Grasping Thorns

“But he who dares not grasp the thorn Should never crave the rose." ― A. Brontë

Conversations about Guns on a Cross Country Train


My 4-year old son is obsessed with trains and always has been. We keep waiting for the next phase. After talking to other parents, we expected his obsession to move from Thomas the Train to Lighting McQueen. He watched the Cars movies, but his obsession moved from Thomas the Train to real trains on Youtube. So, when our South Carolina family received an invitation to a wedding in Vancouver, Washington, and when I realized that only Jack and I would be able to go, I knew that we had to take a cross country train.

He was on board, to say the least.

We booked a room in a sleeping car, which is the way to go, especially for such a long trip: we had two fold-out beds and all of our dining car meals were included in the price.

If you’ve ever been on such a long train trip, you’ll know that you always make friends in the dining car, if you’re a party of one or two. Since it’s a challenge for the wait staff to serve on a moving train, they group passengers into sets of four for full-table seating.

I especially enjoyed this, since it was my main opportunity on the train to have conversations with adults while Jack happily colored in his antique trains coloring book. Because of a recent string of mass shootings (Isla Vista, Seattle, and Oregon), the conversation inevitably turned to America’s epidemic of gun violence. A summary of those conversations is as follows:

Conversation #1, over breakfast, with Marissa (a gun-owning Math professor from North Dakota):

Marissa: “There is no way to stop people intent on mass murder from murdering. If they can’t get a gun, they’ll get something else.”

Me: “Of course.”

Marissa: “But, there are ways to make gun deaths less likely, and I’m all for that. We like guns, so it would be annoying. I mean: I have to take Sudafed, and it’s annoying to get it, because of the regulation. But the number of meth labs in our area decreased dramatically when pharmacies started regulating Sudafed. So it’d be worth it.”

Me: “For the sake of public safety?”

Marissa: “Yeah.”

Me: “You know there are some countries [England, Japan, Canada, and Australia] that require third party references from family and friends before allowing a person to purchase a gun.”

Marissa: “That’s a great idea.”

Me: “There is no way Elliot Rodger’s family would have ‘okay-ed’ him buying a gun. And he didn’t have any friends. Nancy Lanza probably would have been cool with Adam Lanza buying one though.”

Marissa: “Well if it had stopped even one of those, it’s worth it.”

Conversation #2, over dinner, with Gordy and Cathy (retirees from Wisconsin):

Gordy: “I can’t talk about this much, because it’s too upsetting, but: why do people get to buy hollow-point bullets — like those that were used on those poor kids in Newtown — and such high caliber guns?”

Me: “I think the NRA would argue: for self-defense. That said, the Seattle shooter was stopped with pepper spray, so there are other ways — including guns that aren’t weapons of war and such a huge public safety hazard.”

Gordy: “Right.”

Me: “You know, some people were using California’s strict gun laws as an example of how mass murders still happen. But one writer I read pointed out how much worse it would have been had Elliot Rodger easily been able to buy an assault weapon or even a high capacity magazine.”

Gordy: “Yeah — and it should be even harder, because people in states with strict gun laws can just travel to states with lax gun laws.”

Conversation #3, over breakfast, with PJ (a gun club member from Australia):

Me: “You’re from Australia! I don’t know if you watch The Daily Show with Jon Stewart, but he sent John Oliver, one of his correspondents, to Australia to interview your former Prime Minister, John Howard, about his gun control legislation.”

PJ: “Yeah — we had a horrible mass shooting in Port Arthur, so we passed massive gun control reform, including a ban on semi-automatic rifles and shotguns, and haven’t had any massacres since.”

Me: “Did you support the reform?”

PJ: “Absolutely. I’m a gun owner and a member of a gun club, and I’m happy with the changes. We have depressed teenagers, and we have mentally ill people, just like America does. The difference is that they don’t have guns. I don’t understand why America can’t do something similar. I suppose you’ll need to rewrite the Second Amendment?”

Me: “I don’t think we’d have to rewrite it necessarily — just acknowledge its historical context. The founders were writing about muskets, for example, not assault rifles and high capacity magazines.”

PJ: “One of the things we did that worked really well was gun buyback programs. People were getting more money for their guns than they paid for them in the first place.”

Conversation #4, over dinner, with Armando and Nancy (an engineer and an accounting professor from the Philippines):

This conversation is impossible to transcribe, because Armando and Nancy stared in blank horror when I explained one of my reasons for withdrawing Arina from the rural SC private school she was attending — b/c, only a few months after the Sandy Hook school shooting — Arina’s school thought this was a good idea:


to benefit HOLLY HILL ACADEMY sponsored by: Carson’s Gun Repair

12 GUAGE CZ USA WINGSHOOTER DELUX O/U SHOTGUN with Handmade Walnut Carrying Case ($1500 Value)

Drawing to be held: April 23, 2013

at HHA Baseball Game – 7th Inning

Cost: $5.00 per ticket Presence not required to win

Armando and Nancy live in a country with restrictive firearm policies, where only 64 people died from gun violence in 2006 (the last recorded statistic on They invited me then and there to visit them in the Philippines.

These conversations are simultaneously encouraging and frustrating: encouraging, because both gun owners and non-gun owners alike recognized the need to do something (these weren’t people of the Gun Owners of America variety, a group that boasts it is a “no-compromise national guns right organization”). Indeed, Marissa and PJ seemed to hold gun ownership as a high honor and were offended that guns so often fall into the hands of people who abuse what they see as more of a privilege than a right.

Frustrating, because after such hopeful, uplifting conversations, I log onto the Internet and find too many examples of the “no-compromise” variety, people extolling gun rights while demonizing abortion in truly stunning displays of hypocrisy — in which one is pro-life before life, in love with the potentiality, but not pro-life enough to do something about the shooting deaths of 20 school children, when that potentiality has very much become reality. These people aren’t pro-life; they’re only pro-birth.

The loudest voices against real reform are still ironically Christian ones — those who claim to follow the Prince of Peace, a pacifist, the man who disarmed his disciple and who undermined the myth of redemptive violence.

A Bible verse that pops up frequently in my Facebook newsfeed is Matthew 25:21, “Well done, my good and faithful servant,” along with the expressed hope that whoever-posted-it will hear those words “on the day of judgement.”

Whenever I see that verse, I see the faces of all those children from the Sandy Hook shooting, and I think that rather than doing well, too many of us have done and continue to do very, very poorly.

Demand reform: not one more.


Dear Christian Evangelicals: Please watch Dallas Buyers Club, since you liked McConaughey’s speech so much.

When I logged onto my Facebook newsfeed after the Academy Awards this past Sunday, I was surprised/not surprised to see the Christian evangelicals with whom I grew up in my small, conservative town delighting over Matthew McConaughey’s Oscar acceptance speech, specifically this part:

“Now, first off, I want to thank God, because that’s who I look up to. He’s graced my life with opportunities that I know are not of my hand or any other human hand.”

I’m not surprised, obviously, that Christian evangelicals like this part, because . . . well . . . McConaughey says flattering things about God, of whom they’re big fans.

A sampling of the headlines/status updates being shared (and obsessively “liked” or “amen-ed”) include: “A Real Man thanks God 1st — Oscar recipients take note! Thank you Matthew McConaughey for reminding everyone how it’s done” from


“INCREDIBLE . . . COURAGEOUS . . . TRULY INSPIRATIONAL . . . About the best Oscar Acceptance Speech ever” from a status update.

I’m surprised, because among those lauding Matthew McConaughey are the most antigay “Christians” around — and I’m including Rush Limbaugh and Rick Perry in that count. Obviously, they haven’t seen the film and know nothing about the role with which God “graced [McConaughey’s] life.”

Because here’s the thing (spoiler alerts to follow): McConaughey plays Ron Woodruff, a homophobic cowboy who — after discovering he has AIDS — is rejected by his homophobic community. This is 1985 Texas, after all, and both Woodruff and his “friends” at the time had thought of AIDS as a gay-only condition; the latter become “suspicious” of Woodruff after his diagnosis and consequently drive him away: from his favorite bars, from his home, from his work — from life, as he knows it.

What begins as a struggle for Woodruff’s own self-preservation ends as a struggle on behalf of the AIDS-afflicted community that embraces him and that he learns to embrace (literally) in return.

The film traces his progression from point A (a beer-guzzling, womanizing member of the straight community, because — apparently — being a spectator of girl-on-girl action is “hot”/cough/hypocrisy); to point B (someone who is willing, though reluctant, to share space with a transsexual, depicted visually as he and Jared Leto’s character sit at opposite ends of a park bench); to point C (someone who, in becoming marginalized himself, discovers a more authentic community — one defined by acceptance and love and sacrifice, depicted visually as one of the most touching embraces in film history).

Once he learns the value of this community, he becomes not only willing but also passionate about fighting for it, on both a local level (if you see one clip from Dallas Buyers Club, do yourself a favor and watch the following — here, with director’s commentary)

and a national one. The truth is: he defies a federal government actively ignoring/demonizing AIDS in order to save the lives of people who are declared expendable (just watch the trailer; you’ll get the idea):

Since Sunday, some Christian evangelicals have learned the plot of Dallas Buyers Club on their own. The result? Blog posts like “Matthew McConaughey is Not My Hero,” in which a Christian blogger claims the movie “poisons the hearts and minds of our men, women, and young people.” Some seem embarrassed to have praised him; others defend his acceptance speech, still, as praiseworthy, while shaking their heads about the role. Marty Duran, a blogger for The Christian Post, decides that McConaughey is probably a “young believer,” and as such, will surely “grow” and then stop making movies like Dallas Buyers Club. sigh.

Another possibility: McConaughey’s spirituality inspired him to make Dallas Buyers Club in the first place, since defending, loving, and protecting the marginalized was the modus operandi of the historical Jesus (see the “Seven Woes to the Scribes and Pharisees” for his epic takedown of the religious elite; see his life for his affirmation of “the least of these”). Whatever the case, McConaughey has made perfectly clear where he stands on gay rights: “You know, I have some good friends of my own who happen to be gay, and when it comes to gay, straight, or whatever, I’m for anything life-affirmative. I’m for gay power, straight power, male power, female power; everybody should feel empowered without oppressing anyone who’s different. You know those World Cup banners about tolerance? I always thought that was one short. No, don’t just tolerate me. Understand and accept me.”

Matthew: amen.

And dear Christian evangelicals (you too Rush Limbaugh and Rick Perry): may the man you so admire for his Oscar acceptance speech introduce you to the most wonderful people with whom you may be unfamiliar — those in the LGBT community. Perhaps you’ll be open-hearted and open-minded enough to repeat what an octogenarian said to Jared Leto, after seeing the film:

“I don’t really know these people but I’m glad that I do now.”

Dear Christian Evangelicals: Please Get Over Yourselves. Thanks.

Based on my Facebook Newsfeed the latest thing driving many Christian evangelicals to distraction is . . . the Grammys. Apparently, Natalie Grant, who was nominated for two gospel Grammy awards, walked out, because — surprise! — not all of the songs/performances were of the gospel/conservative variety. This isn’t what she said, of course. What she said was that she had “many thoughts” about the awards show, “most of which are probably better left inside [her] head,” and that she’s “never been more honored to sing about and for Jesus” — the implication, of course, is that singing about and for Jesus is becoming rare despite the fact that (1) there are hundreds of thousands of choirs in churches that sing about and for Jesus every Sunday and (2) doing so (i.e. “singing about and for Jesus”) has made Grant a very wealthy woman (i.e. not destitute b/c an unpopular career choice).

Natalie Grant walking out of the Grammys = Christian evangelicals claiming her as their bff. And so begins the speculation about which “shockingly unChristian” performances deserve the loudest protest. Some go straight for the opening number: the “shockingly unChristian” Beyoncé/Jay-Z performance, in which the two performers — a married couple — are very . . . ahem . . . into each other.

In response, Alyssa Rosenberg took to thinkprogress to argue: “if conservatives want to sell Americans on marriage, maybe they have to talk more about the bliss half of wedded bliss, to think about the desire part of making marriage desirable . . . the smartest thing they could do right now is to hire Beyoncé and Jay-Z as a product spokescouple.”

As the always-brilliant Natalie Leppard points out, the argument is null and void, in a way, since Beyoncé and Jay-Z are first and foremost performers. The song doesn’t purport to be about Christian marriage nor does the fact that they’re singing it mean that it’s about their marriage, any more than Robert Browning penning “My Last Duchess” means that he wanted to murder Elizabeth Barrett Browning (I had to explain this to a student once).

Still, I’m simultaneously horrified and thankful that such debates are happening, since they expose slut-shaming and victim-blaming rhetoric (the horrified-part), thereby giving us the opportunity to challenge it (the thankful-part).

Complaint #1: “I’m angry, because my children wanted to watch the Grammys, and I had to turn the channel.”

Response #1: The Grammys aren’t marketed to children. If children are old enough to be up at 8:00pm and beyond to watch the Grammys, they should be old enough to handle the conversations the songs and performances provoke.

Complaint #2: “I’m angry, because Beyoncé and Jay-Z are making people lust and therefore hurting them.”

Response #2: Don’t watch the Grammys if it makes you lust, and you think lust is bad — but don’t argue that because the Grammys makes you lust, it shouldn’t exist in the world.

Complaint #3: “I’m angry, because it’s Beyoncé’s responsibility, as a woman, to be modest and therefore prevent men from lusting.” (Dear Reader: I. kid. you. not.)

Response #3: Note the move to dangerous “blame the victim” territory here, just a step away from: “if a woman dresses ‘provocatively,’ she’s making a man ‘lust after’ her and is partly to blame for her rape.”

Also note: the Taliban makes ^this^ argument for burqas.

Fact: Women in burqas get raped too. You *never* blame the victim.

Even playing by their own rules (e.g. quoting Matthew 5:28), Christian evangelicals are wrong, and their argument (perhaps more than any other I’ve come across) evinces a misunderstanding of both Jesus the man and Jesus’s teachings.

As Matthew Skinner, Associate Professor of the New Testament at Luther Seminary, argues in “The Parables: Understanding Jesus’s Strange Good News,”

“Most of Jesus’ parables include a preposterous element or two. Someone apparently unaware of cost-benefit analysis leaves 99 sheep alone and vulnerable in the wilderness to look for one that got away. The reign of God grows from a tiny seed not into a magnificent cedar but into a mustard shrub, an invasive plant — certain to stick around but a serious nuisance to our carefully planned landscaping priorities. A father whose son has utterly disgraced him not only welcomes the loser home but spots him from a distance and runs to embrace him. (Dignified men did not run in antiquity. At least, not unless they were in athletic contests. Or something was chasing them.)

That is, there’s always something a little off in these parables. The parables are not mere moralisms, exhorting people to tidy up their lives. They are ways for Jesus to announce realities about life with God that are at once familiar (his listeners knew well how it goes with losing sheep) and radically different (absurd, from the perspective offered by conventional wisdom). Those are the places for our imaginations to linger and consider what kinds of comparisons the parables encourage us to draw between our status quo and the desires of God.

A shepherd who walks away from 99 sheep in the wilderness to locate one is irresponsible, a fool. Could it be that God’s commitment to humanity is so all-encompassing that it appears recklessly obsessive, utterly frustrating to our typical methods of moral and religious calculation?

A parent eager to forgive a wayward child is a welcome sight if you’re the one who’s returning home, but the neighbors will grumble about the dangerous consequences stemming from authority figures who behave so indulgently. Could it be that God’s willingness to forgive and restore is so overwhelming that God will risk the chance of being made to look like a chump?

Jesus’ parables are supposed to be weird. Their atypical elements are supposed to rattle us — not simply because strangeness possesses motivational shock-value, but because what Jesus announces is genuinely unsettling.

The parables, like a poem wielding a poignant metaphor, rouse our creativity from the patterns imposed by normal expectations, especially religious ones. Jesus’ parables make us consider life and our place in it differently. They make us dream of outcasts getting seats at lavish banquets, and the trouble this can cause.

Their point isn’t to summon us to the heights of a single, otherworldly meaning. In lively and even uncontrollable ways, Jesus’ parables prompt us to imagine how God, in the here and now, surprises and even subverts our regular perspectives and convictions about what’s possible.

And all this usually strikes people as rather absurd.”

In this particular Facebook debate, Christian evangelicals use Matthew 5:28 to argue that “anyone who looks at a woman with lustful intent has already committed adultery with her in his heart. So . . . we as women shouldn’t make it so easy for men to lust after us.”


Here, Jesus is doing what he does best. According to the context, the religious leaders of the day were wanting to stone women for adultery and allow men to divorce their wives on a whim (thereby leaving them destitute). Jesus turns their judgment on its head by saying that if you so much as *think* lustfully, you’ve committed adultery.

This would have struck his audience then and should strike us now as absurd. To be condemned not for action but thought? It’s Minority Report:

Sexual desire is essentially human, and Jesus knew that. He was making everyone “guilty,” thereby exonerating accused women. In creating a situation where no one could throw stones, he was defending women, protecting them, saving their lives — NOT condemning them.

Fast forward to 2014 and his acts of compassion and mercy are being used for condemnation and judgment of women and their sexual choices — the very thing that he, in a brilliant rhetorical move, defended publicly.

In the sermon “Getting in Line Behind the Prostitutes and the Traitors,” Dr. Roger Ray admits: “I realized many years ago that the Jesus of the gospels was tolerant of everything except intolerance. He was a friend to tax collectors and sinners. He hung out with prostitutes and the rejects of society but the only people he ever insulted, yelled at or condemned were religious leaders who passed judgment on others and that is a consistent element of Matthew, Mark, Luke and John.”

So, dear Christian evangelicals: if you want to be offended, fine. Be offended that people go to bed hungry, that children in countries devoid of child labor laws make your clothes, that an obsession with cheap meat has made animal cruelty the norm.

Otherwise, get over yourselves. After all, as my Natalie (Leppard, not Grant) says: “unlike [you], the Grammys are being gracious and not coming into [your] churches and saying, hey, you look sexually repressed, so here’s some overtly sexy stuff for you to wear now or you’re going to burn in hell. It’s all Puritanical bs.”


Dear Christian Evangelicals: Jesus and Santa are not white; holiday is not a curse word; and Phil Robertson’s right to free speech was not violated.

It’s been an especially angry Christmas season this year.

Example #1: Every year Fox has its “War on Christmas” segments, and every year Jon Stewart has his always hilariously funny “War on Christmas” response — and, in our family at least, we look as forward to that as we do to putting up the Christmas tree. It’s cherished tradition. Christmas just wouldn’t be Christmas without Jon Stewart telling Gretchen Carlson to chill.

But, this year, the debate went further than whether or not we should be mad at Tulsa for calling its parade the holiday rather than Christmas parade. This year’s defining moment was not Gretchen Carlson, but Megyn Kelly insisting to her 10:00pm Fox News kid viewers (all zero of them) that both Santa and Jesus are white men.

To be fair, even the most conservative Christian evangelicals seem to recognize that neither the historical Jesus (from Palestine) nor the historical Saint Nicholas (from what is modern day Turkey) would be “white” according to either Carlson’s or Kelly’s definition and would probably instead, as Jon Stewart jokes, “be on the no fly list.”

Still, as my friend, Alec McLeod points out, “Facebook never disappoints,” and at least two people insisted to me that Jesus and Santa are white, and each pulled quotes from articles that *seemed* to support their points . . . until you, um, read them and discovered something else entirely.

From The Washington Post, “Reza Aslan on Jesus’s skin color: ‘Megyn Kelly is right. Her Christ is white.” In this recap of an interview between Max Fisher and religious scholar Reza Aslan, the latter differentiates between the historical Jesus (Palestinian man) and the figurative Christ (“The Christ of faith can be anything, anything that you want him to be, and has been whatever you want him to be throughout the last 2,000 years of Christian history”).

He continues: “The foundational metaphor for God in Christianity is man. What is God? Christianity tells you God is man, and so man is the metaphor for what God is in Christianity, because God became a man in the form of Jesus. How do you know, how do you define God? Think of the perfect man. God is infinitely good, infinitely caring, infinitely compassionate. God is all the greatest human attributes that you can imagine. That’s what God is. It’s a sort of a central metaphor . . . This is precisely why Christianity is the largest religion in the world. Because that central metaphor allows you to then thoroughly absorb this conception of Jesus as God into whatever your own particular understanding of humanity is.”

From The World Mysteries blog, “How many major races are there in the world?” The person who quoted this article only quoted the part that, as you discover by its conclusion, “is rooted in the European imagination of the Middle Ages, which encompassed only Europe, Africa, and the Near East.” The article, as a whole, seeks not only to undermine racial categories but also to suggest that those, like Megyn Kelly, who insist on the “whiteness” of Jesus and St. Nicholas, are evil:

“By 1871, some leading intellectuals had recognized that even using the word ‘race’ ‘was virtually a confession of ignorance or evil intent.'”

Moral: I won’t go so far as to call Megyn Kelly evil, but I do think that this particular “War on Christmas” edition is more insidious than past ones, which (1) makes talking about it important; and (2) offers an opportunity to develop/practice empathy for “the other” — b/c what both articles imply is this:

*if* the race of either Jesus or Saint Nicholas *matters* to you at all, then you should actively start imagining him as different from yourself — until it doesn’t.

Example #2: A following status popped up on my Facebook Newsfeed: “If you are tired of hearing ‘happy holidays,’ go visit Chick-fil-A! The employees are encouraged to say ‘Merry Christmas.’ Praise God, finally someone who knows why we celebrate Christmas — Christ!”

Why would anyone get “tired” of receiving well wishes for happiness, despite its form? I said as much, while pointing out that even holiday has religious connotations (happy holiday = happy holy day) as does Happy/Merry Xmas, incidentally (see Greek letters/Roman alphabet/X as a symbol for the cross/etc.)

Response? Either people shouted “Merry CHRISTmas” in a nah-nah-nuh-boo-boo way, or said this: “Happy holidays? Well what holiday is it? Hanukkah is over, chances are not too many people have ever even heard of Kwanzaa, and New Year’s is not a holiday (holy day), so that only leaves Christmas.”

Moral: ^Therein^ lies the problematic philosophy of the conservative religious right — if you’re one of the few, the “not too many people” so casually dismissed above — you and your holiday and your wishes for peace on earth and goodwill towards men may as well not exist. period.

The irony is that this went down while I was at a Catholic church, enjoying a performance of Handel’s Messiah, with a Jewish friend, who got tickets for me and my husband. And I came home to a “Merry Christmas” card from my atheist friend.

Because: there is something magical about the golden rule. When you treat those who think differently from you with love and respect — when you think about what’s most appropriate for your audience and say “Happy Hanukkah!” or “Happy Kwanzaa!” or “Happy Winter Solstice!” or “Happy Holidays!” [which is the best if you don’t know, since it includes Thanksgiving to Epiphany] or “Merry Christmas!” accordingly, you’ll be treated with respect and sincere well-wishes too.

Your holiday greeting shouldn’t be about *you,* the person making the wish, but about the one who receives it. Honestly, though . . . the most common response to any of the above is: thanks! . . . because most people understand that how well wishes are “wrapped” is of as little import as the choice of paper below.

Seriously, evangelical Christians: Get a grip.

Example #3: I think everyone’s Facebook Newsfeed has been blowing up over Phil Robertson’s suspension from Duck Dynasty, after he asserted that homosexuality is the sin from whence all evil comes, after he compared gay sex to sex with animals, and after he waxed nostalgic over the good ole’ days of segregation.

His most ardent and spirited defenders are sharing a more palatable Robertson quote, in which he claims to “love all of humanity,” one that directly contradicts the way Phil just treated the GLBT and African-American communities.

Next, follows a discussion of how his free speech has been violated, because his employers decided that they want to dissociate from his comments.

Dear Phil Robertson defenders: if you’re so proud of him, why not post his image with the comments for which he was actually suspended? Why not make a t-shirt with them and wear it to church, to work, etc. — or might it be problematic to wear the following?


You may, of course, say or wear the above to your workplace. It’s within your right. But: freedom of speech doesn’t mean freedom from consequence (i.e. there are repercussions to being an ass). Also, even those who take the Bible literally, who wear WWJD bracelets, recognize that Jesus had *this* to say about homosexuality, and, for the most part, only quoted Scripture to challenge it (e.g. “You have heard it said, BUT [no]”).

Moral: I think my friend, Dr. Roger Ray, says it best in his most recent Sunday sermon:

“Most of what the Sarah Palins, Rush Limbaughs, and Bill O’Reillys are really bemoaning is the loss of an almost entirely unchallenged very white and very Christian dominant culture. They are grieving the loss of a past in which they indulge themselves in that same fantasy recently articulated by Duck Dynasty star Phil Robertson, when black people were happy about being sharecroppers and tenant farmers, and gay people either didn’t exist or we didn’t have to pretend to be nice to them . . .

The dominant class in any country or any century can make themselves blissfully ignorant of those who are oppressed . . .

Christmas stories introduce Jesus as being someone who is going to turn the established order of the world upside down . . . in very different ways, both Matthew and Luke interpret the birth of Jesus in images that are defiant of the dominant culture . . . The angels sang to us, and even the stars line up to affirm that the weak and the powerless, the homeless, the ones who can’t afford to go to a university or a hospital: Jesus was born for us.”

In that beautiful, inclusive spirit: a very merry Christmas, happy holidays, and season’s greetings to all.

Christians and Violence; Or, the Sandy Hook Massacre, One Year Later

I’ve enjoyed listening to Christmas music this holiday season, because, honestly: I wasn’t able to listen to it after December 14th last year. At. all. I would try to turn it on when in the car with the kids, thinking they would enjoy it, but the jingles were just too depressing after 20 first graders lost their lives while making Christmas crafts at their elementary school.

I woke up thinking about their families today, on the 1-year anniversary. I’ve thought about them often throughout the year: when I see fictional gun violence on television (can they even watch it? or is it like, as I imagine it would be, seeing the bullets enter *their* child?); when I’ve read about the 194 children we’ve lost to gun violence since Newtown (can they read about those children, without having a physical response — a lurch in the gut?); or when I’ve seen, throughout the year, their devastated faces as gun regulation measure after gun regulation measure has been defeated, due to the NRA’s insane hold on an insane country (how does it feel to make your grief public, when all you want to do is hide, only to be defeated again and again?).

It’s just too sad.

Of all the things I expected to feel and read today, though, I have to say that I did *not* expect to come across buy-a-Glock advertisements as status updates on personal Facebook pages. But, they’re there, being shared and lauded on the 1-year anniversary of the Sandy Hook shooting.

Interestingly enough, everyone who either shares or likes this video is a self-proclaimed evangelical Christian, with nativity scenes as profile photos and “the Bible verse of the day!” displayed alongside the Glock advertisement. Funny that the Bible verse is *never* “turn the other cheek” or “blessed are the peacemakers” or “those who live by the sword will die by the sword.”

The *only* self-proclaimed evangelical Christian who has murmured a *word* about the Sandy Hook anniversary posted the following photo with the injunction: “pray for a lost world that is in desperate need of so much more than we can ever do on our own.”

Kudos to him for acknowledging, at least, that Sandy Hook was a thing. But, I start twitching whenever I come across the “we can’t do it/only God can” idea, because all too often that’s a convenient excuse to be passive, to wait for some higher power to fix things instead of taking on the responsibility ourselves.

Because the truth is we can do better, just like scores of others (Australians and Britons, anyone?) already have.

And one of the ways we can be and do better is to be informed and to be honest. Because one thing that President Obama, despite the machinations of the NRA, has been able to do is end the 17-year-long block on federally funded gun research (the fact that such a thing existed, and for so long, makes America seem more like North Korea than a free nation, but I digress).

Here are some of the gun-related myths and the facts, courtesy of MotherJones:

Myth: More good guys with guns can stop rampaging bad guys.
Fact-check: Mass shootings stopped by armed civilians in the past 30 years: 0
• Chances that a shooting at an ER involves guns taken from guards: 1 in 5

Myth: Carrying a gun for self-defense makes you safer.
Fact-check: In 2011, nearly 10 times more people were shot and killed in arguments than by civilians trying to stop a crime.
• In one survey, nearly 1% of Americans reported using guns to defend themselves or their property. However, a closer look at their claims found that more than 50% involved using guns in an aggressive manner, such as escalating an argument.
• A Philadelphia study found that the odds of an assault victim being shot were 4.5 times greater if he carried a gun. His odds of being killed were 4.2 times greater.

Myth: Guns make women safer.
Fact-check: In 2010, nearly 6 times more women were shot by husbands, boyfriends, and ex-partners than murdered by male strangers.
• A woman’s chances of being killed by her abuser increase more than 7 times if he has access to a gun.
• One study found that women in states with higher gun ownership rates were 4.9 times more likely to be murdered by a gun than women in states with lower gun ownership rates.

Despite the fact that the Glock commercial features a fantasy land, where the “bad guy” around the corner literally faints at the sight of a gun (I kid you not), it *does* at least promote safe gun storage (a fingerprint activated safe) and an appreciation for working with law enforcement rather than playing the hero.

My problem is:

most of those Christians who are circulating and lauding the commercial (today of all days) aren’t doing so to advocate for gun safety or even to promote productive dialogue about a complicated issue. They’re doing so to celebrate guns and to “offend a liberal” — which (again, I kid you not) the article in which the commercial is ensconced urges. Oh: the article also urges intruders to break into liberals’ homes, because liberals most likely don’t have guns — Christ-like, isn’t it? Tis the season.

Sh*t People are Saying on Facebook about the Shutdown

So, I stayed up way past my bedtime on Monday night, because I just couldn’t believe that the government shutdown was actually going to happen. And since it’s happened, I can’t believe some of the things I’m seeing on Facebook — although, really, I should be used to it by now. But, then again, maybe it’s okay, and kind of the point, to never get “used to” gross misunderstanding.

I’ve decided to take Anne Lamott’s advice and employ her first plan of action in response to the shutdown: “Writers need to keep writing. We cannot let you off the hook just because of our collective Confusion. We need you now more than ever: Barry Lopez said that when all is said and done, all we have to help us are stories, and compassion. So get back to work! Short assignments, shitty first drafts; just do it.”

In that spirit, here is a paraphrased list of Facebook status updates that have peppered my Newsfeed, and my response:

1) “So just Republicans are to blame for this? Come on! Really?”

Yep. Wanna see the letter? Here it is. 80 Republicans signed it. 0 Democrats signed it. In case you can’t read the fine print, the letter-signers propose using “the power of the purse” (i.e. they will refuse to do their jobs and pay bills) unless the Affordable Care Act (aka Obamacare) is defunded.

2) “Ugh. If the Democrats would just compromise, this would be over.”

Ugh. No. As Thomas Friedman explains here: “What is at stake in this government shutdown forced by a radical Tea Party minority is nothing less than the principle upon which our democracy is based: majority rule. President Obama must not give in to this hostage taking — not just because Obamacare is at stake, but because the future of how we govern ourselves is at stake.”

Despite all the Facebook references to the healthcare “bill,” Obamacare isn’t a bill. It’s a law. As Andrew Sullivan explains here: “Obama has played punctiliously by the constitutional rules – two elections, one court case – while the GOP has decided that the rules are for dummies and suckers, and throws over the board game as soon as it looks as if it is going to lose by the rules as they have always applied.”

Not convinced by Sullivan? Brian Normoyle provides an even more specific accounting of all the ways Republicans have already lost this battle:

  • in the 2008 election in which this was a primary issue;
  • in a year-long debate in the halls of congress, media, and the public square, after which the law was passed by both chambers of congress and signed by the president;
  • in the Supreme Court–the final arbiter of the constitutionality of a law;
  • in the 2012 presidential election, which 2/3rds of Americans now see as a referendum on Obamacare;
  • in the 2012 congressional election, in which the GOP failed to take the Senate, lost seats in the House, and lost the popular vote in that chamber by more than 1,000,000 votes;
  • in the 46 House votes to repeal, defund, or delay Obamacare that were dead on arrival in the Senate and had no chance of becoming law.

We have a way to affect laws that does not involve extortion. It’s called an election.

See Thomas Friedman’s article again: “If democracy means anything, it means that, if you are outvoted, you accept the results and prepare for the next election. Republicans are refusing to do that. It shows contempt for the democratic process.”

Here’s the deal Republicans: I’m a Democrat, and as much as I’d like to believe that this extortionist strategy wouldn’t set a dangerous precedent if successful — b/c Democrats would be too noble-minded to use it — I know that’s not the case. And Friedman agreed in this NPR interview: “What’s to prevent Democrats from winning the house the next time around and under a Republican president and a Republican senate saying: ‘you know that B1 bomber you approved? . . . we’re not happy with it and we’re not going to pass the debt ceiling unless that is removed.’ You will have a government where nothing is ever settled. And that’s a recipe for disaster.”

In other words, if the Democrats “compromise” (i.e. cave), this would most definitely *not* be over — quite the contrary.

3) “[Insert ugly name for Obama here] is going to starve kids and babies.”

Okay. This didn’t pop up on *my* Newsfeed, but that of a mutual friend. She sent me a screen shot.

Unlike the chuckleheads at Fox News” who actually joked about whether or not people would have to resort to “potted meat and Tang” during the government shutdown, this Facebook poster does at least realize that:

“During the shutdown, the Department of Agriculture will stop supporting the Women, Infants and Children (WIC) program, which helps pregnant women and new moms buy healthy food and provides nutritional information and health care referrals to those who need it. The program aids some 9 million Americans” (see “The Nine Most Painful Consequences of a Government Shutdown”).

However, it’s kind of like Thomas Frank’s book, What’s the Matter with Kansas? (i.e. in the book, Frank explores why working class Kansans repeatedly vote against their own interests by voting conservatively). This poster recognizes the painful impact of the government shutdown while not only refusing to support but also insulting the party fighting poverty with both food subsidies and affordable healthcare.

People are entitled to their own opinion, but not to their own facts.

Anne Lamott says that we also need compassion, so in an attempt to be compassionate toward Facebook posters 1, 2 and 3, I’ll recognize the fact that they watch Fox News and are probably legitimately confused, since Sean Hannity has been referring to the “liberal shutdown.”

But, in the end, you might argue that it is, ultimately, a personal responsibility to seek out facts. When the Fox News pundits refer to the “liberal” shutdown one minute and claim responsibility for it the next, you should probably question your fact source.

Lamott compares House Republicans to the alcoholic uncle who “finally goes and does” the “something rash” he always threatens. In response, she pledges “to try to love the poor, degraded sick uncle” anyway but says: “I will forgive myself if this doesn’t go as well as hoped.”

Ditto for those family members who assert that the poor, degraded sick uncle isn’t the family drunk, despite the fact that he’s drooling on the floor under their feet. I’ll try to love them too . . . but will forgive myself if that doesn’t go very well either.

Dear Obama: please consider revisiting Harry Potter, the Hunger Games, Emma Lazarus’s poetry, and — oh yeah — the fact that you won a Nobel PEACE prize.


I’ve been reading a lot about the Syrian crisis. I even made the mistake of flipping through a slideshow detailing the aftermath of the chemical attack in August. A disclaimer warned that the images were “graphic,” but I found myself wishing that they had been more explicit in their labeling (i.e. “graphic: dead children”). I have yet to work up the nerve to watch the video in full, although I have seen devastating clips.

I do not think that we can stand idly by, to quote Elie Wiesel, in the face of such atrocities. But I agree with David Sirota, who, in his article “4 Essential Questions Before We Rush to War,” validates the “do something, anything” response while reminding us that a military attack is not the only “something” we can do:

“[T]he human rights atrocities in Syria are real, and should be offensive and horrifying to anyone with a pulse. So the ‘do something, anything!’ impulse isn’t ‘liberal’ or ‘conservative.’ And it isn’t silly, stupid or war-mongering. It is simply a sign that you are human.

What can be silly, stupid and war-mongering is to assume that the ‘do something, anything!’ impulse is proof that one course of action — a military attack — is the only proper or humane thing to do.”

Given our recent history (i.e. Obama’s five-year Middle Eastern drone war in which an estimated 500-800 innocent civilians have died) I have serious doubts about whether or not a military attack against Syria even qualifies as “proper” or “humane.” As my friend, Phil, pointed out in a recent Facebook status: “I just question whether precise and surgical violence is even a thing. If anything in the world has unpredictable consequences, it’s a bomb.”

One civilian casualty is too many; and, when it’s on our own soil, we seem to understand this. When pursuing the Boston Marathon bombers in April, we were indeed precise and surgical. Can you imagine if we had bombed the area where the terrorists were hiding? We didn’t consider that an option, and rightly so. If the terrorists are on other soil, though, we are much more indiscriminate (e.g. consider another bombing in April, in the Kunar province of eastern Afghanistan, that left 10 children and 2 women dead).

If there is anything I’ve learned from teaching both the Harry Potter and The Hunger Games series in the college classroom, it’s that repaying violence with violence threatens our humanity. This is nowhere more eloquently expressed than Book 7 of JK Rowling’s Harry Potter series, when Harry finds himself in the middle of a full-fledged war against Lord Voldemort and is criticized for using a nonlethal disarming spell against his attackers. His mentor, Lupin, scolds “Harry, the time for Disarming is past! These people are trying to capture and kill you! At least Stun if you aren’t prepared to kill!”

Harry replies, “I won’t blast people out of my way just because they’re there . . . That’s Voldemort’s job.” Although Harry’s penchant for mercy becomes, as Lupin explains, his “signature move” and therefore makes him more vulnerable to recognition and capture, Harry knows that the alternative — becoming unrecognizable to both others and himself by employing lethal force — is a much more frightening and sinister option.

[SPOILER: Mockingjay, Part 2] By the end of The Hunger Games series, Katniss realizes that District 13’s rebel leader, President Coin, is as corrupt as the Capitol’s President Snow. And, to her horror, she understands that the great evil she’s spent her life trying to prevent (i.e. her sister’s murder) comes to pass, because the rebels — in their fight against the violent monsters of the Capitol — become violent monsters themselves, relentlessly devoted to “winning,” even when their own are caught in the crosshairs. 

This week, Jon Stewart returned to The Daily Show after a summer hiatus and sharply criticized the President for recommending a military attack against Syria, not because it would make the situation better (see: “Military Experts Cautious about Effectiveness of a US Attack On Syria”) but because the President does not want to seem weak. Stewart plays a montage of people, like Paul Bremer (former US Ambassador in Iraq), cautioning the President against “weakness” before exploding: “Oh, right. We have to bomb Syria because we’re in 7th grade . . . Why does holding back look like weakness? Isn’t it maturity? It’s like when a guy is picking on Clark Kent and he doesn’t do anything even though he knows he can throw that guy into the sun.”

Strength can and should be dissociated from violence.  We should condemn Assad’s actions. We should consider, as Sarah Van Gelder explains, “strengthening the ability of the ICC [International Criminal Court] to hold war criminals accountable by signing on and ratifying the statute that created the court in 1998” and/or “calling for a United Nations embargo on arms, military supplies, and logistical support for both Damascus and opposition forces.” In short, there are ways to hold Assad accountable and deter war crimes other than military strikes.

But: perhaps most importantly, we should focus our energy and funnel our resources into aid for the refugees and those assisting them [note: them = not only the refugees but also the civilians (or wanna-be refugees) still trying to get out of Syria]. According to UNHCR, Syrian refugees have topped 2 million with more on the way.

If only America were known less for military attacks and more for Emma Lazarus’s words, inscribed on the Statue of Liberty: “Give me your tired, your poor, / Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free, / The wretched refuse of your teeming shore. / Send these, the homeless, tempest-tost to me, / I lift my lamp beside the golden door!” (By the way: my husband, Scott, thinks that we should establish a nonviolent branch of the military dedicated to aid, kind of like the Peace Corps but with all the organization/resources of the US military.)

Let’s speak such words of Lazarus-like comfort to the Syrian people, rather than words of violence to mad men. The latter can be in charge of a country of themselves, while we help those in need and refuse to play with the bullies — lest we become bullies too.

P.S. And, maybe, we’ll become so energized by helping the Syrian children that we’ll be able to remember “all the children,” as Charles Blow enjoins, and help end the atrocities of hunger and poverty and gun violence too.

P.P.S. If you decide to play with the bullies, President Obama, Kirsten Powers suggests you may want to consider returning that Nobel Peace Prize. Actually, she thinks you should return it already, b/c of all those drones. Personally, I think Narayanan Krishnan should get every good-person award available, including most Nobels.

The Zimmerman Trial and Les Misérables

I’m always reading. If I don’t have a book in hand, I’m listening to one downloaded to my ipod while I clean the house, or drive the hour commute to work. Before, during, and since the Zimmerman trial, I’ve been reading Victor Hugo’s massive Les Misérables in preparation for a themed class I’m teaching in the Fall. Although the novel was penned in 1862, Hugo alludes to its enduring relevance in the forward:

“As long as social damnation exists through laws and customs artificially creating hell at the heart of civilization and muddying a destiny that is divine with human calamity; as long as the three problems of the century — man’s debasement through the proletariat, woman’s demoralization through hunger, the wasting of the child through darkness — are not resolved; as long as social suffocation is possible in certain areas; in other words, and to take an even broader view: as long as ignorance and misery exist in this world, books like the one you are about to read are perhaps not entirely useless.”

The death of 17-year-old Trayvon Martin is an example of how the working of law enables social condemnation, thereby creating a human hell. Trayvon is the child, wasted by darkness.

I’ve been collecting articles about the trial for a potential unit in the current issues class I teach in the Spring, and I’ve read the sometimes heated debate on social media sites with interest. My observations are as follows:

1. Where you stand on the issue has much to do with your ability or inability to empathize with young Trayvon. I’ve read comments all too eager to label Trayvon a “thug,” because he was willing (perhaps even inclined) to fight Zimmerman, because he had smoked marijuana before, etc. — all of this ignoring the fact, of course, that he was a 17-year-old boy and that neither fighting nor smoking a joint should equal a death sentence.

I’m especially sympathetic, because I have a firecracker of a child myself, and, as I pointed out in a Facebook discussion: If Arina were a strong,  17-year-old boy, she would totally be the type to throw a punch at the “creepy” person who was stalking her. Zimmerman should have lost a fight, learned his lesson, and changed his behavior. Instead, Trayvon is dead and Zimmerman is back patrolling the neighborhood with a gun like some bad Western movie. (Although, thankfully, in his latest “patrol,” he was able to help victims of a car crash; here’s to hoping that all his future “good” deeds will be similarly gentle and helpful.)

2. You can follow the Zimmerman case and still care about homicides in Chicago. Another response to the coverage of the Zimmerman trial is that we shouldn’t care about the case so much, because 17-year-old boys are dying of gun violence in Chicago. Or, some people flashed photos of white children who have been killed, as if to say: “look! White kids get killed too!” Of course, we care when any kid is killed. Of course we do. But, here’s the thing, as Charles Blow explains in his New York Times article, “The Whole System Failed Trayvon”:

“This case is not about an extraordinary death of an extraordinary person. Unfortunately, in America, people are lost to gun violence every day. Many of them look like Martin and have parents who presumably grieve for them. This case is about extraordinary inequality in the presumption of innocence and the application of justice: why was Martin deemed suspicious and why was his killer allowed to go home?”

Or, to put it another way, courtesy of my friend, Kayla: “for those of you asking why the stories of other murdered children didn’t make national news, go back and check if the police knew who was responsible but waited a month and a half (and only after cries of national outrage) to arrest him anyway. Had the police arrested Zimmerman that first night, he may have still been acquitted but none of us would know his name.”

3. The lack of sensible gun regulation must be addressed. In his response to the verdict on The Daily Show, John Oliver discusses the inevitability of Zimmerman’s acquittal due to Florida’s lax state gun laws and argues “That’s what makes this so much worse: that we can get a verdict like this not because the system is broken down, but because it works exactly as it’s designed.” He concludes the bit by asking, “How does 2013 Florida have a law that seems cut and pasted from 1881 Tombstone?”

Zimmerman had already been charged with resisting arrest with a police officer for violence, had been issued a restraining order for domestic violence, and had been fired as a security guard for being “too aggressive.” He defied the police dispatcher’s instructions and stalked Trayvon anyway.

The very idea that he could legally own a gun, carry it while patrolling the neighborhood, and use it to kill a 17-year-old with skittles and sweet tea is baffling to me. I mean: it was 7:00 at night (my kids are often outside playing at that time, during the summer) and Trayvon was close to the house where he was staying with his father.

To those who suggest that George Zimmerman *had* to shoot and kill Trayvon, lest he be killed himself: I call bullshit. There are nonlethal ways to extricate yourself from a fist fight other than using a firearm. Sadly, thanks to the NRA, people like Zimmerman are more likely to buy a lethal firearm than pepper spray or even a taser. Had Zimmerman been armed with pepper spray rather than a firearm, he would have extricated himself from the fight (which, again, he was at least partly responsible for initiating) and Trayvon would still be alive. Period.

4. The African-American community is particularly vulnerable to acts of violence rooted in racism. I mentioned above that Arina would be the type to throw a punch at her stalker (according to Rachel Jeantel, who was on the telephone with Trayvon as he walked home, Trayvon had tried to elude Zimmerman and thought he was successful before Zimmerman found him again and jumped out of his car to confront him).

Here’s the difference, though. My blond-haired, blue-eyed Barbie Doll of a child wouldn’t have been accused of suspicious activity in the first place; I’m pretty sure, in fact, that in a few more years she could play the blond at the end of this five-minute video:

Young black men must, as Charles Blow describes, “constantly fight” against “universal suspicion without individual evidence.” And the fight continues, as evinced by recent Fox News segments that justify this fear of black men, despite the fact, as Stephen Colbert points out, the statistics used to support the claim — when carried to the logical conclusion — indicate that “we can reasonably be scared of .009% of 1% of African Americans.”—color-bind

Even more frustrating is the unwillingness to recognize, as my friend Dr. Ray argues in a recent sermon, that “poverty causes crime regardless of race . . . crime is not a race issue.” Too many African-American communities are poor. Why? Because while white men were able to become doctors, lawyers and politicians — while they were building fortunes for their children and grandchildren to inherit — black men were denied access both to equal education and also to a fair wage that would enable them to afford such an education in the first place. For God’s sake, schools weren’t even desegregated until the 50s, my mother’s generation, only one removed from my own.

So, the fight against universal suspicion of being both dangerous (because black) and lazy (if poor) continues, but it should not be a fight that young black men fight on their own. White people of conscience should say “no” to the Bill O’Reillys and Bernie Goldbergs of the world. 

The beginning of Les Misérables focuses not on Jean Valjean, but on Monseigneur Myriel, the Bishop of Digne, in chapters with such titles as “A Just Man.” Hugo cites one example after another of why the Bishop is just: he exchanges the large Bishop’s palace for a small, run down hospital, much to the hospital director’s delight and surprise; he spends nearly all of his salary in charitable donations; he’s likely to sprain an ankle to avoid killing an insect; etc.

To summarize: “There are men who dig for gold; he dug for compassion. Poverty was his goldmine; the the universality of suffering a reason for the universality of charity.’Love one another.’ To him everything was contained in those words,  his whole doctrine, and he asked no more . . . ‘if [Love one another’] is folly,’ said Monseigneur without disputing the matter, ‘then the soul must enclose itself within it like the pearl in the oyster.’ Which is what he did.”

In the fourteen chapters describing the worthy Bishop before Jean Valjean is introduced, there are two incidents that have a profound affect on Monseigneur Myriel: in the first, he witnesses an execution and is “overwhelmed” afterward, concluding “it is wrong to become so absorbed in Divine Law that one is no longer aware of human law. Death belongs only to God. What right have men to lay hands on a thing so unknown?”; in the second, he visits the deathbed of someone against whom he has nursed a lifelong prejudice: a former member of the Revolutionary Convention , responsible in the Bishop’s mind for ushering in such events as the execution of Louis XVI and the Reign of Terror. He accuses him of such; the old man replies:

“In the case of Louis XVI, I voted against his death. I do not think I have the right to kill a man, but I believe it is my duty to abolish evil. I voted for the overthrow of the tyrant — that is to say, for an end to the prostitution of women, the enslavement of men, the dark night of the child.Those are the things I voted for in voting for the Republic. I voted for fraternity, for harmony, for a new dawn. I helped to bring about the downfall of prejudice and error, that their crumbling might let in light.”

By the end of the meeting, the old man has convinced the Bishop of the fact that he has always “striven for the advance of mankind towards the light,” and when he says to his visitor, “Now at the age of eighty-six I am on the point of death. What do you ask of me?”, the Bishop responds “your blessing,” and falls to his knees.

These experiences set the stage for Jean Valjean’s entrance as a poor and starving ex-convict; and the kind, compassionate treatment he receives at the Bishop’s hand — a transformative encounter that inspires much, if not all, of Valjean’s subsequent good deeds (which include rescuing the prostitute, Fantine; adopting the child, Cosette; and saving Marius from the barricades).

In short, Les Misérables asks us to consider what could happen if we let go of prejudice and fear; if we embody a Christianity that asks us not to fear but to love. Perhaps George Zimmerman would have found his prejudice as easily dispelled as the Bishop’s had he been less likely to suspect, to accuse, and to shoot first and question later.

I Am No Bird, Not Even a Wild Goose.

In Charlotte Bronte’s Jane Eyre, one of the many memorial moments occurs when Jane asserts to the too-often-exasperating Rochester: “I am no bird; and no net ensnares me; I am a free human being with an independent will.”

The quote plays in my mind whenever I’m criticized for thinking differently from those in the rural conservative town in which I grew up. But I started to think that if I had to be a bird, I’d choose to be a wild goose, because a couple of years ago, I was super-excited to discover the annual Wild Goose Festival. Wild Goose, to be held this year in Hot Springs, NC, calls itself  “a community gathered at the intersection of justice, spirituality, music and art.”

I attended the 2012 Wild Goose Festival, but I won’t be attending this year. There were things I liked about it: (1) As a rule, I enjoy festivals focused on social justice and activism for many reasons, not the least of which is the fun of imagining Glenn Beck’s (and his ilk’s) reaction to them in the form of exploding heads; (2) I can say that I’ve heard and — in some cases — met, religious leaders like John Dear (one of Desmond Tutu’s bffs), Frank Schaeffer (who took a particular liking to Arina) and Jim Wallis (a recurring Daily Show guest), all of whom are deemed important enough to have their own Wikipedia pages; and (3) I met dear friend Dr. Roger Ray (who should have his own Wikipedia page) in person for the first time at the Festival! Roger was no doubt the only person there as progressive in his theology as Scott and I are, so we were able to sit on the proverbial back pew together and roll our eyes at the evangelical undercurrent that the organizers of the Festival seemed unable or even unwilling to avoid.

Example: Scott, who was raised Southern Baptist, started visibly twitching at the last performance, because of its similarity to the alter calls he experienced every Sunday growing up. The only difference? Rather than asking the congregants to come forward and pledge or rededicate their lives to Jesus, the Wild Goose speaker asked his audience members to come forward with a slip of paper pledging to make the world better in some tangible way. We’re all for making the world better, of course. I certainly prefer the revised version. But Scott couldn’t take the conspicuous (even showy) nature of a ritual steeped in evangelical conservatism, so Roger and I found ourselves following him to the beer tent instead.

In response to his experience at Wild Goose, Roger is hosting his own conference in Springfield, Missouri, featuring Bishop John Shelby Spong as keynote speaker. We’ll be attending the Spong conference, which will be academic in nature, instead of the Festival. Out of curiosity, though, I perused the lineup of speakers for Wild Goose 2013, and I think I’m beginning to understand what irks me about many of the self-proclaimed progressive voices in popular Christian culture:

334725_4175562431219_735312861_oVoice #1: Frank Schaeffer, Wild Goose speaker 2012: Schaeffer is a brilliant, dynamic speaker, and his personal history, particularly his move from evangelical fundamentalism of the . . . well . . . Francis Shaeffer variety to liberal Christianity, is fascinating.

Roger and I were very much on board with Schaeffer after his first presentation (Scott arrived late), but we had abandoned ship by the end of the second. The offense? In Schaeffer’s second presentation, he attempted to justify his support of the Eastern Orthodox Church despite the fact that it, as a denomination, discriminates against gays and women. He admitted that he would be proud if, one day, his granddaughter Lucy effects much needed change in the church regarding gender equality, but he asserted that it’s not his battle and that he accepts this imperfection in the denomination.

Roger was furiously scribbling in his notebook and muttering expletives, and he spent the rest of the conference trying to position himself and us so that Schaeffer could read the back of our matching t-shirts, which read: “If your church says that you have to be male to preach, that church has a fundamental misunderstanding of the role of genitalia in the writing and delivery of sermons” — a Roger Ray original quote.

In his Letter from Birmingham Jail, Martin Luther King says that injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere. Not your battle? That’s not good enough, Schaeffer.

Voice #2: Glennon Melton, Wild Goose Speaker 2013: I like Glennon Melton’s style. She’s like a younger, hipper Anne Lamott. (Note: I take great comfort in the fact that this is a relatively unknown blog, but in case that changes I reserve the right to delete the previous sentence and deny ever suggesting that Anne Lamott is not, in fact, young and hip.)

Here’s how Glennon describes herself: “I love Jesus, gay people, adoption, and rearranging furniture. In the interest of combining all my loves, I have asked Jesus to help me adopt Nate Berkus.” See? A younger, hipper Anne Lamott.

I liked the first post I read by her, “A Mountain I’m Willing To Die On” (a letter to her son), so much that I linked to it on my Facebook page, even though this part really annoyed me: “Recently there was some talk in my Bible study about homosexuality being sinful. I quoted Mother Teresa and said, ‘When we judge people we have no time to love them.’ I was immediately reprimanded for my blasphemy by a woman who reminded me of 1 Corinthians 6:9–10. But I was confused because this woman was speaking. In church. And she was also wearing a necklace. And I could see her hair, baby. She had no head covering. All of which are sooooo totally against the New Testament Bible Rules. And so I assumed that she had decided not to follow the parts of the Bible that limited her particular freedoms, but to hold fast to the parts that limit the freedoms of others. I didn’t point this out at the time, because she wasn’t a bad person. People are doing the best they can, mostly. It’s best not to embarrass anyone.”

Everything is awesome and funny and refreshing . . . but the last three sentences. I’m of the Elie Wiesel mindset — that we do *not* stand idly by, especially when someone is being mean to someone else.

And, yes: the person who Melton was hesitant to embarrass *was* being mean to the LGBTQ community. Perhaps there was a member of that community in the audience, and the very fact that there could have been requires us to call out hypocrisy and insist on justice everywhere.

You’re afraid of embarrassing someone who is being hurtful to others? That’s not good enough, Melton.

I agree with Roger, who, in response to anti-gay remarks, says: “I am no longer willing to pretend that there is anyone who needs more information or a chance to process all of this. Any remaining prejudice is, in my eyes, just that, prejudice . . . It is not respectable, it is not understandable, it is not a matter of opinion any more than we would, in the 21st century, afford such issues as slavery and child labor the luxury of being just a matter of personal opinion. There may have been a time when we needed to be patient with those who needed some time to catch up with reality but that time is surely past. You can choose to remain in ignorant prejudice, that is your individual right, but we don’t have to pretend that ignorant prejudice is not ignorant prejudice.”

And then — SIGH — Melton does it AGAIN. Currently, Huff Po Religion is featuring Melton’s “I Love Gay People and I Love Christians. I Choose All,” in which she insists that everyone, both gay people and anti-gay Christians, are invited to her table — because she’s a peacemaker.

Two things: (1) anti-gay Christians aren’t necessarily going to want to be at your table, across from the LGBTQ section; and what if one of the anti-gay Christians at your table is that woman from your Bible Study, and she starts insulting your LGBTQ guests?

(2) you can’t “make peace” by trying to find common ground when one group’s argument is built upon asserting the inequality of another group. Rather than taking the “I’ll just invite everyone over for dinner, and it’ll be fun” approach, a true peacemaker is willing to take a stand and say “no” to injustice, and the person promoting it, in the hope of ushering in a more just and equitable society.

Or, as Roger says: “Lord deliver us from shallow religion . . . From using the language of friendship and love too easily . . . Save us from a self-protecting and facile society that acquiesces to silence in the face of prejudice and violence.”

Dear Christian Evangelicals: Please Stop Calling Me a False Prophet and/or Satan

Seriously. I know you’re angry, because I identify as a progressive Christian. See how I always shout *progressive* first? It’s because I’m as loathe to be identified as an evangelical as you are to be identified as a progressive. So, I understand that part of your anger has to do with the fact that I dare call myself Christian at all, since  progressives (in case you didn’t know) subscribe to the following . . .

(1) about faith: “Faith is not about concrete answers, religious absolutes, creeds, or dogma. Faith is about the search for understanding, the raising of important questions, the open honesty of having doubt, and the realization that no one has it all completely right nor does any human hold all the answers.”

(2) about Scripture: “The words of Jesus found in the gospels – specifically, what he states are the greatest commandments: ‘Love God with all of your essence and love your neighbor as you should love yourself’ – are to be the focus for any disciple of him. We submit the rest of Scripture to the position of ‘sacred commentary.'”

(3) about other religions, and no religion: “Recognition and affirmation of the differing belief systems of others . . . is crucial.”

(4) about science: “God created humans with a brain capable of discovery and reason. God does not require us to ‘check our brains at the door,’ along with our coat and hat in order to be a part of the faith.”

Believe me, I get it. You feel like my version of Christianity is seriously cramping your style. I get it, because I feel like your version of Christianity is seriously cramping mine. In that way, at least, we’re more alike than you’d care to admit.

What concerns me is the implication that this difference in philosophy makes me evil, or at least an instrument of evil. Such talk got people burned at the stake back in the day. Scott says I *totally* would have been accused of witchcraft and burned at the stake, and I think he’s probably right. sigh.

As someone who comes from an evangelical background, I feel compelled to say: I don’t think you’re evil, even though I think you’re wrong about *a lot* of things. But, for the most part, I think you’re trying to stay true to a tradition you associate with the people you know and love (whether grandparents, parents, siblings or all of the above); you feel loyalty to a church community that has no doubt been generous to you in many ways; you get tremendous comfort from reading Scripture selectively (b/c you *do* read it selectively), and from praying and then feeling like all the blessings in your life are signs of God’s favor (it’s always fun to feel like you’re a favorite — says me, an only child).

I. get. it.

For me to have abandoned that tradition for one that I see as truer and better is no doubt unsettling. But I’m not trying to convert you (see #3, above). I’m just trying to convince you that I’m not dangerous in the form of being a false prophet and/or Satan. So, to that end:

Criticism #1, paraphrased: “You are a false prophet and/or Satan because you don’t take the Bible seriously.”


I watched the documentary Hellbound last week, and I want Jaime Clark-Soles (Associate Professor of New Testament at Perkins School of Theology) to be one of my new bffs, because she explains why criticism #1 makes her feel as though her head is going to explode:

“I always get on guard whenever someone uses the phrase ‘seriously’ — ‘taking [the Bible] seriously’ — because by ‘seriously’ they don’t mean: ‘Have you learned all the Biblical languages, and all the languages around it that were being spoken, and [the languages] in the centuries after it, including Coptic?’ They don’t mean that.  I sat through ‘Eastern Roman Provinces’ in graduate school. I don’t care about eastern Roman provinces, but I care about the Bible; therefore, I had to care about eastern Roman provinces, because guess what? That’s the context within which the Bible was written. When I say ‘take the Bible seriously,’ I mean you better go study and you better care enough to do the hard, really boring stuff.”

In short, the reason I read books (both primary and secondary); and watch documentaries; and listen to all kinds of people from my religious tradition, other religious traditions, and no religious tradition is that I take God/ethics/religious texts very seriously indeed. I haven’t learned Coptic (I’m a disaster with languages in general), but that’s why I seek out people, like Jaime Clark-Soles, who have.

This does not make me a false prophet and/or Satan.

Criticism #2, paraphrased: “You’re a false prophet and/or Satan, because the Bible warns us about people like you, and the Bible is inerrant.”


People who say the Bible is inerrant haven’t read the Bible very well — not the “hard, really boring stuff” anyway. I remember reading the God-sends-bears-to-kill-the-42-kids-teasing-Elisha story when I was, like, 8 years old. I remember thinking that I was reading the *grimmest* of a Grimm’s fairy tale, not the true account of a God-ordained kid massacre.

The Bible isn’t inerrant, because the human beings who wrote it weren’t. They didn’t understand the Earth revolves around the sun (obvious when you read Joshua 10), let alone the science behind, say, natural disasters and human sexuality.

And, despite what you say, you don’t treat the Bible as inerrant either. If you did, you wouldn’t eat shellfish, or wear polyester, or permit divorce, or charge and pay interest, or cut your hair certain ways . . . the list goes on, and on, and on.

We build our theology based on the Bible, but we do so thoughtfully.

Criticism #3, paraphrased: “You are a false prophet and/or Satan, because you trust humans rather than God.”

I trust love, and if God is love . . . well, yeah. You see: 1 John 4.8 just happens to be one of those verses in my “canon within the canon.” And I trust humans who are loving to others — in the most generous and reckless and ridiculous ways — because there is something out-of-this-world intangibly beautiful about them.

This does not make me a false prophet and/or Satan.

Brian McLaren (author of Why Did Jesus, Moses, the Buddha and Muhammed Cross the Road? Christian Identity in a Multi-faith World — super fun title!) claims: “in a pluralistic world, a religion is judged by the benefits it brings to its nonmembers.” If he’s right, evangelical Christianity is in serious trouble. But that doesn’t mean it can’t . . . well . . . evolve into something better.

The first step? Start empathizing with, rather than demonizing, nonmembers — or, in other words, stop calling people false prophets and/or Satan.