The Sound of Silence

Quite the testimonial that there appears to be a higher degree of moral outrage among corporate CEOs than religious “leaders.”

This is just one of many statements I’ve read the past week about what many see as the transition of moral leadership in America away from religion to corporate leaders.

I’m not so sure I buy it — the second part, that is. I certainly buy the first part: the churches are largely silent. But I question whether it’s moral leadership that’s coming from corporate America. Rather, I suspect it’s calculated HR strategy by and large.

There are exceptions, of course — instances where a few corporate leaders are primary voices of morality. But they’re the rare exception.

The churches, on the other hand, are either relatively silent, at least beyond their hallowed walls or, worse yet, voices that stand in opposition to justice. Indeed, the evangelical wing of the Christian Protestant tradition doesn’t even pretend. It’s been nearly entirely co-opted by secular ideology and has become more Right than Gospel.

They don’t concede that of course. But it’s obvious, at least to anyone with a modicum of objectivity left in their bones.

As for the remainder of the religious traditions in America, prophetic voices of justice and compassion are undoubtedly still raised here and there in local congregations and, to some extent, in local communities. But the voices are either too few or too timid to join together in a way that resounds through larger communities or on regional or national stages.

But perhaps things aren’t all that different from what they’ve always been. I recall in the ’60s that most religious folk were status quo kind of people. The ones who stood with Martin Luther King, Jr. were relatively few in number. In that era, the kids and relatively few allies of Dr. King were the dominant voices of morality.

It’s been over 1,700 years now since Emperor Constantine supposedly converted to Christianity and the faith became a legitimate part of the power structure. One could argue that’s when the Christian faith embraced power and privilege over morality and sacrifice. If you ever visit the Vatican, you will understand what I mean.

There have been exceptions along the way of course. Quite notable ones. But exceptions nonetheless.

I’m not sure the situation is all that different among the Jews in our country today. Indeed, some notable people of the Jewish tradition occupy positions of power within our national government. Apparently, the faith doesn’t impede their work or trouble them enough to break their silence.

Muslims understandably are loath to speak out in our society. Our government bans many from even traveling here, and our leader constantly fuels fear and hatred that intimidates. That’s not an excuse; it’s just the way it is.

One thing has been clear for me for a very long time: given the choice of following Caesar or some other patriarch who relies on instruments of war and death, or a poor, seemingly weak teacher/preacher or tradition that inhibits the acquisition of wealth and power, the kind of person our president would  call a “loser,” the vast majority of people choose the former, even if they pretend not to. And who can blame them?

That doesn’t mean the voice of morality is silent, of course. Indeed, courageous compassion and moral people — both religious and secular — can be found in any era. Yet sometimes their voices are few in number and hard to hear.

I speak not out of a sense of condemnation for I am no better than anyone else. And I fall well short of the example of many.

The point isn’t that people are bad or complicit (although perhaps some are). Rather, the point is this thing we call morality, justice and compassion is no easy thing at all.

Risking everything — indeed, risking anything — for the sake of a stranger requires compassion and courage beyond the capacity of most of us.

At certain points in history, someone rises from our midst to provide moral leadership — a person with extraordinary abilities and courage. But most of the time, there is no such person. Most of the time, we’re left to our own devices.

It’s folly to think that moral leadership will hail from the halls of corporate America. The dominant culture of business in America surrounds money. Some founders and leaders of business have broader concerns of course. Some promote equality and justice. To an extent. But these causes will never supersede their primary mission in any large-scale way. Their shareholders would replace them first.

Which leaves us with churches and congregations and people of faith traditions. And with individuals. It leaves us pretty much in the same position we’ve always been in.

It’s not a cause for despair or reason for elation in my opinion. It’s just the way it is.

Being an agent of justice in a world that pursues power and wealth — in a world that is governed more by the laws of the jungle than the laws of justice — is not an easy thing to be, Vera. In fact, it’s so hard and can be so costly that I wouldn’t push it on anyone. In any case, I suppose it’s not something that can be pushed on anyone. For it to be true and effective, it must come from within. It must come from a heart that is different from the norm.

People will argue whether there is an external force or power that produces such hearts, or whether they’re merely a product of happenstance. You can decide for yourself when the time is right.

In the meantime, I must focus on myself and my own actions and be less concerned with the words and actions of others. For my entire life I have tried to heed the voices of both accumulation and morality. It has almost torn me apart at times.

You notice I didn’t suggest the choice was between morality and immorality. That would suggest the wrong thing as we have defined immorality more narrowly and salaciously in our culture.

I also think concepts of morality are a bit misleading. In my way of thinking, it’s more an issue of compassion.

Compassion is much easier to exhibit in private or in small groups of like-minded people. On a grander scale, in the public forum, it’s a much different matter, for there it confronts other forces, ones that are weaponized and punitive.

Sometimes, the sound of silence can be deafening.

The Truth About Monuments

I’m not a fan of monuments, of any kind. And I think much of the debate about monuments today threatens to distract people from the larger, more important issues, and play into the hands of white supremacists, neo-Nazis, racists and the president.

But I am a fan of knowledge. And I loath propaganda, especially the kind that is designed to spread division and hatred. Hence, I’m sharing this much needed brief history lesson from a Republican U.S. senator from Nebraska, Ben Sasse, which he shared on his Facebook page late last night:

I wish more folks understood how many of the monuments now being debated are not really from the post-Civil War period as a way to remember war dead. Rather, contrary to popular understanding, many of these statues were explicitly erected as Segregation Monuments in the twentieth century, during Jim Crow, as a way of shouting – against the American Idea – that public spaces were to be whites-only spaces. Tragically, many of these monuments were erected exactly when lynchings of black Americans were being celebrated in those communities – and the timing overlap here was not accidental. (It’s also worth noting that Gen. Robert E. Lee had opposed erecting Confederate Memorials because he worried, wisely, that they would become scabs of bitterness to be endlessly picked at.)

People are entitled to their own opinions and beliefs. But no one is entitled to their own facts.

The World Changed 97 Years Ago

On this date (August 18) in 1920, a mere 97 years ago and 144 long years following the signing of the Declaration of Independence, the 19th Amendment to the United States Constitution was ratified.

The right of citizens of the United States to vote shall not be denied or abridged by the United States or by any State on account of sex.

It’s hard to believe, Vera, that if you had been born 100 years ago, you would have entered a world in which, because of your sex, you would have been officially inferior. It’s hard to believe because we have come such a long way that it’s hard to imagine how anyone could consider another person to be inferior because of their sex. Or race. Or religion. Or ethnicity.

It’s official that you’re equal, but, as most of us adults realize, women and people of color and people of certain faiths and ethnicities still aren’t equal in the eyes of many.

The world changed dramatically 97 years ago. It’s still changing.

The world is very lucky to have you.

 

Freedom of Expression Isn’t Absolute But Some Is Essential

I’ve always been amazed by the number of people who think they’re totally free to do and say whatever they want, without repercussion. Permit me to be blunt on this point, Vera: don’t be an idiot when it comes to your understanding of freedom.

There are constraints on the freedom that all of us enjoy. Sometimes, those constraints are rooted in laws or regulations. Often, they’re rooted in social norms.

This issue came to the fore again as some of the white supremacists who marched in Charlottesville last weekend are finding out they’re now unemployed. Their employers don’t want such people on the payroll.

It’s possible, although I have no way of knowing, that some of the counter-protestors have lost their jobs, too.

This comes on the heels of an employee of Google being fired for expressing views that were out of step with the company’s policies and values.

Public protests aren’t the only thing that can get you canned, of course. Employers and clients can refuse to hire you, or decide to fire you, pretty much for any reason or no reason at all. They can’t do it for illegal reasons — for instance, because of your race, sex or age — but, of course, that happens all the time. Doing something unlawful and being held accountable for it are different things entirely. Many employers unlawfully discriminate with impunity on a regular basis.

Expressing yourself through your appearance can have repercussions, too. Visible tattoos are a show stopper for many employers. Hair, dress, drug use, language, names and hygiene are biggies as well.

Employers routinely check Facebook and other social media sites for postings or photos they might consider offensive or objectionable. Colleges check, too. I’m amazed by the stuff some people post and then by their surprise when doors fail to open.

I suppose it would be nice to be able to say or do anything you wanted to say or do without repercussion, but that’s a fantasy of course. For better or for worse, that’s not how the real world works.

Some people decide to stay well clear of saying or doing anything that could elicit an adverse reaction. Others don’t seem to care and pretty much say and do what they want. They usually pay the price. Others take a more nuanced approach, venturing as much individuality as they deem safe. Sometimes they miscalculate.

Sometimes fear keeps people in place. You see that with corporate CEOs today. Some of them go along with our president because they fear his wrath. His immediate and harsh reaction to the three CEOs who resigned from his Manufacturing Council the past couple of days is illustrative. If only he reacted to Nazis as quickly and harshly.

If you’ve read my earlier posts, Vera, you know that I place a lot of value on financial independence. One of the reasons is the freedom it brings. Simply put, you don’t have to be as concerned with what other people think, and you don’t have to worry about kissing up to some boss, client or committee. You can choose to work only with people you respect and trust.

Without financial freedom, most of us have to be ever mindful of who butters our bread. We have to be careful not to bite the hand that feeds us. Alright, enough with the clichés! You get the point.

I can’t decide what approach might be best for you. I wouldn’t even try. But I would caution you to be careful not to allow yourself to get into a position where someone effectively owns you — that is, in a position where your values must be subservient to those of some company, congregation, board, boss or trustee.

Whether you exercise it or not, there’s a certain sense of freedom in being able to walk out the door (as I did once, albeit not abruptly or rudely). There’s a certain freedom that comes from not having to work for assholes.

Indeed, there’s a certain freedom — and joy — in being able to do the right thing, consequences be damned.

In certain times and places, doing the right thing can get you killed. We’re lucky: that’s not likely here, although it can and does happen sometimes.

Usually, however, it’s not a matter of losing your life. Rather, it’s a matter of losing your self-respect and soul. Or feeling trapped.

It’s fantasy to think our freedom is or need be unconstrained. Absolutes are not what the world is about.

However, it’s just as fanciful to think we’re free if we have become subservient with respect to the most important things in life. We may delude ourselves and think we’re free. But we’re not.

What To Make of Heroes Who Did Bad Things

In a press conference this afternoon, President Trump equated George Washington and Thomas Jefferson to Robert E. Lee and Stonewall Jackson. The first two were founders of our country. The last two led a revolt against our country to preserve an economic and social system that enslaved African Americans and were responsible for the deaths and maiming of hundreds of thousand of Americans.

These four men shared something in common of course. They owned slaves — that is, they held other human beings in captivity because of the color of their skin.

But there are differences. For starters, 100 years separated them. We’ll never know what either Washington or Jefferson would have done if presented with the possibility of succession — dissolution of the Union they fought so hard to establish.

There were other differences. Jefferson had conjugal relations with at least one of his slaves. More bluntly, he didn’t mind sleeping with his captives.

Washington, by last will and testament, granted his slaves freedom after the death of his widow.

Does any of this mean Washington and Jefferson were less immoral than Lee and Jackson?

What it does mean, of course, is that all four men cited by President Trump did bad things. Well, at least some of us think so. Obviously, some of us, apparently including the president, don’t think so, or at least aren’t so sure.

Nobody is perfect, as we know. Each of us transgress in some way or another. Yet few if any of us transgress to the extent of enslaving other human beings. And no one I know is willing to kill other people in order to preserve the institution of slavery.

Some will say the standards were different back then. They were, but it’s also true that many people, back then, thought slavery was immoral.

Fortunately, it’s not up to any of us to judge any historical figure, or contemporary figure for that matter. But it is up to us to judge conduct.

I never thought I’d hear a sitting president of the United States come to the aid of two generals who sought to dissolve the Union which Washington and Jefferson helped forge in Philadelphia. But there are a lot of things I’m hearing these days that seemed unimaginable not that long ago.

It’s one thing to refrain from judging another person’s soul. It’s quite another to defend their bad acts.

David Duke, the former Imperial Wizard of the Ku Klux Klan, was thrilled with the president’s comments this afternoon. And why not? The Confederacy finally has an apologist in the White House. And so do the Nazis.

P.S. Lest an erroneous inference be drawn, none of the aforementioned men is a hero of mine.

The Dangers of False Equivalency

Political hacks have been pushing false equivalence in the recent past as a strategy. I heard it again on Sunday. Apologists for the president picked up on his theme to try to convince voters there was blame on both sides in Charlottesville and that neither side (the white supremacists or what they termed the “leftists”) was any worse than the other. It’s a logical fallacy yet one that has a superficial appeal to many.

If, when you grow up, Vera, the political landscape remains as toxic as it is today, you’ll hear a lot of false equivalence. It’s a way extremists try to camouflage the harshness or the flaws in their arguments. And, most importantly, it’s a tactic to change the subject and move the light off of them and their positions and onto something else. Politicians and their hacks are particularly adept at this tactic.

Don’t be fooled. And don’t be as easily sidetracked as many reporters and viewers seem to be.

Some ideas are worse than others. There is no equivalence.

The immoral cannot be rendered moral by the actions or inactions of another.

And don’t be a sucker for head fakes. Don’t allow bigots and others to divert your attention from the real issues. Be in control of your own thoughts and attention.

Address each idea independently, on its own merits. Never assume the choice is between this or that. Life isn’t as simple as that; it’s far more complex.

There is no need to acquiesce to another person’s characterization of a situation. Think for yourself.

We live in an era in which the manipulation of public opinion is an art form. People will do and say just about anything to get you to believe what they want you to believe, and to support their cause (usually by casting your vote a particular way).

Thoughtful, independent thinkers don’t allow themselves to be led down the path of despotism and destruction. Yet it has often happened that society has been led down such a path. It’s our duty to ensure it never happens again.

Think. Question. Reason. Subject the claims of others to intense scrutiny. Beware of the dangers and risks.

And, above all, don’t allow yourself to be pulled down by people of poor character and hate-filled values.

False equivalence is just that: false.

There Are Only Three Good Reasons to Borrow

America has fallen in love with debt. We borrow for everything. And, frequently, too much.

As a nation, we’re so overextended on debt that there’s a real debate on whether we’ll ever be able to climb out of the financial hole we’ve dug for ourselves, that is, without fist going through another depression or financial collapse with large write-offs (losses taken by debt holders). But even if we avoid those catastrophes, the debt will hang around our necks, depressing economic growth.

We’ve mortgaged our future. We’ve pulled future spending forward with little to no regard for the impact on tomorrow.

On an individual basis, often this means we’ve heaped a load of stress on our lives. Unnecessarily. Sometimes it results in bankruptcy. Sometimes, in depression or anxiety. Sometimes, in failed marriages or other ruptured family or work relationships. Often, it means a delay in retirement (less financial freedom). Rarely are there no adverse consequences.

Having lived nearly a lifetime, I’ve concluded there are only three good reasons to borrow. They are:

  1. to buy real estate
  2. to pay for valuable education or training
  3. to finance an ongoing profitable business

If I were given the opportunity to live life over, I’d never borrow to buy a car or to pay for a vacation or any other discretionary expense. Or borrow to buy stock (on margin), which I’ve never done. And I’d certainly never carry a balance on any credit card.

As for the three permissible reasons listed above, it would be important not to overpay.

That means not buying real estate at inflated values (such as a house in the mid-00s) or beyond what could be repaid with a margin of safety (not more house than I need or could afford).

And not overpaying for a college degree (such as borrowing to attend a mediocre school or to obtain a degree with little or no economic value).

Purpose and amount are key. Proportionality. Margin of safety.

One nice thing about being older is being debt-free. It’s actually quite liberating. I wonder why I didn’t do it sooner.

Next time, I will.

Justice Isn’t Free

Today, three people lost their lives in or near Charlottesville, Virginia, in connection with a white supremacists’ rally.

Since the beginning of our country, many of our citizens have believed in the superiority of whites and the inferiority of people of color. Indeed, today’s violence occurred near the site of one of our country’s preeminent universities, the University of Virginia, which was founded by a racist, Thomas Jefferson.

Today I have heard politicians react. Our president had what may have been his worst day in office. He ridicules many people. But today he declined to speak out strongly against white supremacists and Nazis.

I also heard a United Church of Christ pastor interviewed on television. He was eloquent and spoke clearly with a strong moral voice. He reminded us all that justice isn’t the default position, but that it comes slowly and only after much hard work and sacrifice. He reminded us that justice isn’t free. People who earnestly seek to follow Jesus and the Gospel understand that well.

Today is a reminder of the choice each of us must make. We can choose to stand with the oppressed or the oppressor.

We can choose to believe that all people are equal or they’re not.

We can choose to subjugate or liberate.

People have given their lives for both causes.

Nothing is free in life. But some things are worth the price.

Ordinary Heroes

Earlier this week, you meet a hero, Vera. You don’t know it, and you won’t remember. You’re too young. Hopefully, you’ll meet heroes when you’re old enough to remember.

The hero you met is our neighbor Barry. He’s lived in our neighborhood for 35 years. Ours is a new house. The builder tore down an old house and cleared the lot to build our house. We didn’t live in the area and have never met anyone who lived where our house now stands. But Barry did.

In fact, Barry rescued them. His neighbors’ house (where ours now stands) was on fire. The homeowners were elderly. Barry went into the burning house and carried each one out over his shoulder.

A policeman arrived. Barry told him that it was possible there were kids in the house because grandkids (like you!) frequently stayed over. The policeman said he was trained to avoid dangers. He wasn’t about to enter a burning building. So Barry went back in. There were no kids.

Barry’s retired now. He’s concerned how the community is changing. All the changes and rapid growth are unsettling. So much has changed. So many people have moved away or died.

Nowadays, he volunteers at a local church to give himself something to do. He also likes attending to his yard and landscaping. He seems happy. And pretty ordinary, in a good sort of way.

Of course, Barry’s anything but ordinary; he’s extraordinary. He risked his own life to save the lives of others.

“Hero” is an overused word these days. In its overuse, it has been diminished. When you meet people like Barry, the word reclaims its roots and regains its strength.

Heroes come in different varieties, of course. And each of us probably has a slightly different meaning we ascribe to the word.

In my lexicon, it connotes courage. Bravery. Sacrifice. Caring about something else, or someone else, enough to risk something you hold dear. Perhaps even your life.

Sometimes we cast sculptures of our heroes. Or put their names on a wall. Sometimes, we don’t do anything. Sometimes, they’re not even noticed.

No one can strive to become a hero. That would be antithetical to the very concept. That would be putting yourself first.

People become heroes when circumstances confront them that call for a choice. Sometimes they have time to think about it. Sometimes, as with Barry, they must decide on the spot.

None of us should strive to be a hero. But I think perhaps each of us should strive to become the kind of person who, when presented by such circumstances, would make the right choice.

God Approves of Assassinations (So Says Christian Cleric)

Robert Jeffress, a pastor friend of our president, said,

“The Bible gives the president the moral authority to use whatever force necessary… to take out an evildoer like Kim Jong-un.”

“That gives the government … the authority to do whatever, whether it’s assassination, capital punishment or evil punishment to quell the actions of evildoers like Kim Jong Un.”

I’ve always found such positions to be strange for a community that professes to follow someone who was executed by the state.

I’ve also found it to be strange considering all the words attributed to their professed lord, Jesus of Nazareth — words, backed up by actions, that seemingly undercut many of their claims.

In any case, it seems like the world is full of people who know precisely what is acceptable to God and what isn’t. They come in all stripes of course, but mostly Christian and Muslim.

I wonder how so many people established such deep insights into the mind of a divine being. I’m impressed.

Or not.

It’s ridiculous, of course. I say “of course,” yet it’s anything but obvious to many.

That’s the world in which we live, Vera. It’s a dangerous place, full of many people who say things that seem crazy to the rest of us.

But what seems crazy to some is holy and true to others. Again, that’s the world in which we live.

We’ll try to hold it together for your generation, although I have to confess that, on certain days, the task seems taunting. Crazy seems to have gathered a lot of steam in recent years. For heaven’s sake, crazy even occupies our White House today, at least when it’s not playing golf or throwing business his family’s way.

I like to think that crazy won’t have the last word. I like to think that violence won’t have the last word. But thinking something doesn’t make it so.

We’re teetering on the brink of war as I write this post. As with most wars, the chicken hawks who most want it won’t be in harms way, or send their sons and daughters to die in it. That’s not how chicken hawks operate. At heart, they’re cowards. All talk. All bluster. Just follow the chicken-in-chief’s tweets and public statements if you want an example. Consider how he demeaned a courageous former prisoner of war (John McCain).

Humanity has created the means to destroy itself. We live our lives believing we’ll be able to keep the lid on our nuclear and biological weapons and preserve the Garden of Eden we are creating for ourselves. And perhaps we will. Perhaps not.

What are the odds that a mistake won’t eventually happen? Or that something won’t provide a justification for an escalation that then triggers a chain of events that quickly gets out of control?

History tells us that black swans will happen. It’s just a matter of time. The only question is, how bad will it be?

I don’t know. Neither does Robert Jeffress, for despite his claims, only a crazy would believe he has some special insight into the mind of a divine being.

So how are we to deal with such realities?

For starters, it makes rational sense for humanity to rid itself of weapons of mass destruction. It’s possible. It’s doable. All that’s necessary is the will. And leadership. Today, we have neither. But perhaps we’ll have both someday.

Second, it requires an ethos that concludes that humans killing humans is an act of barbarism. You’d like to think religious folk would lead the way here. But that’s a pipe dream. Religious folk, by and large, embrace violence. And killing. They say their god says it’s O.K. Actually, it’s not only O.K., it’s condoned. Perhaps even an obligation.

So others will have to provide the necessary moral and ethical leadership if our species is to survive. It’s possible, yet part of me believes it won’t materialize until we experience an horrendous event.

In the meantime, my mission is to keep you safe. And to embrace rationality over crazy. And to take Jesus at his word.

We’ll see how that plays out.