What Are We Willing to Die For?

Imagine for a moment that I walked into your house and murdered one of your children. That would test your ability to remain peaceful. Even if you were able to avoid retaliating against me, you would at least be able to understand why someone would retaliate or why anyone being harmed in that way would respond with violence. That’s really simple logic, actually: hate makes hate.

Whether it’s instinctual or learned over time, it just doesn’t seem today that we know how to respond to violence without wanting to become violent ourselves. I speak from personal experience there, though most of the ways I’ve been hurt are particularly benign. But we’ve all been hurt in some way or another, by somebody; we all understand the desire for vengeance, if not blood. So, if we agree that hate makes hate, then we can see how it would be a cycle. You harm me; I retaliate. You retaliate, I harm you again. The only way the cycle is ever broken is when someone decides to break the cycle and respond to violence without becoming violent themselves.

None of this is rocket science, and most of us get the logic. Some respond breaking that cycle would be nice but since we don’t live in a world of ideals, sometimes a violent response may be understandable if not even necessary. I’ll concede the point here that I would love to believe I could hold myself to an ideal of nonviolence but that I don’t actually know if I could. I confess, and my friends will tell you sadly, that I am a violent man. That doesn’t stop me from striving for nonviolence, for recommending it, believing in it.

Of course, I suppose you may not even buy my argument that breaking the cycle is wise. “It’s weak to let people just walk all over you, which is exactly what they’ll do if you let them,” you might say. “In some cases, we have to show strength which is might and force.” That sounds decidedly American today, especially in light of how to deal with terrorism. This ‘wisdom’ hinges, though, on how you define strength and weakness, as well as how you define your purpose in life. In other words, it depends on what you’re willing to die for and whether you believe there are some principals or values that are more important than life itself. I’m of the mindset that we’ve had so much luxury in modern society that we’ve lost sight of what we’re willing to die for, in part because we haven’t been asked to die for anything. We’ve only been asked to live, and that terrifies us to death as it is. We kill, scared for our own lives, never once considering what might be greater than our lives. Or in other words, we haven’t faced, most of us, a situation that demanded we determine what life and death are worth.

History, though, can help us here. To whatever degree I’m an armchair theologian, I try to draw a lot from Christian history, though I think the lessons are relevant beyond Christianity. From the time Christ dies to the time Christianity becomes the ‘official religion’ of the Empire, some 280 years pass. Christianity in that period, without the speed of modern infrastructure or the internet, manages to spread its message the world over “conquering” without ever resorting to violence. Think about that for a second: wars were historically fought, yes, to gain land but also with the goal of conquering the hearts and minds. Christianity does both without a single war. Constantine, of course, changes that, which is a conversation for another day, but I want to focus for a moment on the reality that a religion spread its viewpoint the world over without resorting to violence. How did they do it?

They didn’t just stop the cycle and take a beating. You might be right in saying that would be “weak.” Nonviolent resistance is not passive, however. It’s in-your-face aggressive. Pacifism would be letting the conqueror beat you up while you say nothing. Nonviolence gets in the conquerors face, taunts them to be violent, then having taken the beating, gets back in their face and taunts them again without ever taking a swing. In this regard, nonviolence is indeed very bloody and very violent. It’s a form of in-your-face martyrdom, and that’s how Christianity “conquered” the world without responding to violence with violence. Why? Because everyone saw that these so-called Christians were willing to die for something but not without first speaking their truth. Their truth, in fact, was in their willingness to die. And people so yearned for that sense of purpose that the movement, instead of being squashed out despite attempted genocide only grew and grew.

Take for example the early Christians a hundred years before Constantine – Perpetua and Felicity: A young woman of noble birth and a pregnant slave who knew they faced certain death but, to everyone’s surprise, welcomed martyrdom and left behind a ‘diary’ of sorts for the world to know that they would rather die than renounce their faith. Their willingness to die – and even the death itself – becomes a powerful message that resonates beyond anything the gun or the bomb can do.

And it’s not just a matter of “breaking the cycle of violence;” it’s exposing those who choose violence for who they are and in the process showing you’re better than them, more at peace. You don’t need the strength of “might and force.” You have the strength of truth and the resolve of peace within. And that – and only that – can flip the oppressors on their head. Oh, sure, to respond with violence may, indeed, win you temporary peace but only at the cost that you were willing to become the aggressor yourself. And when you become what you hated, it’s only a matter of time before the same fate that befell your aggressor also befalls you or your loved ones.

All of that, of course, is said in the context of a President-elect who wants to solve our problems with violence. It’s said in the context of an America that has bombed its way through our history and left an ugly stain on almost every nation-state we’ve touched. It’s said of a day and age when long-gone is the Christianity that was once so faithful in its resolve of what life is worth and its trust in something greater than death that “love your enemies” has become meaningless and the Babylonian “eye for an eye” has been embraced as a replacement for most of Jesus’ message. We have an opportunity to reclaim that with the conviction of a love built on faith and not on fear. And the next several months will certainly test how serious we are about such matters.

From the Wisdom of Solomon to Baltimore

There was a risky wager made when Lincoln gave the South a chance to be reconciled to the North without greater punishment than the loss both sides had so deeply suffered already, a wager that hinged on the hope that the “better angels of our nature” would prevail. The understandable hope was that time would heal the country. And, indeed, some scars were healed, while others kept hemorrhaging and yet others scabbed over only to be ripped open again later. A hundred years on, it took a preacher from Atlanta to acknowledge where gangrene had set in, to expose it for it was, only to have us pretend one more time that we were well on our way to healing so that by the time an African American president was elected, some would rush to claim we’d reached the mountaintop. Vanity of vanities! The words of the Teacher are apt for this moment in our history: “Generations come and generations go, but the earth never changes. The sun rises and the sun sets, then hurries around to rise again. The wind blows south, and then turns north. Around and around it goes, blowing in circles” (Ecc. 1:4-6). Do we not yet know this? Have we not learned from words etched into the papyrus by now? As long as we humans grace (and break) this place we call home, as we are prone to do, we will confront the ongoing cyclical brokenness to which we seem bound. Either we confront it head on with painful self-honesty or it finds us, sneaking up to surprise us in our arrogance. So long as there is a powerful, there will be a powerless! And every time, the powerless will rightly challenge those who have hard-fought to maintain the status quo of their privilege. Our hope, of course, is always that the challenge would be peacefully fought and peacefully won, but is it so difficult to understand from the shoes of another why some – perhaps with hopes exhausted or in the attempt to seize hope again – might turn to rage rather than calm capitulation? Wouldn’t you? It’s hard from a state of privilege to conceive of what it would be to experience real, every day, systemic oppression. But if it felt that the forces of society had not merely imprisoned you to the life of poverty but so too actively (whether consciously or not) sought to ensure that the populace from which you were born was a populace battered and beleaguered, violence would be a very likely outcome. To say as much is to understand it and to see it as a response to another violence, one that came before it and was perpetrated by a government where real representation of that populace remains absent. We are a country founded in precisely as much righteous violence. That is not to condone it, past or present, but merely to acknowledge with empathy from whence it came so as to then empower the powerless rather than thwarting their cry with riot shields, pepper spray, or bullets. If you wish to know how this story ends, you merely have to look at our own history; either we change to be a better society, or the violence is likely to continue or grow. It simply is what it is. For at the root of all violence is a disembodied despair, the desperate plea crying out to God or to society or to the universe: to whomever might listen that these unfolding events that have and are transpiring were not the lot in life we human beings were promised by simply being born into this world. And in that violent despair, it suddenly seems that what is inalienable belongs to some and not to all – and that those who have attained it will not merely grasp it for themselves but for their progeny too and to the detriment of those who are not their blood kin. And so you should expect it in the streets of Baltimore or Ferguson or in the crumbling streets of Gaza or Egypt or as quiet whispers across North Korea or as loud marches in Hong Kong or in any nook or cranny of this world where people will clamor for justice and peace. Lincoln’s wager goes on, tested and tried, and hope will surely prevail whether it’s hard-won or not. Times like these, we rightly question whether there is anything new under the sun but hope that the expected cycle will tip again toward justice and remain there as long as it can.

Hope beyond Depravity from Dexter Morgan to Frank Underwood to a Bridge in Selma

In its heyday, Dexter was one of my favorite television shows. A serial killer with a code of honor to only kill “really bad” people? I’m captivated. I mean, my love of Dexter wasn’t really surprising; most popular television shows of late are probably going to draw me in given their care for the complexity of their characters. How about Breaking Bad, for example? A chemistry teacher with late-stage cancer turned meth cook? Sign me up! Or maybe there’s House of Cards‘ league of narcissistic politicians that have every power-hungry hack in Washington wishing he could be as cutthroat and evil as Frank Underwood? And then in this season of the Walking Dead, our post-apocalyptic zombie-killing friends (who have – until now – mostly been “the good guys”) appear to be slowly going down a really dark rabbit hole. I won’t give away any spoilers there, but let’s just say the zombies are starting to look like saints. So, what’s this about? When did the whole of entertainment become obsessed with making us love and crave seeing murderers or meth cooks or Machiavellian politicians sink deeper into depravity? And don’t even get me started on Mad Men or Game of Thrones. Is there something ethically “off” that we’ve come to care so much for such, well, awful people – even if they are mere fiction?

Maybe this is a good place to point out there’s important nuance in all of these shows. Whether he’s right or wrong, Dexter wants to believe he’s still good, that his “code” keeps him in check. So, too, our meth cook Walter White tells himself the majority of the show that he does what he does for his family in an America with a broken healthcare system that breaks the bank of the American dream. And, of course, most characters from the Walking Dead start off as goodhearted people driven to make awful choices in a post-apocalyptic world. It’s not their fault they had to kill to stay alive, right? I’m not so sure. Dexter’s code is a lie convenient to justifying his psychosis; so is Walter White’s conviction that the American dream was stolen from him; so, too, have the characters of the Walking Dead justified horrific acts in returning to a world where “eye for an eye” is the only rule of law. And Frank Underwood? I fail to see a single redeeming quality in him at all. He’s pure narcissism, and that I – and we – have come to somehow “love” him should probably scare or at least concern us.

Of course, I suppose you could point back to the height of the Roman Empire’s desire for blood in the Colosseum and say, “See, Phil, this is nothing new; humans are depraved and so they seek to empathize with the depravity of other fellow humans.” And there’s long been this ongoing debate about us wee beings and whether we are “totally depraved” as much of religion has suggested or whether we are innately good at heart. Someone like Anne Frank, “despite everything,” the horrors she at that point witnessed from Nazi Germany, believed people were still good. Augustine, Luther, Calvin, and others were less sure long before then. In today’s entertainment, I don’t think we have yet answered that question, but we seem to be trying. You almost get the impression that modern entertainment carries a maxim of, “Forgive them for they know not what they do,” with every character consumed by their belief and hope that they aren’t quite as awful as they feel like they are. But then, there’s Frank Underwood again, breaking that mold: he knows he’s terrible, and he doesn’t care. Even with the new season’s picture of Frank as “weaker” or even “humanized,” as some critics have suggested, his weakness is evidenced by a lack of the power he craves and is not a turn to a desire for good or any kind of change of heart. So, if I can justify finding something good in the other characters of today’s entertainment medium (and not sure I can), I’m especially having a hard time rationalizing why it’s okay for me to like watching Frank be frank.

At this point, though, I guess you could say, “It’s not reality, Phil. It’s just escapism – similar to playing a video game,” and in that sense, I agree. I don’t want to jump to assume we are all going to pretend to be Frank Underwood in our everyday lives just because we so love how he takes control and manipulates everyone to get his way on a thirteen-episode television show. While there may be psychotic folks out there influenced by such media, I’m worried far less how we react to such entertainment and far more about why we get sucked into it in the first place? Or, perhaps, what is it about our culture that would have screenwriters writing this sort of thing for us?

I take our fascination with this kind of entertainment to say a ton about our culture at this moment in history. We’ve become a culture that is beginning to crave complexity. We’re slowly but surely starting to desire the painful truth that all of us are neither wholly good nor wholly bad but at times can be both. I take that as a win for our culture. If we can find good in Dexter or in Walter White, can we also learn to find good in real humans who commit horrific acts of violence? As the debate over capital punishment rages on, that might be an important question to ask right now. In the world of entertainment, we watch what we relate with, so in some scary sense, we find ourselves relating to, say, Dexter. Not because we’re about to go kill anybody, but because we know what it is to carry a “dark passenger,” to be overwhelmed by the question of our goodness the way Dexter is. We love this kind of writing in television because it’s honest, and frankly, it allows us to live out a kind of honesty on the screen that we can’t or won’t live out in reality. Because honesty is scary. That’s why the alcoholic or the drug addict, too often, remains an addict. Confronting ugly truths around the culture of fear that lead us into escaping ourselves is too painful, but we can appreciate that honesty we don’t offer ourselves when it plays out on the screen.

Still, whereas there’s truth and empathy to gain from these ugly portraits of human depravity, there’s another aspect of our culture embedded into these shows that’s dangerous, too. And that’s that sometimes, we like to love our brokenness a little more than we hope to become whole again. It’s kind of like Clem Snide’s song, “Made for TV Movie,” written about Lucille Ball and Desi Arnaz. In the song, Eef Barzelay details watching one of those “true-story” dramas which depicts the ugly side of Lucy’s life from spousal abuse to popping pills, and he then sings: “Well, maybe it was different; you know, my facts aren’t always straight, but they would never make a movie if everything was great, because happiness is boring; it’s always black and white. The good times never last; the chocolates move too fast for us all:”

I believe it. Because I’ve been there. I believe very much it’s tempting to fall into the trappings of being in love with our problems and the drama that surrounds them. So, while I’m probably not about to stop watching some of my favorite television, I think how much we learn to love these depraved characters – along with our own depravity we too-often love – is something we have to have an honest conversation about. Because I don’t want for you (or me) to be carrying our dark passengers without getting help any longer. I don’t want the people I love to have to ask questions about whether or not they are the “walking dead.” And I don’t want us to get stuck in a culture that sings that “happiness is boring.” In a sense, the beauty of today’s entertainment is that it presents such honest depictions of the complexity of humanity, but we need not also be sold the lie they sell us that there is no hope or that we are totally depraved. In large sum, that was the message of Obama’s speech in Selma. As long as there has been a future to look to, he suggested, there was something to improve (and, therefore, something broken), but as long as there was something broken – whether it was racial injustice or war and terror or inequality – there was still something to hope for and a reason to remain optimistic. From modern entertainment to our local news stations, we’re constantly fed a different message, but I think that’s why Obama felt it so important to reach back to the words and actions of our past American brothers and sisters from John Lewis to MLK to Sojourner Truth and Langston Hughes. Trials much bigger than fictional zombies and meth addiction and serial killers and evil politicians have been met and faced head-on in America’s heartlands, and they have been and are being overcome little-by-little, day-by-day. More stories like those need to be told and held up. More hope beyond depravity should be our mantra, and maybe in time, we’ll see more of it on the television screen, too.

Oh, to be a Hedgehog or a Fox?

I’ve had Dietrich Bonhoeffer on my mind a lot lately. If you’re not sure who that is, Bonhoeffer was a Christian theologian who at the cost of his life had the courage to speak out against injustices of the Third Reich. He was eventually accused by the Nazis of his participation in a plot to assassinate the Führer.

Bonhoeffer really throws a kink into how I understand what it means to be a Christian. Here was a guy who had every reason to denounce the religion altogether. In his context, Christianity had become a silent supporter of the Nazi Party. So, there’s obvious heroism in Bonhoeffer’s willingness to speak openly against the Nazis, but what I find perhaps more shocking and heroic about Bonhoeffer (looking back from my 21st century context) is that he remained Christian, that he never allowed the culture to determine what Christianity meant to him.

I’m not sure we live in a world that affords us that courage anymore. Culture overpowers us. If we don’t like the culture of something, we run from it rather than confront or change it. We attempt to divorce ourselves (and others) from that identity and take on something new. Bonhoeffer confronted Nazi Christians; we run away from Christianity over homophobia and bigotry. Lately, I’ve caught myself doing just that – trying to distance myself (through language) from “Christians” I don’t like. In the midst of Obama saying that “ISIL is not Islamic,” I’ve agreed: ISIL is no more a part of Islam than West Boro Baptist, or the KKK, is Christian. But then there’s Dietrich Bonhoeffer whose life seems to say otherwise. That is, it makes it a lot harder to say that “ISIL is not Islamic” simply because they’re extremists. In a way, Bonhoeffer was an extremist, too, just the kind of extremist we happen to agree with today.

My working theory up until now has been that as one’s ideology approaches an extreme on any given ideological scale, the likelihood increases that he or she ceases to adhere to their claimed ideology to instead favor a new set of principles altogether. Seems logical enough, right? But the kink in the theory is that it relies entirely on cultural perception. Who defines ‘extremism’? Who defines the “norms”? Some of the most renowned religious figures throughout history might well be “extremists,” or at the very least counter-cultural enough that they questioned the norms of their religion and traditions. Kinda like Jesus.

So, does it all just boil down to self-identity? I am who I say I am and, for each of us, that’s final? We may choose to say “ISIL is Islamic,” because they say so, but judging by their actions it seems that they’re just really, really bad at being Muslim. Or, perhaps the KKK is Christian – simply because they claim to be. They’re just really terrible Christians (in the opinion of many). To say as much is a commentary on their actions – the how, not on their identity – the what. To put that another way, if we were to separate the how from the what, we’d be saying that a person’s “true” identity is not really our judgment call. Or that we can judge a person’s actions based on the evidence of harm but cannot judge their inner reasoning or their heart. To make that argument is ultimately to say that a person’s identity is left to themselves – or to God or to Allah. But I don’t find that satisfactory. I want to believe we can strip people of the labels (and, thereby, the power) they claim lest we devolve into some kind of Sheilaism, or new age relativism. But who am I to strip anyone of their label? What a shame it was those who silenced Dietrich Bonhoeffer. Or those who tried to silence Martin Luther King, Jr. It’s easy to say we want to strip people of their identity when the people we’re talking about are beheading innocents. But what happens when we’re the ones doing the beheadings?

And yet, ironically, Bonhoeffer had no qualms calling Hitler the antichrist, because to him, that’s how Hitler lived. Perhaps because of his encounter with social justice movements of American Christianity, the young theologian didn’t separate the inner identity (faith or “the what”) from the action (practice or “the how”) the way some of us might today. On this note, one author writes:

…as an undergraduate, Bonhoeffer joined a university fraternity, the Hedgehogs. The Jewish philosopher Isaiah Berlin divided the world, intellectually, between the ‘Fox’ and the ‘Hedgehog.’ While the Fox’s worldview draws upon a diversity of ideas and experiences, the Hedgehog claims to know one big, supremely important thing. Theologically, Bonhoeffer may have had the Fox’s broadmindedness, but in his highest convictions, he was a Hedgehog. His one big thing was that Christianity is not merely a matter of what one believes, but of how one lives.”

And that seems to be my dilemma here. It’s said that “πόλλ’ οἶδ’ ἀλώπηξ, ἀλλ’ ἐχῖνος ἓν μέγα (the fox knows many little things, but the hedgehog knows one big thing),” and those are the two worlds I juggle. Am I to be the Fox proclaiming, “To each his own,” the way our postmodern world beckons us or the Hedgehog melding faith and works with a set proclamation that “right is right,” and “I know it when I see it“?

The truth is, I fear, even if I could find some way to be a fox, I’d probably be a hedgehog about it.

Learning to Let People Sing their own Songs How they Need to be Sung

Have you ever listened to a song and in that moment that song was exactly what you needed to hear? Like, for me when my grandfather died, I had Blind Pilot on repeat, or there were times in Morocco where certain songs just powerfully spoke to me.

It’s been a few years since my grandfather died or since I was in Morocco, and I still love those songs, but I don’t keep them on repeat anymore. They spoke to who I was in that moment, but I’ve moved on to other songs that capture new moments or frustrations, songs I currently put on repeat.

C’est la vie.

When I was in the fourth grade, I remember going to camp and having my wallet stolen, and I was so angry that some “Christian” would actually steal at a church camp that for years I carried anger with the church over that and even claimed I was atheist for a while all the way into high school. And that’s okay. It’s where I needed to be in that moment. It’s who I needed to be. Like those songs that find us in the right moment, sometimes, we just discover that’s where we are, and anybody asking us to listen to a different song isn’t going to reach us. We know what we need, and that’s not it. So, we keep playing what we need to play until the right tune comes along at the right time, and we fall in love with a new song.

I feel like I can name countless examples over the years of how my songs have changed: A youth director telling me at the beach that, to him, there was nothing wrong with being angry or questioning God and religion; to him, growing closer to what he called God demanded we ask questions, no different than how we’d grow closer to one another by asking each other questions. And then there was a dear professor who handed me a powerful pamphlet he’d written during his sabbatical that got to the heart of some of the questions I was needing to ask. Or, then, there was news of a growing church schism back home that left me bitter and angry and needing to remain in that place for some time. Or, once, a few unexpected emails that were both shocking and profound enough to alter everything about how I pictured the universe at the time. Songs, the lot of them – moments that either defined or changed me in a meaningful way.

I’m not sure if this is one of them because it seems too trivial, but yesterday, I caught an episode of the Daily Show, and John Stewart was interviewing Bill Maher, who is a pretty staunch atheist. Maher bemoaned all of religion. He praised the fact that millennials, he feels, have discovered that “drugs are good and religion is bad.” He commented that he believed Barack Obama is a secret atheist, which reminded me of conservatives claiming Obama is a secret Muslim.

I rolled my eyes at first. To hear Maher lump all religious people together made him seem to me to be just as egocentric as the literalists he was criticizing. He’s always struck me as someone who values being intellectual, so how could he miss the blatantly obvious false dichotomy that suggests you’re either religious or you’re smart. It made me think of how the mainstream media, whenever there’s an argument about religion, always brings only two sides of the argument to the table: the right-wing Evangelical and a liberal. That misses the mark on the number of devout, faithful people throughout history who held their churches and their governments accountable to bring about real progress. People like the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. Or Gandhi. It forgets the role churches played (albeit slowly and still many with much left to do) in spearheading the feminist movement (cf. Welter, B.). And it ignores the countless liberal theologians and Biblical scholars who have been writing for decades pushing for gay rights. So, I rolled my eyes at first, annoyed.

And then it kinda hit me: Bill Maher is just a song some people need to listen to because that’s where they are right now, and it’s where they need to be. And that’s okay. Whatever’s happened in their life that’s brought them to that place where they need to be angry with religion (or politics or whatever), Bill Maher is one of the people who may offer them comfort through laughter or critique. Having said that, I think he might argue that I’m suggesting his point of view is a mere stepping stone when he believes it to be the end goal. And if that’s his end goal, that’s okay with me, but for me, I’m more interested in the journey than the destination, and in the sojourning I’ve done thus far, the Bill Maher song is one I don’t need to have on repeat anymore, though it’s had its useful moments.

At the dawn of civilization when life was more tribal, an “us vs. them” image of the world didn’t just make sense; it was crucial to survival. We’re all born a little egocentric, born into that tribal mindset, so to speak, but in the age of the internet and on the cuffs of globalization, we can no longer afford to advocate tribal mentalities. Not in our religions. Not in our politics. Not as Christians. Or as atheists. Or as anything in-between or completely different. If I had to pick where my song was these days, it’s there – advocating something world-centric, something pluralistic, and yet something still faithful and devout – a prayerful journey eager to hear more songs.

And that song, the song that moves me most these days is one that no longer dislikes or bemoans the reality that other people need to listen to their own favorite music at their own pace. And my music isn’t better than anyone else’s. It’s just what speaks to me at the moment. But that’s not to say I’m not interested in seeking out others who want to sing along. So, in this moment of your life, what song are you needing to hear the most? It might be vastly different from the one you listened to years ago or the one you’ll be whistling along to in the years to come. Realizing that we’re all doing that, singing our different songs however we need to, is maybe, just maybe, to bring a little harmony to a whole lot of discord.

A Paradigm Shift for Empathy, or the Cultural Case Against War and Violence, or a Review of Maleficent

A little more than a decade ago, when the United States was preparing for war with Iraq, the Bush administration used a lot of dichotomous language, like “axis of evil” or “evildoers” when referring to regimes and terrorist cells, if not large swaths of the Middle East. Like a good Western, there was the “good guys,” us, and the “bad guys,” them. Kipling was probably rolling in his grave. But that’s a theme we’re used to seeing in movies; it’s a theme we read in books. Good vs. evil is so nicely simplistic that even when it gets complicated, we don’t generally lose sight of which side we want to win.

But culture is shifting – and maybe drastically. It’s hard to come across a good television show or movie these days where you don’t find yourself rooting for the “bad guy,” at least on some level. I mean, no one is going to argue (hopefully) that Walter White is a good guy, but we all love him a little. And a Miami serial killer who only kills whomever he decides is a “bad guy”? Or how about Game of Thrones, where every character exemplifies the epitome of human depravity. I don’t think there’s a single “good” character on the show – just characters who murder only when they feel they have to as opposed to those who murder for pleasure.

This week, I watched Maleficent, the story of Sleeping Beauty retold through the lens of the mysterious, evil fairy who cursed Princess Aurora in the original animation. Warning: spoilers ahead. It’s a beautiful film that takes an “evil” woman from the original story and gives her purpose and struggle. We’re made to identify and empathize with her story to the point that we begin to see her not as the self-proclaimed “Mistress of All Evil,” as she was in the original but as someone wounded who, rightfully or not, responds through her wounding. Essentially, it’s a story of how hurt people hurt people and how only love can redeem that hurt. Most strikingly (big spoiler here), as she learns that only her true love – and not the romantic love of a prince in shining armor – can end the curse she cast on Sleeping Beauty, the “evil” fairy Maleficent finds healing, and you almost get the sense that the curse she cast on Sleeping Beauty was actually a curse she’d cast against herself, as the beautiful princess comes across as oblivious and almost unfazed by what has transpired.

If only it were that nice in the real world. I know all too well what it is to be wounded, to need to wound others, and then to again turn inward wounded again by what I’ve done. The wounding stops when someone decides enough is enough and decides not to respond in kind but to take the higher road. It reminds me of the too-often quoted (and yet not quoted enough) MLK quote that goes, “Hate cannot drive out hate; only love can do that.” And that’s nice and something we all nod our heads to until a terrorist bombs a train or until a world leader uses drones that accidentally kill civilians or until someone hurts someone you love or hurts you. I mean, if anybody ever tried to harm my dog, Abner, I’m pretty sure all my hippy words would just get tossed right out the window, and I’d go purchase my first 12-gauge (that’s a type of gun, right?). But the philosophy I’m advocating, that’s been advocated a thousand times before me, is spot on. It’ll still be spot on no matter what happens to us that changes our minds. The question is, how do we remember that when we’re loading the guns or preparing for battle?

I think a cultural shift, at least in part, is the answer to that question. To teach the world to step in the shoes of others, to hear their wounded experience from their perspective is about the only way we can ever even hope to replace vengeance with non-retaliation. It’s not a debate about whether or not evil exists, and I’m not arguing for some kind of relativism (at least not intentionally), but to view “evil” as having a cause rooted in grief is to recast the conversation about how that grief should be dealt with. And when I watched the movie this week, I got the overwhelming sense that a call for empathy is the new paradigm and isn’t just something being whispered on the fringes or only spoken by a handful of great men and women the way it once was. We’re slowly but surely teaching each other to step into the shoes of the strangers who hurt us and be profoundly moved by that hurt before we fight fire with fire.

It’s nice to think we can keep selling that message until it takes hold.

Some Thoughts on Social Progress for MLK Day

Several years ago, one of my Facebook friends at the time posted a status on Martin Luther King Day that derided the holiday adding it was “just a day to get off work.” At the time, I didn’t take too kindly to that sort of thing, so I called her a bigot and deleted her right then and there.

The thing is, while I can’t say that I feel like I’ve lost a close friend or anything, I can say the years have tested whether or not I think she was a bad person at heart. I no longer think that. At the time, I probably demonized an otherwise good person who held a few misguided views. Aren’t most of us otherwise good people with a few misguided views?

But that’s one of the more curious things about racism today. We’re so trained in our culture to think that it only comes from people dawning pointy white hats, skinheads, or folks ready to burn crosses that we aren’t too eager to entertain the possibility that it could actually come from our friends, neighbors, family members, etc. – but those are precisely the people it comes from the most, and precisely because it comes from them, we’re not eager to call it “racism.” That is, either we only think it’s “racism” when someone is visibly hurt, so we dismiss more subtle forms of racist statements, or we’re quick to take any form of racism and demonize the whole person who said it, as was the case with my ex-Facebook friend. Neither of these approaches are doing our culture any good, and I’m pretty sure I’ve been guilty of both at times.

And yet, I think there’s a lot of us that want to believe that today’s America isn’t still racist. But the way we often show our progress is by comparing ourselves to our past. That seems a bit of an odd way to approach the issue, doesn’t it? It’s not been uncommon for me to hear people say things like, “Well, I’m not my forefathers. I didn’t own slaves. Don’t treat me like I did.” Okay, so, we’re better because we no longer hold slaves? Well, yes. We’re better because we don’t make people drink out of separate water fountains? Well, duh, but is that really going to be our litmus test for the kind of non-racists we aim to be?

The progress we must make cannot be measured by how far we’ve come but by where we can and should go from right here, right now, simply because that’s the right direction to move in. I think that’s at the heart of MLK’s dream: the dream wasn’t about achieving a goal but about a way of living out the kinds of morals that required constant reminders and awareness of who we are and who we want to be in the face of all forms of injustice. Yes, slavery is a thing of the past. Yes, the horrific Jim Crow laws are a thing of the past. We progressed to a better place. So, I suppose, we could say, “Look how better we are from our ancestors,” decide we’re happy with how far we’ve come, and say that’s enough. Or, we can keep pushing – recognizing that so long as someone – anyone – is marginalized, there’s still work left to be done. And the work, right now, that must still be done is combating these more subtle forms of racism that go unrecognized or ignored.

The unfortunate reality is, racism is alive and thriving in America, especially in the south. In fact, in the south, it can still be blatant. I recall a student at Vanderbilt talking about her own experience of racism in the south. She felt that when it happened in the south and was often blatant and hateful, she could dismiss the person as a bigot and move on with her life with relative ease, but when it happened in, say, Chicago, in a large law firm where someone made an off-hand, stereotypical remark, she didn’t know how to respond and found it shocking.

On some small level, I can relate to this as someone who lived in a rural town in North Africa for two years where I was one of maybe five light-skinned people living within a two-hour radius. Sometimes, I had rocks thrown at me by children. Sometimes, my friends were threatened or, in a few cases, assaulted because they were women or because they were different in some way from the majority. I lived occasionally confronting assumptions about me – that I worked for the CIA or that I was extremely wealthy or that I partied and was all kinds of sexually deviant or that I hated the Middle East. Sometimes, just a few assumptions about someone we don’t know at all, or even a few generalizations based around statistics that don’t include appropriate context, can be so incredibly damaging – and that is something that continues to happen worldwide.

Racism isn’t just despising someone different from you. It’s about fear and skepticism of what is different. It’s built-in assumptions that certain groups of people are “lazy.” Or, sometimes, assumptions that they’re the “good ones” or “almost white.” It’s built into political ideals about the “welfare state.” It’s built into beliefs about crime rates and incarcerations without regard for how slanted the justice system is. And yet, when a person has these assumptions and worldviews, that doesn’t also mean that he or she hates someone of a different color or ethnicity. And so we claim we aren’t racist, we aren’t bigots – because we don’t hate anybody or because we don’t wish any violence on anyone. Have you ever noticed whenever a celebrity gets in trouble for making a racist statement, the first thing they say is, “I’m not a racist.” I keep hoping some celebrity will respond by saying, “Well, you know, sometimes I can actually be racist, and I appreciate that you’ve kept me in check here, because what I said was wrong, and I should’ve known better.” We really need to get the word “racist” out of the clouds where it’s equated with “evil” because prejudice, to change the term slightly, is something we’ve all been a part of.

What we really need to combat racism is a healthy dose of self-awareness and mindfulness – a little honesty that, at times, we’re all skeptical of (if not also scared of) what we perceive as different from ourselves. To put that another way, we are, all, a little racist. That doesn’t mean we all hate or wish violence on others, but we do need to be careful, because the things we say can contribute to or promote violence and hate-speech inadvertently.

I think back to my ex-Facebook friend. She was a racist. I don’t have any question about that. But I have been at times in my life guilty of racism, too. She isn’t a bad person, and neither am I. And I probably didn’t get anywhere with her by calling her a bigot and deleting her. But when it comes to our closer friends and family, I do think we’re in a position to say, “Are you sure you really mean what you’re saying?” When we are in a position to question their words and how hurtful those words are, we should jump on the opportunity to be their keeper, to call them into question, and to remind them – because we love them – when they are being wrong-headed. I only hope my friends and family would do the same for me. If and when they do, that I believe is living out the dream MLK envisioned.