Thursday, December 01, 2016

war on christmas: a retrospective

On Dec. 1 1993, Congress sent the War on Christmas Act to President Bill Clinton for his signature, allowing him to complete a major cornerstone of his legacy and accomplishing a major piece of the Democratic Party platform left unfinished since the days of President Franklin Roosevelt.

​Immediately upon his signing, it became a federal offense to refer to Christmas outside a place of worship. During the past 23 years, our government has stepped up its assault on religious freedom with other offensive measures, most recently the Red Starbucks Cup Act of 2015, which President and Kenyan immigrant Obama personally lobbied for.

Today it appears that President Obama and the Joint Chiefs of Staff have decided to escalate the War on Christmas with round-the-clock bombing on Bethlehem, Pa. The governors of 18 states also have ordered SWAT teams deployed to houses where stockings are hung by the chimney with care.

h/t to Fox News for its courageous reporting on behalf of the resistance



Copyright © 2016 by David Learn. Used with permission.


Monday, November 21, 2016

Term limits: an idea whose time will never come

The president-elect has set himself an ambitious schedule.

In the first 100 days he's in office, Donald Trump wants to eliminate health insurance for about 16.4 million people now covered by the Affordable Care Act. He wants to build his fabled wall along the border with Mexico, and pull children apart from their parents as he deports an estimated 11 million people. And as part of his efforts to “drain the swamp” of Washington's corruption, he wants a constitutional amendment setting term limits for Senators and members of the House of Representatives.

Unlike his other proposals, this one at least has no chance of seeing action. And although term limits are nowhere near as horrifying as Trump's other domestic proposals, they still would an overwhelmingly negative effect on American democracy, ironically by increasing the very corruption they're meant to address.

Let me explain.


I first ran for the school board 10 years ago, when my daughter was in second grade. I ran for re-election twice, and finally agreed last year to fill the remainder of someone else's unfinished term.

By the time I left the school board this past June 30, I had served a total 10 years, making me the second-longest serving trustee in the school's history. Three months later, my successors still find occasion to tap my advice, knowledge and perspective. I'm not special; it's just that these things don't magically appear after an election. They come with experience, and I have a decade of that under my belt.

For example: About a month ago, there was some uncertainty over how to handle the exact responsibilities of a particular board committee. I had been on the committee for the past four years, so I wrote up a set of guidelines that outlined past practices and my experiences.

The school is about to meet with members of the state's Office of Charter Schools as officials there review our success and decide whether to renew our charter for another five years. The current board chairwoman, mindful both of the gravity of this review and of her relative newness to the board, asked me how I would answer some of the questions she's likely to field.

And of course, the contract with our teachers union is expiring at the end of this year. It seems like I'm the only one who feels unhappy with the job I did leading negotiations last time, and more than a few people have said that it'd be nice to have me back for a fourth go-around.

None of this is particularly complicated. Anyone on the board who sticks around for a term or more is going to remember things like specific contractors who didn't deliver what they promised, or personnel decisions that turned out to be brilliant. It just takes time to learn the lingo, the difference between governing a school and running it, and knowing when to discuss things and when not to.

Sometimes trustees even spot bad decisions before they're made. Like everything else, that's a skill that comes with experience.

Set term limits, and you'll lose the benefit of that accumulated experience. What's worse, those term limits wouldn't eliminate those cozy relationships between lobbyists and elected officials. They would make them even cozier.

At any school board, most policies they set are required by the state or federal Department of Education; and the rest are pretty narrow in scope as well. They're the sort of thing you can determine with a little research, some common sense, and some robust discussion.

To wit: Should allow parents to drive into the parking lot at dismissal, or do they have to park their cars on the street and come get their children? With reports of two fender-benders and other careless driving in the parking lot, that was a no-brainer. Make them park the car on the street and come get the kids.

Do we transition our Spanish-speaking students into English-only classrooms, or do we immerse all our incoming students into an environment where they learn both Spanish and English? Should that program run until third grade, or fifth? Federal law requires we provide instruction in Spanish while students develop English proficiency, and research overwhelmingly shows the benefits of bilingualism. This decision took more discussion, but we still reached consensus.

It's not like the school board sets land-use policy for national parks or deciding technical issues like Net Neutrality. We never had to consider all the environmental, business, trade and humanitarian factors in setting regulations for air and water quality.

And not once were we asked to weight a dozen different economic theories as we defined a role for government regulators that could mean the difference between the occasional recession in a steadily growing economy, or the spastic boom-and-bust economy that led to the Great Depression and, more recently, the Great Recession.

The U.S. Congress does vote on legislation that affects issues like these, and we need legislators who know what they're talking about to make those decisions.

Our elected officials develop an understanding of complex issues like foreign policy, international trade, tourism and even things like property taxes in one of three principal ways. The first is to gain experience firsthand, complete with training seminars. A second is to listen to more experienced colleagues, as my former colleagues on the board are doing and as I myself did.

Term limits would eliminate both of those options by forcing experienced colleagues out, and by preventing newer public officials from ever gaining that experience themselves.

The third way to gain understanding is to meet with smooth-talking, well-connected lobbyists who come to the table armed with facts and figures that support their clients' agenda. These lobbyists are always eager to stop and have a bite and explain things to their good old friend who happens to be an elected official. It is literally in their job description.

I'll put it simply: Term limits are a bad idea. Anyone telling you otherwise either is lying to you, or hasn't thought this through adequately.

Want to end the cozy relationship between lobbyists and your elected officials? Remind the elected officials that they serve you. Call their offices about the issues that matter to you and make them actually listen, rather than letting them issue form responses to your emails. Meet them when they're in town, bring along some friends, and make them notice you.

What if they still don't listen? We already have term limits. They're called Election Day.



Copyright © 2016 by David Learn. Used with permission.


Monday, November 14, 2016

cultural appropriaton

I have a question that I'm hoping someone can answer for me. It's about cultural appropriation.

This is a term I've heard used a lot over the past several months, the latest in a series of terms that essentially means "Don't be a jerk to other people." Now in most cases it's pretty clear what people mean; viz., "Don't reduce another culture or another people to a stereotype, or a two-bit caricature for a cheap laugh or gaudy entertainment." Other times it's a little more vague.

Keep in mind I'm in my mid-40s. When I was a growing up in the mid-1970s, very few people thought anything amiss to dressing up as an American Indian for a Halloween costume, or to games like Cowboys and Indians. Our high school mascot was the Indian "Warriors," even though we were at least 99.8 percent white, and one of the alternatives to the Cub Scouts was a group called Indian Guides.

And yes, in fourth grade our class reader included "Little Black Sambo."

I'm not saying all this not to dismiss the cultural appropriation argument as frivolous. My only point is to show the background I'm coming from. I recognize the legitimate objections people have to things people my age once took for granted.

Here's my question: At what point is something not appropriation but actual borrowing? Throughout human history, we've spread ideas, knowledge, vocabulary, food, clothing, language and other pieces of our cultures around from one society to another.

At the moment I'm wearing a pair of moccasins as slippers; I regularly eat (and even prepare) food from other cultures; and as Islamophobia has grown and spread, I've heard of Christian women wearing hijab to identify with Muslim women as they face harassment. My youngest daughter's school even has offered yoga classes.

None of these is something I would consider inappropriate, yet for each of these things, I've heard people on the Left criticize them as cultural appropriation. That just doesn't make sense to me.

One of the things we've always celebrated about America, at least in our better moments, is that we welcome immigrants from all around the world to bring their cultures and religions, their languages, their food, and their styles of dress and add them to our own. We celebrate our differences, enjoy one another's cultures, and often we adopt the things of value we see in one another, sometimes for a season, sometimes for much longer.

Using an ethnic slur for a football team is something I find objectionable, if for no other reason than it's an ethnic slur. And I get that it's problematic to co-opt a minority identity as high schools around the nation have done with names like the Fighting Sioux and the Indian Braves.

But I'm not following the reasoning for claiming cultural appropriation of yoga, blasting Caucasians who have their hair done in corn rows, nor for that matter criticizing someone who falls in love with and adopts an entirely different culture from what she was born in. (Actually happened.)

I genuinely would like to understand better. Anyone care to explain it to me?

haunted by a ghost of the civil war

I've been haunted a lot by a ghost these past few days – not one of those terrifying Hollywood ghosts, nor a cutesy friendly children's ghost either.

The ghost I've been haunted by is the sort who makes you stop consider how well we are meeting the challenge of our times, compared to how well the ghost faced theirs. When this particular ghost was still alive, there was a war on, and his country needed him. Eleven states in the South, fearful that the president would abolish slavery, had declared themselves free and independent of their brothers in the North. So one morning he got up, kissed his mother and father goodbye, and left the Pennsylvania farm he had known his whole life.

He is an ancestor of mine whom I've only known through a family legend. As his ghost has drifted through the house, I have wondered at how little I know about him. Did he enlist because he had a moral conviction that the Union must be preserved at all costs, or was there another reason? Did he think the war would end soon, or was he expecting to be away for years? Did he ever wonder if it would be worth it in the end?

To tell the truth, until recently I didn't even know his name. All I knew was one horrifying detail of his life.

“I have an ancestor who was a prisoner of war at Andersonville,” I once told one of my best op-ed columnists. Marc Kelley wrote for the Cranford Eagle while I was its managing editor, and also worked as a Realtor in the downtown.

“Did he survive?” Marc asked. “That was an awful place, you know. The commander of that camp was the only Confederate officer to be executed for war crimes after the Civil War ended.”

“He did,” I said, “and it's a good thing for me, too. After the war, he went on to get married and have children.”

That was all I really knew about him. For the longest time, I assumed he was a Learn, since I knew he was an ancestor on my father's side. A few weeks ago an email from my father set me straight. His name was Samuel Bowman, and he was the father of my Grandmother Ruth Learn's father.

With a little searching, I was able to find an online database of records pertaining to the Civil War, including a list of POWs at Andersonville, more formally known as Camp Sumter. I'd checked before but had been unable to find anyone named Learn in the database. Now that I had the right name, I went back to see what I could find. It wasn't encouraging.

According to the database, a Pvt. Sam Bowman died on July 20, 1864, while held at Camp Sumter in Andersonville, Ga. The cause of his death is listed as diarrhea. No other information was listed, aside from his unit — 147th New York Infantry, Company H — which told me nothing. Most likely Pvt. Bowman was buried in one of several mass graves on site.

The snippet of genealogy my father had included in his email mentioned that Samuel Bowman, born in 1842, had enlisted in the Union Army with his older brother James "J.J." Bowman. It also reported that Sam and his wife had one child, a son.

The Andersonville records do not list a James Bowman, who is buried at the Cambria Mills Cemetery in Fallentimber, Pa. I assume that J.J. made it home after the war had ended, and I hope that he lived a long and happy life with his wife, Eliza, and however many children and dogs they had.

But Sam! The story of his family seemed too painful even to consider. If he died in 1864, Sam couldn't have been more than 22 when he died. Was his wife already visibly pregnant when he left, or was she not yet showing? Did they even know?

Maybe their son already was born. Just imagine the tableau: She stands there in the early morning as J.J. and her Sam leave together. As she watches him go, never to return, she cradles their young son in her arms, or maybe feels him tug at her dress from where he stands next to her on the porch.

It's easy to picture her, young face darkened with foreboding; and just as easy to imagine the grief that would have pierced her heart when news came that her husband had died. She would never take another husband. When her son became a man himself, he married and continued the Bowman line. Picture the single mother, raising her son with the help of her late husband's family, reminded daily of the man she had loved as the son he had left her grew daily into his likeness.

But then, history smiled and I was pleased to discover that my original story was more correct. There was more than one Samuel Bowman at Camp Sumter. Pvt. Bowman died, but my ancestor Sam didn't.

When Sam left Camp Sumter and made the long trek home, he stopped along the way and courted Elizabeth “Fanny” Swain, and married her. They had one son, whom they named Edgar and raised together. When the time came, Edgar married May Cartwright. Together they had four children of their own, the second of whom was named Ruth Virginia Bowman. She was my grandmother.

Of the approximately 45,000 Union prisoners held at Camp Sumter during the war, nearly 13,000 died, primarily from scurvy, diarrhea and dysentery. When rescue finally came at war's end, the prisoners' deliverers described them as skeletal, emaciated, and covered with filth and vermin. There are pictures on the Internet. They could just as easily be pictures of Holocaust survivors.

As Marc had told me, the general pardon that President Lincoln extended to the rebel soldiers at the end of the Civil War did not extend to the commander of Camp Sumter. The record shows that Capt. Henry Wirz was tried and hanged for war crimes, the only Confederate official to be so tried and convicted.

(To be fair, some historians dispute that Wirz was responsible for the conditions at Camp Sumter, and instead blame the overcrowding and infectious disease, both due to circumstances beyond his personal control.)

In many ways, Sam Bowman is the perfect ancestor at a time like this. Like Lincoln, Gen. Ulysses Grant strode through his time like a titan. By dint of his position, his character and his drive, he moved the river of history from one bed to another. Claiming him as ancestor would be an exercise in vanity, like trying to make myself better by the association. Sam, on the other hand, was a nondescript nobody from central Pennsylvania.

My great-great-grandfather saw the end of the Civil War and the assassination of Lincoln. He saw the nation quit its half-hearted attempts at Reconstruction, and may have heard about the rise of jim crow justice and how by brute force the resentful South undid much of the hard-won work the Union did in liberating the slaves.

Sam may even have heard stories about the Great Migration as blacks fled a reign of terror in the South that would have put ISIS to shame, and ran North to places like New York and Chicago in the hopes of life, liberty and a future.

I only can imagine how he'd react to hearing that the Republican Party, once the Party of Lincoln, had forsaken that heritage and descended into what it's become now; and how it had elected a man as unstable as Donald Trump and so openly racist that the Ku Klux Klan was celebrating his election as their vindication.

Sam Bowman fought to save the Union. I'd hate to think of what he'd say to see it now, and I wonder how he would fight to save it again.



Copyright © 2016 by David Learn. Used with permission.


Saturday, November 12, 2016

So you voted for Donald Trump

I'm writing this to all my friends and family who voted for Donald Trump to be president.

Let me start by saying that I'm not mad at you. We've known each other for years. We've broken bread together, watched one another's kids, laughed at one another's jokes, and even worshiped together. Through the years we've learned to trust one another, and sought one another out when we needed wisdom and guidance.

Your friendship means the world to me, and this election has not changed that. I'm not mad at you. But I am terribly disappointed.

Why? Because of what Trump is and what he represents. Because of what he's going to do over the next four years to our country and the people who live here, and because of what he's already doing. It wouldn't bother me nearly as much if he had presented himself as an angel of light and tricked you, but he didn't do that. He showed himself for what he is, and you still voted for him.

I could go through a litany of his abuses, but I won't.

I could regale you with example after appalling example of his racism toward Hispanics and blacks, his anti-Semitism, and the ways he has mocked the disabled and vilified Muslims.

I could remind you that he encouraged violence at his rallies, telling his supporters that in the good old days, protesters would have been carried out on a stretcher.

I could remind you that we all heard him boast about sexually predatory behavior, that he has cheated on every one of his wives, and that he once described his own daughter as “a piece of ass” and even said he would date her if she weren't his own child.

I could get into all this with you, but why bother? You already know it. Many of you were appalled by these very things, and yet you were willing to vote for him anyway.

That's the part that I don't understand. Trump made it clear that in his America, ethnic minorities and minority religions are second-class and viewed with suspicion. I know you don't feel that way yourself, but when you voted for him, you said it was OK that he does.

You've taught your kids to treat everyone with equal respect, but you voted to have a president who wants to institute a religious test for immigrants and who shares racist, inaccurate statistics from white nationalists.

You would ground your son for a month of Sundays if you heard him talking with friends about grabbing my daughter “by the pussy.” If he tried to explain it was just a joke or “locker room banter,” you would scream at him so loudly that they would hear you in the next ZIP code. You heard Trump say that, and you voted for him to be president.

Trump insults those who criticize him, loses his temper if they one-up him, and mocks anyone who opposes or disagrees with him. If your daughter were dating someone like that, you'd want her to leave an abusive relationship. Instead, you just agreed the country should marry him for at least the next four years.

What's the message people should take from this? That as horrible as all these things are, you can live with them? That the dignity of your black neighbors, your Hispanic neighbors, your gay neighbors, your female neighbors, your Muslim neighbors, your Jewish neighors, is something you're willing to see take a hit? That their respectability is negotiable?

That's not the message you wanted to send but that's the message that was received.

I know the response: Hillary Clinton is just as bad. We both know that's not true. For years Trump has been as involved in the political system as she is, and when it comes to lies and corruption he has been playing in the majors for years. It's time to stop arguing for moral equivalence. We're too honest for that.

Being paid money to give speeches is is not the same thing as regularly refusing to pay bills to small businesses and threatening to bury them under an avalanche of litigation if they protest. Using a private email server is not the same as dealing in one oversize lie after another and stoking racial hatred.

For that matter, being married to an adulterer and forgiving him is nothing like being the adulterous spouse and leaving your partner for the woman you cheated with, and then repeating that process a few years later.

I've heard some of you cite abortion as the reason why you just couldn't vote for Clinton. That's a complicated issue, and it's one we can and need to discuss some time soon, but let's admit that this has become an idol on the Right.

Abortion is an ancient practice, but it is never once condemned in the Bible. The behaviors Trump practices are condemned roundly and repeatedly. In fact, Scripture makes that condemnation a major theme throughout.

But here we are. There is nothing to gain by arguing the merit of one candidate or another now, and that's not the point anyway. The dilemma is that we are being asked to accept a president-elect whose conduct and attitudes are morally abhorrent and have left people legitimately frightened for their safety and security.

Already the ugliness reported in Britain after the vote to leave the European Union is rearing its head here. Muslim women — easily identified by the hijab they wear — singled out and attacked. Kindergartners telling their peers they'll be deported soon. Blacks being called by the N-word openly.

Donald Trump did not create this ugliness, but through his campaign he brought it out into the open and gave it legitimacy. This is not something you wanted, but it has happened. By electing him, we have affirmed that this behavior is something we can live with.

We should not.

With the Republicans now in control of both chambers of the Congress and the White House, we likely will see a repeal of the Affordable Care Act, which means that millions of the most vulnerable members of our society are going to lose their health insurance. We also may see further cuts to the protections of minorities as the Voting Rights and Civil Rights acts are chipped away.

And that's just the beginning. The Republican Party in the last 16 years has systematically opposed both maintaining our social safety net and opposed setting watchmen over big business. Expect more children to go hungry, more school funding to be slashed, and more abuses by big business as wages drop and the wealth divide grows.

From where I'm sitting, it looks like our country is entering a dark time. I'm appalled that many of my fellow Christians – a reported 80 percent of white evangelicals, who claim to have a close and personal relationship with Jesus – decided that they could live with all that Trump has said and done about women and minorities if it means they might have a say in appointing Supreme Court justices.

As a Christian myself I have to note that the people likely to suffer under a Trump presidency are the people whom Jesus stands with and among.

On Jan. 20, Donald Trump will be our president. I understand that, and accept that there is nothing I can do about it. I cast my vote, and though a majority of Americans agreed with me, Trump has won the election by the book.

But let us remember that dissent is the highest form of patriotism. There are times patriotism means standing firm and saying "This is wrong."

Yes, let us come together. There is work to be done. There are people who will need advocates and there are things coming that we must oppose. I'd like to start by inviting you, my friends who voted for Trump, to get on board. Come together and stand with us, for the good of the nation.



Copyright © 2016 by David Learn. Used with permission.


Wednesday, November 09, 2016

keeping the faith in a trump presidency

Let's talk for a moment about our president-elect.

During the past year, Trump has maligned Hispanics, villified Muslims, mocked the disabled, spread racist lies about blacks and Jews, advocated violence against his critics, and bragged about sexually assaulting women.

He has attacked the legitimacy of major institutions in this country: the news media, the Congress, both parties, our political process, our intelligence agencies and our military. He has indicated he would like to weaken the protections of the First Amendment itself, to make it easier to sue people who criticize him or who he feels treat him "unfairly." He has shown support for ending marriage equality, and for chipping away at the recently enacted protections for transgender youth at schools.

His business record is an open drain, one where he once lost nearly $1 billion in a single year and and where he has filed for personal bankruptcy not once but multiple times. He regularly has cheated small businesses by reneging on contracts and burying them in litigation to prevent them from collecting what he owes them. He also is subject to ongoing litigation over his business practices, particularly Trump University. This is someone whom we have elected to preside over our economy.

He has run a campaign not on substance and ideas but on innuendo, personal attacks, and one outsize lie after another. We have entrusted him with our international standing, our military and economic alliances, and with partnerships that go back decades if not centuries.

He has advocated violence at his rallies, directed it toward protesters and minorities; and when his supporters have engaged in violence he has praised them for their enthusiasm. As president, Trump will be the chief law enforcement officer of the nation.

Trump's supporters have commended him for "honesty" and not bowing to "political correctness"; but he has not pushed aside the bounds of political correctness to allow a free exchange of ideas, but to mock, humiliate and belittle others. He has not emboldened us toward greater discussion or honesty. He has instead encouraged us to indulge our worst impulses. We have given him the largest bully pulpit in the world.

And now that he's been elected to the presidency, I'm hearing from people that we on the Left are acting hysterically. Conservative Christians are telling us that we need to have faith, that God is on the throne.

Let me be clear: This is not hysteria. This is a reasoned, calm and rational assessment of the existential threat a Trump presidency poses to the Republic.

My 6-year-old is worried that her friends are going to have to leave the country because their parents are here without proper documentation. I comforted my 14-year-old today because she is worried about the increased bullying she fears her LGBTQ friends will face now, and because of the heightened threats to her friends and classmates of color.

Yes, God is on the throne, and by faith we attest that all these things work toward his greater glory. But God was on the throne on Aug. 20, 1934, and we all know what cold comfort his sovereignty proved to be to those who lived under the F├╝hrer. God also was seated on the throne on Oct. 29, 1929, when Herbert Hoover presided over the greatest economic crash in world history; and he was on the throne when George W. Bush presidend over the second greatest. God's sovereignty does not lessen the burden of enduring the things that happen in this world.

This isn't about faith or lack of faith in God's sovereignty. It's a recognition that we're about to see a lot of progress ripped up as millions of our most vulnerable citizens likely will lose their health insurance, as a right-heavy Congress votes to repeal the Affordable Care Act; as it further rips up the Civil Rights and Voting Rights acts; as our gay and trans neighbors, friends and relatives face losing the legal protections and recognition they had begun to win; and as an unpredictable demagogue very possibly will get to make multiple lifetime appointments to the Supreme Court.

This is not panic, and it is not hysteria. This is recognizing what our country likely will have to endure, and it is the start of understanding the monumental task God has called us to in pursuing his justice here on earth under an unjust government.


Copyright © 2016 by David Learn. Used with permission.

Tuesday, November 01, 2016

jack chick considered

Jack Chick, the creator of more than 250 of the world's most infamous evangelistic tracts, reportedly died in his sleep last Sunday night. He was 92.

Even if you've never heard of Jack Chick, you're probably familiar with his work. Over the past 50 years, his company has printed an estimated 800 million of his comics, little pamphlets about the size of a Tijuana bible. They're frequently found in bus stations, Laundromats and other public areas where people are bored and will kill a minute or two reading a religious tract if there's nothing else to do.

The tracts are not known for their sensitivity, nor for their accuracy. On both fronts they make InfoWars seem as down-to-earth as a Ken Burns documentary.

Once you have read a few of his comics, you will begin to understand that Chick saw the world in very stark terms. In his view, the road to hell is not only broad, it also has frequent on-ramps in places like rock music, Harry Potter, Dungeons and Dragons, public school, trick-or-treating, and even the Bible if it's not the approved 1611 King James Version.

Judging by his tracts, the only people Jack Chick considered to be decent were fundamentalist Christians like himself. They dress nicely, act and speak respectfully, and unflaggingly labor to tell people important truths that they don't want to hear, in order to keep those people out of hell. They overcome earthly obstacles no matter how sorely they're put upon, and they persevere and tell you that you need to ask Jesus to forgive your sins.

Non-Christians, on the other hand, are foul-mouthed, vulgar and often treacherous. Their faces are misshapen and angular, their teeth are crooked, and their mouths are twisted perpetually into grotesque sneers. They are nervous or angry and brittle, and explode whenever they hear someone mention Jesus. It's impossible to be ambivalent about Christianity, according to Chick. You either embrace it or you hate it with a passion.

Other things to know as you navigate this strange world: The truth is out there. It's just suppressed by a vast conspiracy aided and abetted by scientists, educators, the courts, liberals and the newspapers. The wicked always bray "Haw haw" like an infernal donkey when they laugh; and the most evil organization of all isn't the NFL. It's the Catholic Church, which over the years has created communism, your local Masonic lodge, the Ku Klux Klan and even Islam.

For all that they have offended and inspired mockery, Chick tracts also have gathered a perverse fandom. One of them even inspired a full-length movie adaptation. As a whole they reached the point years ago that they have become iconic pieces of religious Americana. His comics are so obnoxious, so over-the-top offensive, that they're like a joke he didn't know how to stop.

Except to Chick, it wasn't a joke. He was completely serious. He honestly believed that "true Christianity" was under siege by Catholicism, by secularism, by science and by falsified Scriptures. He saw himself and others who thought like him as the only guardians of an endangered truth.

Chick had some interesting beliefs, to put it mildly, the sort that forces you to take sides. The Southern Poverty Law Center includes Chick Publications on its list of hate groups. The Christian Booksellers Association in 1981 considered expelling him from its ranks. (He withdrew his membership first.)

To Chick and his supporters, the angry reactions and denunciations his work received only justified their sense that he was right and was being hated wrongly by the people he was trying to rescue; while his inability or refusal to see how hurtful his tracts were only justified the beliefs of his critics that Chick was small-minded and hateful.

The divide left two groups of people, each convinced of the moral, spiritual and intellectual inferiority of the other. Given the potency of religious beliefs, difference of belief over his tracts and whether they had a place in church was enough to sunder relationships within some churches. In many parallels it is like the partisan divide in American politics today.

In March 2004, Catholic Answers published an article by Jimmy Akin, a Catholic apologist and evangelist who met Chick at the world premier of "The Light of the World." Akin, a self-professed fan of Chick's work because of the bizarre fascination it elicits, recalls spotting Chick and wanting to debate him on his theology or even to goad him into disowning the conspiracy theories in his tracts.

But then he had an interesting thought: "I decided that, if it was Chick, the most charitable thing I could do was simply be nice to him and chat," he wrote.

What follows in Akin's article is one of the most thoroughly human and down-to-earth conversations imaginable. For perhaps a half-hour or more, the two men talked about writing, about illustration and art styles, about tracts and even about some of Chick's more outrageous conspiracy theories.

The article doesn't leave reader with the impression that the two men became friends, or that Chick suddenly disavowed a lifetime of conspiracy thinking and anti-Catholic sentiment. But it does suggest that the two men left one another a little more aware of their common humanity and perhaps even a little more inclined to view one another sympathetically. That divide, which to some might see impossible to cross, had been bridged, however tenuously, through the simple act of talking and listening to one another.

"Chick came across as a kind, gentle old man,"Akin wrote. He was nothing but polite. He smiled. He laughed. Unlike the characters in his comic books, he didn't say "Haw! Haw!" when he laughed. From meeting him one would never suspect him to be the most infamous broadcaster of hate and paranoia in the Christian comic book world."

Make no mistake: The overriding arc of Jack Chick's faith was one of fear. He was afraid of Catholics. He was afraid of music. He was afraid of gays and lesbians. He was afraid of Bible translations other than the KJV. He was afraid of other religions. He was afraid of progress. He was afraid of Halloween, of evolution, and probably of Christmas too.

Behind all these things he saw the dark hand of a satanic conspiracy that had overtaken the entire world except for him and a few others, and that constantly threatened even them. At the age of 90, he apparently believed that the Catholic church was monitoring him and even had plans for his assassination.

A faith that leads us to the summit of fear and then stops there, is not a faith that is reaching its potential; and I admit, I like to think that Chick is going to feel a little abashed to discover that God's grace is wider and different from what he imagined. But a faith that lets us feel better than somebody else, isn't much of a faith either. It's not enough to save anyone.

I rather recall the question a teacher of the law once posed to Jesus about what was necessary to be saved. After Jesus finished, he told his interrogator the Parable of the Good Samaritan, where a wounded man was saved by somebody he hated more than anyone else in the world.

The message of that parable is one that his ancient audience needed to hear; it's one that Jack Chick needed to hear; and it's one that we would benefit from today, in these times of division between supports of Hillary Clinton and supporters of Donald Trump.

The person you hate the most also happens to be the person you need.


Copyright © 2016 by David Learn. Used with permission.


Wednesday, October 19, 2016

closing the distance

Let it be known that I have far more in common with my gay friends than not.

Like them, I enjoy the pleasures of a good night's sleep, keeping warm during the winter, a nice meal, the presence of loved ones, and the new "Luke Cage" series on Netflix. And let's not forget that I'm also a snazzy dresser. There is much that we share in common; that's why we're friends.

One thing I do not share with them, and never will: I'm not gay. I'm not attracted to other men, and never have been. When I've fallen in love, whether in my teens or in my twenties, my overriding concern has been a fear of rejection, not a fear of discovery. I've never needed to fear for my safety if strangers see me with my partner. No one has ever told me that I'm going to hell for wanting to be with the one I love.

And while adolescence was rough, people generally assumed that I was straight and eventually would find a nice girlfriend, and I did. I never experienced the disorientation that comes from realizing that such fundamental expectations are all wrong. I'm not gay, so all those things are outside my experience.

Thank God for literature. It has the power to close the distance.

A bad book can treat me to an adventure in feudal Japan where all the people talk, behave and interact like 21st-century Americans, right down to their moral sensibilities. An adequate book will at least try to explain feudal Japan and its customs, while a good book will present me with fully realized characters and a setting so that I gain a better understanding of life in feudal Japan.

A truly amazing book is one that not only will help me to understand feudal Japan and the people who lived there, it will give me a personal connection to the era. By the time I'm done reading, I'll have a hunger to know more, and I'll know whether I would be a samurai, a peasant, a ronin or a monk burning incense to the Buddha. Literature can make all these things real and accessible to me.

I can't overstate how important this is. If a book, a movie, a musical, a poem or a song deepens your appreciation of the humanity you share with someone else and it fires a new connection where none had existed, then the creator of that work has accomplished the work of God.

That was my experience with “Fun Home,” a coming-of-age autobiography by artist Alison Bechdel. Originally written in 2006, “Fun Home” depicts Bechdel's childhood growing up in the living quarters of a funeral home, her teen years, and her early adulthood at college and afterward. The book is an odyssey of discovery. Through her experiences, Bechdel comes to understand not only own identity but also that of her father, a distant and inscrutable figure throughout her childhood.

A little over a year-and-a-half ago, my daughter left a copy of “Fun Home” on the kitchen table. It's like she was trying to tell me something. Dad, look! A comic book without a single costumed hero or ridiculous supervillain in sight. You should check this out.

Not only did it avoid superheroes and their melodrama, "Fun Home" was a comic book with a complex plot and complicated characters. In only nine pages, I fell in love with the writing and kept reading until I had finished. As I recall, I didn't leave the bathroom for about two hours.

Not surprisingly, “Fun Home” was adapted for the stage. The show, which won both Tony and Obie awards, opened off-Broadway in 2013 with a script that weaves its way back and forth among the different periods of Bechdel's life, with a few surprises along the way.

Toward the end of the play, when Adult Alison is starting to truly understand her late father, she hears him ask her younger self to join him on a car ride and spend some time together. And then to her wonder, she realizes that Small Alison is no longer on stage; her late father is talking to her. I'm told that the ensuing song, “Telephone Wire,” is considered one of the most moving of the show.

That may be. I haven't listened to the entire cast album, and so I don't know the music particularly well. Still, the one song I do know well is one that affects me powerfully. It's “Ring of Keys.”

In this song the Bechdel character, Small Alison, is in a cafeteria with her father when she sees a masculine-looking woman enter. This stranger is wearing jeans and lace-up boots, instead of properly feminine clothes; and moves with confidence. Small Alison is enraptured with what she sees, and wonders why no one else in the cafeteria responds as she does to this unconventional woman.

“Ring of Keys” isn't a love song. It's a song of recognition. In seeing her, Small Alison for the first time sees something in herself that she had never been able to notice before, because it never occurred to her that it could be there. For the first time in her life, it hits her that she is not the prototypical girl of tea parties and fancy dresses. She's different. She's like this woman.

For all that I have in common with my gay friends, associates and colleagues, I'm not gay. A physical or romantic attraction to another man is something I've never known, which means that there are sizeable pieces of the gay experience that I'll never share.

I make what bridges I can. At times I've had a front-row seat to the misery they've endured when they've come out of the closet and been rejected, and I've invited them to come to my home and join my family. I've witnessed their hurt when lawmakers and Christians have proclaimed a moral right and obligation to deny them a place at the marriage table, and I've screamed like hell to fight for them.

But I've never understood how liberating it must be to have that moment of self-discovery when they discover the missing piece and unlock the secret of how they are different. That essential piece of the gay experience in America has always been foreign to me. It never even occurred to me.

“Ring of Keys” changes that. The song helps me to get it. I listen, and I'm able to perceive and to understand that aha! moment, and through that discovery, I enjoy our common humanity anew, through an experience I can't relate to. It's a wonderfully moving and deeply humbling encounter.

Just think how much of our conflict and division we could resolve, if only we made the effort to listen to one another, especially when we can't relate.



Copyright © 2016 by David Learn. Used with permission.