It’s Still Advent

Now there was a man in Jerusalem whose name was Simeon; this man was righteous and devout, looking forward to the consolation of Israel, and the Holy Spirit rested on him.It had been revealed to him by the Holy Spirit that he would not see death before he had seen the Lord’s Messiah.  – Luke 2:25-26

All over I’m seeing signs that Christmas is already here.  People are posting their Christmas posts on their blogs.  Post-Christmas sales are being advertised.  Both the world and the church seem to be rushing toward Bethlehem without considering that the trip takes time for a reason.  Just as we all tend to rush through Holy Week, and try as hard as we can to ignore Good Friday, just so we can get to Easter and the celebration of the resurrection, so, too, we ignore Advent as much as possible.  We sing Christmas hymns the first Sunday in Advent.  We decorate our sanctuaries with Hanging of the Greens services.  We have Nativity scenes with the baby Jesus wrapped in swaddling clothes, instead of a scene of Joseph and a very pregnant Mary on their way to Bethlehem.

This time of preparation is necessary.  Like Simeon, we have been promised something special – to see the Messiah.  Simeon, however, grew old waiting, having been told he wouldn’t die until that moment happened.  He didn’t despair, however; he kept waiting, growing old and gray, wondering which day would be that day.  His faith, however, gave him the power to wait, even as his family and friends, perhaps, died around him, or moved away.  Perhaps his grandchildren thought him senile, blabbing about not dying until he saw the Messiah.

No one likes to wait.  Especially for Christmas.  We decorate our houses, wrap our presents and put them under the tree, we watch those TV Christmas specials over and over and over until we memorize every line, every nuance.  We bake cookies and pies, then have to bake more because in our haste to get to Christmas we gorge ourselves on sweet treats, rather than wait with patience for the only gift that matters.

We don’t want to wait.  Advent, like Lent, is a pain in the butt.  “Let’s just get there,” we say.

Simeon had to wait.  He waited a longer lifetime than he might have preferred.  Mary had to wait.  Mary to wait and travel, wondering what would await her in Bethlehem, wondering if the village midwives would help an unmarried woman give birth.  The world had to wait, a people living in darkness were waiting for a light, a single light the darkness could not overcome.  The people of Israel had been promised a Messiah, a deliverer from the line of David.  That, of course, meant a King, perhaps even a warrior King who would not only toss the Romans out, but unseat the Herodians, puppets of Rome and usurpers of the rightful royal line.  While they waited and prayed, they saw a world filled with evil and sin.  There seemed no end, no reason to hope other than ancient promises and a string of dead self-proclaimed Messiah’s hanging on Roman crosstrees or simply cut down by sword and spear.

St. Paul said that Jesus came “in the fullness of time”.  That is, Jesus came at just the right time.  Not a day, week, or month sooner or later.  Israel  had waited.  The people, suffering under a  yoke of sin waited.  Mary and Joseph, travelling a hard road made all the more hard by Mary being very pregnant, had to wait.  We, too, must wait.  We must wait and pray, like Simeon, trusting that day will come when the promise, made so long before, will be fulfilled.  We wait, our world dark, filled with no reason at all for hope; no sign that God is even listening.  As DMX says, “I’m ready to meet him,” because there’s nothing left in his world to which to cling.  Until we have reached that point, until we are able to make clear all the reasons we are ready to meet him – despair for the hatred, the killing, the violence, the sin, our own weakness, our own complicity in the brokenness of Creation . . . until we have reached that point, we aren’t ready to meet him.  We haven’t traveled the hard road of Advent; haven’t waited as Simeon did.  We would rather rush to the stable and see the beautiful baby boy without all that muss and fuss.

Christmas, however, is Thursday.  Today is Saturday.  So, we wait.  And pray.  And believe that God’s promise to us and the world will come when the time is right, not a minute too soon, most certainly not a minute too late.

Reflections On

Some final thoughts on Daniel White Hodge’s The Soul of Hip Hop.  It’s a book I’m going to miss, but I’m glad I had a chance to read it.

Jesus Christ Is Lord: A Response To Steve Manksar’s “Love Your Neighbor . . .”

N.B.: Not only is Rev. Steve Manskar the head of Covenenant Discipleship for the United Methodist General Board of Discipleship. He was a classmate of mine at Wesley Theological Seminary, and I do believe I have a picture of him at my wedding reception (although I may be wrong about that).  I have always had a great deal of respect for Steve, his work, and his faithfulness expressed in his yearly devotionals.  The criticisms I have here are rooted more in theological differences than anything personal.

The gifts he gave were that some would be apostles, some prophets, some evangelists, some pastors and teachers, to equip the saints for the work of ministry, for building up the body of Christ, until all of us come to the unity of the faith and of the knowledge of the Son of God, to maturity, to the measure of the full stature of Christ. We must no longer be children, tossed to and fro and blown about by every wind of doctrine, by people’s trickery, by their craftiness in deceitful scheming.But speaking the truth in love, we must grow up in every way into him who is the head, into Christ, from whom the whole body, joined and knitted together by every ligament with which it is equipped, as each part is working properly, promotes the body’s growth in building itself up in love. – Ephesians 4:11-16

The United Methodist Church’s recent marketing tag line, “Open Hearts, Open Minds, Open Doors: the People of The United Methodist Church” is a prime example. It implies that United Methodist congregations are open to all expressions of faith, all ideas, and all people. The slogan intentionally downplays the denomination’s historic identity in Jesus Christ and his mission. It deliberately sets Jesus aside in order to convince the world that openness and inclusiveness are the denomination’s most important values.

Every church should have open hearts, minds, and doors. Inclusiveness is an important attribute of the church. The doors of the church must be open to everyone. The hearts and minds of the people should be open to accept and love all people as they are. We need also to understand that true, universal inclusiveness and openness are possible only when Jesus Christ is Lord of the church. Such virtue is possible only when hearts are open to his grace and the power of the Holy Spirit to work through each life to make open hearts, minds, and doors a genuine reality. This means that the church must understand that true inclusiveness and openness are the fruit of a people who pursue holiness of heart and life.

As admirable as inclusiveness is, when it replaces holiness as the telos of the church we end up with a people who possess little or no understanding of basic Christian doctrine or discipline. - Rev. Steven Manskar, “Love Your Neighbor As Yourself”, wesleyeanleadership.com, December 17, 2014

For quite some time now, we United Methodists have been hearing and reading that ours is a denomination that has lost its way.  We are too liberal.  We try too hard to “fit in” to our current historical moment.  We have lost contact with our historic traditions.  Worst of all, we do now know our doctrinal roots, which ground our teaching, our liturgy, our mission, and most of all our sense of ourselves.  The call for some kind of renewal, a new Pentecost, a revival of our historic roots in the teaching, preaching, practice of ministry, and most of all that unique Wesleyan word discipline are variously offered as the key to getting ourselves back on track.  Manskar’s criticism of our claim of openness as expressed in our marketing slogan, “Open Hearts, Open Minds, Open Doors” is neither new, nor in the end, all that original.  They are criticisms similar in spirit if not in content to those I’ve made myself many times right here on these pages.

That with which I take issue, however, is the same perspective with which I have criticized Rev. John Meunier, another of those to whom I refer as “Wesleyan Fundamentalists”.  They are folks who turn to Wesley for inspiration, for which they should be commended.  More of us need to read Wesley more often.  Yet, we must do so with discernment, with thoughtfulness, and most of all remembering John Wesley is not an early-21st century Christian, but a mid-18th century Christian.  It takes a whole lot of exegetical work, an honest historical criticism, and a hermeneutics of translation and reinterpretation to take the dead words from a long-dead man and make them live for us, here in our place and time.

Let us consider, specifically, Manskar’s emphasis upon “doctrine” as a cornerstone to strengthening our churches and – perhaps – helping spearhead a Methodist revival.  There is nothing wrong with doctrine.  It is, without a doubt, what helps shape the identity of the Christian Churches.  In particular our historic emphases, highlighted in our Book of Discipline make it clear how it is we United Methodists are different from other parts of the Body of Christ.  Yet, I continually wonder, is it necessary to lead with doctrine?  This, of course, begs the question of Manskar’s description of our churches as filled with those who are either ignorant or forgetful of our doctrine.  I would argue that is not only an insulting description of our congregations; it demeans the work of clergy and laity alike who keep the flame of proper teaching alive in times and places where it can look impossible.  That we do not act like or look like the classes and churches Wesley originally envisioned is not the fault of doctrinal forgetfulness.  It is the result of changes in time, historical context, socio-economic conditions, cultural shifts, and even theological and Biblical understanding that would make much of our world, including our churches unrecognizable to people from the 18th century.

To be faithful to Wesley means to be faithful to the spirit of Wesley.  Recognizing the need for a disciplined approach to the Christian life, Wesley first understood he had to evangelize a largely unChristian nation.  To do so, he had to take his message to the people, rather than expect them to come to him or the churches.  While repeatedly being denied pulpit time was one of the reasons for Wesley’s turn to preaching outdoors, it was also a missional approach to ministry that we United Methodists have not only lost, but I would argue we fear it.  Expecting people to approach our old, stodgy, mostly white churches, hearing the demands placed upon them for everything from proper speech through proper behavior while in worship to being quiet and listening rather than asking questions is the quickest way to continue to lose members.  Wesley stood at the openings of mines, with dirty, smelly, probably drunken miners walking in and out past him, preaching his message down the mine shafts, his words echoing off the walls to the deepest places the coal could be reached.  Wesley stood in village squares and started preaching.  People gathered.  Sometimes they were clean and neat; other times they weren’t.  Wesley didn’t tell the dirty, the drunkards, the hecklers to go home.  He just kept on preaching.

Wesley preached and ministered in the Spirit of Christ.  It is this, I would argue, that we must emulate and imitate, rather than focus so much attention of “doctrine” and “discipline”.  As Manskar made clear, Wesley knew that living the Christian life is a life-long process.  Yes, it calls for focus on proper teaching.  It most especially takes discipline.  Doing anything for a long period of time does so.  Yet, we must first open our doors to all those who might just want to hear our message, but cannot overcome the stumbling blocks we have set out for them.  Proper dress and behavior.  Proper language and decorum.  Not speaking so their stories are affirmed but listening because the only story that matters is the one we have to tell them.  If this is the path we take, insisting on placing doctrine and discipline ahead of making disciples of Jesus Christ for the transformation of the world, then we shall surely fail, but ironically precisely because we no longer hold fast to our historic faith, preferring to place our trust in methods and teachings before the Living Head of the Body of Christ.

Yet, thank God for all of us, Wesleyan Fundamentalists and post-modernists alike, for older clergy and laity far too stuck in their ways to change and young people yearning for change, Jesus Christ is head of the Body whether or not we accept that reality or not.  The Spirit blows where it will.  It is up to us to follow the bending trees and rolling leaves back to their source, where we might just discover those outcast, forgotten, ignored, dirty, drunken and drug-addled, who yearn to hear the Word of Life.  They first, however, want their stories, their lives, affirmed by having someone listen and say, “Yes.  Even you are a beloved child of God.”  These are people who may well know the Good News.  What they have yet to hear from our mainline churches is that this is Good News for them, because we have spent far too much time worrying about sex and who’s in and who’s out and things like doctrine to hear the cries from so many just to listen.

I do not believe we have really lost our way, because Christ is still the Head of the Church, which is His Body.  I do not believe the Lordship of Christ is mitigated one bit by our confusion, our inability to see and hear the signs of the times, or our willingness to change to meet them.  I do not believe we are “enculturated” the least little bit; on the contrary, I believe we are so far outside current socio-cultural trends that we aren’t so much unrecognizable as irrelevant.  Indeed, we need to be more enculturated rather than less.  We need to speak the idiomatic slang of the day; we need to grow comfortable with what scholar Daniel White Hodge calls “the neo-secular sacred”, which often includes all the ugliness, profanity, and vulgarity that is our sinful world.  It is precisely that world to which we are sent by the Great Commission, as well as our own United Methodist Mission Statement.  It is precisely that world that God loves, that God acted to save, and for which God is patient, wishing to bring all to salvation.  Worrying overmuch about things like “doctrine” and “discipline” without remembering who’s in charge, and that these things only have their place once we learn how to listen and live in our much-changed reality, that’s the surest way not only to continuing to shrink, but worse – irrelevance.  Not that the Good News is irrelevant.  Rather that we, United Methodists, would be considered irrelevant precisely because we would rather others change to suit our needs before we do the work of looking and listening and venturing outside the comfortable walls of our old church buildings and seeing with the eyes of faith what is possible.

The Fullness Of Time: Handel’s Messiah, Timeliness, And The Future Of The UMC

I’m not sure a piece like The Messiah could be composed today. During Handel’s time, educated people were far more steeped in Bible then we are today. Their sources of information far fewer, the ones they had were more known than ours. When Charles Jennings put together that string of Scriptures that became the libretto to the composition, he clearly did so with an in-depth knowledge of the Bible, of the state of humanity, and of the grace and goodness of God.

- – – -

Somewhere, somehow, we need a new Pentecost, one that will teach us once more how to speak the Gospel in languages others know. I believe that it will come. I believe that God still wants to speak peace to the “heathens,” whom I define as any who have yet to come to the healing language of grace, peace and forgiveness. – Rev. Christy Thomas, “Denton Mystery Worship Eleven: Reflections On The Messiah And Methodism,” The Thoughtful Pastor.com, December 17, 2014

What becomes problematic for some Christians is the notion that Jesus would even be in places like a club, rap concert, and/or event that was not centered around some church.  Some Christians cannot see beyond the four church walls and the programs that run it.  So, finding Jesus in these irregular and nontraditional places will be hard to understand.  Still, even in these nontraditional spaces, community is happening.  And, if we really believe that God is Alpha and Omega, omnipresent, “sell-seeing,” might Jesus be in that smoke-filled strip club trying to talk to the inhabitants there? – Daniel White Hodge, The Soul of Hip Hop: Rims, Timbs, and a Cultural Theology, p. 120

I have another blog where I reflect on what I’m reading.  I’m currently reading Daniel White Hodge’s The Soul of Hip Hop.  In a recent post on two chapters in that book, I included a video from DMX for the song “Look Thru My Eyes”, about which I wrote:

 The rapper is confessing a life lived hard, fast, and violent.  He is searching, however, for forgiveness and understanding.  He understands why so many are afraid of him, precisely because they should be afraid of who he was.  Who he is, or at least wants to be, however, is a daily struggle, made no easier with the  knowledge of who he was, which includes a preference for striking out and striking back.  As he says at the end, his heart is both good and ugly.  Which, in the end, is a description of all of us, unless we are to deny the reality of sin in our lives.  The only difference is DMX is both more clear and more honest.

In the song above, DMX has clearly moved on, yet still struggling to be who he knows he can be even as he is immersed in a world that only wants him to be what they tell him he should be: violent, threatening, the very poster-child for our social evils.

In a piece written about attending a partial performance of Handel’s The Messiah at a United Methodist Church in her hometown of Denton, TX, Rev. Thomas wonders whether such a piece could even be written and received today.  I would insist that such a question is meaningless, for several reasons.  For one thing, it reifies what is historical, ripping Handel’s oratorio out of its place in history and making it not only a commodity, but in doing so making it something it is not – a fetish, something timeless, a thing unto itself (thank you, Theodor Adorno!).  Handel wrote The Messiah at a time when the baroque style was exhausting itself across Europe; when the continent itself was undergoing a socio-economic shift driven by aristocratic protests against absolute monarchy; when the move from the Renaissance to the Enlightenment was already underway.  In short, for all its beauty and power, it is a thing of history, with a past, a present that is our past, and a future that is our present.  The meaning of the words has also most certainly shifted, as our understanding of the Scriptural passages has changed over the centuries.  Not the least problem is that it was written as an Easter oratorio, not a Christmas oratorio.  That alone demonstrates the massive shift in our understanding of the piece.

Furthermore, by searching the conservatories and concert halls for The Messiah, by claiming a need for a new Pentecost without looking around – or better listening around – Thomas misses all the ways contemporary music styles provide all sorts of thoughtful, meaningful Biblical and theological fodder for people younger than we.  Wondering about The Messiah ignores the socio-historical reality that people younger than we are distrustful of large institutions and organizations; I would extend that to attempts at large-scale musical compositions as well.  The Messiah was written in a time and place when the all-encompassing, totalizing reality of Christianity offered a wholeness that has been questionable for over a century.  This is not due to any fault within Christianity itself.  Rather, the events of the 20th century, particularly for youth and young people in the United States for the past two generations have all but eliminated any faith in completion, finality, and wholeness.  The Messiah could not be written, and if it were would not be received well, because it offers what too many no longer accept – a narrative that encompasses all of reality, purporting to explain what is actually a series of open questions to be pursued by communities of faith in their own way.

When Rev. Thomas brings up the issues facing The United Methodist Church, while noting the absence of younger people in far too many of our congregations, she may not be aware that we have yet to understand how our churches turn away youth and young people by our demands, our answers, and our refusal to listen to a vernacular with which we are uncomfortable.  It isn’t just our recent focus on sexuality; it is a whole system of youth and young adult ministry that seeks to provide answers without waiting for the questions.  Far too many of our churches are uncomfortable with baggy pants, tattoos, and most especially white congregations are afraid of young people like rapper DMX, even as he insists we should be afraid, but not of who he is.  We are at a point in our history, yet again, where the young African-American male is yet again the front-page threat to our lives and our social stability.  Our churches could provide safe places for young African-Americans to come and be heard, to be listened to on their own terms without judgment or precondition, yet even our historically black congregations seem unwilling to open our doors that far, despite our marketing motto.

The Messiah may well be out there.  Just not in one piece.  It might be in a small club holding a freestyle poetry night.  It might be in a concert venue, filled with youth, black and white, listening to the questions, given against a background that makes those questions not so much aesthetic and theological as existential and of deadly importance.  When we wonder where our youth and young people are, it might be a good idea to listen to them, their fears, their rage, their distrust of institutions, and how we contribute to our own demise through our refusal, as an organization, to open ourselves to the world as it really is, preferring to perform The Messiah at Christmas instead of selections from Lauryn Hill, Tupac Shakur, and Ice Cube.

An Oldie But A Goodie

Back in 2009, I wrote four Advent posts about Christmases past that lived in my memory for a variety of reasons.  I wanted to revisit one in particular because the central theme of that particular story was realizing that change was coming.  And it came to my attention, giving permission to our older daughter to attend a midnight movie premiere, that change is coming soon.  Moriah is, after all, a high school senior.  A year from now, our whole family situation will be different.  Somehow, without even noticing it, time’s passed, our kids are growing up, and things are going to be changing.

I do want to quote the first paragraph from that original post, because it captures a moment in my life that was real, that continues to live with me, coloring so much of how I feel about family, about holidays, about being with those I love.

I remember the exact moment that I realized this would be the last Christmas like all the previous ones I remembered. On Christmas Eve, it was tradition in our house to gather, my father would read the birth narrative from Luke out of the Bible his grandmother gave him, we’d sing a carol, and then head off to bed. We did all but the heading off, and my mother asked my oldest sister to come to the kitchen and help her with some pies she was baking. As my sister walked off through the dining room, I remember very distinctly thinking to myself, “She’s not gonna be here any more.” She was getting married just a few short weeks later, in mid-January, 1977. It hit me, at that moment, that Christmas was not going to be the same ever again.

I want to skip ahead a bit in that original post.  For some reason, some things that gave personal context, why that thought at that moment was so powerful, I put a bit far down.

Being the youngest of five children, the feeling of being surrounded by people on holidays was so normal that, when I listened to other people talk about sparse tables and only a few people, I really couldn’t imagine what it might be like. Ours was a large, talkative, boisterous family. We laughed a lot, we yelled a lot, we took turns being the center of attention – and giving it as well. Most of all, though, was this sense of permanence, especially on holidays like Thanksgiving, and Easter. Christmas, though, had that extra special ingredient – it was a day just for us, for family. Attempting to recapture the emotional sea in which we lived as children is almost impossible, yet I do know that there was a great deal of comfort, for me as the youngest, being surrounded by this horde of loud, garrulous people, all of whom were my family, and all of whom were particularly amazing each in his or her own way. Since I had only turned 11 a month before, I had no sense of there being anything particularly special about me – except, of course, that I was expected to do well in school and play a musical instrument of one sort or another – so knowing, or at least feeling, that these people, with their abilities in music and school, in the swimming pool and track field, at home to make us all laugh – it was really quite amazing.

My oldest sister, in particular, was one to whom I always looked up. At the end of her first semester of college, my father allowed me to go with him when he picked her up (I was in 3rd grade, and staying out so late on a school night was quite a privilege). When we arrived at SUNY Brockport, and went up the elevator in her dorm – this was the early ’70’s, and college dorms were all those soulless tower blocks – she wasn’t in her room. When we found her, down the hall in a friend’s room, her friends all cooed and ahhed over her baby brother. She did something then I have never forgotten; she picked me up and she hugged me and she kissed me on the cheek. It may have been the last time she ever did that. All I know for certain is I have never forgotten it, and I have loved her for it ever since.

On that Christmas Eve, three years later, as she walked to the kitchen to help our mother with some pies, and the rest of us went to bed (well, except for my older sister, also in college, who stayed downstairs), I knew that I had to hold all the things from that particular Christmas season as close as possible. No Christmas would ever be like this one again.

I was right five years ago: No Christmas would ever be like that one.  Like Mary, I kept all those things and pondered them in my heart.  I’ve had great Christmases since; I’ve had Christmases that have been . . . well, let’s just say less than spectacular.  I have never, however, had a Christmas like the ones we had before that last one all five of us were together, younger, and things like this littered our house at Christmas time.  Surely your family had one or two, right?

A Holiday Tradition In Our House Growing Up Were Dennis The Menace Christmas Comic Books

A Holiday Tradition In Our House Growing Up Were Dennis The Menace Christmas Comic Books

The life my children has lived is so different from my own experience.  They have moved around a lot; Moriah is in her fourth school district.  Old friends have faded as new ones have entered her life.  I do know that one thing that has helped her cope with the constant changes due to our peripatetic life have been our holiday traditions.  She wasn’t all that enthused when we went to my parents’s house last Christmas, although she ended up having a good time.  It wasn’t personal.  It was outside her regular, expected, holiday rituals that help shape her world and life, root it in a way living in the same place and space cannot for her.  And that, friends, I understand.  Yet, without her thinking about it too much, perhaps this year, perhaps sometime during 2015, it will hit her like a bolt out of the blue that things will never be the same.  The rituals and routines that helped create a sense of solidity in the midst of so much change will be gone.  When that happens, it’s a bit like losing your innocence.

I’ve chatted with one or two of my childhood friends who talk about how comforting it is for them to know there are people to whom they can turn who they have known since kindergarten.  I’m happy for them, but that isn’t our life.  It certainly isn’t Moriah’s or Miriam’s.  We’ve tried as hard as we can to create within our home space for safety, ritual, and a special bond among us.  Yet, changes are coming, sooner and faster than anyone expects or probably wants.

So here’s to change.  To growing up, in all its guises and varieties.  To family rituals and routines.  And to their endings as we go about the business of living, struggling to keep a semblance of normalcy amid a lifetime of change.  To be a child, to be thoughtless about the way life doesn’t change – that’s a privilege, really.  It’s a special thing to have in one’s life the house in which one grew up, filled with the ghosts of nearly a half-century of living, loving, fighting, secrets, cats and dogs.  It is yet another thing onto which I hold tight, knowing those are – mostly – friendly ghosts who would remind me that being me in my family was more than happy, but something very special.  When that started to change when I was only eleven, I made sure I held on tight.  Now, going back to that house . . . I don’t have to think about years, because I’m surrounded by them.

Sometimes The War Never Ends (UPDATED)

Not All Wounds Are Visible Or Heal

Not All Wounds Are Visible Or Heal

A woman who told neighbors she feared her ex-husband would kill her was among six people found fatally shot in three suburban Philadelphia homes, and her Marine veteran former husband was on the run. – Maryclaire Dale and Sean Carlin, “Search Intensifies For Gunman Who Kills 6″, news.yahoo.com, December 16, 2014

It was the late 1980’s, and I was working at a country club near my home.  I was walking behind a foursome sharing stories from the Second World War.  I couldn’t help overhearing them because, being old and hard of hearing, they had to talk loudly to be heard.  One man was talking about an anti-aircraft gunner during a battle – I have no idea what theater.  The gun was in a turret, so it might even have been aboard a ship.  In any event, when the battle was over, he wasn’t coming out of the turret.  It hadn’t been hit, so no one knew what was going on.  The man telling the story said he and two buddies entered the turret and the man was standing, his hands still on the anti-aircraft gun, his eyes wide, his mouth hanging open.  He had vomited on the gun, down the front of his clothes.  He had shit his pants.  He refused to answer any questions. It took four men to pry his hands off the gun and lead him out of the turret.  Two days later, he ate a bullet from his sidearm while refusing to talk to anyone.

Post-traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) is as old as war.  Thucydides wrote about it in his History of the Peloponnesian War.  In Wolrd War I it was called “shell shock”; very often the Germans would begin an offensive with an hours long fusillade of artillery.  Reports from veterans include men running screaming out of the trenches, driven insane by the constant barrage of shells, only to be cut down by German machine guns or snipers.  In World War II, they retained the name, adding “the thousand yard stare” as a descriptor.

When A Person Has Seen More Than Anyone Should See, Sometimes They Can't Stop Seeing

When A Person Has Seen More Than Anyone Should See, Sometimes They Can’t Stop Seeing

PTSD became a clinical diagnosis at the end of the war in Vietnam.  More technical and refined as a description, it was little more than a therapeutic descriptor of the mental trauma brought on by participation in combat.  No matter how much training our soldiers and marines and sailors have; no matter how much our training camps try to replicate battle-like conditions, including live-fire obstacle courses, at the end of the day nothing can prepare even the hardiest individual for the moment it becomes clear other human beings are trying to kill them.  All the training in the world cannot erase the images of bodies torn apart by bullets and shrapnel from artillery.  The strongest, most resilient person might well break as “the enemy”, a person no older than himself, with no personal grievance, comes charging at them wanting only to kill.  The late actor Charles Durning talked about having to kill a German soldier, no older than 17, armed only with a knife.  The fight became fierce and Durning was forced to beat the young man to death with a rock.  Afterward, Durning admitted, he sat in that field, holding the corpse of the young man he’d killed, weeping.

According to the website Traumalines.wordpress.org, back in 2011, Pres. Obama sought to increase funding for treating PTSD in his budget for FY2012.  That same year, 2012, the Congressional Budget Office (CBO), issued a report entitled The Veteran’s Health Administration Treatment of PTSD and Traumatic Brain Injury Among Recent Combat Veterans.  Among its findings was that mandated information sharing between the Department of Defense and Department of Veteran’s Affairs, to better coordinate treatment for service members rotating out of the service to civilian life, was “a work in progress” (a marvelous bureaucratic way of saying “it sucks”).  Further, initial findings were as follows:

CBO’s primary analysis focused on VHA patients who
had not been treated at specialized polytrauma facilities,
which provide care for veterans who suffer from more
than one complex physical or mental trauma. That analysis
examined the use of VHA’s health care services and
cost of providing those services for 496,800 OCO veterans
in four mutually exclusive groups:
 103,500 patients with PTSD (but not TBI);
 8,700 patients with TBI (but not PTSD);
 26,600 patients with both PTSD and TBI; and
 358,000 patients with neither of those two conditions.

Whether or not the suspect in the Pennsylvania killings has PTSD we cannot know at this time.  According to the CBO report, cases of PTSD are underreported due to stigma, lack of access to facilities, or simple fear rooted in PTSD itself.  That does not mean, however, that he is not suffering from the illness.   According to an April 25 story in The Washington Post, the Pentagon claimed that suicide rates among active duty personnel was down 15 percent in 2013.  He also reports, however, that Irag/Afghanistan Veterans Against The War not only dispute those numbers, but insist the crisis among veterans remains unaddressed.

But at least one veterans group, the Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America, says a similar focus on prevention is needed to lower the rate among former service members. An estimated 22 veterans killed themselves each day in 2010, compared with 18 per day in 2007, according to the latest figures available from the Department of Veterans Affairs.

Clearly, we need to do a better job for the men and women we send overseas to fight our wars for us.  Not only as active-duty personnel, but once they rotate out of service and enter civilian life, the wounds of war continue to fester, leading to higher rates of substance abuse, domestic violence, broken families, and suicide, assault, and homicide.  Again, I do not know if the suspect in the Pennsylvania killings was diagnosed with PTSD.  I do know, however, that, if he is, he is just one among tens of thousands who are in desperate need of help, help we as a nation seem unable to give to those from whom we’ve already asked so much.

UPDATE: Among the reasons for PTSD for women veterans (and, I would add, men as well, although grossly underreported) are incidents of sexual violence, often from fellow troops.  According to the Feminist Majority Blog, the United States Senate has blocked debate, essentially denying a vote, on The Military Justice Improvement Act.  It isn’t enough that our young women volunteer, even though they are only now being rotated in to combat areas.  It isn’t enough they are trained to fly fighter planes, drive tanks, guard prisoners, and find themselves confronting an enemy who may well be even more enraged fighting a woman.  They also have to face the threat of sexual assault and rape from men who are supposed to have their backs.

The sticking point is removing reporting and investigation of incidents of sexual assaults from the chain of command.  As all the services have independent or semi-independent criminal investigative services, it seems to me turning these crimes over to them, rather than making them offenses reported up the chain of command where decisions are made to move forward with investigation and prosecution makes sense, especially since, as one retired Air Force Colonel and prosecutor said, “current process an “ineffective, broken system of justice,” that “undermines the military I love.”

Clearly, we still have so far to go.

 

A Follow-Up To Yesterday

Well, yesterday’s post certainly stirred up some defense of the police.  I posted it to Facebook and almost immediately two people in particular took issue not so much with what I wrote, but with the principles of (a) criticizing police departments, and painting with such a broad brush; (b) including the issue of race (because, as we all know, it is only liberal racists who are racists by bringing up racism when there is in fact no racism because even conservatives like Martin Luther King).  While I dealt with one bug-a-boo in particular – that police “risk their lives with every traffic stop or every domestic call” – I thought the broader criticism needed some repetition because the two people criticizing what I never said and would never say needed to be clear on the position I was taking.

First of all, I am not the least bit interested in the personal feelings of any given law enforcement officer when it comes to race.  I was speaking of the entire culture and community of law enforcement, from the local three-cop town up to and including federal law enforcement in all its various guises.  As institutions, law enforcement is what it has always been – a vehicle for maintaining not only the law, but through that the social status quo.  Part of that status quo is our long history – nearly four hundred years – of white supremacy and the dehumanization of people of color.  I know people don’t like hearing or reading about that; it makes them uncomfortable.  It even makes them angry.  That doesn’t make it any less the case.  That I certainly include myself among those who benefit from our racist society is true enough.  I recognize all the ways institutions in this country bend over backward for people like me: I’m white, I’m male, I’m middle-aged, and I’m upper-middle class if our latest economic statistics are true.  I am one of those for whom this society maintains certain racial and class divides.  That I reject those various privileges, speaking out against the unjust, corrupt, violent, and immoral actions of a society that actually benefits me doesn’t mean I don’t receive those benefits; they accrue regardless because they are built in to the system.  It only means that, as an individual – and hardly one of much importance – I do what I can to make it clear that our society and its institutions, particularly the police, are designed to maintain white privilege and power.

Second, for some reason, my two particular interlocutors seemed to think that criticism of the police, and in particular of police racism meant that African-Americans are innocent little lambs who commit no crimes, including hate-crimes against whites.  Not only did I not say that, I would never say that, and could never say that because it isn’t true.  African-Americans are criminals at about the same rate as people of other races.  The difference, however, is that most African-Americans are assumed to be criminals, particularly when they gather in large groups.  You see a group of white youths walking down the street, you might give them a bit of stink-eye if they don’t let you pass.  A group of African-American youths, however, and be honest – how many of you would or have crossed to the other side of the street?  I know I have.  I’m not proud of that.

All of this is to say there are bad, horrible people out there who do bad, horrible things, including attack people just because of their race.  Nothing I wrote yesterday either denied that fact, or the need for police departments to apprehend people who commit such heinous crimes.  My argument, in fact, was that their work would be better, would be more efficient – the number of open cases that will never be closed increases despite nearly a quarter century of steady decrease in crime – and more successful if, rather than act on particular assumption about the race, class, and gender of those who commit various crimes, they would actually work from evidence and pursue the evidence rather than “their gut”, their experience, or the default position – some black kid did it.  The number of innocent people – innocent people of color – on Illinois’s death row was so high that former Gov. George Ryan placed a moratorium on executions.  The state legislature was later embarrassed into revoking the death penalty all together, making any maximum sentence life without parole.  Some of these men had spent decades fighting for their lives; the Supreme Court has already made it far more difficult to introduce exculpatory evidence years after the fact, including DNA evidence.  Now, I’m going to guess that at least some of those men released by the State of Illinois had criminal records.  Maybe one or two of them had been, and maybe still were, bad people.  Some are, you know.  Just bad, from their head to their toes.  That in no way means they should forfeit their lives for crimes they did not commit.  Racial bias in capital cases is a long-running sore, as is sentencing bias in cases of whites caught with powder cocaine versus African-Americans caught with crack.

Finally, the number of instances of police just screwing up – from using paramilitary entry tactics in the wrong home (some of which have included deaths of every age cohort, from the elderly to small children) to holding people because they might have the same name as a wanted criminal to a case in New York City several years ago where three cops opened fire on a suspect and managed to wound several bystanders without hitting the suspects at whom they are shooting; these are many, varied, and by and large involve people of color, particularly youths.  Which is not an argument against the police.  It is, rather, a demand that the police do a better damn job.  Mistakes are always inevitable, of course.  That doesn’t mean checks and balances in the system can’t reduce both their number and severity.

And remember, for every innocent person sent to prison for a crime they did not commit, that means there’s still some bad guy out there, committing crimes, threatening life and health and property.

A kind of postscript.  Another bug-a-boo tossed my way was that I shouldn’t criticize unless I was actually a police officer.  Such a position would render impossible any reform whatsoever.  It is the right and duty of all of us, particularly those of us in positions of relative privilege and power, to demand better of our police forces.  Their job is not to be judge, jury, and executioner.  Their job is to apprehend those suspected of committing a crime.  It is up to others to determine if (a) a crime has been committed; and (b) who is and is not responsible.  The police, however, are so far off the rails on this basic social function, not least because they serve our larger social and cultural status quo, which includes maintaining the racial status quo, they are, functionally, outside any accountability whatsoever.  Even the mild criticisms I’ve made are considered by many out of bounds, a kind of declaration of war against the police, and some odd desire to see no police at all and see people who commit crimes as not guilty of having done so.

The only way this is going to change is if more people make it clear that the entire culture of law enforcement, from the little village up to and including the federal government is broken; actually, it isn’t broken.  What it is is functioning in such a way that it, rather than uphold the law and protect our communities, it upholds our social status quo and protects the privileged.  That the abundant evidence this is so seems invisible to some, well, I can’t do much about that.  Nor can I assuage the hurt feelings my criticisms have made.  This isn’t personal, an attack on any police officer in particular, or even particular police department.  Shoot, my nephew is a police officer, specifically a DeKalb County (IL) Sheriff’s Deputy.  I don’t think he’s a bad person at all.  Quite the opposite, in fact.  As a police officer, however, I would be wary of seeing his lights suddenly appear in my rear window.  Again, not because he’s a bad person.  But because, as a police officer, he’s been trained to respond to any situation as potentially life threatening, which means he will always be ready to use lethal force.

It is precisely this place we must start to change the culture of policing in our society: while it is certainly possible any particular call or traffic stop might pose a hazard to the life and health of a police officer, the vast majority do not.  We must make the exceptional just that – the exception rather than the expected norm.  Perhaps, then, fewer people will be angry and feel the need to demand our police do their jobs better.

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