Wednesday, January 12, 2011

Thoughts Percolating on a Tragedy

For the same reason audiences checked out when Mork married Mindy, or when a straightforward detective show like House became a sappy relationship drama, political audiences who get off on anger will start turning the channel when their needs aren't met.
Matt Taibbi

As the details of the Tucson Tragedy emerge and as the media dialogue not-surprisingly heats up, there's so many important angles for progressive Christians (and everyone else) to ponder:

1. In his NY Times piece yesterday, Bob Herbert reminds us all that there have been more than 1 million gun deaths in the US since 1968 (when both Bobby Kennedy and Martin Luther King were killed by bullets) and 100,000 murders since 9/11. And we still live in a society governed by what King called "the greatest purveyor of violence in the world." By the time his body was shot dead (his ministry and vocation live on!), King's middle name was replaced by "Death Threat." We should never forget that death stalked him everywhere he went. It didn't really matter who finally pulled the trigger--there were millions of Americans with the same skin color as mine who wanted King...dead. When we celebrate his holiday on Monday we can be reminded that Arizona voters did not give it official approval until 1992.

2. Just a year ago, Steven Anderson, the "pastor" from Faithful Word Baptist Church in Tempe, Arizona made some news praying death upon President Obama:

When I go to bed tonight. Steven L. Anderson is going to pray for Barack Obama to die and go to hell...God appointed [Obama] to destroy this country for the wickedness of the United States of America. God appointed him because that’s what our country has turned into. That’s who we deserve as a president.

Not only am I embarrassed for him because of the content of his sermon and the fact that he refers to himself in the third person, but also because it led one of the members of his "church" to carry an AR-15 automatic rifle while protesting an Obama speech in Phoenix the very next day. He told a reporter:

I don’t care how God does it, I’m not going into further detail than that. It would be better now than later. However it happens, I’m going be happy that it happens. I’m gonna be a happy man… I would rejoice.

But I'm not here to pick on Arizona. We've got a Southern Baptist pastor living 15 minutes north of us in Orange County who also prays death on Obama and the legendary Fred Phelps (who responded to the Tucson Tragedy with, "God sent the shooter!" and plans on picketing each victim's funeral) lives just 30 minutes from our summer cottage in Lawrence, Kansas. And that's the point: these "Christians" seem to be all over the place.

3. This leads to a point that has dogged me tirelessly for the past couple of years. I hear from my conservative friends all the time about how there are lunatics on the far right and the far left. But this is my final plea: I'm begging EasyYolk readers who consider themselves "conservative" to unveil a "liberal" Christian pastor or leader or "liberal" anyone who speaks with this kind of hatred and violence. Please respond in the comments section of this post so we can really start this dialogue. And please don't understand me. I am not saying that all conservative Christians are violent and hateful. I've never even imagined anything of the sort. Most of the Christians I know are of the conservative Evangelical brand and I don't hear them using violent substance, tone or rhetoric. But that doesn't mean a lot of them don't exist.

4. This, however, leads to one of my greatest concerns about the North American Body of Christ in the wake of the Tragedy. The continuation and deepening of political posturing, jargon and rhetoric on cable news networks, the internet and in personal conversations will--mark my words--lead plenty more Christians to say "to hell with politics." Yet, this is the very hour that we cannot afford the false paths (what I will refer to as "cul-de-sacs" in a near future post) of apathy, relativism, cyncicism or absolutism. Jesus was political in everything he did, pledging citizenship to a kingdom that transcended Caesar. Exhibit A: he was executed as a political rebel.

The way of Jesus calls us to be presently engaged in the aftermath of this Tragedy in regards to both tone and truthful substance. Now is the time to ramp up the humble listening, gracious generosity and critical thinking displayed by the Master's life in 1st Century Palestine, while using all the wisdom and discernment at our disposal to counter false ideologies and tendencies. We are called to join other "people of conscience" who embody peace, justice, empathy and gentleness. After all, turning the other cheek has nothing to do with "giving up" on state & electoral politics (voting, campaigning, advocating, etc).

5. The most intriguing issue (in our humble opinion) that surrounds the Tragedy is the varied response to Pima County Sheriff Clarence Dupink who has daily echoed his own comments from his press conference immediately following the shooting:

When you look at unbalanced people, how they respond to the vitriol that comes out of certain mouths about tearing down the government—-the anger, the hatred, the bigotry that goes on in this country is getting to be outrageous.

EasyYolk is convinced that Dupnik, someone who has closely observed the lead-up of this political crossfire, has his finger on the pulse of Reality, but we reject both those on the left who simplistically chalk up the whole Tragedy to "hate speech" on the right and those on the left who duck the contemporary violence of the American political scene by denying the cumulative effect with charges of "random" violence and "mentally instability." There are so many factors that go into why Loughner "went off." It should have the time to be studied from psychological, social, political and economic perspectives as more and more information is released. But the bottom line is that our political conversations--from cable news channels to the dinner table--are filled with a tone ranging from flippant dismissal to all-out demonization. Just watch the on-air facial contortions of Beck, Limbaugh, Hannity, Palin and Olbermann as they name-call and mock the opposing point of view. Matt Taibbi's Rolling Stone post this morning is a rather transparent analysis, opening the door to indicting himself for his own salty comments towards Wall Street CEO's and politicians. This is exactly the kind of self-reflection the media should give itself in the wake of the Tragedy.

6. In his post, Taibbi points out something that is awfully (in every sense of the word) true, but which has already been violently rejected by pundits and politicians on the right:

Anyway, I think the reason that many people are going to be criticizing right-wing rhetoric in particular in the wake of the Giffords incident is not for what people like Rush and Sarah Palin say openly, but precisely because their underlying message is suspect. I think it's pretty clear that in many cases, and especially with people like Beck, their hottest rhetoric is delivered with a conspiratorial wink, as in, "I'd be more explicit about the threat your political enemies pose, but I can't. But you know what I'm trying to say about them, and about what has to be done." Beck in particular gets his market share by going further in that direction than his competitors.

This is a form of speech that political scientists have been calling "dog-whistle politics" for decades. When this kind of message reaches the wrong kinds of people (usually white, blue collar heterosexual men with a rather large chip on their shoulder), then Tragedy strikes. And when Tragedy doesn't strike it just fills our political crevices with a lot of fear, manipulation and anxiety that manifests itself in multitudes of addictions, abuses, diseases and disorders.

7. Palin: in the context of Tragedy, her gun-wielding and tough-talking schtick come across as really awkward. However, as always, she is getting way too much attention. Her methods stir up the emotions of her base and get them energized and actively contributing to the Cause. She uses fear and manipulation ("death panels!"..."socialism!") that certainly can cause followers who lack education and/or hope to do and say a lot of crazy things. Her strange blend of anti-government, pro-American exceptionalism is the tired culmination of 30 years of Reagan ideology. We believe that a toned down Palin will lead to a more substantial national political dialogue, regardless of whether or not it led (directly or indirectly) to the Tragedy in Tucson. Palin should not be bearing the bulk of blame or attention at this time, but it has to be said: she (and her entire team of consultants) brought it on herself.

Why does she matter? Only because millions of Americans adore her. She speaks on their behalf because everything she says and every bit of how she says it resonates with them (regardless of whether is it true or not). For the millions of us who are clued into what she is doing and do not agree with most of what she advocates for (and how she says it), she is just plain silly. As if her tone and rhetoric were bad enough, her ideas have little to zero substance whatsoever. There's no way that someone like her should be a serious contender for the US Presidency. But, unfortunately, she is. She is wealthy and powerful and every time she speaks the media goes into a frenzy. She is virtually unavoidable.

8. Not surprisingly, the CBS Poll that came out this morning pointed out the only 1/3 of Americans believe that harsh political tone had anything to do with the Tragedy. Honestly, we take great comfort about the fact that 2/3 of Americans disagree with us on this issue. Our culture is becoming overly simplistic and anti-intellectual (not to mention more and more conservative politically). More and more Americans actually believe that we are all autonomous individuals who have total control over what happens to us and how we respond to events and decisions in life. Americans are becoming more and more comfortable with simplifying the world through labels and diagnoses, addressing the symptoms of our societal ills with formulas and timeless truths instead of a more true-to-life systemic and interdependent (what King called "a web of mutuality") analysis. Even when we take the time for self-reflection and deeper analysis, it is extremely difficult for us to acknowledge where our family patterns and enmeshments and class-and-race privileges (and inferiority complexes) lead us to power moves and self-protection. Unless we take the time and effort to address root causes and tirelessly come to grips with how we are all socially formed characters in the Story of life, we will be mired in the elementary mud of moratorium.

9. In closing, I offer a few sound bites from the Old Testament lectionary passage from this past weekend:

I have given you as a covenant to the people, a light to the nations, to open the eyes that are blind, to bring out the prisoners from the dungeon, from the prison those who sit in darkness...
Isaiah 42:6-7

There's no time quite like the present to dwell on the prophetic task of all us Jews, Christians and Muslims who plege allegiance to the God of Israel. As a Christian, I believe that Jesus was the "image of the invisible God," precisely the kind of human that we were all created to be and destined to become. But faith is a vocation, not a status. This is a dark time for us, and we strive to bring all our resources and energy to be a light in a dark world through our actions and words. This, no doubt, means that both our tone and substance should be filled with truth, love and peace in a world of deception, insecurity and violence. And if the God we worship is truly "impartial" (last week's New Testament lectionary passage--Acts 10), as Peter declared 2000 years ago, then this Dynamic Force can be found in the most surprising of places. As 98-year-old Jesuit theologian Leon Dufour writes:

I have written so many books on God, but after all that, what do I really know? I think, in the end, God is the person you're talking to, the one right in front of you.

Or how 'bout this timely wisdom from Joan Chittester:

We must speak good about everyone we do not know and yet do know to be just as full of God as we are, if not more so.

All of us possess God's image, no matter how much the systems of this world darken, blind and imprison it to a vague shadow of itself. The Crucified One teaches us that God brings life out of the most painful and deathly events. We should not be surprised when those on "the other side" become sources of truth and comfort in the midst of darkness.


  1. did you hear about this:

    this post made me think of it. cool stuff...

    adam r

  2. Wow. That action really embodies love and humble service. Thanks for passing that along, Adam!