It’s not too late to save America

El Paso is the first place I ever went to a Walmart Supercenter. I was on a road trip, and I needed a couple more freezer blocks for my cooler. An employee pointed me down a long aisle and said something I’d never heard in a store before: “Turn right at rifles.” 

It was 11 o’clock at night, and if I had decided right then and there that something or someone deserved to be shot, Walmart was ready to help.

This was back when I was beginning to fully understand what a violent and racist country I’d been born into. A few days earlier, I’d met some folks in another part of Texas who advised me to bring two things on my drive west: plenty of water, and a gun. My face did not betray my perplexity, but I wondered what it was in their seemingly normal, white, middle-class lives that had made them so afraid.

When I was growing up, guns were for shooting deer, not people, and the lives of my rural relatives who owned rifles were not oriented around fear. Sure, there were guns not far from where they slept, but half the time they didn’t even lock the front door. Not having a Fox “News” channel or a hateful, bullying president spewing scare tactics probably helped keep the paranoia at bay.  

Despite my addiction to the news in these disturbing times, I haven’t been writing much about current events because what’s happening all seems so obvious. But sometimes the obvious needs to be said and repeated, so let me say and repeat: 

We have an authoritarian president who is promoting ethnic cleansing through Gestapo-like government programs, and who is inciting genocidal acts among his fearful white followers. He’s doing this so that he and his cronies can distract the populace, consolidate power, and continue to loot the country. (Sometimes looting looks like slashing taxes on the wealthiest; sometimes it looks like hiring your donors to build a pointless wall.) We have an obstructed Senate, beholden to the greed of gun companies and other corporate interests, and nauseatingly submissive to our aspiring dictator.

We live in a country that has, from the beginning, frequently confused the idea of freedom with the ability to practice greed. We live in a country that has, from the beginning, used violence and racism to fuel its growth and its radically unbalanced prosperity. 

Much has been lost in the past few years, but all hope is not yet lost. Our democratic processes are compromised, in some places much more than others, but voting still matters. And the United States of 2019 still lacks a few ingredients that tend to help authoritarianism get entrenched: our military still has some independence, we have extensive ethnic diversity, and there’s no state church supporting the oppressive regime. Plenty of white Christians are guilty of collaboration right now, but at the same time, the National Cathedral, in a historic first, just called out the president. Hope can take surprising forms.

But the threads of hope are fragile. It’s safe to say that the vast majority of Americans have done nothing differently since November 2016. They may have shared links on social media and dutifully gone to the polls in the midterms, but they are otherwise going about their lives as before.

This too is a form of collaboration with a would-be dictator. To not be involved — in demonstrations, in fund-raising, in a local or national political campaign, in compassion for immigrants — is to endorse what’s happening. “In the end, we will remember not the words of our enemies, but the silence of our friends,” said Martin Luther King, Jr. And the end we’re talking about right now is the end of our democracy and the victory of white nationalism.

So please use your time wisely. Don’t waste it arguing politics on Facebook or over Thanksgiving dinner with people who will never change. Make it normal among your friends to talk about what kinds of actual actions you’re taking to bring about change (versus just venting) to help save the country. There is no better use of your time.

And “save the country” is not too grand a term. That’s what the heinous shooter in El Paso thought he was doing. He was not, not remotely. But we still can.

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Listen up: Women are telling the truth, and a new world is coming

Even before I was a journalist or a minister, friends and strangers have been comfortable telling me just about everything. All I’ve had to do to learn is listen.

I listened when a college friend told me that she had been sexually assaulted by a relative. I listened when another close friend told me that he had been sexually assaulted by one of his relatives, and that his best friend had been assaulted by one of her relatives. I believed their stories, which shifted my perception of the world.

(If you’re a man and no one’s ever told you about a sexual assault, you may want to read this.)

My record of believing victims isn’t perfect. Along the way, I mistakenly doubted a few stories, mostly because I was naive and couldn’t fathom such cruelty. But no one person’s experiences are a universal barometer for what humans are capable of doing to each other.

Sexually abusive behavior is rampant. I see its effects in the faces of the women at the congregation I serve. I hear it in the conversations with every female-identified person in my life. As a gay man, I’m familiar with the exhausting vigilance required to try to stay safe. And for many women and girls, vigilance is not enough to thwart the forces of domination and entitlement that so many men embody.

Domination and entitlement are old habits in this country — European conquest, entitlement to stolen land and to the labor of slaves, wives as property. Such destructive and dehumanizing habits are hard to dislodge when they favor those in power.

As America continues to be roiled by just how bad things have been for women and girls, those whose voices have been silenced or on the margins hold the key to our country’s salvation. They must be at the center of our national discourse, and their suffering, grief, anger, and stories must be heard and believed.

There’s also plenty of speaking up to do for more privileged people like me. I’m male-identified and comfortable in a male body, but traditionally male values like competition and subjugation have never interested me. In elementary school, I was the boy who was fine with standing next to the girls in the lunch line. (They were kinder, more talkative, and would give me their leftover food.) I am not free of sexism, but the idea that women and girls were somehow “other,” or some kind of opposing team, never took root.

The “war between the sexes” is a culturally manufactured conflict that helps men by implying a false equivalency;  in this lopsided “war,” we know which side most often loses. The good news about a culturally manufactured conflict is that it can be culturally dismantled over the long haul.

For women, the cost of sharing their stories – the cost of simply being female – is still far too high. But there are glimmers of hope in all the truth-telling that is pouring forth, and big cultural shifts in the offing. The elementary kids in my daily life don’t self-segregate by gender when they line up for lunch. And a 17-year-old young man I’ve known since birth decries toxic masculinity in ways that we could only dream of hearing from men in Congress — men who should be very afraid indeed.

In the words of Arundhati Roy, “Another world is not only possible, she is on her way.”

The younger generations are poised to do better on gender than the generations currently in power. We need to ensure that there’s a democracy left for them to inherit.

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A three-choice question that explains America

Being an assistant minister puts me in a small, unusual club. It’s a bit like being vice president — a high-visibility job with a not-always-clear role. Most second-chair clergy I know are content to be there, rather than itching for the top dog to get out of the way. Still, there’s plenty to talk about when we get together.

At one recent gathering, a fellow No. 2, the Rev. Erin Gingrich, captured our situation with a question: How does your supervisor view you — object, resource, or equal?

This incisive question could apply to any number of situations; the answer determines how much you’re going to thrive. And I realized that it’s a question that can help explain the history and present reality of the United States of America.

Continue reading

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Forward in the new reality

This post is the text of the talk I gave on the Sunday after the presidential election.

A few weeks ago, I had the chance to sneak out of town with my partner for a getaway weekend. Ready to relax and just read a magazine for a change, I sat down with the one copy of the New Yorker that I had managed to grab while rushing out the door. Then I opened the magazine. The Politics Issue.

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The whole magazine was about the election. I briefly considered a ritual burning. The presidential race was wearing me out even then, before any of us knew what we know now.

I did not set the magazine on fire, nor, to my surprise, did I set it aside.Instead, I found myself drawn into a photo essay. It was about first-time voters from around the country. Each voter, ranging in age from 18 to 72, was pictured next to a quote about the presidential candidate they had decided on.

Continue reading

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America: Mixed feelings and the challenge to be great

Federal tax rules keep ministers from saying very much about political candidates, but I am allowed to talk about hats. And there’s a certain cap I’d like to discuss.

Perhaps you’ve seen this one up close at a recent family reunion. It says “Make America Great Again,” and it’s inspired a number of variations, such as “Make Baseball Fun Again” (cry for help?) and “Make America Great Britain Again” (history majors = clever).

But not all the variations are light-hearted. Continue reading

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Getting back into it

Writing really only happens for me if there’s an element of relationship, if there’s at least a chance of knocking over a domino or flicking on a light bulb in someone else’s brain. Secret diaries are not my thing.

So I’m back at blogging. This time around, I’m not writing on someone else’s dime, so I have the freedom to tackle anything that feels interesting or important — current events, ethics, politics, theology, the human experience.

There will also be mediocre photos and no small amount of silliness.

An editor once said to me, upon reading one of my beginnings, “I didn’t know where you were going, but I wanted to go with you.” Maybe you’ll feel that way, too. Time to give it a spin.

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