes or the fascists, but that’s so the sharer of the meme can get a little thrill out of feeling like he or she is sticking it to the (largely stereotyped if not outright imagined) opposition. If you were actually out to persuade someone, would you start by insulting their intelligence?

And for those who aren’t bright enough to understand why, the correct answer is “no.”

See how that made you feel?

DESIGNED TO DIVIDE

The virus comparison doesn’t stop with the rapid spread of memes. When we use our powers for good, viruses can be the source of life-saving vaccines. The political meme also inoculates us … but unfortunately the “disease” it protects us from is reason. See, to achieve reasonableness, we can’t just double-down on the ideas we already like. We have to weigh them against the ones that challenge us. Enough doses of the bad logic of political memes (we’ll get into that shortly) eventually trains us to think badly and call it smart. The (often poorly executed) “cleverness” of the political meme also reinforces the idea that sarcasm and irony are tools to be used by everyone. They’re not. Very few people can use them effectively as rhetorical devices.

Instead what we get most of the time is someone listening to a point of view not to fairly consider it, but to refute it in a way that gets in a zing. Doesn’t matter if said refutation actually makes sense, because it makes us feel briefly superior. And that’s what the memes are for: replacing reconciliation with the satisfaction of a cheap shot. Common ground is merely an obstacle.

LAPSE OF LOGIC

To me, one of the most troubling aspects of political memes is how easily they encourage people to forego critical thinking. We don’t want to fact-check anything that reinforces our existing opinions. And even if the facts are correct, how often are they used logically?

One popular style of meme is posting photos or quotes side-by-side to illustrate an implied contrast. For example, showing one politician reacting charitably to a disaster while another is one the golf course at allegedly the same time. Or maybe one person’s best words against another person’s worst. Photos and quotes have context, and in the digital age they are in infinite supply. Anyone can look bad or good for the split-second it takes to be exposed to a camera. Unrelated images and quotes tell us exactly nothing, but we’re willing to project a lot onto them.

Closely related is the meme that forgets we can do two things at the same time. Support good police officers and check bad ones?  Both things can – and should! – happen. Yet any critique of unnecessary police violence must mean you hate law enforcement, and any expression of support for law enforcement must make you a racist. At least according to the poor logic of political memes. Neither stance should be a partisan issue, but too often we express one as reaction and negation to the other because we equate challenging viewpoints with censorship and react disproportionately. Kids, we improve when we think critically about our own positions, not when we start shouting about who’s rubber and who’s glue.

Then there’s good old Double Standard, and its second cousin Whatabout. Notice how people’s definition of “too much time on the golf course” tends to change with the party of the president? Or for what the first lady wears? Or moral lapses? And when people criticize us for letting Double Standard sidle up to the table, we invite Whatabout for reinforcement. He’s really distracting, constantly yelling about how your guy (or gal) did the same or something worse. We don’t let our kids get away with two wrongs making a right, but we let our politicians slide if they’re on our team. How about this idea: both of them can be wrong, or maybe the offense wasn’t really an offense at all. Hypocrisy is the oxygen feeding the flames of illogic.

Finally we have the presumed offense. In politics, for every action there seems to be an equal and opposite preaction. What’s that mean? Think about school shootings. Anymore after one happens, the memes start flying about what we presume the other side is saying. We don’t even wait for them to actually say it. Fortunately for us, this puts them into the position of either confirming our preconceptions (if one is right mustn’t they all be right?) or defending their position. We win either way without ever having to actually engage people of different viewpoints. Almost anything that looks like policy debate on television is merely the preaction reaction. And what happens on Facebook should stay in Vegas.

Only when we return to logical thinking, instead of defensive memery and one-upsmanship, can we hope to actually communicate instead of shouting over each other. The danger of memes isn’t just the momentary reaction as we scroll by them on our timeline, it’s how they retrain us to see each other as opponents instead of companions.

IT’S NOT YOU, IT’S MEME

At this point some readers will undoubtedly think I’m telling them to stop posting political memes. Nope. I’m telling you why I did. If you assume expressing my opinion means I’m telling you what to do, please re-read the previous section. That’s part of the big problem: the breakdown of logic has taught us to hear an argument or an opinion as a threat to our own freedom. “Snowflakes” come in red, white and blue. I am darkly amused when someone who posts about how people are too easily offended by mere words … then get offended by different words. Everyone is offended by something. The trick is not to justify your offense while minimizing someone else’s. Do that enough, and you’ll handle offense like an adult.

SO WHY SHOULD YOU CARE?

So why write about all this on a Christian blog anyway?

Nobody keeps their politics and their faith (or at least their moral beliefs) separate. If we think we do … Surprise! We’ve put faith second.

But if we put faith first, specifically faith in Christ, we are committed to being humble voices of reconciliation and justice. Humble voices often don’t feel like they’re accomplishing much. One at a time, maybe they aren’t.  So we need to stick together and see Christ in each other and be Christ to each other. That means offering dignity and peace even when – especially when – it costs us. Peacemaking is a slow, relentless business. It requires listening more than speaking. Giving more than defending.

Humility isn’t fun. Tribalism and smugness are fun. Terrible, but fun.

Love your enemy. Don’t mock them. Don’t belittle them. Don’t make sport of their feelings and well-being. Love them.

If you can do that in a meme, let’s hope it goes viral.

Peace to you.

Sunday Schooled

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Contemplating how much I still have to learn…

This past Sunday I went to a weekly church service for the first time in a long time. Several years ago I left a church in which I had been very active – board chair, elder, various other roles – for years. My departure was painful for me. There’s no need to rehash my reasons for leaving. When people ask me about why I don’t attend any more, I simply tell them it is no longer a good fit for me. My ego is not so big that I need my personal grievances to become theirs. Just because it’s not my community doesn’t mean I need to run it down to people who may need it to be theirs.

STAGE 5: ACCEPTANCE

It was a tumultuous time for the congregation, and several other congregants also left during roughly the same period. For a few years afterward, I led a house church composed of other people who’d left, a few people who’d stayed, and some people who’d never been there. We interacted with other churches in the denomination and community, including the church most of us had left. Eventually the time for the house church ran its course, and it wound down and we dissolved it amicably. For me and others who attended, it was a time of grieving and healing – which, I believe, go hand in hand when we grieve well.

A friend who had attended both my former congregation and the house church invited me a few times to a church she had found. It was only a few years old. She liked the theology and the music. I checked out their web-site, and my first impression is that they are also involved in spreading the Gospel through service. That last bit is important to me; were I ever to consider “joining” a congregation again (I still think of myself as joined to the larger church as part of the Body of Christ), Gospel-centered service is in my top criteria.

I’ll check out a few more Sundays and other events to get a feel for the possible “fit” of this congregation. There’s another one that’s been piquing my interest lately, and I’ll want to visit it for a while also.  I’m in no hurry to make a decision, but a decision is inevitable.

The same friend has on numerous occasions reminded me of something I once said in a board meeting lo those many years ago: “I don’t know how to be a Christian without a community.”

LOST IN THE CROWD

Leadership positions are rewarding, but they can also be exhausting. This Sunday’s visit was the first time in almost ten years I had been in a worship service (this particular community called it a “gathering” in the apostolic tradition) where I wasn’t leading, facilitating in some way, or otherwise known to the congregation. Nobody was interrupting my worship experience by blurring the boundaries between “time to let you worship” and “time to complain about where Mrs. Smith set up the bake sale table.”

Except for my friend, I was completely anonymous. And I’m not sure how I felt about it.

I expected to feel relieved to experience the service in peace, but I also felt more than a little … let’s call it humbled, though it wasn’t quite so benign. These people were able to more than competently pull off an entire Sunday without needing anything from me. That was exactly what I thought I wanted to experience, but I was conflicted. What was going on?

IT’S NOT YOU, IT’S ME

Despite fantastic music and a terrific message, attending the Sunday gathering left me feeling … unsettled. All afternoon I reflected on why this might be so.

I’m not sure I figured it out, but a lot of old thoughts and emotions about my last church resurfaced. Whatever feelings of unease I brought into this new setting were undoubtedly related to my past experiences, but my problems with the old place couldn’t fairly be projected onto this new one.

So what to do? I needed to squarely face my own contributions to the prior experience, so as not to repeat them anywhere new.

Now I hadn’t acted with malice or carelessness. I really believe there’s nothing I need or needed to “confess” about my failings, yet there were some failings. And I think they’re pinned to leadership. More specifically, my suitability for the type of leadership I accepted.

I say “accepted” because it wasn’t anything I sought. In a small enough congregation, being reliable and competent and experiencing a few small successes is all that’s needed to get nominated to any number of positions.  And it’s flattering when people ask you to lead. If they ask enough times, you may even start to think you’re qualified.

But “accepted” is not passive. My initial hesitations were well-grounded, so I should have known enough to decline. Leadership comes in many flavors. Strategic leadership is not the same as project leadership. And if I’m honest with myself, I have some strong project leadership skills, but strategic leadership is not where I shine. There’s plenty of blame to go around when a congregation fractures, and I believe that’s the piece I need to own, the humble pie I need to swallow.

For a while I told myself I wouldn’t be sucked into leadership in any congregation I joined; that doing so was a sure road to dissatisfaction and stress.

It hadn’t occurred to me until now that maybe no one would ask. If that bruises my ego, Jesus and I need to walk it off.

LITTLE JESUS FISH IN A BIG POND

Turns out experiencing a whole Sunday service that didn’t need me was humbling in a good way. It’s not necessarily comfortable, but it’s not the chafe of the ill-fitting strategic suit I’d mistakenly tried on.

Maybe, wherever I end up, they won’t need – or even ask! – me to lead anything. Undoubtedly there will be plenty of opportunities to serve. There will be times I’ll feel called to step up. And I’ll try to live out one of the best lessons I’ve picked up from mission trips: need is about the served, not the servant.

Ego is a tricky thing – especially when it disguises itself as service. The next leg of my faith journey seems to be a detour down Humble Highway.

Think I’ll take my time.

Peace!

The Roseanne Reboot is a Nightmare (for political purists)

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The Roseanne reboot premiered to spectacular ratings, despite the many liberal and progressive voices publicly declaring they would not watch it because of the titular star’s enthusiastic support of President Trump, and conservatives boycotting it for including a “gender creative” grandchild. If I had to label my own political leanings, I think of myself as a left-of-center moderate – which generally means plenty of self-identifying conservatives classify me as a liberal and self-identifying liberals as ideologically impure.

I watched the double-episode Roseanne premier and I laughed. A lot. Much like the Will & Grace reboot, the characters fell into their old roles and relationships pretty seamlessly. Divisive politics were a prominent theme, but isn’t that going on in living rooms all over the United States?

The last election created political rifts in my own family for the first time that I can remember.  It’s not that we’ve always been in lockstep over candidates or even issues, but that this last election felt personal in ways previous ones never had. I am grateful that we are now getting back to a place where we can discuss policy and issues, rather than litigating yet again the morality of voting for either candidate. What’s done is done. Once more we can delve into the nuances of immigration, economics, gun control, health care, racism and other issues with rhetorical passion but without personal venom.

For a while I was convinced one’s choice of candidate revealed something more significant about them than it actually did. It turns out voting for the “other” candidate doesn’t make you a monster. I just can’t bring myself to stereotype any stripe of voter because we were all the same people before and after the election. We didn’t have fascists and snowflakes (or people throwing around ridiculously inappropriate terms like fascist and snowflake) in the family before, and we don’t have them now.

What I think has been much more revelatory is whether post-election one is more loyal to parties, candidates, and ideologies than to ideas and principles. In other words, do you defend the indefensible because it’s “your team” or do you aim for consistency and integrity? Plenty of people on both sides have passed or failed this standard.

And that brings us back to Roseanne. Many people seem not to be able to put aside Roseanne Barr’s personal (though very publicly expressed) politics to give the show a chance. But Barr is hardly the only contributor to this endeavor. Executive producer and actor Sara Gilbert (daughter Darlene) and actor Laurie Metcalf (sister Jackie) are integral to the show, and both have political viewpoints very divergent from Barr’s. Actor John Goodman (husband Dan) is largely apolitical as far as public persona goes. Do Barr’s politics trump (no pun intended) everyone else’s because she gets top billing? No viewpoint is silenced. Everyone looks equally ridiculous.

Are we so entrenched – are our beliefs and worldviews so fragile – that we can’t tolerate exposure to any enterprise that doesn’t completely conform to them, even when it espouses other values we agree with?

The following paragraph contains a few spoilers to make some points, so just skip it if you like – you’ll still be able to keep up.

Most confounding to ideological purists might be the characters’ lack of adherence to stereotyping. Grandmother Roseanne forcefully defends the clothing choices of her grandchild Mark – who does not identify as transgender but does identify as a someone most comfortable in traditionally feminine clothing. Does that sound like the left’s characterization of a stereotypical Trump supporter? Even when it seems the characters are about to prove the stereotypes right – Roseanne refers to Hillary Clinton as “the worst person in the world” and Jackie can’t resist making a point of wearing a pink pussy hat and Nasty Woman t-shirt to their reunion after a year-long, politically-driven estrangement – the expected vitriol makes an appearance but is ultimately unsustainable. It would seem we can maintain the anger only as long as we can maintain our self-imposed distance, but once love and necessity force us to interact … we start to remember who we were. The differences don’t disappear, but they are reduced to a controlled simmer.

Politics may be the current vehicle of the new show, but it’s not the destination. Roseanne continues primarily to be about how a struggling family gets through life together. Once the pressing problems of health, employment, deployment, and identity assert themselves, the characters – and we – remember politics divides us much more than it ever solves anything. Getting through life together isn’t a matter of accusing and persuading, but loving and serving.

I believe the program we need right now isn’t one where everyone in the family has reached a unified liberal or conservative consensus, but one that shows us how to be family despite our imperfections and (sometimes very raw) disagreements. Like the Roseanne of decades ago, the current incarnation reflects what’s going on in our own living rooms and at our own kitchen tables. There’s room for everyone – and for everyone to be pissed off. This cast has obviously become a family in more than a scripted sense, and as such they have learned to harness their common goals toward creation rather than let their differences drive them to enmity. Like it or not, that’s progress.

World Piece

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In the cafeteria at work, there’s always a jigsaw puzzle in process on one of the tables. It’s there for anyone who wants to work on it. When one is finally complete it remains on display for a day or two, and then it’s time for the next.

I know – as a metaphor, the jigsaw puzzle has been played out. “We all have a unique role, life is a team effort, every piece is necessary, blah blah blah.”

What struck me recently wasn’t the metaphor of the puzzle itself, but of how we approach putting it together. Specifically, I was pulling together some pieces that looked like they would complete a tiger (they always seem to be “nature” puzzles with animals socializing in very unnatural harmony) when a co-worker commented, “We’re still working the edge pieces.”

That’s the most common approach, isn’t it? Finding the edge pieces, defining the shape of the thing. We like knowing the boundaries and limits in which we are expected to operate.

I believe that the human condition involves life breaking us into pieces and us putting them back together. Of course the number, shape, and size of the pieces vary by each person’s life experience. Most of us start reassembling ourselves by focusing on our borders – the exterior that assures people we know what shape we’re supposed to be. Doing so comforts us and comforts others. Maybe it comforts us in large part because it comforts others and reduces tension between us.

But not everyone is able to start with the borders.

Sometimes our box has been torn open so recklessly that pieces have been flung all over the place and we have to start with what we can find; years can be wasted burrowing under the couch cushions and clawing behind the dresser thinking we have to have all the pieces before we can start assembling any of them.

And sometimes there’s a moment of recognition and clarity – a chance to tame those tiger bits and reduce the chaos – that’s too good an opportunity to resist. Somebody is going to urge us to finish the border first (or even start working on it for us) because our progress doesn’t unfold like they want it to.  Yes it might be more socially acceptable to meet expectations, but better to fix what we can when we can than to ignore the tiger and lose the opportunity for who knows how long.

Of course this all assumes we know something about solving puzzles. Most of us cut our teeth on those four-piece jigsaws for toddlers. You know the kind – large, easy to handle pieces and simple pictures. Probably covered in drool. Our parents gift us with simple challenges so we can practice and work our way up to the hard stuff.

Not everyone is so lucky. Maybe no one ever taught you all the pieces were actually meant to be integrated into something bigger. Maybe they didn’t provide you (or accidentally or deliberately destroyed) a picture of what life should (or could) look like, so the outcome is a mystery. Maybe they were careless and some pieces are torn or damaged or lost or burned … and gone forever. Maybe you drew life’s short straw and your first puzzle is five thousand pieces all the same color with no edges; surely there are some puzzle enthusiasts who would love that, but most of us aren’t up to the challenge.

If we are unfortunate enough to start out with one of those really tough puzzles and no training, it may take a long while of handling those pieces one at a time before realizing they are incomplete parts of a greater whole – a whole we might not be able to begin to envision, let alone start putting a border around. To other people it might look like we’re sifting aimlessly through a pile they’re sure they could easily begin to solve. If they take the time to learn about the challenges of our particular puzzle, will they walk away? Fix it to their own satisfaction while leaving us still bewildered? Or do the hard work of helping us help ourselves?

So start with the edge pieces. Or the tiger. Or just by figuring out that a solution and strategy are possible. And for goodness sake don’t worry about puzzles that aren’t yours – whether to compare or to judge. Because once you get your puzzle together, you’ll discover it’s really just a single piece of an even larger puzzle. Whatever progress we make, there’s more to be made. It’s not only ourselves we’re rebuilding, it’s the entire broken world.

Peace by piece.

Wretched Refuse(d)

statue-of-liberty-2407489_1920Welcome to the first entry of C+C 2.0. As mentioned near the end of last year, I’m going to do some pieces that are a departure from the devotional and invitational posts. This one hits on topics that some consider political – specifically some comments recently made by our president – but I have no interest in partisanship. I do have interest in the intersection of America and Christianity. If that piques your interest, read on; otherwise another devotional will be up soon. Peace!


“Why do we want all these people from ‘shithole countries’ coming here?”
– President Donald J. Trump

So at last it’s laid clearly on the table; this is what a “Christian nation”  – or at least the representative it elects – thinks about immigration. We can cry all we want about how he doesn’t really represent us, but we elected him. He’s no surprise.

Let me make this clear from jump: this isn’t about legal or illegal immigration. The justice of that situation also desperately needs attention, but it’s a separate matter.

No, this is about how some of the wealthiest people in one of the wealthiest countries in the world view poor people, especially non-white poor people. It’s about failing to recognize the context of history, and how many of these “shithole” nations find themselves in dire straits largely due to colonial and capitalist exploitation by the rich and powerful – sometimes from the West and sometimes internally – and then dismissing them as failed states full of less-than-human beings.

This is about how a faith community claiming to follow a savior who said “Whatsoever you failed to do for the least of my brothers and sisters, you failed to do for me” (yeah, that’s the second part) could view and treat the “least” with passive contempt.

It’s about how America – in sad parallel with American Christianity – has become less a refuge of freedom for those oppressed  by empire, poverty, and discrimination …  and more an empire itself ferociously hoarding wealth and power in one hand while waving a flag of equality and freedom in the other. The crosses stretching across America have become support poles for the ultimate velvet rope of the most exclusive club, defining who gets in and who stays out based on who the owners of the nation (and the faith) like to be seen with.

America is in the business of continental gentrification. Now that we’ve pushed out the savages and ruffians and got the neighborhood up and running, we don’t want to let in “those” people who will take advantage of it and ruin it. Never mind the inconvenient history of building it on the backs of wave after wave of “those” people. African and Asian and Eastern European and Jewish and Catholic and Latin American and the endless variety of people we saw as less-than-human beings for a generation or so until we were up in arms about the next group threatening to ruin the neighborhood. Thanks for finishing that railroad. Your seat is in the back. Your neighborhood is across town.

In large part, immigration has long been a recruitment effort. The Polish and Hungarian neighborhoods in my town were the direct result of businesses bringing in entire communities to meet labor demands. These people didn’t come because they were already wealthy and successful. They came for the opportunity to escape shitholes. Without them, wealth sat idle. With them, it built cities, communities, churches, museums, and the rest of a nation.

But here’s the difference between running a business and running a nation. Once a business is done with the cheap labor (or replacing the expensive labor with automation) those people are no longer the responsibility of the business. A nation is never done with its responsibility. Citizens are not FTEs. We need to take them into account, or they will turn on each other.

It’s no coincidence this swell of populism is occurring during a time of divided wealth, deteriorating infrastructure, and decreasing church attendance. A national or religious empire (and have they ever really been separate in the West?) in decline is an animal which has cornered itself, and is therefore a danger to itself. When we were tackling frontiers, risk brought reward. Now that we have nowhere to expand and those we trampled on are forcing us to face the questionable tactics we used for that expansion, the greatest risk is admitting we’re not who we think we are. Even the middle and lower classes are defensive of criticisms of the rich when tribal reputation is all they have left to cling to.

I don’t actually think of America as a Christian nation, nor would I like it to be. I’m not at all keen on anything that smacks of theocracy. When you get my government in your religion they aren’t “two great tastes that taste great together” (anyone remember those commercials?); they’re more – and excuse my presidential language here – a shit sandwich.

But despite our worse instincts, some actual Christ-like influence has managed to permeate the culture. Those words about the tired, poor, huddled masses on the State of Liberty may be a product of an enlightened France, but they resonate with the religion that says God backs a loser. Even when our country – and our faith – don’t live up to the hype, citizens and would-be-citizens cling to the ideal expressed in those words. After all, most our families didn’t come here because the government was recruiting the already successful, but because the nation welcomed, needed, and sometimes stole the poor; some part of us remembers where we’ve come from, even when our own success and fear of sharing it diminish our enthusiasm for extending that same dream to others.

Businesses that contribute to society. Nations that contribute to the world. Faith that contributes to the Kingdom.  Have we – or our representatives – forgotten they are all built on the “least of these?”

A powerful business, nation, or faith that turns its focus inward and seeks to protect itself at the expense of others is not a reflection of Christ. Heck we’d have to get out the silverware polish and a sandblaster to uncover even the barest glimmer of common decency.

If you really want to give a hand up instead of a handout, you have to be willing to get your hands dirty. Yes, welcoming the stranger is scary. Christ says welcome them anyway. Yes, a small minority will want to take advantage. Christ says give to all who ask of you.  (Right about now you’re tempted to rationalize that into something practical. Why? Christ wasn’t practical.)  Yes, your way of life may feel threatened. Christ says there is no greater love than to lay down your life for your friend, and if we truly claim Christ as our friend, who then can we exclude from friendship?

A church or a nation that gets disheveled and dirty because it’s in the business of turning the hopeless into the hopeful is doing its job. Christianity and America are not meant to be beautiful, sterile showplaces focused on preserving their own self-proclaimed wonderfulness. They are meant to be sources of justice in not just a legal sense but a moral one, and justice takes guts and grime.

Through our faith language and our nigh-religious devotion to capitalism, we have turned spiritual and economic salvation into “I’ve-got-mine” individual experiences, when true salvation is communal. Doing so has impoverished us in countless ways. True salvation seeks not to isolate, but to replicate. When much is given, much is expected. Jesus said that, too.

Why do we want all these people from shithole countries coming here?

If we are Christian, the answer is “Jesus said so.”

If we are American, the answer is “they have and will make us stronger.”

If we are both, why are we still asking the question?

The Jumble

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Celebrating Christmas without observing Advent is like taking a victory lap before the race starts.

At least, that’s how I’ve felt about it for many years.

Most of the rest of the world – both secular and Christian – begs to differ. On the Friday after Thanksgiving, the whole country seems to flip a switch that turns on  the Christmas twinkle and bustle with Advent getting barely a nod from those chocolate-laced calendars which start on December 1st whether that’s the actual beginning of the season or not. Maybe we feel we’ve done enough Advent-ing when we hold off on dropping the Baby Jesus into the nativity scene until the morning of. Our Christmas expectations have grown so extravagant that we spend a liturgical season of solemnity with decorating, shopping, wrapping, baking, and singing when we could be mourning a broken world. Okay, not a great selling point, but it is why Jesus showed up.

I’ve been a lot more concerned with the War on Advent than the War on Christmas (which by the way was  decisively won by retailers decades ago – you might be glad to know Christmas won). I find a certain perverse glee in reminding people Christmas Day wasn’t a federally recognized holiday until 1870, and that in the 17th century Christians campaigned to keep Christmas celebrations illegal in several of the original colonies and in England.

For all their faults, Puritans really understood the importance of observing a Bleak Midwinter.

And yet ironically … I find being a prophet of doom about Advent does little to advance the pro-Advent agenda. So instead, I have come to realize – reluctantly at first and more gratefully these days – that in the midst of all that inappropriately-timed caroling (hey, I’m working on it!), people are indeed facing the brokenness in our communities and our world. They’re just not putting as somber a face on it as my narrow vision demands.

Charities of all kinds depend on the generosity that wells forth in the Advent/Christmas season for their very survival. In places of employment, colleagues take collections and pool resources to make Christmas day special for the less fortunate (whose wish lists often include household supplies and other things many of us can take for granted). The Marines deploy their Toys for Tots campaign to bring joy to children, and civilians make extra efforts to remember those deployed around the world under unthinkable conditions.

Are these kindnesses a bit of Advent-like awareness? Yes. Do they address the larger injustices that prophets like Amos and Isaiah – perennial Advent favorites – warn us about? Not as much as they could.

But it’s all a start. Despite my affection for a neatly structured liturgical calendar, Advent and Christmas and all those other seasons are not how life plays out in the real world. In the real world, every day – every hour – is a jumble of hope, joy, expectation, repentance, mercy and all the other things that make up existence. Advent preparation isn’t just for Christmas. And Christmas celebration isn’t just for December 25th.

That saying about having Christmas in our hearts all year around? It’s also true for the lessons of Advent, Easter, Pentecost, and every other season and holiday of our faith.

May the peace of our Lord Jesus Christ be with you all.

For the record…

… Since the Lectionary is cyclical, the recent and upcoming Advent posts are polished up versions of ones written two years ago. It was a very different political atmosphere, so please don’t read too much about current events into their intent. But maybe don’t read too little into them either; the prophetic cry for justice is ongoing and timeless.