Friday, July 29, 2016

on abortion

Well, that didn't take long.

Hillary Clinton hadn't even finished accepting the Democratic nomination for the presidency when I started seeing comments like "Hillary Clinton and the Democratic Party kill babies." It put me in mind of a time a few years ago when conservative blogger Matt Walsh wrote a post that began, "Killing babies is wrong. If we can't agree on that, there's no way we'll ever agree on anything." At the time, I had started to write a response, "Women are more than just vehicles for giving birth," or something similar; but I gave up.

For one thing, Walsh's contempt for liberalism and vewpoints other than his own is palpable, and his disregard for women whose situations he will never experience were just too much to deal with. I had other things to worry about. And for another thing, I realized Walsh would never listen to anything I had to say, let alone think about it. His absolute certainty of his own convictions is his greatest strength and his greatest tragedy as a human.

I'll never get through to the Matt Walshes of the blogosphere, but most people I know are at least willing to consider another viewpoint, even if they know going in that they'll disagree at the end. If you're one of those people, and you're inclined to think of abortion as either murder or as killing babies, this post is for you. Please keep in mind that it's coming from someone who considered himself to be pro-life for years.

Yes, I changed my position on abortion, for reasons that I will express here and in later posts.

I'll start by saying that the rather hardline position I've encountered from many people opposd to abortion rights is actually a relatively new and unconservative thing. It was only in the 19th century that Karl Ernst von Baer first observed an ovum through a microscope, and not until 1876 that Oscar Hertwig observed fertilizaton occuring in sea urchins.

Until that point, the notion that life began at conception was an alien concept to human morality. No one knew a woman was pregnant until she had announced it to the community, and she didn't know it herself until had felt the quickening of the fetus in her belly. Women could miss periods for any number of reasons: poor nutrition and health among them.

As a result, for thousands of years in nearly every culture, it was completely acceptable for women to induce miscarriages. The song "Scarborough Fair" existed in part to tell jilted young women how to prepare a douche that would induce one. (You didn't think it was a love song, did you?)

Still, we live in the 21st century, and our knowledge can't help but shape our morality. We know now that biological life begins around the time of conception. Within a few hours of fertilization, the initial zygote begins to divide, it begins to consume and to expend energy, and it begins to grow. There's no denying that the blastula, as it is now known, is biologically alive; but counting this as the start of a person's life is still driven more by convenience than by medical science.

I'm not trying to have it both ways here; let me illustrate.

Let's imagine that a woman -- we'll call her Christie -- is ovulating, and she has sex with her boyfriend or her husband. (We'll assume it's her husband.) Sometime after they have sex, his sperm reach her ovum, and succesfully fertilize it. It's a biological miracle. Christie is pregnant and going to have a baby!

Well, no. Probably not. Of every 100 ova that are successfully fertilized, only about 68 actually implant in the uterus. That means for every 100 women in Christie's situation, 32 of those supposed children don't make it. Some of them disintegrate in their mother's fallopian tubes on their way to the uterus; and others just fail to implant, and are never heard from again. This is a completely natural part of the process.

Four weeks later, only 42 percent of those 100 fertilized ova are still alive, at the stage they are considered embryos. In another four weeks, only 35 have reached the point that they are considered fetuses. The other seven all spontaeously miscarried, and it's entirely possible the woman didn't even notice. By the time all is said and done, only three in 10 actually make it through the entire course of pregnancy and are born. The odds are thoroughly stacked against Christie having that baby we thought we saw.

If we truly believe that life begins at conception, and human life is sacrosanct, then we should be expending a lot more effort trying to save the seven in 10 that don't make it that far. But we don't. Why not? Is it that we don't believe that life is sacrosanct, or that we're indifferent to the deaths of 70 percent of embryos? Or maybe the start of life is just as hard to pinpoint as definitively as the end of it is.

Death, like life, seems like it should be easy to point to and define as well. One minute you're alive, then you're not. You're living, or you're dead. Cut and dry.

Unfortunately, the point of death is something else that people have argued about for thousands of years. In many premodern societies, people would delay burying a body because they believed the soul could return within a window of a few days and the presumed deceased would be revealed only to have swooned. In 19th-century England, there were enough alarming stories of people who had been buried alive while presumed dead, that the graves of the wealthy often were equipped with apparatus so that the wrongly interred could alert gravetenders to their plight and be rescued.

For centuries, someone who had drowned was considered dead, full stop. That changed with the discovery of artificial respiration. Now swimmers caught in the undertow can be rescued and brought back in a dramatic moment where once they would have been written off. Cardiac arrest is another ending once considered definitive, but thanks to CPR, people have been brought back from the point of death in those situations as well. Modern medicine even has removed and replaced people's hearts.

Nowadays, we consider death to be final once a person's higher brain waves cease. Now if that's the point at which we consider life to end, it makes sense that it's also the point at which we consider life to begin. Those higher brain functions and the connections that make them possible occur after the sixth month of pregnany, or around the start of the third trimester.

So let's suppose we have a mutual friend who is clinically brain dead. Doctors can keep him alive indefinitely. His heart will continue to beat. His lungs will continue to breathe. There may even be involuntary muscle movements on his face that we will interpret as signs of consciousness. But the EEG tells a painful truth: There is no one there. He will never wake up, he will never recover. Ethicistis agree, it is time to remove him from life support and let his body expire so that his family and friends can move on with their lives.

Now on the flip side of that we have a fetus three months into pregnancy. This fetus has no higher brain functions yet, and while it may have a stimulus-response reaction to an abortion, science has shown repeatedly that the fetus is incapable of experiencing pain until around the start of the third trimester.

So how would abortion be a moral evil at this point? The fetus is alive in the same strict biological sense that our hypothetical friend is, but the fetus can feel pain no more than he could, can process what is happening no more than he could, and is just as incapable of surviving independently as he would be.

Now you may argue that the fetus has human potential, and I would agree with you. That's why I'd say abortion is not a Good Thing, and why I think that most who favor abortion rights would agree.

But there can be compelling reasons for women to have an abortion, something the Supreme Court recognized in its landmark 1973 Roe v. Wade decision, and I will not sit on the seat of judgment and presume to know their situation better than they; nor will I sit and compel desparate women to risk their lives to have an unsafe and illegal abortion when a safe and legal one could be available.

No one wants to see abortions administered. It's more a matter of "Should a woman have the right to make that decision if she wants to?" and "At what point does that right lapse?"

Monday, July 25, 2016


I've long maintained that I never would have read Dostoevsky for the fun of it if I hadn't discovered comic books as a child, in particular one comic that was based on a toy line.

​Published from 1979 to 1986 by Marvel Comics, "Micronauts" was the creation of comic book writer Bill Mantlo, and was based on a line of toys that children could take apart and put back together in new configurations. Mantlo was known primarily for writing quickly, not well; but he did produce some stuff that was magical, at least to a young reader. Every now and then I still feel the magic when I remember those stories.

The first 12 issues of the original Micronauts series was part of that magic. The first issue joined the story more than halfway through, as Commander Arcturus Rann returned to his homeworld after the thousand years he had been exploring the Microverse equivalent of deep space.

That initial story had some pretty horrific stuff, like the body banks, where Baron Karza would take his enemies and critics and genetically or surgically alter them into monsters. It had mystery, represented in the persons of the Time Travelers and the enigmatic shadow priests and their unstated purposes. And it had adventure, as the core group of Micronauts banded together in a multispecies proto-Guardians of the Galaxy mix that included a princess, a king, a space explorer and a master thief. And because it was a Marvel property, they found themselves on earth and interacting from time to time with superheroes who literally towered over them. (When they arrived on Earth, the Micronauts were about 4 inches tall, the same size as the toys they were based on.)

After that initial 12-issue story had run its course, either Mantlo's collaborators changed or he simply had no idea what to do. The stories from there on weren't nearly as inspired, and essentially involved setting up for the return of the evil Baron Karza (now allied with Hydra), defeating Baron Karza; and then setting up for the return of Baron Karza one more time so there could be a final showdown between him and the Micronauts.

Somewhere in there, Mantlo managed one of hia big cliches of killing the entire supporting cast in a battle meant to show how ruthless the bad guys were. He did the same thing in "Rom: Spaceknight," and it wouldn't surprise me if he did it in "Spectactular Spider-man" while he was writing that.

There was a second "Micronauts" series launched immediately after the first series was canceled, written by Peter Gillis, as Marvel experimented with the emerging market of direct sales and comic shops. It was deeper philosophically, breaking new ground, and eschewing interaction with the rest of the Marvel Universe.

Unfortunately, from what I understand, the licensing agreement between Marvel and the Mego Corp., which had created the Micronauts line of toys, expired, and Marvel canceled the series. I read once that a third attempt series was commissioned, and the first issue even had gone to press, but licensing fell through and they had to pulp it.

Marvel has done a few other comics featuring the characters that Marvel created for the series and owns the rights to, including a "Bug" standalone that I have never read, and appearances by a few others in different comics. I remember noticing once that Jackson Guice gave the Micronauts characters uncredited background cameos in an issue of "New Mutants" that featured the Starjammers, but I can't even remember for certain which characters were there.

All I can recall for certain is that the actual story involved Ilyana Rasputin, who had accidentally teleported herself to another galaxy and was about to be auctioned off as a slave. Professor X happened to notice her as he, Corsair and the other Starjammers just happened to be there.

Was "Micronauts" great comic book literature? It's not as essential as "Persepolis," nor as imaginative as "Kingdom Come," but speaking as someone who discovered the series in the 1980s, I stand by my original assessment: It had magic.

Thanks. Bill.

Copyright © 2016 by David Learn. Used with permission.

Wednesday, July 20, 2016

life in the desert

The Taklamakan Desert may be the most hostile place on the planet to live.

By day the sun hangs overhead like a hot coal that burns the eyes and the skin, and scorches the earth below the traveler's feet. There is no water to be found, and sand dunes stretch in every direction. At the end of the desert lies another desert. The Taklamakan's name may come from the Turkish phrase “The place of ruins.” When he set a story there in 1992, Neil Gaiman offered a more picturesque name: If-You-Go-In-You-Won't-Come-Out-Again.

The worst part of the Taklamakan is its winds. During the summer temperatures pass 100 degrees, and during the winter, they can drop below zero. During the spring, as the ground begins to warm, the air begins to move and gale winds arise with the force of a hurricane. Sand and dust blow and fill the air, creating a fog of dirt that reaches heights of 13,000 feet.

In these conditions, the sky can get so dark that visibility is imaginary. Your only hope of survival is to stay together, and your only hope of staying together is to affix bells to the camels and to one another so that you can hear how close you are to one another. The sand dunes constantly rearrange themselves, so your only hope of staying on your path is to set up a sign each night before you go to sleep so you can be sure to continue in the same direction when you waken in the morning.

Try to imagine living in those conditions. Try to imagine crossing a desert like that. The Taklamakan is a no man's land. It is a nowhere that lies between two places, an empty space that no one claims for their own. If you go in, you won't come out again.

Deserts come in all degrees and varieties. Far to the north are deserts where rain never falls and plants struggle to grow, but the ground is cold and frozen year-round. There are deserts where rains come often enough for cacti to grow and to bloom, and even for trees and animals to grow that have adapted to the climate.

Other deserts used to be green and fair, until men came and felled the trees and overgrazed their flocks until there was nothing left but wasteland. These deserts may be among the worst. Their desolation bears silent witness to the violence we have done to the land and to ourselves because we refuse to see what we are doing.

And then there are the deserts we make of our own societies, spiritual wastelands where we strip away justice and allow those with power to wield it with only a pretense of accountability. Executives loot the pensions of their workers and never face jail time or admit their wrongdoing. Government officials cut support for the needy and refuse to require a living wage. Power exists to serve the powerful and not the powerless.

In this desert, the victims of police violence are legion. Philando Castile. Alton Sterling. Walter Scott. Tamir Rice. John Crawford. Eric Garner. Michael Brown. The list of names is too long. It goes back too far to remember, and it joins the names of others martyred to white fears of a black country. James Byrd. Emmett Till. Greenwood, Okla.

Justice denied fuels anger, and as violence begets violence the body count begins to rise, and the voice of God rises in reprimand. “What have you done?” he asks, as he has since the first story was told. “The voice of your brother’s blood is crying to me from the ground.”

In the desert we rally to support a man who ridicules the disabled while he belittles and savages women. We rush to elect a man who lies outrageously, encourages violence, and incites hatred of Muslims and Jews, Mexicans and blacks.

In this desert, our nation's most avowedly religious Christians support this man, while we make a tremendous point of displaying our piety around the flagpole and at the National Mall, and everywhere we go. We shout our faith to the heavens, but heaven is a place that demands justice first and foremost.

From the book of Amos:

“I hate, I despise your feasts,
    and I take no delight in your solemn assemblies.
Even though you offer me your burnt offerings and cereal offerings,
    I will not accept them,
and the peace offerings of your fatted beasts
    I will not look upon.
Take away from me the noise of your songs;
    to the melody of your harps I will not listen.
But let justice roll down like waters,
    and righteousness like an ever-flowing stream.
Justice. That word sounds threatening, but it doesn't need to. What is it that makes the Taklamakan so dangerous? It's not the wind, or the sand, or the soft geography. It's not even the sun. It's the lack of water.

The Taklamakan lives in the shadow of the Himalayas, mountains so tall that they block rain clouds from ever reaching the Taklamakan or the rest of the Gobi Desert region. About an inch-and-a-half of precipitation gathers in the West, and less than half an inch in the East. Even cacti find the Taklamakan too extreme. Most of the area is barren.

Most, but not all. Even that inhospitable desert comes to life where the water rolls down. Around the edges of the desert region are river valleys and deltas, and places where the groundwater comes close enough to the surface to ease the oppression of the desert sun. Herds of gazelles run free through these open spaces, and wild boars live among the river valleys, where even wolves and foxes hunt.

Justice is not a force of destruction. It is an agent of renewal. Where the river flows through the desert, trees put down roots. They grow fruit when it's the season, and even in the summer heat their leaves do not wither. The trees that line the river provide shade for the weary, the grass along the river is easy on the feet, and there is food to eat.

In the desert, an oasis like this is a place to rest, to recover, to heal and to stay a while, perhaps even to put down roots of our own. The justice of God is a shelter in our society, a place where black lives matter as much as white lives, where everyone is welcome to be themselves, and where no one is viewed with suspicion because of race or color.

Here in our desert, Sunday morning remains the most segregated hour of the week. Perhaps we don't know the burdens people of color face in our society because too often we still haven't taken the time to let them share, nor believed them when they've told us.

Hate evil, and love good; establish justice in the gate.

Let justice roll down like waters, and righteousness like an ever-flowing stream.

Let it begin with me.

Copyright 2016 by David Learn. Used with permission.

Tuesday, July 19, 2016

breaking it down for steven king

Steven King has an interesting question.

King, R-Iowa, was part of an MSNBC panel discussion on Monday afternoon, hosted by Chris Hayes, along with Charles Pierce, a writer for Esquire; and reporter April Ryan. Discussion turned to the predominantly white makeup of the Republican Party, and King objected. The problem? He's tired of this whole “old white people business.”

“I’d ask you to go back through history and figure out, where are these contributions that have been made by these other categories of people that you are talking about?” King asked. “Where did any other subgroup of people contribute more to civilization?”

“Than white people?” Hayes asked.

“Than Western civilization itself that’s rooted in Western Europe, Eastern Europe and the United States of America, and every place where the footprint of Christianity settled the world,” King said. “That’s all of Western civilization.”

Hayes cut off the discussion immediately, undoubtedly hoping to stop an ugly discussion before it grew even uglier. (He since has conceded that he might have made the wrong decision.) But let's give King some credit. He has tried to initiate an important discussion on race in our country. What noteworthy contributions have non-whites made to the United States, to the West and to human civilization in general? It's only fair to ask.

For starters – and this is an easy one – black labor powered the engine of the North American economy for about two centuries. Black slavery began in 1619 when colonials brought African slaves to Virginia to work the plantation fields, but it was really in the 1660s that slavery grew and hardened into a hereditary institution in which blacks would work, and whites would reap the benefits of that labor.

For the next two centuries, blacks would receive only the barest compensation for labor that consumed their every waking hour for six days a week, while their stolen wages fattened the wealth of the white families that owned the labor camps where they toiled. (In our genteel way, we call these “plantations.”) It's safe to say that without stolen labor artificially suppressing the price of cotton, the American economy never would have been as powerful as it was by the time of the Civil War.

But I'm sure that King is tired of hearing about slavery, so let's not dwell on that. We'll also overlook the cultural contributions of black performers such as Sidney Poitier, Paul Robeson, Diana Ross and Louis Armstrong; the very existence of jazz music and spirituals that have been mainstays in church or around campfires for generations, such as “Swing Low, Sweet Chariot” and “Michael, Row the Boat Ashore”; and cultural icons like Bugs Bunny, largely derived from Gullah stories of Brer Rabbit.

We also should discount the contribution of the black and Chinese laborers who built the railways out West. I'm sure King wouldn't count that as significant, since anybody could have built railroads or paved roads. The real movers and shakers were the tycoons who owned the businesses and who received millions of dollars from the efforts of these laborers. God's eyes are on the workers, but it's the wealthy who matter to us.

Should we focus on people like Daniel Hale Williams, the first person to successfully complete open heart surgery? Williams was black, but perhaps he won't count for King, because Williams only pioneered a new lifesaving procedure in medicine and didn't actually discover a new field of medicine. Other such inventions and innovations include blood banks, the refrigerator, the electric trolley, the dust pan, the comb, the mop, the brush, the clothes dryer, the lawn mower, traffic signals, the pen and the pencil sharpener.

Still, these are mere inventions, King might object. That Kenmore refrigerator is important, and you miss it when it stops working in the heat of the summer, but that's not as foundational to civilization as the very notion of democracy.

Alas, it is not. So let's look at the foundations, and see where they lie.

Agriculture began around 9,000 BCE far from Europe, in the fertile crescent, where farmers started to raise wheat and barley; and around 8,000 BCE in South America, with the first potato farmers. Cultivating crops may mark the start of human civilization, since agriculture allows formerly nomadic people to settle down and begin to see one spot of land as home.

As agriculture improves, the land begins to support more people in smaller areas. Cities are about as foundational to civilization as we can get, and the first known cities were nowhere in Western Europe, Eastern Europe or the United States. The oldest cities arose in ancient Sumer, around 7500 BCE. Writing first appeared around 3200 BCE, in Sumeria and in Egypt. China developed its first writing around 1200 BCE.

There was approximately nothing going on in Europe at this time. Greece was in decline and had entered a period called the Greek Dark Ages, and everything else we've learned of the rest of Europe we've had to deduce from graves.

Back to those ancient cities. Living in close proximity to one another often gives rise to other innovations. With space at a premium, there is a need to stack people atop one another more efficiently.  So architecture also may be said to have originated in Sumer, along with government and means of records-keeping.

That also means that economies (and economics) began in Sumer, although money wouldn't come along for several centuries. Lydia, a city-state located in present-day Turkey, generally is credited with minting the first coins in the seventh century BCE, but it was the Tang Dynasty of China that gets credit for inventing paper currency in 740 BCE.

King also claims credit on behalf of Christianity, for its contributions to Western civilization. It's worth remembering that Christianity isn't actually a European or Western religion. It began in the East, and embraces many Eastern ideals such as the union of body and spirit, and judging a man on his actions rather than on his words. The gospel was preached in Africa before it reached Europe, and the biggest churches today are in Asia, not the United States. How anyone could link this to white people is beyond me.

So, there you have it, Mr. King. I'm no historian, but while I'll agree that European and American societies have gifted the world with tremendous literature, music, art, philosophy, science and God knows what else, I'm not sure there is any basis to your claim that we've done more than any other race, color or ethnicity. Discount the black contribution to America, and you erase America. Discount Africa and Asia, and you've just erased human history.

Tired of this whole “old white people business?” Then come on out and join the rest of the human race, Mr. King. There's a whole lot going on out here, and you don't want to miss out.

Copyright © 2016 by David Learn. Used with permission.

Monday, July 18, 2016

ask the mansplainer: 'ghostbusters'

Dear Mansplainer:

A number of my female friends have been speaking very highly of the new all-women "Ghostbusters" movie, and my daughters have begun to express interest in seeing it as well. Should I take the girls to see this movie with its tacit message of female empowerment, or should I show them the original "Ghostbusters" movie with Bill Murray and Dan Ackroyd?

Concerned father

Dear dad:

Of course you should not take your children to see this movie, under any circumstances, Take a look at your own letter, and you'll see the problem right there -- this new, politically correct "Ghostbusters" has a tacit message of female empowerment that is threat to right-thinking men everywhere,

The original "Ghostbusters" was a summer blockbuster comedy about a team of men who operate a business capturing ghosts and end up saving New York City from supernatural destruction, This new movie is a summer blockbuster about a team of women who operate a business capturing ghosts and end up saving New York from supernatual destruction. Do you see the difference? It's a whole different ballgame!

The original movie focused on comedy, on laughs, and having a good time, and starred men. By making a new movie with women, the liberal ne'er-do-wells in Hollywood are attempting to erase men's role in history. Before long, you won't be able to find a copy of the original Harold Ramis movie because it'll have been replaced with this new version, just like Marval Comics has confiscated all our old issues of Spider-man and replaced them with new copies starring Miles Morales, and the new Harry Potter play has turned Emma Watson black.

Stories have to remain the same, or everything about our civilization will perish in flames. Don't let them take "Ghostbusters," or the next thing you know, they'll be coming for Alexander Hamilton.

Saturday, July 09, 2016

blaming the victims of police violence

Have you heard about Steven Hildreth Jr.?

Hildreth, a resident of Tuscon, Ariz., was featured in an October 2015 news story in which he describes an encounter with the police that did not end with him being shot, tased, arrested or otherwise turned into the latest statistic of police violence aimed at black Americans. In fact, the story notes, after he was pulled over for a broken headlight, he told the police that he had a license for a concealed firearm, which he was carrying on his hip.

The encounter doesn't go badly; in fact, the police let him off with a reminder to fix the broken headlight and to get his up-to-date registration card, since the registration is valid but the card is old. “Because you were cool with us and didn’t give us grief, I’m just going to leave it at a verbal warning," the officer says.

Here's how Hildreth ends his comments, which he originally posted on Facebook:

I’m a black man wearing a hoodie and strapped. According to certain social movements, I shouldn’t be alive right now because the police are allegedly out to kill minorities.

Maybe…just maybe…that notion is bunk.

Maybe if you treat police officers with respect, they will do the same to you.

It's no surprise that every time there is another police shooting of a black man, particularly when it ends in the black man's death, Hildreth's comments go viral. Coming from me or Sean Hannity, these comments easily could be dismissed as whitesplaining, but here they are, from a black man. To some, this constitutes compelling evidence that Black Lives Matter is about disrespecting our police, who are doing a dangerous job and whose lives are imperiled whenever we express concerns about the potential for racism.

I'm glad that Hildreth had a pleasant encounter with the police who pulled him over, as I'm sure everyone else is. That doesn't make his experience normative, though. I twice have been pulled over by police who were so friendly and professional that I didn't mind getting a ticket from them, and left the encouner in as good a mood as when it started. That doesn't mean I expect police to be that friendly when they pull me over and when they aren't that it's because of something I said differently.

I've seen Hildreth's story in my Facebook feed many times, and here's the truth: I don't like it. It blames the victims of police violence for that violence, and it's also incredibly condescending. (Also, every Facebook friend who has shared it has been white, so maybe there is something to that charge of whitesplaining after all.)

Hildreth is correct that we should treat police officers with respect, but the implication of his comments is that if something goes wrong, then the fault lies with the civilian. In fact, that's pretty much exactly he point spells out. The problem is that too many black Americans have found this to be exactly not the case. Most recently Philando Castile, who reportedly was shot while doing exactly what the officer on hand said, who by all reports was a respectful person, and who even informed the cop that he was had a license for concealed carry.

In other words, he acted just like Hildreth did, but he was shot and killed anyway.

Admonitions to respect police are rather like calls to have faith that God will answer prayers. Having faith is a good thing, but if God does not answer your prayers, it doesn't you failed to have enough faith. It's important to respect police, but unfortuantely for far too many black Americans, that hasn't been enough to save their lives either.

Let's stop blaming victims of police violence, and let's stop pretending that black people don't know that they should respect police.

We need instead to address the problem from the side of the police. A number of the cops who have been involved in these incidents were let go from previous departments because of incidents that left their superiors concerned about their fitness to be cops. And others have shown overt signs of racist attitudes and behaviors, including racially offensive comments. Departments need to start vetting these people out, no matter how much experience they have on the force.

I knew a cop once on my journalism beat who felt free to talk trash about Arabs, Jews, black people and, well, just about anyone. He was the second highest-ranking officer on the force, and then two years later he was chief. I don't care how good a cop he may have been otherwise, this man didn't belong on the force. Even if he never went on patrol any more, his attitudes still infected the department.

Get rid of cops like him, make an effort to hire so that the police departments resemble their communities demographically, and give training like they were having success with in Dallas, and then we might start to see progress.

Copyright © 2016 by David Learn. Used with permission.

Wednesday, July 06, 2016

together 2016

The youth group at our church is planning to take a trip next Saturday to Washington, D.C., to attend Together 2016.

What is Together 2016? I'm glad you asked, because it took me a while to find anything approaching a useful description! The event's web site invites you to "Fill the mall! Be one of a million standing for Jesus on 7.16.16." It also notes that 315,976 have "joined the movement," as of 10:53 p.m. July 6. What movement is that? I'm really not sure. I only heard of the movement a week ago, and have not been able to find any identifiable goals.

There are a lot of amazing things that movements have accomplished, based on the life and teachings of Jesus. The Society of Friends, a christocentric movement also known as the Quakers, is legendary worldwide for its commitment to peace, to the abolition of slavery, and to the advancement of civil rights and women's suffrage. Susan B. Anthony and Clara Barton are two well-known Quakers. The Civil Rights movement also drew heavily on the teachings of Christ, and on theologians who influenced Martin Luther King Jr,, such as Richard Niebuhr.

What social issues is Together 2016 going to tackle? Maybe there's something about income inequality, gun violence, or the current issue of police brutality disproportionately affecting the black community? Maybe there's something about the xenophobia and white nationalism whipped up by presumed Republican nominee Donald Trump.

"Our generation is the most cause-driven in history. But our causes are pulling us apart. Even religion doesn’t unite. We believe only Jesus can bring us together," the site declares on its About page. "July 16, 2016, is the day our generation will meet on the National Mall to come together around Jesus in unified prayer, worship, and a call for catalytic change."

Change sounds exciting, especially with an unfamiliar word like "catalytic" in front of it, doesn't it? But change can mean different things to different people. Stepping up regulation of abortion would be exciting to some Christians and perfectly alarming to others. The same is true for gay rights and same-sex marriage. Is it part of a concerted assault on marriage, or is it welcoming our gay friends and relatives into community with us, and recognizing the importance of belonging with another person?

The site doesn't say.

Together 2016 isn't like Burning Man or a trip to a popular Christian music festival like Creation or Cornerstone, in that you know more or less what to expect. It's being called a worship gathering, with speakers and worship leaders, which is fine; but it's being held at the Mall, in D.C.

I've scoured the web looking for more information, but the most I can find, even after reading all the free articles I could find at Christianity Today is that organizers say there is no agenda, just "resetting the country for Jesus." That sounds nonthreatening enough, but we all have different ideas on what that means, don't we?

To many of our nation's older evangelical leaders, that would mean resetting America to a time like the 1950s, much like Donald Trump does when he says he wants to make America great again. I doubt many blacks would like a return to the days of legalized segregation, or that women would want to give up their careers for a June Ward existence, or that gays and lesbians would want to return to the terror of the closet. And no one from a religious minority is going to want to return to the days when a civic Judeo-Christian religion was expected.

I read about a half-dozen articles on it today, and one of them noted that speakers will avoid hot-button issues like same-sex marriage and abortion. A friend of mine summarized her thoughts for me: "Just looks like a big dumb prayer meeting," she wrote. "Big. Dumb. See You At The Pole X 20k. It's an excuse to go to D.C. and hang out with other teens/have over-the-clothes groping on the bus." (It sounds like her youth group had more fun than mine.)

In all fairness, the leaders of the movement probably do mean it to be exactly like a giant Meet You at the Pole event. But if that's the case, they really should have picked somewhether other than Washington, D.C., to host their event. As you set something in the capital, you've just guaranteed that it has agenda, if for no other than the eyes it has decided to attract.

And that often is the whole point of these gatherings. It's to send a message to the community, to the nation, to our leaders: "We are here. We are many. Don't ignore us when you vote." Expect the message to be co-opted as soon as you start to gather. There are people lined up right now to tell politicians that all those Christians support greater trade with China, oppose environmental regulation of America's rivers, and think the color green should have a little more yellow in it.

If that's what you want, that's fine. Feel free to knock yourselves out. But don't expect the gathering to reset America for Jesus. He talked about public declarations of faith, and by and large he wasn't impressed.

"When you pray, you must not be like the hypocrites; for they love to stand and pray in the synagogues and at the street corners, that they may be seen by men. Truly, I say to you, they have received their reward. But when you pray, go into your room and shut the door and pray to your Father who is in secret; and your Father who sees in secret will reward you."

In the end I started to wonder why I was bothering trying to figure out what the goal of Together 2016 is. My kids are probably going to have zero interest in attending.

Copyright © 2016 by David Learn. Used with permission.

forgiveness is personal

Corrie Ten Boom was 52 years old when the Nazis came for her and her family.

For two years, the Ten Booms had been helping to hide Jewish families and other refugees during the Nazi occupation of the Netherlands. When she was arrested, Ten Boom and her sister Betsie were sent to the Ravensbrück concentration camp in Germany, where Betsie died. Ten Boom survived, and when the war ended, she returned home and established a safehouse for refugees.

Two years later Ten Boom was back in Germany, sharing with the internationally reviled German people a message that God forgives. One night, at a church in Munich, she recognized a member of the audience. He had been one of the guards at Ravensbrück.

At Ravensbrück, Ten Boom had known hunger and want. She had been stripped of all her possessions and forced to walk naked past the guards. She had been forced to sleep in beds infested with fleas. Her sister Betsie had died, one of an estimated 50,000 women to perish at Ravensbrück. Prisoners there had been starved, overworked and even experimented on. Ten Boom had endured and witnessed unimaginable suffering, and this man had been a part of it.

And he didn't want just a divine pardon. He wanted hers as well.

If you've heard the story, you know how it ends: She forgave him. (If you don't know the story, go read it.)

Corrie Ten Boom's story is one widely shared in Christian circles, in no small part because it is so amazing. It's hard to imagine a more difficult request than the one the former Ravensbrück guard made of her, and it defies belief that she actually forgave him. It's not just amazing; it's supernatural.

That's one of the reasons we often lionize Ten Boom and portray her as a larger-than-life hero of the faith, but when we do that we miss out on so much. We can draw inspiration from saintly heroes, but following in their footsteps is too daunting if they wear seven-league boots and we're left to chase after them in sandals. There is hope if we remember that seven-league boots only go one step at a time.

We'll start with the first step. Let's suppose we could approach Ten Boom the afternoon before she arrived in Munich. Maybe she's having a cup of coffee, or maybe she's writing her thoughts down on a piece of paper. She sees us coming, and smiles that encouraging smile of hers, so we ask her the big question. Has she forgiven the people responsible for the death of her sister, for all that she had suffered and seen during the Holocaust?

The words wouldn't even be out of our mouths before we realized what a stupid question this was, not to mention rude and presumptuous. Of course she has forgiven these people. She's in Germany, isn't she? While other survivors of the camps were weighted down with horror and grief, or quietly rebuilding their lives and starting new families, Ten Boom had come back to the land where she had suffered, to share God's forgiveness with the nation that had visited such evil on the world.

And then there was Ten Boom's work in the Netherlands. She hadn't just been caring for Jewish refugees and other victims of Nazi savagery; she also was providing shelter for jobless Dutch citizens who had collaborated with the Nazis during the occupation.

How could anyone think to ask if she had forgiven? Of course she had.

Her encounter with the former Nazi brings out the one thing missing from this forgiveness narrative: the human element. It took his self-awareness and his desire for forgiveness to set this amazing story in motion. It's easier to forgive in the abstract, but it's much more meaningful to do it person-to-person. If the former guard hadn't been in that Munich church that night, he never would have asked Ten Boom to forgive him; and neither of them would have experienced that soul-shaping moment.

It's not just enough to offer forgiveness carte blanche. For real, deep and meaningful forgiveness to happen, someone needs to ask for it, and someone else needs to give it.

So where does that leave us when people are unaware how badly they have hurt us, or in even worse situations, know what they have done but don't care, because they don't see it as a big deal? Is it possible to forgive someone if they don't ask for it? Even the doctrine of substitutionary atonement, the grandfather of teachings about forgiveness, says that God's forgiveness is free but we are required to acknowledge our sins and to repent of them, rather than merely feeling sorry about them.

Think about the story of the rich young ruler. He wanted to follow Jesus, who told him that mere belief wasn't enough. The ruler also needed to part with his wealth and give it to the poor around him. Unfortunately, the money meant too much to him, and the young ruler walked away, prompting Jesus to lament that it's easier for a camel to pass through the eye of a needle than for the wealthy to enter the kingdom of heaven.

Compare that to the story of Zacchaeus. As a tax collector, Zacchaeus used his position with the Roman government to extort money from his countrymen. Jesus didn't even need to prompt him. During dinner, Zacchaeus pledged to give half his possessions to the poor and to repay fourfold anyone he had defrauded, after which Jesus declared that salvation had come to Zacchaeus' house.

Jesus seems like a forgiving guy. You're left with the impression from these two stories that he's going to have a good relationship with Zacchaeus going forward. The other guy? Not so much.

So where does that leave us? I've heard for years the merits of letting go of things, and there have been many times I've given that same advice to other people. And letting go seems like excellent advice when someone is overreacting, like being angry because their favorite seat was taken, or because someone else ate more cookies than was fair.

The trouble is, it's easy to let it go and forgive when someone is five minutes late picking you up, but not so much when they completely forget about you, left you stranded in the middle of nowhere and potentially put your life in danger. It's easy to let go of an inconvenience. It's much harder to forgive when someone has really hurt you.

At best, letting go may be the first stage of forgiveness, one where no one learns anything, except for how inexcusably awful other human beings can be. But maybe that's the highest we can aspire to in some circumstances.

Author Madeleine L'Engle once described herself in a situation where she realized she needed to forgive someone but couldn't find the strength to do it. So she prayed this: “God, forgive the son of a bitch,” and found that in the end, it was enough. It was a start.

And so, for those who have wronged us and who make no attempt to set things aright, we pray to the Lord: "Lord, forgive the sons of bitches." Amen.

So say we all.

Copyright 2016 by David Learn. Used with permission.

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Monday, July 04, 2016

forgiveness is a struggle

I've been having a hard time with forgiveness lately. I'm sorry, did I say lately? It's been a problem for years. More than a decade, even.

Fourteen-and-a-half years ago, my wife and I opened our home to a foster child. At the age when our own daughter could climb stairs, feed herself, draw pictures with crayons or pencils, and communicate her thoughts with laughter, tears and words; Isaac could barely stand, much less walk. His vocabulary consisted of wordless but excited moaning, and he had no idea how to play. (He could sit still for TV, though. His parents taught him to do that extremely well.)

We didn't do this alone, though. I was from Pittsburgh and my wife was from Tuscon, Ariz., but we did have the support of our church, a community of believers we had been a part of since we came to the area. As one they stood before God and swore an oath to support us as we took this child into our hearts, and to support not just us, but also another couple who were offering their home his sister.

Isaac's problems were worse than we initially realized, but for those first few months things went gloriously. One of the women in our church was a licensed social worker, and at the beginning she and her husband handled arrangements for supervised visits. They gave us support in other ways too, as she gave us perspective, explained state regulations and even offered advice on how to engage a 2-year-old who was used to being ignored.

Isaac's mother had started coming to our church several weeks before the state removed the children from her custody, and Carla had difficulty understanding boundaries; so other friends ran interference for us. And everyone expressed great enthusiasm for what we were doing. If shouldering the burden of caring for someone else's abused child is Paradise, then that winter was Eden.

The serpent had arrived in Eden by springtime. The pastor our church had hired a year previously was showing his colors, as he used his pulpit to manipulate, to bully and to control. As quickly as he had drawn new congregants in his first several months, he was now driving people away, and as they went, our support network unraveled.

The social worker and her husband disappeared from the scene first. Then other people began to realize that they were overextended, and they began to pull back as well. We couldn't. There was a child depending on us.

My wife bore the worst of it. In addition to the extra attention Isaac needed, we had to care for our own daughter and there was a second child on the way. Harder still, I had started a job that spring that demanded more than 50 hours a week, including almost all day Monday and Tuesday. I could get relief by going off and working in the garden, but for my wife, Eden became a cage with iron bars.

She tried to get help. She called people from the church and asked them to watch our daughter for an hour or two just so she could attend a medical appointment. They told her no.

Time went on, and soon it became evident that Isaac was returning to his birth parents. We watched as the progress he had made in our home was torn up by the roots and thrown out. If our church was grieving with us, we couldn't tell. By midsummer, the church had all but fallen apart, and the people who had sworn to be with us were nowhere to be seen.

Isaac had come into our lives with a great deal of fanfare, but when it came time for him to depart we were almost completely alone. When I came home from work at two in the morning and found my daughter sitting at the stop of the stairs crying because her brother wasn't around, I was there to comfort her.

When the quiet and the grief overwhelmed with a depth too profound for words, the community I had believed would be with me, was gone.

So I say this to my old church: You screwed up, big time.

These people had sworn before God that they would be there for us throughout the entire time we fostered. They sang our praises, and told us how our faith inspired theirs. When we lost Isaac, they were nowhere to be found. We didn't even get a lousy sympathy card. One person when I saw her barely a month later actually told me to get over it.

Those last two really hurt. Fifteen years later, and forgiveness is still a struggle.

Copyright 2016 by David Learn. Used with permission.

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