Tuesday, September 27, 2016

Sunday, September 25, 2016

Border Crossing

My wife and I took a scenic drive yesterday and ended up in Canada (this is one of the great things about living in Seattle). Thus, we had to cross the U.S.-Canada border there and back. National border crossings always seem a bit absurd to me; an artificial line drawn in the ground by humans, draped with nationalistic trappings and guarded by gates and lethal weapons.

Borders make me think (admittedly a little out of context here) of something Thoreau wrote: "I saw the fences half consumed, their ends lost in the middle of the prairie, and some worldly miser with a surveyor looking after his bounds, while heaven had taken place around him, and he did not see the angels going to and fro, but was looking for an old post-hole in the midst of paradise."

The Canadian border guard on the crossing northward was cordial. His main concern seemed to be that we weren't bringing any guns across with us (perhaps the mass shooting a day before in a shopping mall a few miles down the road in Burlington, Washington had created heightened concern). He gave us some tips on sights to see while in British Columbia for the day.

The U.S. border guard on the way back was terse and unfriendly as he conducted his interrogation into our activities and intentions. He conveyed the sense that we were under great suspicion for having left the U.S. for a few hours, and any unacceptable answers might detour us into the land of holding cells and cavity searches. He was a young man, and seemed to have left his sense of humor at home, perhaps stowing it away safely in the metal box where he keeps his sidearm when off-duty from the border booth. I'm guessing (hoping) that his steely-eyed, brusque demeanor is merely an affectation-- a role that he plays, like the actors who portray tough guys in crime dramas and war movies.


Wednesday, September 21, 2016

The Benefit of the Doubt

The benefit of the doubt. It is a privilege I have received my entire life. Because I'm white. Because I'm middle-class. Because I'm male. I didn't earn it and I took it for granted for most of my life. I assumed, naively, that it was given to everyone.

I've been pulled over by police several times in my life. But I never had guns drawn on me. I was never verbally or physically abused by the police. I was always given the benefit of the doubt. As a teenager I was once caught by police after sneaking into a house by climbing through a window (it was my parent's house: I had lost my key and was locked out). No guns were pointed at me. I wasn't roughed up. I was given the benefit of the doubt.

When a police officer shoots an unarmed black man or brutalizes an unarmed black woman, that officer is also given the benefit of the doubt. They will receive cover from their union and a presumption of innocence and justification for their act. When militarized police in riot gear carrying assault rifles and clubs attack a group of peaceful protestors, they will get the benefit of the doubt; they're just following orders.

I've come to realize that my receiving the benefit of the doubt is grossly unfair when people who's lives matter every bit as much as mine--people like Terence Crutcher and Philando Castile and Eric Garner and Tamir Rice and Sandra Bland--are given no such benefit. I don't really know what to do about it except to confess it and try to be more aware of it and look for ways to call it out for the injustice that it is. And to listen to what the people who aren't given that benefit of the doubt are saying, and have been saying for a long, long time.


Monday, September 19, 2016

There is a famous story told in Hasidic literature... A Rabbi was teaching his students that God created everything in the world to be appreciated, since everything is here to teach us a lesson.

One clever student asked “What lesson can we learn from atheists? Why did God create them?”

The Rabbi responded “God created atheists to teach us the most important lesson of them all — the lesson of true compassion. You see, when an atheist performs an act of charity, visits someone who is sick, helps someone in need, and cares for the world, he is not doing so because of some religious teaching. He does not believe that God commanded him to perform this act. In fact, he does not believe in God at all, so his acts are based on an inner sense of morality. And look at the kindness he can bestow upon others simply because he feels it to be right.”

“This means,” the Rabbi continued “that when someone reaches out to you for help, you should never say ‘I pray that God will help you.’ Instead for the moment, you should become an atheist; imagine that there is no God who can help, and say ‘I will help you.’”

-- Martin Buber, Tales of the Hasidim, Vol. 2

Sunday, September 18, 2016

So I'm reading in Leviticus 24 where it says "Anyone who takes the life of a human being is to be put to death." (v.17) and "Whoever kills an animal must make restitution, but whoever kills a human being is to be put to death." (v.21)

There seems to be a pretty clear moral hierarchy displayed here: that killing a person was viewed as much worse than killing an animal. Killing an animal was viewed as a form of property damage.

The 21st chapter of Exodus goes into even more detail about who should be put to death for what. But then I came across this at verse 22: "When people who are fighting injure a pregnant woman so that there is a miscarriage, and yet no further harm follows, the one responsible shall be fined what the woman's husband demands, paying as much as the judge determines." The text goes on to say that if further damage to the woman has occurred, then the appropriate "eye for an eye, tooth for a tooth" penalties should be applied. 

So again, there seems to be a moral hierarchy displayed here. The penalty for causing a miscarriage (in other words, causing a pregnancy to abort) was not the penalty for taking a life or even harming a person. It was closer to the penalties for property damage listed in chapter 22 of Exodus. 

An interesting implication here is that if the Old Testament penalty for taking the life of "a human being" was death but the penalty for causing a miscarriage/abortion was to pay a fine, what does that say about there being a biblical view that a fetus is considered a person?

Given that this is the most explicit biblical instruction related to abortion, it is not surprising that for most of history most Christians (and Church teachings) were not stridently "anti-abortion" but instead held nuanced and flexible views. The idea that a human being exists instantaneously after the moment of conception and that, therefore, abortion is tantamount to murder, is not a historical Christian view. It became the position of the Catholic church in the 16th century but didn't become an established position among conservative Protestant Christians until the latter half of the 20th century. The majority of Christians throughout history were not "anti-abortion" and many (if not most) Christians in the world today have moderate views about abortion--which is appropriate given the complexity of the subject and the lack of clear biblical teaching on it.

And yet, in the U.S., many conservative Christians are about to endorse (via their vote) a man whose words and actions have been the antithesis of biblical moral teachings, because they hope he will elect Supreme Court justices who will outlaw (or at least eliminate federal funding for) abortion. And so, in the name of Christ, they will vote for a man who demonstrably does not follow Christian teachings in the hope that he will enact laws which likewise do not follow biblical or historical church teachings.


Saturday, September 17, 2016

"I am a Christian. I am a Methodist. I have been raised Methodist. I feel very grateful for the instruction and support I received, starting in my family but through my church, and I think that any of us who are Christian have a constant conversation in our own heads about what we are called to do and how we are asked to do it, and I think it is absolutely appropriate for people to have very strong convictions and also, though, to discuss those with other people of faith. Because different experiences can lead to different conclusions about what is consonant with our faith and how best to exercise it. …

My study of the Bible, my many conversations with people of faith, has led me to believe the most important commandment is to love the Lord with all your might and to love your neighbor as yourself, and that is what I think we are commanded by Christ to do, and there is so much more in the Bible about taking care of the poor, visiting the prisoners, taking in the stranger, creating opportunities for others to be lifted up, to find faith themselves, that I think there are many different ways of exercising your faith."

-- Hillary Clinton

Friday, September 16, 2016

"By appreciating other perspectives we learn to broaden our own, without losing it.  In fact, our understanding of our own tradition is likely to deepen through contact with others."

-- Brother David Steindl-Rast, The Way of Silence