Monday, July 28, 2008

King and Country

So much of my latter life was shaped by the civil rights and antiwar movements of the 60s. From the time I was a very young child, my mother held up John Kennedy as a hero and even when I was a toddler, I can remember being taken in a stroller to civil rights marches. In 8th grade—after the assassinations of JFK, Martin Luther King Jr, and Robert Kennedy and the arrest of the Berrigans in Catonsville – I began to be aware of a call to be a minister, though the call seemed to have less to do with church committee meetings and more to do with the kind of social justice work that I associated with religious folks who wanted to make God’s kingdom a reality in the world. It’s because of that focus to my sense of call that I chose Union Seminary (NYC) as my place to train for ministry.

And then, after years of waiting for a family to catch up and be comfortable with my call, I finally went into parish ministry at a congregation known for its social justice emphasis. And yet, despite the work on issues of homelessness, prison reform, lgbt issues, and peace, somehow I kept feeling the gnawing feeling that we’ve begun to lose the passion that drove the rights issues of the 60s. When I was at Maryknoll in June, a lot of the Bible readings were connected in discussion with the words of King, Day, Gandhi, and Berrigan. It made me want to go back to the roots of my call. And so I’ve spent most of the month of July reading recommended books about King and Kennedy.

The book about King I read was the new edition of Vincent Harding’s Martin Luther Kin: The Inconvenient Hero which I chose because it’s focus was to move us away from seeing Martin as the sweet civil rights leader who made the nice integration “I Have a Dream” speech in ’63 and toward the Martin that had learned a more radical, widening agenda of non-violence and rights for all God’s children, the King who in April of 1967 made the powerful Riverside Church speech that almost no one refers to in any January MLK celebration, the King who stood true to his call to ministry even as friends stepped away from what they saw as his distraction from work on issues of race. Harding’s pieces—almost all written in the 80s and 90s, are strong, but it was the King quotes that stood out for me in the book.

Jim Douglass’ JFK and the Unspeakable: Why He Died and Why It Mattered took a very different focus. Looking at the period in Kennedy’s life from the Bay of Pigs in April 1961 to his death in November 1963, Douglass focuses on the ways in which Kennedy’s thinking had moved away from Cold War imperialistic thinking toward unofficial, peaceful negotiations with folks like Khruschev and Castro. While Douglass’ organization is at times difficult—he circles back over material frequently in his writing—his argument that shows how JFK became more and more of a threat to the U.S. military-industrial complex, large business, and the FBI and how they responded comes through clearly. Oswald’s connections with Jack Ruby as well as how he was set up over a period of months to be the “patsy” for the assassination is also covered. I found the book slow-going but well worth my time. Americans would do well to wake up and learn how US power has responded over and over in this country to those who—like Kennedy or King—are threats to what King called the three evils of militarism, racism, and materialism.

Friday, July 25, 2008

The Invention of Everything Else

Throughout the summer, whether at Maryknoll, sitting watching the laughing gulls at Chincoteague, or waiting at the train station for Becca, I’ve spent small snatches of time on Samantha Hunt’s The Invention of Everything Else. Today I finished it and I’m not sure whether I loved it or am indifferent to it. That’s because the book is so uneven.

The dazzling and creative descriptions of life in New York City in 1943 that make up the background of much of the book were well-done, drawing the reader into what life at that time much have been like. And I found Nikola Tesla, who for most of the book, is an old man holed up in the Hotel New Yorker with his pigeons, fascinating. I really enjoyed both Hunt’s imaginings of what his inner thoughts were along with the flashbacks to his being exploited by Thomas Edison or beaten out of the Nobel Prize by Marchese Marconi, hanging out with Mark Twain, or sitting in the park with his pigeons.

But what I didn’t care much about was the other main character, Louisa Dewell, who is a 24-year-old main working at the hotel. I kept waiting to get interested in her life—in her relationship with her father and crazy uncle who wants to travel through time, in her romantic interests, in her pigeons, or even in her relationship with Tesla. It never happened. (And I’d expected the opposite, since reviews I read had said that Hunt was much better at describing the thoughts and feelings of the 24-year-old than the 86-year-old.)

So I'll have to ruminate some more on whether or not the book was worth my time. Right now I'm just not sure.

Friday Five: What You Absolutely, Positively, Can't Leave Home Without

Rev Gal's Friday Five this week asks: what are the five things you simply must have when you are away from home? And why?

It depends where we're going. Assuming -- as will be the case next week when we fly into Minneapolis to visit relatives--we'll be spending most of the trip at places with electricity:
1. My iPod-- I use it to listen to music and audiobooks, have a traveling photo album, and keep my calendar and address book with me;
2. Our Kindle-- Until we recently got this, the answer would have been a small backpack filled with books, but no longer;
3. My cell phone--Though there are lots of times when I would be happy to leave it behind, it does function as a way for my kids (and congregation) to get me in an emergency--plus if it needs to it can function in place of my camera;
4. The toiletry case with all the expected things --toothbrush, paste, floss, Advil, etc.
5. A Diet Pepsi or two-- in case we're traveling in a Coke inundated zone (though if we're traveling to a place with electricity that's in another country, I'd gladly swap the Diet Pepsi for an adapter so I'd be able to use devices 1-3 above.)

Take away the electricity and put me on a hiking trail and only the toiletry case would remain:
1. The toiletry case-- this time with bug spray, bandages, neosporin, and moleskin added;
2. A paperback book or two;
3. Two heavy plastic quart jugs of water;
4. White cotton socks;
5. A ultralight hiking towel to hang from my pack.

Monday, July 21, 2008

The Dark Knight

On Saturday I went to see The Dark Knight. I went hesitantly because, while I’d heard the great reviews about Heath Ledger as the Joker, I’ve shied away from DC-based action films in recent years. Ultimately, while I thought the movie was way too long, it was otherwise a great action film (so, so much better than Wanted, which we’d seen several weeks before). Not only was Ledger wonderful, but I also enjoyed the way that the Harvey Dent/Two-Face character was woven into the story. (I knew I recognized Dent’s name from the comics, but –despite the lucky coin being tossed around several times before in the film, it wasn’t until his face actually was burned that I realized it was because he was Two-Face.) Despite all this, can I say I loved The Dark Knight? I can’t.

The reason I didn’t love it once again became clear to me when I was leaving the theater and a friend with whom I’d seen the film said something along the lines of “Now that’s what I want to do… become the Dark Knight of (an organization we both belong to). Or even better, how about we both do that…” I just said “I don’t have any desire to be a knight of any kind” and let it go but it’s that knightly kind of feeling that the film stirs up in people that makes me less than love it.

For, just as I lamented when folks loved the most recent Harry Potter film, knights are virtuous examples of people who are superheroes, vanquishing evil by fighting the good fight, all to restore the status quo. Knights divide the world dualistically into good and bad, winners and losers, right and wrong, just as Batman and Harvey Dent did in the film, aiming to lock up all the evil criminals and throw away the key. And knights are more (and therefore less) than human—always on guard against evil, always living true to principle and absolute truth, always focusing on slaying whoever/whatever the dragon of the day may be and always keeping one’s self heroic and separate.

I’m not at all interested in that. I don’t see the world in those terms and no longer aspire in the least to be or become a knight in any cause or group (though I have to admit that in my teens I did). None of those who are heroes to me are knights, though society again and again tries to clean them up and make them such. Instead I’m interested in those who are more interested in struggling along with the people—good and bad—because they realize that we’re all a mixture of the two--, those who aim not to contain evil but to bring everyone together into a better future, those who put people above principles, and those who remain very, very human throughout it all.

I want to remember and follow in the way of the humanity of Gandhi, who despite poorly treating his wife and neglecting the education of his kids, still managed to think through and help put satyagraha into practice as a way to approach imperialisms of all kinds. I respect and hope to learn in my life from Martin Luther King Jr. who was no knight, but a flawed and wounded hero who spent the last years of his life not just dreaming a sentimental dream of integration, but searching, stumbling, experimenting and groping his way toward his wondrous Riverside Church speech and a life committed to working against materialism, racism, and militarism
and the very flawed but courageous non-knight John Kennedy who never really worked for a knightly Camelot, but almost brought us to nuclear war before turning and taking steps to move away from US imperialism and toward the end of the Cold War. (Just think of his speech at American University if you want to see the human Kennedy giving up knightly thinking and wresting with what it would mean to turn toward peace.)

Knightly thinking labels people and forces flawed but good people like Harvey Dent to become Two Faces when they can’t quite live up to their own principles and the principles they foist on others. I want to follow in the way of the least knightly person I know, Jesus of Nazareth, who cared deeply about those around him but refused a knightly role when Satan offered it; who in his humanity struggled with and fell short of God’s radical principles of hospitality and inclusion of all, needing to be reminded of God’s ever-available love by the least likely of his day, a marginalized poor Canaanite woman; who never seems to have used a knightly image in any of his parables, instead speaking about gardens and plants and birds and people who are a mixture of good and bad in his stories.

So go see the Dark Knight if you’re in the mood for a good action film. But as you do so remember how how much of a danger there is in seeing the world from a knightly viewpoint or taking on the martyr role that Batman assumes at the end of the film. After all, if we could just eliminate knightly thinking, there'd be more than enough work for all of us flawed two-faced humans to do together to move in the direction of God’s reign of love and peace!

Friday, July 18, 2008

Exploring a New Bar

Perhaps the Wall Street Journal was right yesterday when it reported that “Virtual worlds may look like toys for the geekiest of geeks, but they have quietly slipped into the mainstream.”

Until today I’d made a point as Ishah Tripsa (the Second Life identity I use when I teach) to keep myself connected to philosophical and religious developments and places, virtual educational conferences held in world, and the like. Today, however, I finally broke down and let my first world legal life spill over into Ishah Tripsa’s by joining the SL Bar Association. Located in Second Life’s Justice Center (that's me standing in front of the building), the SL Bar Association has begun offering interesting continuing education discussion on topics related to virtual worlds—for example, how to enforce trademarks and intellectual property rights in world, internet fraud—and has even managed to convince the California Bar Association to give continuing legal credit for attending them. (Would that the New York Bar Association would do the same! While I do the bulk of my required CLE online these days, it’d be great to be able to do it in world.)

Since legal institutions seem to be one of the most conservative types of organizations (along with religious institutions and educational ones), I just couldn’t resist supporting a bar association that was taking a leap and dealing seriously enough with virtual worlds that it doesn't just talk about them but to move in and engage in them.

Thursday, July 10, 2008

For the Birds

Off and on for the past several years, Kathy and I have been talking about taking five or six months to drive some of the side roads of America so that we can see what’s unique to each area—sort of a more modern William Least Heat Moon trip. When we drove last week to Chincoteague, we did part of the drive in Maryland on those “blue highways” just to see what it would be like. Boy, was I disappointed. What did we see? Lots of WaWa gas stations, Hardys, and Dunkin Donuts, alternating with fields of corn, strawberries, and melons. It felt like just one long stream of commercials and incitements to buy all along the way.

When we got to Chincoteague itself, luckily there was relief. Despite the focus on increasing revenue from tourism to balance out the loss of revenue from fishing, Chincoteague still retains a lot of its own quirky personality. There are only two fast food places—a Subways and a McDonald’s—both on the main street leading to Assateague Island and the beaches. And while there are lots of other restaurants —three ice cream parlors (we alternated between the Creamery and Mr. Whippy’s), several sub places, some bad restaurants on piers, and Bill’s (which generally had great food breakfast, lunch, and dinner) – and stores (including lots of “treasure chest” and beach supplies options), the town retains its uniqueness in lots of little ways. We, along with the rest of the traffic, stopped at least three times, for example, to let a family of ducks and ducklings wander slowly across the road. Folks on bikes of all kinds rode along just about every road we drove or walked. And, since we were there in July, there was also the Fireman’s Carnival going on each weekend, which we could hear and see the lights from in the distance each evening from our balcony.

But the best part of Chincoteague and Assateague was the birds. Despite the piping plovers being flooded out this year, there were so many birds—bald eagles, snowy egrets, cattle egrets, and great egrets, geese and ducks of all kinds, red winged blackbirds, bobwhites, white ibises, osprey, cardinals, herring gulls, little blue herons, great blue herons (how prehistoric they look in flight!), tricolored herons, sandpipers, terns, and swans. They were everywhere— on the lawns of homes and over the water, out on the trails and by the docks. I loved being surrounded by them.

But my favorite of all was being on the deck off our room watching the laughing gulls fly over and around us every 30 seconds or so. I’ve always felt drawn to those black-capped gulls and used to joke that if there’s such a thing as transmigration, I probably was either a dolphin or a black-capped gull in an earlier life. I was awoken each morning by the sound of their laughing and then started each day sitting for a few hours out on the deck just enjoying the way in which those gulls road the currents. And it was those parts of the day that will stay as the best part of my time on Chincoteague.

Wednesday, July 9, 2008

Chincoteague Ponies

We spent the latter part of last week staying on Chincoteague Island, Virginia and, most days, traveling over to Assateague to see the various wildlife on the reserve. The big tourist lure to the area is supposed to be the wild ponies that live on Assateague. The first day we were in the area, we did a walk that included an observation deck where if you’re lucky (we were, but folks who got there 5 minutes before us or after us wouldn’t have been) you can watch some of the 150 ponies grazing the dune and marsh grasses. The second day we did the hour and a half tour that the Reserve offers and, while I thoroughly enjoyed it for other reasons, the highlight for most of the other dozen people with us was seeing the ponies. We then went past them two or three more times on our way to and from the beach. Maybe it would be different if I’d read Misty as a child, but to me the whole Chincoteague pony thing seems like a real crock. These days they’re owned by the Chincoteague firefighters, are treated by vets regularly, and even have microchips implanted under their skin so that it’s easy to keep track of them. That’s sure not my idea of wild ponies.

Monday, July 7, 2008

Writing in Washington

I spent last Monday and Tuesday in Washington DC staying in the Crystal Marriot writing the beginning of a draft of one of the chapters of my dissertation while Kathy attended a conference there for work. When we arrived, we thought we’d lucked out as far as a room. We were “moved up” to a suite, which gave me a separate living room with not just a desk but also a table on which to spread my papers and books out. Shortly afterwards, however, we learned that the wired internet in the room wasn’t working. A technician was sent up and spent more than two hours trying to rewire the connection to get the system to work, all without success. He ended up suggesting we change rooms. When we asked at the desk about such a possibility there was no other room available because of the various conferences going on. My only option for internet access would be to buy a daily subscription to a wireless connection that was only available in one part of the lobby—a true pain when trying to check information online as I wrote.

But we were tired and it was almost 9 pm so we headed off for dinner in the hotel. We each ordered a crab cake sandwich and chowder. The chowder was good and the sandwiches came, but mine had the wrong side so it had to be taken back. Kathy meanwhile began to eat hers and said it was delicious. Mine arrived and just as I bit into it, the restaurant manager came to say we had the wrong orders. We insisted that we didn’t –we’d ordered crab cake sandwiches and that’s what was in front of us-- but he said we did and took both our plates away. The waitress came to explain that we’d each gotten a half-order crab cake sandwich instead of a full order sandwich and that they’d give us a free dessert after the dinner to make it up for us. At this point we didn’t want dessert; all we wanted was the check. She left –we thought to get the check—and about 10 minutes later our sandwiches were brought out again. The manager again apologized and explained that these were the full order sandwiches we’d originally ordered. He left and we looked—and the sandwiches looked exactly the same. They were exactly the same size crab cakes and rolls that we’d had before except that now we were too tired to even eat them. It was like something from Candid Camera. From that point on, we didn’t eat in the hotel. Instead we mainly ate in the mall nearby—not great food, but at least once we got it we knew it no one would take it away.

Overall, the two days turned out okay. The next evening we went to Georgetown for a little while and then went to see the FDR Memorial, which is the one monument in DC that I really like. It wasn’t the most exciting time away but it was a great way to get at least a little of the work done.

Saturday, July 5, 2008

Gospel Stories and Social Justice

I had a wonderful week last week up at Maryknoll Institute studying the gospel of Matthew and what it says about social justice issues. Ched Myers was the teacher, folksinger Charlie King kicked off each session with a social justice song or two, and the class was made up of people from around the world who are embodying the idea of radical hospitality and jubilee with their hearts, hands, and feet. Ched does a wonderful job of weaving together new insights gained by looking at analogies as the Greek text and the social dynamics of the 1st century are interwoven with texts, sociology, and economics of the 21st century! His teaching style is both engaging and empowering.

I did a similar workshop with Myers two years ago-- then on the gospel of Mark-- and it inspires me both to continue with various pieces of social justice work I'd just begun and also to begin the D.Min. degree at Drew. And the students then as the students this past week reminded me of how much more I could be doing that I'm not-- that I've got to find new and creative ways to make the economics of the biblical jubilee more of a reality in my life and in the world and to find a way to embody the gospel more and the choices that empire puts before us less.