Of Christ or Herod?

stainedglassnativity7There was something sinister about the Christmas message of the Republican National Committee. Or was there?

Here is the message in question:

“Merry Christmas to all! Over two millennia ago, a new hope was born into the world, a Savior who would offer the promise of salvation to all mankind. Just as the three wise men did on that night, this Christmas heralds a time to celebrate the good news of a new King. We hope Americans celebrating Christmas today will enjoy a day of festivities and a renewed closeness with family and friends.

Certainly– written into a church bulletin in 2014, this message would raise no eyebrows. Written by the Republican Party in 2016, people accused the authors of drawing a comparison between Donald Trump and Jesus Christ.

“Just as the three wise men did on that night, this Christmas heralds a time to celebrate the good news of a new King.”

A few thoughts about the message itself and the theology of Christmas in the political context.

First, there are a million ways you could have written that third sentence without causing controversy:

  • You could have capitalized “Good News,” like Christian references to the Gospel usually do.
  • You could have capitalized “New King,” like a full reference to Christ often would.
  • You could have written about “Christmas” or “Christmas time” instead of using the article this Christmas, which signals something particular to this year.
  • You could have re-worded the entire sentence to make it not sound like you might be talking about the newly elected president.
  • You could have left out that sentence altogether. What is it’s purpose? To clarify that we’re celebrating like the wise men did? To say something about the Kingdom of God?

Maybe it was an innocent message. Perhaps sloppy writing caused the confusion. Maybe some liberals really don’t know that Jesus is sometimes referred to as a King, and overreacted.

That sentence as written, however, is slyly ambiguous. If it was meant to be provocative, it succeeded. Liberals called out the so-called “defenders of Christmas” for sacrilege. Christian conservatives could play holier-than-thou and mock liberals for their religious ignorance.

In light of the controversy, let’s take a step back and ponder the Christmas story.

Jesus was born without a home. He was either an immigrant or a refugee, depending on how you want to define his situation. In real life he was probably brown-skinned. The birth narratives in the Bible emphasize these humble beginnings to contrast the opulence and earthly power of an actual king. Jesus’ Kingdom was one of unconditional love and humility. Where the first shall be last, the last shall be first, and the meek inherit the Earth.

King Herod was known as a builder. He spent lavishly on ambitious projects. He built fortresses and harbors all over Judea, and even refurbished the Jewish temple in Jerusalem. He had several wives and lovers. He was paranoid and protective of his ego and his throne, which is why the wise men had to lie to him to visit Jesus. Herod had heard about the “newborn king” and was trying to kill him.

The scriptural analogies speak for themselves.

Hark! The herald angels sing: At least we are saying “Merry Christmas” again, thanks to the Donald and his lackeys.

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Just Surviving

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“Just surviving,” he said as I introduced myself and asked how’s it going. He wore a long gray beard and a black beanie. He sat on a rock in the desert landscape of a government building, saying hello to the passersby.

O.G. looked up at the dark sky. “Hope it doesn’t rain,” he said. “If it rains, you get wet. And if you get wet, you have to wait around ’til you get dry.”

“You said your name was O.G.,” I said. “Those are initials.”

“Yea,” he said. “You know what they stand for?”

I guessed the familiar ‘original gangster,’ but he corrected me: “Old Guy.”

But he also goes by O.T. (old-timer.)

He tells me what it’s like to live on the streets. “You know I used to watch those shows about the street,” he says, “like about Skid Row, with drugs and crime and misery everywhere. That’s really how it is out here. You have to watch your back. People will jump you, rob you. You wouldn’t think that would happen– homeless people robbing homeless people– but that’s what it is.”

He’s been beaten up a few times, and robbed. I asked him if that’s difficult, mentally, to have to stay on guard at all times. He thought for a minute. “It keeps me sharp.”

O.G. grew up in Phoenix before the freeways were built. For a long time he lived on a farm north of Central. His parents owned the farm. They grew grapes and pecans. They also raised goats and kept people’s horses. O.G. used to wake up before school, put his work clothes on and work the farm. Eat breakfast, go to school, get home, put his work clothes on again, and go work the farm again before dinner. By that time you had to take a bath and go to sleep. When he got to high school, his parents sold the farm. He missed the farm, but at least he didn’t have to work before and after school anymore.

His father fought in WW2, stationed in Alaska and the Philippines. He was an engineer, but saw some gruesome combat. The right side of his face was pocked from an explosion that blasted sand off the beach.

O.G. was a little too young to serve in Vietnam, but some of his friends were drafted. “Most of us thought it was a stupid war. Either nuke ’em or get out.” His theory was that they were just testing out war equipment. Said you wouldn’t believe all the new helicopters they used over there. The worst thing, he says, was that they lied about it. The body counts and stuff. “I think we lost that war.”

He’s convinced it’s just a matter of time before someone, somewhere, drops another nuke. There’s too many of them out there.

O.G. has been experiencing homelessness for three years. Currently he sleeps in the shelter and spends his afternoons downtown. People treat him better downtown than near the shelter. Cops treat him better. He likes the homeless facilities in Phoenix. They have better services for folks like him than any other city, although the place gets crowded in the winter.

Before he started to experience homelessness, he lived in his own place, had plenty of gas to get around, and plenty of food in his refrigerator. He worked in construction most of his life. He was a superintendent. He points to the buildings across the street. “I worked on a lot of these buildings.” The real money was in government contracts for the new freeways. $28 an hour. Many years he brought home $60 grand. He had some friends, but never too close. They were there when they needed loans, but disappeared when O.G. could have used one. He was never married, never had kids. He was used to taking care of himself.

But the economy turned bad and he got sick and spent time in the hospital. About getting sick he said, “I hadn’t planned on it.”

Life has been a series of seven year spurts for him. Things would be going well for seven years. Then everything would fall apart. It’s tiring having to rebuild your life every seven years.

Living on the streets has changed his perspective. He thinks he’s a kinder person. Sees good in people. Even people down at the shelter. “There’s not a lot of normal people down there– not like I’m normal– but I don’t look at anyone like they’re an idiot.”

“Now growing old,” he says, shaking his head. “Don’t let anyone tell you that growing old is graceful. It isn’t.” He tells me about his doctors, his recent diabetes diagnosis and his new high blood pressure diagnosis and various other concerns. Reflecting on the appointments and tests he has been doing lately he says, “I sort of wish I hadn’t started going.”

His face brightened as he looked forward to Christmas under the bridge on 7th avenue. Groups show up to serve food. Plenty of good food. Bacon. Eggs. Potatoes. Coffee. He was definitely looking forward to Christmas.

I’m grateful for old-timers like O.G., whose hands helped build my city.

***

Note: O.G. gave me permission to share his story, but asked me not to put his picture on the internet. I asked him if I could use his name and he said, “Yea. There’s a lot of O.G.s down here.”

What is Fascism, Anyway?

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Mussolini Headquarters in Rome.

The word “fascism” gets thrown around so casually that it has lost meaning. It can be a clever way to call your boss a “jerk.” Or it can be a political accusation, used by left or right, to strongly disagree on policy.

The word has a real meaning, though. We would be wise to stay sensitive to what fascism looks like.

The fasces was a symbol of power in ancient Rome. A fasces is an ax surrounded by wooden rods. Notorious dictator Benito Mussolini used the symbol for his political party– the National Fascist Party.

After the first World War, Italy was down and out. Though they helped the victorious Allied Powers, they felt disrespected, left out, underappreciated. Mussolini used this sentiment to disparage Western democracy and build a coalition around himself, asserting Italian strength.

When Adolf Hitler was competing for power in a fractured Germany, he looked to Mussolini for an example. Many of Hitler’s tactics came directly from the Fascist playbook.

The fascism of Italy and Germany had a few things in common:

  • a nationalist spirit, trying to reinvigorate their country’s previous glory
  • belief that the path to restoration needs a strong leader
  • building a cult of personality around that leader
  • working to silence critics and control the media
  • consolidating industry, business, and military around the leader’s intentions
  • scapegoating and attacking “outsiders” for being disloyal or hurting the country
  • strong-arming the democratic process to gain more power
  • manipulating events and circumstances to suspend civil liberties and take total control

We know how things turned out back then. Just remember they didn’t happen overnight.

***

We take political freedom for granted in the United States. It’s an automatic assumption. It’s what we have. We’ve always had it, and we always will.

That is a dangerous fallacy. According to the Freedom House, only 40% of the world’s population enjoy true political freedom, measured by the existence of competing parties, the universal right to vote, valid elections, and a free press. The Greek and Roman democratic governments, from which our government is modeled, both fell into autocracy. And they didn’t fall in a day.

My generation has never experienced a serious threat to our way of life. Our biggest frustration is not climbing the ladder as fast as our parents. We get bashed for being self-absorbed. We are the selfie generation. Our faces glued to phones and TV screens, awaiting the next burst of entertainment. Self-expression bought and posted online, carefully compared to those around us. Politics, another fad, another way to express myself– as a contrarian, or an accepting and compassionate person. Or a blissfully aloof soul.

After the Constitutional Convention, someone asked Benjamin Franklin, the aging diplomat, what kind of government the Founding Fathers came up with. He replied, “A Republic, if you can keep it.”

Thousands of passionate heroes over the years have sacrificed to keep it, or to define it.

My fear is that, as we play with our shiny objects, we will lose it.

***

I used to think the answer to “real engagement with the world” was shutting down and logging out. Can’t even count the number of times I have deactivated Facebook or deleted all social media apps from my phone. Always to come crawling back. Lately, I feel like I am stoking a fire of online connection. Trying to stay warm, but not get burned. Sometimes I open a book or newspaper with the intention to read, and spend the next 30 minutes scrolling through Twitter, watching pro-Trump and anti-Trump users hurl insults at each other. Depressing. During those times I feel like I am managing a drug addiction.

Balance is needed, but I don’t know how to achieve it.

Anyway, the best advice I have seen on how to approach the next four years came from a tweetstorm. By an independent 2016 presidential candidate out of Utah named Evan McMullin, who has become the most vocal conservative critic of our president-elect.

He says:

If Trump governs as an authoritarian like he has promised, it will be critical that Americans do the following 10 things:

  1. Read and learn the Declaration of Independence, the Constitution, and the Bill of Rights. Know that our basic rights are inalienable.
  2. Identify and follow many credible sources of news. Be very well informed and learn to discern truth from untruth.
  3. Watch every word, decision and action of Trump and his administration extremely closely, like we have never done before in America.
  4. Be very vocal in every forum available to us when we observe Trump’s violations of our rights and our democracy. Write, speak, act.
  5. Support journalists, artists, academics, clergy and others who speak truth and who inform, inspire and unite us.
  6. Build bridges with Americans from the other side of the traditional political spectrum and with members of diverse American communities.
  7. Defend others who may be threatened by Trump even if they don’t look, think or believe like us. An attack on one is an attack on all.
  8. Organize online and in person with other Americans who understand the danger Trump poses and who are also willing to speak up.
  9. Hold members of Congress accountable for protecting our rights and democracy through elections and by making public demands of them now.
  10. And finally, in the words of Abraham Lincoln, have “malice toward none, with charity for all” and never ever lose hope!

These words are more than a recipe for Trump-resistance. They are basic guiding principles to keeping a republic and building a better society.

Continue reading “What is Fascism, Anyway?”

Mindfulness in School

meditateWhen it comes to learning and succeeding in school, emotional stability matters. Nobody concentrates well when they feel angry, scared, or depressed. You don’t care about your stupid teacher’s verb conjugations if you’ve grown to resent authority figures.

In a previous post, I wrote about two misguided priorities in education: force feeding a monolithic approach to math and underestimating the importance of emotional intelligence.

Good news. There are some developments in the emotional intelligence department.

Earlier this week, NPR ran a story about a school in South Phoenix that implemented mindfulness practices into the curriculum. The segment described “an increasingly trendy program,” but mindfulness is an ancient practice. Rooted in Eastern spirituality, mindfulness has been revisited by modern research psychology and is now standard fare in therapy.

Mindfulness basically means slowing down and paying attention. Notice your thoughts. Focus on the immediate thing you are doing. Notice your breathing. All emotions have physiological correlates in the body. Being attuned to these allows a person to reduce “automatic” behavioral responses and to act in more purposeful, effective ways. So instead of lashing out, a student might take a deep breath, notice the feelings heating up, recognize their meaning, and decide to respond constructively. A student needs to recognize what an impulse feels like before learning to delay the impulse (to throw a paper ball across the room) for the greater reward (of mastering verb conjugations).

Students in the Phoenix school practice mindfulness for thirty minutes a week. In the first year of the program, the school saw a 37% decrease in school suspensions. The practice is also used during disciplinary moments. Teachers can remind students to take a “mindful minute” to reflect their behaviors.

How much credit the mindfulness program deserves for reducing suspensions is impossible to determine. They did not run a controlled experiment, so other factors might have caused the change.

But an experiment does exist which shows positive effects of therapeutic interventions for students. A study out of the University of Chicago called the Becoming a Man program randomly assigned at-risk male students to take cognitive behavior therapy, oriented around mindfulness, during the school day. For the nearly 5,000 high school students who received the therapy, violent crime arrests went down almost 50% compared to the control group who did not receive the therapy. Graduation rate increased 20%.

The intervention is also cost-effective, estimating the reduced tax burden from the criminal justice system and the increased earnings potential for the students.

According to motivation psychologist Abraham Maslow, there are psychological prerequisites to reaching your potential as a human being. Higher goals of “self-actualization” can only be reached when lower needs of safety and belonging are secure. As illustrated by his famous hierarchy:

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For many students in struggling schools, those lower needs are not met on a consistent basis, causing major challenges in the classroom. Pouring money and technology into inner-city schools will not close any “achievement gaps” without addressing the psychological underpinnings of learning.

Breathing exercises are not a magic bullet for improved education. One shortcoming of the Chicago study was that the improvements did not endure after the therapy sessions ended.

These innovations, however, are steps in the right direction. Students are not cogs in a standardized testing machine. Students are dynamic human beings. The more mindful we are of that, the more they will thrive.

Hail: The Internet Troll-in-Chief

trump-hugs-flag-oct-24My biggest hope for the 2016 election was that I would never have to care, ever again, what Donald Trump did or said. Even if the media insisted on covering his hot air, it would not matter.

My interest in politics over the last two years has been a professional obligation– I have been teaching government, economics, and American history. Along with my students, I watched in dismay as The Donald marched from punchline to president-elect. Two years ago, Donald Trump was a blowhard reality TV show host with a goofy combover. He was the easy butt of many a joke. Like this clip from David Letterman in 2012, about how Trump accused Obama of not being an American citizen: “Maybe he’s not a racist, maybe he’s just a guy who periodically says stupid things to get attention.”

Next semester I will be teaching psychology instead of government. I was looking forward to ignoring politics for a while. Life would go on more or less how it’d been the last eight years. Trump would quickly fade into irrelevance. I could tune down the volume on the Republican backlash against Hillary.

That was the devastation I felt on election night. Of course these thoughts swirled: How could so many people fall for this scam? ‘Blue collar billionaire’ my ass. How could so many Republican leaders capitulate to a fake-conservative hijacking of their political party?

The real devastation, though, was realizing I would have to pay attention to Trump’s words and actions. Because now they matter.

We have an internet troll for a soon-to-be president. Literally. According to Wikipedia, an internet troll is:

a person who sows discord on the Internet by starting arguments or upsetting people, by posting inflammatory, extraneous, or off-topic messages in an online community (such as a newsgroup, forum, chat room, or blog) with the intent of provoking readers into an emotional response or of otherwise disrupting normal, on-topic discussion, often for the troll’s amusement.

And with 16.5 million followers on Twitter, the president-elect can cause quite a ruckus.

Case in point: Last week, Donald was sitting at home watching Fox News, when a segment came on showing people burning the flag to protest his election. Promptly, Trump tweeted to his peeps: “Nobody should be allowed to burn the American flag – if they do, there must be consequences – perhaps loss of citizenship or year in jail!”

Nevermind that flag burning is a constitutionally protected freedom of speech, upheld by the Supreme Court. My high school sophomores know that. Nevermind that citizenship cannot, by law, be revoked as punishment for anything, let alone for exercising free speech.

Nevermind because the goal was not logical discussion but an emotional response. Flag burning is abhorrent to many people. The emotional response pitted the “patriotic” against the “flag-burning traitors,” making it seem like defending free speech was tantamount to burning the flag yourself. The internet exploded with vigorous defenses and accusations. And yes, some people burned flags in front of Trump Tower.

Second case in point: Trump accepted a call from Taiwan. U.S. leaders have not communicated directly with Taiwan’s leader since the 1970’s. U.S. leaders communicate directly with Beijing, China.

Why?

It’s complicated. We have a “One-China” policy. Diplomatic relationships are delicate. History has happened. China has nuclear weapons. Stuff like that.

Predictably, the internet exploded. In true form, Trump responded to the criticism by defensively tweeting his peeps: Hey guys it’s not my fault– Taiwan “CALLED ME.” He then echoed a point already making it’s rounds on Twitter: The U.S. has sold weapons to Taiwan in the recent past, so how’s a phone call any different? Liberal hypocrites!

People are still trying to figure out whether the call was part of a strategy or not. China lodged a formal complaint with Washington.

What does it all mean?

Buckle your seat belts. Trump is volatile. He’s about to be President of the United States and he’s now trolling the entire world.

They say hope for the best but prepare for the worst. That’s been hard for me to do. Feeling urgency to resist. Feeling anxious, imagining worst-case scenarios for my community and world. Nothing to do right now other than to put one foot in front of the other, make a positive difference within my sphere of influence.