The unliberated Christmas tree

I attended Brandeis University in the early 70s. For my freshman year, there was some controversy about the mass acceptance of “townies” – those from the same town of Waltham, MA – into the school. I knew of no one who applied who did NOT get accepted. It was hypothesized that the school wanted to make some amends for recent political stirrings on campus. Anti-war sentiments were very high at the school, and among the offshoots of those leanings came a group of students who robbed a Boston bank and killed a police officer. They intended to use the stolen $26,000 they gained to overthrow the US government.

I am very grateful for the blessing of attending the school; it was a great experience. It was agreed that I should live on campus, at least originally, and so I moved into a dorm room in September 1971. My roommate was Oliver, a gay Puerto Rican man from Brooklyn. Getting to know him and both communities he represented was a very rich part of my time at Brandeis.

Among the Latinos I befriended were many who had not just liberal, but radical politics. Hailing from some of the most repressive nations in the Western Hemisphere, many of them had family or friends wiped out by those regimes. They were also largely anti-American, at least anti-American government (in that they were in the right school). They were uniformly poor people by US standards. Yet intelligent and good students. Many had lived in NYC, though some came from Latino communities in the south. They were almost all on hefty scholarships, which I thought and still think was great.

I remember one instance when the older brother of one of my friends came to visit the school. A strong anti-government, anti-establishment discussion was brewing and I recall his objection, saying “No! I love my boss. I have a good job and it pays for my family to eat and someday my children will go to a school like this and I will pay for it!” He was regaled by most as a traitor to his people and culture, though his point was made nonetheless.

Most of all, I remember the love.  They would address each other and speak of another in the third person as ‘dito Lydia, ‘dito Edwin.  It was short for “bendito” – blessed.  The closest thing to it in English would be “dear” or “dearest” which was and is so foreign to common speech as to invite skepticism or even ridicule.  But it was completely authentic – they meant it.  From the heart.  And then they started to call me ‘dito John.  It was so beautiful it made me cry.   I had taken Spanish in high school, so I knew a little of it.  But I never heard “simpatico” used in a sentence.  Though it sounds like “sympathetic” it is much more than that.  It’s love that condescends without shaming or belittling.  Today I would say it’s Jesus coming to earth and dying for us.

Part of their culture, part of their group mindset, held that stealing was okay. They reasoned that since everything good in life was out of reach financially, they were themselves the victims of theft, so “liberating” (code for stealing) goods was perfectly ethical. And they would have actual examples of being targeted by agents of “the system” that were perfect descriptions of corrupt government and policing. So, they would sometimes show me clothing they had left on while in the changing rooms at clothing stores, sneaking it out under their outer clothing. And they had other methods.

Since I was a townie with occasional means of transportation, I would act as chauffeur to my friends, though they would humor my gringo presence well enough. We loved each other; let’s be plain about that. I don’t remember whose idea it was – certainly not mine – that my family car would serve as a getaway vehicle for the liberating of a Christmas tree, but it somehow blossomed into a plan without my having much say in it.  The dorm had a need, and no one had the money so ..

I believe it was a Sunday night that we were to do the deed, and we pulled up to the unguarded lot where the trees were. Suddenly I was unanimously nominated to do the actual stealing. It was a moment of truth for me – a true double bind. I wanted these people to be my friends but come on, I’m no thief. Part of the latter conviction came from the grace of getting caught 100% of the times I had tried to steal as I grew up. And I didn’t share the same mentality about theft.

Image result for christmas tree lot

The Christmas tree remained unliberated.  And I guess I let them down.

My parents later revoked my rights to using the family station wagon to drive anyone around, another grace.

Given today’s biggest qualification – back then it didn’t matter to anyone – I have no idea as to their legal immigrant status at the time. Many were Puerto Rican and were certainly allowed to live in the US.

But I will say this. I loved and still love these people. Stealing is wrong, not because you might get caught. And if your politics justifies it, you need to adjust your politics.

Proverbs 6:30-31 Men do not despise a thief if he steals to satisfy his hunger when he is starving.   Yet if he is caught, he must pay sevenfold, though it costs him all the wealth of his house.

That is, though there exist reasons that people might resort to theft, it is wrong.  Period.

As a result of knowing my friends in school, I do understand that mentality. They weren’t making up their stories of poverty. Nor were they trying to establish their culture or Spanish language over English. They were just struggling for an identity as a people – without shame and without stigma.

Much later I would learn about a theological branch called Liberation Theology.  Even in that, I would learn, there is imbalance and a hardened, corporate victim mentality.  The balance is that God does move on the hearts of people to help the poor.

Though I have lost touch with them all (that actually happened by senior year), in my little way, I was glad to give my friends my love. And I was glad I chickened out with that Christmas tree, because that was a small gift to them as well.

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March (well April) for Science

I ventured onto Boston Common after a meeting I was attending on Tremont Street this past Saturday (April 22, Earth Day). I had heard that the March for Science was to take place that day. It was rainy, pretty cold with a raw wind and I wasn’t really dressed for it so I wanted to make it quickly to my car parked under the Boston Common. When I started across the common, entering at Park Street Station, I could tell the march was already in full swing. Well, that wasn’t right either, because many hundreds of people were still arriving from all directions.

The first person who caught my eye was a HUGE man, with a sign that said something defiant and angry (I forget exactly what and you would too). He scowling, growling with a shaking fist held high in the air as if to rally the people. I passed up the opportunity to involve him in the pugilistic exchange he seemed to long for, and walked by to his right. For the next several days I was searching my memory for the image that best fit his appearance and mannerisms. Then it came to me.

The tone of the signage, speech and even the expressions on people’s faces was just like that. Lots of spouting. Lots of indignation and well, hatred.

Now I love science. My Dad had a PhD in Physics. I love the researching, the discovery and the exchange that goes into the scientific method.

And the scientists I have known have been a pretty humble lot. By no means all of them, but

  1. Their work is so laden with trial and error that it just makes them cautious towards advancing their findings beyond some initial positive results, qualified with words like “tentative”, “preliminary”, etc.
  2. They are careful not to cite something, even evidence, as “fact” until is it thoroughly vetted.
  3. When there are theories that get developed, it’s only after lengthy community scrutiny and testing.
  4. Their work is open to revision and even repudiation, should other, overriding evidence emerge.
  5. Their community is not American but international.  That is, advancements and contributions arise from all over the world.

The contrast between that careful process and the brash posters and talk on the Common was profound. The march was not about science but about using some selected scientific themes and theories to advance a world- and political-view that the people felt was being attacked by the current president and his administration. “Science”, then was the ultimate authority, though science itself establishes its authority with much more trepidation and process.

And the hatred was palpable. Another saying from the movie referenced above came to mind:

I was relieved to see a nerdy, overweight kid smiling with a poster reading “Be a proton. Be positive”

I do think I understand the antipathy particularly against THIS president. It’s not so much as he’s conservative, though that certainly was unforgivable to this crowd. It’s that he is defiantly so, ill-mannered and impenitent in the face of mistakes.

But this Saturday I didn’t see anything better in his opponents.

Which brings me again to the place of saying if that is the substance of modern political “discussion”, then I am proudly unpolitical. Because I will not hate like that. Not even (or especially not) or science.

Sanity and mercy for the alien

Matthew 5:7 Blessed are the merciful for they will be shown mercy

The third beatitude spoken by Jesus at the Sermon on the Mount hits at a key double standard that plagues humanity. That is, people universally want mercy extended towards them but adopt stances that lack mercy towards others. Christ repeatedly linked the incoming with the outgoing, because it’s the foundation of community in a human condition where people have a strong likelihood to fall into destructive and hurtful behavior.  So the statement has a flip side – no outgoing mercy, none coming in.

I take it as a given that we all need mercy.

I’m going to write about a hot button issue with the hope of being a cooler head and inspiring other heads to cool off as well. And become exercise more mercy, because they need mercy towards themselves.

As we experience the actions of individuals and groups, we will observe behavior that can offend and injure ourselves or our group. That behavior is widely various and so are its effects.

When the others’ behavior becomes a hot button due to flash points or political arousal, the practice of outgoing mercy evaporates and hearts are made hard.

Image result for quichua milford ma

The current turmoil of sentiment against illegal American aliens is a very good example. Offenses, real and imagined, have energized a movement and candidate to take decisive action. And the backlash of liberal ideology that embraces immigrants then became merciless towards their political foes who they didn’t bother to understand, let alone even consider exercising mercy.

I’m a moderate, which means I have very few political friends – or better put my political friends are actually civil enough to see both sides of the issues. So you know

  • I do understand the problems caused by illegal aliens – lack of tax-paying while consuming services, taking jobs from American citizens, breaking the law by being here illegally, crime and more.
  • I do understand compassion – that these people came to our country for a better life just like all immigrants before them, that they are “illegal” because of laws that have failed and that they have families just like mine.

I’m also an engineer and part of my make-up is trying to solve problems. So I want to advance some ideas, not necessarily new ones but in composite perhaps only lightly articulated. I would ask readers – who mostly fall into the camps described above – to avoid finding a problem with every solution. Mostly because we have no solutions now and the very will to find workable ones is primary to getting out of the current turmoil.

Here are the bones of a plan:

  1. Establish a path to citizenship for aliens currently in the country. Make it attractive and make it well-defined with steps anyone could walk. Start with a social security card to go with a path towards a green card.
  2. Provide a deadline by which people have to sign up for the plan and make it clear that if they fail to do so, they will be deported. I mean forcefully.  Serve strong notice to all known employers of undocumented aliens.
  3. Once the deadline is reached, aggressively go after scoff-laws and have them either sign up or leave. Hit places of employment very hard.  Yes, this is merciful because it advances responsibility.
  4. Reform the immigration laws. Establish reasonable quotas (higher than they are), asylum rules and vetting processes. Provide a method for safe haven for refugees while keeping out those who would harm the country.
  5. Make a 5-year review of immigration law mandatory. That is, times and people movement change. And so should the law.

.. or some set of points like that.

I realize this forgives the offenses of overstaying one’s visa, illegally crossing borders and potentially lying about it.  I don’t do that lightly but as a pragmatic step whose only alternatives both lack the mercy and are too costly on many fronts to make them viable.

And I would definitely both share the riches of my country with others and insist that if they are here, they become part of “us”. Because we need each other.

Candidates and leaders

The presidential election season is at its hottest point right now and it won’t cool off until a POTUS is elected in November. I have puzzled for a long time at my inability to embrace candidates. Listening to the diatribes of rabid fans from the left of right – and I am most delighted to have dear friends from both persuasions – has only made me more alienated.

It’s not so much with the process – the fire of political rhetoric both positive and negative has its place – but with the actual field of candidates we have this year. And .. well, most election years. It always seems that in the end I am voting for the lesser of two evils. There hasn’t been a candidate I would endorse for decades. Part of that is because I’m not an institution like a newspaper or trade union and I don’t have to endorse anyone. And part of it is that I just don’t align with the two party approach. But even that is not the whole story as I’ll talk about below.

So, in the first place, we have the issues that everyone crows about. The voting public is asked to fit into 2 groups – conservative (Republican) and liberal (Democrat). Using just three categories of stances one might have on the issues and allowing for only three view on those issues (I insist there is a moderate place in each category), we have a 9 entry table:

basicpoliticalspectrum

The “International” category includes things like foreign relations, immigration, etc., though most would include some of that in “Social”. My points are 2:

  1. This is a very simple picture of the true spectrum.
  2. If one fits into a solid conservative or liberal stance everywhere, there is still no candidate that does and that is a statistical rarity.

But I don’t even think an issues-based affinity works to choose a Commander-in-Chief. What I want, and what I think the nation needs, is a leader.  The qualities of a leader are different from those of a candidate who can draw a crowd and go toe to toe in a debate.  Leaders do that too, but they do much, much more.  Here are some qualities that show what I mean:

  1. Inclusion over issues – The ability to unite and inspire even ones ideological foes is a rare talent, and even more rare among presidential candidates. The president heads up only 1 branch of a three branch government. An issues-only presidency makes for legislative gridlock and aggressive judicial review. And this applies to the leading the American people, because crisis – and there will be that – requires it.
  2. Compassion at the core – While the left would lay claim to this point; I don’t mean it that way. The ability to hear out others and address their concerns with what are overriding concerns on your part matters. People are going to disagree, for lots of reasons. How someone treats his/her detractors speaks volume to that person’s character, and fit for the job. An inability to rise above vitriolic, ad hominem rhetoric disqualifies any leader.
  3. Courage to be unique – More than fitting a party’s platform, or the patterns of any tribe, the best presidents have convictions informed by higher sources. As a person of faith, I admire those who know that the parties do not fit with what they know to be true. Self- and tribal-interest mar righteousness, pulling its actions to into harmful directions. A leader with courage to be him/herself will receive accusations of not being strong-enough and others of being oppressive and abusing power. When both of those happen, we have a president.

 

I know I’m not alone in my reticence about this year’s candidates. And I know even writing this will alienate those who have been polarized. My goal is not that, but to help us all understand what a real leader is.

 

 

 

9/11, ISIS and the War

I watched President Obama’s address about his administration’s strategy to attack and destroy ISIL (ISIS, those guys). Whatever else was behind the speech and the resulting actions, I believed that the nation will do some of what he said we will do. The US will bomb targets with smart bombs. It will supply and train the opposition to fight on the ground. And it will try to protect the homeland in the meantime.

The effectiveness of those actions remains to be seen. (American) “boots on the ground” is not in the plans, so the ground victory, if it is to be won, will be achieved by non-American forces. That is suspect, because their resolve is untested and unknown while the resolve of ISIS is unquestionable. One good thing about the barbarism of ISIS is that now that it is known, soldiers will not likely be taken alive. They will fight harder to win.

The commentary that followed the speech was very telling of the national polarity. I listened to Fox, then CNN, then MSNBC to get multiple perspectives. I read the comments of friends on Facebook from the left and the right. I really want to process all this with truth and not spin. Who the president is and what party s/he represents is less important to me than the nation. And statements like that get attacked these days. And that is a big problem.

We remember the attacks on 9/11 today. I remember them well. Compared historically across the years, it was this generation’s Pearl Harbor, its “Day of Infamy”. I’ve been to the memorial at Pearl Harbor, looking at the upside down, rusty hull of the Arizona. Someday I’ll visit the 9/11 Museum.

Now, there are differences for sure. Japan was a nation, armed to the teeth and an aggressor everywhere it went. It was a bully to its neighbors and practiced brutality not unlike ISIS. The band of hijackers who pulled off 9/11 were from multiple nations working with stolen weaponry and clandestine tactics. And they achieved what the Japanese never could – a successful attack on the US mainland. So the enemy was not as clearly defined – at least to some – on 9/11/01 as on 12/7/41

Another difference was the response. The nation was outraged in both instances, but the WW2 response spurred my parent’s generation to fight, kill and die in a war. The 2001 response has waned since the day of the attacks. There have been (what most people find to be) silly theories of the whole thing being staged, by then-president Bush’s administration, to fund military/industrial interests. And Osama Bin Laden was killed.

But it still looks many don’t know who he enemy is. I don’t know if there is a brand of radical Islam that doesn’t have as its expression the beheading and destruction of its detractors by blowing oneself up, but certainly the common belief system behind 9/11 and every attack and movement before and since is radical Islam. I view this brand of Islam as a faction, like the factions of any religion. It has attacked and will attack again. That’s an enemy. My enemy. Our enemy.

So I don’t know how successful the current approach will be in the war against this enemy. The most dubious assumption, as I said above, is the dependence on someone else to take ground. Aside from the Kurdish Peshmerga, it certainly looks and sounds like the practice of war is something new to those being relied upon. So is the resolution to fight.

Sadly, that resolution is also lacking in Americans, who either fail to call this the war it is or diminish its importance in their daily lives. It’s “over there” and not here. The way to not lose our heads, figuratively and actually, is to stay and protect “here”.

Among those killed on 9/11 were Republicans, Democrats, Christians, Jews, Muslims, men and women. It was an act of war. And that war continues. Despite the killing of Bin Laden and progressive degradation of Al Qaeda.

In my view, the best way to remember those who perished on 9/11 is to keep up the fight. I do believe that America and Western Civilization in general is both superior and worth fighting for. And I do believe that the enemy we battle is here is by far more evil than us; historical atrocities like Wounded Knee and slavery notwithstanding.

So, whatever the effectiveness the proposed actions by the president, at least there is action, at least there is movement in combating an enemy that is on the attack.

Instructed by healthy compromise

It’s no surprise that I can have conflict in life; we all do.

As we age, if we’re perceptive and reflective in the least,  we acquire principles by which we navigate the tasks and work with the people at hand.  The principles work – that’s why they’re principles, but I have found that the people can have little or no respect for such notions as efficiency, priority and even agree on goals.

When that happens, I generally sink into moods and actions that are quite unbecoming of someone so .. principled.  Maybe I need a new layer of principles crafted for just that eventuality.  Ok, will work on that.  Well, I am working on that and have been working on that.

And it’s taken me to the area of negotiated compromise.  If a principle is held to so tenaciously it can make me completely unpractical and useless.  Not to mention destructive for all the wrong reasons.

So I compromise.  I wait my turn to say what I have to say.  And I remember in truth how these principles became established in my life – usually from being wrong.  (It’s never been about being right).

Relating to those to whom I report – I take orders and offer constructive commentary.  Now, fortunately those are both in my job description.  But even in the most regimented, unforgiving environments – let’s say the military – it is possible and important to ask permission to speak off the record.  And if one’s words are edifying, even if contrary and summarily ignored at first, one’s principles and cause will generally be advanced.

Dealing with peers, I state my position without yielding its learned driving tenets (I “stick to my guns”) and defend those for whom I am responsible (my “reports”), both in practical and personal terms.

Towards those who report to me, I persuade and listen, taking in alternative suggestions so as to incorporate the best we all have to offer.  No doubt there are those who have felt and still feel slighted by my not taking their approach or advice, but I’ve learned that’s part of leading.  Honestly, try it sometime.

Now, lacking this practice of pragmatism turns me turn into someone quite poisonous and distracting.  My principles, given too much power,  take me completely out of the game.  That’s not good.

This has be taken to the grand scale, because tribal and national relations are a very good area displaying the dynamics of conflict resolution and compromise as well.

America is a melting pot.  It’s not the only one by any means.  But there are wildly divergent opinions, things to advocate for or against and groups formed around the promotion of those ideas and policies.

The conflict can get nasty – more on that later – but we basically get along.  We vote people into and out of office and mostly we submit to the results of that voting process, even if we don’t like the results.

Some years ago I spoke to a Moroccan man and our conversation turned to the government of his country.  They have a king.  I asked him what happens when it’s time for a new king.  Now, I have no idea if he spoke for most Moroccans, maybe not, in what he said and particularly how he said it, but he announced, with unflinching matter-of-fact-ness “We shoot the king and another rises up to power” (paraphrase).

I will unabashedly say elections is a better way to transfer power and this is as extreme a difference in process as may exist, but it reveals what I call (and I’m trying to be redemptive, believe me) an immature approach to conflict resolution.

At this writing the people of Crimea are preparing to vote whether or not that part of today’s Ukraine will rejoin Russia.  Ethnic Russians comprise a majority in that state and the vote is likely to go their way, say the experts.  The aftermath will be interesting and possibly horribly tragic.

In America,we have ethnic people of every stripe yet we haven’t had secession and war since the 19th century Civil War which was really about slavery and the economics of the south (Lincoln said it was to preserve the union, but that was a union split by those factors).  We vote.  We live with the results.  Mostly.  Now and then a president is assassinated, but not like Moroccan kings, to establish a succession of power.  It’s not a coup d’etat.

But truth be told we also have conflict resolution issues even within our election-based system.    There’s always controversy, always disagreement.  And that’s good because we need each other’s principles, agree with them or like it or not.

Our current problem – and it’s always a problem – is civility, or the lack thereof.

Let me make a statement I made in isolation on Facebook today:

A key measure of the maturity of any party or movement is its civility – its raw treatment – of those who, breaking no law and in all good conscience, simply disagree and pursue the “competition”. The shaming mockery of those who differ from us does nothing to establish our superiority; instead it degrades and regresses our argument to that of a 12-year-old..

So, I think we need to chill and be instructed by pragmatism.  To humble ourselves and remember that we’re all just learning.  We know a lot less than we think we do.  And knowing that is extremely valuable.

Principles are vital – we worked hard for them after all – but we’re not done accumulating them – none of us.

And if truth be told – and it will be told no matter what we think – principles within us conflict and jostle for prominence.  Balance in all things, including balance.

I won’t go into the scriptures here .. those tenets and principles that I believe trump all others.  That belief would seem to establish an unfair advantage to a particular tribe and its ideas.

And I have many friends who would shriek at the idea of compromising on scripture.  But I’m not.  And I won’t.

That’s because the full counsel of scripture also has a very balanced approach to life.  Its principles temper one another.  Iron sharpens iron among people of faith.  It’s a whole different level.  And a whole different blog entry.

Body Politics

For a long time now I have been struggling to articulate my beliefs about the link between faith and politics.  Amid so many loud voice preaching political parties and all the trappings of that kind of affinity, saying anything against them (or it, really) is to be taken as siding with their enemy, the other guys.  On top of that, anything that derides the whole process and the institutions that it supports is taken advocacy of apathy, regressing into anarchy, its often violent party expression.

Historically, it is a slam-dunk that putting ecclesiastical persons into positions of great power is 100% disastrous.

This week I saw a Facebook sharing by a relative that was so inaccurate,even in its association of issues with parties, that I had somewhat of an epiphany – a Eureka! moment.  It has become clear to me that people like to fight in their ideologies.  That is, the combat of words and ideas, none of them original or even well thought-out, provides some level of personal significance when those ideas are advanced through successful voting.  And what is achieved is, in a word: control.

When the Moral Majority came into prominence I was a very young Christian.  As someone who was new to the faith, I listened intently to the scriptural arguments for their stances and actions and was without defense or alternative.  It all sounded right, and “right” is the way it leaned politically.  So that was what it meant to follow Jesus – think and vote like that.

I will not in this entry, even talk about agreeing with this or that stance on this or that issue; it’s completely irrelevant to the underlying error of the Church of Jesus Christ, because the goal in political striving is not the same as the goal of Jesus Christ.

I’m putting the finishing touches on a musical setting of The Beatitudes.  God willing, I will be recording a string quartet and a singer (or multiple singers) soon and posting the production on Youtube.  The lyrics all come from Matthew 5:3-12

“Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven. 

Blessed are those who mourn, for they will be comforted.  

Blessed are the meek, for they will inherit the earth.

Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness,  for they will be filled.  

Blessed are the merciful, for they will be shown mercy.

Blessed are the pure in heart, for they will see God.  

Blessed are the peacemakers,  for they will be called sons of God. 

Blessed are those who are persecuted because of righteousness,  for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.

“Blessed are you when people insult you, persecute you and falsely say all kinds of evil against you because of me.

Rejoice and be glad, because great is your reward in heaven

It’s an amazing passage, full of endorsement of a life that is completely contrary to the systems of this world.  It defines the life of the life of the believer.  But one of the blesseds is this: Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness,  for they will be filled.

Now, those who pursue political power will say they are pursuing righteousness, both right and left.  But both choose those issues that matter and choose their stance on those issues based upon their tribal beliefs and ideology.

I would say unequivocally that they are not pursuing righteousness first and foremost but control.  The reasoning they use is this “If we can elect officials who will make laws to govern the land then we will control the bad behavior of our political enemies, throwing them in jail if need be, to advance our cause.”

This is not hungering and thirsting for righteousness.  The difference between the two is that real Christian righteousness has people surrendering control to God.  That is fundamental.  And it starts with me, not you.  It does extend to you, even as (or before) I am anything resembling righteous, because it’s God’s work, not mine.  But it is independent of human power; we must get that right.

As Jesus told Pilate:

John 18:36  Jesus said, “My kingdom is not of this world. If it were, my servants would fight to prevent my arrest by the Jews. But now my kingdom is from another place.” 

What I am advocating is not an abandonment of political advocacy or activism, but a cleansing of the motives believers who are so drawn.  For example, we can’t just be against abortion, we need to help unwed mothers have and raise babies (and we are, praise God).   We can’t just be anti-anything without addressing the problems that led to it or result from it.  It’s messy but it’s what disciples are called to.

As for tribal conflicts we must redefine the battlefield or simply lose.  It’s not for the masses, it’s for the individual.  For the battle to belong to the Lord, we must hunger for people to come to Him, not just be conquered by our larger vote count.