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Sermon for June 19, 2016: Who am I? (preached at St. Clement’s Episcopal Church, Berkeley, CA)

Listen here:

What does it mean to hear voices?  In our society, when someone says they hear voices, we usually assume it is a symptom of mental illness and offer therapy and medication to help make the voices stop.  This is helpful for the many people who recognize the unreality of their situation and are frightened by it.  But for others, the costs of taking medications, vicious side effects, and the sense of being “doped” and “not themselves” are not worth the “cure.”

I sometimes wonder, then, if our real motivation for “rescuing” people from mental health symptoms like hearing voices is more about society’s discomfort and fear than the individual’s.  We worry that someone who hears things will disrupt the communities we live in or act out violently.  The idea that mentally ill people are prone to violence is common – but wrong.  Studies tell us that the vast majority of individuals who suffer from severe mental illnesses are not dangerous.[1]

What mentally ill individuals are is isolated and stigmatized.  Mentally ill people are far more likely to be the victims of violence than the perpetrators of it.[2]  It is estimated that more than 124 thousand homeless people across the US suffer from a severe mental illness.[3]  We see such people all the time and, for many of us, walking near them can seem scary – causing us to try to get away from them as quickly as possible.  This, of course, is the exact opposite of what people with severe mental illnesses need.  Their symptoms have separated them from others; what they need more than anything is to be restored to full membership in their communities.

Our first century brethren would recognize this dilemma because they demonstrated similar fears of the people who heard voices in their time.  In today’s gospel we heard that when Jesus and his disciples arrived in the Gentile territory of the Gerasenes, he was immediately confronted by the cries of a man described only as having “demons.”  The man has no name, no profession, and no apparent family – in essence, his ravings have become his identity; he is simply “the man with the demons.”  But he was not always this way; he was once a man of the city, who now lives among the tombs outside of his community allegedly in order to keep both the afflicted and the unafflicted safe.

According to Luke, when Jesus arrives, the man – or the “demons” in him – immediately recognize him and asks Jesus his intentions.  “What have you to do with me”? he cries, and then begs, “Do not torment me – do not taunt me.  Do not pretend that you cannot help me when I know you can.”  And the first thing Jesus does is to name ask the man to name his “demons” – to identify the source of the man’s pain for what it is –something that is well-known to a people occupied by the Roman Empire.  The man has been overcome by a “Legion” –a multitude of oppressive feelings so great that he has been left powerlessness over his own mind.

This story is important enough to appear in all three “synoptic” (similar) gospels.  It is thought to be the first narrative in which Jesus heals someone who is not Jewish and does not live on Jewish soil.  It is also considered authoritative for those who practice demonology, faith-healing and exorcism; not to mention the writers of horror films.  So it’s particularly interesting to look at what the story does not say.  It does not say that Jesus acknowledged the man’s torment as being the result of external demons.  It does not say that the man himself is sinful.  For that matter, it doesn’t even say that the “demons” inside him are evil.  It just says that the man’s condition drives him away from others.  The possession that Luke describes has not taken away the man’s morality.  It has taken his identity.

That’s a crucial difference – because it tells us that even if we take this story literally, so-called “demon possession” is not about the battle of good versus evil.  It’s about the struggle for identity.  For most of us, there is nothing more frightening than not knowing who we are or where we belong and being unable to control our own thoughts and actions.  This loss of self is at the core of mental illness.  It is also, I believe, at the center of our unraveling American social fabric.  It is the loss of our collective identity – our knowledge of who we are and what we stand for – that has led to so much separation, isolation and pain in this country.  And it is our failure to respond when we see someone “possessed” with such pain that is evil.

But Jesus did not fail to respond.  Jesus heard the man’s cry for help and healed him by restoring his identity and his place in the community.  He also gave him a new purpose.  Having experienced the power and mercy of God, the man of Garasene was given the opportunity to spread that good news to the members of his community.   In this way, the very deep woundedness of the Gerasene demoniac became, for his friends and neighbors, a catalyst for their own redemption.  In using his power to heal the man, Jesus provided him with the power to restore others to God.

But some people weren’t happy about it – because it scared them.  It scared them for someone to enter their community and insult their Roman occupiers by symbolically disarming one of their oppressive legions.  It frightened them that Jesus demonstrated that he and his followers cared more about the mental health of one person than the group of swineherds who lost their business as a result of the healing.  Or perhaps it was simply too much of a miracle.  They might have been used to the not uncommon wondrous actions of itinerant healers who came through their territory, but they had never seen someone so changed as the Garasene man had been by Jesus.

But that’s what true faith does.  It changes us.  It frees us.  It allows us to escape from the roles and masks we put on in order to function in our world and releases us to live in another – in the world of true life in Jesus Christ.  “Before faith came,” Paul wrote to the Galatians, “you were imprisoned and guarded by the law” because you could not be trusted not to hurt yourself or other people.  Like the Gerasene demoniac, you were not in your right mind.  But now that Jesus has come, now that you have faith, you no longer need to be afraid of yourself or others- because all of you are one in faith.  All of the things that divided you – race, culture, gender, politics, social status – none of those things matter anymore, because by trust alone you are free to participate in the life of Christ together.  You have been restored not just as individuals, but as a community of Christ.

This is what Paul believed would happen when people accepted Christ as their savior – when their faith became their only truth – when it guided their lives and drowned out the noise and distractions of the world.  But we all know that that didn’t happen– and hasn’t happened yet.  We know it because we still separate ourselves from one another.  We are not one.  We are still Jew and Greek, slave and free, male and female.  We call ourselves Evangelicals or Catholics, Muslims or Mormons, Anglicans or Episcopalians.  The noise of humanity’s distractions – its petty squabbles, angry retorts, and jealous fears – continues to prevent us from doing the one thing that Paul says is necessary for his idyllic vision to come to fruition; we seem to be unable to participate in the life of Christ together.  We yell at each other so loudly that we cannot hear the voice of God.

That’s what happens when you are afraid.  It is what happened to Elijah.  Having done all that God asked of him – triumphing in a contest of power with the prophets of Ba’al, demanding the resignation of the king himself, consistently declaring God’s most controversial word – Elijah inexplicably lost his nerve and ran for his life into the wilderness, where he sat in a cave and asked God to let him die.  But ours is a God who answers cries for death with life – and with restoration.  Jesus restored the man of Gerasene to himself.  God restored Elijah to Godself, reminding him that he had not been alone in his struggles; that God had been and remained with him.  That it was Elijah who had forgotten the sound of God’s voice.

Perhaps we have too.  Perhaps we need to be reminded of the difference between the voice of God and the earthly voices that possess our thoughts with anger, fear, and despair.  God’s voice – whether it thunders or burns or whispers –never separates.  God’s voice always restores.  It restores us to ourselves and to one another.  Trust in that voice – and you too will be healed.  You too will be restored.  AMEN.

[1] Liza Gold, “Gun Violence: Psychiatry, Risk Assessment, and Social Policy,” Journal of the American Academy of Psychology and the Law, 41:3:337-343 (September 2013).

[2]Jonathan Metzl and Kevin MacLeish, “Mental Illness, Mass Shootings, and the Politics of American Firearms,” American Journal of Public Health. 2015 February; 105(2): 240–249.

[3]Rick Jervis (August 27, 2014), “Mental disorders keep thousands of homeless on streets,” USA Today,  http://www.usatoday.com/story/news/nation/2014/08/27/mental-health-homeless-series/14255283/.

Current Events

This page has been included to provide information related to news items about the Episcopal Church.

The decision of Anglican primates to censure the Episcopal Church over gay marriage issue:

Links:

For history:

http://www.bbc.com/news/uk-35318392

Presiding Bishop Michael Curry’s statement on the actions of the Anglican Primates, January, 2016:

http://www.episcopalchurch.org/posts/publicaffairs/episcopal-church-presiding-bishop-and-primate-michael-curry-actions-anglican

Using religion as a reason to exclude others: it’s just bad manners 

My children do not have perfect manners.  My spouse and I are sometimes disappointed that two perfectly intelligent teenagers who were raised with repeated choruses of “Don’t talk with your mouth full,” “Get your elbows off the table,” and “Don’t just come up and interrupt when I am having a conversation with someone” still have to be reminded of such basic rules of etiquette.  Recently, in a fit of frustration I asked them why it seems so hard for them to abide by such basic rules.  “Because,” my daughter told me, “I don’t get why it matters.  Who cares if I have my elbows on the table”?  And I realized that for all of my teaching and nagging I had failed to get across the basic point: etiquette does not exist to make people hypervigilant and uncomfortable.  It was not created for some people to use to ostracize others.  Manners were developed to make people more comfortable with one another – to facilitate communication and encourage positive relationships. Except that when we get to a fancy dinner and don’t know what fork to use, it’s easy to forget.  It’s easy to feel awkward and embarrassed.  It’s easy to feel left out.

I think the same thing can be said for religion.  Despite the fact that many of us have benefitted from being part of religious groups, many others have felt marginalized by religions.  That’s what happens when we forget the real reason for the existence of faith communities.  God did not create “religion” – people did.  Churches, synagogues, mosques and temples do not exist because God needs them.  They were built by people for people.  And, as far as I know, they were not created to make people anxious and uncomfortable.  They were not created to shut people out.  They were created to provide people with a place where they could refresh their spirits – where they could grow and become better people – where they could be in relationship with others.

But for many years – thousands of years – people have used religion to separate themselves from one another and to destroy relationships rather than build them.  Once, in response to one of my posts in which I talked about the necessity of loving one another – a bedrock principle of Christianity – a man told me that “More people have died as a result of Christianity than anything else.”  I don’t think there’s any historical merit to his opinion, but there is certainly a great deal of support for the argument that millions of people have died as a result of the rigid and zealous religiosity of others.  I would argue, however, that in most cases, religious violence is not the result of actions based on the fundamental precepts of the religions themselves.  Most of the established religions in the world today, including Christianity, Buddhism, Hinduism, Islam, and Judaism, are based on principles of growth, goodness, and spiritual enlightenment.  But people often lose sight of simple moral truths when these ideas are co-opted in the service of human frailties like fear, greed, and the desire for power.  This has led to distorted perceptions about the differences between us, rather than a focus on the things we have in common.

And I think that this is still the case.  This is evidenced by three of the headlines on a recent religious news blog: “This US company just banned Muslim prayer breaks;” “Russian Orthodox patriarch blames acceptance of homosexuality for ISIS’s rise;” and “British PM to Muslim immigrant women: learn English or risk deportation.”  These stories emphasize difference rather than solidarity. The same is true of the story of Larycia Hawkins, a political science professor at Wheaton College who in December posted a picture of herself on Facebook wearing a hijab, a traditional Muslim garment.  Hawkins, who is a tenured professor at the Christian college and is herself a Christian, indicated that she planned to wear the hijab in support of her Muslim brethren, who have, as a group, been undergoing increasingly prejudicial treatment in the United States and other countries.  In her post, Hawkins said that she believes Christians and Muslims share the same God.  As a result of her action, Hawkins was suspended and is in jeopardy of losing her job because, according to college officials, her statement does not reflect the school’s beliefs.  I am not a Wheaton college student, teacher, administrator, or faculty member, so I can’t speak to their specific creed, but I am a Christian -and the idea that all religions share the same God does not contradict my beliefs.  The treatment that Hawkins has received at the hands of her Christian colleagues does, however.  It belies the notion of a loving God.  It thumbs its collective nose at the great commandment to love one another.  And it certainly does not encourage either communication or relationship.

Sadly, the same can be said of the actions recently taken by the Anglican Primates to effectively “suspend” the Episcopal Church’s membership in the Anglican Communion.  The reason for their decision is the vote by “the Episcopal Church’s General Convention last July to change canonical language that defines marriage as being between a man and a woman… and authorize two new marriage rites with language allowing them to be used by same-sex or opposite-sex couples.”[1]  The truth is that the Episcopal Church’s decision was not an easy one.  There are many people both within and outside of the Episcopal Church that struggled with it, but, ultimately, as Episcopal Presiding Bishop Michael Curry put it, “Our commitment to be an inclusive church is not based on a social theory or capitulation to the ways of the culture, but on our belief that the outstretched arms of Jesus on the cross are a sign of the very love of God reaching out to us all.”  It is consistent with the theology of the Episcopal Church, which reflects a desire to understand both Holy Scripture and church tradition in proper context and to develop that understanding through open communication and in relationship with others.  This requires intense thought and a willingness to be both socially and spiritually vulnerable.  It is not easy.  But it is, I believe, the right approach to religion.  It requires mental flexibility and constant prayer.  It looks for divine inspiration through inspired consultation with others.  It involves studying “the rules” and then using them not to exclude, but to include, not to isolate but to communicate, not to hate, but to love.

The truth is that religious beliefs have and continue to cause conflict, but it is also true that they build community and encourage spiritual growth.  Many religious communities are places of love and acceptance – and all religions communities can be.  We just need to remember why we have them.  That’s just good manners.

[1]“Matthew Davies, (January 14, 2016), “Majority of primates call for temporary Episcopal Church sanctions,” Episcopal News Service, http://episcopaldigitalnetwork.com/ens/2016/01/14/majority-of-primates-call-for-temporary-episcopal-church-sanctions/.

It’s not a question of what you are; it’s a question of who you are.

I have recently found myself contemplating the question of identity.  The term “identity” is often bandied about in popular media in relationship to a variety of topics – politics, religion, and human development among them.  The way in which we identify ourselves as individuals, group members, and nations has a powerful influence on our opinions and behaviors.  Mental health practitioners tell us that a realistic and balanced sense of who we are in relationship to others is crucial to healthy psychosocial functioning.  For many of us, our sense of self is often tied to group memberships ranging from genetic/biological categorizations like race and gender to our identification with political parties, professional affiliations, and national character.  Such connections give us a sense of belonging and often compel us to act the way we do.

The problem is that there can be tremendous disagreement over what it means to be a member of a certain group – both from within and outside of it.  For example, the construct of gender itself has changed to such an extent that to expect an individual to behave in a certain way simply because she has two “X” chromosomes is ludicrous.  Hard and painful experience has taught us that presuppositions about behavior based on race can be deeply destructive.  And, despite the progressively more polarized ideologies of American political parties, it is unwise to assume that people who call themselves “Democrats” and “Republicans” espouse only ideas unique to either of those parties.  The same is true of religion, and yet many people fail to acknowledge this reality – people from both within and outside of religious groups.

I am a Christian and I know many other Christians, but very few of them believe exactly as I do.  While many of these people gracefully acknowledge the differences between our individual theologies, others have suggested that the disagreement in our beliefs means that I am not a Christian.  When I was a young woman I moved three thousand miles from my home of origin to be with the person I loved.  We had agreed that, although we were both committed to our relationship it was unwise for us to marry based only on the understanding of one another we had developed during what had been primarily a long-distance relationship.  Both of us came from relatively conservative families who did not (at that time) believe that people should live together in a non-platonic way without being married.  Nonetheless, we moved in together because we believed that such a step was important in our relationship.  We had a rocky start.  My boyfriend’s mother passed away during our transit across the country.  I was terribly homesick.  We had friends but they were generally adventurous folks who were unable to understand my adjustment difficulties.  I was therefore thrilled that my first job in my new home was at a Christian preschool.  Having been raised in a supportive Christian church community I believed that my Christian affiliation would be helpful in my new job and through it I might make friends to sustain me in my new life.  I was wrong.  Upon finding out that I was living with my boyfriend, my Christian colleagues asked me if I was uncomfortable with the fact that I was going to hell.  When I began carpooling with one of my fellow teachers and developed a headache from the volume at which she played her Christian praise music, she asked me why I didn’t love Jesus.  I can only imagine what would have happened if I had suggested we stop by Starbucks on the way to work.

The conflict I had with my Christian colleagues was one of identity.  We all considered ourselves to be Christians but we had different ideas about what that meant – and each of us was acting according to what we believed was foundational to that identity – with disastrous results.  The dissonance in our beliefs was compounded by the preconceptions we had about one another.  The same thing happens daily on a global scale with much more significant consequences.  Assuming knowledge of what a person believes and how they will act based on one understanding of what it means to belong to a certain group can have far more severe consequences than making a fool of yourself.  And it makes no sense.  If two psychologists can evaluate the same person and come up with different diagnoses, then two Christians can certainly differ as to what constitutes the core tenants of their faith.  Losing our expectations in regard to what others believe is vital if we are ever to understand ourselves and one another.

And understanding is only the beginning.   Appreciating our differences is important, but only when it leads to tolerance – and tolerance requires emotional flexibility.  I am not suggesting that individuals should adjust their beliefs to accommodate changing situations.  Faith is not fashion.  I am arguing that faithful individuals need to recognize that we live in a diverse world and it makes sense that there is a broad spectrum of belief represented in it.  And I submit that God is beyond the comprehension of any faith or intellectual schema.  The danger lies not in any one belief system.  The danger lies in an inability to accept the necessity for differing perceptions about such beliefs.

We demonstrate our religious identities by acting on our beliefs.  The more rigid those beliefs are the more circumscribed our actions will be.  Put simply, living according to our faith is easier when the rules are clear and uncomplicated by moral ambiguities.  But easier is not better.  The most seductive words in the universe are “Do [this] and you will be saved,” particularly if those words are not open to interpretation.  There is a difference between pure faith like that of a child and rigid faith colored by the experiences of adulthood.  The most treacherous believer is the one who accepts without thought – whose identity is based on doing without apprehending.   Regardless of what he may call himself, that believer is not a Christian or a Jew or a Muslim or a Buddhist or an atheist.  That believer is a zealot, and zealotry is its own identity.  The conviction that their way of thinking is the only pathway to fulfillment is the core of a zealot’s identity.  It is not the religious belief itself that matters; it is the unconsidered and absolute adherence to the individual’s perception of it that is crucial.  Zealotry is highly individualized.  Although there are communities of zealots, their associations are practical, not spiritual.  Zealots maintain a narrow focus that leaves no room for consideration of the needs of others.  An unambiguous belief system cannot navigate the complexities of human nature.  There is no “think” only “do.”

But human beings have the capacity to think.  Human beings have the have the ability to empathize.  Human beings crave community.  I believe these are gifts from God – and my belief system reflects this understanding.  I am a Christian.  This is what that means to me: I adhere to a Christian practice based on what Jesus said when asked what the greatest commandments were.  Love God, he said, and love your neighbor as yourself.  This means recognizing both the capabilities and limitations of being human.  It means working with and for others.  It means thinking before acting.  It means being firm in my faith without condemning those who do not believe.  These things are not what I am, but who I am.  Such is my identity.

Violence is not civilized, but Christians should be.

11/20/15

I have several quotes hanging on my refrigerator.  One of the shortest of these reads, “Civilization is just a slow process of learning to be kind.”  If this is the case, then recent evidence suggests that the people of the United States, unfortunately led by several individuals and groups of people calling themselves “Christians,” are rapidly becoming vastly uncivilized.

I think we always hope – and sometimes find- that tragic events bring out the best in people.  This idea, which is popular among the religious, proposes that suffering is emotionally educational for the individual; it helps us to grow in self-understanding and grace.  It is also unifying for the community, bringing shared values and basic human impulses like compassion and generosity to the forefront.  It doesn’t seem to be happening right now, however.  In reality, what is occurring in the world this week is the exact opposite of nobility in the face of tragedy.  Recent tragic events instead appear to have made us more ignorant, less graceful, extremely narcissistic, and spiritually miserly.

Since the Paris attacks last week, the racist and anti-Islamic rhetoric that has been gradually increasing in this country since the 9/11 attacks fourteen years ago has been legitimized by the openly irrational and hateful responses by numerous government officials and presidential candidates.  The governors of several states have said they will not accept Syrian refugees for fear that such individuals are terrorists in disguise.  Donald Trump has supported this notion, providing it with an air of rationality by calling it a “Trojan Horse” strategy.  Despite the fact that President Obama clearly stated that movements to inspect Mosques, allow only Christian refugees, and track the activities of Muslim individuals are “shameful” and do not represent who we are as a nation,[1] and the President of the Southern Baptist Convention’s Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission described himself as “shocked” by them, they are being supported by many Americans.[2]  Other incidents – like the recent vandalization of  #blacklivesmatter signs at predominately white churches and the increasing anti-immigration rhetoric on the U.S. political stage, demonstrate a deeply antagonistic and paranoid stance against anyone perceived of as “other” by Americans.

This observation is supported by a recent study that found that Americans feel besieged by anxiety-provoking circumstances and are nostalgic for an idealized version of America past.[3]  A majority of participants across cultures said they believe the values of Islam are contrary to those of America.  Thirty-five percent of those surveyed identified racial tension as a significant issue in the United States, although, unsurprisingly, this opinion was much more frequent among minority respondents.  Evidence of unfocused free-floating anxiety is demonstrated by the number of people who feel that most people are not given a fair chance to succeed in the U.S. (65%) but also have issues with immigrants (48%).

All of this defies logic and factual evidence.  As President Obama stated, there is no proof that America has anything to fear by providing the possibility of simple survival to the widows and orphans who make up the vast bulk of Syrian refugees.  There is no evidence that being Muslim makes an individual more likely to be violent.  In fact, a recent review of terrorism indicates that the vast majority of terrorist acts carried out on American soil since the 9/11 attacks were not perpetrated by Muslims.[4]  And there is plenty of evidence to indicate that Muslim people are not exempt from terrorism; death tallies in France confirm that there were Muslims among the dead in Paris.[5]  So there’s a lot for everyone to be worried about and afraid of.

The question is whether we will allow that fear to rule us -because tragedy brings out the best in people only when they choose to allow it to.  Basic human neurobiology is actually on the side of panic and isolationism.  The limbic system, which controls emotion in the brain, is more developed and automatic than the frontal lobes which house judgement and rationality.  Ideally, our frontal lobes can mediate the wilder instincts of our limbic systems – but such mediation is learned.  The same is true of community behavior.  While banding together is a natural human impulse, it is at base a selfish instinct because it serves to protect the individual.  Gathering in community to promote higher-level ideals like sacrifice, compassion, and love is the action of a rational, self-actualized society.  In other words, kindness in the face of tragedy is the hallmark of civilization.

That is why many Christians find value in suffering, because it forces both individuals and societies to develop the capacity to deal wisely with events and attitudes that trigger our most base emotions and savage instincts – and Christian thought offers a pathway for that kind of growth.  David Brooks has suggested that all great religions are founded on love, but also demand justice.[6]  Love is instinctual; it is based in the limbic system.  Justice is not.  Justice is a frontal lobe function.  It requires learning.  It requires effort.  It requires faith.  I believe that there is a great deal of violence perpetrated in the name of religion, but I do not believe, as many do, that religion causes violence.  Rather, I believe that religion can solve violence.  But only if we temper our passions with wisdom, if we fuse love with justice, and if we commit to the slow process of learning to be kind by being civilized.

 

[1]Kimberly Winston (November 16, 2015), “Obama denounces religious test for refugees: ‘That’s not who we are,’” Religious News Service, http://www.religionnews.com/2015/11/16/obama-denounces-religious-test-refugees-thats-not/?email=drdebowhite%40gmail.com&utm_medium=email&utm_campaign=The+Slingshot+Acronyms+for+terrorists+Christians+response+to+refugees+no+prayers+for+Downton+Abbey&utm_content=The+Slingshot+Acronyms+for+terrorists+Christians+response+to+refugees+no+prayers+for+Downton+Abbey+CID_7c1aa7cc5c4c1cec2df395d92a9374eb&utm_source=Campaign%20Monitor&utm_term=Obama%20denounces%20religious%20test%20for%20refugees%20Thats%20not%20who%20we%20are.

[2]McKay Coppins (November 19, 2015), “Conservative Christian Leader Blasts Anti-Refugee Rhetoric, Calls For Compassion,” Buzzfeed News, http://www.buzzfeed.com/mckaycoppins/conservative-christian-leader-blasts-anti-refugee-rhetoric-c#.grQwN5Aeg.

[3]Cathy Lynn Grossman, (November 17, 2015), “Americans fret about Islam, immigrants, the future – and each other,” Religious News Service, http://www.religionnews.com/2015/11/17/islam-terrorism-black-lives-matter/?email=drdebowhite%40gmail.com&utm_medium=email&utm_campaign=The+Slingshot+Acronyms+for+terrorists+Christians+response+to+refugees+no+prayers+for+Downton+Abbey&utm_content=The+Slingshot+Acronyms+for+terrorists+Christians+response+to+refugees+no+prayers+for+Downton+Abbey+CID_7c1aa7cc5c4c1cec2df395d92a9374eb&utm_source=Campaign%20Monitor&utm_term=Americans%20fret%20about%20Islam%20immigrants%20the%20future%20%20and%20each%20other.

[4]Scott Shane, (June 24, 2015), “Homegrown Extremists Tied to Deadlier Toll than Jihadists in U.S. since 9/11,” The New York Times, http://www.nytimes.com/2015/06/25/us/tally-of-attacks-in-us-challenges-perceptions-of-top-terror-threat.html?_r=0.

[5]Reuters, (November 19, 2015), “Muslims also killed in Islamic State attack on ‘Crusader France,’” http://www.religionnews.com/2015/11/19/muslims-isis-paris-islamic-state/?email=drdebowhite%40gmail.com&utm_medium=email&utm_campaign=The+Slingshot+Terrors+aftermath+continues+refugees+and+religion+under+scrutiny&utm_content=The+Slingshot+Terrors+aftermath+continues+refugees+and+religion+under+scrutiny+CID_d280124ce2bd31248c4bd7532d767237&utm_source=Campaign%20Monitor&utm_term=Muslims%20also%20killed%20in%20Islamic%20State%20attack%20on%20Crusader%20France.

[6]David Brooks, (November 17, 2015), “Finding Peace within the Holy Texts,” New York Times, http://www.nytimes.com/2015/11/17/opinion/finding-peace-within-the-holy-texts.html?emc=edit_tnt_20151117&&_r=0#038;nlid=20621639&tntemail0=y&_r=1.

Putting the “holy” back in the holiday season

11/10/15

Batten down the hatches, gird your loins, and check your credit score: the opening salvo in the annual stress relay we call “the holiday season” has been fired.  The issue?  Starbuck’s, the apparent arbiter of holiday good will, has opted to go with a (horrors!) plain red holiday cup design instead of a more “traditional Christmas” look.  Call the elves; Christmas is cancelled.  I would desperately like to say I am being satirical when suggesting that the chosen motif of a Starbuck beverage cup is of any importance to those who practice traditions related to the holiday many of us call “Christmas,” but, sadly, I’m not.

The situation is this: self-described, “former pastor and American evangelist, internet and social media personality”[1] Joshua Feuerstein has taken it upon himself to speak for the country’s millions of Christians by telling Starbuck’s that the cups constitute an attempt to “take Christ out of Christmas.”  I don’t want to be simplistic, but Feuerstein’s antics have no relationship to the form of Christianity which I practice.  The way in which I understand my religion – recently rebranded by Episcopal Presiding Bishop Michael Curry in an effort to get back to basics as “the Jesus Movement” – is about loving your neighbor.  And as far as I can figure out, my neighbors would love it if I got them Starbuck’s gift certificates, regardless of the color of the cups.

The truth is that the holiday season represented in modern American culture has little to do with the traditional idea of a holding a mass venerating a belief in Jesus as the Christ.  While traditions like gift-giving, Christmas trees, and Santa Claus are vaguely based on Christian notions, other customs – like Christmas snow, Christmas parties, and Rankin-Bass television specials, for example – are purely modern inventions.  The hybrid Christmas-holiday season we currently “celebrate” is instead the result of a natural cultural evolution in which non-Christians have adapted to a national-majority custom which was foisted upon them.  If you are among the millions of non-Christian Americans born in the twentieth century, you probably grew up feeling isolated during what was then called “Christmas season.”  For many people it was simply a matter of survival to develop ways in which to function within this majority-culture phenomenon while remaining faithful to their own beliefs.  Thus, Chanukah became for my Jewish friends a more significant holiday than religious tradition demanded, while pioneering African-Americans created Kwanza as a way to celebrate their heritage, turning the “Christmas season,” in “the holidays.”  Unfortunately, however, the true foundation of the “season” that bracketed these celebrations (as well as the singularly nationalistic festivity of Thanksgiving) is consumerism, that most universal of American values.  And anyone who was in any kind of mainline Christian church last Sunday and (once again) heard Jesus’s negative opinion of income inequity knows that that is definitely not a Christian value.

Feuerstein is one man – a man who courts controversy- and does not speak for the millions of Christians in this country.  The fact that anyone (including me) feels a need to respond to him at all is more a symptom of how twenty-first century communications work than it is of true religious conflict (not that there’s not plenty of that to go around).  But it is also symptomatic of something author Diana Butler Bass calls, “Big C Christianity.”[2]  This is a popularized version of Christian history characterized by an “us” versus “them” mentality which portrays Christianity as the God-approved religion which has struggled throughout time to overcome those who would oppose it.  Bass suggests that not only is this version of Christianity divisive, but is also largely inaccurate and frighteningly incomplete.  In its American version, “Big C” Christianity is integrally connected to patriotic ideals like democracy and freedom.  But for those who have been persecuted in the name of the Christian church, as well as those who have simply born witness to the manipulative political use to which this mythology has been put, this is idea is patently ridiculous.  The majority of mainline Christian churches (including my own) have demonstrated a significant lack of love for their neighbors related to a vast majority of American social justice and political issues including slavery and LGBTQ rights.  Calling out “Merry Christmas” to people who feel oppressed by Christian churches will not only fail to heal these wounds, but it serves only to salt them.  In other words, making the demand that the word “Christ” be used in relationship to what is only peripherally the “Christmas” season, is the exact opposite of demonstrating the true Christian ethos of loving one’s neighbor.

Bass has argued that western Christianity needs to understand its history in order to function authentically in today’s society.  Rather than distancing ourselves from a sullied past, we should learn from it.  The desire to cling to a Christian-centered American cultural idea of Christmas is both outmoded and intolerant.

I am not fond of the way in which this country’s “holiday season” has turned into a primarily commercial venture, but I am also strongly opposed to efforts to “re-religionize” it.  In truth, I would be happier if our holiday season focused on efforts toward group reconciliation, civil discourse, and income redistribution in favor of those who have less.  Those values are consistent with those of Jesus and his movement.  But I don’t believe that “putting the Christ back in Christmas” is consistent with such desires.  Reaching those goals involves open dialogue between individuals with different understandings of the world.  It involves thoughtful (and, for those of us who pray, prayerful) consideration of what it really means to be an ethical person in American society today.  It involves loving one’s neighbor.

Bass has suggested understanding Christian history through a different lens – a truthful lens that acknowledges the evils wrought in the name of religion as well as the vast amounts of good done by those who follow Jesus.  She calls it “Great Commandment Christianity,” based on Jesus’s answer to the question of what is the greatest commandment: “Love your God and love your neighbor as yourself.”[3]  It seems to me that the time of year touted as “the holidays” – whatever that means for each of us – is a good time to attempt to practice “Great Commandment living” – by putting the “holy sowing” back into the “holiday season” by planting love and by loving each other more than shopping, more than decorating, even more than coffee.

[1]“About Josh” blog. http://www.joshuafeuerstein.com/about-josh/4585043155.

[2]Diana Butler Bass, (2009), A People’s History of Christianity: the Other Side of the Story, (New York: Harper Collins.

[3]Diana Butler Bass, (2009), A People’s History of Christianity: the Other Side of the Story, (New York: Harper Collins.

What’s My Motivation?

11/5/15

I took a long ride on the subway today.  The opportunities for me to engage in my favorite sport – people-watching – were tremendous.  But I got a little worried after a while when a few people began gazing back.  Were they looking at me because I was looking so intently at them?  Were they offended by my stare?  Or was it something about me?  Was it what I was wearing?  What I was carrying?  What I looked like?  I began to think that maybe I should be checking my email after all.

Such anxious feelings are the risks of human contact – even the minimal human contact represented in a direct gaze.  We begin to attribute motives to one another.  Personally, I was fascinated with what I perceived to be the beauty of my fellow travelers.  Within ten minutes of my entry on the train, I saw a tall man with wavy, chin-length hair and coffee-colored skin leaning exquisitely nonchalantly against his bike (which was, in turn, leaning nonchalantly against the wall of the train).  I saw two beautifully-dressed African-American women who were clearly twins, sitting next to one another and displaying completely different facial expressions as they spoke on their separate cell phones.  I saw a fashionably dressed blonde woman who was so tall that her head hit the top of the train.  I saw a man with asymmetrical features that defied common ideas of attractiveness but whose sparkling brown eyes winked at me with enormously appealing humor and intelligence.  I saw a young woman whose hair style – dyed-grey and worn long and straight – seemed to me to be a perfect cross of the hairstyles sported by a middle-aged mother and teenaged sister in the mid-1970s.  It was a smorgasbord of vastly different but equally gorgeous humanity.  I could have spent an hour simply considering why one of the twins has a scar over her left eyebrow while the other one doesn’t – that is until one of them looked up at me and frowned – and I began to wonder why she thought I was staring at her.

I think we’ve all had an experience of catching someone looking intently at us.  Sometimes such moments bring about unparalleled joy – like the first time the person you like “in that way” looks at you as if s/he might like you that way too.  But sometimes moments like that engender fear – like when you are the only person of color in a train full of white people who are returning from a rally in favor of denying rights to immigrants or when you are the only woman on a street when a frat party lets out.  Usually such moments are neither intensely pleasurable nor paranoia-inducing – but they are generally thought-provoking.  I wear a clerical collar when I go to work.  It is my uniform, and like most of us who wear uniforms I often forget I have it on so I am surprised when I walk through a restaurant or a store and sense people looking at me.  I find myself attempting to interpret any penetrating looks that come my way.  After all, many people have strong reactions to seeing someone wearing a priest’s collar, especially if that someone is a woman.  But it is extremely rare for someone to actually say anything to me.

I frequently wish they would – because I would love to know what they are thinking, and what they are feeling.  I would love to talk to them about it.  I would feel better if I could.  It’s been my experience that when people speak to one another they find out that they have been attributing incredibly inaccurate motives to one another.  Sometimes they are projecting their own feelings onto someone else.  More often, I think, they are attributing socially-common or popularly-held beliefs to them.  I once sat with a woman on the subway who kept sneaking glances at me under her eyelashes.  Since I was wearing a clerical collar at the time I began to wonder if I should initiate some kind of conversation about religion or spirituality or something – but she beat me to the punch by finally coming out with what was on her mind: “Where,” she asked, “did you get those pants”?

Saint Ignatius of Loyola, a 16th century spiritual guide, developed a series of Spiritual Exercises that continue to be practiced by members of  The Society of Jesus (of which Pope Francis is one) and countless others.  Ignatian spirituality emphasizes contemplation in action and the Spiritual Exercises are designed to help individuals discern and do God’s will in the world.  One of the annotations in the Spiritual Exercises (22) is accompanied by the comment, “It is necessary to suppose that every good Christian is more ready to put a good interpretation on another’s statement than to condemn it as false.”[1]  Anthony Lusvardi suggests that this means we should, “Stay away from motives.  If you find yourself attacking somebody’s motives, you are almost certainly violating Annotation 22.  Attributing presumed motives to others shifts the discussion away from the issue and onto the person.”[2]  My experience on the subway (and other places) confirms the truth of this interpretation.  Almost always, when we start guessing the motives of others, we’re wrong.  More importantly, we seem to be far too eager to assign negative motivations to innocent actions.  In other words, maybe that person staring at you on the subway is not questioning your faith or disapproving of your clothing or demonstrating hostility to your race, culture, gender, choice of partner, or behavior.  Maybe they just find you interesting or charming or beautiful.  Or maybe they’re just wondering where you got your pants.  And maybe if we wondered about each other less and talked to each other more, we’d find out.  Maybe we’d learn a little something – perhaps about fashion – or possibly about something significantly more important.  You’ll never know unless you ask.

[1]Manney, Jim, (2014), An Ignatian Book of Days (Chicago: Loyola Press), 309.

[2]Anthony Lusvardi, SJ, “Stay Away from Motives,” Whoever Desires blog, in Manney, Jim, (2014), An Ignatian Book of Days (Chicago: Loyola Press), 309-310.

Meditation on Fear and Fiction

“Fairytales teach children that the world is fraught with danger, including life-threatening danger; but by being clever (always), honest (as a rule, but with common-sense exceptions), courteous (especially to the elderly, no matter their apparent social station), and kind (to anyone in obvious need), even a child can succeed where those who seem more qualified have failed.

And this precisely what children most need to hear.

To let them go on believing that the world is safe, that they will be provided for and achieve worthwhile things even if they remain stupid, shirk integrity, despise courtesy, and act only from self-interest, that they ought to rely on those stronger, smarter, and more able to solve their problems, would be the gravest disservice: to them, and to society as a whole.

“On the Supposed Unsuitability of Fairytales for Children”
J. Aleksandr Wootton

children's adventures

Starving in a Grocery Store

10/19/15

My husband has taken to telling my children that they would starve in a grocery store.  By this he means that for intelligent individuals they often seem quite helpless.  Although both can do things on computers that I can’t, they sometimes seem stymied by things that involve the physical use of their own hands and eyes.  And they are impatient.  Despite being able to conceive creative projects and determine how to make them they sometimes end up with a disappointing facsimile of their idea simply because they are unwilling to let the paint dry between coats.  Obviously some of their impulsivity can be attributed to youth, but it seems to me that it is also characteristic of individuals who are being raised in a push-button society.

There is a scene in one of the “Diary of a Wimpy Kid” movies in which a teenager locks his brother in the basement of their home.  The younger boy looks frantically around for some way to call for help or escape.  There on a table is a telephone.  He picks up the receiver tentatively and finds it has a dial tone.  He is momentarily elated- until he is unable to find any buttons to use to dial.  Tragically, it is a rotary phone -and he can’t figure out how to use it.  That episode is, of course, an exaggeration – one at which my own children take great offense.  They tell me that they know what such remnants of the ancient 1980s are – but I have observed that asking them to use them is a different story.  They are not alone.  I see this attitude among many people who would rather wait out a power outage rather than attempt paperwork using actual paper.  It’s not that we don’t know how, it’s just that we don’t know why we should.

Perhaps it’s because we don’t have to.  When I was a child, my favorite books were about children who found themselves in unusual and challenging circumstances that forced them to be courageous and ingenious.  While they inevitably made mistakes, they also invariably triumphed over their adverse situations, emerging from them wiser and more mature.  Fiction?  Yes – but aspirational fiction.  I have heard people argue that today’s fiction for children and young adults is too dystopian and grim, but I don’t think that’s true.  “The Hunger Games” and “Divergent” trilogies focus on future worlds that are systemically unjust and casually violent, but they are no more dangerous than Middle Earth or Narnia.  They present thorny moral dilemmas and seemingly impossible situations that require their protagonists to ponder moral issues and find creative solutions in the same way that Trixie Belden and the Hardy Boys did.  And Tris and Katniss are no more without adults to intervene than pretty much any Disney princess – none of whose mothers appear to survive their childhoods (think about it and wonder as I do if Walt Disney had mother issues).  The difference is not in the books.  The difference is in our willingness to allow our children to encounter situations that challenge them in similar, if less dangerous, ways.

That’s easy to say but, given the choice of safety or moral learning most parents (including me) will choose safety every time – and I’m sure my parents felt the same way.  It is not the value but the definition of “safe” parenting that has changed.  When I was a child, I was allowed to “go play” after completing my homework.  I knew where I was permitted to go, what I could and could not do – and what would happen if I got caught doing it.  Those were my boundaries. Today’s children play in play groups.  They are driven to and from structured after school activities.  Permission slips are needed for church activities.  Some of these changes are good and necessary.  It is not unreasonable to refuse to leave your children with an adult simply because s/he is an authority figure.  We know that some teachers, scout leaders and priests have abused the trust placed in them.  But is our level of caution necessary overall?

According to Uniform Crime Reporting Statistics, between the years that I was five and thirteen years-old violent crime in the United States rose from three-tenths of one percent to two percent.  In the state where I lived, it rose from one-tenth of one percent to almost half of one percent.  When my daughter was five, the national violent crime rate was four percent but dropped back to three percent by the time she was thirteen.  In the state where she lived, it dropped from five-tenths of one percent when she was five to four-tenths of one percent when she was thirteen.[1]  Put simply, the national violent crime rate was an average of one percent higher during my daughter’s childhood than my own.  So what gave me the idea that she was far more likely to be kidnapped or molested than I had been?

I would suggest that it is the result of something that I (paraphrasing Freud) think of as “media availability hysteria.”  While my parents read the newspaper and watched network television, thanks to omnipresent news and opinion feeds, parents today are faced with reports of violent crime everywhere they go.  The information highway is one long terror-filled trip for parents who are primed by talk shows, Facebook posts, and blogs to find evidence that they are inadequate to the task of keeping their children safe.  FDR told our parents and grandparents that there was nothing to fear but fear itself; we have learned and have subsequently taught our own children that there is nothing to trust but fear itself.  We don’t know how to deal with things not because we’re lazy but because we’re frightened.

There is a wonderful book called, “The Blessing of a Skinned Knee,”[2] which suggests that it is necessary for children to experience some adversity in order to become both self-reliant and morally competent.  Ethical reasoning cannot simply be taught; it requires experience.  Psychologists now suggest that efforts to shield our children from harm may actually hurt them in the long-run.  Making sure they get straight “A”s by doing work for them may get them into a good college, but it will not help them survive when they arrive there.[3]  Cheering on Harry, Percy, and Alina may provide them with an intellectual understanding of self-sufficiency and moral courage, but it won’t give them the strength to make hard choices themselves.  And teaching them that everything they need is available with the push of a button encourages them to be both insular and helpless.  The problem is not “out there.”  It is in us.  We are victims of our own protectiveness.  The truth is that struggle is good for the soul.  Continuing to guard those we love by keeping them from adversity is not benefitting anyone.  In our zeal to make life easier and safer we have made ourselves vulnerable to our own incompetence.  I’m not suggesting that technology or mass communication is bad; I am arguing that overdependence on it is.  Keep right on using electric can openers and voice-activated cell phones – but think about how we might behave if the power went off permanently.  Especially if we were in a grocery store at the time.

[1]United States Department of Justice, “Uniform Crime Reporting Statistics,” http://www.bjs.gov/ucrdata/Search/Crime/State/RunCrimeStatebyState.cfm.

[2]Wendy Mogel, (2008), The Blessing of a Skinned Knee, (New York: Scribner).

[3]Carolyn Carpeneti, “I’m ready for college but I can’t find my backpack,” http://portal.parentseducationnetwork.org/resources/Documents/2015/CCarpeneti_College.pdf

We rehabilitate inmates, don’t we? 

October 18, 2015

I used to work for the California Department of Corrections (CDC).  My employment there ended when we moved to a different state.  We returned to California six years later to find that the CDC had been re-Christened “The California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation (CDCR).”  Not having been here when the change was made, I don’t know if it was an administrative, political or public relations-driven switch, but whatever the reason for it, I cannot help but think that this rebranding was aspirational in nature.  Because in my experience – and in that of colleagues I know who still work for the system – the California corrections system is not about rehabilitation.

Prison is first and foremost about survival.  While it’s true that many of the individuals who are incarcerated lived difficult lives on “the outside,”[1] life “inside” requires mental and emotional adjustments that most of us could not imagine having to make.  Anyone who’s watched an episode of “Law and Order” has some sense of the horrific brutality that can occur in prison settings, but I think that very few of us have spared a thought for the simple deprivations that make the idea of rehabilitation during incarceration not only a misnomer, but a tragic farce.  Make no mistake: I am not minimizing the fact that the majority of incarcerated individuals are imprisoned because of their own behaviors, and I certainly believe that many of these individuals cannot safely function in society.  I am not (currently) addressing the issue of who should be incarcerated.  I am merely suggesting that America’s prisons lack both the capacity and will to rehabilitate their residents.

This is clearly evident when we explore medical statistics for incarcerated persons.  According to the U.S. Department of Justice, in 2011-12, over 40 percent of state and federal prisons and jail inmates were identified as having chronic medical conditions.[2]  In addition, the majority of 74 percent of prisoners in state and federal prisons and 62 percent of jail inmates were described as overweight or obese.[3]  It’s easy to argue that these statistics have little meaning to the general public.  After all, as I have heard many people argue, these people have committed crimes against society – if they are overweight and unhealthy it is of no concern to the general public.  It is if you pay taxes.

The Center on Budget and Policy Priorities reports that in 2013 states spent almost 50 billion dollars on corrections.[4]  That’s approximately thirty thousand dollars per inmate.  When inmates are unhealthy, those costs increase.  When inmates are mentally ill or addicted to drugs or alcohol, the total spending goes up again.  And many inmates have these issues.  Estimates vary, but it is generally agreed upon that the rate of mental illness in prisons is at least five times that of the general population.[5]  Similarly, at least half of incarcerated individuals are classified as substance abusers.[6]  And while prisons and jails are legally mandated to provide medical treatment to inmates with illnesses, they are not obligated to teach them how to maintain healthy lifestyles.

But not doing so represents a missed opportunity.  According to CBS News, approximately half of U.S. inmates reoffend within three years of release from incarceration.[7]  That’s because these individuals are generally returned to the same bad environments they inhabited with the same lack of care and/or bad habits they exhibited when they were locked up.  Despite evidence that demonstrates that individuals who receive substance abuse treatment while incarcerated are less likely to reoffend, states are more likely to cut than enhance such programming.[8]  The statistics for mentally ill individuals are similar.[9]  And it’s just common sense to realize that rates for diabetes and heart disease decrease when individuals exercise and eat well and the frequency of sexually transmitted diseases goes down when people are educated about high risk behaviors.  In other words, if inmates were truly “rehabilitated” in prison they might have a chance of fighting the negative behaviors and influences that brought about their criminal behavior in the first place.

The fact that they are not is neither cost-effective nor humane.  Mentally ill inmates not only receive inadequate mental health treatment in prison but they are often released into the community without being linked to community assistance.[10]  Substance abusers go right back to committing crimes both while using and in order to buy illegal drugs.  And chronically ill and obese inmates return to the streets without jobs, skills or the wherewithal to obtain health care – meaning that when their conditions deteriorate they are forced to go to emergency departments for treatment.

The really sad part is that there are programs and personnel available to remedy these issues.  Research has identified numerous mental health, substance use, and lifestyle curriculum that effectively reduce symptoms of both medical and mental disorders.  Unfortunately, institutions don’t have the money to put them in place.  That’s because voters tend to see providing programming to “criminals” as a poor use of their tax dollars.  What they don’t understand is that their tax dollars will be spent on these individuals one way or the other.  Supporting rehabilitative programming in our prisons and jails is the better way.  It is the sensible way.  It is the compassionate way – and, dare I say it? – it is the right way.

[1]Amy Levad (2014). Redeeming a Prison Society: A Liturgical and Sacramental Response to Mass Incarceration, Fortress Press.  Levad’s book is an excellent overview of ethical and theological issues related to incarceration.

[2]Laura Maruschak, Marcus Berzofsky, and Jennifer Unangst (2015), “Medical Problems of State and Federal Prisons and Jail Inmates.  U.S. Department of Justice.

[3]Laura Maruschak, Marcus Berzofsky, and Jennifer Unangst (2015), “Medical Problems of State and Federal Prisons and Jail Inmates.”  U.S. Department of Justice.

[4]Center on Budget and Policy Procedures, “Policy Basics: Where Do Our Tax Dollars Go”? (2015), www.cbpp.org

[5]Terry Kupers, “Prison Madness: The Mental Health Crisis Behind Bars and What We Must Do About It,” National Criminal Justice Reference Service.

[6]The National Center on Addiction and Substance Abuse (2010), http://www.casacolumbia.org/newsroom/press-releases/2010-behind-bars-II.

[7]CBS News (2012), “The Cost of a Nation of Incarceration, http://www.cbsnews.com/news/the-cost-of-a-nation-of-incarceration/3/.

[8]The National Center on Addiction and Substance Abuse (2010), http://www.casacolumbia.org/newsroom/press-releases/2010-behind-bars-II.

[9]U.S. Department of Justice, National Institute of Corrections, “Effective Prison Mental Health Services: Guidelines to Expand and Improve Treatment,” https://s3.amazonaws.com/static.nicic.gov/Library/018604.pdf.

[10]Anasseril Daniel (2007), “Care of the Mentally Ill in Prisons: Challenges and Solutions,” Journal of the American Academy of Psychiatry and the Law Online, http://www.jaapl.org/content/35/4/406.full.