Archive for the ‘Current Events’ Category

The New America

February 19, 2021

Maybe Australia can be the new America. Somebody has to refuse to cave to these massive companies and their arrogant demands to dictate the terms (and exceptions) by which they should be allowed to operate simply because they’re big.

Death – Again

February 16, 2021

I’ve written repeatedly over the years on the topic of how a Christian approaches death and burial (here, here, here, here, and here). I keep revisiting the topic because the topic continues to be revisited in our larger culture. Burial was considered the norm for many, many years. In part because of religious tradition and no doubt in part to simply not having many other options. But these days, options are what people are all about. And as awareness increases of the rather unhealthy amount of chemicals normally used to prepare a body for burial and the amount of space dead people take up, options continue to evolve. Not surprisingly some of these options embrace some rather non-traditional (to say nothing of unBiblical) approaches to creating a palatable way of thinking about death and the great beyond (or lack thereof).

The latest article is here. As opposed to burying, burning, or liquifying the body, this option turns human bodies into compost in the span of 30 days by letting nature take its course, probably with a bit of eco/bio – friendly encouragement. The result is compost, literally. Fit for use in your garden or wherever.

Once again, when I die, I expect my body will decay. That will happen regardless of the particular means by which my body is disposed of. But how my body reaches that state of decomposition and why can matter a great deal, particularly as a Christian who hopes and trusts in the resurrection of the dead, and therefore of the Biblical beauty and dignity and sanctity my human body is imbued with. Unlike many other religions and philosophies the Bible is unilaterally pro-matter. Matter matters, you might say. We are created physical and spiritual beings. Our wholeness exists in the combination of the spiritual and the material. The Biblical picture of life after death is not immaterial or incorporeal but very, very human. Perfected, to be sure, but human – body and spirit.

If you’re interested, a handful of good Biblical reference points on this would include Job, the Psalms, Isaiah, John, Romans, and 1 Corinthians, just to name a few.

As such, I want those who live on after me to know what my hope is. What my trust is. What I look forward to. And therefore what I do with my body as well as why I do it matters. That’s much more what people need to think about rather than the particular means.

What we do generally is associated with a why, though, and we may not control that why. So the composting company has a why to go along with it’s what, a means of helping people be comfortable with the idea of death itself as well as the particulars of their own death and the aftermath. The article references the idea of a giant circle of carbon exchange moving from the universe and into human bodies and back into the universe. Goodness. Am I really just a collection of carbon molecules? Am I not also spiritual and unique from any other person in all of creation? The Bible isn’t clear as to whether a pattern of carbon exchange will end when my Lord returns, but I’d much rather people understood that there’s a Lord who is returning than provide them some sort of psycho-chemistry lesson!

Not surprisingly, the Catholics are the ones objecting to this new body-disposal system, though I’d argue all Christians should object to it. A brief doctrinal statement on this issue can be found here, and does a great job of explaining why Church traditions are more than just traditions, but means of ensuring the proper message is sent and received by those who live on after the deceased.

It may well be possible for someone to choose the compost option and still strongly convey their hope in Christ through their memorial service. But the problem remains that only the people present for that service are going to hear the Christian message. Others who find out about how my body was made into compost are going to assume – rightly so – that perhaps the company’s way of explaining such an option appealed to me and was somehow my belief as well. That would be more than just unfortunate, it would be unfaithful of me to allow that risk.

I’m not a big one for visiting grave sites. I don’t have a personal need to do that. But I do see a value in having a place not just to be remembered, but to remind people that, barring our Lord’s return first, we’re all going to die. How do we live our lives in a way that acknowledges this without obsessing about it or pretending that our death is somehow made better by being ecologically sensitive? My death is transformed by Christ and him alone. Without such hope, being ecologically conscious or not really makes no difference and has no lasting meaning as we’ll all ultimately be vaporized when our sun explodes.

Legalized Drugs

February 15, 2021

Our state legalized marijuana several years ago. I believe it was purely a move motivated by money – the thought of tax revenues on legalized cannabis are certainly near-irresistible on paper. But legalizing drugs causes a host of problems when characterizing the crime that goes hand-in-hand with illegal drug sales.

Case in point – the murder of two college students last month in town. They were found shot in the head in their vehicle, one dead at the scene and the other dying after time in the hospital. It turns out they were probably shot when they attempted to sell half a pound of marijuana. The people allegedly buying it decided to just take it and kill the two students instead.

It’s a horrible situation to be sure. But I was appalled at how the situation was described by the county Sheriff. The victims of this terrible crime were two college students who made some bad choices and fell victim to what is often thought to be a victimless crime – the illicit sale of drugs, in this case marijuana. You see marijuana is legal here from a legalized, licensed dispensary. Buying and selling it from anyone other than a licensed dispensary is illegal, a nuance that may or may not have been lost on the two young men.

But the sheriff’s description makes it seem like a tragic happening in an otherwise rather innocent context. As though the two murdered boys really weren’t doing anything all that bad. They made bad choices and fell victim. Let’s be accurate, their bad choice was trying to illegally sell drugs. We used to have a name for those folks – drug dealers – and the understanding is that they were anything but innocent. In fact, it was common knowledge as I was growing up that however popular and accessible drugs might be, there was an inherent risk and danger in acquiring them, let alone trying to sell them. Drug dealers didn’t fall victim. They took calculated risks based on an assumption of reward. Knowing those risks, they were often prepared to defend themselves. If they failed to protect themselves, it was understood this was a reasonable risk of dealing in illegal drugs. The people involved in that line of work were understood to be dangerous and sometimes well-organized and backed by powerful gangs or criminal networks who wouldn’t take kindly to an amateur setting up shop in their territory.

But because pot is legal, it creates this confusion, as though there really aren’t still drug dealers and gangs and crime syndicates who make an obscene amount of money selling illegal drugs. Maybe not marijuana so much, but then again, maybe still. The people I know who are habitual pot users don’t always (or ever) buy from dispensaries as the prices are oftentimes higher and the quality not necessarily better. They have a network of friends and aficionados who can generally supply them what they need.

The impression of dabbling in drugs as legal or victimless clouds the whole arena considerably, creating a smoke screen (ha!) that hides the very real and brutal side of drug dealing. I have no idea if these two murdered college kids sold pot or other drugs on a regular basis. Probably not, or they might have been more cautious. But they should have known that this is what they were doing – acting as drug dealers, which is an inherently dangerous and illegal line of work. If they had thought about it in those terms they might still be alive.

Condemning Without Examination

February 11, 2021

This article is a fascinating example of the importance of analyzing the intent of a communication. What is it the writer or speaker or producer wants to occur in my thoughts or actions after ingesting their work?

The tone of the article throughout condemns the various bans on facemasks throughout Sweden during the COVID pandemic thus far, repeatedly juxtaposing Swedish stances on the issue with the larger body of established evidence. We are to shake our heads at those poor Swedes whose government agencies have failed them during this crisis by communicating inaccurately and ineffectively. We will, rather the author intends it or not (which means they probably do) also likely lament the supposed fate of the Swedes. After all, if their government directly contradicted prevailing medical opinions, was silly enough to even communicate their concerns about the safety of facemasks to the international medical community, and then did a terrible job at communicating the need for facemasks and under what conditions, the average reader would likely conclude that things in Sweden are far worse than places that followed more conventional wisdom and communicated clearly and strongly to require facemasks as protection against COVID.

But while this is likely the inference of the average reader, the article nowhere bothers to confirm this reaction (let alone dissuade it). The author clearly feels Sweden was out of place in the course of action it has taken in downplaying the efficacy and safety of requiring citizens to wear masks. The author certainly substantiates with external links that such a course of action stands in marked contrast to what most of the rest of the world recommends. But the real proof in whether a travesty has taken place or not is whether this decidedly different approach resulted in a pandemic situation worse than those countries pushing mask wearing. In other words, going a different direction can be good, bad, or indifferent based on the results. Or it can be simply dismissed as bad in itself – taking a path contrary to the established norms of the larger group is always bad, regardless of whether what the larger group recommends is actually helpful or not. That’s ultimately what this article leaves you with.

But that’s not necessarily true. It can be. But as a rule of thumb, a guideline to live life by, it can be very dangerous and misleading, and is actually a logical fallacy – an appeal to the majority (ad populum, to use the Latin). Just because more people think something is true – or because a particular group of experts think something is true – does not necessarily mean it’s true. It’s certainly something to take into consideration! But the demonstration of whether they’re right or not must lie somewhere else or in something more than opinion.

So let’s do some research. Sweden has a population of roughly 10,400,000 people. The World Health Organization says there have been just over 604,000 reported cases of COVID, and just under 12,4000 deaths. That pans out to an infection rate of the overall population of about 6%, and a mortality rate of COVID infection of 2%. For comparison, the US has a population of 330,000,000. The WHO reports US COVID numbers as just over 27,000,000 infections and 468,000 deaths. That comes out to an infection rate of 8% and a mortality rate of 1.7%. Arguing for any number of mitigating factors like population density and we could generously say that the infection rates are roughly similar and perhaps the mortality rates are a smidge higher in Sweden than in the US.

What about a European comparison? Germany has a population of approximately 83,000,000 people, of whom 2,320,000 have had COVID leading to 64,200 deaths. That comes out to an infection rate of not quite 3% and a mortality rate of not quite 3%. Germany’s infection percent is half of Sweden’s but it’s mortality rate is 50% higher. Interesting trade-off.

The United Kingdom has implemented increasingly extremely restrictions and punishments to discourage gatherings and travel and stem the high rates of infection. The UK has a population of 68,000,000, of whom 4,000,000 have contracted COVID and 115,500 have died. That yields an infection rate of almost 6% and a mortality rate of just under 3%.

So it would seem that while Sweden’s advice on health masks has been at times contrary to prevailing ideas on the efficacy of face masks, and at other times confusing to the point of being almost useless, the resulting levels of infections and deaths have not been noticeably higher than those countries that have imposed very harsh restrictions and mandated facemasks in all public spaces (at the very least!).

Perhaps COVID isn’t the best way to examine issues of what and how governments communicate to their people. Or if you’re going to do that, you should focus more exclusively on that rather than implied judgment about whether what was communicated (however poorly) was the right thing to try and communicate or not. I think you could write an article showcasing poor communication skills without also implying pretty heavily that not only was the communication poor, the message was wrong.

Breaking Good

February 8, 2021

The Supreme Court Friday determined the State of California could no longer enforce bans on indoor worship. This is good news for people of faith – Christian or otherwise – who over the past nearly year have by and large been unable to worship indoors and required to meet virtually or in parked cars, separated from one another by varying degrees of frankly arbitrary directions enacted by executive fiat rather than a due process of legislative evaluation and feedback. Good intentions to curb the pandemic, but good intentions which look at only the material, physical side of the suffering and ignore and even exacerbate the emotional, psychological, and spiritual sides.

Of course, just because you can do something doesn’t necessarily mean you should. Some religious groups may opt to continue worshiping outdoors because they believe it safest for their members. Others will joyfully be back inside tomorrow – or today. This will be another test for congregations – to determine what the best course of action is for them and their people regardless of what congregations around them might be doing.

Further, while indoor worship cannot be banned any longer, additional limitations – such as stronger language prohibiting singing or chanting – may may outdoor worship the preferred option for many congregations, especially if (like ours) the weather makes such an option reasonable. Good news in this case comes tempered by additional restrictions which may ultimately make it less good.

Back in June when the first stay-at-home order was lifted, I pushed easily to have us move back inside. We had already polled our members on this and their response was nearly unanimous that they wanted to return to indoor worship. We didn’t yet realize the staying power of the COVID-19 pandemic, and it seemed the most reasonable course of action. Eight months later, the option to return to indoor worship is more complicated for me.

Firstly, we’re blessed to live in an area where the weather is temperate year round, rainy days are rare and snow days are practically non-existent. It might be nippy at mid-morning still – in the 50’s – but workable, particularly when the sun is shining and there isn’t a breeze. As such even though my congregation is comprised almost exclusively of post-retirement adults, they’re not only willing but able to handle outdoor worship with some layers of clothing. The seats aren’t terribly comfortable, but they weren’t happy with the 50-year old cushions on the pews inside either!

More than a few people have commented how much they like being outside. A change of venue perhaps, or the ability to enjoy our glorious weather a little more than they might otherwise. Because a small group of dedicated volunteers has committed to coming early to set out chairs and set up the sound board and microphones and electronic keyboard, our outdoor worship really is a beautiful setting, even in a parking lot.

The pandemic certainly appears to be affecting our county more in the past couple of months than it did the rest of the previous pandemic period. While I still personally know very few people sickened by COVID, the reported numbers for the county are far higher than they used to be. Those numbers have dropped dramatically in the past two weeks or so, but they’re still comparable to earlier rates we considered high.

While many of my parishioners have either begun or completed their vaccination cycles, some of them won’t. None of our members have had COVID at all, despite our continued in-person worship whether outdoor or indoor. Some dismiss the media frenzy about COVID and point to the overwhelming recovery rates from COVID, despite the fact they are in the highest vulnerability demographic. Some of our folks may not feel comfortable worshiping indoors again knowing not everyone is going to be vaccinated, but that will likely be a minority and moreover that shouldn’t matter if they themselves have received the vaccine.

Our denominational leadership at global, national and local levels has maintained a position since the pandemic began asking local congregations to adhere to all applicable restrictions and instructions from health officials. Our denomination does not see doing so as in any way restricting our ability to worship our God (since we can do so virtually, outdoors, or with other reasonable adjustments), and a failure to abide by instructions runs us afoul of admonitions to civic obedience in Romans 13. Every individual congregation must make their decisions in this regard for themselves, and the range of responses is a rather wide spectrum.

Thrown into the mix are varying ideas of what our obligations are to one another in terms of safety and Christian love. Is it loving our fellow-parishioners to return to indoor worship knowing if they contract COVID they are more likely to have complications from it – complications which could prove lethal? What is the duty of a Christian congregation in the pursuit of safety? Christians around the world routinely choose to worship together despite a host of very real dangers in terms of arrest, imprisonment, capture, or worse. Christians the world over and throughout history have prioritized Christian worship and fellowship as worth risking their lives for. How does that reality and history impact decisions we make today in relative safety and comfort? And how do our decisions balance the reality that we proclaim a God who created all things and sustains all things and is more than able to keep us safe, with the recognition that this God also gave us our brains and we should therefore use them?

So the possibility of worshiping indoors again is more complicated this time than it was eight months ago. At least for me. But I remain steadfast in maintaining that regardless of the decision made, it is the duty and privilege of that local body of Christ – my particular congregation – to keep loving one another. Even if we’re not thrilled with the decision. Even if we would have preferred to stay outdoors or return indoors. Our personal preferences don’t outweigh direct Scriptural commands to show love to our brothers and sisters in Christ in our patience and willingness to sacrifice our personal rights if it in any way might endanger the faith of a brother or sister in Christ (1 Corinthians 8-10; Romans 14-15). It sounds simple but it turns out to be quite challenging for many people. Pandemics apparently don’t make it any easier, either. I trust we’ll make a good decision. Maybe not perfect, but one our people can work and will work with in love for one another and their God.

Book Review: Live Not By Lies

February 2, 2021

Live Not By Lies: A Manual for Christian Dissidents by Rod Dreher

I was looking forward to this book a great deal, remembering how I found Dreher’s earlier work, The Benedict Option thought provoking and important. Having finished his latest work I’m conflicted in my reactions.

First off, pay attention to the title. This book is primarily a political work. It has to do with resisting totalitarianism (soft totalitarianism, as Dreher describes what is gradually taking over in America and the West). This soft totalitarianism will likely (at least for the near future) rely on non-military, non-violent means to continue to shape public opinion and perspectives both through positive affirmation techniques as well as punitive efforts such as banning web sites, YouTube channels, Twitter feeds or Facebook accounts. Dreher sees in the history of Western Europe and Russia under both Stalinism and Naziism valuable lessons about how to endure this coming darkness in American culture. Granted, this darkness will hit the faithful Christian pastors, congregations, and families first and foremost, but it will affect all of American society and culture. Barring a miracle, Dreher doesn’t think this can be avoided, therefore we must learn and prepare now how to endure it and outlast it.

He writes to and for Christians, without a doubt, but this is a political book. The darkness of totalitarianism he rightly warns about are certainly nothing new in world history or Christian history. Christians have endured, outlasted and at times thrived amidst cultures that were directly opposed to them. And, also very true, countless Christians have and continue to lose their livelihoods, their health, their freedom, and their lives in such contexts. This is no small matter. But we must be clear that Dreher’s primary concern is political rather than religious.

Roughly the first third of the book is dedicated to supporting and illustrating Dreher’s assessment of our current situation in America and the rising tide of soft totalitarianism that will soon displace everything we’ve enjoyed in terms of freedoms and liberties. Much of this will be accomplished through socially active corporations and businesses rather than at the point of a government military bayonet. Americans already conditioned to value first and foremost personal achievement and comfort are increasingly unwilling and unable to endure even the thought of discomfort or adversity, and will willingly sacrifice more and more of their freedoms to ensure they maintain their comfort and are accepted as socially relevant and culturally admirable.

The next two thirds of the book cover the major points of Dreher’s outline for resistance – value the truth, cultivate cultural memory, create and maintain strong families, engage deeply in a faith, seek solidarity beyond faith boundaries, and embrace suffering as a necessary and sometimes valuable part of life. These are broad brushstrokes filled in not with specific how-tos but rather illustrative historical anecdotes gleaned firsthand from those who survived (or didn’t survive) the brutal repressions under Communist or Nazi governments.

The proof that this book is primarily political rather than religious struck me most fully on p.176 where, while emphasizing the importance of building and maintaining relationships and cooperative efforts with others who have not succumbed to the totalitarian state even if their beliefs differ markedly from your own, Dreher states “The Christian activist’s point: be kind to others, for you never know when you will need them, or they will need you.”

This might be a good activist motto, but it is patently unChristian and unBiblical. I’m not accusing Dreher of being either of those things, but it’s clear that his focus in this book is on resisting, enduring, surviving and ultimately triumphing over repressive political regimes that are hostile to Christians and others who do not accept their agendas. If I had thought more about the word Dissidents in the subtitle that might have surprised me less than it did.

My main disappointment in this book is that it is mainly ideological rather than practical. His many Eastern European and Russian anecdotes and interviews definitely support his major premises but do not provide anything close to a Manual. It is not a how to so much as you ought to do this. It is a manifesto rather than a manual, a call to awareness rather than instructive to those already seeing what Dreher sees or already convinced by his arguments.

This is not a bad book but it is mainly a political book. Christians should read this book as a means of recognizing just how bad things might get, whether by soft means or hard means. Prisons, torture, solitary confinement, economic marginalization and executions were all hard means by which Soviet and Nazi regimes attempted to force conformity to and acceptance of their ideologies and agendas. In the West it may never come to such harsh, crash measures when so many people are obsessed over their careers and maintaining a social media image dependent on continued purchases, extravagances, and travel. How many people in the US – Christians even – would be quick to accept whatever was told them in order to ensure their Twitter feed stayed up and their YouTube channel remained monetized and their Facebook account was never flagged as offensive or deleted as such. Additional pressures such as banks choosing not to do business with certain individuals or groups branded by the larger culture as offensive makes it even more complicated. In short order – and without the threat of violence or government interaction at any level someone could find their career ended and struggling to make ends meet. Does it sound far-fetched? Read the headlines more carefully. It’s already happening.

But there’s an element of truth in saying it has always happened. Or perhaps the roots just go back farther than we like to think. At one Dreher uses as support for his premise of the onslaught of soft totalitarianism a very practical litmus test – have you ever held your tongue and not said what you really thought because you were afraid of the consequences? It sounds like a water-proof demonstration of Dreher’s assertions. Surely most if not all of us at one point or another at some point in our lives has decided it was more prudent to remain silent.

Is this anything new? I’m reading To Kill a Mockingbird to and with my family. I read it as a high school freshman but don’t remember the book at all beyond the character names. It’s fascinating to read it essentially for the first time and appreciate how good the book is on a variety of levels. It’s not easy to read, as some of the explicit language that was commonplace at the time has been judged never appropriate by anyone other than African Americans themselves. We have to check to make sure the windows are closed and the doors are closed so neighbors don’t overhear something and misinterpret it.

A side character we’re introduced to in the book is a white man who lives with a black woman and has children with her. His preference to live in the black community is a source of consternation to the white people in town, but they dismiss it because they believe him to be an alcoholic. However we’re told as the book unwinds that he actually isn’t an alcoholic – doesn’t even really like the taste of alcohol. But he maintains the appearance of a drunk – reeling when he walks and never to be seen without a brown paper bag that he drinks out of. His explanation for cultivating such a bizarre persona is that it allows him to live life the way he prefers without the outright ostracism or even violence of the white townspeople who, were it not for his alleged alcoholism, could never permit him to carry on his life with a black woman. Because he doesn’t hold the same prejudices as his white neighbors, he finds it more convenient that they dismiss him as a drunk rather than attempt to reform his unorthodox opinions, or punish him for them.

In other words, it’s undoubtedly true that in all times and in all places people have had to hold their tongues or curate a particular public persona that may not fully reflect their private beliefs. That this is the case has not always been indicative of a totalitarian agenda or regime, a fact others have noted. One might easily argue from the Bible that Christians should at all times feel as though they have to be careful about what they say and do because the world and popular culture will naturally be antagonistic to the full weight of the Gospel.

Dreher maintains the suggestion first voiced by Neil Postman that while Americans were busy vaccinating themselves against the evil external threat of Communism as articulated by George Orwell in 1984 and Animal Farm, we have actually fallen prey to the dystopia described by Aldous Huxley in Brave New World, a situation where people don’t need to be imprisoned or threatened to behave a certain way because they’ve been conditioned to think the desired behavior is the behavior best for them and everyone else. I think this is a fair assessment. I think that people who continue to voluntarily sacrifice their rights and privacy for an illusory safety and convenience will ultimately be rudely disappointed with their choices. How long it takes them to wake up and realize that – if ever they do – is hard to say.

Finishing this book makes me want to go back and reread The Benedict Option (and I will), as I feel it was more specific to Christians and the life of faith not as a means to a political end but in and of itself.

Tell All the Truth

January 28, 2021

In high school I worked on the school newspaper. I wasn’t cool enough to work on the yearbook so I put my budding writing aspirations to work writing and editing news stories. It was a great experience and I moved quickly into the role of News Editor, responsible for making sure reporters got their work in on time and it was edited well, had photos with appropriate (and accurate) captions as necessary and that the copy fit the space available.

It wasn’t hard work. The essentials of good journalism as I learned them were to answer the what, when, where, why, who and how of a situation. Preferably within the first two paragraphs. Additional information could follow later in the story, but it was essential to give readers (our national literacy level is described as 8th grade) the main facts quickly so they could absorb that if they didn’t have time to read the bulk of the article. Not rocket science.

In fact, my first year on the paper I found out the staff was going to a convention of high school newspaper staff from around the state. I had never heard of such a thing but was more than happy to miss a day of school. We sat through various presentations and sessions I don’t remember a thing about. What I do remember is that I was informed there would be a contest for newswriting and I should participate. Again, nothing I had heard about. I was shown a room with dozens of typewriters (yes, I’m that old). We were apparently given some amount of information about a hypothetical event and told to write a news story about it. How unprepared was I? I had to borrow a sheet of paper from the person next to me, who was clearly disgusted with my complete lack of preparation. Mea culpa.

It took me about 15 minutes to type up the story and turn it in to the rather startled proctor, further irritating the person still typing away next to me. It wasn’t very hard. Tell the facts then fill it in. I won third place in the state. I’m sure that irritated the person who had sat next to me even more.

All that to say writing a newspaper story shouldn’t be complicated. Give the facts. But, give all the facts you have. Failure to mention facts can skew a news story into something else. Something that doesn’t just inform and allow the reader to draw their own conclusions from the data you’ve provided, but something that nudges (or shoves) the reader towards a particular response. Not necessarily an intellectual response – it can be emotional as well. Once you begin this (and it’s easy to not be conscious of it, depending on how you were taught to write a story or what the purpose of a news story as opposed to an op-ed piece or the purpose of a newspaper as a whole is) you’re not writing a news story, you’re writing something else. You’re guiding the reader towards a conclusion you either expect they already have or you think they ought to have. Sometimes the danger is confusing those two things or not seeing them as either distinct or intrinsically problematic.

I know writing for a high school newspaper doesn’t qualify me as a journalist. My top reporter went on to get her journalism degree and today writes and edits for magazines and other publications around the country. That required a lot of additional education and training. But the foundations were laid there in a high school journalism classroom, under the tutelage of a kindly and uncharacteristically patient old lady who put up with the crap routinely dished out by some of the cooler people in the class who clearly understood better than she what The Times called for in terms of journalism. She was a good teacher and as such was not properly appreciated. She taught me a lot about writing in a short period of time.

It rained here today.

It rained yesterday as well and is scheduled to rain a fair bit of tomorrow. The rain has been nice and steady and blessedly even. Only one short downpour. I live in a coastal desert so rain of this kind is pretty unusual. It’s also desperately needed. Our state was in a multi-year drought often described as the worst on record. And once the rest of the state received better rainfall levels our particular county remained drier and at greater risk longer. We reactivated a saltwater conversion facility that was built and mothballed decades ago at a cost of millions of new tax dollars. That’s how bad things were.

Then things got worse.

We received torrential rain right after a devastating, massive forest fire. A catastrophic mudslide decimated wide swaths of a community just outside town, literally washing houses off their foundations. Over twenty people died in the span of a few hours. The community is still rebuilding and recovering from that event and in places the landscape is permanently altered.

As such, some people here get nervous about large quantities of rain over prolonged periods. Understandable. But the fact remains that rain is a natural and necessary occurrence and that if we don’t get rain during our very brief November to February rainy season our water resources can run dangerously low. Rain is a good thing. A blessing from God. A necessity. Not simply a source of fear.

But you’d never know that from reading the news story about it.

The headline announced how drenched we were by heavy rainfall, and the subtitle recited flood advisories, high wind advisories, high surf advisories and beach hazards. The opening paragraphs (some of which are only a single sentence) scream out about all the possible dangers and warnings and advisories the county is under, and almost grudgingly admit that no actual problems beyond some minor road flooding have arisen. Then the story moved on to recount each of the major fires in the past four years and the unusual danger associated with those burn areas and the higher risk of debris flows and mudslides in those areas.

Then it detailed how warming centers were open and available for the homeless during this storm. Rain totals were provided but given no context (what those levels mean compared to our average annual rainfall totals). Then the story once again reiterated all the various warnings and advisories issued thus far and concluded with a summary of all the areas where flood warnings were in effect.

Now all of that is true, of course. But what’s the cumulative effect of a story like that, where the event – a natural if somewhat unusual event – is described and portrayed in nothing but negative language with nothing but warnings and alarms the topic throughout? It is an article of fear. Fear of what happened in the past. Fear of what might happen in the future. The reader should be aware, on alert, on edge.

Not a word about how badly we need this rainfall given how dry our rainy season has been thus far. Not a single observation regarding how much rain we’re getting but how gentle and gradual it is. Not a single word about how the air quality improves dramatically after a rain, or encouraging readers to appreciate the brightness and clarity of light that will follow. I know, I know, some of those things aren’t news, per se. But they are true. They provide a balance to the story that reminds people there is more to rain – even large amounts of rain – than fear.

The assumption seems to be people should be worried and afraid of this rain. The news story is validation of that assumed pre-existing fear. All these different weather advisories have been issued! Your fear is justified and healthy! No matter whether the advisories actually come to anything. Fear is appropriate! And as such the article contributes to an emotional state it presupposes or, worse yet, seeks to inculcate.

A single article on the weather may not contribute much towards this end. But couple that with all the other articles about politics, the threat of right-wing extremist terrorists, the existential dread that is COVID and the worries and concerns about whether the vaccines will be enough or will be taken by enough people.

The only positive news stories have to do with new administrations and changes of direction. There is unrestrained joy and optimism in those articles as things that a very large percentage of our country’s population apparently approved of are repudiated and gleefully dismantled.

Rain is natural. It’s uncontrollable, yes. But it’s natural. It isn’t something we do or manipulate. It is something we simply have to deal with and sometimes that means dealing with too much or too little of it. That’s fearful. Like viruses. Again, natural things. Sometimes very dangerous to us, to be sure. But things we don’t (generally) create ourselves and that our abilities to manipulate are decidedly ill-equipped for. So these things are scary as well. Live in fear of them, we are told. The only hope is that someone will come along and fix them for us. A pill or an injection – something we do and we control. That’s where our hope is. In ourselves. In what we can do and control. Anything else is fear.

Don’t live your life in fear. Live your life in a proper context. But don’t simply walk around being afraid of everyone and everything except for the narrow sliver of things and people the media claims will help and save you from your fear. They won’t. They can’t. Their intentions might be good or not, but they cannot save you from the uncontrollable. From the natural. They can’t save you from death, or from the gnawing fear and anxiety inside you they have helped create in order to ensure they retain control.

Only in understanding you are a creature and not a creator – just like the scientists and politicians and social activists so glorified in the media, and just like those same categories of people excoriated in the media for disagreeing, for contributing alternative assessments of the situation and alternative avenues of dealing with issues. All creatures. Hopefully doing the best they can, which sometimes is wonderful and sometimes completely awful. Sometimes doing the worst they can, because some people are like that, just like little pieces of ourselves are like that. Black and darkened with fear and anger and hatred and jealousy. We point the fingers and make the blames for those things inside us but they persist. And they persist in no small part because we feed them. Left or right, blue or red, we’re apt to feeding those ugly things inside of us with justifications and material that encourages them rather than weakens them.

Use the brains God gave you. Read, but also evaluate. Listen, but also reflect. Hope, but put your hope in the one place that can support it – the Creator of the Universe instead of fallible and broken creatures good and bad like yourself. And a key part of all of this is telling the truth. All the truth. As much as we’re able to see it and understand it. And in doing so reject the culture of fear that rapidly swells and grows around us at all times. Look for the details and then come to your own conclusions. A good news story should help you do that. A good community will help you do that. And a good baseline will give you the starting point to make comparisons and evaluations and conclusions.

Make sure your baseline can hold, even when the rain is heavy.

Tell all the truth but tell it slant —
Success in Circuit lies
Too bright for our infirm Delight
The Truth’s superb surprise
As Lightning to the Children eased
With explanation kind
The Truth must dazzle gradually
Or every man be blind —

~ Emily Dickinson ~

Law and Religious Freedom

January 18, 2021

Religious freedom is a complicated thing. Efforts in the United States to redefine the First Amendment unofficially to mean freedom of worship instead of freedom of religion understand this. The practice of one’s faith intersects with many different aspects of larger culture and society, not always in ways either convenient or appreciated by the larger culture that doesn’t share the particular religious beliefs of the adherent.

As such, the temptation to pass laws ostensibly for one reason even when they directly impact religious freedom is ever present. And certainly as a society becomes less religious as a whole, such efforts are likely to increase both in frequency and scope, effectively limiting or curtailing religious freedom without officially declaring aspects of a religion unacceptable.

So it is that in Europe, laws restricting Jewish and Muslim ritual slaughter methods have been passed – initially in Belgium last year and now upheld against legal challenges this year. Advocates maintain such restrictions are for the benefit of animals, ensuring they are slaughtered humanely. However ironically, advocates make no attempts to demand changes to how animals are raised and spend their lives, oftentimes in cramped, unsanitary and squalid environments. Critics of these laws interpret them as mainly efforts to eliminate religious practices of Jews and Muslims in Europe, and have little to do with whether kosher or halal slaughter rituals are actually inhumane or cause more stress or pain to animals than modern slaughter techniques.

Opponents to the legislation argue that ritual slaughter techniques are not necessarily less humane, and further protect animals not just at their moment of death but in their lives as well.

Specifically, the Belgian law requires animals to be stunned before being slaughtered, while both Jewish and Muslim ritual slaughter requires the animal be fully conscious. Both religious traditions argue that done properly, their ritual slaughter techniques cause no stress or pain to the animal, while modern techniques of stunning can introduce great trauma and pain, briefly normally but for longer timeframes when done improperly. Critics also note the Nazi’s banned kosher slaughter in 1933.

Neither the Nazi law or the current law was religious in nature. The laws simply insisted that humane treatment of animals was the main issue. But without demonstrable research that ritual methodologies are unduly inhumane, that argument seems weak at best. Both Jewish and Muslim scholars insist that care for animals is of paramount importance to their traditions as well.

Such legislation is worth noting as similar techniques abridging religious practice are being rolled out in the US as well, such as efforts to eradicate long-standing religious practices and protections. Again, the legislation is not presented primarily as religious in nature, but rather claims to achieve ends that almost everyone would agree are good, while destroying freedom of religious practice – at least one aspect of it – in the process.

Losing rights and privileges can happen abruptly and brutally. But it can also happen slowly and piecemeal and under the guise of accomplishing important and good things.

Continuing the Squeeze

January 16, 2021

Political pressure to redefine what freedom of religion and the First Amendment mean in our country continues. Those who feel this can be easily defined and resisted in terms of political parties would do well to be more observant.

In North Dakota this week a bi-partisan bill was introduced which would eliminate protection for clergy regarding Confession, ostensibly, though the wording of the bill itself is disturbingly less specific. Senate Bill No. 2180 removes a clause exempting members of the clergy from mandatory reporter requirements regarding suspected child abuse or endangerment.

Traditionally our country as part of freedom of religion has respected particularly those sacramental aspects of religious practice. A long-standing aspect of Roman Catholicism as well as several other mainline Protestant denominations centers on the confession of sins and the declaration of absolution by a duly installed minister or priest, with or without penitential requirements. Those who are baptized followers of Jesus Christ are either required or encouraged to confess their sins privately and specifically to a priest or pastor, who may require the confessor to perform a penitential act, such as recitation of prayers or the rosary, as part of absolution – the wiping away of in the eyes of God of sin(s). Confession is Biblical (James 5:16, John 20:19-23), and the Church has long stood by the practice that whatever is shared in confession is private, exempt from reporting or other recriminations beyond the penance potentially imposed by the priest. The idea being that the forgiveness of God is separate from (and superior to) whatever other forms of justice we may rely on here. The Church should not be seen as part of a temporal system of power or justice but rather unique, an outpost of the Kingdom of Christ. A priest might encourage a parishioner to present themselves to the authorities, but the priest should not do so themselves, either of their own volition or under the compulsion of the law, else people refrain from being open and honest in their confession.

California attempted a similar measure last year ago that failed. The impetus in both situations was the alleged protection of children, the idea being that priests who might have been guilty of pedophilia and child abuse might have confessed their sins and received absolution, and had those confessions been subject to mandatory reporting laws (a relatively recent legal innovation) the abusers might have been stopped earlier. It sounds like a reasonable rationale, although I’m not aware of evidence indicating mandatory reporting would have been of much use – meaning nobody has proven that abusers were confessing their abuse.

As I noted a year ago, confession is a core element of historic Christian practice. A priest/pastor and parishioner might engage in any number of different conversations, any of which could lead to a guilty party turning themselves into authorities. Eliminating the protection of confidentiality from the practice of confession and absolution is a stark intrusion into the practice of the Christian religion. Under the assumed benefit of protecting children, Christian life and practice is severely disrupted. The fact that such a disruption would likely go unnoticed by the vast majority of confessing Christians is not the issue. Rather the basic issue is whether freedom of religion is maintained, or whether continuing political pressure to modify it and make it more compatible with contemporary (and transient) cultural preferences is advanced.

Tragically, I assume it will only be a matter of time before the protections of the confessional are stripped away. This will not be to the benefit of our society or culture as a whole, but rather another step (and hardly the last) in the denigration and eventual dismantling of religious freedom in our country.

Contemplating Failure

January 13, 2021

At what point is it reasonable to contemplate failure? At what point is it reasonable to consider helplessness? Does the post-modern philosophical landscape even permit such an option? Or must everything be a strident, insistent-even-if-delusional declaration of eventual success and dominance?

I wonder this as I watch COVID numbers continue to tick upwards. Our state has been among the most strict in the United States in regards to limiting business operations and attempting to mandate personal behavior. Yet our state has been the media spotlight over the past month for skyrocketing cases of COVID-19, particularly in the greater Los Angeles area.

Nine months of devastating economic restrictions have put who knows how many thousands or tens of thousands of small and medium-sized businesses at risk of failure. Nine months of unending doomsaying and worst-case scenarios have battered our collective psyches. Masks are the norm now inside buildings. People are literally afraid to get too physically close to anyone they don’t know. A cough or a sneeze sets an entire grocery store on edge.

Yet despite all of these mandates and what seems to be – at least anecdotally – fairly good compliance with them, COVID continues to rage, numbers continue to tick upwards. Case numbers are what catches our eyes. Mortalities are on a far smaller level, though of course no mitigating contextual data is given to determine whether these mortality rates are unusual or unexpected for any sort of respiratory infection. California struggles with a growing case number despite some of the strictest protective policies in the country. Neighboring states where people can still eat at restaurants or have a drink at a bar don’t seem to have as severe a situation.

Is it possible to admit our attempts to outsmart the virus have failed? Is it reasonable to do so? At what point – if any – do we resign ourselves to the reality of a contagion we can’t contain? Are we capable of saying our intentions were good but ultimately of uncertain effectiveness?

Perhaps this isn’t possible to a Western culture where scientism is fast becoming the official religion, where God is presumed dead or non-existent and we are the determiners of our own fates. In a culture where the State is presumed to have all the answers it becomes rarer and rarer to admit that efforts were unsuccessful, let alone misguided. Everything must have a patina of success to it, even if the core is considerably tarnished. We must constantly slap ourselves on our collective back for our ingenuity and resourcefulness and tenacity even if we can’t prove that what we did or didn’t do actually had much of an effect.

My Biblical Christianity, in contrast, does allow for this. Allows for us to do the best we can but also admit that our best efforts may be, definitionally, not only inadequate but misguided and ultimately even, at odds with an authority higher than our own. My Biblical Christianity allows for a world in which we are not the eventual victors by our own efforts, but rather rescued from our good intentions that are fatally flawed and marred by sin, including our ability to admit our inabilities and limitations.

Some might see this as a fatalism of sorts that destroys the importance of striving for better. Historically though, this is obviously patently untrue as Christians have been at the forefront of working to make the world a better place for everyone. Rather than resign ourselves to God’s uncontrollable and largely unknowable divine workings, we rest in his love and grace and forgiveness and take seriously his original commands to us to be caretakers of his creation (Genesis 1:28). Biblical Christianity both conveys the truth that we can and do and should take seriously that we can effect positive changes in the world, but also that there are limitations both to what we are intended to accomplish and what we are able to accomplish. This emphasizes not so much our failures and limitations as the goodness and grace of God. We are forbidden from seeing ourselves as the ultimate authority and therefore do not labor in vain under that burden. Rather we are free to apply ourselves the best ways we can conceive of. It should also mean we are free to admit when our efforts have been incorrect or ineffective without stigmatizing ourselves or others for it.

Perhaps our efforts to contain the Coronavirus have not been successful. Perhaps they’ve even been somewhat pointless. Perhaps rather than trying to keep it from spreading at all we should focus our efforts on protecting those who are most vulnerable while allowing the younger population in work and school to shoulder the difficult but necessary work of gaining some sort of herd immunity that alone will ultimately render the virus less dangerous to everyone.

This is the long-game point of view. I believe it is the point of view of most scientists and immunologists. Someday COVID-19 will be no more dangerous or feared than the common cold or flu. This means it will still be dangerous to a small population group and that will likely never change, but the vast majority of the rest of the population will not be unduly threatened by it. Some experts hope vaccines expedite this process. But we also have no idea whether a vaccinated person who does not develop the symptoms associated with Coronavirus is capable of carrying the virus and infecting other people. We have no idea how long immunization to the Coronavirus lasts, and evidence seems to suggest it doesn’t last more than a few weeks or months at the most. The net result is an approach to the virus that demands fearfulness even when following all the proper protocols.

Perhaps this isn’t the best approach. Perhaps this only draws out the damage a new virus causes not only physically but psychologically and emotionally and socially. I just wonder if anyone is capable of admitting this might be the case and exploring that possibility intelligently, or if any such admission would immediately be silenced as traitorous unless backed with clearly defensible data. I tend to suspect it’s the latter option. In which case I guess the only thing we can do is pray for continued strength and healing even with potentially flawed policies in place. And we can keep an eye on places where alternate approaches are being tried in hopes those prove more successful. And we can continue to speak our truth about our proper role in creation. Caretakers, not owners. Creatures, not gods. We can encourage one another to continue doing our best and we can also consider a variety of options rather than insisting on a single approach.