Wednesday, August 29, 2018

Immigration Part 6: Why We Can't (or Won't) Fix Our Broken Immigration Laws

This post is part of my Immigration Series.

In the first part, I introduced the topic.
In the second part, I looked at the (lack of) regulation of Immigration from the founding of our country and the easy path to citizenship for white immigrants.
In the third part, I detailed the racist history of immigration restrictions dating from the Chinese Exclusion Act to the present.
In the fourth part, I looked at the realities of current immigration law, which provides no legal path to entry for the vast majority of those who wish to immigrate.
In the fifth part, I examined the openly racist goals of the Trump Administration.


Pretty much everyone on all parts of the political spectrum can agree that our current immigration laws are broken. They are not working. On the one hand, they seem arbitrary and ill suited to the current situation, making legal immigration impossible for many. They also leave groups like the Dreamers in legal limbo, with no good solutions. On the other, the laws are widely ignored in practice, leaving employers able to exploit vulnerable undocumented workers. It is kind of the worst of all worlds. As I noted in previous installments, the current laws essentially incentivize illegal entry - without a legal way in, people come however they can. And employers are all too ready to hire them, wink wink, nod nod.

The question then arises, if everyone agrees the laws are broken and need fixing, why don’t we fix them?


I have come to realize over the last couple of years that the reason our nation is so polarized and divided isn’t that we have lost civility in how we disagree about politics. The problem, rather, is that we have disagreements that go far deeper than mere politics.

Mere political differences are essentially about how to accomplish shared goals. We agree on where we want to end up, but disagree about the best path to get there.

In contrast, right now we are divided over what the goals should be. This applies to many issues. To pick just one, reasonable people can and do disagree as to the best way to make sure that people living in the wealthiest country in human history can access health care, food, and education. But right now, the disagreement isn’t about how, but about whether ensuring access is a proper goal at all. One side openly believes that some people should go without health care, food, and education. That isn’t a political difference; that is a moral difference.

Perhaps we can sum this up as follows: a political difference is disagreeing about how to further the common good. A moral difference is disagreeing about whether the common good should be a goal in the first place.

In the context of immigration, the problem is the same. We disagree completely as to what the goal of immigration policy should be. There is no reasonable compromise available, because the competing goals are mutually exclusive. They boil down to “should we be letting people in or not.”

In order to explore this, I am going to use the terms “Left” and “Right.” However, those terms are imperfect. They mostly apply to how American politics sorted itself before the rise of the Tea Party and Fox News. It is how I remember the debates from my childhood, teens, and twenties. These days, of course, immigration policy has sorted itself into a partisan issue. In addition, it is possible to be part of more than one group, particularly if one is not wedded to a particular party or platform.

Anyway, here are the four main groups, when it comes to immigration policy:

#1 Those on the Left opposed to immigration
#2 Those on the Left in favor of immigration
#3 Those on the Right in favor of immigration
#4 Those on the Right opposed to immigration

I will discuss each position in turn, and my view of whether that position embraces the possibility of compromise or reasonable discussion.


#1 Those on the Left opposed to immigration

This is an intriguing group, and one that gets some discussion in A Nation of Nations by Tom Gjelten, which I read recently. This is the one kind of opposition to immigration that I find morally defensible. On a related note, it is also the kind of opposition for which compromise and creative solutions are possible.

Here is the basic argument, put forth in various forms over the years. In a nation characterized by racism and discrimination, native-born minorities - particularly African Americans - can be the losers when immigrants come here. Racist employers may chose to hire immigrants (considered more “docile”) rather than African Americans. The challenges of incorporating immigrants can distract and take resources away from the ongoing battle for equality. As I said, these are real issues, where there are genuine competing interests and concerns.

However, this group has shrunk over time, and has become all but non-existent in the last few years. There are good reasons for this. First is kind of obvious: if the problem is racism and discrimination, then the cure is to fight against racist systems. To that end, minorities are more powerful when they cooperate than when they fight with each other. Again, some really great discussion of this in A Nation of Nations.

Another reason this group has shrunk is that it is open to reason and evidence. Thus, as it has become evident that immigrants don’t actually displace African Americans, and that minorities have gained, rather than lost, political power, the reasons for worry have evaporated. You can address rational concerns with rational solutions.

A further reason is that it is possible to address the concerns with reasonable policy. If there were displacements, then there are compensations. Work on the underlying racism, rather than point fingers. For those in this category, fixing the laws means looking beyond immigration to a holistic approach to dismantling racist systems.

In my opinion, these are all reasons why those on the Left have steadily moved toward greater acceptance of immigrants.

#2 Those on the Left in favor of immigration

Again, the Left/Right thing here is imperfect at best. Don’t get hung up on that part too much.

These are the “bleeding hearts.” For them, immigration is a good because it is good for the immigrants. For people who hold this position, merely talking about whether immigration is good for those already here is only seeing half the picture. Compassion and basic human decency require that we find ways of caring for those who are fleeing poverty and violence - or just seeking a better life. Those are basic human rights to those with this view. Life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.

I am in this category. And I am in this category because I am a Christian. If “love your neighbor” means anything, it means that you have to take the well-being of others into account in every decision.

Sadly, this is also the position that Conservative Christians - particularly white Evangelicals - are least likely to hold, in my experience.  

For those in this category, fixing our laws means taking the needs of immigrants into account. For those of us in this category, there are some areas where compromise is acceptable - the details of how we process people, how we detect bad actors, how we avoid creating unintended consequences or incentives for bad behavior. But the one thing we cannot compromise on is the underlying idea: human migration is a human right. Regardless of a person’s race, color, religion, national origin, sex, sexual orientation, everyone has a human right to pursue life, liberty, and a good life. 

 Some of us still believe this.

#3 Those on the Right in favor of immigration

I remember there being a lot of these back in my youth. In fact, during the Clinton years, the Republicans were actually the pro-immigration party. Remember that? Or do you at least remember Ronald Reagan? You know, the guy who supported amnesty for undocumented immigrants who had put down roots....that guy. 

This category overlaps somewhat with #2, but tends to include businessmen and women, employers, and innovators.

For those on the Right, there are two main arguments to be made in favor of immigration. First is a philosophical one rooted in libertarianism: freedom of movement, like other economic freedoms, is a moral and social good. Barriers to trade should be lifted, and people should go where things are best for them. This is kind of the Adam Smith philosophy of movement. It also is at the heart of the European Union idea of a single market. There are four freedoms: the free movement of goods, services, capital, and persons. They all work together.

The second argument is a utilitarian one: immigrants are good for a country. They bring new ideas, motivation (those who immigrate tend to be the risk takers), and diversity to a country. A country that walls itself off ossifies and declines. There is a mountain of evidence to support this, by the way. A quick google search reveals a plethora of articles to that effect from right-leaning (but reputable) media, such as the Wall Street Journal, Forbes, The Economist, and Business Insider. Heck, even the Koch brothers’ think tank promotes immigration as beneficial. And yes, you can find similar articles on centrist and left leaning reputable sources. The New York Times. The Atlantic. NPR. The list goes on. The evidence is pretty overwhelming.

This shouldn’t be a surprise. People coming to seek a better life where there is more opportunity are a good thing. It is also a sign that your country is attractive. We actually should worry if immigration trends reverse.

A note here: while highly skilled immigrants (such as H1B visas) tend to add an obvious value, “unskilled” workers do too. This too is logical. Anyone who comes here and works hard contributes positively. Period. Wealth is, as Adam Smith pointed out, based on what people contribute. Labor multiplied by productivity is wealth. That’s why what people are paid is a very poor measure of their contribution to society - which is their time, not what employers can get away with paying them.

For those in this category, fixing our laws would mean making it easier for people to immigrate, and easier for businesses to recruit workers from wherever they can. Compromises as to details are possible, and policy is expected to be driven by facts and evidence, not dogma.

Again, this used to be the dominant idea within the GOP, not that long ago. But something changed not that long ago. Which leads me to our final category.

#4 Those on the Right opposed to immigration

This is the group that currently controls our government. I believe the most significant political development of the last couple decades are the rise of the Tea Party and Fox News. The Tea Party was viciously anti-immigrant and openly racist from the beginning - and I say that as someone who was a Republican until five years ago. All it took was listening to the rhetoric, and it would very quickly go to “those people” this and “those people” that. The Tea Party was and is the 21st Century Ku Klux Klan for all intents and purposes.

The second development fed off of and fed the first. Fox News right now is openly racist, xenophobic, and hatemongering. From Bill O’Reilly (now departed, but very anti-immigrant), to Tucker Carlson (who basically spews anti-immigrant propaganda), to Ann Coulter (ditto), Fox is a cesspool of racism and hate. More than any other factor, I blame Fox for poisoning white Evangelicals against their fellow humans.

For people in this category, they are opposed to immigration because it means the “wrong” people coming in. And “wrong” mostly means brown-skinned people. (Immigrants from, say [ahem] Norway would be fine…) They may use code words like “demographics,” “assimilation,” “speak English,” and “culture,” but the core is the same. They do not want people who are different from them coming here.

For what it is worth, the overwhelming majority of those who claim to be “in favor of legal immigration, not illegal immigration,” are lying. All it takes to flush them out is to propose changing our laws to what they were in the mid-1800s. (When my ancestors came over.) That would virtually eliminate illegal immigration, because anyone who wanted to come in could go to an entry point, and get papers. With a few exceptions - one hand is plenty to count them - people will then pivot to some other argument why we shouldn’t have “those kind of people” coming in. Thus revealing the issue isn’t really legality - it’s xenophobia.

For people in this category, the solution - the only acceptable solution - is draconian enforcement to stop the influx of brown-skinned immigrants. Build that wall, they chant. Stopping immigration is the last hope for America, they preach. They defend separating families and traumatizing children - because “those people” should know better than to try to come here. 

 (If you aren't familiar with him, Geert Wilders is a neo-Nazi Dutch politician.
And, also obvious, Steve King is an American neo-Nazi politician.)

This is why there is no reasonable compromise or rational discussion to be had with this category of people. Their hate is by definition irrational. It is driven by the “lizard brain” - the animal part of them which fears “the other.” Because of this, it is no use to cite statistics showing the benefits of immigrants. They don’t care. It is of no use to appeal to their empathy - because they have already decided that people not like them are subhuman. Pictures of crying children in cages do not matter to them, because they want the “vermin” gone. The saddest thing to me is that so many of my supposedly Christian extended family, friends, and acquaintances have been so poisoned by anti-immigrant propaganda that they have actually defended the atrocities of the Trump Administration. (And honestly, the only people who I know who defend Trump on this are white Evangelicals and a few white Catholics and Mormons.)

The reason we can’t have a rational discussion about how to fix our broken immigration laws boils down to this then: for a large group - the one currently in power - the only acceptable solution is the Make America White Again, to stop the Browning of America, to close our borders to the dirty brown-skinned people, and Take Our Country Back. How do you compromise with that? How do you have a discussion that includes facts, evidence, and compassion? You can’t.

Even a few years ago, there were still Republicans (including the late John McCain), who pushed for “Comprehensive Immigration Reform.” Whatever you thought of the specific details, the overall idea was good. The problem was that a comprehensive plan ultimately would require loosening restrictions so that more people could have a legal route in. That was unacceptable to the Tea Party, which punished enough of the Reformers by voting them out in favor of more xenophobic candidates. And thus died the best chance of the last 30 years to accomplish meaningful reform. Unless and until there is a change in enough people’s beliefs, we will remain in the current stalemate. That could (conceivably) go either direction. Enough xenophobes, and we build an expensive and ineffective wall, and spend resources brutalizing immigrants. But more likely in the long term is that demographic change will come. The old whites - and they are the most racist, statistically - will die, and be replaced by the young - who are far more likely to have friends who are non-white, immigrants, or LGBTQ. It’s a lot harder to vilify people you have relationships with. The older generation is terrified of change, and are having what I hope is their last racist tantrum. Perhaps we can keep them from doing too much damage to the world my kids will live in. The future isn’t just white, male, and old. It is also female, young, diverse, and cosmopolitan. That genie isn’t going back in the bottle, no matter how hard Le Toupee tries to push it back in.


In the next part, I hope to talk a bit about some ways I believe we can fix immigration law.

Monday, August 27, 2018

The Purity Myth by Jessica Valenti

Source of book: Borrowed from the library

Just some thoughts on this. I started this book a few years ago when my wife read it, but it was requested by another library patron, and thus had to go back before I could finish. A couple of online friends (cool people I met through my blog) expressed interest in reading and discussing it. 

Just at the outset, let me say a bit about the style and content, before getting into specifics. Jessica Valenti co-founded the Feministing website, and wrote for it for a number of years. The site is essentially a blog, and as the writer of one myself, I understand the significant differences in writing style that go along with it. These stylistic differences are apparent in the book, which more resembles a blog than a typical non-fiction book. This is not to say that it lacks citations: it is well researched as to the sources for quotations. But it isn’t intended to be a scholarly look at the subject so much as a cultural look. I think, therefore, that many who disagree with Valenti’s opinions will also be put off by the style. Valenti uses a breezy blog style, not formal English, so expect contractions, paragraphs not modeled on the MLA format, and overuse of parentheses. (Hey, a bit like my blog too!) So you may not find it to be what you expect. On the other hand, if you go in with different expectations, there is a lot of thought provoking stuff in the book.

Valenti’s premise is that in our culture here in America, women are assigned value based on their virginity and adherence to patriarchal gender roles. This allows women to be divided in the the “Madonna” sorts - the good girls - and the “sluts” - the bad girls. Step outside of expectations, and you are placed in the “slut” category.

Longtime readers of this blog will be familiar with my exploration of that theme in my Modesty Culture series. Since I wrote it, I have had a number of interesting conversations about it, and realized that Modesty Culture is just one facet of Purity Culture, which is about sex - and a lot more than just sex. The Purity Myth really explains a lot about how it fits together.

My wife and I have personally had plenty of unpleasant experiences with both Modesty and Purity Cultures, starting with my wife’s thoroughly unpleasant time in Jonathan Lindvall’s cultic home group. It has been obvious from the beginning that there were three interconnected - indeed inseparable - facets to this issue. Namely, the division of women based on their sexuality and adherence to gender roles, an obsession with controlling females, and a rigid view of gender roles and gender hierarchy. They are all connected, and you really don’t find one without the others. Thus, you find an obsession with female virginity, a need to control how women dress, and the belief that women shouldn’t work outside the home. All of these stem back to viewing women as sub-human, perpetual children who cannot be trusted to make their own decisions, and this in need of male control.

This is the uncomfortable truth about religious teachings on sexuality. You cannot separate beliefs about sex from beliefs about gender - because the teachings on sexuality are based on the views about gender. To give but one example, I was shocked when, in my law school days, I re-read the Old Testament in light of what I had learned about the history of the English Common Law, and realized that the OT says precious little to restrict what MEN do. As long as they didn’t mess with another man’s property, or have sex with an equal, I mean other male, most other behavior is acceptable or at least tolerated with little comment: prostitutes, plural wives, concubines, rape, sexual enslavement, you name it. In contrast, just like the culture in which it was written, female sexuality was brutally punished. (Honestly, the NT is only marginally better. It too draws heavily from misogynist cultural beliefs in many ways, even as it occasionally pushes back against them. In both cases, a lot of what I was taught about what the bible says turned out to not actually be in there…) This is why the religious discussion about sex - see more below - makes little sense in our time. Once you remove the sexual double standard - and the open misogyny - from the discussion, you are missing the key point: the rules derive from the misogyny.

On to some specifics. These are roughly in the order in which they appear in the book, and are taken largely from our discussion.

One thing that struck me when I first started this book years ago, and I thoroughly agree with now, is that in our culture (particularly religious culture), morality for women is defined in terms of sexuality. That is, a woman is considered to be “moral” if she is a virgin on her wedding night. Otherwise, she is considered immoral. As Valenti puts it:

I was the...burgeoning feminist who knew that something was wrong with a world that could peg me as a bad person for sleeping with a high school boyfriend while ignoring my good heart, sense of humor, and intelligence. Didn’t the intricacies of my character count for anything? The answer, unfortunately, was no, they didn’t.
When young women are taught about morality, there’s not often talk of compassion, kindness, courage, or integrity. There is, however, a lot of talk about hymens: if we have them, when we’ll lose them, and under what circumstances we’ll be rid of them.
While boys are taught that the things that make them men - good men - are universally accepted ethical ideal, women are led to believe that our moral compass lies somewhere between our legs.

This is otherwise known as the double standard. Men are judged on more universal character traits (unless they are Republican politicians, apparently…), while women are judged on their sexual status. This is far too true. I have seen it at work in two different arenas.

The first is my professional experience. I can tell you that there is nobody as self-righteous and full of entitlement as a woman who was a virgin on her wedding night, who has faithfully adhered to gender roles ever since. Nobody. These are the women who feel that their chastity and submissiveness has entitled them to a certain level of financial support from a man, and who are furious when that man lets them down. (Even if he lost his job through no fault of his own…) They did their part, why can’t he do his? These are, undoubtedly, the second ugliest divorces I have done. (The worst was the pastor who was raping and abusing his wife. Horrible case, in which a divorce was a happy ending in every possible way for her.) The problem here, naturally, is that the woman judges her own morality by virginity and meeting gender expectations. She is the counterpart to the man who judges his morality by his wealth and income - aka meeting male gender expectations.

The second is more personal. Within my extended family, there are a few women who base their morality on these things. Their virginal status in the past, their adherence to gender roles (stay at home mom, particularly), and their conservative clothing choices. This, while behaving abominably to others, in some cases including their own children. The problem isn’t just them, but the fact that others give them a pass on abusive behavior because, well, they must be good because of how they do sex and gender roles. As long as they dressed modestly, didn't work outside the home, manipulated rather than said what they meant, they could get away with mean, abusive behavior and still be considered "good girls."

Particularly good in this section of the book is the acknowledgement that raunch culture and purity culture are actually the same thing, just with slightly different manifestations. I myself noted in the aftermath of our cult experiences that it turns out that many of the men involved were outright creeps. Obsession with female sexuality and a need to control can be expressed as sexual repression of others - or in rapey porn fantasies. Often both.

One amusing bit in that chapter involves how one counts sexual partners. After all, what “counts”? Is one still a virgin after _____ [insert act here] is apparently a question often asked. The author mentions a female friend, who didn't count it as sex unless she had an orgasm. Valenti notes that this way of counting isn’t likely to be popular with certain men - they won’t end up counting for many of their partners.

I also found Valenti to be spot on about the role of race in purity culture. Here in the US, sex is all about race. Protecting white girls from brown men has been a justification for everything from Jim Crow to lynchings. But of course, it was actually the white slave owners raping the brown women. Thus, the myth that non-whites (particularly African Americans) are hypersexual and out of control. So race plays a definite role in purity culture - which idealizes young white women.

I cannot say how much I love the acknowledgement that the "ideal woman" of the Purity Movement is a little girl. Not an actual woman, but an undeveloped, subhuman. Someone who is passive and unassertive and, well, little girly. Valenti mentions a lot about American culture, but, as a father with daughters who love Anime, it isn't just an American problem. The juvenilization of femininity is pretty disturbing. I myself preferred a grown up woman (even if she was barely 21 when I married her...) I have read and continue to read a lot of Victorian literature. The idea of the "innocent" girlish female is all to common. I think my experience in reading has made it easier to detect where Victorian sexism is endemic to modern discussions of "purity." In my Modesty Culture series, I pointed out that sexualization of children and young women was central to both our culture and Modesty Culture, and it is nice to see someone else noticed too.

I agree with Valenti that the cure for both the oversexualization of girls and the obsession with female virginity  is the training of girls to find their identity in non-sexual things: intelligence, compassion, making the world a better place. Things males are expected to do.

The chapter on Purity Balls and the like, while something I was already familiar with from my experience, was creepy to read about again. You want to take a shower afterward. And, the whole idea of my daughters making a promise to ME about their sexuality is so beyond creepy I don't even want to think about it. Yuck, yuck, yuck!

The chapter on porn is interesting. This isn't my area of expertise, although I have professionally run across plenty of men with unrealistic ideas of women. I am not qualified to speak about whether this is due to internet porn, or if it is a longstanding problem not particularly connected to that. What I can say is that Valenti nails how Fundies talk about porn. They seem to either go for some ludicrous non-mainstream thing, or go ape-shit over...really mild stuff. This whole conflation of anything realistically sexual with porn is (in my view) self defeating. I recall from my own childhood people freaking out over classical art...nudes, yo. This ruins credibility over legitimate issues, such as misogyny that Valenti says is rampant in most mainstream porn.
I too hate the false dichotomy of either phallocentric smut or denying female sexuality.

I concur that Fundies really get their panties in a wad whenever female-controlled pleasure comes into view. Some Fundies do not appear to believe that "normal" females masturbate - which is denialism for sure. I think there is a general suspicion of the idea that women are actually sexual (at least good women - and white women too...right?) I see this too in the opposition to female-controlled birth control.

If I were to mention one significant paradigm change I experienced after I started dating my wife, it was that the Fundie teaching about female sexuality was bullshit on a stick, and that many (most?) women were highly sexual, and the canard of "women trade sex for love" was a male fantasy, not representative or reality.

Moving on to the next topic, I ran across something that was VERY typical of the Fundie teachings I know: the idea that girls won't want sex if they are getting affection from their fathers. I have heard this so many times, and it just feels so gross. I have three daughters (two of whom are decidedly post-puberty), and whatever else they need from me - and I have a good relationship with them! - they are most certainly NOT looking for a quasi-sexual something or another. A substitute for sex? Holy shit that is creepy as hell! And yet, I grew up in this mindset!

In the chapter on “Abstinence Education,” I was reminded of some research I did a few years back. I ran across actual curriculum - used in public schools! - and it was retrograde in a way that would have embarrassed my own parents. Good lord. A bunch of Victorian gender essentialism (“most women want to get married, have children, and let their husbands work”???) and heavy pushing of 1950s gender roles.

At this point, I do want to say really good things about my parents, who gave me generally accurate sex ed, and were always available for questions. I disagree with some of what they said, but I was not lied to like many fellow Fundies. There were a few things that I found out later didn’t apply as universally to all women as much as they did to my mom. Which, fair enough, her experience and feelings. Also, I was never given the "men can't help themselves" thing AT ALL. I always felt responsibility was on me as much as on women.

The chapter on abortion and birth control was interesting. Full disclosure. I am not a fan of abortion. But. But I really soured on the “pro-life” movement when big names filed amicus briefs in the Hobby Lobby case (Gothardites!) essentially opposing ALL female-controlled birth control. At that point, it became clear to me that this had nothing to do with actually ending abortion, and everything to do with punishing women for failing to attain “purity.” Which meant quiverfull and staying at home rather than working.

While I find this chapter to be a bit much in some ways - as I said, I am uncomfortable with abortion - it has turned out to be less alarmist than I would have thought before the last few years. She was ahead of the curve on this one. It is pretty scary. Particularly the bits about that proposed law criminalizing women who don’t promptly report miscarriages to the police. Imagine how that would work.

The chapter on rape was really good. One of the side effects of working in family law - and that means domestic violence cases too - is seeing the really ugly side of marital rape. (I mentioned that above. One quibble I have with Valenti on this issue is her tendency to see an increase in sexual assault. The better explanation is that in the last half century, sexual assaults have been prosecuted, which has led to more being reported. I am unaware of any reputable researcher who believes sexual assaults are on the rise. Rather, the consensus is that most were never reported - for the reasons Valenti outlines. Particularly non-white victims of white rapists. Just as one example, when my mom was an LVN before I was born, nurses tried to keep one hand free to swat away the groping from doctors. My wife would never put up with that - because she has other options my mom didn’t. On a related note, #metoo doesn’t reflect an increase in assaults. It reflects a change in culture, where nobody should have to fuck Harvey Weinstein to get a job.

Very interesting in this context for me personally is my law school experience. We had to study rape in our first year as part of Criminal Law. And got to read all the old cases arguing about how pure a woman had to be before it was “real” rape, and just how much “penetration” was necessary to be rape rather than assault. Sigh. It was pretty bad.

One more thing in this context. I have copied the thread of a conversation on a (now private) Facebook page devoted to Theonomic Reconstructionism that is both fascinating and horrifying. The discussion was on the OT laws regarding rape, and a few of the die hards (one of whom appeared to be a woman) were arguing that it wasn’t rape if you forced sex on a widow or divorcee. After all, the crime was not one of violence, but a property violation. Rape destroyed her economic value, and once that was gone, well, no crime… I’ll probably use it as a blog post someday.

The chapter on toxic masculinity was also good. The definition of masculinity as "not female" is seriously pernicious and widespread. It permeates the culture.

One of the most laughable things in this book is the seemingly ubiquitous quote from the various "purity" pushers: "Who will want me now that I've had sex?" Since the WWII generation, north of 80% - including females - have had sex before marriage. And I believe that it was pretty common during the 1920s too. (Or if you want to look back further to the Puritan era, a LOT of pregnant brides...) Seriously, last I checked, non-virgins have been getting married right and left for...well...since we ended arranged marriages. (And that's women. I strongly suspect male virgins have been as rare as unicorns since the dawn of the concept of marriage.) One has to wonder if the purity people get out much these days. For those under, say, age 80, most guys DON'T CARE. (And, in my professional experience, the ones who do tend to be controlling creeps.)

[Interesting case in point here: Josh Harris. As in, the author of I Kissed Dating Goodbye. As in, the demigod of the “courtship” movement. His wife had a sexual history. (I wouldn’t mention it if he hadn’t already gone public - in a freaking book - with the information.) And you know what? I bet that is the least important thing about her. To Josh’s credit, of all the Patriarchist figures, he is the only one I know who has actually admitted he was wrong, and is working to apologise to those he hurt.]

I laugh when I hear "Your virginity is the greatest gift you can give your husband." Really? Because if that is the best you have, I want a refund! But of course, my wife's virginity wasn't anywhere near the best of what she gave me. And gives me, every day. The whole idea only makes sense if you think of women as property. Buy new, not used.

Pretty hilarious too that there is all this moral panic. Millennials have first intercourse several years later, and will have fewer average partners than the Baby Boomers. And less teen pregnancy. Fewer STIs. So....this really is more about women not "knowing their place," isn't it? Things weren’t “better” in the good old days - but women sure are stepping outside their gender-role cages these days.

I really love the idea of female sexual self determination. And the idea that female pleasure matters. So many are terrified about a world where women have the same sexual self determination as men. Ha. I have lived that world for 17 years, and it is actually fantastic. At least with the right partner.

Lots more to say. This is one of the biggest flash points of our generation, as much of the world is transitioning to a view of women as equal - and equally entitled to decide what they do with their genitals (something men have had since the dawn of human history…) To a large degree, our Culture Wars™ are very much about whether we preserve the toxic injustices toward women from the past - or not.

One final quote here comes at the end of the book. It kind of sums up the message. For those of us who are feminists, and believe that women should indeed have political, economic, and social equality with men, it really rings true. Valenti gives brief stories of several younger women who are doing amazing things in the world, and finishes with this.

These are the kinds of women who make up America - diverse, engaged, smart, interesting, moral agents of change. Take a look at the work these young women and others are doing. Now tell me it matters whether they’re virgins or not (it doesn’t), or that their contributions to society have anything to do with their sexuality (they don’t). So let’s use these examples of amazing young women to remind ourselves why we’re fighting to end the purity myth - a myth that denies our value as whole human beings - and move forward with their work in mind. And let’s spread this message about all young women across the country: that we’re more than the sum of our sexual parts, that our ability to be moral and good people has to do with our kindness, compassion, and social engagement - not our bodies - and that we won’t accept any less for any longer.


This is not an argument for promiscuity. And certainly not an argument for using sex selfishly. Rather, Valenti argues - and I agree - that whether one has had sex, and with how many people is far less relevant than how one acts sexually. Is our sexual expression loving? Or does it express dominance over others, violence, or dehumanization? (Hello, Doug Wilson…) But if your sexual teachings are based on misogyny, you end up saying stuff like a woman seeking consensual sex is the same as a male rapist. (Hello, John Piper…) If a woman has had consensual sex with a few partners before she marries, that sure seems to be a low level fault at worst. In contrast, “grab ‘em by the pussy” is a serious indication of bad character. Not to mention a crime. Some of us are having a really hard time taking seriously the pearl clutching of a religious tradition that obsesses about the former, while giving a total pass to the latter. Just saying. Or a tradition that seems just fine with voting the Ku Klux Klan into office, while waging jihad against LGBTQ people. Remember that when you clutch your pearls over why young people reject church teachings on sexuality…

Sunday, August 26, 2018

Kings Canyon National Park

This post is part of my series on the National Park System. One of my goals while the kids are still at home is to visit as many of the National Parks and Monuments in the Western United States as we can.

In 2017, 4.3 million people visited Yosemite National Park. Less than one-sixth that number visited Kings Canyon National Park - and the overwhelming majority of those visited only the Grant Grove area - or merely entered at that gate and drove south to Sequoia National Park. (The two are administered as a single unit.) The number of visitors to the canyon itself is barely one-third of the visitors to Grant Grove - and that is only during the peak summer and fall months when the road is open.

This is an interesting state of affairs, because Kings Canyon is actually quite a bit like Yosemite. A glacial valley with towering granite cliffs, green meadows, a refreshing river, a scenic drive in...why is it less popular? One reason likely is that Yosemite has bigger waterfalls. Another is that Yosemite is famous, while Kings Canyon is known mostly to true wilderness aficionados. On the one hand, this is a shame, because Kings Canyon is a marvelous park. On the other, well, the lack of crowds is a significant part of the charm.

One interesting fact about Kings Canyon is that the overwhelming majority of the park is wilderness, completely inaccessible by road. For most of the park, you have to hike to get there - and not easy, short hikes either. From any number of trailheads, it is possible to hike 50 to 100 miles before you cross a road. And these go up and down passes at up to 14,000 feet, traverse mile-high cliffs, and generally conspire to defeat all except the most committed of backpackers. The Kings Canyon backcountry is world-renowned for its beauty and isolation. It is kind of odd to think that all this is less than 100 miles from some pretty large cities in the most populous state in the Union.

I first visited Kings Canyon before I had kids - and I visited the backcountry only. We backpacked in from the east side of the Sierra Nevada, over Kearsarge Pass (nearly 12,000 feet) - which is the park boundary. We camped a couple nights on Bubbs Creek, which is one of the upper branches of the canyon. It wasn’t until I had three kids that I took them into the valley itself for a day of hiking and exploration. Later, I would backpack starting on that end, and bring the kids back to camp.

Kings Canyon is one of the deepest canyons in the United States. If you count the highest peaks (at 14,000 feet) and the lowest depth, it is nearly two miles deep. This isn’t a canyon like the Grand Canyon, with obvious rims, but it is quite deep, and the lower portion is pretty sheer.

The portion you can visit by car is the South Fork of the Kings River canyon. There is a lodge and several campgrounds at Cedar Grove, and a number of trailheads throughout the canyon. There are a few good day hikes, depending on your stamina, and many more backpack adventures.

I recommend camping in the canyon, as it is beautiful, fairly quiet, and lets you see the many moods of the canyon. At minimum, walk Zumwalt Meadows, visit Roaring River Falls, and hang out somewhere with a view. I also like the overlook trail up Hotel Creek. Strong hikers will enjoy the 9 mile round trip to Mist Falls and back - which is also the start of the Paradise Valley backpack - one of my favorites. There are so many options, and I have only explored a few despite the many times I have visited.

For campers, only one of the campgrounds is reservable. There are two more (plus a tents-only group camp you can also reserve), and those rarely fill up completely except on holiday weekends. If you get there Friday morning, easy to get a site. Better selection is available on Thursday. Or just come during the week. 


 Our first visit in May, 2008. Ted (age 2), Cordelia (age 3), and Ella (age 5). 

 Near East Lake, off Bubbs Creek, John Muir Wilderness, 2010

Bubbs Creek canyon, John Muir Wilderness, 2010

Looking south toward the Sphinx, South Fork Canyon (Paradise Valley), 2011

 Monarch Wilderness, 2012

 Kings Canyon from the Hotel Creek Overlook, 2012. (Picture by Ella, then age 9.)

Roaring River Falls, 2012. 
Ella (age 9), Cordelia (age 7), Ted (age 6), Fritz (age 4)

 The Sphinx, from below Mist Falls. Kings River Canyon, 2018
Ted (age 12), Cordelia (age 13), Ella (age 15), Fritz (age 10), cousin, me, Lillian (age 7)

 Western Tanager, 2018.

Zumwalt Meadow, 2018.

Friday, August 24, 2018

A Positive Vision for Christianity

“Teacher, which is the great commandment in the Law?”  And He said to him, “‘You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind.’  This is the great and first commandment. The second is like it, ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself.’  On these two commandments depend the whole Law and the Prophets.”

Matthew 22:36-40 (NASB)

He has told you, O man, what is good;
And what does the Lord require of you
But to do justice, to love kindness,
And to walk humbly with your God?

Micah 6:8 (NASB)

And now these three remain: faith, hope and love. But the greatest of these is love.

I Corinthians 13:13 (NIV)

Religion that God our Father accepts as pure and faultless is this: to look after orphans and widows in their distress and to keep oneself from being polluted by the world.

James 1:27 (NIV)

“Love God. Love others. Don’t take yourself too seriously.” ~ Pastor Jack Stiles


An online acquaintance challenged me to write a positive vision for Christianity, so here goes. I have been working on this for a few months now – writing and rewriting – it just takes a while to get thoughts like this down.


It is easy to dwell on the negative right now, because American [white, Evangelical] Christianity has essentially gone over to the Dark Side in the last few years.

As in, I don’t recognize it as having any resemblance to the example or teachings of Christ.

As in, politics that are indistinguishable from those of the Ku Klux Klan - and that goes for the candidates, parties, and yes, POLICIES that they support..

As in, putting an ur-Fascist in the White House, and being the only people I know who justify abusing children to keep brown-skinned immigrants out of our country.

It has been a seriously depressing couple of years. I have lost my church connection, a number of relationships (including some extended family), and I have had to come to terms with the fact that many people I thought I knew and liked are white supremacists. (Although they, of course deny it…but if it quacks like a duck...)

(Yes, yes, #notallevangelicals…80%...just saying. Call me back when you are ready to take moral responsibility for the damage you caused…)

But while I have lost faith in the organized American church, I have not lost my faith in Christ, or my love for what Christianity should and could be. And for what Christianity has been for the truly faithful over the centuries.

It is hard to nail down a comprehensive vision, and I don’t think it is helpful. If my time in Bill Gothard’s cult taught me anything, it is that the more one focuses on details, the more likely one is to get off track. Christ Himself seemed rather unconcerned with the things the religious leaders of his time cared about. He wasn’t focused on doctrinal purity (inviting Samaritans to the table?), sexual moralism (between hanging with prostitutes and giving “loose” women a pass, He made some enemies), political power (which He rejected), or the letter of the law. It was all about the heart, and it was all about an upside-down Kingdom. And, as He pretty clearly stated (but American Evangelicals refuse to accept), our eternal destiny turns, not on mental assent to theological dogma, but on how we treat the most vulnerable in our world.

I listed the four passages above, because they are summaries that lay out what I believe are the CORE elements of Christian practice. (One of the mistakes of Protestantism, in my opinion, was a shift from Christianity as primarily a practice, to one primarily of belief. The early church was largely the opposite, where creeds and beliefs - and the future books of the New Testament - were embraced as helpful to the practice of living as Christian, not the core of the faith.) Here in America, white Christians have largely abandoned any pretense of Christianity as a practice focused on our fellow humans, and made it into an unholy amalgam of Culture Wars™ (essentially a demand to return to the hierarchies and injustices of the past - and roll back modern human rights), political loyalty and power, White Nationalism, and sexual moralism against the poor.

So here is a positive vision as I see it. I have broken this down into sections based on the verses above.


1. Love the Lord Your God With All Your Heart, Soul, and Mind

I have noted before that one reason we left our last church (and are uninterested right now in looking for another) is that we were unwilling to leave our intellect and - more importantly - our conscience at the door. We are not allowed to use our minds or our hearts once we cross that threshold, because to do so would be to reject the cruel and toxic political commitments necessary to be part of the group.

Here is my alternative:

Loving God with our minds.

This means an open embrace of Truth, wherever we find it. As Aquinas believed, ALL truth is God’s truth. He and others once truly believed that the universe we live in was God’s other book - it tells of us of Him too - and in ways that no ancient text can.

Thus, Christianity should embrace science, not distrust it. The scientific method has enabled us to learn vast amounts - more than ever in history - about our world. That’s a good thing! Our faith should not be so fragile that it requires that we never embrace new knowledge that causes us to re-think some of the details of our theology. The fact that the sun is the center of our solar system and that a supermassive black hole is at the center of our galaxy does not shake my faith. The fact that the universe is ~13.8 billion years old and that our solar system is ~4.6 billion years old does not shake my faith. The overwhelming evidence that life on earth has evolved over time, that humans are relatively recent (and share common ancestors with other animals), and that death has existed long before humanity, has required some adjustments in my theological views - but that isn’t a reason to reject the whole faith. It has, however, required me to acknowledge that the human writers of the bible didn’t have all the information - they wrote with the understanding of their time and place. It makes it a bit harder to worship the bible as an idol, obviously.

So, as a positive vision, we Christians should embrace science, even - especially - when it forces us to change our viewpoints. If the universe was written by God, then we understand Him better as we understand the universe. We should embrace that.

Likewise, in a theological sense, humans are “inspired.” God breathed life into us - and we are made in His image. We therefore reflect in some way the Divine, and we learn about God as we learn about ourselves and others. (As Saint John put it, if you can’t love your fellow humans who you have seen, you can’t possibly love God, who you haven’t…)

We should therefore seek to understand humanity - and others - and embrace what we discover. This means, sometimes, that we discover things that contradict our previous beliefs. That’s okay! Just like we tweaked our view of the universe as better information came in, we can also tweak our view of humanity.

As part of this, we need to be pragmatic, not dogmatic. If our beliefs aren’t “working” - that is, if they harm rather than help - the problem is with our beliefs. I am reminded about Galen, who wrote about human anatomy after dissecting animals. Later medical researchers would assume that if Galen and the actual corpses they dissected didn’t match, the corpse was in error, not Galen. We do the same thing today with psychology (and yes, sexuality.) If the “experts” of the distant past said something, they must be right, reality be damned. A positive Christianity shouldn’t do this. We should assume the error is in our understanding, not in reality – and change our opinions when we get better information.

We should also embrace the messiness of history. We were not always the good guys. The world isn’t getting worse. We have gotten things badly wrong in the past - in ways that hurt other humans. Rather than trying to recreate the past, we should learn from it, and reject its injustices. We need to stop perpetuating racism and misogyny and calling them “Christian values.”

To summarize, my vision of a positive Christianity would be one where our minds are fully engaged as we worship God, and we explore our world with an open mind. In contrast to the Evangelical/Fundamentalist practice, where our minds exist only to “prove” to ourselves what has already been “revealed” by past interpretations of scripture.

Loving God with our souls.

I do not profess to understand exactly how this works, so I will just give an approximation - my best attempt to put into words what cannot really be put into words.

I am a classical musician. Specifically, I play violin (and occasionally viola) with the Bakersfield Symphony Orchestra and other groups here in town. Sometime, I should write about how I became a violinist, but for now, suffice it to say that I don’t just play because I can, and sort of like it. I have a genuine passion for the instrument, and for music. Music touches my soul, and it deeply affects me in a way I can’t explain. Even after hours of practicing something, and knowing exactly what a piece will be like before the performance, I still get chills and tear up in certain places. I can feel a wrenching in my soul at so many moments. There is an ecstasy that goes along with great music that is hard to explain to those who haven’t experienced it.

That is how it is with worship.

I cannot explain my connection to the Divine any more than I can my connection with music. There is a soul communion that is not rational, logical, or explicable, really. This is why, for me, I believe in God in part because I believe in music. Both are elements of transcendence.

When I was in my early teens, our family spent time in the Charismatic movement. Now, I realize a lot of the excesses and problems there - I was part of it, right? But there really was something going on, and it was a oneness of soul with the Divine. I don’t know how else to explain it. I think that is why much of the best worship music of the last 60 years has come out of the Charismatic movement. The transcendence of music and a mystical communion with the Divine go together.

On a somewhat related note, the Charismatic churches I have attended have generally been more racially integrated than the others. I believe that when you have the emotional/spiritual/mystical experience shared together, it is much harder to “other” people who are different.

So my vision for a positive Christianity would be one where we embrace, rather than fear, mysticism. We should share an unexplainable one-ness with the Divine and with our fellow humans.

Loving God with our Hearts.

This is one which seems to have nearly disappeared from the modern American white church. There is a pathological lack of empathy toward those outside of the tribe. Which means toward people lower on the socioeconomic ladder, those of different race, those of different sex or gender, those of different sexual orientation, those of different national origin, those of different religion (and that includes different denominations too), or different political party. Everyone outside the Tribe is viewed as a threat to be vanquished or destroyed, not as a neighbor to be loved as one’s self.

I’ll get into this a bit more in a later section, but my vision of a positive Christianity is that we should be more empathetic than everyone else, not less. We should have consciences sensitive to the ways we hurt others, and actually focus on being loving toward those different than us. As I said, a totally opposite approach.

2. Love Your Neighbor As Yourself.

Of all the things I have seen over the last several years, the most distressing to me is that this commandment - the one that governs how we interact with our fellow humans - is no longer believed by most American Christians. I have asked, over and over, when discussing seemingly ANY political issue, how the position the Christian was taking was showing love for his/her neighbor. And each time, the duty was either rejected outright, or explained away as unnecessary in this instance. Immigration. Health Care. Police Brutality. Refugees. Public Benefits. The Environment. Mass Incarceration. It doesn’t matter. On every issue, the one thing that didn’t matter was loving one’s neighbor. Instead, pure selfishness seemed to be the “Christian” position.

I even read on a friend’s thread on refugees lately: “Why do we owe a duty to let these people in?” - from a freaking self-proclaimed “christian.”

My view of a positive Christianity is this: whenever we discuss something that affects our fellow humans, whether politics, our personal behavior, or whatever, we should always start with “is this loving my neighbor as myself.” If we cannot show how what we do to others is loving - and what we wish would be done to us - then we should not hold that position or take that action.

Sadly, my ATHEIST friends are far better at thinking this way than a majority of my “christian” friends.

This should not be so. We as Christians should be known - renowned! - for being loving to the point of personal sacrifice. Why on earth is this controversial?

3. Do Justice.

The modern (white) American Christian vision of justice is thoroughly emaciated - and rather unrelated to the Biblical concept.

Throughout the bible, the root word we usually translate “righteousness” is better translated “justice.” And justice doesn’t mean (as we tend to believe here in White America) that criminals get punished as harshly as possible – particularly the brown-skinned ones.

Justice is so much more than that. As the African American church has understood since the days of slavery, true Justice encompasses everything about our society. That some have mansions while others go without housing, food, or health care isn’t a minor issue. It is a JUSTICE issue. (Seriously, have you actually ever read the Prophets? Or the early church fathers such as Augustine? Seriously, read that link. St. Augie would be too radical for the Democrats these days, let alone the GOP...or white Evangelicals. But I repeat myself.) When our nation has the highest incarceration rate in the world (let that sink in…), that isn’t a minor problem - it is a JUSTICE issue. When low income neighborhoods like Flint, Michigan lack safe water for years because of unwillingness to pay for safe water, that is a JUSTICE issue. When 12 year olds with toy guns are murdered by the police (which curiously seems to happen almost exclusively to non-white kids), that is a JUSTICE issue. When the number one cause of bankruptcy and financial disaster in the richest nation in the history of the world is illness (both medical bills and loss of income are big factors)  - that is a JUSTICE issue. When the top 1% has doubled its share of our national GDP over the last 30 years, while real wages have gone down for the bottom 50% - that is a JUSTICE issue. When younger workers have seen their wealth decrease by two-thirds since I was a child - that is a JUSTICE issue. When hate crimes are on the rise against religious, racial, and sexual minorities - yet white Evangelicals believe they are somehow more persecuted - that is a JUSTICE issue - and it explains why white Evangelicals are fighting so hard against the cause of justice: they mistake loss of privilege for persecution.  There are so many others I could mention. Lack of access to health care - particularly mental health care. Unaffordable housing - which is worst for younger people, who find it hard to afford the basics, let alone have children. Crippling school debts – essentially redistributing the future wages of young people to older people – and lenders. High suicide rates for LGBTQ people - particularly children rejected by their parents because toxic religious leaders tell them too. Our world is full of injustice, and Christians here in America - the white ones at least - are largely silent. Except when they vocally support the oppressors.

This whole term “social justice” is unfortunate, because it relegates one significant facet of justice to a sideline - something optional. Whereas, if you actually take scripture seriously (which is different than taking it literally, in many cases), it is inescapable that God will judge nations according to whether they act with justice toward the most vulnerable in their population.

A positive Christianity should be zealous for justice. In fact, 150 years ago, there were many examples of this. It used to be the Christians who sought social reform, higher wages, health care and food for the poor, care for the vulnerable, and so on. Now, it is the “christians” who are the greatest obstacle to social justice. How did this happen? (I have some ideas…)

At minimum, a positive Christianity should make a priority out of helping the needy. The poor, the sick, the homeless, the vulnerable in our society should feel that Christians are their greatest ally, there best source of aid, and the one place they can go for help without being humiliated.

The opposite is true these days.

4. Love Mercy.

Another concept which has been so perverted in American Christianity that it is unrecognizable.

Let me say it: the rich do not need mercy - yet they always get it. The powerful do not need mercy - yet they always get it.

I dare you, follow a defense attorney around for a few weeks. There is no doubt that the criminal justice system looks a LOT different for the poor than for the rich. If you don’t have bail money sitting around, well, you might have to sit in jail for a few months until you can get a trial. You’ll lose your job. Your health insurance. Your kids. And the jury will assume the cop is right and you are wrong. Particularly if you aren’t white.

It isn’t an accident that we have the highest incarceration rate in the world. It also isn’t an accident that we disproportionately incarcerate minorities, the poor, the disabled, and the mentally ill. Because we view “mercy” as something you show to someone in the [white] mainstream of society who “just screwed up,” not the “thugs” or “animals” that we see those lower than in society as being.

Just one example from the last month is the way we view immigrants and refugees. Someone flees violence or poverty and comes here. They have no place to stay on the other side of the border while they wait (perhaps years) for an asylum petition to be heard. So they cross over and try to find work and housing.

We take their kids away, lock them up, and call them criminals.

We punish them for the slightest error in accessing our complex immigration system, while giving a pass to sexual predators who have money and power.

No mercy.

Not even basic human decency.

Mercy is something WE want. Not something we extend to others.

Okay, except for, say, pastors (or presidential candidates) who abuse women. They get mercy.

Morgan Guyton wrote a fantastic piece on the real biblical meaning of "mercy." It's a lot different than what I was taught. It incorporates the rescuing of the oppressed from evil.

A positive vision for Christianity would be that we be eager to show mercy to those who have the least margin for error. Not to those who use “mercy” as a cover to allow them to abuse others. Sadly, my experience over the last couple of years are that American white Christians exemplify the opposite of this, eager to forgive the powerful, while kicking those who are down.

5. Walk Humbly

This one is related to loving God with our minds. A Christian should understand that our ability to understand reality is limited. We don’t see the whole picture. The writers of the bible didn’t either. And those who interpreted it didn’t either. All of our beliefs should be held lightly. Our trust - our faith - is in God, not our beliefs.

So many things about our beliefs have changed over time. Just as one example, note the vast difference between the polygamy of the Old Testament, the [sort of] monogamy of the New Testament, and the companionate marriage model most of us live in today. Or the fact that slavery is no longer acceptable. We haven’t magically arrived at perfection now, and we haven’t in the past either. We see the truth but dimly, as through a glass. We should be on a path, following, not screaming at everyone else that they are wrong.

As Christians, we should realize that there is no one true “culture” of Christianity. As my missionary-kid parents taught me, Christianity looks rather different around the world. It also looks different across history. White American culture (either of the present, the 1950s, or the 1850s) is not “christianity” in any real sense. And certainly, the culture of Colonialism, Imperialism, Slavery, and Jim Crow is not “christian” in an recognizable sense. Christianity is about imitating Christ, not conforming to any particular culture. We should be humble enough to realize that there is a human tendency to confuse culture and Christ-following, and to judge people more by whether they conform to our culture than whether they look like Christ. We should be humble enough to recognize that a lot about our own self-image and how we view others is just about cultural differences - and have the grace to let go of our cultural chauvinism long enough to recognize the image of God in others.

Humility should be the second most noticeable thing about Christians. (Love, of course, being first.) Rather than always lecturing everyone else about what they are (in our view) doing wrong, we might spend some time listening. Rather than our obsession with making detailed lists of what isn’t and isn’t sin (particularly when it concerns genitals), maybe we could do some serious soul-searching about how Christianity in America became so toxic and cruel.

Right now, of course, the last thing that comes to mind with American Evangelicalism is humility. Overweening arrogance is more like it.

My vision for Christianity is that we spend far less time lecturing those outside our tribe, and a LOT more time listening. And a LOT more time helping, loving, caring for others.

Walking humbly.

Following God as best we understand it, while leaving others alone. Seeking to serve others, rather than lecture and harass. (Or persecute, as Evangelicalism is hell bent on doing to LGBTQ people.) Seeking to live quiet, upright, loving lives where we are, and with the people in our lives.

I suspect if we started doing this, a lot of the hostility we receive from those outside our tribe would go away. We are disliked because we are assholes - and that isn’t a good thing by any definition.

6. Faith, Hope, and Love.

Every so often, I re-read I Corinthians 13. (And, often, when I play weddings, it is the reading.) Every time, I am struck by the way Saint Paul dismisses what we often value as “spiritual,” from doctrine to gifts to martyrdom and persecution, as useless and worthless, without love. Maya Angelou is purported to have said:

“People will forget what you said, people will forget what you did but people will never forget how you made them feel.”

There is a lot of truth in this. Even when we do good things, if we do them condescending to those we help, they will feel it. This relates to “walk humbly” above. Recognize that much of what we attribute to our virtue is actually just our privilege.

Back to I Corinthians 13. Faith. We have faith in God, not in our beliefs about God. As Pastor Stiles (more about him later) also said regarding the End Times, “I’m a pan-tribulationist. I believe that with God in charge, it will all pan out in the end.” If we really have faith in God, not in our theological beliefs, then the rest of this is relatively unimportant. Whether we get it all right in our heads, whether we figure everything out...not that important. But what is important is that we love. That is the greatest. The greatest commandment. The core of our faith. Our hope in Christ, even, is that He is Love.

My positive vision for Christianity is that we would be defined by our love. By our willingness to truly love our neighbors as we love ourselves. To seek their good as well as our own. When we are laughed at and derided, it should because we are silly enough to love too much, not because we act malevolently towards those outside our tribe.

They shall know us to be followers of Christ by our love.

7. Caring for Widows and Orphans.

Saint James includes this, and I have heard it quoted enough times. The problem is, it is usually out of context, and cited to mean exactly the opposite of what was intended.

It is impossible to read the book of James from start to finish without noting that he has a theme: favoritism toward the rich. All of those proof texts from the book end up used to mean something different - ignoring the elephant. The point Saint James is making is to stop kissing the butts of the wealthy - they ARE the problem! - and start expressing your faith in caring for the needy.

I think this verse expresses that general sentiment in a way that would have particularly resonated in the culture in which it was written. In a culture where the polis, the patriarchal family structure (including slaves, naturally) of the Greco-Roman world, functioned as the social safety net (such as it was), the most vulnerable were the women and children who had no one to support them. It corresponds to Matthew 25 and “the least of these.” Care for the vulnerable.

In our modern world, the social, political, and economic systems are a bit different. And so too are those who are most vulnerable. This is not to say that widows and orphans are not at risk. Of course they are. But they are not the only ones. (And better mortality rates have made them more rare than in antiquity.) Today, I would say that the elderly, the disabled, those with lower incomes, and others on the margins of society are the modern American equivalent. If you want to see who is vulnerable, look at poverty statistics. You will find a shockingly high percentage of children, the elderly, and the disabled.

I think in this case, it is reasonable to expand from limiting our care to “widows and orphans” to those who are needy today.

(Side note here: I have not failed to note that the GOP “health care” plan involved cutting billions in funding from the programs which provide healthcare to children, the elderly, the poor, and the disabled. And no, private charity is in no way equipped to make up the difference. If your policies will harm these vulnerable groups, I seriously doubt they are motivated by Christian values…)

A positive vision for Christianity is one in which we always seek to help those who are in need, by whatever means are available to us. That doesn’t exclude our own giving. Of course we should do that. But it also means addressing the causes of poverty and hardship in our world, and supporting public policies that fight against the tendency of the rich and powerful to further enrich themselves and oppress the poor. Otherwise, you are just treating the symptoms of a larger problem. To quote Hélder Pessoa Câmara, "When I give food to the poor, they call me a saint. When I ask why they are poor, they call me a communist."

In the past, there have been Christians who led the way in advocating for a better world - one more compassionate to the vulnerable. St. Augustine encouraged the poor to advocate for better wages and conditions. Christians were at the forefront of movements for social justice of all kinds. (Alas, Christians of another stripe have always opposed them. See Slavery and Jim Crow for the most obvious examples.)

A positive vision for Christianity would be a return to the values of fighting for the vulnerable, not against them. (See more below on this.)  

8. Keeping oneself from being polluted by the world.

This too is a greatly misunderstood and misused verse. These days, it is a cudgel to beat anyone (particularly the impoverished) over the head when they have sex. That’s pretty much the way it is used in modern American Christianity. Being “worldly” is being sexual - unless you are married and middle-to-upper class. This is a rather modern view of this verse.

A longer-standing view of “worldly” is that it is adopting the values of Empire. It is seeking power. It is embracing violence. It is loving money. (“It is through this craving that some have wandered away from the faith and pierced themselves with many pangs.”) It is embracing materialistic values. It is putting profit over people. It is racism, sexism, and classism. It is imperialistic and jingoistic foreign policy. (That includes “America First” - pretty much selfishness in a nutshell.)

A positive vision for Christianity would look less like the values of Empire, and the values of...well, let me see. I am thinking of a certain person who was castigated for hanging out with the low-lifes, the sexual failures of his day (prostitutes), those who compromised with those outside of the religio-ethnic tribe (tax collectors), and the heretics (Samaritans.) What was His name again?

Clearly, for Christ, hanging out with those who the religious establishment considered “unclean” wasn’t a problem. And if you think he would have been welcome if he spent the time lecturing them out their sins, I think you are delusional. (And if you think prostitutes stopped being prostitutes, you are historically ignorant. Once they ended up in prostitution, there was no available way out.) Rather, the outcasts of society f felt he was on their side.

Instead, Christ warned about taking on the values of the establishment: the political and religious powers of his day. Don’t seek power like the Gentiles. Don’t place burdens on others like the Pharisees. Don’t serve money. Love your enemies. Love your neighbor as yourself. And yes, that includes those outside your tribe. The Kingdom of God is an upside down kingdom.

When I think of how to be a positive Christian, I think of rejecting the “success and money at all costs” paradigm. I see religious observance more in the Isaiah 58 line. Instead of phony shows of repentance, while we gut worker protections, slam our doors to the “poor wanderers” of our time, and vote White Nationalists into office, justifying it all the while with appeals to preserving our own wealth (that’s a whole other post - on something our former denomination did recently); we could be seeking ways to fight oppression, injustice, and poverty. Isaiah 58 has been one of my favorite passages since my childhood - gorgeous poetry, and a real glimpse of the heart of God.

This is my vision for a positive Christianity.


Let me finish with a story, and a prayer.

Not that long ago, there was a nation which believed that it was morally (and religiously) justified for humans with one skin color to own humans with another skin color. The enslaved sought freedom in many ways. One of those ways was to free themselves - to run away and seek freedom where they could find it. But they couldn’t do it alone. A journey a thousand miles long, over unfamiliar territory, with hostile forces everywhere hoping to capture them - and collect a reward - this wasn’t something you did alone.

There were other people. Together, they formed a legendary “organization” (for lack of a better word), which went down in history under the name of “The Underground Railroad.” We all know Harriet Tubman. And we should. In the pantheon of historical badasses, she ranks as a five star general. But she wasn’t alone either. Many - black and white - helped her in her noble quest to gain freedom for as many as she could.

There was a particular group of people who, even before the Railroad became somewhat organized, were well known as “safe” for the enslaved seeking freedom. They were a bit “peculiar,” one might say. A bit mystic, quite countercultural, not quite “normal.” They rejected the idea of professional religious leadership. They centered their theology, not around a literalist and theonomic approach to scripture, but on the “inner light,” a personal call and enlightenment from the Divine. They were often persecuted by the more dominant Christian sects, from the Church of England to the Puritans. They were a driving force in favor of the separation of church and state that would characterize the United States Constitution. Their legacy was opposition to war, opposition to slavery, advocacy for prison reform and social justice.

If you were an enslaved person fleeing for your freedom, you could count on a safe place with them.

Quakers, they were called. Not by themselves. To themselves, they were the Religious Society of Friends. A denomination founded on love as the highest law. One of our states (Pennsylvania) and one of its cities (Philadelphia) are named after them.

When I think of a positive vision for Christianity, this is what it looks like.

The oppressed, brutalized, and needy of the world are, even as I write this, seeking refuge from the rich, the powerful, the brutal, and greedy of the world. They flee, they resist, they struggle to survive.

Positive Christianity holds a lamp out to them. We embrace them. We care for them. We stand up to those who would harm them. Even - especially - when those perpetrating evil claim the name of Christ.

As Christians, refugees should know that we are the safe place they seek. That we will embrace and care for them regardless of race, national origin, or religion.

As Christians, the rich should find themselves terrified of us. We should be their worst nightmare. (Christ already is - seriously, read the Gospel of Luke sometime. Christ is clear that wealth is a moral poison to its possessors.) We should be the conscience to power and privilege and tribalism - not collaborators.

As Christians, we should be horrified when anyone refers to fellow humans in a dehumanizing way. Period. We should be horrified at “shithole countries,” “bad hombres,” “bring it, you fucking animals, bring it,” and “hail our people.

As Christians, we should be an alternative to the endless cycles of violence that plague our world.

As Christians, we should be the first to protect and care for battered women, to abused children. And the last to protect perpetrators from justice.

As Christians, we should be horrified that the United States has the highest incarceration rate in the world.

As Christians, we should weep that twelve year olds are murdered by the police - and there is no justice.

As Christians, we should look like Christ. Not like the Empire, and not like the Pharisees.

That is my positive vision for Christianity.


It’s more succinct, and more specific in some ways, but there is a lot to like about this statement from the Reclaiming Jesus movement. A lot of the signatories are people I respect as genuine Christians, and who have been helpful to me in my own journey away from Fundamentalism, Republicanity, and toxic religion.


From the ever-inspiring Saint Francis of Assisi:


Just a word on Pastor Stiles.

In my early teens, we attended a church near where we lived in the Los Angeles area. Pastor Stiles was the founding pastor, back in the 1950s, if I recall. He had recently “retired,” but still lived in the parsonage next to the church, and still ministered in a less visible way.

The neighborhood the church was located in had started out as a white suburb at around the time the church was built. By the time we went there in the 1990s, this had changed a lot. The neighborhood was mostly minority, and had quite a mix of people, both as to race and economic status.

In what I have come to realize is a real rare event, the church evolved to reflect its community. It was delightfully diverse. Racially, economically, and politically. And that went for leadership too. While no church is perfect (and if there was one, it wouldn’t let me in), there was a lot of good there.

And Pastor Stiles was a big reason why.

He embraced change, and truly lived out his mantra, quoted above:

“Love God. Love your neighbor. Don’t take yourself too seriously.”

In looking back on the 40 years of my life that I spent involved in church, this is one of the few churches that I look back on with genuine affection.

Pastor Stiles is one of the even fewer pastors that I can respect in retrospect. Yes, there were others. But I think he still best represents the kind of humble, compassionate, and wise leadership that is the best of Christianity. He wasn’t a particularly eloquent preacher - he didn’t crave the spotlight. But he always had time to talk with you, even if you were just an 8th grade kid. When I think of the thousands of unsung pastoral heroes in the world, serving in small congregations, with little if any praise, he comes to mind. I can guarantee you that if more pastors were like him, things would be a lot better in American Christianity. I bet there are more than a few, who like me, still remember his kindness and the good example he gave us of what Christianity could - and should - be.