05/26/14

Reflections on last weekend’s tragedy in Isla Vista

As I reflect on the actions of one young man to intentionally end the lives of six others, I have no frame of reference. There is literally nothing that I can call on in my own experience or the experiences of others I have known to “understand” what happened. And what needs to be understood? What refuses understanding? As far as I can tell, it is how one human could overcome seemingly insurmountable psychological and emotional prohibitions and end the lives of other human beings. But is that really so surprising? This happens on a regular basis. It’s not as if we don’t know the ways that this can be accomplished, even orchestrated on a large scale.

There is something more that catches my interest. My family and I lived at the edge of Isla Vista for six years. I spent time near all the locations where Rodger killed. I have many fond memories of the beautiful environment in which I grew and changed as a scholar and an individual. I also know that these details are meaningless in relation to the weekend’s tragic events. That these render the event more significant to me points at a certain egotism. Yes, things happen elsewhere, but not here. Not close to me or to a place that I love. The unfathomable is based in part on my arbitrary location in the world.

Yet surely even those not personally connected with the events struggle with their seeming absurdity. It is not just a geographic location that we are invested in, but a socio-economic or cultural location, as others have pointed out. When life is lost on the battlefield, in the Third World or in the ghettos, there is an element of anticipation that softens the blow. This anticipation itself is often revealing of our prejudices. Yet we are surprised, or more so, when tragedy strikes in a movie theater, at an elementary school, or in a beautiful community by the ocean. Why? Because we believe that the socio-economic backdrops against which the latter events and activities take place provide protection against murder. Comparatively, that is true, but when that pretense of protection is violated, we feel vulnerable and exposed.

This is not at all to trivialize the pain and loss that comes from death, although to a certain extent any socio-cultural analysis cannot fail to trivialize the individual death. Rather, the access points of my reflection tell me that their function must be considered. They say as much about me and my interests as they do about the invaluable lives involved.

There is no tidy equation that will return us to stasis. We cannot add up the contributing factors and predict this terrible outcome. As others have noted, while we can and should explore all the elements of this event, from masculine culture to mental illness to population density, we should resist the reductionism that usually accompanies these conclusions. In the aftermath of tragedy, the public conversation is usually reduced to a squabble over the one response we should have. Shouldn’t it be possible to maintain multiple conversations, multiple avenues of improvement? It is clear there is no quick fix. It is also clear that whatever approaches we take should not be about reestablishing our illusions, but working toward substantive change. Demonizing Rodger provides the quickest end to the pain felt by many, and the quickest societal end to the uncertainty of disruptive events. But it does nothing aside from quickly patch the hole left by the tragedy so we can bide our time until the next.

On the other side of the coin, we should not confuse our frustration at the slowness of change with the ability to change. I have seen this already in many fatalistic responses that bear the influence of Western Christian epistemologies. As this story goes, gun control or mental health work or fighting a misogynistic cuture won’t ultimately make a difference. These things will happen again despite our best efforts. Of course these assertions are correct. I have seen a version of this response often in the classroom when dealing with huge issues deeply embedded in our culture. Nothing I do will make a difference…so I can do nothing. I argue that this reasoning is implied by our reading of the supernatural.

I grew up understanding that the biggest issues in life were resolved by a simple conversation with God. Even in the thoughtful philosophy of Kierkegaard, God inhabits the place of the absurd, the limit of my understanding. Rather than continually struggle, I simply submit and the uncontrollable is controlled. With that divine standard, the mundane inch-by-inch progress that is the hallmark of change in our world seems fruitless. Just as with the individual contexts that mark the importance of these events in our minds, the issue is not really about others, but ourselves. If I am convinced that true change only happens by supernatural intervention, lesser slogs through the social and political mud of the American landscape is too much work. But this is also how, viewed in the lens of history, any earthly change is made.

Thus, a couple things I can take from the events. First, our meaning-making has more to do with ourselves, though we engage in it against the foil of victims and perpetrators. Second, it is counterproductive to tout these events, whose meaning refuses to be contained, as reducible to trite slogans or policy changes. Yet we must engage in our communities. We must take action without providing solutions.

What can we as a society begin to control? We cannot force folks into mental health services before they have committed crimes. We cannot force (though we continue to try) a traditional version of the ideal nuclear family. We cannot systematically shut down all sources of misogynistic culture, nor those of fetishization or commodification. We cannot limit or control access to firear…wait a second. That might be a good start.

Access to firearms would not have prevented at least three of the deaths in last weekend’s tragedy as they occurred. Or perhaps they would have. In his written manifesto (that I confess I skimmed but did not read) Rodger reflects on the feeling of power, a feeling he had been longing for, that came from the acquisition of firearms. If he had been unable to obtain these weapons, would he have carried out his plan? Guns are guns and people are people, but the combination certainly seems to enhance the power of both, and it undoubtedly enhanced the confidence of Rodger to go forward with his plan.

Yet whether access to firearms would or would not have made the difference is not the really the point. The question is whether limiting access would be a step in the right direction. Quite possibly. Would it infringe on the rights of upstanding individuals to purchase, own, and discharge certain weapons? It certainly would, if such rights existed. Even if that were the case, though, we would want to ask how many victim’s lives would outweigh the pleasure of these upstanding individuals and the relative ease with which they can procure their weapons. Some would say that the loss of even one life outweighs the ability of many to own and use firearms. I don’t think that is the case. There is no easy answer. But I think we can have a smarter conversation about it than the one that currently dominates the political landscape.

I struggle to say something meaningful in the face of meaninglessness without resorting to trivial or banal statements. I have no prayers to give. My heart has hurt as I thought of the tragic events, but that means little. We balance what we can do, and what we should do. For my part, I will continue to seek authentic conversations about the factors that contributed to Rodger’s tragic actions, both to process and to help make changes for the better.

07/24/13

Me on Dr. Cornel West on President Obama on Trayvon Martin

Screen Shot 2013-07-24 at 12.16.50 PMI used to enjoy listening to Cornel West. Now he just frustrates me, and I’m trying to figure out exactly why. I watched Obama’s comments on the Zimmerman case and was fairly moved by them. Come to find out, I was just taken in. I watched West’s interview with Amy Goodman on Democracy Now where she asked him to reflect on the President’s comments a few days prior. West’s response, in sum, was that Obama was a hypocrite. Though his comments sounded good, according to West, they were invalid for a few reasons. First, Obama is the drone president, and he does not seem overwhelmingly concerned with children who are indirect targets of foreign strikes. Second, he supports both the mayor and police chief of New York City, who have both been proponents of “Stop and Frisk” laws that have disproportionally targeted young black males. There were other reasons as well, but the gist is expressed at the beginning, where West says “Obama has very little moral authority.” (There’s the other side as well, that criticizes Obama for pandering to black folks when the white poor just make better choices, but that’s not worth further comment.)

While the interview served primarily for West to discredit each point of Obama’s speech that was praised by other segments of the media, he never clearly stated the method by which he discounted Obama’s words. But it follows a familiar logic, one that we have likely all used at one time or another in judging others. In this case, it goes something like this:

  • Obama says he cares about the fate of children such as Trayvon Martin.
  • Obama approves drone strikes in foreign countries, some of which kill children.

Therefore,

  • Obama doesn’t really care about children.

Or this one:

  • Obama says he cares about black people.
  • Obama has given vocal praise to people who support practices that unfairly target black people.

Therefore,

  • Obama doesn’t really care about black people.

Of course, our own logical processes don’t live up to this method. Take the following, for example:

  • I am an animal-lover.
  • Love means not wanting the object of love to suffer.
  • I eat animals.

Therefore,

  • I don’t really love animals.

Or this one:

  • I don’t want people around me to die from guns.
  • I own a gun.
  • I support the right to own guns.

Therefore,

  • I don’t really care if people around me die from guns.

Note that these follow a similar logic. The first statement is a sort of identity claim. They all say, in some form or another, “I am a person who is this,” or “If I had my way, the world would operate like this.” These are not factual statements that can be proven or disproven, although it is true that in many contexts they purport to reflect the way things are or the way the speaker wants them to be. Because they are not fact-based, they are open to the broadest interpretation. In this case, West extended Obama’s comments to encompass the broadest categories, found points that seem to contradict his statements, and implied his insincerity because of it.

The problem with this type of critique is not that the points West makes are invalid. Drone strikes are a huge problem. Even the larger lesson that rhetoric can often mask practices directly contradictory to stated aims is well taken. The problem is that no living person, including West, submits all areas of their life to the categorical logic he is using. Right or not, animal lovers might not agree that they don’t love animals because they also eat them. Others might not agree that gun ownership negates a desire to see less gun violence. Yet if one was playing to best possible scenarios, animal lovers would enact a world where no animals died, and people lovers would enact a world that eliminated guns.

So how helpful is this critique? Not very. People that hold unflinchingly to these high and inviolable standards die, because they are incompatible with the world. Anything less is a form of compromise, and we all compromise to stay alive and comfortable. This is not a negative value judgement but a statement. West is a Christian, as he pointed out at least twice in the course of the interview, and thus his model for the world is Jesus Christ, and more recently, leaders such as Martin Luther King. Both were killed. So is West doing everything that he can to enact the world that he claims he wants? Could we look at the scope of his life and find inconsistencies that would seem to invalidate his rhetoric? I’m certain.

Of course, it’s not West that has changed. It’s me. For many years, I lived in a world where I found little logical tension in holding the world and others within it to a high standard, indeed a standard it could not meet. Enter Jesus, who bridges the gap and reconciles the world with God because it cannot live up to the impossible standards. From the inside, that looks like a good place to be. From the outside, it is simply a different form of hypocrisy.

Now when I consider a critique, I also consider very carefully how I measure up to the same standard. Do I think that the government/institutional complex doesn’t “do enough” about race? Well, what am I doing? Is it “enough?” I have been reticent to invest emotionally in the Martin case, because I feel like the relative privilege from which I might spout platitudes invalidates my position.

I know that some speak with sincerity, including West (although he does appear pretty enamored with himself at times). My critique is that compromise should not be sufficient cause to discount one’s position. This is not the same as dismissing all critique because we all fail. I think the president should be held accountable to the extent that he is responsible for actions we deem wrong. But we should be clear about what those standards are and be willing to question our own relation to them. More specifically, I think that idealism about enacting a sort of heaven-on-earth has a place, but the Christian version of such idealism falls short because it also requires allegiance to a narrowly conceived deity that has an arbitrary relationship to the idealism expressed.

The accurate portion of the Christian message, as I mentioned, is that unwillingness to compromise will result in persecution, and if uncorrected, death. The intensity of that commitment, in and of itself, is morally neutral, but it is often valued highly by those who follow. However, we can look through history and see how few have followed that path. While these people have been visionaries, and have often inspired movements, they were also, quite literally, not easy to live with, a fact we all know as we choose not to rock the boat or do so only in safe ways. Obama have little “moral authority” from a Christian or other idealist perspective, but show me a person who does with the same amount of power and influence. It’s much easier to be uncompromising from the sidelines.

How much discrepancy, if any, is allowable between sentiment and action? What amount of action verifies rhetoric? I’m still wrestling with the question.

02/25/13

Less Violent than Ever Before?

Most of us weigh the present more heavily than the past when thinking about change over time, and this distorts our view to a certain extent. As we are currently experiencing the present, and rely on evidence for the past, the former seems to have more depth and texture, as if what was in the past was all just a prelude to now. Societal measurements based on this linear narrative of history—common to the monotheistic religious traditions—tend to place the present at either the zenith or nadir of humanity. This presents multiple problems when looking at the past. Scholars have often been guilty of presentism, judging the past based on the norms and values of the present, because they appear so obvious that they must have been apparent to past generations as well. Criticism of pre-modern societies based upon their acceptance of slavery is but one example.

Violence is an important subject often placed in this historical narrative. Are we becoming less or more violent as a people? In light of our access to information about violence around the world in almost real time, it may seem that violence is increasing. A recent book by Harvard Professor of Psychology Stephen Pinker, The Better Angels of Our Nature, argues that violence has actually decreased over time at several periods, and that we are at a comparatively low point for violence in human history.

I have not read Pinker’s book yet. To be honest, I might have dismissed it entirely had I not watched an interview with Pinker about the book. It seemed to me that any thesis claiming less violence in the present would be primarily opportunistic to sell some books. For example, one could claim that rates of violence had gone down based just upon the dramatic population increase in the past century, but that would have little functional value, and might even justify a more passive stance toward instances of violence in the present. Hearing his discussion of the book changed my view a bit.

In the wake of the recent Newtown massacre, Pinker’s thesis appears even more controversial than before, and the Center for Human Inquiry conducted a podcast with him to ask questions about the book. It’s worth a watch. Pinker said several things worthy of note in the conversation. The primary one, of course, is his thesis that we are living in a less violent time than is suggested by the media or common belief. He noted, as many have, that rates of violence are much higher in the United States than in other first-world countries, and that even if all instances of gun violence were removed, the US would still have a higher violence rate. Guns aside, we would still beat and club each other to death more than most first-world countries. In other words, gun control isn’t the only answer to the problem of violence. He went further and suggested that violence is more problematic in the southern and western portions of the US, and connects that to their relatively recent frontier history. (This was following up on a comment that I think deserves further exploration; namely, that we are really two countries: the old Northeast, and the “new” south and west.)

Pinker also suggested that social media may help contribute to a decrease in violence, just as the popularization of the printing press and the decreased cost in printing led to a greater dissemination of information, which increased knowledge, expanded social spheres, and may have helped decrease acts of violence. He also made some interesting comments about violence against women that I may discuss in a future post.

What I liked most in the interview, though, was Pinker’s insistence on the media’s preference of particular types of violence, namely mass shootings. When looked at from a disinterested scholarly viewpoint (which only someone unconnected to the events can do), the number killed in the Newtown shooting was quite small, and one and a half times that amount are killed in the US every day. Those isolated cases are not treated with the same importance. Pinker noted that even the largest single terrorist attack in history, 9/11, killed around 2,800, and 16,000 are killed each year in the US.

The point is not just raw numbers, but a realization of our skewed criteria for recognizing and privileging violence, which is not just a media problem. What the book may suggest, then, is a change in the way we prioritize types of violence, zooming in on some instances with hyper-focus and virtually ignoring others. The interview didn’t talk much about solutions, but alluded briefly to the idea that media coverage could be more closely aligned with a broader take on violence. The problem is not easy to solve, but it may be that intense focus on cases of mass violence may do more to entrench our beliefs about violence than push us to make change. It is not that these are not important, but that this particular type of violence should be placed in its position within the much broader range of violence that takes place daily in our country and others.

01/14/13

Christians Shouldn’t Have Guns

A post by a friend at Unreasonable Revelations got me thinking about the issue of gun control and how hotly debated it is within Christian circles. As a Christian, I never took a strong stance on issues such as gun control, the death penalty, homosexuality, and abortion, probably because I only chose to see one side of the story. Though there was enough information out there to suggest other alternatives on these issues, I guess I figured my best bet was to keep my mouth shut. At first I justified it by telling myself that I didn’t care enough one way or the other, and it really didn’t affect me, so I would let people who were more invested in the issues fight it out. Toward the end of my Christian years as my spiritual views became more liberal, I began to lean to the left politically as I reacted to what appeared to be the hypocrisy of conservative Christian positions, particularly around issues of violence (war, gun control, etc.) I have moderated my views somewhat, but I have a stronger critique about the public positions that Christians take on issues of violence in comparison with their supposed spiritual stance.

One of the most honest books I have read on the relationship of Christianity and violence was written by Robert Brimlow, called What about Hitler?. I highly recommend it to anyone thinking about these issues. Brimlow is a Christian professor deeply concerned about how Christians should respond to violence. Each chapter is concluded with a brief prayer, Brimlow wrestling with God over the issues he discusses in the book. I found these parts almost painful to read, but they are sincere and heartfelt. A large portion of the work is devoted to discussing Christian rationalizations of the just war by Augustine, Aquinas, and others. He notes matter-of-factly that Jesus is never found in these discussions, simply because no reading of the Gospels could support them. Rather, he says, we justify war because we desire war, or desire what it brings, and we bring spiritual values in line to support our position.

Brimlow evaluates common critiques of pacifism, one being the title of the book, and others that I hear quite frequently: “Nonviolence is great and all, but tyrants don’t play by the rules, so we have to protect ourselves.” He even takes a critical look at Deitrich Bonhoeffer, the pastor-martyr of WWII who was involved in a plot to assassinate Hitler, and concludes that Bonhoeffer left his principles, well-intentioned though he might have been, in attempting to solve the problem with violence.

The book’s climax is a one-page chapter in which Brimlow asks the pointed question: “What, then, is the Christian response to Hitler?” His answer is simple, and one can tell in reading that he does not come to it easily. The Christian response to Hitler is to die.

There is much more that could be said here about war, death, and martyrdom, but I’d like to stick to the issue of gun control for now. Full disclosure: I have never owned a gun, and I don’t know of there having been any guns in the house growing up. I don’t think my parents had any particular feelings one way or the other about guns; they just weren’t a part of our lives. My few occasions to shoot a gun were with friends. I shot squirrels and a porcupine with a .22 (please don’t ask—it made sense to a teenager) and shot a shotgun a time or two. If you’d asked me a couple years ago about guns, I would have been much more against them. Now I am ambivalent to the idea of owning a gun, and when I have gun fantasies they are typically of the James Bond type.

But I want to talk about Christians and gun usage. To put it simply, Christians don’t need guns. The issue of the Second Amendment to the Constitution is irrelevant for Christians. (For other Americans, I don’t really see the point. The amendment was to protect the country, not to protect you as an individual, and certainly not to preserve your right to overthrow the country or rebel against its tyranny. If you want to overthrow tyranny, you don’t need and can’t use the Constitution’s protection to do so. But I digress…) Christians are held to a more exacting set of principles than the laws of the land. If the laws agree, then fine, but if earthly law contradicts God’s law, one must obey the higher, right? In other words, if one can argue that Christianity precludes defense with a deadly weapon, then the Constitution is moot, at least on this point.

The other factors that are irrelevant here are slippery slope arguments or doomsday scenarios. “If they take away our guns, there’s nothing to stop them from taking over the world!” or, “If we give up our guns, there’s nothing to stop them from killing us all.” This works for retroactive justification as well: “If we hadn’t used the atom bomb, hundreds of thousands more people would have died,” or, “If we hadn’t invaded, the people would have been much worse off.” These arguments are purely speculative; they did not happen and there is no way of knowing if they would have. You’ll notice that none of them are measurable. Even the atom bomb argument masquerades as measurable by performing some calculations to extrapolate the greatest number of casualties in a worst-case scenario. But again, for Christians, this shouldn’t even factor into the argument. Christian commands, the teachings of Jesus, aren’t given as recommendations to be followed if you feel like it. There are no exceptions. Diverging from Christian principles on a hunch or a fear of the unknowable doesn’t line up with being a sincere follower of Christ. (Of course, you could go with the sin now, get forgiveness later model, but you wouldn’t want that universally applied.)

So what do we have left? There is violence in the world. There is a chance that violence could happen to you. What can you do? Brimlow is right. When faced with the threat of death as a Christian, you can flee (this is debatable), or become a martyr. My assumption here is that to be a Christian means to be a follower of Christ, and to be a follower of Christ means to bring one’s life as much as humanly possible in line with the life and, if necessary, the death of Jesus. Jesus spoke of turning the other cheek, a nonviolent response to violence. Sure, he also talked about violence that would ensue in the future, but he didn’t ask Christians to enact it for him. Instead, he says that his followers will be hated and persecuted in his name (Matthew 24:9). And he not only said it, he enacted it. He allowed himself to be killed in response to aggression. Was this the right thing to do? It depends. There’s certainly a connection between great influence, a little bit of insanity, and death. If he was in a popularity contest, he won. I don’t think he would like the result.

The above arguments don’t apply to the rest of the world. I’m not certain how to address the problem of gun violence in the greater population. I made this case only to articulate one small area, thrust recently to the forefront of our attention, where many Christians affirm nonviolence while simultaneously championing a right to violence. I am well aware that Christianity has championed violence for the majority of its history, but it has done so in contradiction of the example of Jesus. Especially in modern “What Would Jesus Do?” Christianity, there is no coherent basis for self-defense with a gun while self-identifying as a Christian. A great portion of the Early Church agreed as well.

There are, of course, other uses for a gun that could be contested. The issue of self-defense and the threat of human violence seems to me the most pressing, and not unconnected to other uses. Legislation has a tough road ahead, with no clear answers, but for Christians, the answer is clearer.

I’m curious to hear any thoughts or responses, both from Christian gun owners and others. I’ll send them through as long as they’re near the realm of civility.