Thursday, August 10, 2017

Book Trailer for THE TRIUMPH OF LOVE

With copious assistance from my son and photo contributions from several friends, I was able to create a book trailer for the new book. Okay, to be honest, my son was able to create a book trailer. I simply provided a bit of violin playing and talked about the book on camera, solicited photos, and then handed it all to him, saying, "Can you turn this into a book trailer?" Then he worked his magic. Here's the result:

Monday, August 7, 2017


I did a short interview about my new book, The Triumph of Love: Same-Sex Marriage and the Christian Love Ethic, for the press kit. I thought I'd include it here. The book is now available at a discounted rate from the publisher at the Wipf and Stock website, and will soon be available at most online book retailers.

1. What inspired you to write The Triumph of Love?

This book is probably the most deeply personal book I’ve written, because I have so many people close to me who are sexual minorities. For me, the “issue” of same-sex marriage isn’t some abstract intellectual question. It’s about people I love, about their experiences and the impact that their stories have had on my personal and intellectual journey. I wanted to write about that journey in a way that could answer a question that seems to genuinely puzzle so many conservative Christians: How can I, as a Christian, support same-sex marriage?

2. You are a philosopher by training, not a theologian. How does a philosopher approach these issues differently from theologians?

As a moral philosopher, I’m trained to think about concrete moral controversies in part by applying specific theories about the nature of morality. Christianity teaches that the heart of moral life is love, and that Jesus’ life is a model for what Christian love looks like. So what we have here is a distinctly Christian understanding of morality: the Christian love ethic. As a philosopher, I want to see what that ethic implies—in this case, for same-sex marriage. So instead of starting with biblical passages that talk about homosexuality or biblical themes about marriage and sexuality, my starting point is the love ethic, and my question is what love for my gay and lesbian neighbors demands.

3. But as Christians, we can’t ignore Scripture, can we?

Of course not. The love ethic flows out of Scripture, from the teachings of Jesus and the model of love He offered. And if we care about Scripture, we have to pay attention to that. If we try to draw moral lessons about homosexuality by interpreting isolated texts without considering what it means to love our gay and lesbian neighbors as ourselves, then we would be ignoring Scripture. If we don’t want to ignore this crucial dimension of what Scripture teaches, we should approach the interpretation of isolated texts in light of this attention to the ethic that, in Scripture, Jesus taught and modeled for us.

4. In addition to being a philosopher, you’ve also published short stories and won creative writing awards. How does that experience in writing stories affect your approach to this book, if at all?

It affects it a lot. I tell stories in this book. In fact, I think I have to, because a central thesis of the book is that love for our gay and lesbian neighbors requires paying attention to their stories. I could not do what I want to do in this book without sharing the stories of my gay and lesbian neighbors. And I didn’t set out to write an ivory tower book just for other philosophers and theologians. I wanted this to be a book that any educated reader can pick up and learn something from. Storytelling is part of that.

5. Do you think conservative Christian opponents of same-sex marriage will read this book? Should they?

I routinely hear conservative Christians ask how someone who claims to be a Christian could support same-sex marriage, given what Scripture says. Whether they agree with my conclusions or not, this book could answer their curiosity and help them to better understand why Christians like me reach the conclusions we do. More importantly, my aim in the book is not to bash conservative Christian opponents of same-sex marriage but to engage in a conversation with them. The love ethic calls us, straight and gay, to love our gay and lesbian neighbors, but it also calls us to love those we disagree with. That doesn’t always mean being “nice” or “gentle.” Sometimes love means calling out beliefs and practices we’re convinced are harmful. But in this book I’m trying to model loving engagement with those who hold opposing views. I hope that those who disagree with me will take up the invitation to discuss these matters in a spirit of love.

6. If there’s one thing you hope readers will take away from the book, what would that be?

Love begins with attention. We cannot love our neighbors as ourselves if we don’t pay attention to them: compassionate attention, empathetic attention. Whatever my readers think about the ethics of homosexual sex and same-sex marriage, I hope they come away convinced that they cannot love their gay and lesbian neighbors if they won’t listen with compassion to their stories and empathize with their lives and experiences. And this point goes way beyond gays and lesbians. Jesus especially challenged us to love our enemies and those who are lying beaten down on the roadside—in other word, those our society is most likely to treat as Other, those we are most culturally conditioned to ignore. If my book can inspire people to seek out and pay compassionate attention to someone from a group or community they’ve never really paid attention to before, I will think it a success.

Sunday, August 6, 2017

It's Here: The Triumph of Love!

THE TRIUMPH OF LOVE: SAME-SEX MARRIAGE AND THE CHRISTIAN LOVE ETHIC is now available for purchase from the Wipf & Stock website for $24.80. Amazon has created a page for the book, and you can buy it from other distributors through that page (Amazon will have its own copies to sell soon). The e-book should be out in a few months, and will be less expensive than the paperback.

Monday, July 24, 2017

Cover Reveal! it is. The cover of the new book! It should be out soon. Stay tuned for release date and more information.
Image may contain: one or more people and text

Tuesday, June 20, 2017

What Business Does a Straight Man Have Writing a Book About the LGBT Community and Its Concerns?

"Are you LGBT? If not, why are you creating a book about us?"

Someone asked me this question the other day on social media, and it struck me as an excellent and important question, one that deserved a thoughtful answer. My forthcoming book--The Triumph of Love--aims to respond to those Christians who think that all Christian allies (not to mention LGBT Christians) are nothing but sell-outs to secular culture by explaining how and why I became an ally, and how and why my Christian faith and my Christian ethical commitments have become central to my support of same-sex marriage and LGBT equality.

But what authority do I have, really, to speak to the needs and experiences of my LGBT neighbors and the place of same-sex marriage in their lives? Do I think I can speak for them better than they can for themselves? Am I doing the straight equivalent of "mansplaining"? (God, I hope not.)

The answer I gave to my social media interlocutor seemed a fitting one to include here, and so I reproduce it (only slightly edited) below.

I think it is important for allies to speak about why it is important to be an ally. And within the Christian world, I think it is important for conservatives to hear from Christian supporters of same-sex marriage who can't be preemptively dismissed as just "defending their lifestyle."

I wrote this book, also, because there are people I love who are tired of being challenged to defend their most meaningful and important relationships, who just want to live and love without being targeted to defend their right to do so; and since my most meaningful and important relationship is not under attack I can draw some of that fire, offer some measure of the relief that I believe allies can provide.

And I write because I am full of an angry love that I feel compelled to voice.

And I believe I have an expertise about the Christian love ethic and it's implications that hasn't been clearly and fully voiced in the debates among progressive and conservative Christians (and those in between), a perspective that I believe may move that discussion in ways that will do some good for the most vulnerable.

And I write because my overarching message is not, "Listen to me!" My constant drumbeat-message throughout the book is that straight Christians cannot claim to love their LGBT neighbors if they do not pay compassionate attention to those neighbors--a message that, coming from another straight Christian, might inspire someone who doesn't pay attention to their LGBT neighbors (and so won't hear that message spoken by a sexual or gender minority) to look up from the pages of their Bibles and other books (including mine) and seek out LGBT voices.

I wrote this book because, tragically, we live in a world where it isn't obvious that love for someone starts with listening to them. We live in a world where too often Christians, who profess to live by an ethic of love, plug up their ears with Bible verses so they won't hear the anguished cries of the neighbors they are hurting (because hearing them might jar them loose from the certainty they need to sustain in order to continue to comfortably belong to their religious communities).

Because we live in such a world, I believe it can be helpful to have books that say, "Look up! Unplug your ears!" And we need some of those books to come from someone who isn't among those that the privileged are refusing to look at or listen to. A book by someone they are more likely to hear, but a book that points them to those they aren't hearing.

We live in a world where structural and ideological forces have invested some with privilege while marginalizing others. And because the privileged have power that the marginalized lack, they are capable of insulating themselves from the marginalized and their voices. But at least sometimes, allies enjoy access to the privileged that can help break down those insulating barriers. And I think that to the extent that they have such power, allies have a moral duty to use it.

I wish we didn't live in a world where that would be necessary, where some are so insulated from the marginalized others that it requires a voice from within their own circle of privilege to jar them from their insulation. But unfortunately I am convinced we do live in such a world. Despite all the advances that the LGBT community has made, we still do. And while it is the voices of the marginalized that will change that world, it is the duty of allies to say "listen!"

My book was born out of that sense of duty. My hope is that it will inspire someone, somewhere, to listen to their LGBT neighbors in a way they haven't before.

Wednesday, June 7, 2017

Proposed Script for THE TRIUMPH OF LOVE Book Trailer

So I'm thinking of doing a book trailer for my forthcoming book, The Triumph of Love: Same-Sex Marriage and the Christian Love Ethic. My proposed script for it appears below. Let me know what you think. Also, my son actually has some video editing skills, so I might be able to arm-twist him into helping me create something better than just a talking head. If there are any visuals that strike you as good supplements to me talking into the camera in front of a bookcase, let me know your ideas! 

So once when I was in college, a friend and I were talking to the woman who ran the cafeteria ID cards. When we told her we were Christians she snapped out, “Does that mean you think all homosexuals are going to hell?”

This was the late 1980’s, and as Christians we were used to getting push-back from secularists and “greed-is-good” materialists and classmates who just wanted to party and get laid. But this kind of moral indignation about Christian views on homosexuality? That was new to us.

Fortunately my friend jumped into the silence. “Of course we don’t think all homosexuals are going to hell.”

“What,” the woman said, “so you don’t think it’s a sin?”

It was at that point that my friend invoked the now-familiar saying, “Love the sinner but hate the sin.” The saying wasn't quite so familiar then, certainly not to me. It sounded profound, and as my friend said it I felt this huge surge of relief: love the sinner but hate the sin! Yeah! I’m still a loving guy.

It wasn’t until I started making gay friends that I realized just how inadequate that response was.

Here’s the thing: Just because we can love people while condemning what really is a sin doesn’t mean we can take anything to be a sin and still love people the way we should. Can we love children the way we should if we think that it’s at all times and in all places sinful for them to play? What about loving our diabetic neighbors while declaring it a sin to use insulin?

And can we love our gay and lesbian neighbors properly if we condemn as sinful their most meaningful, loving, faithful, monogamous relationships? Can we love them if, convinced that homosexual acts are at all times and in all places sinful, we try to systematically exclude them from access to the goods of marriage?

Too often, Christians have used the Bible as a kind of weapon, extracting clobber passages and beating sexual minorities over the head. And then we use those same passages to plug up our ears so we don’t have to hear their anguished cries. Surely that can’t be the way to go.

Of course, Christians can’t ignore the Bible. But if we don’t seriously wrestle with what it means to love our gay and lesbian neighbors as ourselves, that’s exactly what we’re doing. If self-righteous certainty takes the place of compassionate attention, we haven’t been paying attention to Jesus. We need to listen to our neighbors in all their diversity, including those who are gay, lesbian, bisexual, transender, and beyond. We need to hear their stories—stories about how Christian condemnation has affected them, and what access to same-sex marriage means for their lives. And then we need to struggle with what that means for living out the law of love.

Only then can we hope to move closer to the one thing God longs for more than anything else: The Triumph of Love.

Thursday, May 18, 2017

Hypothetical Verdicts: Crutcher, Shelby, and Blame

Last night a jury in Tulsa reached a verdict in a high-profile case in which a police officer, Betty Shelby, shot and killed an unarmed black man, Terence Crutcher. When she shot him, Crutcher was neither doing what she ordered him to do nor posing a clear threat (he was walking away from her with his arms raised, apparently putting those arms on the side of his car). Like so many other cases like it, the jury came back with a "not guilty" verdict.

I want to begin by saying​ something about this case that I think ought to be uncontroversial. What happened in this case is that a man with a drug problem who in fact posed no threat encountered, as part of a routine traffic stop, an officer who set out that day to serve and protect, not to kill people. And yet the officer shot the man, killing him. When that happens, something has gone terribly wrong.

What went wrong was not an "act of God." Crutcher did not die from an illness or a natural disaster. He was shot. And yet he did nothing that deserved death. He was under the influence of hallucinogenic drugs, and he wasn't perfectly obedient to the officers commands. But these are not the sorts of things that warrant death. And so something has gone terribly wrong.

That is the uncontroversial thing I want to l say. But now come the difficult questions. Suppose we accept the jury's judgment that the officer was not responsible for what went so terribly wrong. Who is, then? Is it appropriate to blame the man who died--blame him because in his confused state he wasn't absolutely and perfectly obedient, because he went to put his hands on his car in a move that trained officers (but not the man) have learned bad guys might use to grab for a gun? Is that the choice the jury was given? Blame the white woman in the police uniform, the one sitting in front of them looking earnest and just like them, a good citizen who means well; or blame the drug-using black man who is gone, who is nowhere in sight because he is dead, dead by a bullet lodged in his lung, a bullet propelled there by the twitch of that earnest woman's trigger finger?

Perhaps the jury had too few options. Perhaps when it comes to assessing responsibility for something that has gone so terribly wrong, juries are forced into a false dilemma.The jury was not given the option to  deliver, for example, the following hypothetical verdict: "We cannot convict you because the fault is wider than you and deeper than you. You were just there at that moment with the legacy of our cultural conditioning and our collective fears; you were there, and the systems and practices and norms of our society came together in you, pulling the trigger and making a man die, a man who posed no threat. But it could have been any one of us, and we would have done the same."

There was no option for saying that. Should there be?

Shelby and Crutcher were not alone in that moment. I don't just mean that other officers present and the helicopter whirring overhead. Social forces came together in that moment--including, perhaps, the white majority's collective fear of black men, a fear that we feed and perpetuate in all kinds of subtle ways. We feed it and perpetuate it in the unconscious minds of children who grow up wanting to serve and protect. And then one day an officer is afraid that she won't make it home alive--even though as a matter of fact the man was moving slowly away from her with his arms in the air.

Are we quicker to jump to threat scenarios when it's a black man than when it's, say, a white woman? To Shelby, it seemed like a vivid possibility that Crutcher, drugged and disoriented, might lunge through the car window to grab a gun, spin towards Shelby, and fire with deadly aim. It was so vivid, so live as a threat that she shot and killed this man whose hands were in the air, who had no gun, no gun at all. Would it have struck her as such a vivid possibility, such a plausible source of fear-- something demanding such immediate, fatal, and irrevocable action--if Crutcher had been a white woman? Also, would empathy and fellow human feeling have been potent in that case, acting to curb fatal mistakes by making them seem more dire?

I'm not talking here about overt racism. I'm not talking about deliberately discounting black lives because they are black. What I'm talking about are unconscious, implicit biases formed in us through social conditioning, biases we don't even know we have and which shape our perceptions in moments of crisis when there isn't time to make more steady, considered judgments.

Did the jury find her not guilty in part because they share the same fears, the same unconscious presuppositions that shape how they envision unfolding events? Did they identify with her and her perspective because they were subject to the same social conditioning? Was it especially easy for them, because of our shared culture, to understand why that unarmed man who was not engaged in hostile or aggressive action could appear to the officer in that moment as a deadly threat?

If this were a freakish case, an unheard-of anomaly in the American landscape, then we might accept the verdict, say "Whatever it was that went wrong, the jury looked at the evidence and decided it wasn't the officer's fault," and then move on with our lives. But we don't have that luxury, because this is not some unheard-of anomaly in American life.

If we accept the verdict, that means we must look beyond the officer to determine what went wrong, to discern what brokenness in our society needs to be fixed so that tragedies like this don't keep happening.

A guilty verdict would have said many things. Among them, it would have said to my black friends watching the trial with trepidation and a thread of hope that this time, in this case, a black life mattered. But a guilty verdict might also have said, "We've found the culprit, the source of the problem. It was this particular woman. The rest of us are off the hook." If we accept the verdict and we accept that black lives really do matter as much as white lives, then we need to ask why this sort of thing keeps happening and what we can do to fix it.

Maybe, in our current world, "not guilty" means "No one's to blame! We're off the hook!" while "guilty" means "That one person is to blame! The rest of us are off the hook!" Maybe there is no way, with the verdicts on offer, for any verdict to ever move us to ask what has gone so horribly wrong and what we can do, what we must do, to change things.

And so we return to my hypothetical verdict, a different kind of "not guilty" verdict: "Not guilty by virtue of the fact that we, society, are collectively to blame for the forces that came together in that tragic moment; not guilty because any one of us, conditioned as we have been conditioned and socialized as we have been socialized, might have done the same thing in that moment. Not guilty because we are all guilty, not guilty in a way that demands collective responsibility. Not guilty in a way that does not erase guilt but demand accountability."

And maybe that "not guilty"verdict needs to be paired with a different kind of guilty verdict: "Guilty by virtue of being an agent of something deeper than the individual, of social wrongs that found expression in this person at this moment but are not isolating to the individual; guilty in a way that does not let others off the hook but recognizes the deep roots of tragic wrongs and demands collective responsibility and broader accountability."

In our individualistic culture, we don't like those kinds of verdicts. Such verdicts would be a call to action, a call to social change. Easier to treat not-guilty verdicts as exonerating not only the individuals but also ourselves, and guilty-verdicts as heaping all the guilt on the bad guys so that the rest of us can feel cleansed.

Monday, May 1, 2017

Bishop Oliveto, the United Methodists, and the Law of Love

A Personal Issue

On April 28, the Judicial Council of the United Methodist Church ruled that when the Western Jurisdiction of the UMC consecrated Rev. Karen Oliveto as a bishop, it violated church law. The law in question is an old one from the 1970's, one that precludes "self-avowed practicing homosexuals" from serving as church leaders in the UMC. Bishop Oliveto, in case you haven't heard, is in a same-sex marriage.

Although I am now a Lutheran, I was raised in the Methodist Church: a mid-sized suburban UMC congregation in upstate New York. I was confirmed there and was active with the UMYF--the United Methodist Youth Fellowship--throughout Junior High and High School. One of my fondest memories from that time was an extended canoe trip through the Adirondacks with the youth group and the pastors of the church. It was a week of connecting powerfully to God's creation, and experiencing its beauty and power through the Wesleyan lens our pastor preached from his own canoe, a paddle in hand. Among the experiences that have given me a vivid sense of God's presence, this one ranks among the most formative.

I say all of this because I want to explain why these events in the UMC are personal for me. Although I am today part of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America, I was shaped by the UMC. When I picture a church, it is still that UMC church of my childhood that springs first to mind. And when I think about pastors who forged my faith in a God of love, one of the first to come to mind is Rev. Harrington, sitting in that canoe, his voice rolling along the river as he invited us all to take in the majesty of God's world.

Also, when I view the current turmoil in the UMC I recall the ELCA's struggles over these same matters, struggles I was personally involved with in numerous ways. I know first-hand what it feels like to be part of a church that's trying to find a way forward when it comes to inclusion of sexual minorities. At different times I was on both the losing and winning sides of the ELCA's fitful journey. Neither side was without its share of anguish. And so I look at the church of my childhood, and I share the pain.

Not Just an Issue

The controversy is so grave and difficult because it isn't about an "issue." It's about the fate of real people. It's about Bishop Oliveto but not just her. It's about Rev. Karen Dammann, who was put on trial and risked being defrocked for admitting to her congregation that she was in a committed relationship with a woman. It's about Rev. Jimmy Creech, who was defrocked for performing same-sex union ceremonies for members of his congregation. Closer to home, it's about Oklahoma pastor Kathleen McCallie, a friend of my wife who loved her work as a UMC minister but who faced the same choice as Creech, and in anguish chose to follow her conscience and so be expelled from the church and ministry she loved.

This is not an "issue" that members of the UMC can just agree to disagree about and then worship together amidst their differences. Why not? Because this is about the actual fate of real people within the worship life of the church. It is about who gets to perform which roles in worship. It is about which couples can get married in a church service, which ones can sit together in the pews without being labeled as sinners for it. It is about who can show up with their partners at an adult Sunday School class about building stronger marriages, and who will be told, "Your marriage should be voided, not made stronger, because your love for each other is a sin and the meaning and richness you find in life partnership is an abomination."

Love and Same-Sex Marriage

It's because of the persistent recurrence of cases like Bishop Oliveto's, cases that continue to cause so much turmoil and pain, that I felt compelled to write my forthcoming book on same-sex marriage and Christian love, The Triumph of Love. I cannot, in a blog post, do justice to all of the arguments in that book. But I want to sketch out a few of them here. In that book I argue that, if we want to love our gay and lesbian brothers and sisters, we should apply to them the same model of sexual restraint that has served heterosexuals through history: all of us should be urged to express our sexuality within the bonds of marriage.

Marriage, at its best, becomes a crucible for learning faithful love over a lifetime. Marriage is not just a source of joy but a source of meaning and growth in love. To withhold that from gays and lesbians, most of whom are as ill-equipped for life-long celibacy as their heterosexual peers, has substantial costs for their welfare.

But the cost goes deeper than simply losing out on something. The Christian tradition has long held that all same-sex intimacy, even in marriage, is a sin. If you think this, you think Christian communities should be structured accordingly. You think gays and lesbians should grow up being taught that their sexuality is fundamentally broken, that their intimate partnerships are an affront to God no matter how faithful and virtuous and life-enriching they might be. You think gays and lesbians should be systematically excluded from participation in the most foundational social and cultural unit. Not only are they forced to live their lives without the kind of love and companionship and lessons in Christian love that marriage brings. They are taught that, in a fundamental sense, there is not a place for them.

Because Christian communities have long been built around these assumptions, many gays and lesbians have been born and raised under these conditions. And so we know what it is like for them if we listen compassionately to their stories. I have done such listening, as have many other Christians who are, like me, progressive on this question. Like many others, I have learned some important lessons from that listening, lessons underscored by the corpses of those driven to suicidal despair by the conviction that they will never be acceptable in the eyes of God unless they close themselves off to their most intense yearnings for love and closeness. Countless witnesses reinforce a shattering message: traditional teachings on homosexuality can be soul-crushing for the sexual minorities who grow up in communities that teach it. While some break away, others just break.

Of course, much has changed in recent years. There are growing pockets of acceptance. Many sexual minorities have found peace and a place at the table within Christian communities. Instead of having to choose between their faith and their sexual/romantic selves--or having to live the lie of the closet--many are finding places where they can have what heterosexuals take for granted: the integration of Christian faith with their human longing for sexual intimacy and loving partnership.

To believe that all homosexual sex is sinful is to believe that such opportunities should be withdrawn and the closet door slammed shut. But that doesn't sound much like love to me.

Burying Talents

The current policies of the UMC perpetuate the marginalization of gays and lesbians. But they also diminish the church community itself. This is apparent in the current case of Bishop Oliveto.

In a statement earlier in the week, Bishop Oliveto made an interesting observation about the hearing that could decide her future as a UMC bishop: "What is fascinating about today’s hearing is that no one questioned the gifts and graces I possess for ordained ministry and specifically for the episcopacy. And no one has looked at my work and said my abilities for this task are lacking."

No one questioned this for the simple reason that her abilities aren't lacking. Had she been in a heterosexual marriage rather than a same-sex one, no one would have questioned her consecration. She felt called to the ministry. She felt called to the episcopacy. And according to friends of mine who are part of the Western Jurisdiction and who have met her, she is a person of grace, poise, wisdom, and competence.

When a class of people are excluded from church leadership even though they have the requisite gifts and have experienced a call, it is as if they are being forced to bury their talents. When Christ tells His parable of the talents, He concludes it by chastising the servant who chooses to bury the talent given him by his master. But Rev. Karen Oliveto chose to use her talents, not to bury them. She chose to use them on behalf of the UMC. The Western Jurisdiction chose to let her do so. If the UMC as a whole forces her out of the episcopacy--and the recent ruling is a clear step in that direction--then it is the UMC that is burying Oliveto's talents, and hence the UMC that must face Christ's censure.

Law and Obedience

The law of the UMC is plain enough, and the Judicial Council was probably right that according to that law, what the Western Jurisdiction did was unlawful. But this policy is the law of a human institution, and there is a higher law than that. The decision of the Western Jurisdiction to consecrate Bishop Oliveto despite church law was a case of civil disobedience. The purpose of civil disobedience is not to defy the rule of law. Its purpose, rather, is to seek to change an unjust human law based on a deeper obedience to a higher law.

Oliveto's consecration expressed Christian deference to a divine calling, one not beholden to the laws of a human institution. More importantly, it expressed allegiance to the law of love, the law that Christ lifted up as our most fundamental commandment.

Not everyone agrees, of course, that God would have the audacity to call a married lesbian to the episcopacy. Not everyone agrees that love for our gay and lesbian neighbors requires us to abandon the old teachings that have for so long been a source of so much suffering. But motives matter--and the motive in this case was not disdain for the rule of law but a sense of faithfulness to a higher law. One might disagree about what that higher law requires of us, but such disagreement does not change the motives involved.

Love Admidst Disagreement

But this brings me to the final point. The perspective I've articulated is hardly uncontroversial. I can already hear the clamoring questions: Doesn't it ignore what the Bible says? What about Church Tradition and Natural Law arguments? Isn't it clear from these things that God really does prohibit same-sex romantic love? And doesn't it follow from this that someone who makes a marital commitment to such love is making a commitment to sin? And isn't a commitment to sin incompatible with church leadership?

That is the conservative stance. I find it wholly unpersuasive, for reasons I explore in depth in my book. But I can't reproduce my entire book in a blog post, so let me limit myself to two points here.

First, the argument I've sketched out here, which challenges the conservative stance, isn't coming from secular culture but from the urgings of the law of love and my understanding of what that law requires. This is a Christian case for overturning the UMC's policies on homosexuality and same-sex marriage. Even if you think that case is defeated by biblical arguments, it doesn't mean there is no case--a case that, if we trust what Jesus had to say, is rooted in nothing less than the most important commandment of all.

The second point is this: While defenders of the conservative view are sometimes moved by ugly motives such as homophobia, many are moved by sincere belief. Many are pained by the suffering of their LGBT neighbors and grieve the tragic frequency of gay suicide, but they have been convinced that the condemnation of homosexuality is God's word and that the solution to LGBT suffering must be found in something other than opening the door to same-sex marriage.

This is as true in the UMC as it is in other denominations. Those who defend the UMC's ongoing marginalization of LGBT Methodists cannot simply be dismissed as homophobes. Those who celebrate the Oliveto ruling are not all motivated by hate.

Perhaps they haven't heard, as I have, the litany of anguishing life stories, tales of suffering wrought by anti-LGBT policies of exclusion. If so, we need to invite them to hear those stories.

Perhaps they've listened to a handful of LGBT Christians who tell a comforting tale of becoming ex-gay (comforting, at least, if you don't want to find yourself standing opposed to the dominant teachings of your community and its understanding of the Bible). If so, we should invite them to consider those stories in a broader context that includes the many stories of hopeless efforts to "change," often followed by years of living a lie, a pretense of healing, and stumbling into unwise and ultimately tragic heterosexual marriages in a desperate effort to belong.

Perhaps they've been immersed in a theology whose views about the Bible make it seem as if there is no choice but to stand fast to the view that homosexuality is sinful, no matter what gays and lesbians may say about the alienation and despair that this inspires. There are those who think they would betray the very word of God if they shifted their stance, if they did anything short of continuing to endorse existing policies. And it doesn't matter how many talents get buried. It doesn't matter how many gays and lesbians are cast to the margins. The Bible is clear.

If this is what they think, we should dig into our understanding of what the Bible is and what it says. We should think together about the Bible's history, its context, the languages of the ancient authors, and the alternative ways of understanding how the Bible is related to the will and word of God. We should think together about which Christian approaches do the most to honor the incarnating, loving, sacrificing, redeeming God to whom the Bible testifies.

Those who stand witness to just how crushing LGBT marginalization has been must rise up in loving defense of the victims. Hearing what we have heard and believing what we believe, it would be unloving for us to do anything else. At the same time, we must strive to reach out in love to those who are sincerely convinced that God calls them to perpetuate policies of exclusion. Anger can be fitting, because there is such a thing as angry love. Painful honesty about the horrific consequences of their beliefs--honesty that pulls no punches in the name of "niceness"--can be appropriate, because love demands truth.

But we cannot descend into hate. We cannot resort to violence--either outward violence or verbal abuse or spiritual violation. We must remain open to fellowship when the terms of fellowship don't require complicity in perpetuating harm.

And if we wade into the fray--if we really wrestle with the conflicts and controversies--it can become very hard to sustain a spirit of love towards those we think are complicit in perpetuating harmful policies (or those we think are betraying the Word of God).

And so we need to open ourselves up to the grace that is beyond us, the transforming power of a divine love that can persist where merely human will must fail.

Wednesday, April 26, 2017

On Wishing the Pilot (or President) Will Fail

Back in January, on the day of Trump's inauguration, I posted on Facebook a reflection on memes like this one: 

Image result for wishing for trump to fail meme

The post was quite popular, being shared and reshared many times through Facebook, but I never got around to posting it here. A friend just reminded me of that post, and it seems appropriate, after Trump's first hundred days in office, to revisit that reflection. So I'm posting it here now. Enjoy.

I have heard it said that wishing for President Trump to fail is like wishing for the pilot of the airplane you are flying in to fail. This is a fair point, but some things are worth noting about this analogy.

First, if the pilot is incompetent to fly the plane, what I'd hope is that this incompetence is made apparent by some early but reparable failures, so that the pilot can be ousted from the cockpit before crashing the plane.

Second, a lot hinges on what the pilot is trying to do. If the pilot of a plane bound for Denver is indifferent to the passengers' wishes and needs and aims to redirect the plane to Miami because it will earn him a boatload of cash, I hope someone catches on and stops him before he succeeds... although I'd rather he land it successfully in Miami than crash.

If a pilot has been paid off by villains to deliver a plane full of people to some remote island to be made into slaves, then I hope that the pilot will fail to realize that aim--and either be forced to land the plane anywhere safe or have control of the plane taken away and handed over to someone with more benign aims. But if the choice is between crashing and being sold into slavery, it would be a hard call.

But what if the pilot is planning to fly the plane into a crowded building in an act of terrorism? If I can't get control of the plane away from the pilot, I might in that case hope he's so incompetent that he crashes into a bog or lake, someplace where there is a chance of survivors.

And if it looks to me like the pilot is drunk when he staggers into the cockpit, I'm not going to "give him a chance." I'm going to do what I can to call his state to the attention of anyone who can stop him from taking off in that state. And if I fail at that, I'm going to prepare for the worst, maybe by trying to find out if any passengers know how to fly the plane and sharing my fears with them.

In short, a whole lot hinges on whether you think the pilot is sober, competent, and motivated to serve the passengers by bringing them safely and efficiently to the destination they've chosen. Likewise, what we think of Trump's competence and aims and temperament will influence what we hope for, as well as how trusting or vigilant we need to be.

But of course, this analogy is imperfect, since a president has a far more complex set of objectives than a pilot has. It's more about preserving and directing a complex set of social institutions in such a way that each of us can succeed in achieving our aims. If the president wants to dismantle an institution that I am convinced works well to help us achieve our aims, and has no clear plan for implementing something that works as well, I will hope he fails at that, and I may try to do what I can nonviolently do to secure that hope. At the same time, I might hope he succeeds at doing something else.

Of course, there are even more disanalogies between a pilot flying a plane and a president serving a country--disanalogies that came up in discussion on my original post. What disanalogies do you see, and what are their implications?

Wednesday, April 12, 2017

Homophobic Horror in Chechnya: An Open Letter to Vice President Pence

Dear Vice President Pence,

I haven't written you before, but recent reports of crimes against humanity in Chechnya motivate me to do so. I reach out to you as a fellow Christian, knowing that as Christians we are called to live out an ethic of love.

My concern centers around the purported detention and abuse of gay men in the Russian republic of Chechnya. According to a recent BBC report, "Gay men are fleeing brutal persecution in Chechnya, where police are holding more than 100 people and torturing some of them in an anti-gay crackdown, Russian activists say." While Chechen officials deny the reports, the US State Department has found them credible enough to issue an official statement on the matter:
We are increasingly concerned about the situation in the Republic of Chechnya, where there have been numerous credible reports indicating the detention of at least 100 men on the basis of their sexual orientation. Some reports indicate many of those arrested have been tortured, in some cases leading to death. We categorically condemn the persecution of individuals based on their sexual orientation or any other basis.
We are deeply disturbed by recent public statements by Chechen authorities that condone and incite violence against LGBTI persons. We urge Russian federal authorities to speak out against such practices, take steps to ensure the release of anyone wrongfully detained, conduct an independent and credible investigation into these, reports and hold any perpetrators responsible.
I commend the State Department for issuing this statement. Amidst everything that is happening in the world today, including the horrors in Syria, it may seem as if that statement is a sufficient American response. But I think there are reasons why you should speak out on this issue. One reason is that the voice of the Vice President carries more international weight than a State Department statement, and does more to convey the seriousness with which the United States views the matter. And this is the sort of issue that the United States and other countries should view very seriously indeed.

But there is a deeper reason. A more personal one.

It is no secret that you embrace the conservative Christian teaching that homosexual acts are always sinful (even when expressed in the context of lifelong monogamous fidelity and love). It is also no secret that I disagree with this traditional view--in fact, I have a book coming out in which I develop a Christian case, rooted in the love ethic, for embracing same-sex marriage. But Christians who hold to the traditional view, as you do, insist that there is no conflict between endorsing this stance and living out the love ethic with respect to their gay and lesbian neighbors. When it comes to same-sex intimacy, their position is summed up in the slogan, "Love the sinner, hate the sin."

Correct me if I'm wrong, but I'm pretty sure that slogan captures your own position on the matter. In my experience, however, most gays and lesbians experience this slogan as at best insincere, and at worst an abuse of the language of love to cover unloving policies and practices. Too often, when LGBT persons cry out against Christian practices they experience as unloving, "Love the sinner, hate the sin" is thrown back at them as nothing but an all-purpose way to shut them up.

But there are Christians who use this slogan sincerely. They mean by it something like the following: "Even though I think that homosexual acts are morally wrong, I am committed to showing Christian love towards my gay and lesbian neighbors. I will strive to lift up and stand up for the dignity and humanity of LGBT persons, and to act towards them in a way that shows respect, compassion, and empathy for their struggles."

Whether this commitment can be successfully carried out while continuing to condemn every intimate expression of their sexuality is a matter I take up in my book--but let me set that aside for now. The point I want to make is this: current events in Chechnya provide you with a unique opportunity to model what it looks like for a Christian who thinks homosexuality is a sin to lift up and stand up for the dignity and humanity of LGBT persons, and to act towards them in a way that shows respect, compassion, and empathy for their struggles. It is a chance to show that "love the sinner" is not just a slogan to hide behind but a real human calling.

In other words, the situation in Chechnya offers you a distinctive opportunity in Christian leadership:  a chance to show what it looks like to be as committed to loving your gay and lesbian neighbors as you are to condemning their love.

Whatever we think about the morality of homosexuality, we should all agree on the moral egregiousness of a government targeting its gay population for systemic violence. Certainly all Christians who embrace Jesus' love ethic should agree. What is happening in Chechnya is an offense against the ethic of love. All Christians, whatever our views on the ethics of homosexuality, can and should stand together to repudiate the systemic marginalization and abuse of a class of people.

During Holy Week we remember the most central Christian model of what it means to love our neighbors. In the passion story we learn that Christ-like love is prepared to sacrifice even unto death for the neighbor's sake, even if the ones for whom we die are the ones nailing us to a cross. Speaking out against the abuse of our gay and lesbian neighbors in Chechnya is, by comparison, a small gesture of love.

But even token gestures matter. When the Vice President makes such a gesture, it has important symbolic resonance. And were you, Mr. Vice President, to make this gesture, your public commitments and stature among conservative Christians in America would transform your action into a model for something important.

If you are serious about loving your LGBT neighbors and not just about condemning them, this is a unique opportunity to show that love, and to invite others to do likewise. It is a chance to lead in an area where so many public Christian politicians lag; a chance to offer a public example of what it looks like to stand in loving solidarity with the LGBT victims of abuse, and thereby model for both conservative Christians and your LGBT neighbors what it looks like to actually love those who, within conservative Christian circles, often feel the most unloved of all.

Eric Reitan

Thursday, March 2, 2017

Attorney General Sessions, the Russians, and the Meaning of Words.

In case you haven't heard, the Washington Post broke the news yesterday that Attorney General Jeff Sessions met with the Russian Ambassador, Sergey Kislyak, at least twice during Trump's successful presidential campaign. This is a problem because of what Sessions said, under oath, during his confirmation hearings.

During those hearings, Sen. Al Franken asked Session how he would respond were he to learn that anyone affiliated with the Trump campaign had communications with Russian officials. Sessions responded by insisting that he had no knowledge of any such communications, and then added the following remark: "I have been called a surrogate at a time or two in that campaign and I did not have communications with the Russians."

The Washington Post reports the following response from the Sessions-camp:

Officials said Sessions did not consider the conversations relevant to the lawmakers’ questions and did not remember in detail what he discussed with Kislyak.  
"There was absolutely nothing misleading about his answer," said Sarah Isgur Flores, Sessions’s spokeswoman.

The idea seems to be this: Although Sessions said the words, "I did not have communications with the Russians," what he meant by those words was not inconsistent with the fact that he actually did meet with the Russian Ambassador twice, once in private. Although meeting with the Russian ambassador seems to qualify as "communications with the Russians," the claim is that something in the context in which those words were spoken alters their intended meaning.

So let's talk a bit about something that, in critical thinking texts, is dubbed "conversational implication." Sometimes we speak loosely on the assumption that people will understand what we mean based on the broader context within which we are speaking. If the context makes it obvious that I meant something that I didn't say explicitly, then it is "conversationally implied." This means that I can be dishonest without saying anything that is strictly-speaking false, and it means I can be honest even though my words, pulled out of context, are not exactly true as stated.

Suppose, for example, that someone rushes into my office and shouts, "I need a fire extinguisher! Do you know where I can find a fire extinguisher?" Now imagine that I answer, "Go to the stairwell at the end of the hall. If you go down two flights, you'll find one at the base of the stairs." The context here implies that the fire extinguisher I'm directing the desperate person to is the NEAREST fire extinguisher (or at least the nearest one that I know of). If I happen to have a fire extinguisher under my desk, there is reason to accuse me of being misleading even if the words I said were strictly true.

Likewise, a statement might be strictly false because it isn't properly qualified--but the needed qualifications are conversationally implicit, and so we can't accuse the person of dishonesty. If I say, "I didn't drive anywhere near the bank" in order to explain to my wife why I failed to deposit the checks, the fact that I have driven near the bank on countless occasions over the last few years doesn't make me dishonest. The qualifier, "today," is conversationally implied: "I didn't drive anywhere near the bank today." And the fact that I was driving in the same town as my bank, and that by global standards that is darned near to the bank, doesn't make me dishonest either. After all, the context makes it clear that I am using the term "near" in a relative sense--in the sense in which it would be convenient for me to pull in and deposit the checks.

It sounds to me like this is the move that Sessions and his surrogates want to make: Although what he said wasn't strictly true, it was conversationally implied that he was only referring to communications about Trump's campaign.

But this doesn't seem right. I've read the full question that Franken asked, which elicited Sessions' reply (you can find here). There is something that clearly is conversationally implied by the context of Sessions' words, namely that he did not have communications with the Russians during the time of the campaign. Given how long Sessions has been in the Senate, it would be hard to believe the remark if we didn't assume some kind of time constraint like that. But given the focus of Franken's question, and given Sessions' explicit reference to the campaign, the time constraint was conversationally implied. So on that front, we can't accuse Sessions of dishonesty even if we can prove that he has met with Russian officials dozens of times over the years.

Also, the context seems to imply something more substantive that casual communication of the sort one might have at a black tie affair. If Sessions had run into the Russian ambassador at the cocktail bar, and the two had exchanged pleasantries about the weather, that would be a kind of communication with a Russian official. But I think the conversational context makes it clear that something more substantive is at issue.

The problem, of course, is that Sessions met with a Russian official during the campaign, and that at least one of these meetings was a private meeting, not a casual exchange about the weather. And yet what he said was this: "I have been called a surrogate at a time or two in that campaign and I did not have communications with the Russians." Given the context offered by Franken's question, I doubt that anyone in the room assumed that this meant, "Although I have had communications with the Russians during the campaign, in fact meeting more than once with the Russian ambassador, we didn't talk about the campaign."

"I did not have communications with the Russians," in ordinary English, tends to carry the implication that one, well, didn't have communications with the Russians--unless there is something clearly indicated by the conversational context that implies otherwise. And there just doesn't seem to be any such something in place here.

Could Sessions have misspoken under the stress of a confirmation hearing? Sure. He could have intended to say, "I did not have any communications with the Russians about the campaign." But if he had spoken correctly, you can bet Franken would have asked some follow-up questions: "Did you, then, communicate with Russian officials during the campaign in some other capacity?" That he didn't ask such follow-up questions is a pretty good sign to me that Franken didn't interpret Sessions' words to be qualified in that way.

In fact, such follow up questions wouldn't make sense given what Sessions in fact said. It is thus a strain of the concept of conversational implication to assume that "about the campaign" was conversationally implied, even though the person Sessions was directly answering clearly failed to catch the implication. I doubt anyone else caught it either. Why would they?

As such, the claim by Sessions' spokesperson, Flores, that there was "nothing misleading" about his statement only succeeds in calling Flores' credibility into question. It was clearly misleading--misleading enough that a natural line of follow-up questions, which Franken would surely have asked had the statement been properly qualified, was not pursued. And we'll never know what that line of questioning might have produced.

None of this means Sessions committed perjury. To establish perjury, one would need to show not only that his words were strictly false but that he intended to mislead. But even if he did not intend to mislead, the words were misleading.

Is it a big deal? We inadvertently say misleading things all the time, because we aren't being careful. Sometimes we assume, wrongly, that something is conversationally implied when it isn't. Misspeaking isn't necessarily a big deal, although it can be pretty serious depending on what it leads people to believe and do. And I think it is important to acknowledge when one's words are misleading, and to take responsibility for the consequences when they are less than trivial.

Friday, February 24, 2017

Responding to Trump's Administrations: Scapegoats and Meaningful Resistance

Yesterday I was reading about RenĂ© Girard and his understanding of how societies use the scapegoating mechanism as a kind of pressure valve to channel the violent energies caused by rising conflict: people collectively identify a sacrificial scapegoat towards whom they channel all that violent energy. They "sacrifice" the scapegoat to "the gods" and achieve a kind of catharsis that brings in its wake a temporary peace.

As I was reading, I was (naturally) thinking about the current administration. That administration, as I see it, has invoked a particular form of this scapegoating mechanism as part of an effort to win the support of disaffected, white, working-class Americans. I say a "particular form," because what the administration has done is invoked divisive us/them ideology that divides the world between an in-group and an out-group, and it is this out-group that becomes the scapegoat. Not an individual, but an entire class of human beings. "These others," they say, "are the source of our troubles, and when these others are removed or marginalized our problems will be solved."

This ideological othering is the most dangerous kind of scapegoating. It sets community against community, achieving the temporary peace within a community by putting itself at war (figuratively or literally) with another community. When the targeted others are already represented in a diverse community, then the war first begins internally, requiring a kind of purge. The potential for widespread and enduring horror is quite significant if the leadership of a nation is allowed to carry out a vision defined by such scapegoating of the ideological other.

So when there is a danger of this happening, or when it is already underway, resistance is essential. (I am convinced a resistance movement must be thoroughly nonviolent, for reasons I won't explore here.) But yesterday, as I was reading about Girardian scapegoating, I began to worry that some voices in the burgeoning resistance in the US were turning Trump into a scapegoat, trying to heap on him the weight of all that is wrong in American society so that his removal from office could become the sacrificial ritual that would, in the Girardian scapegoat mythology, make everything right again.

Thinking about this, I wrote up a quick little parable or drama, meaning to warn against this possibility. Then I posted it here.

Feedback from friends on social media as well as on this blog have led me to conclude that the parable was at best ripe for being misunderstood and at worst a dangerously misleading vision. More precisely, I worry that my little parable suggested a false equivalency between two very different things: on the one hand, the kind of threat posed by a presidential administration that lifts up and legitimizes ideological hate in the course of implementing policies that scapegoat whole classes of people; on the other hand, the kind of threat posed if those who resist that administration's efforts were to fall prey in significant numbers to the scapegoating instinct.

These two things are not equivalent.

What I want to say now is this. I think there is enormous danger when the reins of power fall into the hands of those who openly preach ideological division and encourage scapegoating of whole classes of people. Those who see this happening have an obligation to speak out about the threat, to repudiate the othering, and to stand (nonviolently) against the policies and policy proposals that would implement such scapegoating of entire groups. There needs to be a meaningful resistance.

I suspect that the sort of approach that Michael Moore lays out in his "10-Point Plan to Stop Trump" would (if a large enough number of people get on board) prove quite effective in neutralizing Trump's ability to enact his ideological agenda, if not pushing him out of office. But while an action plan is crucial to any organized nonviolent campaign, the spirit in which that campaign is waged is just as important, especially for long-term success.

Most importantly, a resistance movement must avoid becoming the thing it stands against. This means, first and foremost, that it must avoid ideological othering. But just as importantly, it must also avoid the milder scapegoating that treats Trump as the problem and his removal as the solution that will restore peace and prosperity to America.

If a nonviolent resistance movement against Trump's agenda falls prey to the scapegoating instinct, that is not in any way equivalent to an administration that is trying to implement us/them ideology on a global scale. Not even close. Our world will be safer if that administration fails to implement its ideology or, better yet, stops trying either because it has been rendered toothless by our checks-and-balances (supported by a strong grass-roots movement) or has been removed through impeachment or resignation. But my worry is this: a resistance that falls prey to mythic scapegoat-thinking will, if successful in removing Trump's administration, quickly move from the elation of success to the comforting sense that all is now well, as if the problem were solved.

Furthermore, if a successful campaign is defined by the scapegoating of Trump, this may actually fuel the us/them ideology in this country, worsening the divisions and the polarized animosity. Because here's the thing: Trump is the hero of a lot of people. He symbolically represents them. If it's just about ousting Trump--and his ardent supporters are seen as nothing but a bunch of idiots that deserve to be shoved back under the rocks they crawled out from--then the danger posed by Trump's brand of ideological leadership will be alleviated only at the cost of intensifying the divisions that put him into power in the first place. The next Trump who comes along can awaken the same forces, and they may be angrier than ever.

I have been in the habit of expressing these concerns by saying that Trump is just a symptom of a far deeper problem--a problem of ideological divisiveness that needs to be separated from the people who preach it and repudiated in much the way the Martin Luther King, Jr., repudiated racial oppression by insisting that racism, not racists, were the enemy.

But a commenter on this blog, raverroes, has pointed out to me that this is the wrong way to characterize Trump. Rather than being a symptom, he is a catalyst.

This strikes me as exactly. When he was campaigning, Trump's shameless indulgence in pugnacious rhetoric encouraged others who harbored divisive ideologies to step out of the shadow of shame that kept them from expressing their hate boldly. The social constraints against openly abusing Muslims and other minorities in public were, in Trump's rhetoric, lumped together with "political correctness" and dismissed along with its excesses. And when Trump was elected, that event carried a symbolic meaning for at least some of those among Trump's base who were most in the grip of ideologies of hate: The social forces that repudiate acting on our hateful feelings have been defeated. We are free to hate out loud.

Don't misunderstand me: I'm not saying that every Trump voter took home that message. A substantial percentage of Trump voters were never inspired by his divisive rhetoric and blatant us/them ideologies in the first place. They voted for him in spite of those things, perhaps not seeing them as the existential threat to our values and social life that I take them to be. I know people--who are surely representative of many more--who held their noses as they voted for Trump, finding him odious but thinking that his excesses would be restrained by the establishment and that his administration would make SCOTUS appointments that would favor a pro-life agenda. Others thought his promise of good jobs, of looking out for the working class, eclipsed his talk about Muslim bans and registries (which, they thought, was just talk and wouldn't be something he could implement anyway, it being unconstitutional and all).

But even if most Trump voters were not inspired by Trump's promulgation of ideologies of division, those in our society who did embrace such ideologies flocked to him and were emboldened by him. He became a catalyst. And that catalyst is now occupying the most powerful political office on planet Earth.

This, then, raises the question of what to do in response. The root problem is not any one person but an underlying pattern of thinking and acting. The root problem is divisive ideology and the illusory promise of tribal unity offered by sacrificing scapegoats. There are deep social structures and unconscious cultural forces that feed such ideology, that perpetuate such false promises. We need to work against these forces in a way that doesn't lead us to become seduced by their lure. But we also confront the reality that a catalyst for these forces now occupies the Oval Office. I'm not sure his aim is to be such a catalyst.  I suspect it is more about ego-gratification. But he remains a catalyst.

I remain convinced that we compromise any meaningful resistance to divisive ideology and its harmful effects if we turn a catalyst into a scapegoat. But raverroes has highlighted for me the crucial difference between symptoms and catalysts, and so I also think we compromise any meaningful resistance if we treat someone who has functioned as a catalyst as nothing but a symptom.

There is one final conditioning force that I believe any meaningful resistance needs to internalize. I think we lose the moral center that must define a nonviolent movement if we see only the catalyst and forget that the catalyst is first and foremost a person--a human person who has been thrown into a position he never expected to be in and who is plagued by his own demons. A person gripped by an irrepressible urge for approval while sitting in a role that by its nature draws relentless critical scrutiny. A person who is surely angry and miserable, whose spirit is layered with crud and who is desperately trying to get rid of the crud by rubbing it off on those around him. Where there is a human soul there is the need for the kind of compassion that reaches across the divides of human conflict and affirms our shared human condition even as we stand firm against the choices and behaviors that we are convinced are wrong and harmful.

The question is how to cultivate the right spirit and weave that spirit into an action plan that stands up for the vulnerable, that says no to ideological hate and scapegoating, that impedes the advance of injustice--and that can do so without falling into the scapegoating instinct even when such a potent catalyst for ideological division occupies the most visible and powerful office in the world.

I don't have clear answers, but I think we need to ask the questions.

Thursday, February 23, 2017

A (Very) Short Drama, Maybe a True one

Donald Trump: "I present to you, the American people, the dangerous other, the source of all our troubles. It is the Muslim and the Latin American immigrant! Let us together drive them out, or keep them out. Let us crush them and all will be well with America. It will be great again!"

Trumpeters: "Yes! Let us strike down this evil among us. Let us destroy this threat to all that is good and right, so that America will be great again!"

(Efforts to enact the plan ensue, until the resistance interrupts.)

The Resistance: "This is intolerable! It is an effort to oversimplify our nation's problems by identifying those problems with some scapegoat, with people who are different or 'other.' This will lead only to greater hatred and escalating cycles of violence. It must be stopped!"

(Struggle commences as Trumpeters and the Resistance face off. As the Resistance grows in numbers, some leaders emerge, who speak out a unifying message.)

Leaders of the Resistance: "We present to you, the American people, the dangerous other, the source of all our troubles. It is Donald Trump! Let us together drive him out!"

I'll stop there, since you know how it ends--or, more properly, doesn't end. I guess this isn't a (very) short drama after all. But the telling is short, unless we decide to throw away the script.

Addendum: Because of some responses I've had to this post both on social media and in the comments, I worry that my effort to deliver a warning in a clever way has ended up implying a false equivalence where I didn't intend to--and, furthermore, that I ended up glossing over some very important realities. Hence, I have created a follow-up post that addresses these things.

Wednesday, February 15, 2017

Resisting Feedback Loops of Ideological Violence: Answering a Commenter's Question

In a comment on my previous post, Mike H asked (simply playing Devil's Advocate) how I would respond to the following claim:

"The very fact that those who oppose an all-out ban bring up the likelihood that a ban would actually increase terrorism in the future seems to prove the point - that there is an inherent problem with what we call 'terrorism' in the very essence of Islam that is just waiting to explode and which could awaken at any time or place."

Since my answer was too long to post as a comment, I post it here instead:

It is part of the very essence of ideologies of division that they operate in this way, but Islam needn't be formulated in such ideological terms. In fact, many Muslims (all the Muslims I know personally) reject such an ideological understanding of Islam.

But divisive ideologies are real--and you can find them alive and well in the Muslim world. Unfortunately, they are also alive and well everywhere else in the world. And that creates the danger of feedback loops of escalating hostility unless we stand against these ideologies.

Here's how these feedback loops work. Suppose you have two groups, A and B, and within each group there is a subgroup that views itself as locked in a zero-sum struggle with the other group. Acts by members of A that treat all of B as the enemy strengthen the position of those within B who claim that all of A is the enemy, earning them more recruits and greater strength. This in turn will lead to more acts by members of B treating all of A as the enemy...and the feedback loop is off and running.

Of course, there's the question of whether something in the Koran or in Islam's history and traditions lends itself to such us/them ideology. And the reality is this: if you leaf through the Koran, you can find texts to support such ideological thinking. I'm no expert in Muslim history, but you can probably find things there to support such ideological thinking, too. But I've leafed through the copy of the Koran that I got when I went to a Muslim open house, and so I know you can also find things there to oppose ideological divisiveness.

The same is true of the Christian and Jewish Scriptures and histories/traditions: you can find plenty of texts that support us/them ideology; and you can find texts that oppose such ideology. What you do with these complex texts and traditions depends on the interpretive lens you bring to bear. The more that ideologies of division prevail within a religious community, the more that texts and traditions will be interpreted in ways that feed those ideologies.

The Muslims I know personally read the Koran and their tradition in ways utterly opposed to the ideologies that fuel terrorism and underwrite dreams of Muslim world-domination. U.S. policies that single out Muslims in a sweeping way will cause them substantial hardship and will inspire in them fear for the future and outrage against the administration, but will almost certainly not inspire them to adopt ideologies of division and turn them into terrorists.

But there are those on the fence who will be pushed towards embracing this ideological us/them version of Islam by such policies. Of course, most who end up in this ideological camp don't commit acts of terror (although they may cheer them). But policies that treat all of Islam as the enemy will not merely help to push more people towards extremist views but will also push more of those with these extremist views into extremist actions.

But this isn't a distinctively Muslim thing. The same is true on the other side of the divide. Most Americans don't view all of Islam as the enemy. But some do. And if a handful of Islamist extremists commit another significant terrorist attack on US soil, guess what will happen? The number of Americans who think all Muslims are the enemy will grow (especially if there are prominent voices of authority encouraging it). And of those who harbor such ideology, more will be inspired to strike out against innocent Muslims, committing hate crimes and the like. The position of those in authority who harbor such ideological views will likely be strengthened, making it more likely that America will implement military policies that strike out at the Muslim world in ways that harm innocent Muslims. And it will be less likely that this cost in innocent lives will be treated as a weighty loss.

When this happens, ideological extremists in the Muslim world will likely say something like the following: "These actions by the American government show that there is something in the very essence of the West that is just waiting to explode against us!"

Put another way, this kind of language is part of the ideology of division that fuels inter-group conflict and makes such conflict escalate and become increasingly entrenched. We can step away from escalating cycles of violence only by resisting these ideas--only by stepping back and blaming the ideology of division itself, manifested on all sides, instead of fueling it on our side by saying that there is something in the very essence of "them" that causes the problem.

Monday, February 13, 2017

Security, Good Will, and Ideologies of Division

In recent month I've found myself writing numerous lengthy reflections on our nation's current political climate and circumstances--and posting them publicly on Facebook rather than on my blog. The reasons for this are numerous, but the result is that this blog has been neglected. There is, however, an important point I wanted to make today, and as I was about to compose it on Facebook I decided it ought to go here instead.

Much of this blog is devoted to the Christian love ethic. I have argued that, based on an ethic of love, we should be willing to take risks. We should be prepared to make ourselves vulnerable on the Jericho road to help the injured victim in the ditch. We should be prepared to face our enemies with the kind of love that can turn them into friends, even though what might happen instead is that they strike us down.

But the point I want to make in this post is that even if our main aim is security, as opposed to living out a love ethic for its own sake, we need to take the sorts of risks that love demands.

The fact is that there are multiple ways to promote safety and security. One way is to keep threats out. Another way is to threaten decisive retaliation against those who do us harm. A third is to promote good will.

By "promote good will" I mean a few interrelated things. I mean interacting with others in a way that builds networks of friendship and mutual care. I mean doing the sorts of things that inspire gratitude. I also mean avoiding the kinds of things that magnify hostility and create enemies. I mean not deliberately provoking outrage.

Put simply, we're safer in a world of friends than in a world of enemies. One of the surest ways to create friends is to help people in their time of need. And one of the surest ways to create enemies is to assume that they are enemies and treat them accordingly.

The problem, of course, is this: to build friendships, I need to make myself vulnerable. If I refuse to make myself vulnerable, that means I am shutting people out in ways that they will likely experience as hostile.

If I engage those around me in a spirit of good will, those who are already my enemy may try to take advantage of that. They might pretend to be in need, and then when I make myself vulnerable by helping them, strike out against me. Reasonable concern for my own safety and security requires that I take sensible precautions against such things, especially if I know that I have enemies out there. But if I take extreme steps to prevent such things--if I try to make myself invulnerable to attack by shutting out anyone who might pose the slightest risk of being a threat--I help create a world in which I have fewer friends and more enemies. I create a world where I am in greater danger than I was before, because more of those around me wish me ill.

In other words, the more afraid I am of making myself vulnerable and the more I act on such fear, the more I will need to be afraid. Similarly, the more aggressive I am in relation to my neighbors--seeking to keep myself safe by issuing threats against them and retaliating with extreme prejudice when my threats aren't heeded--the more I find myself with no alternative but to be aggressive. It becomes a kind of self-fulfilling prophecy.

This is true both at the individual level and at the group level. It is true of me with my neighbors, and it is true of America in relation to the wider world. We live in a world where America has enemies, those who wish to do us harm. But if we try to make ourselves immune to attack by shutting down our borders and adopting an aggressive posture, we become a nation with fewer friends and more enemies. The cost of an an "America First" nationalism that shuts down our borders and treats every desperate refugee as a potential terrorist is that we help to create a global environment in which more people wish us harm than before.

If we open our borders to, say, Iranian college students, what is going to happen? Of course, some extremist who wishes to violently attack Americans could try to come into the country on a student visa. But the vast majority who come to this country will do so in order to experience a new country and get an education. And guess what? If we let them in and don't treat them like enemies, if we invite them to dinner and to the movies and to a football game, if we give them a stellar education and inspire them to learn to sing the school's alma mater, we have planted seeds of good will that can help to overcome the seeds of hatred that are being sown by hate groups out there in the wider world.

ISIS and organizations like them are built on ideologies of division: us vs. them, the in-group vs. the out-group. Terrorists depend on a worldview in which "we" are at war with "them." Islamist extremists who target the West teach that Western nations are an enemy of Islam and that there is only one path for Muslims who want to flourish: destroy the enemy. This is the thinking that inspires Islamist terrorism.

Most Muslims don't buy it. Certainly, most of those who live in America today don't buy it. And our security depends on things staying that way. We become more secure if fewer people buy it, rather than more people buying it.

Right now, ISIS is helping to create a refugee crisis. Most of those desperate refugees are Muslims. The horrors of civil war and the violence of Islamist extremism are displacing them, and they are fleeing for their lives. ISIS claims that all of Islam is at war with West. If it's the West that provides succor to these Muslim refugees, that act of good will flies in the face of ISIS's ideology. If America provides a place of refuge and healing--not blindly, but through the kind of careful vetting process that's been in place for years--doing so helps expose ISIS's ideology as a lie.

But if we slam our borders shut, especially if we focus on singling out Muslims as a class for exclusion, we feed the ISIS ideology. We make their worldview more convincing. We help their recruitment efforts. In our of fear of letting a terrorist slip through the cracks of our vetting, we fuel the ideologies of division that inspire terrorism.

The alternative is not open borders. Just because I invite my neighbors over for dinner and show hospitality to those in need doesn't mean I take the locks off my doors. We must not fall for these sorts of false dilemmas. There are people out there who mean to do us harm, and we need to take sensible precautions. But our security depends as much on good will as it does on those precautions. And if we become so ruled by fear that we try to shut out everyone, our efforts at promoting security become self-defeating. We make our world more dangerous. We make ourselves less secure.

This isn't some obscure scholarly point. It's common sense. We are safer in a world with more friends and fewer enemies. Right now, there are ideologies of division that encourage Muslims to view Americans as enemies, and vice versa. If we feed those ideologies, we make our world more dangerous. If we fight those ideologies through showing Muslims that we are not their enemies, we make our world safer.

What is the effect of a sudden, unannounced slamming shut of our borders to a range of Muslim-majority countries--turning away scientists on their way to the the US to join cutting-edge research teams, turning away students about to begin Master's programs in philosophy and chemistry, turning away refugee families that after years of vetting have finally received approval to settle in America and have boarded a plane to their new lives? This act will cause hardship to those affected. It will deprive us of the good will that might have been generated by our generosity. It might deprive an American research team of a brilliant colleague and impede life-saving research.

It will probably not cause those scientists, students, and refugees to become terrorists. But it will send a broad symbolic message to the Muslim world: The US is anti-Muslim. And when the US sends that message, ISIS says, "Oh, goodie!" Because it means their ranks will grow. It means their worldview will become more plausible to more people. It means more people will be fueled by outrage against America to pursue the path of terrorist violence.

And no security system is foolproof. A security measure that reduces the likelihood of a determined terrorist getting into the country is not a good security bet if, in the long run, it substantially increases the number of terrorists who are trying to get in to do us harm.

Imagine that I found out that my door locks and dogs will only keep out 50% of determined burglars, whereas there is a new security system by Company X which would keep out 99% of them. But suppose that I am not really a target for burglars, let alone determined ones. In fact, the chances that a determined burglar will target my home in any given year is about one in a hundred. Now imagine that I find out that there is a team of burglars that keeps tabs on Company X's customers. They think anyone who installs the company's system has something really worth stealing. So were I to get the security system installed, my home would suddenly become the target of dozens of determined burglars every year.

Should I get the system installed? Obviously not.

Of course, the trade-offs we're dealing with when it comes to national security are not so stark or clear. But the point remains the same: sacrificing good will for the sake of greater security has costs--including a cost in terms of security. The safest world is one where ideologies of division are replaced by mutual understanding and respect across differences. Our aim should be to work towards such a world while taking sensible precautions against those in the grip of these ideologies. As soon as we decide to stop working towards such a world in favor of immunizing ourselves from any possible threat, we are pursuing an illusion: the illusion that we can achieve invulnerability.

Here's the grim truth: no matter what we do, we will be the victims of terrorism again. It will happen. The national security question is how best to reduce the frequency of such attacks. Throwing good will to the dogs is not the answer.