Tuesday, June 28, 2016

A Matter of Identity

In the hours after Britain’s vote to leave the European Union, I received e-mails from English friends who said they were in shock. My requests for them to share their feelings were rejected.

Their feelings were too raw to write about, they wrote. In essence I was being insensitive to their pain.

It was as though there had been a death in the family. I needed to allow a respectable amount of time pass before seeking a post mortem.

If Donald Trump becomes this nation’s next president (as may well happen), I’m sure I will ask for the same respect from my friends abroad.

The reaction to the vote to leave the European Union reminds me of a brief encounter I had with a young man while I was in Italy a few years ago. It turns out he was Dutchman living in Venice, working for a multinational sports apparel company, but when I asked him his nationality he answered without hesitation and with considerable pride, “I’m a European.”

The European Union had literally changed his identity.

Reflecting on this and those e-mails from England, I’ve pondered the phenomenon of identity.

What would a Trump victory do to my sense of identity as an American? The answer for many is found in a vow to move to Canada. America under Trump would be a country many could no longer identify with.

For many Americans, it already is. Trump is Exhibit A.

Trump’s personality, behavior and values are simply antithetical what we believe. “My nation right or wrong” no longer cuts it. We have a loyalty to and responsibility for so much more, including the fate of the planet.

A nation that would elect a Trump is a pariah state.

Now the people of Scotland and Northern Ireland are feeling the same way about being tethered to or even identified with a Europe-exiting Britain.

I think many of us have struggled with our identities for years. I have found myself uncomfortably lumped together with others who happen to share the same label, but with whom I have deep disagreements. My response has been to shed the label rather than to be forced to explain.

Perhaps the most striking example is the label “Christian.”  The more I learn about the history of Christians and Christendom, the more I witness the behavior of avowed "Christians," the less I want to be known as a Christian. (An aside: today’s news tells us that James Dobson, one of numerous “professional Christians” who have made millions off their alleged religious belief, is asserting that Trump is now a “born again” Christian.

Give us a break.

Of course Dobson and Trump are just the most recent in a long series of “Christians” using belief and fear of damnation as levers to power and profit.

Fortunately, they haven’t yet besmirch the historical Jesus (forget the “Christ” part, and no, that wasn’t his last name, nor did he take it upon himself). By claiming to be Christians, the "professionally self-righteous" drive millions away from the religion. Moreover, they have obviously ignored Jesus’ message. Dobson and Trump might start with “it is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for someone who is rich to enter the kingdom of God.” The Beatitudes are worth a review as well. “Blessed are the meek etc.”

Now I’m even grappling with my own “Quaker” affiliation. I have profound disagreements with most Quakers world-wide. The majority in the denomination are fundamentalists and they oppose gay marriage. They are, as we say, “unwelcoming.”  Surprising to many, the majority of Quakers are East Africans who are deeply homophobic, not unlike "The Christian" James Dobson himself.

Is it time to lose my “Quaker” identity, which I’ve had for more than 50 years? Or can I, should I, distinguish myself from other Quakers by qualifying my membership as that of a “liberal Quaker.” Does that somehow clear me of association by name?

Obviously many Jews and Muslims have similar "identity" problems.

Or how can I live in Portland, Oregon and be a “Portlander” without being pigeon-holed into some weird media stereotype from the TV series “Portlandia”?

Then there are the racial, ethnic, class, age, regional and gender identities. As a friend pointed out recently, many identities we can do nothing about . We can’t just drop them through voting this way or that. Or emigrating somewhere else.

And so we have racial profiling; white male privilege, class “bubbles,” and a host of unavoidable prejudices we both harbor and are afflicted with.

It strikes me that the only time we can truly be free of identities we’ve assumed, been assigned, or are born with, is in death. Of course our identities will still survive among the living, but they will be post-humous. Our identities become posterity’s problems; not ours.

As I think of my friends in England, I’m inclined to tell them that once their period of mourning is over, the legalities of their relationship to Europe may have changed, but they haven’t changed their own identities regarding the continent or the world. If anything, they should more loudly and visibly proclaim their oneness with their neighbors. (Is that not is what Jesus, among others, taught?)

Don’t let your identity be defined by politicians, nations, global capitalists, the media and advertising, or anyone else.

Be yourself. Your true identity may just push aside all the others.

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Monday, May 30, 2016

Wanted: An answer to Clara's question

Recently I was reading to Clara, my three-and-a-half-year-old granddaughter. The book was a colorful little title from our Quaker meetinghouse’s nursery room. Clara was sitting on my lap engrossed.

I was unfamiliar with book about a mean and greedy king, and the more I got into its story the more I realized I was stepping into a theological thicket.

As the story came to its happy conclusion, the once selfish king became “kind and good.” The book has him becoming a “Christian.”

Where upon Clara turned to me and posed the obvious question: “What’s a Christian?"

I was literally struck dumb. I turned to a friend who was with me and suggested that she answer the question.

She too passed on answering.

And so the question was left hanging for us, for Clara and I hope, dear reader, for you.

A few days later, I shared this experience with my Bible Study class, an eclectic, unpredictable and collegial group. Most, but not all, consider themselves Christians.

One member, who happens to be a retired pastor, said I should have advised Clara, “You’ll know a Christian when you see one.”

I responded that with Clara that would simply invite more questions such as “What do I look for?”

Again, I would feel unqualified to answer.

What if she sees “Christian evidence” but the person turns out to be Jew or a Buddhist or a Muslim or, (heaven forbid!) an atheist or a secular humanist…

What if the person is deeply, profoundly NOT a Christian? Or perhaps only a “part-Christian.”

Oh, and by the way, what’s a Jew, Buddhist, Muslim, atheist and secular humanist?

And so forth….

Believe me, these questions are not beyond Clara’s asking.

There’s another question: Can you identify Christians by simply asking them if they are Christians?

If they say “Yes” can you be sure? Are they? If so, why? What if they do “un-Christian things”?

Which takes us back to square one: What is a Christian?

Your turn….

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Wednesday, May 25, 2016

Political discernment using Quaker testimonies

As a Quaker, I am helped in turbulent times by considering the five Quaker “testimonies.”

The testimonies are: Simplicity, Peace, Integrity, Community and Equality. (You can remember them with the mnemonic “SPICE”)

Recently I’ve weighed the three major presidential candidates against the testimonies and tried to assign grades to them. ABCDF.

I found it difficult because media reporting on the candidates often fails to provide necessary information to make a judgment on these topics.

Then again, much of the news coverage is relevant and helpful.

I also realized that I first needed to revisit the “SPICE”s for myself, particularly with regard to politics and public life.

It was a humbling experience. The “grade” I gave myself was, at best, a “gentleman’s C.”

Here are some of the questions I pondered.

Do I measure “simplicity” guided by my spirituality or do I surrender to cultural/political norms?

Am I at peace with myself? Am I at peace with paying taxes to support American military involvement (which includes atrocities)? Am I at peace with our system of "justice"?

Do I understand the word “integrity” in all its meanings, “strength” being one of them?

What community, or communities, am I part of? What are my responsibilities to them. What are my responsibilities to other communities beyond my own?

Do I truly believe we are equal? If so, how?

Now to the presidential candidates....

How do the testimonies apply to being president of the United States? It's easier to answer for some ("integrity" for instance) than others ("simplicity"?) Or are the testimonies simply important as measurements of personal character? Should we consider the "personal" and "presidential" as one? Are presidents forced to make decisions they would never want to make as individuals? Decisions about life and death, for instance. What does personal/presidential bifurcation say about "integrity"?

In an earlier draft of this little essay, I actually assigned “testimony” grades to the three leading candidates. Now I realize that my assessment is helpful only to me. It is filtered through my unique experiences, values and discernment.

What’s most important to you is yours.

So have at it. Take your time….

Donald Trump


Hillary Clinton


Bernie Sanders


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Thursday, May 19, 2016

Trump, Demogoguery, Indecency and Us

This frightening political season has been rife with demagoguery and indecency.

The prime demagogue has been Donald Trump but there have been examples of other much more subtle demagoguery. Much of it has been in a biased establishment press that reports a favored half of the story — the half that pleases its corporate owners and feeds their greed.

Earlier this week it was widely reported that Bernie Sanders’ supporters had threatened to the chair of the Nevada Democratic party with violence, but we never find out what might drive them to such extreme measures.

Nor are we even certain that the threats originated with them. Dirty tricks of just this sort are not unusual in American politics. They are the by-products of big money, desperation and power.

Question: Could the threats be from agents provocateurs?

Once, the press sought to get to the root of events. Not today. The mainstream media are now controlled by the powerful and the greedy.  The news, in its search for profit, is drawn to entertainment and spectacle.

The the quest for truth goes begging. The maw of NOW must be fed.

The words “demagoguery” and “indecency,” take me back to this nation’s hither-to most public and dangerous bully and demagogue, Senator Joseph McCarthy. The time, the early ’50’s, is known to this day as “The McCarthy Era.” McCarthy’s lies and innuendos ruined the lives of thousands. The senator’s message was of fear. It was fueled with scapegoats.

Unlike the passive, self-serving role of the press today, back then the press was instrumental in bringing McCarthy down. The unblinking eye of television broadcast live the Army-McCarthy hearings and the Army’s attorney Joseph N. Welch exposure of McCarthy.

Consider his scolding of McCarthy. “Have you no sense of decency, sir? At long last, have you left no sense of decency?” intoned Welch to an arrogant, dismissive McCarthy.

Consider Edward R. Murrow and Fred Friendly’s famous, meticulously crafted McCarthy exposé on CBS Reports. You can find the transcript here: http://www.lib.berkeley.edu/MRC/murrowmccarthy.html

In the broadcast’s coda, Murrow noted that McCarthy had once cited Shakespeare’s “Julius Caesar” in warning of the dangers of Communism.

Murrow, eyes fixed on the camera and his audience, read: “Earlier, the senator asked, ‘Upon what meat does this, our Caesar, feed?’ Had he looked three lines earlier in Shakespeare's ‘Caesar,’ he would have found this line, which is not altogether inappropriate: "The fault, dear Brutus, is not in our stars, but in ourselves.”

And so it is today as we stand on the threshold of “The Trump Era.”

There’s plenty of “fault” to go ‘round, but the prevalence, acceptance and even celebration of indecency in this culture explains much of it.

If we were to ask Trump, as we should, “Have you no sense of decency, sir? At long last, have you left no sense of decency?” he might well answer with his branded arrogance, “What does decency have to do with it? What does decency have to do with ANYTHING. I don’t DO ‘decency!”

Indeed his millions of followers love him for his indecency. Once decent Republican politicians, caving to power, have now embraced indecency in their support of the presumptive nominee.

In an earlier time this political season would be considered a spectacle of the obscene. Utterly repulsive.

Today, the media thrives on it. We laugh at rude put-downs. We fawn over hate-mongering talk radio hosts, who make millions off their venom. The most popular films today are bloody displays of brutal violence and foul language.

This is called entertainment. Over the years it has grown and melded with politics and, yes, produced unchallenged war and riches for the arms industry.

We are literally amusing ourselves to death, as author and critic Neil Postman warned years ago in a book of that name.

Murrow and Friendly were right: "The fault, dear Brutus, is not in our stars, but in ourselves.”

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