for a More Perfect Union

My political feed that is relatively narrow. Mostly people who share my political beliefs or otherwise keep their opinions to themselves. While there’s some diversity between the intellectuals, the book markers, the activists, the ill-informed, and the peacekeepers. The peacekeepers are the ones who post supportive memes, cat videos, and gingerbread houses.

It’s not political organizing, however.  

I suggest that even during a pandemic it might be possible to have a productive political life. But I don’t think a political life has much to do with Facebook. It’s much simpler: it’s connecting with people to solve problems. 

It’s obvious that some do not want to solve problems, and it’s unlikely they can be forced to do so. Also, not everyone’s problem is everyone else’s. The problems of the county and city aren’t the same. And their relationship to the government isn’t the same. Some get offended if they are shown they do have a problem, and others enjoy watching others suffer. But enough people do want to identify the unnecessary obstacles that we face, and try to find ways to remove them.

I’m going to take some stock over who I know that has been really engaged in their local communities to address issues that are of public concern. One issue I find interesting is the dearth of reliable sources of information in parts of the country who feel excluded by the mainstream media. What sources establish both trust and truth? 

And the second is how we can build institutions worth believing in? 

I’m not sure of the answers, but I’d like to know more people who are trying to figure those questions out. 

Masters, Slaves and Sobriety

Years ago, a famous comedian joked about having an empty bank account. He noticed that that if you had no money, the bank would charge a fee. He observed that the less money you have, the more the bank charges. 

He would ask, “Ever been so broke that the bank charges you for not having enough money? The bank calls you and tells you “you have insufficient funds.”

You say, “yes. I know. That’s obvious to me.” His cadence indicated contempt on behalf the the bank. The response is a bewildered retort – I’m just doing the best I can. Of course I want more.  

Then he notes: If you have $20 in your bank, they will charge you $15. And now you have $5. And sometimes you can have negative money in your bank account. 

Even free things are out of reach!

And if you do have money, banks will pay you to bank with them. You get paid to leave your money with them.  

To anyone listening to the gospel this week, this story resonates. 

Some believe that the master is God. In such an interpretation, God gives us money or gifts we are responsible for and we should use them. If we don’t, we will get punished. 

But I suspect that it’s the slave who does nothing who really understands: this is a master who does not reap where he sows; he gathers where he does not scatter seed. He’s rich off of the work of others, and only the poorest one can tell him to his face how the system works. 

The servants invest, but they don’t get a return on their investment. There’s no indication they get anything besides more responsibility and hard work. They don’t even get the benefits of their labor. 

But Jesus says that God scatters seeds all over. He scatters on soil that is rocky, and fertile. He also rewards people who come late to the vineyard, paying them equal to the people who came at the beginning of the day.  God gives to people who don’t deserve their wealth. He is generous to a fault. 

And for Jesus, God is a God who forgives debts and gives food ahead of time. 

It’s not an easy message if you have power or money. It implies how easy it is to become satisfied with what we have, and yet also anxious about loss. We become perpetually busy for no reason, except manage this fear. We believe the master has our best intentions because we want to keep the status quo.

The slave with the least is sober in his observation. While most of us can easily be seduced by money, attention, and power, he is not. He knew the rewards were limited, and that the master only cared for himself. And so he revealed to the master the values at stake. 

The values of the master are accumulation. More power. More visibility. More influence. But for Jesus, the suggestion is that none of this is necessary. And that to understand this takes clarity of thought, or in other words, “sobriety,” the word that Paul emphasizes in today’s letter.

Sobriety is not solely temperance or abstemiousness. Sobriety represents the ability to gives up what one loves for something greater, and by doing so invites clarity in conviction. It’s sorts through the bad information from the useful, to have a glimpse of the truth. The sober person realizes they have nothing to lose by being honest. They refuse to lie to themselves. 

A responsible relationship with money might require sobriety because we can all be a slave to money’s seductions. While we each could benefit from a little more, the gospel reminds us to “put on the breastplate of faith and love, and for a helmet the hope of salvation.” For while money constrains and disciplines, it both liberates and enslaves. As an alternative, Paul writes “encourage one another and build up each other, as indeed you are doing.”

Jesus is not impressed with money. Nor is he moved by honor or talent.

Instead, the gospel suggests we can be worthy of good things apart from our success. And so with Paul, we seek the habit of mutual encouragement, of building up each other, to strive for victories of another kind, ones based on love, where our own thriving doesn’t require the diminishment of others. 

The Police

I get the desire to redirect, defund, and abolish the police.

Over the last four decades several intersecting factors have made it difficult to challenge aspects of police culture. These include a reduction in mental health services; the growing power of police unions; militarization; and the increased presence of guns. Add that in some places the police are the tax collectors for municipalities and get graded on their generation of income.

And that doesn’t include the hiring of white supremacists.

But most community organizers will tell you that communities want the cops. Social workers want cops to provide protection when they’re called on to deescalate. Furthermore, most urban police departments are more diverse than other institutions.

Community organizers know that one problem is underpolicing in dangerous areas, and overpolicing in everyday situations.Community leaders can tell the police where the dangerous places are; and they will tell you when they see cops sleeping on the job. When a precinct or a department are not connected to the community, they will not have the capacity to respond effectively.

LEOs can often be their own worst enemy. Some times the cop who has the worst reputation is like an enforcer in hockey, who will be the one who can be called to handle the most challenging and intractable situations. They fire the police who tell the truth; they begin to see civilians as enemies. This is not structurally different than other unions. But their inability to police themselves agitates the problem. Escalation against citizens ends up escalating the calls for abolishing police. That some cops work for more than 18 hours in a day means poor decision making.

We live in a country where guns, poverty, and envy, intensify the anxiety and corrode the capacity of individuals and communities to direct their energy toward mutual flourishing. It can be geographically intensified through density and close contact. Without an abundance of countervailing institutions, violence has always been a way to pay the piper, to maintain honor, to establish rules. The availability of guns makes these communities, and work of LEOs less safe. The solutions are not simply, “be nice to cops” or to stop protesting; but perhaps counterintuitive.

Public safety includes a variety of social problems that requires coordination across disciplines. Communities should fund a variety of institutions that do so. This includes police. Therefore, some resources should be directed away from parts of the pipeline into programs that prevent violence in the first place – Midnight Basketball was one of the more ridiculed ones. But it worked!

I submit that two policies might actually reduce and redirect this challenge of cops occupying communities: fund living wage jobs for teen-agers to adults; and second, rearrange our policing so that they are not underpaid, do not work 30 hour overtimes, and are trained for more than 3 months, but up to four years. Four years before getting a gun.

That the origins of the police have been related to issues of race – and ethnic patronage – is familiar history. But origins do not determine use, and it is up to us to think realistically about both ensuring safety, and funding the programs that actually give people the tools to thrive.

The Primaries, a reflection

A candidate who, broadly speaking, shares my values won the Democratic primary replacing Nita Lowey, my congresswoman. Of course, this is within the narrow Overton Window that is American Politics.

Almost all the primary candidates did. That said, they each would have also quickly encountered the same political constraints in practice so the claims of being “progressive” didn’t weigh too much on my consciousness. Several candidates were truly brilliant; a couple were remarkably sharp and incisive. One who I thought had the most emotional competence didn’t even get 600 votes as of this blog.

I’m concerned, however, by the way social media frames our decisions and nationalizes our discussions. In my view, local politics vets effective public leaders; it holds national politicians accountable. It teaches people what matters to the average voter. I would rather get to know someone slowly over years than in a media blitz. So in my book, competence > enthusiasm, and charisma ≠ character.

I hope that the amazing candidates who ran and lost continue to find ways to lead and be connected in their communities. We have housing issues; our county infrastructure is fragile. We have very tangible issues here in Westchester that require leaders.

Congratulations Mondaire Williams.

Monuments and Black Jesus

It’s been a bad few weeks for monuments.

I’m not overly concerned with whether many stay or go. There are a wide variety of buildings, or permanent structures, that represent our cultural values and aspirations. They become fixtures that we seek to be remembered by, or to force others to remember.

Some will last and some won’t.

I’m glad that the symbols of the confederacy are being removed.  Let the monuments be placed in cemeteries or museums. There is no need to memorialize the slaveholder rebellion. It was four years of history, and there are a bazillion other reasons to value southern culture. We can visit the images of the stars and bars in a book.

Other monuments are more complicated. I’m glad to see some fall, but I remain perplexed by the choices about whose monument gets to stand. I wonder why and then who decides what stands and what doesn’t.  Was there a committee meeting I missed when Grant was being decided?

Some monuments can be opportunities for us to think more complicated thoughts about our past. I remember how disappointed I was when my father shared with me a more complicated description about Lincoln.  I’d already at a young age come to terms that our founding wasn’t as pretty as the textbooks say. That knowledge helped me handle the complexity that any person brings to their context. Build a plaque for some and add some questions. Give a longer and broader retelling. Let us not be afraid of our history so much we must conceal it.

Similarly, there has been some conversation about the worship of monuments of white Jesus, and his presence in public spaces. First, it’s clear that there are no Nordic or European people in scripture. But the faith always comes inculturated – so we will often imagine Jesus (and Mary) in a fashion that is more like a mirror.  It’s similar to just as Shakespeare has become the property of all nations, scripture is important because it speaks to YOU.  When it doesn’t, then it is merely another book.

Some people have primarily experienced white representation of Jesus. In my view this is a diminished vision of God.  We need not dispense with it, expand our perception and vision of him. As we practice with a variety of images of who Jesus looks like for us now, we can better perceive the Christ in one another. If you have not done so, a practice of envisioning Black Jesus in your prayer life may be rewarding and edifying.

To end the monuments of racism in our minds, build new ones.

Observations

Be prepared. Have dog treats. Ready the camera.

It doesn’t matter if the police chief is black.

For every action, a reaction. Prepare for the backlash.

Black Lives Matter.

Cold anger is hard, so I will not judge the rage.

Don’t be fooled, vengeance is justice.

I have tasted the deliciousness of revenge.

There is not a single one, who does not fear the mob.

Who redeems? Let the prisoners be free. 

Who forgives? 

You did not think her life should be destroyed, but destruction has its place.

Black lives matter.

What is the pain in the world?

Every tweet, every post, 

the pain, duplicates, magnifies.

All the data, pain, every moment.

Vindication is more satisfying than peace.

We are all sinners, even the righteous. 

If you can’t burn it down, 

turn off the screen.

All I want

My friend Gary sent me a blog post using systems theory to explain the dysfunction of the protestors. Ed Friedman, who has instructed generations of clergy, helped identify how groups of immature people can take an organization hostage while “peace-makers” avoid tough issues. Immaturity is common across the spectrum: individuals who whinge at being constrained; and those who think every moment of discomfort is abuse.

The evidence keeps piling up. After recent Washington Post article about how the president refused to read his daily intelligence briefs, I affirm that all I want for the any executive in public leadership is someone who has some degree of emotional competence in caring for people outside of their network, and does their homework.

We don’t need a whiner in chief. We don’t need someone who needs our attention. We someone who takes governing seriously.

Bless the President

Bless the president;
Somewhere he heard on the TV
light would cure the plague.

Somehow the contagion
could be stopped by a simple spray,
an injection into the blood.

He got the mechanics wrong.
He mistook a surface for the soul.
We did not need to be injected
with light or a fluid
To learn we are radiant
and redeemed.

Within the waves from when time begun,
the waters of the earth,
the lamb’s costly blood, enough
to echo in the words of The Healer:

This was not meant to be magic,
but the ferociously gentle revelation,
that our salvation
is in our solidarity.

Quarantine Diary

I’m fascinated by the idea of military discipline in a life.

I don’t idealize it, especially the punitive, harsh, and exacting control of one person over the other. I admire the focus and the identification of what is important and what is not.

Because I do not often share that focus, and I sometimes wonder if a little more would be more liberating.

I made some phone calls today and scheduled on some of the platforms. Two meetings – one on the PPP, and the other on energy transformation. We’ve had some amazing success: first, Chase has been calling our churches back. And we’ve gotten some good press.

Second, we were able to negotiate free wifi with a new tower in the Bronx. This will give students staying at home one tool to stay on top of classes.

Third, the state pledged $10 million dollars to invest in energy transition, which will give a number of institutions the ability to take the first step and get off of carbon.

And last, the governor said he was willing to work with churches to provide testing. It was a great shout out, because we’ve been telling him we want to help.

I was able to get to the laundromat. It’s closing early these days, but I want to still support our local businesses. I also like that they fold the clothes for me. It’s a small price to pay.

Found a correct size bolt for my iphone tripod. I’m glad I did because I didn’t want to have to get another on the way to becoming an influencer or vlogger.

My brother, his wife and I shared dinner over facebook. He made a lamb ragu; I ate my leftover vindaloo.

Tomorrow my goal is to go for a walk, stretch and swing the kettlebell around. I don’t know what time I will do it, but perhaps I will first imagine myself as a soldier, doing the work to prepare for whatever war awaits.

Quarantine

Third Sunday in Easter. Two services. Sixteen people Zoomed.

A few were regular members for whom this was their first time joining. One, a woman who has been suffering from dementia, looked happy to see faces. I’d spent several hours over the last few weeks trying to connect her to zoom before finally reaching one of her children.

And there she was, brightly smiling.  I’d run into her yesterday in front of the church. She said, “I’ll see you tomorrow at church” but I wasn’t sure if she would be hooked up. I was worried she’d actually walk over.

Luis, who has been helping me with the power point we would use for the service, said we avoided a zoombombing attempt.  I wonder if it was a parishioner who has been living in Florida and calling from her phone rather than using the app. “It was a lot of numbers” he said. She’d called me five minutes before the service trying to get in.

I forgot the small circular light that allows me to be visible. The computer camera isn’t adequate, but most laptop cameras are now sold out because of the pandemic. There simply aren’t any more $70 Logitech cameras out there, except for the ones being sold for $200 on ebay.

Fucking gougers.

That and hair clippers. Tempted to just shave the head, and stop shaving the beard.

Was going to bring some AAA batteries home, but the remaining sixteen ones in my desk had clearly expired, some kind of fuzz accumulating at the very end. Looked online to purchase some rechargable ones and then proceeded to buy Amazon ones, because they’re cheap, and I felt guilty because it’s Amazon.

My housemates were on a cleaning tear, so the kitchen and shared bathroom got mopped. Because of the virus, I’ve been sending small amounts to the cleaner until this passes.

I’ve been wanting to create a video of making chicken Vindaloo, but I’ve run out of onions. So after my two hour nap, I went to H-Mart, the large Korean Chain which has been taking this seriously for a long time. Everyone who enters is given a spritz of hand sanitizer, a disinfectant wipe and gloves. I didn’t see anyone without a mask.

H-mart has some unusual choices. They have one egg brand that sells brown and blue eggs, and the yoke is one of the deepest amber oranges I’ve ever seen. They have some British and Finnish butters. And of course, they have marinated meats and kim chi. Kim chi has become and essential, in part because I find it livens up eggs and soups. I picked up one quart, along with some mild Korean red pepper and some fermented pepper paste. My plan is to make this Korean dish named Dokk Dori Tang in the near future. It’s essentially a braised chicken stew with potatoes, carrots and peppers.

I filmed my making of the chicken vindaloo, but it will be fundamentally unhelpful. But who actually watches cooking videos to follow?

Some emails about applying for the PPP.

My legs feel tight and achey. I could blame it on the virus, but mainly its because I haven’t been stretching or lifting.

The dishes are finished. Good cooking is mainly about putting everything in place, and then doing the dishes.

Only after you’ve mastered the art of preparation and clean up will cooking seem like a joy.