Last Time Pays For All

The Last Supper by Salvador Dali

One of the luxuries I have not being a preacher is I don’t have to come up with new ways of saying the same thing every year on those big Sundays like Christmas and Easter. I’ve talked enough about both over the past eleven years, I feel like offering anyone who still wonders to look back over the years and you should get a sense of what I believe.

Except, of course, Lisa doesn’t have that luxury. Even though she’s not serving a church, she is standing in Sunday and preaching for a gentleman who’s wife’s due date happens to be Easter (how appropriate!). As she struggles – and it is a struggle, especially after nearly 24 years preaching – to offer the good people to whom she will be preaching some new, fresh take on a story they all know, she asked me last night what the resurrection means.

As I haven’t written much of anything in a while, certainly not about religious or theological matters, I thought I’d talk about my answer to that question.

The resurrection means everything.

That’s it. The whole mystery of the Incarnation, Passion, Death, and Resurrection is given meaning by that moment, that event (as Karl Barth would say), that Jesus Christ was raised from the dead. But it does more than just provide the meaning for the entirety of the Christ-event; in being raised from the dead, Jesus took up everything and makes it holy. Every moment from the first nanosecond after the Big Bang right up until not just our Sun but the Universe expands beyond it’s own event horizon and fizzles to nothing.

By holy, I mean just what the Hebrew Scriptures mean – it is ritually clean and righteous before God.

Every moment, big and small, from supernovas that may have wiped out whole civilizations long before our Sun was even born through the emergence of our average solar system and the mystery of life that bloomed and survived upon the third planet, and including every moment of the history of one particular animal on that planet; Jesus takes all of it and makes it holy and fit to be presented before the Father to be declared very good.

We human beings, being terrified of the darkness outside; even more terrified of the darkness within; we have insisted the entire reason for this strange event of a man not only coming back to life – we hear of that often enough – but in such a way that he will never die, this whole thing is about us. Not just “us” but about each one of us, individually, having something called “a personal relationship with our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ”. We have reduced the magnitude of Christ’s triumph over death to a silly contest between Jesus and the Devil. As if any created thing can do anything other than bow before the risen Christ and confess him Lord. We have made this moment of eternal significance for all creation about us, about whether we go to heaven when we die.

As if God actually cares about any of that.

I often say that God loves us, but God doesn’t care all that much about us. Throughout both Testaments, again and again we see the inadequate, the painfully broken, the murderous, the lustful, the angry, the terrified called by God to do things. Whether the protest is a stutter (Moses), youthfulness (Jeremiah, Timothy), anger (Jonah), lust (David), or even the murder of Christians (Saul), God not only doesn’t care about their failings; he doesn’t care about how hard the job is. God tells Moses he’s to lead his people to freedom. When Moses insists on a sign, God says, you’ll know it’s me because you’ve brought the people back to this spot.

Not a lot of help there.

The mystery of salvation is not its personal significance for us. The mystery of salvation is that everything, including all the sadness, beauty, horror, and surprise of human history, is taken up with the risen Christ and made holy. It is given the Divine “Yes”.

None of which is to diminish that moment we each and all realize that the God whose business is this making-holy of that which is most certainly not really does know us, love us, and want us to be in relationship with one another and with God. It is only to say this is the beginning of the story, rather than its end. Being grasped by God, taken up with the risen Christ, we now have business to attend to.

It isn’t saving souls, because there’s no such thing as a soul. Salvation is the work of God through Christ. If you think you’re in the business of saving souls, you’re doing it wrong.

It isn’t about winning the post-existence lottery and winding up someplace beautiful, unlike all those others who don’t believe like you do.

All it’s about, really, is something so simple, we miss it in the wonder and terror that grips us in the face of this mystery: love.

We aren’t called to be good people. We are called to be obedient people. Obedience isn’t about following some eternal moral law. Obedience, as demonstrated by Jesus and offered to us because we are taken up in his resurrection from the dead, is to love. Specifically, we are to love others.

That’s it.

This idea is not original with me. It’s all there in the Bible, you know. Not just one part of the Bible. The whole thing.

It’s a lesson I first learned back in the summer of 1986, at a time I wasn’t even sure I believed in God. I was offered a little book entitled The Way of the WolfIn what appears to be little more than a short sermon by the book’s author, Martin Bell, we hear the simplest, clearest understanding that the resurrection means everything.

Some human beings are fortunate enough to be able to color eggs on Easter. If you have a pair of hands to hold the eggs, or if you are fortunate enough to be able to see the brilliant colors, then you are twice blessed.

This Easter some of us cannot hold the eggs, others of us cannot see the colors, many of us are unable to move at all – and so it will be necessary to color eggs in our hearts.

This Easter there is hydrocephalic child lying very still in a hospital bed nearby with a head the size of his pillow and vacant, unmoving eyes, and he will not be able to color Easter eggs, and he will not be able to color Easter eggs in his heart, and so God will have to color eggs for him.

And God will color eggs for him. You can bet your life and the life of the created universe on that.

At the cross of Calvary God reconsecrated and sanctified  wood and nails and absurdity and helplessness to be continuing vehicles of his love. And then He simple raised Jesus from the dead. And they both went home and colored eggs. (pp. 81-82)

 

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A Gun Control Discussion

This Bloom County strip from the early 1980’s shows how little the terms of the gun control discussion have shifted over the decades.

When Jared Lee Loughner opened fire on an open-air meeting among Rep. Gabby Giffords and her constituents (including a federal District Court judge, present as Gifford’s guest), it was chaos. Up until he had to switch clips, when the new clip caught on his pants’ pocket and fell to his ground. A bystander grabbed it. Then several others, including an injured retired Army Colonel, wrestled Loughner to the ground. A man who heard the shots and came running was carrying a concealed firearm. He never drew it, however.

On July 25, 2017, police in Southaven, MS arrived at a trailer to serve an arrest warrant on Samuel Pearman. Sadly, they were at the home of Ismael Lopez. Lopez and his wife heard strange sounds outside his home, armed himself, and opened the door to see who might be trying to break in. His pitbull charged out. The police, facing an attacking dog and an armed man they believed to be the suspect they wanted to arrest opened fire. Lopez was pronounced dead at the scene.

In early autumn, 2016, just outside Nashville, TN, Timothy Batts believes he hears an intruder in his house in the early afternoon. When the intruder grabs him, he shoots once, killing his eleven-year-old daughter who had just arrived home from her first day of school.

During a wellness check on Saturday, March 3, Winnebago County Sheriff Deputies discovered the bodies of a local community college professor and his two sons, aged 14 and 12. Peter Ruckman had murdered his two sons then shot himself.

Any time there’s a discussion concerning guns, gun safety, and and gun control, the terms of the discussion shift on a dime to rather abstract matters of law, to statements about “good people with guns” being a remedy for “bad people with guns”, and a kind of Second Amendment absolutism that is ridiculous on its face. Rather than talk about actual people being shot and killed, how shooters are often taken down by unarmed people or (as more frequently happens) either shoots himself or commits suicide-by-cop, we hear silly slogans like, “No law can stop a bad person from obtaining and using a gun, so why have gun control laws”. This last isn’t so much a serious argument against gun control as it is a ridiculous statement calling for the abandonment of all laws. It also misconstrues how the law works, or why gun control laws actually tend to be pretty effective.

The Second Amendment absolutists are the most odd, at least to me. They insist that any attempt at regulating the sale and ownership of firearms is ipso facto unConstitutional. Except, of course, none of the statements in the Bill of Rights are absolute, nor should they be. Speech, the press, what counts as a religion and religious practice, what counts as legal search and seizure or a fair trial – these are all changing things as different cases come before the courts, trying to define just what the words in the Constitution mean. As for the Second Amendment, even as the Supreme Court has made it clear that federal regulation of firearms may well face pretty strict scrutiny, states are free to regulate gun sales and ownership pretty strictly. To bracket out the Second Amendment as some exception to the general rule that we are always needing to balance our various freedoms against other, equally important social goods and public responsibilities makes no sense at all. The idea that any regulation of a particular style of firearm will lead to the confiscation of all firearms from all people is ridiculous. Societies draw distinctions in law all the time; that’s why there are defined crimes of murder and manslaughter, as well as different degrees of each. To believe that the elimination of the sale of military-style weapons to civilians is the same as the police entering all homes and taking all firearms without due process of law isn’t credible.

The reality of gun ownership in the United States is that having a firearm in the home is far more likely to result in someone else in the home using the gun on themselves or others in the house. Carrying a concealed weapon does not give license to foolishly brandish the weapon in a tense, confusing situation which could lead to police making a mistake and targeting the innocent person. Finally, the idea the somehow public spaces including schools shouldn’t be “Gun Free Zones” because that invites gun violence is an appeal to lawlessness, to the destruction of the social contract by which we give up the need to fend for ourselves for the local, county, state, and federal authorities to guarantee the safety of all public spaces. Of course schools are and should be Gun Free, as should public parks, courthouses, streets, and sidewalks. It is not an individual’s responsibility to protect themselves in any and all situations; that’s why we have police departments.

We need to talk about what’s actually happening with all the firearms in American society, rather than rely on slogans that are meaningless (or sometimes worse). We need to talk about the obvious need to protect the freedom to own weapons for one’s own use, whether that be for recreation or sport hunting, and protect the public from an epidemic of gun violence that threatens people most where they should feel the most safe – in their own homes and public spaces. Sadly, as the above comic strip makes clear, we’ve been unable to do so for well over thirty years. If we’re going to have a public discussion regarding gun control, let’s talk about the current state of firearm ownership in the United States, the statistics regarding the dangers of gun ownership, and recognize the mass death we tolerate as the price for an ever-shrinking percentage of the population to own more and more firearms.

 

The Contested Memory Of Billy Graham

Billy Graham, the late evangelist who died this week at the age of 99

When I read the news that evangelist Billy Graham had passed away this week, it saddened me more than a little. My experience of Graham (seeing one or two of his revivals on television as a child; hearing or reading his words as an adult) were generally positive; helped along knowing Graham had integrated his southern revivals in 1953, the year before Brown v. Board of Education and two years before the Montgomery Bus Boycott, events that ushered in the activist phase of the Civil Rights movement. I know that late in life he was very public in his changed perspective regarding the Kingdom of God; that is was something toward which we work here and now, not someplace we go when we die. I thought of the Christian musicians whose careers received a boost by being included on his revivals. Singing/songwriting couple Bill and Gloria Gaither are probably the most famous; a good friend of my mother-in-law’s, Huntley Brown, also toured a time or two with Graham as a pianist. Most of all, I thought of the tens, perhaps hundreds, of thousands of people whose lives were changed because they heard the Gospel from Graham.

I also knew other things about Graham. I remember in the 1990’s when Bob Haldeman called him out as an anti-Semite, and he denied it. I remember the Nixon White House tapes made public in the early aughts that demonstrated pretty clearly he harbored  deeply abhorrent anti-Semitic beliefs, going so far as to tell Nixon that he, Graham, would never say such things in public, but it was what he believed. I remember the night back in 1991,  a couple days before Operation Desert Storm began, participating in a night-march on the White House; Pres. Bush, we were told, was holed up in the private residence meeting with Billy Graham. I even remember the one time, in the 1980’s, he pronounced HIV/AIDS punishment from God upon gay people; that he backtracked, insisting he had no idea where the words came from and that they didn’t reflect his beliefs was belied by the simple fact of the clarity and force of the words coming from him.

Some things I didn’t know, but learned this week, include a belligerent attitude during the Vietnam War years, including promoting war crimes both to LBJ and Nixon. He carefully cultivated his relationships with Presidents. He worked behind the scenes to deny John Kennedy the Democratic nomination for President solely because Kennedy was Catholic. He soured on both the Civil Rights movement and Martin Luther King, Jr. when both became more militant in the mid- and late-1960’s. He even left some – perhaps many – like the author of the linked article: unable to deal with the overwhelming fear of hell in the face of human weakness and sin, it damaged their souls and lives in innumerable ways. Graham’s message was one of fear as much if nor more than one of grace.

I have been feeling conflicted about the man, his work, he effect upon society, since I learned of his death. The thing is, it isn’t helping that it seems people can only have a single opinion regarding Graham: either he was a saint blessed by the Spirit to bring good news to the people; or he was a hypocritical bigot whose overall cultural impact on America was destructive.

It occurred to me that both things are the case. It is such when dealing with larger than life public persons such as Graham. Martin Luther understood the deep and abiding love and grace of Jesus Christ even as he advocated violence toward Jews and supported the violent suppression of the Peasants during the Peasants Revolt. John Calvin was a brilliant scholar whose understanding of the grace-endowed community extended to the body politic, seeking a holy commonwealth. He also supported the execution of Servetus for heresy, and left so much confusion regarding his beliefs on double predestination that many find him monstrous. Martin Luther King, Jr. worked tirelessly for the rights of black people in America; he also had an eye for the ladies, unable to control his desire for women not his wife. He also received his Ph.D. from Boston University under a cloud as it seems his advisor, L. Harold DeWolfe, let him get away with more than a little plagiarism.

People are rarely just this or just that. Emerging from the shadow of the 20th century, where true horrors were visited upon vast swaths of the human race, I think we forget that most people, even most public people, are rarely so clearly moral or immoral. It would be nice if they were, if our world was made up of heroes and villains easily discerned and identified. Most of the time, in big and small ways, all of us are pretty much equal parts saints and sinners, with the capacity both for great good and for monstrous evil. We should never lose sight of the fact that it is always human beings who commit acts of terror. Human beings just like us. The commandant of Auchwitz/Birkenau was a loving husband and doting father who oversaw the systematic slaughter of over 2 million people. There is no answer to the question, “How is this possible?” All we can do is marvel and tremble that it is so.

So I think it’s important to be honest. Billy Graham spread the Gospel of Salvation to millions of people around the world, changing lives, careers, and the path of public religion (especially in the United States) in the process. He also harbored deep loathing of Jews, of sexual minorities, and advocated for the mass killing of North Vietnamese civilians during a war that already saw far too much such death. He could offer hope to the hopeless, yet lie about his own anti-Semitism, not because he was secretly evil, but because he was a human being.

I think it’s fair to judge him harshly, perhaps even hold him in contempt, for much of the evil that followed in his wake. I also think it’s fair to be grateful that such a man as this existed who preached freedom to the captives around the world. There is no single summary for his life, as there is for any others. Billy Graham was, in the end, just a person, full of contradictions and hypocrisies, love and generosity of spirit.

We Are Socially Awkward And Have Issues: The Online Men’s Right’s Movement

NB: I’ve been dealing with serious anxiety the past few days. Writing is hard, but it’s good therapy for me. With We Hunted The Mammoth seemingly on hiatus, I thought this a good time to promote it while also writing about the strange, ugly phenomenon of online Men’s Rights Advocates. For a glossary of terms, just click here.

We Hunted the Mammoth tracks and mocks the white male rage underlying the rise of Trump and Trumpism. This blog is NOT a safe space; given the subject matter — misogyny and hate — there’s really no way it could be.

David Futrelle, writer/editor/cat entertainer.  – We Hunted The Mammoth

It was Gamergate that drew me in.

For most people, the internet is a place to connect with friends old and new, check out the news, get recipes, seek info on local businesses, and of course peek at naughty pictures. There are some people, however, for whom their online presence is far more than a way of enhancing the comfort and ease of their actual life. For these people, being online is their life. It’s more than just the overweight and unemployed guy hanging in his Mom’s basement; there really are a whole lot of people, men and women, whose online identity is who they are. It’s strange, I know, and I still don’t get it, but it is what it is.

As some might imagine, investing so much of one’s identity into virtual space can lead in some cases to a kind of psychic break; in the anonymity and pseudonymity provided by the Internet, a person really can be just about anyone. Just today, The New York Times reports a story about an online neo-Nazi who uses a pseudonym for his online writing and claims battlefield experience in Iraq to boost his credibility. The problem, of course, is it isn’t true. Called “Stolen Valor”, this is actually quite common. While easily checked, most people don’t and are drawn into the imaginary lives of all sorts of people.

Among the many pockets of what’s being called the “alt-Right” (white nationalism with a hipster title), few encapsulate so much of what is wrong with large pockets of our society as the online Men’s Rights Movement. Bringing together white racism, white entitlement, misogyny, male entitlement, MRA’s (Men’s Rights Advocates) cover a broad swath of fringe territory but are united by their seemingly pathological fear and hatred of women. Combined with odd self-imagery and that sense of entitlement that too many men carry around with them, their online presence is a toxic, dangerous brew that destroys lives and careers, creates online fascist “celebrities” like  Milo Yiannopoulos and Mike Cernovich, and further rots not only our public discourse but our whole polity. After all, were we at all healthy, such individuals and groups would not only be dismissed, but ridiculed into disappearance.

In any case, I first heard about all this back in 2014 or 2015, when I first read about Gamergate. A good summary of what Gamergate was is offered up in a New York Magazine article from last July:

The previous December, while living in Boston, [Quinn] went out with Eron Gjoni, a programmer she’d met on [OkCupid, with whom she had a 98 percent match. The first date involved drinks at a dive bar in Cambridge, sneaking into Harvard Stadium, a sleepover. They started a relationship that was intense at first, then off and on as the spring wound down. It was not an unusual course of events for a 20-something romance. But what followed was extraordinary, an act of revenge on an ex that became about much more than the two of them, that rippled across the video-game industry and far beyond. . .

The broad strokes of the episode — Gamergate, as it came to be called — go something like this: In August 2014, Gjoni published an extensive blog post accusing Quinn of various infidelities, including, he said, sleeping with a journalist at the gaming site Kotaku. The post was explosive, particularly on certain internet forums like 4chan, where it was suggested that she’d cheated on Gjoni in order to get a positive review of a game she’d built. In fact, no such review exists, but Quinn was an appealing target: She was already known for her work as a designer whose most famous game seemed built more to provoke an argument than to be enjoyable, and for her outspokenness on gender inequities in the industry.

It’s important to understand something: An episode that exploded online misogyny, advocacy of violence against women, and mainstreamed such odd terms as MGTOW (Men Going Their Own Way) and SJW (Social Justice Warrior, used as a derogatory epithet) began with a spurned boyfriend attacking his ex with an obvious and easily-falsified lie. What was an ugly instance of online harassment became something far larger, fueled by hundreds, perhaps thousands, of young men harboring a dangerous amount of rage and fear directed at women.

While reading about Gamergate, I kept hearing about a website called We Hunted The Mammoth. The title was ironic, a jab at the self-image so many MRA’s present online. Little more than a news aggregator about the ugly, vicious side of online misogyny, it is nevertheless a window into some of the ugliest, and occasionally pathetically funny, parts of the internet. It is important to understand the social pathology on display, that the amount of hate, rage, and fear directed at women – some not only “defend” rape (Rape apologists are a thing), but either advocate it or insist “rape” doesn’t actually exist because men are entitled to sex with pretty much any woman they want any time they want – is really quite disgusting.  All the same, it leads some of these men into some truly strange ideological contortions.

Before I highlight some of the sillier things MRA’s talk about with all the seriousness of a grad school seminar, it’s important to outline the self-image many of these men carry around. Rooted in really bad anthropological notions of alleged “alpha” versus “beta” males, there are a couple subgroups who, having failed at dating (as if harboring deep loathing of women would make them winners), these men have decided they are the true Alpha Males, those who should rule, those who should have the hottest, most successful, most desired women. The problem, of course, is a conspiracy among feminists to deny these alphas their rightful place. These powerful women are actually castrating bitches who purposely seek out beta males because they are more easily controlled. Having figured out this reality, these men often decide that they’d rather have nothing to do with those they call “western women” (they believe non-western women are still in touch with the only truly womanly virtues of procreation and general service to a man’s any and every desire) and “Go Their Own Way”, either by seeking out non-western women, advocating the superiority of masturbation over sex, or giving up on relationships entirely. Searching We Hunted The Mammoth for “Men Going Their Own Way” or MGTOW brings up pages and pages of articles like the following:

The stunted human beings known as Men Going Their Own Way love to imagine apocalyptic scenarios in which women are forced to beg them for help, offering sexual favors for cans of beans.

Now, with something truly apocalyptic barreling into Florida, they’re … well, doing the exact same thing, with Florida-based MGTOWs boasting of their preparedness and mocking all those allegedly hapless women they think will soon be beating a path to their home fortresses in search of food and shelter.

Despite the anger and misogyny on display in this post, there is something pathetic about it. Except it rouses more laughter than pity, these men believing themselves the true leaders, the real heroes of their stories. Their warped psyches really are something.

As for the whole “Alpha Male” phenomenon, this post sums up the whole belief-system rather succinctly:

In Kotaku in Action, the main Gamergate hangout on Reddit, azriel777 sadly reports that:

Apparently, it’s only the real alphas who won’t fall for the whole “let’s be partners in life” line.

The other side of Men Going Their Own Way are the truly bitter men who call themselves “incel”, short for involuntarily celibate (what a shock!). The biggest incel subreddit was banned, deemed a hate group that advocated violence against women. As I suppose should be expected by a group of men who believe the fact they can’t get laid is all someone else’s fault. As one Incel – who wondered if he went on a public hunger-strike, some women might feel sorry for him and come relieve him of his celibacy – wrote on the now-defunct subreddit:

As Futrelle writes further down this same article: “The incel ideology pretty much poisons everything it touches.”

As for the deeply disturbing lack of self-consciousness and quasi-paranoia among “incels” Futrelle highlights a reddit story that sums it all up in a bow made of a combination of sadness and creepiness:

If it weren’t for feminism I wouldn’t have changed seats and she wouldn’t hate me for breaking her heart. She probably would have followed me to my apartment and asked me if she could have sex with me and I wouldn’t be a virgin anymore.

Futrelle concludes:

You didn’t break her heart. At best, she barely noticed you; at worst, you creeped her out. That’s it. Everything else is going on in your head, and nowhere else. Women do not follow strange men to their apartments to ask them for sex because they happened to sit next to each other on the bus. This is the sort of fantasy you come up with when you can’t imagine actually interacting with a woman as a real human being.

While the incel subreddit is gone, there are still plenty of places on the Internet and Deep Web for these MRA’s to advocate rape, destroy the reputations of others, and write about their sometimes insane, sometimes awkward fantasies about who they are and what they sincerely believe women think. Because their real lives are probably fairly humdrum, like most people’s, their internet identities become an outlet for them to fantasize about their own importance, becoming something outsized and more than occasionally monstrous. Exposure won’t make these men go away, of course. It was David Futrelle’s exposure to the broader society – online and in the real world – that was the real virtue of his website. Apparently health issues have kept him from blogging regularly, or at all since Christmas Day, but go check out his site to learn more about this strange, sick world you might not have known existed.

Our Age Of Mass Death

The Holocaust was a tragedy, and every tragedy inevitably implies failure. There i no denying that during the period of the exterminations, the Jewish people suffered a crushing defeat, and there is no evading the painful question of why this tragic defeat occurred. We have to face it. But the failure was not only ours; the catastrophe was not of the Jews alone. It was a general human catastrophe: Europe’s culture and civilization, forged through centuries, was ravaged during the days of Hitler’s rule, and the human condition in the modern, technological world was illuminated by the fires of the crematoria at Auschwitz. The Jew, not for the first time in his history, epitomized man’s fate in a time fraught with peril. No historical event can ever be eradicated; once it has happened the possibility of its occurrence is proven. The history of the world since World War II shows that Hitler created a fissure in the moral dam of religion and culture through which a flood of violence and cruelty, stemming from man’s most sinister impulses, burst forth. Thus, our period has been dubbed the Age of Violence, and its most prominent and shocking manifestation was the extermination camp, where violence was raised as a banner and became the emblem of the age. – Leni Yahil, The Holocaust: The Fate of European Jewry, 1932-1945.

The gates to Auschwitz-Birkenau

Last week, one man, having sneaked an arsenal of weapons into his hotel room at Las Vegas’ Mandalay Bay hotel, opened fire on a crowd gathered to listen to a concert by country-western singer Jason Aldean. In a short span of time – no more than ten or so minutes – he killed 59 people and wounded more than 500. While shock, anger, and sorrow greeted the horrible news, so, too, did the demand we not speak about the possibility of controlling the flow of firearms in the United States. Not only were we told it was too soon, we were also reminded – as if we needed reminding – that the right to bear arms is a Constitutional freedom. This particular, contested Amendment to the Constitution has become something of an Escher Drawing of legalese; it presents multiple dimensions all at the same time, confounding our ability to make any kind of singular sense out of its vague meaning and now-lost historical context. All the same, it has been abundantly clear for decades that, to a segment of the population, their ability to own a weapon designed solely for the purpose of killing – whether animals or other human beings – outweighs the rights of others to live free from the fear that any public outing might well end with someone lying dead in a pool of blood from a firearm. We Americans accept both the daily wastage (as the British Army called it during WWI) as well as the occasional orgy of mass death as the price we must pay to make sure a shrinking number of people can purchase firearms without undo obstruction.

We Americans, it seems, have grown comfortable to this Age within which we live. The late Israeli historian Leni Yahil, in her edited and abridged English translation of her own history of the Holocaust, calls it the “Age of Violence”. All human ages, however, have been marked by violence. What is distinct about our current Age of Mass Death is that we now sanction death on a massive scale, excusing it for any number of reasons, whether racial or ethnic purity, religious purity, or the maintenance of a dubious Constitutional status quo. As Yahil notes, this is not a “Jewish” or “German” problem, although they are the exemplars. It is, in fact, a human problem, one with which we have not only not yet come to turns. We rarely recognize it as such. Insisting on “our” own purity both of intent and purpose, we can watch the slaughter of millions and insist it is, for one reason or another, necessary. Human life, never worth that much, has become the penny-stock of our times.

The Enlightenment still has its defenders, to be sure. Already beaten and tattered by the time Archduke Franz Ferdinand was assassinated in Sarajevo in 1914, the moral fabric of western society was gassed, machine gunned, and shelled to death in Flanders and Nancy, on the Somme and at Verdun. With mass death no longer an impossibility, the next few steps to genocide seem, in retrospect, fairly easy to take. The combination of Hitler’s force of personality and Germany’s perfection of technically-minded bureaucracy, the perfect combination emerged to create the conditions for the systematic steps in the destruction of European Jewish life: from stripping them of civil rights and protections; making illegal the practices of Jewish life, creating an outlaw people; the use of a special military force – the Einsatzgruppen – first during the invasion of invasion of Poland, for mass executions; then the gradual, careful, and exhaustively documented trial and error process by which the Nazis arrived at the death camps. While many reeled in horror when the extent of German terror was exposed, leaders around the world understood with something like acceptance that now was the time during which death on a massive scale had become something that could be woven into public policy.

The nuclear shadow under which we continue to live is little more than the acceptance that the threat of mass death, now on a global scale, is the price we must pay for maintaining an always precarious balance of global power. While the anti-nuclear movement certainly claimed a particular moral vocabulary in an attempt to clear the dust from the eyes of those who refused to see the Gordian thread that held thousands of hydrogen bombs at bay, it was no match for the reality that such a moral vocabulary is now, for all intents and purposes, meaningless. Taken over by the powers that hold the keys to near human extinction, that moral vocabulary has, for the past 72 years, been used to justify both the threat and reality of slaughter. Whether in Korea, Indonesia, or Vietnam; Cambodia, Serbia, or Rwanda; in the rubble of the World Trade Center or the blood-soaked schools and streets of the United States; all understand now that there are always reasons for the careful, purposeful use of slaughter as a tool, whether of war or keeping the peace, terrorism or counter-terrorism, or maintaining outdated and incomprehensible notions of “rights”. The only thing that continues to surprise is the constant surprise people express at events that are not at all surprising.

We Americans are at a pivotal moment in our history. The single most unfit person ever to hold the office currently serves as President. His casual disregard for human life, his shallow, thin-skinned personality, and his lack of any understanding of the duties of his office lead us perilously close to yet another brush with nuclear holocaust. We can accept our responsibility for this farcical situation and demand an end both to his Presidency and the political party that continues to enable his dangerous rule. Or we can, which I believe is far more likely to be the case, just accept that our Age of Mass Death continue apace, with the deaths to come only the price to be paid by others for our own fear and venality.

How To Talk About Gun Control

SFGATE reached out to the FBI for their definition and spokesperson Andrew Ames wrote in an email, “our definitions are based on federal law” and directed us to the bureau’s Active Shooter Resources site that uses a broad definition to define mass killings as three or more people killed regardless of weapon. . . .

[James Alan Fox, a professor of criminology at Northeastern University in Boston] . . . thinks the most accurate definition is four or more victims, not including the killer, and encompasses family, public and burglary killings, and this is the one the U.S. Congressional Research Service uses. With this definition, he says on average there are about two dozen mass shootings a year. – Amy Graff, “How many mass shootings have there really been in 2017? It depends on the source”, sfgate.com, October 2, 2017


Wisconsin Sen. Ron Johnson on Friday morning told a group of high school students that they don’t have a right to health care, food and shelter. . . .

“Do you consider food a right? Do you consider clothing a right? Do you consider shelter a right? What we have as rights is life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness. Past that point, we have the right to freedom. Past that point is a limited resource that we have to use our opportunities given to us to afford those things.”

Johnson then referred to comments made by Sen. Rand Paul more than six years ago when Paul compared the “right to health care” to slavery.

He said the task of public officials is to create an environment that grows the economy so that more people can enjoy the “privilege” of food, shelter and health care. – Hillary Minz, “Johnson: Access to health care ‘a privilege'”, WISN, September 29, 2017


We do not exist only for ourselves, but always in relation to others, from the time we are born. This is no less true in politics than it is in family life. And like family, we exist in a community not of our own making and not of our own choosing. Our very bodies belong not only to us, but always have a public dimension – Mandy Rogers-Gates, “Our Precarious Lives”, Women in Theology, October 2, 2017

A man covers a woman’s body with his own during the shooting outside the Mandalay Bay in Las Vegas on Sunday night.

It’s become a ritual, as ingrained in our civil discourse as obeisance to the Constitution and paeans to freedom and equality: There’s been a mass shooting and all sorts of people, from the President’s spokesperson yesterday to your average person posting on social media, demand we not start discussing gun control in the immediate aftermath of yet another massacre. Which is odd, when you think about it. After all, no other time seems to be a good one to have such a discussion. In 2012, 20 first graders were massacred just a couple weeks before Christmas and despite an enormous public outcry, Congress insisted on doing exactly nothing. If the slaughter of children is simply the price we pay for living in a free society, then the killing of nearly 60 and wounding of well over 500 certainly doesn’t seem like a time to do anything about gun violence.

Constitutional scholars and social philosophers on all sides seem to emerge, arguing everything from the instant repeal of the Second Amendment to counseling inaction, seeing as criminals will always commit crimes, therefore gun control just won’t work.

Wouldn’t it be better if we were able to talk about gun control as what it really is? That is to say, a successful social policy enacted to one extent or another by most of the industrialized world with the amazing result that there just aren’t that many gun deaths in those countries, on a per capita basis, as there are in the United States. Of course there are gun deaths in those countries; if there weren’t we wouldn’t need a law to protect the public from criminals wielding guns! Still, the daily body count you see here in the US just doesn’t exist in other places because those governments made the conscious decision and took action to restrict access to firearms.

Like the health care debate back in 2009, our public discussion around guns and their regulation ignores the reality that other countries seem to manage just fine. Of course, there are always debates and discussions, both on the principles and the details, but the concept that it is government’s role to regulate areas of our social and civic life is rarely questioned.

Except, as Sen. Ron Johnson made so inelegantly clear, here in the United States. Now, on the face of things, Johnson is not only wrong in spirit, but in the spirit of our Republican dedication to personal freedoms. Our freedoms  are actually both delineated – freedom of speech, religion, press, assembly, from unlawful search and seizure, to a trial by jury – and expansive – both the Ninth and Tenth Amendments to the Constitution make it quite clear there are other rights, rights unnamed, that adhere both to individuals and are up to the states to determine. With the adoption of the 14th Amendment in the wake of the Civil War, both the express and implied rights of the Constitution extended up and down our federalist system.

Furthermore, to claim that human beings have no “right”, say, to food, quite apart from its dubious legal truthfulness, is morally vicious in the extreme. To further claim that government’s only job is to create the space for freedom to afford such a “privilege” is ahistorical. Of course people have the right to food. Life isn’t possible without a steady access to food. Human societies were formed in the first place to guarantee that access to the necessities of life – water, food, shelter – were available to all. This isn’t a philosophical point. It’s just a truism that anyone studying human history even at a glance understands to be the case.

The best way to talk about gun control is to talk about it. It’s not sacred space upon which none can venture. Nor does having a perfectly normal, reasonable discussion about the necessity of balancing individual liberty against the safety of society at large threaten anyone at all. Such discussions happen all the time! If the balance between individual liberty and social safety were always struck just right, we’d have no need for government at all. Because times change, needs change, understandings change, and social and cultural situations change, so to do our laws. Again, this isn’t some big insight; it’s common sense. None of the freedoms of the Constitution are now or ever have been considered absolute or sacrosanct. For example, seditious libel – while nearly impossible to prove – nevertheless exists as a law against speech in the United States. The extent of Constitutional protections against unreasonable search and seizure, say, or even habeas corpus – a right so fundamental the authors of the Constitution didn’t delineate it, because its necessity was assumed – have undergone fluctuating understandings in American history. Officially sanctioned prayer was once thought to be no big deal; as we have become a far more secular as well as multi-religious society, however, officially sanctioned prayer is far less tenable not least because it violates the freedom of individuals not to adhere to any particular religion at all, certainly not the once prevalent mainline Protestantism.

Whether the number of mass shootings each year is in the hundreds (a number I think is far too high) or a couple dozen (a number I find far more reflective of our reality), the reality is neither should be socially acceptable. Survey associations, both partisan and non-partisan, have shown pretty consistently there is broad support for particular regulations regarding gun ownership in the United States. Having a discussion that it most certainly within the purview of the state to manage and regulate items that pose a threat and danger to society at large while recognizing there are also legitimate and perfectly reasonable reasons individual gun ownership should be maintained as a fundamental Constitutional right is neither impossible nor even difficult.

The trick is not caring about all the shouting and background noise, and getting the job done. That, alas, takes political courage in an age when such seems non-existent. Having a discussion about gun control begins – and ends! – with having the discussion. Of course people on all sides are going to shout and scream and rant and rave. That’s OK. They certainly have the right, perhaps even duty, to do so, if for no other reason than to remind us that a very real balance needs to be sought between individual liberty and social safety. Neither is absolute nor paramount. Each is legitimate, even if contradictory.

We have these discussions all the time, though. Why should gun control be any different? Let’s just start talking.

On Antifa and Violent Protest

Antifa is composed of autonomous groups, and thus has no formal organization.[2][24] Antifa groups either form loose support networks, such as NYC Antifa, or operate independently.[25] Activists typically organize protests via social media and through websites and email lists.[2][24] According to Salon it is an organizing strategy, not a group of people.[26] While its membership numbers cannot be estimated accurately, the movement has grown since the election of Donald Trump; approximately 200 groups currently exist in the US, of varying sizes and levels of engagement. – Wikipedia

The revulsion to violence on the part of most people on the left, from liberal to radical, is not born of naïveté over the scale of the right-wing threat. It’s the expression of basic moral principle, as well as a pragmatic political understanding that random mob violence by masked vigilates on the left isn’t going to defeat the Alt Right. In the Bay Area this weekend, the Alt Right was already defeated. All Antifa did was transform that message of people-powered victory into a cascade of headlines bolstering Trump’s “both sides” talking point.

The revulsion to Antifa’s violence is also an indication of the paucity of trust Antifa has established with much of the wider, non-activist world. People want the white nationalist movement smashed into dust; that’s why they’re showing up by the thousands and the tens of thousands to protests against the Alt Right. That doesn’t mean they want to hand leadership over to a subcultural vanguardist movement that barks at them from behind masks and shields and threatens to beat those who disagree with them into submission. – Leighton Woodhouse, “The Ugly Side Of Antifa”, louisproyect.org, August 28, 2017

Nazi Richard Spencer punched on the streets of Washington, DC during live TV interview on Inauguration Day.

I’d read the word “antifa” used, mostly by far right and white supremacist supporters, during the summer and fall of 2016. These tended to be whines by members of violent groups about “unfair” treatment by the media who seemed, they claimed, to report “antifa violence”. I looked near and far and just couldn’t see any evidence of such a thing. Truth is, the only time I have ever seen the word used is when the media shouts about anarchists smashing windows or walking around carrying sticks and clubs. While there was some violence at last weeks anti-fascist march instigated by black-shirted, ski-masked anarchists, this is hardly surprising. Anarchists have always reveled in violence, particularly against property (which they insist is not violence). While they were a defensive presence in Charlottesville, protecting a United Methodist Church working as a safe haven for counter-protesters as well as surrounding groups of clergy marching through the Nazi horde. Cornel West and many clergy insist their presence protected the clergy from violence.

All the same, ever since Charlottesville, all I read about is “violent antifa”, classified as a domestic terrorist group by the Obama Justice Department and FBI (see the above-linked Wikipedia article). It’s almost as if a white supremacist speeding his car through a crowd of peaceful protesters, killing one young woman, never happened. Instead, a small group of anarchist nincompoops have somehow become the face of anti-Trump and anti-Nazi protests. Not through anything they’ve done, because the truth is all they’ve done is smash a few windows, punch a few Nazis (including Richard Spencer at Trump’s inauguration), and make their presence known through their dress code. It’s come to the point that some left-wing commentators, including those for whom I have a great deal of respect, insist that liberals and leftists have to disavow what is, by all indications, small cells scattered across the country, most of whom do nothing but carry on online. I, for one, feel no need to speak out against antifa violence, largely because it isn’t anything coordinated (anarchists aren’t big into organizing on the large scale), has no long history like the white supremacists and Nazis, and unlike these latter groups, I’ve yet to see or hear a mainstream Democratic politician insist violent anarchists represent a part of the party, unlike Republicans who have been encouraging these very groups for years without consequence.

These morons don’t even represent anti-fascism. To be anti-fascist is to be a decent human being. Sometimes, alas, it becomes necessary to defend one’s self with the threat or practice of violence; particularly against individuals and groups whose very existence is a threat to civil peace and justice. I cried no tears for Richard Spencer when he was cold-cocked on January 20. On the contrary, I watch the video every once in a while just to smile. Not because I’m a violent person, or “support violence”. No, I smile because Richard Spencer is a vocal Nazi. He embraces a violent, degenerate political philosophy that seeks the physical destruction both of our Constitutional Republic as well as whole groups of human beings. His very existence is violence. Getting punched, it seems to me, is a bit of rough justice, particularly since Spencer has done nothing but whine about it ever since. So much for the master race . . .

Way back in my Seminary days in the spring of 1993 I was taking a seminary on Liberation Theology. A topic that came up early was violence. Our professor had us read The Wretched of the Earth, including the second half in which Fanon insists that violence, while justified in the abstract, is actually counter-productive, destroying the psyches and lives of those who practice violence. When discussing non-violence, however, with our eyes on the height of largely church-led Civil Rights Movement in the United States, I noted that while non-violence certainly sounds good in the abstract, in fact there cannot be “non-violent” protest against a system that is inherently violence. Precisely because white supremacist segregation in the American south was violent to its core, any resistance to it or action against it could only ever be considered itself violent, regardless of the words or actions of those speaking and protesting. I still believe that to be true, and applicable in particular circumstances. While non-violence works well, for example in Boston a few weeks back when the Nazis were simply outnumbered by the tens of thousands (and it’s no small irony the Black Lives Matter members acted as escorts for the fascists as they made their way through the anti-fascist crowd, protecting them), I have never accepted the idea that non-violent protest is the only real way political activists should protest. In the real world, even those actions called “non-violent” are considered violent by those who oppose them. When Nazis and white supremacists gather, as they did in Charlottesville, they arm themselves. To pretend that “non-violence” is morally superior in the face of the direct threat of violence, we forget forceful self-defense is an equally moral option. By their very existence, the Klan, Aryan Nations, other white supremacist organizations, the Nazi Party and its loose affiliates of supporters and hangers-on, represent, preach, and practice violence against our political order, public peace, and whole groups within the country. As far as I know, while a few folks might have been roughed up by Antifa in Boston and Berkeley, only the fascists have actually killed someone – someone protesting peacefully, no less. It’s foolishness to insist, prior to any actual situation, that only non-violence should be practiced. It is also ridiculous for anyone to claim that the anarchists at the inauguration, in Boston, or in Berkeley represent any part of the left; the article quoted above as an epigram appeared in a Marxist online journal. While I don’t doubt the veracity of the claims the author makes regarding what he witnessed, I also think it important to note that Communists and Anarchists detest one another, and have done so for decades. I’m not going to take my political cues from a member of a group institutionally committed to opposing anarchism.

It’s been clear that racist groups, white supremacists, and Nazis have been emboldened by the Trump Administration.  The mainstream media isn’t helping much by trying to insist on some moral equivalence between small groups breaking windows and throwing some punches and groups with decades-long histories of violence whose actions have resulted in the death of on counter-protester. The word “antifa”, tossed around so glibly by so many, should be considered a badge of honor. After all, there’s nothing wrong with being against fascism. And insisting a priori on a policy of non-violence does nothing but restrict possible counter-measures to those whose very existence stinks of the blood of millions. Remember, a Nazi is someone who understands full well the blood of millions is on their hands; white supremacists and Klan members embrace the history of violent intimidation, lynching, and social structures designed to oppress African-Americans. These are not people who should be treated with kid gloves.