Carrot Sticks

Disapproving of people who aren’t “Normal” went from a virtue to vice within my lifetime.

I still see a lot of baffled resentment about that shift in public morals.

I still read a lot of pushback, and a sense that something’s gone terribly wrong.

If you strip away all the rhetoric and conspiracy theories that call marriage equality and gender neutral restrooms a subversive attack on normative institutions in prelude for the ushering in of a totalitarian state that demands full ideological compliance at all times, you’re left with a portrait of some very simple, wrong, but simple feelings underneath:

People miss being socially rewarded for conformity.
People miss being socially rewarded for enforcing it.
People resent being punished for what they were once rewarded for.

The shift in public morals changed the rules on what it took to be seen as a good person.

It used to be about not doing anything weird, and looking down on anybody who did.

Now it’s about not doing anything cruel, and looking down on anyone who does.

There used to be people it was not only OK to be cruel about, but REWARDED to be cruel about.

People fear the loss of unity that a loss of conformity-as-a-public-moral represents to them. They don’t understand what that unity cost, and don’t understand that it was a facade that was no more true then, than it was now, and just required a lot more people to hide, pretend, live unsatisfying inauthentic lives, and often suffer anyway, because the people who fear this were the ones conformity came easily to. They were the ones around whom the idea of “normal” was designed.

They built their senses of self partially on a bedrock of pride at being “the right kind of person.”

They see the idea that there even IS a “right kind of person” going away, as a threat not only to the unity of their nation, but to the socialvalue of the principal virtue from which they’ve always derived their standing and self-worth. Public tolerance of nonconformity, and public intolerance of intolerance toward it, feel like an existential threat.

If you’re wondering what animates and underwrites some segments of the modern Conservative outrage over ostensibly harmless live-and-let-live tolerance being adopted as the norm, and why they cast objection to them as FreeSpeech issues on THEIR behalf rather than HumanRights issues on someone else’s, this is how that logic works.

Within their lifetimes, whole swaths of the belief systems they were raised with and feel religiously and culturally virtuous for espousing, changed entirely without their buy-in from things everybody was supposed to agree with Or Else, to something you’d be treated badly for asserting.

Practically Overnight, as far as they were concerned.

And since these changes came from outside their communities –

And since these changes regarded discrimination and basic human rights –

They were accompanied by changes to the law regarding who it was ok to shun and treat differently.

That answer used to be “Someone”
That answer is now “No One”

BUT

All they know is they got a taste of what it was like to suddenly feel like pariahs at the hands of people who suddenly asserted influence over the laws of the land and didn’t respect their values or beliefs, and accomplished all of this without their consent or agreement, practically overnight.

It became NOT OK to hold beliefs that they held dear, not just on a social level, but also on a legal level, where those beliefs meant engaging in discriminatory practices against “the people it’s morally appropriate to treat badly.”

And That Was Terrifying.

It was the closest thing they’d ever felt to persecution.

Legal protections granting equality to the people they felt dutybound to shun and look down on felt like the government, acting at the behest of radicals who “didn’t love this country” (read: love it exactly how it was) felt like an attack not just on the character of the nation but on their individual right to self-determination and free thought.

So the next time you’re on a comment thread and you encounter someone dashing off manifestos about liberal nazi thought police, while you still won’t (i hope) respect and agree with them, you’ll at least know how they came to be as freaked-out as they are by things that nobody should mind, and why they see nothing but tyranny and totalitarianism in a public morals shift that says cruelty’s not ok.

Vices Versus Verses

This week, you’ll likely read and watch a lot of hot takes and deep parses on the conflict on Lincoln’s steps today.  There’s a lot to say, and plenty of people to say it.  The smartest ones will point out that the same commentators who condemned Trayvon Martin’s hoodie as provocative, have suddenly forgotten they think clothes communicate, and make a bevy of excuses for the way that folks react to MAGA hats, as if they symbolize nothing…  But that hypocrisy will find no shortage of red-hatted adherents, nor critics to point it out.  I’m occupied.

Y’see, I’m hung up on a phrase used in the NewYorkTimes, by member of the third faction present – the one that no one seems to be talking about for two reasons – one, because their message and identities are unclear and don’t map easily to the way this story wants to polarize, and two, because it’s an arcane minor point utterly tangental to the story itself, but deeply telling about the American religious landscape – so, y’know, just the kind of thing that interests me.

I’ll be honest, I don’t completely know what to make of a group of protestors shouting at both the indigenous activists and the anti-abortion march attending catholic school MAGA student group before most videos of the event begin, which catalyzed their interaction with each other at the start.  I encourage readers to engage the article itself, but here’s the quote from it that stood out from the rest:

“I know we seem aggressive reading the Bible, but the Bible states for us to cry aloud and don’t spare anybody’s feelings,” he said.

Let’s take a look at that verse, in its context, then, and wonder at it being misappropriated in 2019:

Isaiah 58 King James Version (KJV)

58 Cry aloud, spare not, lift up thy voice like a trumpet,

Tell you what, let’s jump on over to the NIV.  King James sounds poetic, but it’s also kind of an Opaque read.  (which is one of the reasons fundamentalist sects prefer it, since the archaic inscrutable language is harder on the ear of modern english speakers, and since that leaves the meanings harder to parse, it’s easier to beg the case that it means whatever idea the party wants to push, so long as it includes some words that modern connotations push toward their goal.)  Regardless – NIV from here, for reading ease:

Isaiah 58 New International Version (NIV)

58 “Shout it aloud, do not hold back.
    Raise your voice like a trumpet.
Declare to my people their rebellion
    and to the descendants of Jacob their sins.
For day after day they seek me out;
    they seem eager to know my ways,
as if they were a nation that does what is right
    and has not forsaken the commands of its God.
They ask me for just decisions
    and seem eager for God to come near them.
‘Why have we fasted,’ they say,
    ‘and you have not seen it?
Why have we humbled ourselves,
    and you have not noticed?’

“Yet on the day of your fasting, you do as you please
    and exploit all your workers.
Your fasting ends in quarreling and strife,
    and in striking each other with wicked fists.
You cannot fast as you do today
    and expect your voice to be heard on high.
Is this the kind of fast I have chosen,
    only a day for people to humble themselves?
Is it only for bowing one’s head like a reed
    and for lying in sackcloth and ashes?
Is that what you call a fast,
    a day acceptable to the Lord?

“Is not this the kind of fasting I have chosen:
to loose the chains of injustice
    and untie the cords of the yoke,
to set the oppressed free
    and break every yoke?
Is it not to share your food with the hungry
    and to provide the poor wanderer with shelter
when you see the naked, to clothe them,
    and not to turn away from your own flesh and blood?
Then your light will break forth like the dawn,
    and your healing will quickly appear;
then your righteousness[a] will go before you,
    and the glory of the Lord will be your rear guard.
Then you will call, and the Lord will answer;
    you will cry for help, and he will say: Here am I.

If you do away with the yoke of oppression,
with the pointing finger and malicious talk,
10 and if you spend yourselves in behalf of the hungry
and satisfy the needs of the oppressed,
then your light will rise in the darkness,
and your night will become like the noonday.
11 The Lord will guide you always;
he will satisfy your needs in a sun-scorched land
and will strengthen your frame.
You will be like a well-watered garden,
like a spring whose waters never fail. 

I think it’s especially emblematic of the state of religious discourse in America right now,  taking a single line of this particular scripture and press it into service justifying a philosophy of Insensitivity and Aggressive Assignation of Blame – a meaning opposite its own.  Few things reflect the modern church’s thorough co-optation by the values of political alliance, than someone using this verse this way.

What Women Want

Gents, if your grand theories on what “ideal social role” makes women happiest is basically the opposite of what THEY say makes them happy… I just want you to entertain the idea that your theories might need work.

I come across a lot of guys online desperate to prove that a societal departure from the lifestyle of marrying young, avoiding contraception of any kind, and being fully subservient to a male head-of-household is the cause of all female depression, anxiety, discontentment, etc etc, and if the ladies would JUST RE-EMBRACE “God’s Chosen Role” for them, they wouldn’t need to SUFFER so…

And I just keep thinking how much more it says about the insecurities of the guys claiming that to be true, than it does about what might make, really anybody but them, happy.

And look, I’m sure that works for some people. People who choose it for themselves un-coerced. But it’s something entirely different when national politicians go on record laying society’s problems at the feet of the fact that women are legally allowed to work outside the home and therefore don’t NEED to bind their economic fortunes to a breadwinning male and trade on-demand sex and maidservice for food and a roof, or starve in the street. The American Family ™ is under threat, I’m told by cable news and AM radio, from Feminism, threatening to Turn Women Into Men, making them unhappy, depressed, listless and anxious since “living outside their god-ordained role isn’t what they’re designed for.” Leaving fully aside the fact that this is the most far-fetched unfounded straight-up ignorant notion of what the “god-ordained” role for ANYBODY is, let’s just all take a second to sit with the fact that people with broadcast platforms are claiming there IS such a thing, and “in the name of saving women” are suggesting a return to mandatory economic slavery.

These are ideas that’ve always been present in the dark corners of the internet. The NeoNazi corners, along with the WesternTraditionalist, self-styled “Manosphere” MRA blogs, WesternChauvanist, and NeoReactionary backbirths, have all been gibbering about how great it would be for them if everything from the right to work outside the home, to immodest clothing, to artificially-dyed hair, to disobeying their husbands/fathers, to premarital sex, to tattoos, to legal divorce, to the freedom contextualize domestic violence as something other than a man exercising his right to discipline his wife, should all be denied to the half of the species that, VERY CONVENIENTLY, the people advocating for it were not born members of. The sentiments aren’t new. What’s new is that these ideas are showing up in evangelical talk radio now. What’s new is that these ideas are getting national airtime out of Tucker Carlson’s mouth, and he still has advertisers. What’s new is that there’s so much else to be up-in-arms about, that this messaging-creep can go largely unnoticed.

What’s my point? If your idea of “The American Family” requires one member’s degradation for another’s artificial elevation, it’s not worth “Preserving” in the first place. I’m not big on gatekeeping masculinity, but if you feel degraded and denied opportunity by a culture that says you don’t get to degrade people and deny them opportunity, leave your man card in the box on your way out. I’d say don’t let the door hit you, but honestly that’ll be the least of your worries if you’re not out it fast enough, shooting off about “the role of women” in this house.

This Post Has Been Brought To You By Encounters With:
Fox’s Tucker Carlson
Focus on the Family’s AM Radio fetish
Acting SSA AC Robert W. Patterson
and my local JW Kingdom Hall’s friendly Missionaries

Stay frosty out there, gents.
There are pathetic Manchildren in our midst.
Educate or Excoriate. I leave the details up to you.

Charity and Clarity

I grew up hearing all the time about the dangers of a welfare state, and how government safety nets like food stamps might create a culture of dependency on government assistance.  This was bad for reasons ranging from the shadow of the failures of the soviet system, to the fact that it might lead to a kind of grudging carte-blanche by citizens toward abuses by the government they needed for survival.  It’s a lot harder to overthrow an institution that is also how you eat and pay your rent, that wisdom said.

It was suggested that, instead, private philanthropy, religious in particular, and strong tight-knit communities where neighbors helped you out, was the ideal alternative.

And for a lot of years, that sounded about right.  I didn’t ever think too hard about how that system might go wrong, who it might hurt, or even why, because at that time, the suggestion was, “The church should do this, too.”

I like religion.  I think faith is at its best, when it’s got rolled-up sleeves, out there looking after people who need help.  So many churches run food pantries, battered womens’ shelters, rehab clinics, warming spaces, counseling, and faith-based local government engagement, in the hopes of meeting needs they see around them in the world.  There are few things that I think are a more worthwhile use of time, than putting action to your words, and serving God.

What I’m much less sanguine on, is the recent shift in posture, from “It’s the responsibility of God’s people to help those in need,” to sentiments like:

“In the best interests of the poor, the government should withdraw itself completely from all activities designed to help them and allow civil society its full range of motion.”

From being moved by the spirit to do their part, to eliminating the competition.

Let’s be clear.  Not every church is doing this.  It isn’t even most.  But when denominations like the Mormon church begin to lobby for erosion of the social safety net, on grounds that it could offer those services better, something’s wrong.  They’re using money that they could spend toward direct aid for the poor, to help convince the legislature to stop helping them, themselves.

This problem isn’t just the Mormons.  While it’s always been a favorite saw of Libertarianism, other social movements keen to sell ideas to the Conservative mainstream have taken notes.  NeoReactionary blogs have been in love with this idea for quite some time, as have the media that cater to the crowd that mourns the death of Western Christian Monoculture.  There’s a sect of Evangelicalism that’s been barking over AM radio for 40 years, about the dangers of increased secularism.  And these forces have politicized the poor.

A modern staple of Conservative outrage is the perennial specter of mis-spent welfare.  Leaving aside for just a minute that cash handouts in the form these critics picture happening, all died to Democrat Bill Clinton’s reform pen, let’s take a minute outside politics to think about what, beyond welfare Conservative groups complain about.

Their fears, writ broadly, are:

  • The Idle Poor, abusing public trust
  • Sexual Immorality – encompasing Teen Pregnancy and how they view “The Gays”
  • Destigmatization of the use of recreational Drugs
  • Encroachment by Other Religions – especially the “new-age” ones, but also by Islam
  • Female Empowerment and Rejection of Traditional Homemaker Female Roles
  • and growing Public Toleration of People not fitting binary Genders

Ten minutes scanning through the headlines of a “Christian” facebook group got me all that.

Here’s why it matters.

People end up on the street for lots of reasons.  But among the highest-ranked is their estrangement from means of social support.  For things like drug use, being kicked out of their house for coming out or getting pregnant.  Being outed as transgender, at their jobs, or having medical conditions that can make it hard to work.  Also, workplace discrimination in some areas puts anyone without pearly white skin at disadvantages in even finding work.  You notice similarities?

The kinds of people who end up in need of help, turn out to be the kinds of people that a lot of churches aren’t inclined to help.  But this is where this goes from sad to bordering on truly wrong.

If competition from the government is gone,

It becomes possible to predicate all aid on whether or not people conform.  You heard me  right.  “You want to eat today?  Let’s hear you say your prayer to the right god.” And if you read that sentence without chills chasing your spine, remember yours is not the only church there is.  Imagine being made to choose, my dear Conservative comrade, between starvation and thrice-daily prayers toward Mecca.

Or, in the words of a prominent Libertarian outlet:

Before the Depression private solutions played an important moral and material role for the poor. Whereas government relies on coercion [in the form of being funded via taxes] charities and fraternal societies embody the qualities that make volunteerism socially advantageous.

A “moral role.”  The problem these folks see with needs-based government assistance is, it doesn’t force conformity before it offers aid.  Neither do most religious charities, either.  Not those that actually serve God, anyway.  But this new movement?  The benefit they see to weeding out the competition is a simple one.  It lets them build incentives for desirable behavior and withhold it from the people they don’t like.

Social Leverage

is the currency du-jour.  It’s a lot easier to fight ‘degeneracy,’ when the only way that people who their families reject must go through you to stay alive and warm and fed.  Make no mistake, that’s what we’re talking about, here.  You let them “fix you,” you get all the bread you want.  Otherwise, good luck.  God Bless.  Can you imagine saying that to single moms?  Ireland tried that on my grandparents generation.  Their whole nation outsourced social safety nets for single moms onto a partnership with the Irish Catholic church.  It funded itself on adoption fees, basically selling babies to Americans for cash.  These weren’t mothers putting kids up for adoption.  These were women who had lost the means of fiscal self-support, had been referred into the wardship of the church, and had their children stripped away and sold to families overseas.  There’ve been two large mass-graves discovered on the sites where these homes stood.  There will be more.

There is a price, for outsourcing responsibility to look after the poor, into the hands of organizations with an interest in dictating right and wrong.  Aid, in a multicultural democracy with the freedom of religion, can’t be left to a Subjective gatekeeper.  But then, let’s be candid here, a multicultural democracy with the freedom of religion isn’t the goal of some of these factions, now is it?

 

Losing My “Organized” Religion?

One common thread I always see in conversations about “organized religion” online, is damage.
 
INVARIABLY the bulk of the respondents will be people whose early experiences in a church – usually white people, almost always brought up either roman catholic or fundamentalist protestant – speaking from a place of hurt and resentment toward what those experiences framed for them as “religion.” When you hear “religion” talked about that way, in America, it’s almost always in that assumption/understanding of what “religion” is. An understanding founded in and shared by the groups that they’ve rejected. The idea that THEY are what “religion” is, and that they’re representative not only of the what the faith looks like when it’s lived out, but of the institution itself.
 
The thing that always strikes me is, it’s never the core stuff people reject “religion” for. It’s either explicit rejection of hypocrisy in practice, of bad mortal behavior that was done in the name of it, or of ludicrous theologies that ask adherents to abandon reason, crafted by clergy who weren’t smart enough to understand a vision that made sense. We reject Dogma that conflicts with Evidence. We reject Faith-As-Jusitification-For-Injustice. We reject venal power-structure-reinforcing social engineering that excludes, degrades, or denigrates some other human group. We reject proud piety-for-show, ego, and small-minded dismissiveness. We reject a church’s politics, and shame, and guilt-by-association. In short, we refugees from Christianity reject everything that Christ rejected. The things that keep the church from feeling like a home, or anywhere we’d like to be, are things its own scriptures call out as rotten. We reject it, and God with it, sadly enough, because the people who we came to understand as representative of it, either understood the thing so poorly while thinking they were speaking holy truth, or were using it to push and demand things that had nothing to do with God or even with scriptural priorities.
 
MOST of the best Christians I know are athiests. The saddest thing for me is that they don’t most of the time know it. They feel resentment for and rejected by this mortal institution that was formed originally around promoting the behavior they reject the church for failing to live out. Sit with that a minute. atheist and churchgoer alike.
 
We have a problem in the modern church, and that right there is it. I don’t have the hammer and nails to tack this to some megachurch’s door, and I don’t have the clergy standing for those words to even matter. But, here, you people with me, sit with it a second, please.
 
If you were brought up in one of those churches that people who say “religion” with a well-deserved chip on their shoulder think typifies what “religion” is – whether you stayed and doubled down or whether you left to forge a better path on your own – understand that both you and that other camp got a raw deal. You got an exceptionally misguided, shallow view of what Christianity, let alone “religion” as a whole, is all about. A misperception only aided and abetted by the churches with the loudest bully pulpit and the media platforms. The kinds of churches that produce that disconnect, weirdly, are also the ones most invested in forcing their particular thoughts on others, so they’ve sought to dominate the conversation on what Christianity is, and to typify Christianity (their version) so completely as what “normal religion” is and how it works, that most Americans who haven’t grown up in a functioning church have no idea that there is any other kind than the judgmental vapid anti-reason circus that they hear from all the time.
 
I know this essay isn’t fun to read. It isn’t going to make too many friends. Fundamentalists will defend fundamentalism’s status as the bearer of the torch for what Christianity is about. They’re wrong, but they’re going to try to make that case. People driven from the church, by merit of being exactly the kinds of people the church ought to centered on inspiring and producing, are going to reject that premise because all things religious have been tainted by association. They’re wrong, but it’s extremely hard to overcome the sense that we understand everything we need to on a subject, to grasp it completely. The smartest people in the room will be quick to point out that none of that addresses the threat to rational thinking and reason, represented by permissiveness of supernatural thought. I’ll only counter that if you’re really honest with yourselves, you wouldn’t care nearly as much about that, if the Fundamentalists weren’t actively working to get those un-provables enshrined in science textbooks as Alternative Facts, and using reprehensibly anti-inquiry anti-evidence dogmas that have nothing to do with the teachings of their faith, to retain cultural hegemony and extend social control outside their spheres in dangerous ways that threaten everything from medicine to climate change research. It’s not a big deal what people think happened before the BigBang in an external spacetime, if they’re not using those conjectures as a way to kibosh tangible research. It’s never Buddhists or the Sikhs that you think of when you rail against religion, let’s be honest, it’s your Cotton Mathers, Falwells, snakebite demagogues and repressive ayatollahs. It’s not the Christ, it’s just the Christians, to paraphrase. And whether or not anybody wants to hear it, what’s wrong with them is not the things contained within their bibles but the things they brought to that table themselves, and cherrypicked out verses in order to ground those reflexes in something holy. Religion isn’t here to answer things that science can. It gets off-track each time and place it tries to plant a flag on turf about what IS and ISN’T -real- in physical terms. That’s not the question that Religion’s meant to answer, despite loads and loads of people coming to it searching for answers that belong in science’s wheelhouse. Religion isn’t there to tell you how many planets there are and whether or not God has a penis. It’s there to help you frame your grief, and how to rise to circumstances other people might use as excuses to be cruel. It’s there to answer ‘how should I react when people do bad things?’ not ‘why do bad things even happen.’ That last one belongs to math, thermodynamics, social sciences, and policy debate. You have to get into what “real” even entails and what its limits are, before you even qualify to talk about whether or not God is “real” and that’s a whole other conversation about evidentiary standards and admissibility; about the scientific method, the limits of our faculty to test and sense and see, and what those mean about whether or not both ‘camps’ are even having the same basic conversation. Most online threads about it sound to me like great french chefs and architects attacking one another over whether caviar is appropriate as mortar.
 
TL/DR:

“Dinosaurs aren’t real, the whites are the best race, and western laissez-faire capitalism is the only right way to live. The way to handle people who don’t believe what you do is to kick them out of your families and pass as many laws to keep them out of power as you can. Gays aren’t good people, and only good people should have the right to have a decent life. Speaking of life, everybody has a right to be born, that’s way more important than almost anything else. Women are like half-people at best, and really ought to just embrace a servile role within the house like we did in the bronze age when men were men and boys were… I think I lost my place. Also scientists are all self-seeking liars trying to lead you off the path and sell your country to the one world government agenda of the Clintons!!”

~Jesus of Nazareth?
 
No? Exactly.
 
The shame of it all is, we become who we are, and we stake out our positions in relation to the world we’ve personally seen. And while that voice may not be Christ, it’s certainly the one that politically active churches, theologically under-educated generations of provincial church leadership across denominations, and a host of well-meaning but ultimately heartbreaking average people just doing their best and failing badly, have made most available to Joe Q Public. Like the Democrats, in a lot of ways, it’s not the policy objectives most people object to. It’s delivery, and character, and trust. I love my God, deeply and in genuinely on a core personal level, but I have a hell of a time finding people gathered in His name that don’t appall me.
 
So what’s a boy to do?

Damned if you do.

Nobody responds well to feeling judged morally deficient.

If your premise when you’re talking to me is that I’m inadequate and compromised and wrong in ways that you just can’t ignore, it doesn’t matter if you’re right.  I’m not going to hear the rest of what you’re saying.  And before you argue, think about the difference between Jesus and the Church.
If the Church is the Bride of Christ, then he married a nagging judgmental harpy.
We all know that couple.  The one where you’ve got one sweet, friendly, pretty awesome partner, and then this other jerk, and you’re left trying to figure out what the attraction ever was.  You eventually stop hanging out with that couple, because as often as the one half is, you just can’t get past all the crappy things the other partner’s said and done.  It’s a shame, but no matter how much you love spending time around the one, the other’s always hand-in-hand with them and making them look bad.  It’s hard to see the promise of eternal life and values of forgiveness, tolerance and charity, next to a pile of dead orphan kids in Ireland, a coverup, crusades, and daily ground-game bigotry from people championing a cross that stands opposed to all that crap.  Eventually, one partner makes the other one look bad.  It’s hard to feel you’re really welcome when one partner has invited you, come-as-you-are, to hang out at their house, when all the while, you have partner number two staring resentfully and criticizing everything you like.  It’s not the Jesus that keeps young people from church.  It’s all the judgment and the feeling that they’ll never measure up, which is exactly the opposite of what Jesus stood/stands for.  Jesus, the one who made a point of warm social engagement – look at where he spent his time – with everybody that society and orthodoxy said was irremediably wrong, is now the mascot of a movement that, at least in terms of its most visible public engagement, is embroiled in political intrigues all geared to punish every deviance from the norm.  To a generation raised on Jesus’s actual ideals – radical sharing, non-judgementalism, fairness, and the second chance, the posture of the church that holds him up as their great patron sends us running for the hills.  “We’re the goodguys, everybody else out there is bad, and it’s our job to make sure everybody knows how wrong they are, unless they come sign up with us, and then feel bad about themselves for not being perfect all the time,” may have emotional appeal for in-crowd members of the faith, but let me tell you, and I know that I don’t have to, how this looks from the outside; an outside that the church spends time and lots of energy defining ever more broadly.  We’ve seen this.  We know this is a problem for the faith.  It’s why we stopped going to church.  Most of us pray, or care about the actual values shown by Christ.  We have no problem with the message that the savior himself preached.  And that’s the disconnect.  That’s what I’m here to point at today.  We know that this emotional reality is universal and predictive about how we’re going to take things.  We know how human nature dictates that we’re going to respond.
So…
Why is it that when we’re in the position that the Church has found itself – “in possession of a rare and life-altering truth, a truth that we have, and the world needs, without which they’re going to live entirely wrong…” that we don’t learn from how it feels to interact with other folks who feel like that?  That we don’t recognize the way that we respond when WE encounter people who see us as inherently sinful, broken, hell-bound, and lost?
Whether that truth is climate science, economics, banking regulation, green tech, civil rights, or even just that bigotry is bad, the country polls in staggering pluralities of support behind the democrats positions.  So why does so much of the country loathe a “liberal agenda” that policy-for-policy they resoundingly support?  For the same reason that a public who takes no issue with things that Jesus preached, are openly hostile to the Church.  One, they agree with and feel validated by.  The other tells them that they’ll never really be Enough.  That thing you like, it’s problematic in a number of small ways that ought to make you feel despicable for liking it despite them – and that furthermore it’s more than just okay, it’s now encouraged, to look down on anyone who doesn’t join them in that song.  It isn’t that we shouldn’t care or press film studios for whitewashing asian characters.  It isn’t that we shouldn’t care or march and demonstrate, or write long irritating essays *wink* whenever someone racially profiles.  It isn’t even that we’re wrong or that we even disagree with most of who we have our fights with.  The battles at this country’s heart can’t all be solved with kumba-ya… But there are vast areas of policy the whole country agrees on, that have turned into a big partisan fight.  There is no reason that someone in WestVirginia needs to feel like green tech jobs are bat for him.  There is no law that says he needs to make his living underground, when there are energy sector jobs being created in his county building turbines on the hills that he works under.  He resents them because democrats like solar farms and wind, and coal and oil are republican energy.  He resents them because democrats don’t talk as if they care about what changes to our national energy mix will do to him.  Will he be left behind?  Does anybody care?  He votes against most of his interests, for the people that are talking like they know he’s there, and care.  It’s not about policy positions, it’s about affinity, and about feeling like the people you elect respect and understand your life.  That’s why the politician you can see yourself having a beer with always wins in an election vs qualified opponents with a policy credential for the job.  We don’t feel safe around somebody who discusses us as backbirth ignorant rustics, or likely criminals, or stereotypes, or unwitting racists stained by the original sin of being white, or black, semite.
This stuff knows no politics.  That’s not the mechanism that we’re dealing with.  We tend to map politics to tribe.  Are these folks with us or against us.  Southern legislators give no shits about the “master race” when it comes time to draw up districts.  What they care about is, black voters don’t vote republican, and so it’s in the party’s interest to suppress them at the polls.  Hispanic voters, thanks to decades of the party’s pandering to xenophobes and racists in its voting base, despite broad policy agreement with conservatives, vote democrat because republicans discuss them like an unwashed criminal job-stealing assault on all that’s white and english-speaking.  It doesn’t matter how much somebody deep down agrees with you about tax policy or education funding, if they’re also pretty sure you don’t respect their right to be here in the country…  It doesn’t matter if your healthcare plan curbs growth in premium spending and holds drug price inflation to a slower rate than it was on without you.  Not to someone who’s been led to feel that all you really want is more control over their lives.  It’s not about the pills and prices or emergency room visits.  Not for people who don’t trust you.  Would you trust someone to rebuild your healthcare delivery system, if you also felt those people looked at you with nothing but disdain and condescension?  We don’t trust people who we don’t think Respect us.  We don’t listen when we get it in our heads that someone talking thinks we’re not worth listening to.  It’s not about who’s right.  Most people will be wrong if it means sticking it to someone they feel disrespected by.  Social science research bears this one out, time and time again.  We’re tribal beings, wired to take in information differently depending on whether or not we think the source has our best interest at heart.  When someone who we think respects us does something that hurts us, we forgive it, feeling safe that they’ll look out for us the times it really matters.  But if someone – say, a president from an opposing party – makes a move that actually benefits our lives, nine in ten people treat the action with suspicion and dissent, because it seems as if it’s probably a trap or pandering.  It works the same way for facts.  Who’s talking, and whether or not we think that they respect and care about us or not, matters way more than the truth or falsehood of what’s being said.  Climate change denial isn’t rooted in a deeply-researched conviction that humankind isn’t contributing too many annual tons of carbon to the atmosphere.  It’s rooted in the sense that the people talking about climate change would merrily put them out of work and kill the fragile-seeming economy over something that feels awfully abstract next to potential loss-of-job.  “All to save some wooly tree slugs.”  It’s the feeling that endangered squirrels matter more to “these environment types” than whether or not a family gets fed – an untrue feeling, but the truth has never mattered where emotions are concerned – that drives resistance to clean air and water platforms.  This is trust, not policy.  Want proof?  The public overwhelmingly supports universal background checks for firearms purchases.  Nobody thinks it’s a good idea to let JoeTerrorist walk into some gun shop, smile big, and fork over some fifteenhundred dollars for a hefty bag of guns.  Not with a rap sheet eight miles long that says he’ll likely kill again.  But there’s a set of fellow citizens who’s so sure that you’ll use this as a foothold to remove their right to have a gun at all, that it is WORTH THE CHANCE to them that something happens and a heap of kids gets shot.  That’s the state of trust that’s formed by talking about political opponents with dismissal and condescension.
It’s not enough to be right.
It’s knowing what to do with what you know, that plays a disproportionately larger role in how people receive it, than just telling them they’re wrong and need to change.  Even – maybe especially – when they’re wrong and need to change.  Because here’s the thing – We all know better.  We’ve been alienated by a church whose founding values we all largely agree with agree with.  Be good to strangers, make peace with enemies, and generally be chill.  Help people out when they’re in need, and share your bounty.  Make amends when you screw up.  Hoarding bad.  Forgiveness good.  No one takes issue with these, and they’re the core of Jesus’s ministry and heart.  So why do we hate the Church so much, as a generation?  For reasons that have nothing to do with those core values, and because of how little emphasis that church puts on them when it gets the chance.  So why would Democrats, Republicans, or Orcs for that matter, work under alternate rules? Of course they can’t admit racism is real, when someone does or says a clearly racist thing.  That hands the Democrats a weapon that there’s no defense against – one they’re sure will be used to silence and dismiss them on things that have nothing at all to do with race, along with silencing the racists everybody uniformly hates.
Look, here it is –
Nobody likes the KKK, but the KKK is telling them that they were born into the master race who rightfully should own the country.  We’re here telling them that just because they’re white or male or straight, they’re just not capable of landing on a valid feeling.  That may not be what Democrats mean, it may not be what Democrats believe, and we might cringe when someone puts it in those terms, in the course of loud and public ‘venting.’  But the message gets across.  There is a difference – and not a small one – between building our lives, and our communities and institutions, in to shapes that don’t discriminate or marginalize or harm their most vulnerable members, versus using the metric of who/what is or isn’t so ‘woke’ enough yet as to be perfect and beyond reproach, as a way to vet who it’s ok to dismiss.  This is human.  This is natural.  In the case of lots of social justice issues, it’s a combination of responding to lifelong persecution, and not having the luxury represented by the feeling that it’s safe to give an enemy agent quarter.  Hell, that’s how the Church got to where it is, and why it behaves the way it does.  That’s how a lot of churchgoing folk feel, looking out at a world that relishes at every chance to call them dangerous and wrong.  It doesn’t matter what’s true here.  Only what things feel like to the people who are living them.  We know how that manifests in practice, because we’ve all experienced it from somebody online.  Verbal conversion-by-the-sword-of-social-shame.  We know that doesn’t work.  What’s important when you want something, whether it’s national policy, or attitude adjustment is asking, “What would change my mind?” Then doing that.
“Nobody cares what you know, until they know that you care.” ~Dale Carnegie
We’ve been doing this all wrong.

Out of Doors

Strap in. He’s talking again. He’s got his dander up, in that impassioned way that says we’re in for a long one. You’ve been warned.
I’ve never bought the whole “If they can stand there all day and panhandle, they could be working. Don’t feed the animals” rationale. As if having a job is Volitional rather than Situational.
 
“GET A JOB!” I hear idiots bark out car windows at panhandlers all the time. “Yeah, sure, let me just got to the job store where they hand those out!” *forehead slap* “Why didn’t I think of that…”
 
Lives are complicated. Homelessness is MORE complicated. Boiling it down to fit a “HardWork VS Laziness” narrative is just a way of feeling safe and insulated from the grim reality that everyone you know, including you yourself, could end up in that place without much warning, if the right cocktail of things went wrong at once.
 
But sure. Panhandlers make us feel guilty when we see them, wondering if they’re criminals, or drunks or people desperately in need, who we could help. Just seeing them reminds us how precarious life is, and so we write them off as bad people who deserve it, or as people who could walk out of that station if they only valued Work. Then we feel safe again. It can’t happen to us. We’re not like them. Don’t help them. They’re taking advantage, and they get what they deserve.
 
A nearby town just passed a law that made the only line of income homeless people have, to put a roof over their dependents heads when shelters are too crowded, into a criminal offense.
 
It’s awfully expensive to be poor. If your rent is 1,100 a month, the lowest you can find locally for a 1 bedroom unit in a building that’s not likely to burn down, you’re paying $36/night of safe shelter, and access to sanitary facilities with running water. It costs you $36/night to avoid homelessness. The moment you’re evicted, that cost-per-night for what you need to maintain everything from safety to basic hygene skyrockets to a local minimum of $65/night at local pay-by-day motels.
 
And so you buy a tent. The warmer months, you park it by the river and hope nobody spots it and evicts you. Dehydration puts you in the hospital a couple times, costing taxpayers more than your yearly rent used to be. The cost of treating poverty as a moral issue, and emergency care as a logistical one. Your daughter got a spider bite last June that got infected. Tents are fun when you’re a camper, but without access to proper sanitation, cuts and scrapes and bites can take a turn that makes them into serious concerns.
 
In the colder months, you try to find room in the shelters, but the available beds don’t come close to the demand, and so you either end up joining an uneasy alliance by the dump, on the railyard side, with other people so far in the margins of society you don’t know if the fire’s worth the chance that you’ll get hurt. You need to stay out of sight – that’s the important part – with so many municipalities passing laws against vagrancy and loitering and panhandling, and generally being poor while visible.
 
No access to a shower and the choice between a laundromat and food means you quickly start to look unemployable. It’s hard to hide the hazards to your teeth and weatherbeaten skin and hair that come of living outside without daily running water. Public bathrooms sometimes let you in, but none of them have showers. So you get yourself a gym membership, with hope of clinging on to the appearance of a person with a roof. A person who’s allowed to be in public.
 
Maybe you started hearing voices in your twenties, maybe you didn’t. Maybe the war never let go of you completely, and the V.A. couldn’t get you into therapy fast enough for you to keep your marriage and your job. You’re fine most days, but the strangest things can make you act out suddenly. Maybe you have a drug problem that started as a sports injury and a prescription written in the hope of getting you back to running marathons. Maybe it ran you somewhere else. Maybe you escaped human trafficking. Maybe your car died the week he hit you the first time, leaving you with no access to income, and the choice between ending up as one kind of statistic or another. Maybe your mortgage turned into foreclosure notices and then eviction, followed by your wife’s post-partum depression keeping her from returning to work, or maybe an interest-spiral built into that mortgage brought your payments out of step with your ability to pay. Maybe you lost everything, or maybe your position starting out was so precarious that this was just the likeliest outcome of a life the deck was always stacked against. Or maybe you just got sick and couldn’t work for long enough to lose your condo, and now getting back into the Sheltered world means saving up not just enough to buy a roof for you tonight, but somehow put away First Last and Security deposit – somewhere between two and three grand, and find a vehicle that you pray doesn’t die, so you can have an address and a way to get to any job that you apply for.
 
Most likely you get robbed before you save up near enough. Carrying around that kind of money isn’t safe, and banks won’t touch you if you don’t have an address.
 
But maybe just maybe your plan works out. You swallow shame and endure everything you used to think about homeless people yourself, being said, and often likely yelled your way, to find enough decent humans to save up what you need to climb back up. But only by the charity of strangers, because until you get that roof, every other source of income is illegal or unavailable to somebody who’s in your situation. Fill out a job application without an address, no references, and try to even get a job as a dishwasher or a fry cook. You’ll be unpleasantly surprised. Nobody trusts you when you’ve fallen off the world. They figure there must be a reason and of course you’re going to lie about what that reason is. Plus, how will they even notify you if you get the job? You have no phone number. Your public library email access might help, but that neighborhood is nicer and you stick out there. Cops roust you for just walking down the street in nicer places. All of this is just logistics to sort out. So you make plans. Most of them shaped by desperation and conditions that the “Get A Job!” crowd can not even fathom.
 
Then you hope that someone takes a chance on you and that you manage to hold everything together long enough that you can make it til some part of that car breaks. You start the long climb up the ladder back to safe participation in the lowest class of earners, and you only hope you don’t fall down again. The scariest part is, now you know that it can happen to you. It happened to you once. You look around at other people, folks who would’ve judged you in order to retain their sense of safety from that fate, and you map out in your head the ways that their life might end up the way yours did. You worry about them, too. It’s harder, living fully in the knowledge of how close most of us are.
 
Everybody wants to believe that it can’t happen to them.
Everybody wants to believe that people in a worse position deserve to be there.
Everybody wants to believe that if they DID by some accident of fate end up there, they’d be fine because the magical innate virtue of Hard Work is tattooed on their hearts, and having good values will save you… right? It will… I was so sure…
 
Our feelings about homelessness, and most of the hand-waving that we do, talking about it, come down to coping behavior we engage in so that we are sure we’re safe from things no one should have to live with.
 
I say all this, by way of condemnation of Holyoke’s recent decision. Yes. There are people who aren’t acting in good faith. There are people who will ask, but don’t deserve, to have your help. I’m not asking you to hand over your money. That’s on you and your own conscience. What I’m saying is, to criminalize the only viable path that leads from homelessness to safety – cutting people off from seeking out the help of willing strangers, on the grounds that not every one of them is worthy, consigns a whole lot of people to a shitty shitty fate, so that we get to feel just marginally better about punishing abusers of our trust.
 
For my part, the chance that someone MAY not be poor enough is a lousy reason not to offer help, if there’s also a chance they actually need it. Getting scammed of funds I’d otherwise be spending on a coffee or an xbox game is hardly the equivalent in moral weight of walking by a desperately poor person and looking the other way. Some things – things like helping save lives, or even helping sustain lives long enough to save themselves – are worth a little risk. But that’s me. You don’t even need to go that far. All I’m asking you, and everybody else, is not to cut off people’s legal right to ask me for my help.
 
That costs you nothing but the chance of feeling guilty over being too conflicted or mistrustful – or just too broke that day – to help when you see someone with a sign. A little guilt vs someone’s chance to set their lives right… I’m not asking you to vote or write or show up at a meeting.
 
Just don’t make life for the homeless any harder.
 
Will you do that much for me?

Carnival Games

A meditation on the scope and goals of living;

 

The path of Contest is the only true course to winning at Incarnation.

The path of Peace can never win it.

That path though, transcends the universe entirely. It shows winning at this one small facet of Being, for the sad small goal it is.  The path of Contest supplants all other fighters in the pit.  The path of Peace leads out of the pit entirely, away from suffering and fear and into wonder.  They are two spirals, bent in opposite directions from the center of your soul.  A step on one path is a step back in your progress on the other.

In this light, the path of Contest is the native genius who devotes his brilliance to winning at pokemon cards, convinced his mother’s basement is the only world he needs.

Success is valuable only if the goal is large enough to be praiseworthy. Winning at the fraction of existence that is Incarnation, even at the grandest scales of full hegemonic conquest of all worlds and all their peoples, means quite little if the true world lies outside this transient matter.  Be mindful, then, to set more relevant goals.

All that can be won by mastery at Nature’s jungle-law amounts to so little, and you have so short a time to see your way clear of the decoy that is temporal victory.  So win.  Win as much as you need to, in order to sustain the life you use to seek the wisdom that the path of peace avails.  But never let yourself be fooled into perceiving that continuance as any kind of goal unto itself.  Keep your eyes fixed on the smallness of the carnival prizes this world has to offer.  See beyond the games of chance and skill to grasp the bigger picture of the carnival as a lesson, as a teaching space, a microcosm of real life.  You can win every styrofoam-stuffed pink bear toy in the park, and never have the thing that haunts you by its absence.  There is nothing in this universe that your victories can buy for you that will do you any good outside this bubble.  Carnival tickets only pay for carnival rides.  It’s the other people at the fair that matter.  Take care of them.  Enjoy their company.  Learn their stories.  Learn their lessons.  Practice caring when it’s far easier not to.  And help the lonely ones have fun.  You’re at the carnival after all.  Just don’t get too sucked-in that you forget you’re going home at midnight.

Thy Kingdom Come… with caveats

I’m running into a particularly spurious argument coming from my fellow faithful over ACA repeal this week. I’m going to lay it out here now in detail, with apologies to readers who aren’t initiated in the spots where Christ and RightWing principles find it hard to share a hymnal.

     “Yes Jesus says to succor the needy and help the weak but he DOESNT say delegate that to GOVERNMENT. That’s shirking a responsibility we should all be taking up…” is one of those arguments I’ll take a lot more seriously when it’s being made by someone who’s paying out of pocket to buy uninsured strangers health insurance.

If you press someone who’s making it, they’ll often acquiesce and try to make a gospel argument from there, saying that since we OBVIOUSLY can’t really be depended-upon to buy healthcare for strangers who have fallen on hard times, in anything like the kinds of numbers it would take to solve our country’s healthcare problems, that the POINT is that “We fail to meet the metric every day, and so it’s oh-so nice that God forgives us anyway for never measuring up.  He sent us Christ because He knows that we fall short.”
Now, it’s great to have a savior. That’s super-sweet and I don’t want to downplay it for a second. But since the argument that’s being made is “Since we can’t possibly be counted on to take care of the vulnerable -directly- in a meaningful way, we need to just accept the problem can’t be solved and look away (while people die because they can’t afford their insulin – implied.) I don’t accept that. You can argue Faith vs Works as proper means to gain salvation all day long, but if people less fortunate than you are dying, and a simple change of attitude about collective action stands to help them, I can’t help but think “It must be nice to be so safe that this is academic for you.” Abstract rather than tangible and dire.
I’m glad you’re ok. I really am. I’m ok, too, for now. But some of us aren’t. It’s not about liberals, conservatives, lazy people or hard workers. It’s about the sick and the unwell, about the soaring costs inherent in free-market profit-healthcare, and our responsibility to do what’s in our power to see suffering put right. All other tangents are abstractions, meant to make us comfortable with letting humans die.  We’re all in this together, and since we’re married to a profit-driven distribution system, and since human nature lead to cracks that good people fall through, making sure our institutions fill those gaps in individual charity is the only step available to a citizen who’s serious about living life for Christ.

When I die, I don’t want to face the question, “Why did you allow your fellow man to suffer when you had the means to help them, at a cost you could afford?” armed with only, “Well you see, I’ve always been a firm believer in the limited role of government.”

I want to say, “I wasn’t a rich man, and couldn’t solve it all myself, but I made it a priority to stand up in support of plans to make life better for the folks less fortunate than me.”
Letting the problem go unsolved because political philosophy says government is not the ideal tool to solve this problem leaves aside that it’s the only game in town that’s even trying. If you think that you can do it, organize your churches, reach across denominations, and build a faith-based tithing plan that can endure across the years and get Americans healthcare. But until that’s done and working, maybe stop letting the perfect be the enemy of the good.