What happened in Baltimore?

When news of the rioting in Baltimore this week broke, what I saw gleaned from major news outlets like the New York Times was a picture of young people with criminal propensities taking advantage of a volatile situation – the funeral of Freddie Gray, who had died in mysterious circumstances in police custody. The Baltimore Sun, among other news outlets, attributed the beginning of the riots to ‘rumors of purge, circulated on social media among school-aged Baltimoreans that morning‘.

The ‘purge’ apparently refers to a 2013 movie in which all crime is made legal for one night. The premise of the ‘Purge’ is that people need regular outlets for violence as a catharsis of negative emotions, and that, by allowing one night of lawlessness every year, the government had slashed crime and unemployment rates and buttressed the development of a strong economy. Although the official reason for the purge is the necessity for ‘catharsis’, it is actually used as a method of artificial population control and elimination of poverty, since people living in poor areas are usually the main targets.

The emphasis on the use of the phrase ‘the purge’ pandered to both conservative and liberal world-views. It played into mainstream beliefs that violence somehow ‘simmers’ in young people, particularly the poor, young, and black. It also spoke to the belief that people in power would secretly welcome the excision of poor people, like a boil on the rest of society.

After reading the first reports, I reasoned that the rioters were simply people taking advantage of the Freddie Gray situation, partly as revenge for what they saw as injustice, partly for the opportunity to loot, and partly for the excitement. I basically agreed with the analysis of a student in one of my classes, a young African American man from that area of Baltimore who said: ‘They are just thugs’.

The next day I read reports of eyewitnesses that changed my perspective. The Baltimore police believed that people would assemble at the Mondawmin Mall at 3:00 p.m. The department issued a statement saying it had ‘received credible information that members of various gangs…have entered into a partnership to ‘take-out’ law enforcement officers’.  Many young people did indeed gather at the Mall at 3.00 pm. But that is the location where many students catch their school bus, and 3.00 pm is school let-out time. Were the students intending to gather to riot, or just catch the bus?

One Baltimore teacher, Meg Gibson, reported that by the time students started arriving, ‘the riot police were already at the bus stop on the other side of the mall, turning buses that transport the students away, not allowing students to board. They were waiting for the kids. Later, police were forcing busses to stop and unload all their passengers’. 

Police also closed the local subway stop, and blockaded nearby roads.

A parent who picked up his children from a nearby elementary school tweeted, ‘The kids stood across from the police and looked like they were asking them ‘why can’t we get on the buses’ but the police were just gazing…Majority of those kids aren’t from around that neighborhood. They NEED those buses and trains in order to get home. If they would’ve let them children go home, yesterday wouldn’t have even turned out like that.’

Meghann Harris, a teacher at another local school, said on Facebook, ‘The kids were standing around in groups of 3-4. They weren’t doing anything. No rock throwing, nothing…The cops started marching toward groups of kids who were just milling about.’

As a former high school teacher, I know that corralling a large bunch of teenagers in one place with nothing to do is asking for trouble. Add to that the tension of the Freddie Gray funeral, their motivation to get home (some of the students begged teachers for rides), and the menacing sight of cops in full riot gear who marched towards students, and you have trouble – what were the police thinking? I don’t believe that the police were intending to spark a riot – but whoever gave them their orders needs some education.

The riots began from this point. Although the press disseminated the story that gangs were intending to ‘take out’ police, this was not true. Gang members did participate – by guarding store fronts and standing between police and rioters. Baltimore City Council President Bernard C. Young said, ‘These men (acknowledged gang members) have been out on the street quelling the senseless violence that has consumed our city. After meeting with them today, it is clear that the notion they were planning on harming our police officers is false and simply deterred the resources we needed to focus on the individuals who instigated these riots. I applaud these young men for standing here and speaking to our city.’ 

I am ashamed to admit that my first response was to give credence to the stories that blamed young African Americans, as much as I despise that in others. I am white, with an unconscious and prejudiced response that seems almost hardwired in. Some people say that I have good cause because so many African Americans participate in criminal activity, quoting statistics that back that up.  African Americans are indeed incarcerated at a much higher rate than Caucasians. But statistics also show that white Americans, including Hispanics who identify as white, made up 78% of the US population in 2013 and 59% of the US federal inmate population in 2015, while Asian Americans made up 5.3% of the US population in 2013 and 1.5% of the federal inmate population. Indeed,  Asian Americans have surpassed white Americans in so many ways, including incarceration rates, that Asian Americans ‘could talk about white Americans as disparagingly as white Americans talk about the country’s black population’. 

I am need of some serious brain rewiring.


Resistance is futile – but so is striving. Just love

The Pew Institute predicted recently that by 2070, Islam could be the world’s largest religion. The Institute also predicts that Christianity will lose majority religious status in countries such as the United Kingdom, France, and Australia.

Do I want Islam to dominate the world? No. It’s not because I think that Christians are better than Muslims. I have many beautiful Muslim friends, including Afghan Hazaras and Iranians who fled to Australia to escape persecution. They are wonderful people, loyal citizens, and the type of people everyone would like to have a next door neighbors.

Am I afraid of Islamic terrorism? Yes. But it is not religion that is terrorist, but fanatics claiming religion. There are dangerous fanatics among all religious groups. Right now many co-called Muslims are grabbing the headlines by outdoing each other in gruesome acts, and it is true that some words in the Quran and Hadith can be used as justification.

I want Christianity to persist and grow because of the great gift of love that Jesus Christ gave the world. As I write for this blog, I often find myself discussing the frailties of human consciousness (Christian, Muslim – it does not matter) that lead to hatred and violence. I have written about our blindness to anything that does not fit our personal frame of the world and how this leads to blame and defamation. This even causes us to create ‘evidence’ to support our world-view where none exists.  We seek out people who affirm our own world-view and that breeds group violence. The blindness that results from this is buttressed by our belief that we are motivated by the best of intentions, and that our cause is ‘righteous’.

In the face of these human limitations that lead to destruction, I despair. There is no escape from my own human condition, and I have found that the more I strive to perfect myself, the worse I actually become.

But I am not left in that despair because Jesus Christ redeemed us from this. Christ does not call Christians to despair, nor to strive for perfection through human strength alone.  While the Old Testament is a book of striving for perfection under the Law and violent striving against enemies, Christ tells us to love. And sometimes Christians are indeed able to love, not because they have perfected themselves, but in those moments when they can permit themselves to surrender to the love of God, allowing themselves to be ‘gathered under His wings’. We don’t deserve it, nor do we win it.  We are given this grace.

Christians are called to love. We are called to share that love. The gift of love is what makes Christianity different. It releases us from the chains of striving, of despair, and dissolves the frames we create.

Let’s remember to offer this love to all of our fellow strugglers in life.

Thanks to Gwydlon Williams https://www.flickr.com/photos/45909111@N00/
Thanks to Gwydlon Williams https://www.flickr.com/photos/45909111@N00/

Who was the victim of ‘A Rape on Campus’?

I have an unconscious narrative about life. This story helps me make sense of what would otherwise be random experience. Everyone has these stories, because we need our lives to make sense, and we fit what we experience into our background story of ‘this is how life is’. We adjust some things to fit, and eliminate other things altogether.  The stories of our lives take shared experiences and convert them into our own reality.

We avoid things that may put the lie to what we believe about our experiences. Liberals shun Fox News. Conservatives scoff at MSNBC. Our story frames our perceptions, and cuts out opposing facts. In service of our stories, we are habitually blind and deaf to conflicting information.

This is what happened at Rolling Stone magazine last November. The sensational report, ‘A Rape on Campus’, caused a storm of anger and accusation at UVA, where ‘Jackie’ said her rape happened. As time went on, however, readers started to challenge some of the content, and this month, an investigation by professors at the Columbia Graduate School of Journalism found that indeed, nothing in the article was based on verifiable fact. No-one at the magazine did any fact-checking for the story, even the most obvious and easy. The journalist who wrote the story has become a media story herself, along with her editors.

What mental frame caused ‘Jackie’s’ story to be swallowed whole?  The editors’ said that they wanted to protect the feelings of the “survivor of a terrible sexual assault.”  ‘Jackie’s’ story fit a picture of the world that framed fraternities as misogynistic and dangerous to young women, female rape victims as  discounted or ignored, and educational institutions as places that obstruct fair investigations of anything that may damage their reputations.

Gene Lyons, an American political columnist, commented with disgust and attributed the failure to ‘the cultural left’s credulousness about melodramatic tales of victimization’.  (Lyons is known as a writer with liberal views, by the way). I am not sure what the cultural left is, but it is a characteristic of liberal voters that they tend to take the side of people they perceive to be victims. In this case, the victimization frame overtook the facts completely.

Conservatives have a different frame of victims, and filter their experience through a frame of ‘victims are people who should know better’. For example, in discussing the incident, Fox contributor Stacey Dash said that, while a fraternity party ban may not do much good for the “bad girls, bad women”, it could be beneficial for the “good girls” who might otherwise be subject to violent assaults.

We must have frames for our experiences. God give us frames that allow in enough light to show us where they are. Oh, and a mirror to see them.


God save us from people who mean well

I believe that that a media ‘outrage machine’ is polluting public discourse and deepening the divisions between Americans, and I have posted a few times lastly discussing its negative effects. On the other hand, in response to my most recent post about outrage, commenter Bob S. pointed out that outrage can be ‘righteous’, and gave the example of Jesus overturning the tables of the money changers in the temple. That started me thinking about the ‘good’ side of outrage.

The other event that got me thinking happened last weekend, when hundreds of people took to the streets of my hometown to demonstrate under the banner of ‘Reclaim Australia’.  They were expressing their outrage at what they perceive as a ‘takeover’ of Australia by foreigners – specifically Muslim foreigners. They were noisy, and much of their behavior was objectionable, even ugly. They were met by roughly equal numbers of protesters who perceived ‘Reclaim Australia’ as racist. I am sad to say that they too were noisy, and much of their behavior was objectionable, even ugly. The body language and the words hurled were almost identical. I am sure that both sides would see themselves as ‘righteous’.

Outrage can have positive results, however. It was the seed of my long involvement with refugees (mostly Muslim) in Australia. I was outraged that my government could treat people so badly, and as a result I volunteered to teach English to asylum seekers, and later became a paid worker and advocate. When people challenged me, I held my tongue and tried to understand their concerns, even if they were expressed in hate-filled language. I did so because I knew that it would be impossible for me to affect their views with words that challenged them. I hoped that getting to know me and some of the refugees would do that work – and it did, in many cases. Outrage energized me, but I mostly managed to control it.

Outrage is hard to control. It is insidious because it is based on our belief that we are righteous, and that  it is with the best of intentions that we express those ‘righteous’ beliefs . Righteousness is the plank in my eye that blinds me to the harm that my outrage is doing. Self-righteousness feels good, and that makes it addictive.

In order to control it, we must first recognize it in ourselves. Here are some signs: outrage tempts us to dismiss people who have different feelings and beliefs just plain wrong without truly listening. Outrage seeks fellowship.  When outraged, we seek other people who will join our chorus of ‘I can’t believe that they…’ What’s wrong with them?’ ‘People like that are not worth listening to’, and we infect one another. And we carefully, if unconsciously, choose people, TV programs, blogs, and books that affirm our ‘side’. We choose our audience, because outrage avoids anyone who challenges the ‘righteous’ beliefs it is based on. Our outrage becomes ever more entrenched.

I agree that Jesus’ actions in the temple were an expression of outrage, but we don’t hear that He spent time playing ‘ain’t it awful’. Instead of choosing an easy audience to gossip with, He called out the money changers directly .

Do we have the courage to ‘go to the temple’ and confront issues openly? Or do we sit in front of the TV and say ‘isn’t it awful’, enjoying the warmth of self-satisfaction? When we label others as misguided, brainwashed, or plain evil, do we have the courage to ask ourselves if those epithets apply to us as well?

Wow. What a project! Outrage is a good, if harsh, teacher.

 “God save us from people who mean well.” Vikram Seth, A Suitable Boy

Bianca De Marchi for Adelaide Now
Bianca De Marchi for Adelaide Now

With the best of intentions: the crowd, the Pharisees, and Pilate

Why did the Pharisees dog Jesus’ steps with an on-going chorus of criticism and condemnation? If only they had known who Jesus truly was, and the atrocity on the cross that was coming!

They may have been jealous of His following. Angry that their power was being challenged, and fearful that the foundation of their lives and livelihoods was at risk. The Pharisees interpreted scripture and represented the highest levels of Mosaic Law. They were assiduous in living in conformity to religious law, often zealously and at great personal cost. Because of all this, they had positions of great power, and a lot to lose.

We cannot know their exact motivation, but we do have word for how they expressed it. Outrage.

Outrage talks a lot. Sharing outrage feels good. ‘Have you heard…?’ ‘Isn’t it awful that…?’ ‘I can’t believe that …. Can you?’ It strengthens the bonds between us, while silently reinforcing the walls that prevent ‘us’ from understanding and loving ‘them’.

We are not ashamed of outrage, for we are outraged only because we believe we are good people, and that’s why we feel this way. Indeed, even in the middle of a rant, we claim that we are ‘good’ people who only do this because we care. Watch this ‘good’ man abusing a Chick-fil-A worker ‘because he cares’.

Jesus said, ‘they preach, but do not practice’. While most stays at the level of gossip, outrage does lead to action. The Pharisees may not have crucified Jesus themselves, but what they said fired up the crowd to welcome Jesus’ condemnation to the cross and gave Pilate authority to order it.

Weren’t the Pharisees awful? They certainly deserve our condemnation, and the condemnation of the ages.

Aren’t we lucky that our own outrage is not targeting Jesus himself? At least, we can hope so.

The word-nerd and the ‘n word’

You can make a lot of money if you pull a big enough audience. Back when there were only a few TV channels, producers worried about losing audience through airing something too shocking. Since the advent of the internet, however, instead of a half-dozen TV channels and a few radio stations, there are literally millions of separate streams of entertainment and information.  The trick is to stand out from the enormous crowd, and the more shocking you are, the more clicks you get. This has turned ‘outrageousness’ on its head – performers and producers now chase after it.

(Of course, if you happen to be a kitten, you get audience without any ploy at all!)

Words that used to be are no longer considered shocking, except for one. In America, you should never use the ‘n word’, especially if you are not black. Even the new TV series ‘Empire’, a black centered show, has not used it, causing a lively debate on social media.

I recently sat in while some young black people discussed ‘micro-aggressions’. One of the adult discussion-leaders suggested that the ‘n’ word was an example of a verbal outrage. I was surprised to hear that the young people were used to being called ‘nigga’ by other black people, and instead of being offended, thought of it as a term of affection. When one or two expressed their doubts, the others assured them that the ‘a’ at the end made it OK. They talked about singers, especially rappers, who use ‘n….a’ a lot. Some had even been called it by young white people, but, as they explained, only by guys trying to adopt black urban culture, the same ones who wear their pants low on their behinds and say ‘Yo’.

When I hear the word, my reaction isn’t modulated by its use in rap but rather by its origins. From the earliest times, the word ‘nigger’ has carried with it “all the obloquy and contempt and rejection which whites have inflicted on blacks”.  I associate it most strongly with slavery, and the contempt of slave owners.

You could see the growing use of the ‘n’ word among black youth as empowerment because they are ‘taking back’ a word formerly used in oppression. On the other hand, it is also a reflection of the cheapening of many aspects of the human condition by the media machine.

Personally, every time I hear the word I feel shame on behalf of us whites. Perhaps that’s a good thing.

Thanks to Anthony Quiroz Heredia https://www.flickr.com/photos/carnerasgada/
Thanks to Anthony Quiroz Heredia https://www.flickr.com/photos/carnerasgada/

A nerdy post on how an American word dumbfounded me

A gentleman engaged me in conversation recently in which he listed the things he believes are wrong with America: social security, Obamacare (of course), fathers losing their authority in families, gay rights, the loss of Christianity as the foundation of the country, and pets having rights.

When he mentioned that the Supreme Court was undermining the rights of Americans, I thought we had come to some common ground. (As readers of this blog will know, I consider that some of the recent decisions of the Court have given too much political power to big corporations and big wealth.) I agreed that democracy in America appeared to be at risk. He corrected me and said ‘America is not a democracy, it’s a republic’.

His concern with pets having rights was new to me, and astounding. His claim that America is not a democracy was also new, and dumbfounding. I am a devotee of words, their derivations, and their meanings, and so I knew that the word ‘republic’ comes from the Latin ‘res publica’ which literally means the rule of the people, as does democracy, which is derived from the Greek for rule of the ‘ordinary citizens’. To me, the words are synonymous. They refer to the basis of political systems which can and do develop in different ways.

Then, to my amazement, the Cumberland Times-News published two letters this week on the same subject. I was so puzzled by this that I did a little probing on the web and found that indeed, ‘republic versus democracy’ is a ‘thing’ here. Sites that discuss it reference James Madison, who believed that political parties, businesses, and other interest groups need to have the power to contest policies, and that this leads to the best representation of the interest of citizens. This sounds like a democracy to me.

Madison was concerned that, in a ‘pure’ democratic system, the interests of all but the majority would go unrecognised. This has been a concern of democracies around the world and has resulted in institutions like preferential voting for the federal lower house in Australia, among other constitutional safeguards.

It appears, however, that when Americans refer to a ‘democracy’ they refer to the idea of a ‘pure democracy’. ThisNation.com says, for example, that ‘a democracy is a form of government in which the people decide policy matters directly–through town hall meetings or by voting on ballot initiatives and referendums’.

Gary McLeod, a Republican conservative Christian who stood for Congress in 2012. In his opinion, democracy is:

  • A government of the masses.
  • Authority derived through mass meeting or any other form of “direct” expression.
  • Results in mobocracy.
  • Attitude toward property is communistic–negating property rights.
  • Attitude toward law is that the will of the majority shall regulate, whether it be based upon deliberation or governed by passion, prejudice, and impulse, without restraint or regard to consequences.
  • Results in demogogism, license, agitation, discontent, anarchy

Why has this interpretation of the word ‘democracy’ taken root in America? Is it a legacy of the fear of Communism?

Even more baffling: why do Americans care so much about these words? Is it because Republicans want to distance themselves from anything that could be associated with the Democratic Party? Or do people want to emphasize the glory days of the struggle against the rule of a King to establish the republic – the ‘rule of the people’?

I am puzzled.

With thanks to Great Beyond https://www.flickr.com/photos/tonyjcase/
With thanks to Great Beyond https://www.flickr.com/photos/tonyjcase/