Leaving behind Margaret Sanger

Recently, the president of Planned Parenthood penned a letter reconsidering its founder, Margaret Sanger. Sanger was always a a lightning rod, and remains so decades after her death. It is a testimony to her memory that even now she remains such a polarizing figure.

Alexis McGill Johnson, as the CEO of the national brand, has the task of balancing the relationship of race and reproductive rights with Sanger’s place within that conversation. It should be no surprise that this discussion has been happening internally for a long time, with Sanger being a foil for radicals who distrusted the paternalistic history of Planned Parenthood, and religious anti-abortion activists who wanted to break away black conservatives from the reproductive justice movement. Framing Planned Parenthood as the perpetuator of genocide has proven to be an effective weapon, despite its political provenance and outright fabrication. 

The people who build institutions from scratch are rarely saints. They are not respecters of convention. They are often poor managers. Their work makes some people uncomfortable, and others they may hurt. They do not often anticipate future generations, while building the world they inhabit.  They are mythologies, and under scrutiny they often become uncomfortably human. 

Sanger was iconoclastic for many reasons. She worked with black doctors and intellectuals. She challenged powerful institutions. She encouraged white supremacists to have smaller families. She believed in that dangerous idea of “social improvement,” now revealed to be a <ahem> – problematic – sentiment, in a time where the relationship between nature and nurture was even more poorly understood. Yet, she connected women’s independence, poverty, and motherhood in a way that assumed poverty made society worse. And she had a minor, tangential, role in the eugenics movement. Who knows what she would say about the burgeoning field of epigenetics.

Still, she was adaptable in her leadership, collaborated with other leaders regardless of race, and adjusted her approaches when necessary. And this DNA runs strong in Planned Parenthood. If anything, it is what has allowed it to survive longer than almost any other organization and pass from founder to leader to leader. While we should, and must, reject the philosophy of eugenics, we should be glad that her institutional competence has shown to be inheritable as the organization changes. Sanger herself could have imagined critiquing her own organization, and would have accepted a just critique, just as she critiqued those around her. 

Condemning Sanger is a justified political decision. It seeks to shield Planned Parenthood from false accusations concerning its roots, and does so with the honest acknowledgement that the conservative assassination by association of its founders reputation was, by and large, successful. We should acknowledge we lost that intellectual battle, and we need to fight first for providing care in all its forms in the communities who need a voice the most rather than defend our left flank. In the end, that she was not a racist doesn’t matter: enough people think she was. And in an era where personal authority takes precedence over academic accuracy, we need to redirect our efforts. Being an anti-racist while being an ablest, doesn’t help create freedom for women.

The letter does implicitly reaffirm how the enlightenment, liberalism, progressivism, even social democracy itself, were all tarnished by political calculations based on race. The poison of white supremacy runs through all of it. Sanger was certainly a part of those paternalistic movements that sought to incentivize social “improvement.” The only institution that was against eugenics (formally, at least) was, after all, the Roman Catholic church, Planned Parenthood’s perpetual foil.

I was on the board of Planned Parenthood for eight years, and the national Clergy Advisory Board for six. We all understood that her legacy was complicated. Nobody defended her ableism. And there was always an honest willingness to recognize that we were more than her.

I simply seek to point out that the reasons she remains a target are not simply because of her beliefs. She is moral baggage in a broader culture war, and a suitable scapegoat for the sins of white liberalism. And she’s dead. While she can’t talk back, I suspect she would have taken herself down from the pedestal she inhabited, if only to continue the work Planned Parenthood bravely continues to do. Just as Sanger herself made unpalatable choices to the current generation, we will do the same. We make our compromises on behalf of power, because power is what changes things.

She’s gone, anyway, and the work continues. Let her go.

She would probably agree.

Transfiguration 2021

In the story about the Transfiguration, Jesus and his friends climb to a mountaintop where he finds a couple other well known persons, prophets as it were, who welcome him. They start chatting about various prophetic things, like who God is, how the air is different up there, and why the Nazarenes keep losing at baseball.

His clothes, at a special moment, become startlingly white, whiter than even my recently dry-cleaned chef’s jacket, and Peter gets the idea to build a sukkah because of this remarkably Holy Event. The voice of God, and in other books of the gospel a dove, announce that Jesus is the Son of God, the beloved, the anointed one. A sukkah is kind of a special tent that keeps you safe when your regular abode has proven to be unreliable.

This is my son, the beloved, listen to him the gospel reports that God says. Two weeks ago, we read at the beginning of his ministry, “repent and believe in the Gospel.” And we’ll read again a few times.

At some point, Christians will have to explain why we should repent and why we should believe, and why does this faith stuff matter? Does it provide any kind of visible difference? We presume it does: when we talk of faith, we are not simply making intellectual assertion about our belief, but are also talking about trust, confidence, and inspiration. 

One assumption is that faith, or our trust, changes people. It is this faith helps us be open to our own transformation as well. We see a couple glimpses of what this looks like. The building of the sukkah, for example, is a way of building trust, a place of security. Jesus may not have needed it, but as a part of the parable it tells us something about the shape of Peter’s faith. He needed some security to experience the danger of holiness. 

The ability to be transformed, or to be open to transformation, arises often when one feels emotionally safe. I wonder if this is what Peter was trying to do in suggesting building a little tent.  

At the top of the mountain, furthermore, Jesus can see the grand view. Not just the crisis before him, not his immediate needs, but the long term plan. Now certainly it’s hard to consider the long term plan when you are worried about living or in survival mode. But at the top of the mountain is where Jesus is, and he can see the path that got him there, that he is part of the world, and part of a larger universe.  

Jesus had seen the struggle of people who were in pain, and then he could see how it all fit together. He climbed, he did the work; he remembered the prophets who came before; and he had a vista to see. 

Now the obvious challenges we face are physical, but the more painful ones are spiritual. The feeling of invisibility, of being ignored, of being discarded or expendable can lead individuals into addiction, depression, or rage. 

A psychologist tells a story of Bill, who had no pleasant memories of childhood. He’d grown up in foster care. He didn’t even know what his mother looked like. One family regularly beat him. But he said, the physical pain wasn’t as difficult as the feeling that nobody was responsible for him. That nobody cared for him.

Bill was a generous, kind and loving person, so the psychologist asked him, how did he learn to be patient and kind? It turns out that for two decades he’d been in a remarkably healthy and loving marriage. He chose a partner with whom he could have emotional safety. It was obvious to the psychologist he was very proud of his wife and took joy in who she was, as she did in him. 

Often men find their wive’s success to be threatening rather than reassuring. Instead, he had a real home in a partner who could provide him the healing he needed through offering a complete sort of love that allowed him to feel safe. Later he modeled his wife’s unselfish love through caring for his sick, biological parents.

This love can’t be commanded. We can’t just demand it from our partners. It’s not an intellectual project, or one that can be forced or demanded but it can be modeled. We can design a space to make it thrive. We can remove obstacles. And we begin by letting God love us

Where we are.

He lost his wife, however and he entered into a depression. But 

In a decade he met a priest who took spiritual healing seriously, and who had after a laying on of hands had reduced Bill’s back pain. 

Spiritual healing begins with empathy. Ritual healing, the liturgies, are expressions of a shared responsibility for pain, permission to express emotion, and a reverence of life. A circle of caring persons will lower blood pressure, relax pain, and even postpone death. This is the biology of love. It’s where the link between our experience of the natural and the supernatural become linked. Bill became inspired by healing and soon this became a part of his own ministry. 

He believed, even though he had never before been religious, that through the faith of Christ we can physically channel and transform this love. It lives in people like Mandela, King, and Gandhi, and has potential in each one of us.

Bill had primary loving relationships that allowed him to endure and transform his pain. That is what we seek in our personal life, our public life, and ideally in our collective life as human beings. The faith we have, the love we receive, visibly changes us, in part because it gives us the confidence to be genuinely inspired by caring; it helps us foster stronger communities through trust, while giving us enough humility to recognize there are mysteries we don’t understand. It helps us build charity, courage, and humility. 

I hope that as the pandemic subsides, we’ll be able to take the ways we’ve tried to stay connected virtually and see how both our physical and digital can enhance each other. This is, perhaps, our trek up the mountain, and perhaps once we’ve reached that moment of transformation we will also experience that inspiration that was bestowed upon Jesus, that we too are beloved, and in us He is well pleased.

for a More Perfect Union

My political feed is a relatively narrow broadband of American politics. Mostly people who share my political beliefs or otherwise keep their opinions to themselves. 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.

But these feeds are not organizing.  

How do we have a robust political and public life during the Pandemic? A such a life doesn’t have 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 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.

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.


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.


Quarantine Diary

The sun is out and it is warm and breezy.  Families are riding their bikes.

Yesterday I put together a compost bin. The nuts and lugs required grease and muscle, but I used just enough to make it stable. Today I emptied the refrigerator of expired food and placed it in a bowl with the coffee grounds from this morning. I browse the internet for worms.

Went to church and stood in front while people drove by. A few parishioners visited and we all stood apart, with our masks and related quarantine stories. I didn’t know exactly what to say when people asked me what I was doing. But he new heating system is on, it feels comfortable, and people were impressed as they went in . There is no dampness anymore.

I peruse FB.  People are disposing of food and killing hogs. A friend of mine is dancing and wearing glitter and bringing joy and health but I waited too long to start with them and my body seems slightly achey.

The beans in the instapot have finished. A sermon must be written for the teleprompter. I read of blood clots and think of survival.