Words and Wars — Why Musk Terrifies the Establishment

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Some of us are old enough to remember the playground taunt, “Sticks and stones may break my bones, but words can never hurt me.”  That denial of the power of words, of course, was merely to disempower a bully and quite a bit more effective than crying for mommy in most circumstances.

In this age of online censorship and newly invented categories of offense, it is difficult to even claim that words have absolutely no impact on us.  Being called a “racist” or “domestic terrorist” does matter, it can come with serious social consequences and be used as a pretext for punishment of political opponents.  No laughing matter.

We are governed by words.  If we see a red sign emblazoned with the letters S-T-O-P, we tend to comply (at least partially) without much thought.  And, whether you want to comply or not, because of written laws, you’ll end up giving the IRS a significant portion of your income.  Words can and do hurt your wallet, they limit opportunity and shape outcomes.

We are steered, employed by others to their own ends, by use of description, framing and narratives.  For example, whether a deadly conflict is described as being a “military intervention” (Yemen) or as an “invasion” and “aggression” (Ukraine) has little to do with substantive difference and everything to do with how propagandists wish us to perceive the event. 

Context provided, what is or is not reported, changes the moral equation.  

Those who control social media platforms understand the power of words.  They know that awareness is induced through language and that narrative matters.  This is why they have taken such interest in curtailing speech and the dissemination of information.  Even if corrupted by partisanship, many of them likely see this as their responsibility or a moral obligation.

Unfortunately, regardless of intent, these self-appointed gatekeepers failed.  The same people who routinely “fact-check” hyperbole and satire, even banned people for suspecting the lab origin of the pandemic, have yet to identify the Russian collision narrative as false.  The most egregious act was Twitter using bogus reasons to suspend the account of the New York Post for their sharing the Biden laptop bombshell on the eve of the 2020 Presidential vote. Talk about election interference!

Elon Musk’s announcement of his ownership of a significant stake in Twitter and then subsequent buyout of the far-left’s favorite social media has shook up the political establishment.  Elizabeth Warren, a powerful US Senator, who leveraged a fiction about her Native American heritage to attain her own privileged position, somehow worth $67 million herself, had this to say:

Strange how now she speaks up about potential “dangerous to democracy,” but not when Big Tech was using the pretense of their “community standards” to ban content creators, including a former President, for challenging their ideological agenda and narratives.  Sure, they always could conjure their excuses or hide behind “Twitter is a private business, if you don’t like it start your own internet,” disingenuously while suing individuals who defied their demands, but now the truth comes out, suddenly it is all about democracy:

Credentialism much? I guess we should trust the privileged elites who trust the corporate system instead?

To those of us who have faced algorithmic demotion and punitive measures for our wrong-think, doing things like posting the actual flag of Ukraine’s Azov battalion or a quote of Hitler praising censorship intended as ironic, there is appreciation for Musk as a free speech advocate.  To those who use the word “democracy” as an excuse to trample rights, this represents an enormous threat to the ability to control narrative.

For those of us who have been paying close attention and involved, we know why Yahoo News, along with other far-leftist run online publishers, have shutdown their comment sections.  Sure, they may say this was to prevent misinformation, but the reality is that there would often be factual rebuttals or additional context that would undermine the narrative of the article.  It was always about control, not protection.

The war of words is as important as that which involves tanks, bombs and guns.  It was propaganda and censorship, as much as physical means, that enabled Nazis to put Jews in camps.  This is why Russo-phobia, the demonization and cancelation of a whole ethinic group, over things the the US-led imperial left, is so troubling.  President Obama was not accused of war crimes for a brutal AC-130 attack on an Afghan hospital, despite the dozens of verified casualties, why is that?

It is, of course, how the story is presented that makes all of the difference.  If a writer wants a leader to appear incompetent they might use the words like “bungled” as the description.  If they wish to spin it as positive they’ll say “setbacks” and dwell on framing the cause as righteous instead.  Those who want the public to support one side of the Ukrainian conflict will downplay or even completely ignore important context, like NATO expansion, the violent overthrow of Ukraine’s democratically elected government in 2014, and merciless shelling of the Donbass region.

And this is why Musk promising to restore freedom of speech on Twitter is such a big deal and especially to the current power brokers.  The military-industrial complex, which owns the corporate media and many of our politicians, stands to lose billions in revenue if they can’t convince the gullible masses that Vladimir Putin is literally Hitler for leading a US-style “regime change” effort in his own neighborhood.

I mean, how will US political families, like the quid pro quo Biden’s, continue to make their millions in kickbacks (Burisma/Hunter scandal) if Ukrainian’s energy is back under Russian control again?

This is why they’ll fight tooth and nail to keep the presentation of the story as one-sided as possible.  They do not want us to hear the facts that may cause questions.  They only want us to have their prepacked stawman “don’t say gay” version of their enemies, presented by the late-night funnyman for ridicule, rather than allow a truly informed debate. 

Unlike many, the ignorant who accept narratives at face value, the elites with government and corporate power understand that the world is run by ideas.  It is how wars are won.

Solving Conflict in the Church

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Conflict is everywhere, anywhere there are two are more gathered there is potential for conflict.  We currently watch the lingering hostilities between the West and Russia unfold into open war in Ukraine, between people of a common Kyivan Rus’ religious and cultural heritage.  The reasons are complex (watch this video for a deeper dive) and beyond the scope here.

Nevertheless, the same things that cause wars between nations also lead to schism and splits in the church, and despite the exhortation of St. Paul to make every effort to maintain unity:

Be completely humble and gentle; be patient, bearing with one another in love. Make every effort to keep the unity of the Spirit through the bond of peace. There is one body and one Spirit, just as you were called to one hope when you were called; one Lord, one faith, one baptism; one God and Father of all, who is over all and through all and in all. 

(Ephesians 4:2-4 NIV)

If we would ask most who profess Christ, they would probably agree that the Church should be united, there should not be rifts or denominations, yet that’s probably where the agreement would end.  The body of believers has split hundreds of different ways, over matters of theology, history, structure, worship style, politics, or personalities.

But, before we get to the broader conflicts and division within Christianity, I’ll confess that I’m currently in my own conflict.  This is why I am both the right and the wrong person to write about this topic.  I am the wrong person because the impasse has not been resolved yet despite a small gesture on the part of the other person.  My anger has exasperated the issue.  And yet I’m also still wanting to find peace with this other person and honest resolution.

Conflict is Nothing New or Unexpected

If an enemy were insulting me, I could endure it; if a foe were rising against me, I could hide. But it is you, a man like myself, my companion, my close friend, with whom I once enjoyed sweet fellowship at the house of God, as we walked about among the worshipers. 

(Psalms 55:12‭-‬14 NIV)

I believe we can all identify with the text above.  We expect an enemy to do us harm and will find ways to maintain distance.  However, when someone that we trust acts in a deliberately hurtful way, exploiting our vulnerabilities, the betrayal of a friend is the worst kind of pain.  It is hard to come back to the table when someone professing Christ, who worshipped with us, seemingly close in spirit, totally destroys our trust.

That said, restoration of what is broken is part and parcel of Christianity.  Indeed, we’re told that if we can’t forgive a person who owes us, then we will not be forgiven by God. (Matthew 6:4,5)  This is something that Jesus expounded on in the parable of the unforgiving servant, a man who begs for mercy for a vast sum of money he owed, is forgiven, and then turns around to demand from a fellow servant. 

And yet, no teaching of Jesus should be taken out of context either.  Jesus was not, I repeat, was not telling us to sweep sin under a rug or not hold people accountable for their abuses.  This  certainly was not unilateral and unconditional forgiveness without repentance:

“If your brother or sister sins, go and point out their fault, just between the two of you. If they listen to you, you have won them over. But if they will not listen, take one or two others along, so that ‘every matter may be established by the testimony of two or three witnesses.’ If they still refuse to listen, tell it to the church; and if they refuse to listen even to the church, treat them as you would a pagan or a tax collector. (Matthew 18:15‭-‬17 NIV)

So many conflicts within the Church could be solved if we would go directly to the other person who had caused our offense.  This process above is prescriptive and may keep a mere misunderstanding from blowing up into something that leads to separation or divides a congregation.  First, before consulting anyone else, we should try to settle the issue amongst ourselves.  Then, if that doesn’t work, it is time to seek the counsel of others and confront together.  And, if that fails, if they refuse collective council, we should part ways.

It is similar to this explicit command from St. Paul:

I wrote to you in my letter not to associate with sexually immoral people—not at all meaning the people of this world who are immoral, or the greedy and swindlers, or idolaters. In that case you would have to leave this world. But now I am writing to you that you must not associate with anyone who claims to be a brother or sister but is sexually immoral or greedy, an idolater or slanderer, a drunkard or swindler. Do not even eat with such people. What business is it of mine to judge those outside the church? Are you not to judge those inside? God will judge those outside. “Expel the wicked person from among you.” 

(1 Corinthians 5:9‭-‬13 NIV)

Forgiveness is not the same thing as tolerance for unrepentant sin.  The church cannot be a hospital if we let the infection of sin to spread, like a superbug, untreated and ignored.  The antiseptic is to confront the issue, to give opportunity for confession and repentance to begin the healing process.  But, if the limb refuses treatment, then (as an absolute last resort) it must be amputated to save the body, as St. Paul had asked rhetorically in the lead up to the verses above: “Don’t you know that a little yeast leavens the whole batch of dough?”

In cases of actual unrepentant sin, conflict is entirely appropriate.  The church cannot be allowed to become an incubator for sin.  The toxicity can quickly spread and destroy the fellowship and health of a congregation.  It takes proactive pastoral involvement, like that of St. Paul, to keep things from spiraling out of control.  Yes, we should pray about all things.  Sure, we should not judge without mercy and willingness to forgive the repentant.  Still, we must confront sin, endure the discomfort of effective conflict resolution, and not simply resign to fate.

Not All Separation is Sin

Too many seem to skip over the book of Acts and miss the opportunity to see how Christianity played out in the early church:

Some time later Paul said to Barnabas, “Let us go back and visit the believers in all the towns where we preached the word of the Lord and see how they are doing.” Barnabas wanted to take John, also called Mark, with them, but Paul did not think it wise to take him, because he had deserted them in Pamphylia and had not continued with them in the work. They had such a sharp disagreement that they parted company. Barnabas took Mark and sailed for Cyprus, but Paul chose Silas and left, commended by the believers to the grace of the Lord. 

(Acts 15:36‭-‬40 NIV)

This seemed like an amicable separation between Paul and Barnabas.  Nevertheless, it was an unresolved conflict and they parted ways over it.  There is no indication that either of the men was harboring an unforgiving spirit or in the wrong for this and, in the end, it probably helped the Gospel to reach more people than if they had stuck together.  That is why with my own current conflict I may simply move on rather than make an effort to settle things.  It is sometimes not worth the energy to continue with someone that does not see things the way we do.

Going separate ways, rather than trying to push through a conflict, may serve a greater purpose.  At the very least, as with Abraham and Lot who parted ways over the turf wars between their respective herdsmen, we’ll gain a little peace.  The key is that we don’t harbor ill-will or bring any hostilities with us   Note that Paul and Barnabas did not go out and start competing church groups.  They stayed within the same body of faith, carried on the same tradition, and simply moved in a different direction.

Is Ecumenicalism the Answer?

A church unified in teaching and mission should be the desire of all Christians.  Some achieve this by declaring themselves the remnant and carrying on the great tradition of Diotrephes who turned away even the Apostles:

I wrote to the church, but Diotrephes, who loves to be first, will not welcome us. So when I come, I will call attention to what he is doing, spreading malicious nonsense about us. Not satisfied with that, he even refuses to welcome other believers. He also stops those who want to do so and puts them out of the church.

(3 John 1:9‭-‬10 NIV)

Declaring yourself to be the true church and everyone else imposters is certainly convenient and yet not really employing be completely humble.  I mean, sure, when I was Mennonite I wanted a church unity built around the doctrines that I was taught.  It is easy to assume that the ground that we stand on is sacred simply because we’re standing on it.  However, that is not an attitude or spirit that will ever overcome our existing conflicts.

Many are tempted to see ecumenicalism as the better alternative.  Let’s all just give up on the particulars, find our common ground in Jesus, sing kumbaya while holding hands together, and move on, right?

But this is a race to the lowest common denominator, we would need to throw out almost everything to reach some kind of consensus.  We would end up with a vague picture of the real Jesus and only end up creating one more faction.  That’s the grand irony of universalist, non-denominational or ecumenical efforts, they never do actually solve the divisions and only end up creating another group of those willing to compromise for sake of creating a kind of unity that doesn’t really amount to much.

Pope Francis greets Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew of Constantinople outside the Basilica of St. Nicholas in Bari, Italy, July 7. The pope met leaders of Christian churches in the Middle East for an ecumenical day of prayer for peace in the region. (CNS photo/Vatican Media) See POPE-ECUMENICAL-ENCOUNTER-BARI July 9, 2018.

Eccumenticalism tends to be a denial of the reasons why the conflicts exist.  It glosses over serious differences in theology and practice.  It appeals to a “can’t we all just get along” sentiment, it is modeled off of the democratic process that many in our time embrace rather than the Gospel, and is not the way of the early church. 

How Did the Early Church Settle Disputes?

The early church was not conflict-free.  And had a fair amount of heretical teachings and false prophets that needed to be addressed.  But one of the big disputes was between the Judiazers, those of Jewish background who wished to impose Jewish law on all new converts, and those who did not see this as necessary:

Certain people came down from Judea to Antioch and were teaching the believers: “Unless you are circumcised, according to the custom taught by Moses, you cannot be saved.” This brought Paul and Barnabas into sharp dispute and debate with them. So Paul and Barnabas were appointed, along with some other believers, to go up to Jerusalem to see the apostles and elders about this question. The church sent them on their way, and as they traveled through Phoenicia and Samaria, they told how the Gentiles had been converted. This news made all the believers very glad. When they came to Jerusalem, they were welcomed by the church and the apostles and elders, to whom they reported everything God had done through them. Then some of the believers who belonged to the party of the Pharisees stood up and said, “The Gentiles must be circumcised and required to keep the law of Moses.” The apostles and elders met to consider this question. After much discussion, Peter got up and addressed them: “Brothers, you know that some time ago God made a choice among you that the Gentiles might hear from my lips the message of the gospel and believe. God, who knows the heart, showed that he accepted them by giving the Holy Spirit to them, just as he did to us. He did not discriminate between us and them, for he purified their hearts by faith. Now then, why do you try to test God by putting on the necks of Gentiles a yoke that neither we nor our ancestors have been able to bear? No! We believe it is through the grace of our Lord Jesus that we are saved, just as they are.” The whole assembly became silent as they listened to Barnabas and Paul telling about the signs and wonders God had done among the Gentiles through them. When they finished, James spoke up. “Brothers,” he said, “listen to me. Simon has described to us how God first intervened to choose a people for his name from the Gentiles. The words of the prophets are in agreement with this, as it is written: “ ‘After this I will return and rebuild David’s fallen tent. Its ruins I will rebuild, and I will restore it, that the rest of mankind may seek the Lord, even all the Gentiles who bear my name, says the Lord, who does these things’— things known from long ago. “It is my judgment, therefore, that we should not make it difficult for the Gentiles who are turning to God. 

(Acts 15:1‭-‬19 NIV)

This conflict was not solved by democracy or popular vote.  No, it was decided by a council of elders and Apostles, who then told the rest of the Church what the right approach would be.   It also went against a strict interpretation and application of Scripture.  It was both hierarchical and required submission.  We might not like that this dispute was decided from the top down.  We can question the authority of this council or those that followed after, nevertheless, this was how conflicts over theology and practice were settled.

The Embrace of the Apostles Peter and Paul, Cretan school, Angelos Akotantos, 1st half 15th century

This is the strength of Orthodoxy; Orthodoxy centers on the Orthodoxy rather than hierarchy and that does mean the tradition of the Apostles, passed on “by word of mouth or by letter,” (2 Thess. 2:15) a canon of teachings (including Scripture) that have been established as authentic through councils of the Church, and has been held fast by the faithful throughout the centuries.

So Orthodoxy is the Answer to Conflict?

Many Orthodox Christians will tout their unbroken lineage all that way back to the Apostles.  Our way of worship goes back over a millennium, the liturgy of St. John Chrysostom celebrated from the 5th Century on and is unrivaled in terms of the beauty of the content and structure.  We are the ancient Church tradition and, indeed, Holy Communion is a mystical experience when in the presence of all those through the centuries who have participated.  Such unity!

We’ll talk about the Great Schism and do some of that necessary handwringing about the literally thousands of divisions within Protestantism.  I mean, judge for yourself, is there any civilization more divided against itself than the West?  Even Roman Catholicism, with its progressive Pope and sex abuse scandals, is quite at odds with itself despite having a defined hierarchical structure.

Had I entered Orthodoxy with blind idealism, expecting the perfect church, I would probably have left even before getting started.  The Orthodox may have the richest of Christian traditions, it is certainly a treasure trove for those who appreciate history and want to participate in a Christianity recognizable to those in the early Church.  There is also a defined hierarchy to settle disputes.  I mean, what could possibly go wrong?  And yet the same conflicts of personalities and politics happen here as much as anywhere else.

Pretty much simultaneous to my entering the fold, the Ukrainian Schism took place.  The gist of the dispute was that the Archbishop of Constantinople and Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew decided unilaterally to grant autocephaly (or independence) to the Ukrainian church.  The problem was that this overstepped canonical law and violated the jurisdiction of the Moscow Patriarchate.   For sake of context, Bartholomew is pretty much the patriarch of a city that no longer exists, is supported by American churches, and is acting outside of his authority in a way reminiscent of the very Papal abuse that led to the Great Schism between East and West in 1054.

And then there were those families that left my own parish, led by a homeschooling mom from a Protestant background, who made some vicious (and completely unfounded, I was on the council and reviewed the books) accusations against the new priest.  This woman, one of those pious and outwardly perfect types, the kind that can fool all of the frivolous old ladies, sends up all of the red flags of a classic manipulator.  Things didn’t go her way and, therefore, that was proof of abuse and fraud.  I tried to be her friend.  I don’t completely connect with our new priest myself, and yet she’s way out of line. 

Of course, I come from a Mennonite background, where no dispute is too petty to divide over.  We would part ways over hairstyles.

The most disappointing fissure, however, other than my own personal conflict with someone that I thought was a real friend, is that between Abbott Tryphon and Ancient Faith Ministries.  Tryphon, a convert to Orthodoxy, is a great writer and a favorite of my parish priest.  I follow him on social media.  He had a falling out with Ancient Faith over his more overtly political content.  Of course, the accusations fly between sides, some say that one side has been compromised, has connections to this industry, or that, while the other would say it was over someone getting too entangled in worldly politics.

In other words, both sides are making essentially the same claim about the other and it probably does stem from both sides holding slightly different partisan perspectives.  I can understand the perspectives that both sides have.  I do not see worldly politics as being a good mix with the Gospel of Jesus Christ and yet I also see that a prophetic voice must speak to the issues relevant to the time.  Still, Tryphon, though very eloquent, seems the more butt-hurt of the two parties and even alienated some of his own audience with his lashing out.

I would actually side against Tryphon, based on his visible conduct, if it weren’t for one thing and that thing being that I’m just like him when hurt.  He’s a passionate man, someone who speaks with conviction, a bit black and white, and completely like me.

Division Makes Us All Weak

There is no religious system or culture that can prevent conflicts.  We can go through all of the correct motions, speak all of the right words, have a perfect understanding of Christianity at a theoretical level, and yet totally fail to resolve conflicts. 

Returning to the passage from Ephesians, from the start of the blog, the “make every effort to keep the unity of the Spirit through the bond of peace” is preceded by “Be completely humble and gentle; be patient, bearing with one another in love.”  That’s the hard part.  When hurt or offended we don’t want to wait, we want to speak out rashly and let them feel a little of our own anguish.

And yet St Paul does not tell us to bury our grievances in the name of keeping unity and peace either:

Then we will no longer be infants, tossed back and forth by the waves, and blown here and there by every wind of teaching and by the cunning and craftiness of people in their deceitful scheming. Instead, speaking the truth in love, we will grow to become in every respect the mature body of him who is the head, that is, Christ. From him the whole body, joined and held together by every supporting ligament, grows and builds itself up in love, as each part does its work.

 (Ephesians 4-14-16 NIV)

We should not lose our sensitivity:

So I tell you this, and insist on it in the Lord, that you must no longer live as the Gentiles do, in the futility of their thinking. They are darkened in their understanding and separated from the life of God because of the ignorance that is in them due to the hardening of their hearts. Having lost all sensitivity, they have given themselves over to sensuality so as to indulge in every kind of impurity, and they are full of greed.  That, however, is not the way of life you learned when you heard about Christ and were taught in him in accordance with the truth that is in Jesus.  You were taught, with regard to your former way of life, to put off your old self, which is being corrupted by its deceitful desires; to be made new in the attitude of your minds; and to put on the new self, created to be like God in true righteousness and holiness.  Therefore each of you must put off falsehood and speak truthfully to your neighbor, for we are all members of one body. 

(Ephesians 4:17-25 NIV)

Instead, we need to find a way to navigate through conflicts, to speak truthfully and reject falsehood, while still being completely gentle, humble, and patient at the same time.  It is both prayerful and proactive.  The potential growth of the church is stunted both by those aggressively confrontational and overly passive in their approach.  Again, what good is a hospital that only ever talks about infection without ever treating it?  Likewise, who would go to a hospital where they a browbeaten and belittled constantly?

Having the right spirit is the start to resolving (or even completely avoiding) conflicts.  There is a need for open and direct communication.  We should also not let things stretch out too long, where we let things stew, as Ephesians 4:26‭-‬27 says: “In your anger do not sin”: Do not let the sun go down while you are still angry, and do not give the devil a foothold.”  The more that I think about something the more upset I can become.  I tend to soften up very quickly when face-to-face with someone, it is harder to hold on to the grievance.

Oh No, Here We Go Again!

When I entered Orthodoxy, trying to put the deep disappointments behind me, and already having the romance question answered by Charlotte, I was determined to remain friendly, and yet aloof and impersonal enough not to get hurt.  The people were nice at the small parish, a good mix of ages, coffee hour conversations could go deep and I very quickly warmed up to most of the regular attenders. 

In the intervening years, there has been some change and conflict.  The long-serving Fr. Dan, who helped to build the parish, retired (his last service my Chrismation) and the search was on for a new rector.  Unfortunately, not everyone was happy with the choice and almost immediately set to undermine the new priest.  I tried to steer clear of those politics, choosing to remain faithful to the parish community despite my own personality conflicts with the burly bearded Harley riding Baptist convert.  He’s a gruff man with a golden heart.

It was in the midst of the pandemic, after that initial quarantine phase in the spring of 2020, that a new person started to attend.  She looked like someone who could be cradle Orthodox, with dark curly hair, and her veil with a long dress reminded me of the traditional Mennonite style that I loved.  So I pretty much had to introduce myself and make them feel welcomed.  I can’t really remember how that went, she was reserved and a little standoffish, and yet Orthodoxy provided a bond that allowed us to develop what seemed to be an authentic brotherly and sisterly relationship.

We spent a fair amount of time talking about our long-distance love interests, we became a sort of two-person support group for those waiting on their significant other to arrive, comforting and encouraging each other, and I found the greatest joy when her tall handsome man arrived one evening for vespers.  I was so excited, in fact, that I offered to play the part of the photographer to make sure that this moment was captured. 

I didn’t realize then that this would be the high point of the relationship.  Uriah’s death meant I needed some space to process and mourn.  I pulled back.  And pulled back even more after a sarcastic remark was directed at me.  It wasn’t meanspirited or meant to hurt, but I simply didn’t have the emotional armor for it and decided to let her be with her new nihilistic Ortho-bro Millennial buddies.  A church isn’t supposed to be a social club or clique of cool kids snickering at everyone else, I could find more neutral company until I got my feet under me again, and that’s what I did.

It was mutual avoidance at this point.  I wanted space, she never really loved me anyway (later revealing that our friendship was fake when I did try to reconcile) and this was fine.

However, eventually, this arrangement started to wear thin for me.  It seemed dishonest or out of sorts with the loving claims we made with our mouths during worship together.  It was too reminiscent of those cold shoulders Mennonite girls give when they want the pudgy less than hygienic misfit to get the hint and not Christian.  So I did what I thought I do well, wrote an email, shelved that one, and wrote another less emotionally charged version that I sent. 

Unfortunately, the signals that I got back were not conciliatory and some of the comments seemed to be very intentionally aimed at my known vulnerabilities, I was falsely accused of being romantically interested (100% not the case) and pretty much had everything thrown back in my face.  It was at this point some of my past started to bubble back up, seeing her would trigger severe discomfort and a flight reflex.  She did gesture to try to make it right and try I have not seen much evidence of a change of heart either.

Rather than reconcile with me directly and be honest, she seems determined to maintain the distance by getting intermediaries involved.  And my initial anxiety attacks have morphed into intense feelings of anger from what feels like a betrayal and lies.  I don’t trust her anymore and I don’t trust anyone to mediate.  I can’t see platitudes or empty motions as being a way forward and would rather stick to the avoidance strategy.  So the one triumph for true brotherhood in Christ ends in a messy quagmire.

It’s Not You, It’s Me

We have met the enemy and he is us.”

The truth is that my interpersonal conflict, like all in the Church, is a problem with me as much (or more) than it is them.  I have trust issues and an impossible ideal, the initial estrangement was my fault, she has her own baggage to deal with and is now moving to protect herself from me.  In her mind, and in the mind of her allies, I am the unstable and manipulative party in this conflict.  She is, no doubt, being encouraged to write me off and move on.  I’ve given her reason (like telling her “stay away from me”) to never talk to me again.

So,  what is my reason for spilling my guts in a blog once again?

Maybe so that someone reading can offer a solution or that those who are prayer warriors can help by begging God to remove those blinders from our eyes and free us from the bindings of fear.  I had initially loved this person because they appeared to be sincere and that (during a sermon about martyrs and contemplating my own weakness of faith) I decided it would be worth dying beside her rather than leaving her to face death alone.  It is tragic that we should end up dying now in opposition to each other due to our past.  Please pray for me, a sinner, that I can learn humility and live a life of repentance.

This brings me to the final point and another reason why I’m sharing this openly: We cannot solve those broader schisms and divisions within the Church if we can’t even love those who are right in front of us enough to lower our defensive posture or give a second chance to those undeserving.  Healing, within the body of Christ, can only be accomplished by working locally to resolve our own conflicts with humility, gentleness, and patience.  We cannot conquer the world for the Kingdom when we’re at war with ourselves.

Furthermore, it takes being at peace with who we are as individuals, petty, unworthy, afraid and broken, to solve our own inner conflicts, before we’re going to do much good in our communities.  My own insecurities, no doubt, are what cloud my judgment and lead to the wrong kind of response.  The Gordian knot that I project onto this situation is less an external reality and more a reflection of my internal state.  I am frustrated with my lack of progress.  I did find great comfort in this friend who is complex and conflicted like me. 

Now my true character has been revealed.  I’m not this wonderful even-keeled guy.  My emotions do get the best of me.  I’m not at peace with myself all of the time and sometimes do look outward for a resolution to this inner battle.  Unfortunately, looking to others for security and stability, will leave us further hurt. They have their baggage too, they respond wrong, misunderstand, misrepresent, manipulate, lie and will otherwise disappoint. That’s why spiritual healing has to start with mewith getting my own conflicted heart right.

[Don’t] Trust The Narrative

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The truth of a story is not proportional to our investment in it.  The Marvel Cinematic Universe, for example, is a movie franchise worth nearly 23 billion dollars and has no basis reality other than locations.  And still, despite being complete fiction, people are obsessed.  We treat the characters as if they’re real, repeat their lines, cosplay to participate in the fantasy, and it does seem that many would rather be lost in this exciting world of make-believe than live their actual lives.

It is really interesting how outside observers of religions (other than their own) have no difficulty dismissing the beliefs and practices.  The claims of L. Ron Hubbard, or Joseph Smith, or Muhammad ibn Abdullah aren’t all that compelling to non-adherents.  I mean, come on, riding through the sky on a horse with a woman’s head and the tail of a peacock sounds more like a crazy acid trip than something to take seriously, right?  But for this raised in an Islamic country, this makes more sense than Trinity or resurrection.

I’m quite certain that the Biblical narrative, whether Genesis or the Gospels, would have been far less believable had I not been indoctrinated as a child.  I mean, it made sense to me then.  My parents and every other respectable adult that I knew held to this belief system.  It would actually be rather strange had I rejected this outright.  It was only later that the vast differences between even various Mennonite sects, and facing challenges to my assumptions, that I even knew how to question.

Of course, this doesn’t make those raised outside of organized religion any more rational.  Secular ideas, like Evolution and Global Warming, have taken on their own narrative framework, similar to religion, that far exceeds the actual evidence.  Not all of the gaps can be explained by Natural Selection.  And climate apocalypticism has strange similarities to the “end times” prophecies common with many caught up in Evangelicalism.  Al Gore is basically Harold Camping with corporate sponsorship.

Most of these narratives can’t be entirely falsified.  The decades and decades of dire predictions from climate alarmists haven’t come true, yet they keep moving the goal posts, even making claims in contradiction to those prior, and the next generation of conscientious young people are none the wiser.  Likewise, the doctrines and practices of traditional religions evolve and get twisted every which way, to the point that you can’t get people raised in the same denomination to agree.  

The strangest thing is how these various movements never die even when their claims are falsified.  For example, the Seventh-day Adventists arose from the false Millerite prophecy that Jesus would return on October 22, 1844.  The date came and went without event.  But, despite this Great Disappointment, some who saw their central claim proven false still regrouped and continued on their way again.  Perhaps the investment made was too much to simply give it up?  

It’s sort of like I don’t expect the “believe science” midwits to ever comprehend how many times the experts get it wrong or reconsider.  They’ll probably go on praising Dr. Fauci as a saint even after the puppy experimentation scandal, even after the NIH now admits to funding of gain-of-function research, and probably because it would cause too much discomfort to consider that their trust may have been misplaced.

It takes a boatload of evidence to overturn these narratives we have built up in our minds.  Bad ideas, like Marxism, even if they fail miserably in one place, are often recycled and reintroduced.  At the same time, credit for plain luck is given to whatever a person wants to have credit.  A boom economy, with the President you voted for, and it is obviously a product of wise leadership, right?  The sun came up right after you prayed?  Must be the grace of God.

All religion, all political ideologies, the trust we have in certain institutions or people, is part of our embracing narratives.  Whether you believe vaccines cause autism or ended Polio depends more on who (or what) you accept as an authority than the actual evidence.  Past narratives might seem irrational to you, like the idea that autism was caused by “refrigerator moms,” yet made complete sense to many influential and intelligent ‘scientific’ people at one time.  Those who go against the currently popular ‘expert’ consensus can expect persecution.

All this to say that we aren’t as good at discerning truth as we imagine.  In many cases what we believe is nearly as much fiction as Captain America fighting against Hydra.  It isn’t just the conspiracy theorist kooks buying into narratives despite evidence to the contrary, we all do, we all believe a blend of religious propaganda, political indoctrination, and out-of-context or unqualified facts stitched together, and much of it as absurd as the narratives we reject.

Politics of Pandemic–Breaking Down the Fauci Emails

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Recently, through the Freedom of Information Act, by request of Washington Post and BuzzFeed News, a trove of Dr. Fauci’s emails have been released and the revelations therein causing a great uproar online.  On one side there’s the “I told you so” crowd doing their victory lap. While, on the other side, is the supposedly unbiased ‘fact-checkers’ and corporate media denial professionals trying to argue that there’s nothing to see here. 

So, is Dr. Fauci a national hero, a seasoned expert who helped the nation navigate a crisis, or should his head be on a pike?  

Let’s start with who Dr. Fauci is and why he is the focus of national attention…

Doctor in the Spotlight

Anthony S. Fauci, M.D., was born in Brooklyn, NY, on December 24, 1940, to parents who operated a pharmacy in the city, his grandparents were immigrants, he was raised Catholic and now considers himself to be a humanist.  He was a standout basketball player in the private Jesuit high school he attended, went to Holy Cross University for pre-med, and then attended Cornell University’s Medical School.  He married Christine Grady, in 1985, who is described as “an American nurse and bioethicist” in Wikipedia, and they have three daughters.

Dr. Fauci is the director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Disease, a role he has served since 1984, through seven presidencies and, while a respected figure in his field of immunology, had not garnered much public attention prior to the emergence of Covid-19.

In early 2020 Fauci was selected to be part of the Trump administration’s White House Coronavirus Task Force (now serves as Biden’s chief medical advisor) and very quickly was singled out by the corporate media for his sometimes seemingly contrarian positions with the President.  If anything, his elevated role and becoming the face of the pandemic response has more to do with partisan politics of those desirous use him as a foil against President Trump than it does with anything else.  Even Fauci himself, in the emails, seemed confused about his new celebrity status. 

There were many stories lauding Fauci.  There is no indication that he wanted to become the public figure he has become.  He did not have the power to tell states what to do.  But now, because he was portrayed as this unquestionable expert, he has become symbolic of the shutdowns and mask mandates to many Americans.  Fame, even if unasked for, is a two-edged sword.  One can quickly transition from hero to heel once the spotlight begins to reveal their blemishes.  By putting Fauci front and center of the Covid response, the partisans have given us ample reason to scrutinize just who he is.

I personally, as someone with a sister who is a medical doctor and another who is a nurse, I am also not comfortable with many of those trashing Fauci’s reputation.  I’m equally opposed to demonizing him or trying him in the court of public opinion.  That said, as one who has some life experience, I also understand the value of second opinions when it comes to medical interventions.  Fauci’s opinion should have been considered one of many, as part of a task force, and should never have been positioned as a rival to the President.  That was dirty politics, completely a media creation, and likely hurt the pandemic response. 

The Politics of Pandemic 

Ideally, in times of national crisis, where many lives are at risk, partisan politics would’ve been put aside and the nation would rally behind the leaders elected no matter their party affiliation.  In that world, the President, informed by various economic and medical advisors, would make the executive decisions and government agencies would do their best to put these decisions to practice.  However, in the current polarized hyper-partisan environment, and with a Presidential election looming in 2020, the pandemic was treated by many as simply another divisive political tool.

No world leader’s response to Covid-19 was perfect.  For example, had European governments followed Trump’s lead and shut down travel from China early on in the pandemic we might have had more time to prepare.  It is easy to forget, but before social distancing and shutdowns became vogue, many social elites were minimizing the threat and calling Trump a racist for warning the world about the virus.  In Italy, for example, they were urging people to give hugs to Chinese people to prove their own virtue.  Our Speaker of the House, Nancy Pelosi, urged her constituents to visit the crowded streets of Chinatown in San Fransico.

Trump was criticized for urging calm and being a cheerleader once the danger of Covid was finally realized.  And, before that, was criticized for shutting down travel from China and accused of fear-mongering for speaking out.  He could not win. He was resisted at every turn while trying to take steps to prepare and then accused of literal murder for the deaths in this country as if the world was somehow doing better.  Few here would know that the US death rate is actually lower than that of Europe, per capita, but the stories here would focus on death totals to build the image of Trump’s failure.

Fauci, on the other hand, was not allowed to be criticized.  He was praised endlessly as a representative of science, as bold and unbiased, a source of all truth and wisdom.  His word was to be treated as irrefutable, god-like, his perspectives treated as the only one that mattered, and Trump asked over and over again, “will you follow Dr. Fauci’s recommendations?”  It was presented as this horrendous thing that Trump may not take this one man’s advice on how to respond, as if there weren’t teams of other advisors to be heard and other concerns to be considered.  

Every smart patient knows to get a second opinion on serious matters.  Even the best physicians, experts in their fields, can misdiagnose or prescribe the wrong treatment.  And this idea that “following the science” means worshipping or never questioning, men like Fauci is pure ignorance. It is dangerous ignorance.

But, as ignorant, is holding Fauci to an impossible standard because others put him on a pedestal.   

On one hand, I completely understand the resentment that some hold towards this man that has come to symbolize the economic destruction brought on by state governors following Federal guidelines.  However, much of what is being said now, in wake of the released emails, is as unfair as the coverage of the previous administration.  Those against mask mandates and economic shutdowns are doing the same thing to Fauci as the corporate media propagandists did to Trump.  His comments, like Trump’s comments, are being ripped out of context by many commentators, without explanation, and that’s a problem.

Yes, some of the emails show that Fauci withheld certain ideas about the origin of the virus and was initially dismissive of masking, yet nothing I’ve seen so far is smoking-gun evidence of his wrongdoing.   Of particular interest is his involvement in funding the Wuhan lab, during the Obama administration, and whether or not this may have been a conflict of interest.  And then there is the ethical issue issue with “gain of function” research that must be explored.  My goal is to give fair treatment to the man and offer my own perspective as far as the content of the emails.

To Mask or Not To Mask?

One of the most contentious issues of the pandemic was the mask mandates.  These state level policies, following the recommendations of the Federal government, were viewed either as life saving and scientifically proven or as terrible infringements on liberty and pretty much totally ineffective. 

My own leanings, as someone who purchased a box of N95 masks in January of 2020, is that masks offer a marginal protection, if the correct type and properly used, and yet the mandates were basically useless.  First cloth masks don’t offer the level of filtration that is necessary to trap the water droplets carrying the virus.  Second, some countries required both a face shield and mask because they determined that masks alone weren’t effective.

Dr. Fauci seems to have come out against mask mandates before coming out in favor:

The typical mask you buy in the drug store is not really effective in keeping out virus, which is small enough to pass through the material. It might, however, provide some slight benefit in keep[ing] out gross droplets if someone coughs or sneezes on you. I do not recommend that you wear a mask, particularly since you are going to a very low risk location.

And also saying this:

Masks are really for infected people to prevent them from spreading infection to people who are not infected rather than protecting uninfected people from acquiring infection…

Now, I believe he’s right in both cases.  Masks only offer minimal protection.  Covid spread through factories where everyone wore masks and states with mask mandates really didn’t fare better than those that did not.  I understand that urge people have to “do something” and there are several flawed studies that back up the idea that masking is beneficial.  However, I really do not see evidence that it makes a significant difference.  Real life doesn’t match up with laboratory conditions.  And thus that was likely behind Fauci’s pragmatic first take.

What is a bit unfair about the criticism about this apparent reversal in opinion on masks is that we all change our minds all the time.  Sometimes I may disagree with some of my colleagues on something, state my own perspective, and then later amend as new evidence comes in.  However, what is disturbing is where Dr Fauci explains this flipflop as being protection of mask supply for medical professionals.  In other words, he is basically admitting to having lied to the American people about the effectiveness of masks.  If that is the case then he should not be given a free pass.

The ‘Debunked’ Lab Leak Theory

One of those banned topics on social media was the theory that Covid-19 may have come from the lab in Wuhan, China.  It made sense, a deadly virus emerges at a market within walking distance of Wuhan Institute of Virology, why not put that laboratory on the list of suspects?  But for some reason discussion of this possibility was forbidden until very recently when it was revealed, through US intelligence, that researchers at this lab had become ill shortly before the virus turned the surrounding city into a warzone.

The Fauci emails also reveal that this possibility, even that Covid showed signs of being engineered for “gain of function” research, were discussed.  Now, frankly, this is just good forensic science.  It would be more shocking had this never been considered at all.  And the batting this idea around alone is not proof that this is what had actually happened. 

However, that so many literally conspired, with a foreign entity, to suppress this hypothesis (Big Tech censorship stifling the online conversation, corporate media fact-checkers claiming it had been debunked, etc) should be a cause for global outrage. 

Of course, the most laughable claim of media propagandists, at the time, was that it was racist to link the virus to the Chinese Communist Party.  Nevermind this was from the same people who had no problem with taking aim at wet markets and bat soup.  But somehow that criticism of Chinese eating habits wasn’t a problem while taking a closer look at a laboratory that was studying coronavirus and bats was inappropriate. 

Uh-huh.

Anyhow, given that Fauci had come out in full support of gain of function research and also been a force behind funding the Wuhan lab.  Could it be this history explains the private discussion, in emails, and simultaneous public denial? Possibly, yes.  It is very clear there’s a conflict of interest.  Of course there’s a reason for him to keep a lid on what could be proof of his culpability for millions of deaths worldwide. 

The result of Fauci’s silence, and corporate media stupidity and bias, is that something that should have been thoroughly explored months ago is only now being openly discussed.  This has given a totalitarian regime, known for deception, more than enough time to cover up the truth and their role.  Precious time has been wasted on what could be the biggest crime against humanity in the history of humankind.  We have experienced a death toll and economic damages greater than twenty nuclear bombs, countless innocent lives destroyed, and the likely culprit was protected by a web of denial, collusion between Big Tech, the corporate media and high ranking government officials—like Dr. Fauci.

If the January 6th fracas is worthy of consideration for a Congressional Commission, then we really should dig deeper and investigate the true cause of a global pandemic that killed millions.  No, there’s no smoking gun in the Fauci emails, or least none that I could see, and yet there is more than enough reason to suspect that one of our leading experts had tried to keep a lid on the Wuhan lab theory because of his own ties to the research.  And still our corporate media speaks glowingly of him, as if he could do no wrong, the fact-checkers scurrying to tell us there is no bombshell revelation in the emails.

Dr. Fauci: Authority or Arrogant?

One thing that the pandemic has revealed and the emails only further confirmed, is the complete arrogance of our institutions.  For whatever reason Fauci and others felt it was okay to mislead the American people, to tell the so-called “noble lie,” and then they wonder why trust is waning amongst the people they’ve deliberately deceived? Meanwhile, those who should be holding their feet to the fire, our ‘journalists’ (who now also see themselves worthy to pick winners for us rather than simply report), embarrass themselves with their fauning praise.

Is Fauci the sole source of all real science and truth?

No, absolutely not!

Is he a total fraud unworthy of his position?  

Well, that is something worthy of investigation and yet to be determined. Innocent until proven guilty is still the law of the land. And I do not believe in trials in the court of public opinion. Again, while there are questions of ethics and culpability to be answered, that our corporate media should be asking rather than singing his praises, nothing in the emails implicates him of a crime.

My own thought, knowing what is known, is that making Fauci the fall guy would be letting too many others off the hook.  Sure, he represents an accountability problem with the political establishment and elites who are protected by their own interests at the expense of the American people.  No, they don’t simply “follow the science” nor are they invulnerable to group think or free from all bias.  They’re human, like us, they make mistakes, they have political agendas and hidden motivations too.  It isn’t about secret conspiracies so much as it is a matter of human fallibility, in general, and arrogance.

Over the course of the past year Fauci’s name has become synonymous with authority and science. But much of that is smoke and mirrors. He is truly only one qualified voice of many and was only made the face of the pandemic as a way to undermine Trump. This is pretty much the only reason why he is loved by one side and loathed by the other. Politics. The politics of the pandemic cloud good judgment. And those caught in this political fray deserve better than to be torn up by the mob or raised up like saints.

Fauci, given the voting patterns of NYC and government lifers, is probably as Democrat as one could be. That could explain some of the looks of tension, and tedious corrections, when Trump used his layman’s terms during press conferences. But, unlike the media narrative that constantly pitted him against the President, the emails showed this conflict between the men was massively overblown.

In the end, Dr. Fauci has the swagger of a Brooklynite, cocky or confident depending on who you ask, and amazing stamina for a man his age. But he should have never been made a celebrity, never turned into this unquestioned authority on matters of science or used as a tool of partisan politics.

Fair enough?

The Privilege Paradox—What Jesus Taught About Fairness

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Remember that viral video, from a few years ago, that has a bunch of young people lined up in a field?  

As the music plays, we hear an announcer tell participants this is a race for a $100 bill and  then proceeds to list off statements that will allow some to advance.  If both parents married, if they had a father figure, if they had access to private education, if they never had their cell phone shut off or had to help their parents with bills, and the list goes on.

For those of us who have studied socioeconomic issues, and have long pointed to things like fatherless homes as being predictive of outcomes, this is no surprise.  In fact, fatherless homes have a stronger correlation with negative outcomes than race.  Many mass shooters come from broken homes.  We should be talking about such things.

However it seems many of my former religious peers, raised in conservative Mennonite cloisters, prior to watching this video, had been completely unaware of this ‘privilege’ of family structure.  Suddenly their ignorance had been revealed.  But, some, rather than simply ponder and reflect, used this new knowledge to bludgeon others and suggest that anything less than feeling deep shame equal to their own is somehow sinful.

One problem with being raised in a religious culture where indoctrination and conformity is preferred to open discussion is that many coming from this background are nearly incapable of critical thought.  A media presentation like this dazzles them and there’s no reason they can imagine to question the conclusions.  They see what they’re supposed to see, what was carefully edited and prepared for them to see, and what the lecturer tells them to believe.

The video, unfortunately, frames things in terms of race.  The one announcing even explicitly saying “if this was a fair race…some of these black dudes would smoke all of you.”

It’s ironic that this man plays on racial stereotype, the perceived athletic advantage that some have, while simultaneously making the case that privilege is about getting the money at the end of a race.  He undermines his own thesis.  If some young people, as a result of their athleticism, can get into a prestigious university, how is that not also privilege?  

More importantly, where does that leave those of us who neither had the athletic prowess nor the academic chops nor wealthy parents to provide for our education?

My father was absent, out on the road weeks at a time, I went to public school because my parents couldn’t afford the Mennonite school tuition, I never had a cell phone growing up and also eventually had to pay rent to my parents for the privilege of living under their roof, is that unfair?

Who is to say that a person raised in single parent home is truly at a disadvantage to someone with a learning disability?  

And is it actually true that those with non-athletic scholarships didn’t earn any of that reward through their own hard work?

A big problem with the presentation is how it frames privilege in a very narrow and misleading way.  The list of factors is extremely selective.  He never mentioned the many other disadvantages (or advantages) that can shape outcomes, things like physical stature or gender, affirmative action and health.  There is also no attempt to explain why these factors should be weighted as they are.  Ask different questions and the completion of the results may completely change.

Breaking Down Privilege 

The problem with the privilege narrative is not that it highlights the advantages that some have over others.  We all know that an athletic tall guy is more likely to dunk a basketball, and have a girlfriend, than the 5′-5″ tall perpetually last-picked dude.  All of the things listed in the video may very well have an impact on outcomes and yet there are so many other things people overcome that never got mentioned.

The message is right, in that we should be aware of the disadvantages others face, but does a disservice in framing privilege almost entirely in terms of race.  And, with that, feeds insecurities, builds upon division, encourages animosity or guilt—all without providing any actual solutions.

To get to solutions we need to break down the framing:

1) Not About Race

The irony of the “white privilege” claim is that, when we get to specifics, the advantages some have are often not actually about race.  

Fatherless homes, for example, have nothing to do with race and everything to do with the choices of a prior generation.  My dad took responsibility, he provided for his children, my mom remained loyal to him despite his shortcomings, and us children benefited.  

Do you know who else had that privilege?

The daughters of Michelle and Barack Obama.  

Not only that, Sasha and Malia, had access to private school, prestigious universities, and other opportunities that a working-class child (such as myself) could only ever dream about.  Sure, they may have similar skin color to Trayvon Martin, but that’s where the similarities end and to say otherwise is to be absurd.  The average blue collar white person has more in common with racial minorities than anyone in the ruling class.

My school friend, Adam Bartlett, the one who eventually killed himself and another man, was a victim of sexual abuse as a child.  Not only that, but he wasn’t all that athletic, wasn’t a great student, had nothing given to him by his parents, yet we’re supposed to believe that he had this thing called “white privilege” and was actually better off than the daughters of the President?

This idea that privilege is about color, that fatherless homes and poverty is a matter of race, is the very definition of prejudice.  It is a message bad for the racial minorities whom it both disempowers and discourages.  It is also wrong, an injustice, to the many people deemed privileged who face the exact same challenges and never get as much sympathy or help.

The truth is that statistics never tell us about individuals.  There are many born into poverty and poor conditions who do overcome their circumstances.  It has as much to do with attitude, the things we believe and are told to believe about ourselves, as anything else.  The very things that can be a disadvantage in one case can be motivation in the next.

2) Let’s Address Culture, Not Color!

If we’re truly interested in changing results then we need to talk about the elephant in the room.  Why do some children grow up in single parent homes, in poverty, while others do not?  More importantly, what can we do to prevent this from repeating?

Woke nationalism, a far-left Marxist political movement adjacent to this sort of privilege propaganda, would have people believe that more money (in form of reparations or government programs) is the solution to disparities in outcomes.  Rather than address the root cause of disparities, they blame-shift and promote acceptance of toxic behavior.  

Black Lives Matter, for example, doesn’t support the reestablishment of traditional families.  And, worse, many promoters of the “white privilege” narrative would have us believe that things like work ethic are somehow related to skin color.  They are explicitly encouraging the very things that the video would have us believe hold people back from success.

Just today, while writing this, a BLM leader in London, was shot in the head.  Her story not all that uncommon in the inner-city, where gang warfare and honor culture, a criminal underground, leads to many violent ends.  

Are we truly supposed to believe this is black culture?  

Should I celebrate that the majority of shootings in my little corner of the world are perpetrated by a rather small minority?

My answer is a hard N-O to both questions.

No, we should not accept fatherless homes as normal nor be an apologist for the honor culture that so often leads to violent outcomes.

No, skin color does not, should not, should NEVER determine our behavior.

Many things that are being framed in terms of race are actually cultural and a direct result of choices.  A man, no matter his color, does not need to murder his ex-wife because she is with another man, or shoot someone over a borrowed hat, there’s no excuse.  My little town does not need drive-by shootings, we don’t need more bodies dumped in remote locations.  And, yes, we need to ask why the ‘disrespect’ of a mask requirement was a considered a reason to murder a security guard, why a successful NFL athlete took a former friend to an industrial lot to execute him for talking to the wrong people.

It is culture, not color, that is shaping outcomes.  And to conflate color with culture is the very epitome of racial prejudice.  Seriously, saying that black people must act differently, must be more expressive, must prefer particular kinds of music, must talk a certain way, is the same kind of ridiculous thinking behind minstrel shows.  We should be beyond this, we should be judging by content of character rather than color of skin, stop promoting foolishness!

3) Life Is Not Competition

The most egregious presumption in the video is that life is a competition and ending up with more money is the goal.  Talk about spiritual rot posing as enlightenment!

Sure, your bank account may be somewhat a product of the home, community and culture that you were raised in.  Hunter Biden certainly has an advantage over me in terms of earning potential given his father’s high political profile.  And, trust me, it has very little to do with anything he’s done.  For sure, if he were the average Joe, if the 1994 Crime Bill applied to him, he might be in jail for a long list of crimes.  But that ‘privilege’ doesn’t mean he’s a success compared to me, does it?

Some extremely wealthy and visibly successful people are extremely unhappy with their lives.  No amount of access to private education, cell phones, health care, or whatever, is going to solve a feeling of inferiority or self-loathing.  And, if anything, more wealth in the hands of a disgruntled person will only enable them to do more evil.  I mean, was Hitler, a struggling artist and disenfranchised military veteran, improved by the power eventually given to him?

No, not at all.

This idea, in the video, that life is a competition, that more material wealth equates to success, is completely wrong and deserving of the severest rebuke.  What is truly shameful is that those religious folks sharing this message never once stopped to consider the metrics of success presented.  So much for the first being last and last being first, as Jesus taught, apparently to them life is all about the accumulation of stuff and political power.  

Sad.

Maybe if we would, instead of pitying and patronizing people, start preaching the truth, start telling dead beat parents, or anyone making excuses for themselves, to repent—then we would see positive change? 

But that would require us to see others as being our equals, capable of choosing good behavior.  It would require being unpopular and to stand at odds with the virtue signaling of the social elites.  Those who are honest about matters of culture, who confront woke nationalism and racist lies, they are the only people systemically oppressed.

Jesus Defies Privilege Narrative

No, matters of bad character and toxic culture are not fixed by more money, consider this parable:

“Again, it will be like a man going on a journey, who called his servants and entrusted his wealth to them. To one he gave five bags of gold, to another two bags, and to another one bag, each according to his ability. Then he went on his journey. The man who had received five bags of gold went at once and put his money to work and gained five bags more. So also, the one with two bags of gold gained two more. But the man who had received one bag went off, dug a hole in the ground and hid his master’s money. “After a long time the master of those servants returned and settled accounts with them. The man who had received five bags of gold brought the other five. ‘Master,’ he said, ‘you entrusted me with five bags of gold. See, I have gained five more.’ “His master replied, ‘Well done, good and faithful servant! You have been faithful with a few things; I will put you in charge of many things. Come and share your master’s happiness!’ “The man with two bags of gold also came. ‘Master,’ he said, ‘you entrusted me with two bags of gold; see, I have gained two more.’ “His master replied, ‘Well done, good and faithful servant! You have been faithful with a few things; I will put you in charge of many things. Come and share your master’s happiness!’ “Then the man who had received one bag of gold came. ‘Master,’ he said, ‘I knew that you are a hard man, harvesting where you have not sown and gathering where you have not scattered seed. So I was afraid and went out and hid your gold in the ground. See, here is what belongs to you.’ “His master replied, ‘You wicked, lazy servant! So you knew that I harvest where I have not sown and gather where I have not scattered seed? Well then, you should have put my money on deposit with the bankers, so that when I returned I would have received it back with interest. “ ‘So take the bag of gold from him and give it to the one who has ten bags. For whoever has will be given more, and they will have an abundance. Whoever does not have, even what they have will be taken from them. And throw that worthless servant outside, into the darkness, where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth.’ 

(Matthew 25:14‭-‬30 NIV)

Of the parables that Jesus told, this one has to be one of the most harsh and counterintuitive.  I mean, who can blame this servant, given so little, for burying his talent?  

Was it fair that, before the investment phase even began, the “wicked” and “lazy” servant was already at a severe disadvantage?

While this parable affirms the idea that what we’re born with has little to do with what we’ve done.  However, it departs radically from the central notion of the video that success at the end of life is “nothing to do with what you’ve done.” 

This flies completely in the face of the social justice gospel and, frankly, everything that comes naturally to me.  As one who always felt like the servant given little and thus was fearful of God, this parable confounded me.  Didn’t the initial disadvantage, the unequal distribution of wealth, shape the outcome?

Are we now going to say that Jesus lacked understanding, compassion or sensitivity?

Should we cancel Jesus?

We could replace the wealth or talents of the parable with “privilege points” and not change the message.  Jesus who said, “to those much is given much will be required,” also said those who are given less by God should be appreciative and invest well rather than make excuses.  

In other words, if you have no father, you can wallow in the disadvantage or choose to invest in the next generation so they do not suffer as you did.  If you were excluded, as I was, on the basis of lacking stature and athletic abilities or other things not within your control, you can harbor the grievance, let it take over your life, or you can use it as motivation to do unto others what wasn’t done for you.

The reality is that Jesus was being far more compassionate in addressing the spiritual matter at the heart of many negative outcomes and ignoring questions of fairness.  Furthermore, life is not a competition for material gain, it is not about the rank we attain in society either, and to frame it in such a way only shows a complete lack of discernment.  The privilege narrative is not only racist to the core, it is also at odds with the Gospel of Jesus Christ.

Instead of chastising innocent people for their alleged color privilege, trying to burden them down with guilt.  Instead of telling some people that they lack the ability to be successful simply on the basis of their outward appearance or place they were born, which is a total lie.  We should love our neighbors, rebuke this notion that life is a competition for money, and call all to repentance.

The Rise of the Christian Influencer

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The man had charisma.  He wore a swanky grey sport coat and a shiny pair of quality brown dress shoes, that all went along with his well-manicured hair.  He stood out in this crowd of mostly Amish gathered for the seminar. 

I tend not to pay for such things.  I have a knack for learning through non-conventional means, namely running into walls until I get to the correct answer, and have also learned quite a bit from observation.  My own ticket had been provided by my company and I was there with the rest of the office staff to hear what this life coaching speaker had to say about customer service and listening. 

The content was good.  It seemed worthwhile advice for those seeking to improve their customer experience and grow their business.  However, I kept thinking about the Christian themes mixed into his message.  This son of a missionary did not preach a sermon nor did he mention the Gospel of Jesus Christ.  Still, there was definitely an attempt to relate to the audience at a level of their religious values.

This sort of thing, good or bad, seems like the latest development in Christian missions.  In times past, the church was the church, those ordained and sent were more open about their underlying goals, urging repent and be baptized, and those personally profiting off the message were condemned:

“Unlike so many, we do not peddle the word of God for profit. On the contrary, in Christ we speak before God with sincerity, as those sent from God.”

(2 Corinthians 2:17 NIV)

Now, the man before us, he represented a non-profit entity and was giving advice that pertained to sales and serving customers.  Still, he did reference Scripture amongst his quotes of self-improvement gurus and even used the phrase “word of God” at one point in his presentation.  He would use our familiarity with the “good book” to bolster his claims and even shared some theological perspective. 

Again, I have no problem with this man nor the particular presentation.  In the business world this kind of consulting and advice is likely key to reaching the next level of sales and I’m sure we will do many of the things that he recommended.

However, what did stand out, and is the reason for writing this blog, is this trend towards a mission of influence rather than open proclaiming of the Gospel and, in many ways, I was at the forefront of this evolution.  My blogs, often a mix of theology, philosophy, and personal observation, is not openly declared as a Christian mission.  Still, I have used this media, and my understanding of Scripture, to do pretty much the same thing (minus the monetization) of this life coach of Anabaptist background.

So here’s some thoughts…

Where Did It All Begin?

The church has always had influential men and inspiring women.  Some rose in prominence, even have their writings and stories recorded in the canon of Scripture for our benefit.  The Orthodox have many noteworthy figures, Early Church Fathers, including St John Chrysostom, the archbishop of Constantinople, a man who took on the abuses of ecclesiastical and political authorities of his own time, and whose Divine Liturgy we celebrate to this very day, his name means “golden-mouthed” in Greek and he definitely had a way with words to match the description.

However, those in Scripture, as well as St John Chrysostom, were themselves all under the authority and guidance of the other Christians.  They were also very open about their mission.  They were unabashed preachers of the Gospel of Jesus Christ.  They weren’t your life coach using Christian themes to decorate a business oriented daylong consulting session for $150 a head.  St Paul may have made tents to support himself and his ministry, yet I’m not sure that he sold them using Christian themes.  Just saying.  His ministry was ministry and business was business.

But there is a sort of murkiness to many modern day efforts, where they aren’t part of the church per se nor even announcing themselves as a ministry, and it is by design.  So how did we get here?

The starting point of the current Western paradigm is obviously the Protestant schism with the leadership in Rome.  The intention of Martin Luther, ordained by the Roman Catholic Church, was not to start a denomination.  He wanted reforms and had good reason for his critiques.  And yet his written protests quickly became a catalyst, many took things much further than he had ever intended and we have the multitude of denominations as his most significant accomplishment.

Still, despite this, the church, even or especially with those of the radical reformation, remained a collection of individuals with accountability to each other.  Sure, the Anabaptists were more localized, led by shared statements of faith and collectively agreed upon congregational rules rather than by a hierarchical structure, but it was never every-man-for-himself or a free-for-all.  Those who spoke were ordained by various means, not simply a man full of his own ideas and finding a following.

The turning point? 

I think around the turn of the last century represents a shift.  The whole tent revival circuit, where a dynamic speaker, an Evangelist, would get up in front of the crowd and wow the audience with his polished salvation message.  Many were sold the Gospel in this manner, walked the sawdust trail, the circus would eventually leave town and life would go back to normal or the new normal, I suppose?

The next stage in development was the parachurch missionary organization.  By parachurch, these organizations are run seperately from the denomination, are often subject only to their own board members, and seek funding for themselves.  Basically, any ambitious person, with some natural musical or speaking talent, interested in travel, can start a prison ministry, missionary training institute or what have you, and only with as much ties to the existing church structure as they want.  All one must do is set up their nonprofit, find investors, buy the bus and be on their way to preach the word as their adoring wife glows beside them.

Yet, as all things, the traveling Evangelist and other obvious Christian missionary efforts, including openly Christian contemporary artists, have become tired old tropes.  The in your face presentation, the lack of follow-up or one-dimensionality of the presentation, the realization that the novelty had worn off of the original form, the scams and scandals, has led to a third wave of influencer and that’s the one that doesn’t even announce the Christian intentions at all.

Sometimes this lack of openly expressed intention is to avoid legal prohibition.  For example, teaching English in Asian countries that would not otherwise invite Christian missionaries.  Other times it is to add a practical element, after preaching and charities failed to help solve many underlying conditions, which gave rise to micro-lending groups.  Sometimes this repackaging is to sell the mission itself as something exciting, an adventure rather than some kind of dull service opportunity, and part of an effort to make Christianity relevant to the next generation.

After watching the presentation the other day, I suggested to a left-leaning Mennonite friend that we go on tour together for sake of racial reconciliation and healing.  Why not?  I think I could probably work the crowd, with a little practice, and definitely believe in the cause, could leading faith-related seminars be my calling too?

In theory this cause-oriented Christian influencer thing seems great.  We can have sportsman’s banquets, business seminars, and TED Talk the unsuspecting heathens (or even the more traditional religious types) with a flashy Powerpoint presentation, funny stories and down to earthiness.  And yet, this does seem to get things out of order, it puts values first and repentance second. 

More troubling, from the Evangelist of the past century, to parachurch missionary organization of the past decades, to the influencers of the present, the distance between the activity and actual purpose has grown.  The Evangelist preached without providing adequately in discipleship.  The missionary went without being sent or accountable to the church.  And the motivational speaker, while referencing the Bible, never announced a Christian intention.  And it makes me wonder, how far can we detach values or ministries from the Church, and cause of Christ, before it becomes entirely self-interested and divorced from Christ?

At what point is it all just a moneymaking scheme, devoid of actual spiritual substance?

I mean, we’ve all seen it, the shyster, the con man, the ministry with a board of directors full of families and “yes man” friends, the Televangelist, the guy selling a product, an ideology, a Ponzi scheme.  There is sometimes a very fine line between the less scrupulous, eyebrow raising efforts, and the more accepted manifestations.  Are we some day going to have Christian pornography, subtle Christian themes, maybe an actor pick up a Bible and read a passage before the main event, to hopefully plant that seed of influence? 

Where does it end?

The Rise and Fall of the Christian Influencer

David Ramsey, James Dobson, Ravi Zacharias, Ken Ham, and Bill Gothard are familiar names in conservative Mennonite circles.  Ramsey with his financial advice, Dobson with his focus on the culture war, Zacharias with his appeals to reason, Ham for his fundamentalist theme park and Gothard an earlier version of life coaching seminars.  The point of all of these men, at least as expressed, was to advise, consult and influence.  They are all men who took aspects of their religious values and turned it into an enterprise.

None of the men above represent a church denomination.  They rely on selling merch, the loyal support of people like you and donations to expand their reach.  They have built ministry campuses, a literal ark in the state of Kentucky, a few massage parlors here and there, and are only accountable to their own ministry boards.  Usually the focus, at least initially, is around one illustrious character, a strong personality, who is too often surrounded by the cult he has created rather than those who will challenge.

There now seems like a parachurch organization for every niche.  The list of bloggers, authors, evangelists, producers of all sorts, continues to grow and especially now in the age of social media.  It costs me nothing but time to set up my account on WordPress and start spewing out my perspectives.  Perhaps, if I were a bit more ambitious, I would write a book, do a book tour, and eventually be at your Lady’s Tea event sharing what I learned about life and love from the book of Ecclesiastes.   Book your reservations now as available slots are filling fast!

But the parachurch is the downfall of the church.  Too often these ‘ministries’ have come at the expense of the local body of believers, submitting and serving each other in love.  Too often it is something guided more by the spirit of Diotrephes, wanting things our own way and seeking those who agree, rather than by Christ.  That is why we have seen a growing number of scandals come to light, of leaders forced to resign by outside pressure or disgraced after death for their hidden sinful deeds.  I know, speaking for myself, it is too easy for me to shun deeper involvement in the actual church because it is difficult, not determined by my feelings of inspiration, and this is something that must be repented.

Jesus was willing to serve, but he didn’t determine the cross he was required to carry and, instead, submitted to the will of the Father.  The disciples, and St Paul, likewise, were not Lone Rangers, doing it their own way, without accountability or oversight.  Those with gifts aren’t to use those gifts to serve themselves or build their own empires.  They were sent and commissioned by the church, under the umbrella of those ordained to lead, and not independent contractors pursuing their own pet causes.

The Christian life is not about values, certainly not about self-promotion or having the right program either, but is about our Communion together with other believers, both past and present, and with Christ.  From that, the Holy Spirit, from our accountability to each other, our true obedience, transformation will come from inside out and love will flow out to change the world.  The values and culture coming from that rather than taught at seminars, religious institutions or Bible schools.

We don’t need more influencers.  We don’t need more parachurch organizations or a return to tent revival meetings either.  Many of these things are mere human efforts that will ultimately fail.  What we really need is the body of Christ, to partake and participate together in the life of the one true Church. 

Of Violent Mobs and Prophets

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A smug and sanctimonious religious person, shockingly from Anabaptist background, tried to hijack a point about loving individuals (rather than groups) by using an example of Old Testament judgment. They literally took the other side in a post explaining the kind of dangerous tribal thinking that led to the Holocaust. This individual really ought to be ashamed and repent of this perverse use of Scripture.

Before I go too far, it is very clear, to anyone who has read a history book or the Bible, that tribe in tribe violence and genocide were the norm. In Europe, North America and around the world, all lands have been conquered from the prior inhabitants by the current occupiers. The rivers, lakes and oceans would likely be filled with blood of our ancestors and those whom were violently removed from the gene pool by our collective ancestors.

That is the natural state of things. In an age prior to society life was, as Thomas Hobbes put it, “nasty, brutish, and short.” Hobbes, for his part, credited the formation of strong central governments for the transformation. An observation that made sense in 1651, before the use of modern governments to commit horrendous acts of genocide, I suppose?

Nevertheless, there has been been a shift of thinking from a time when it was okay to completely destroy an enemies tribe and the present. Many today, at least prior to Marxist indoctrination and regression of the past decades, would find it morally abhorrent to use one crime by one individual as an excuse to raze an entire village, steal the possessions of every inhabitant, kill all of the men and take the women captive, as was the case over and over again in the Old Testament of Scripture.

Something took us from the brutality of the Old Testament, where it was okay to judge an entire tribe based on the transgressions of a few or even one, to the idea, that underpins Bill of Rights, that all individuals should be granted rights. What took us from the time when only members of our own genetic or religious tribe have rights to the present? What led to the abolishment of slavery, something that had been practiced on all Continents, by people of all skin color designations against all other people at some point in history, before becoming unacceptable?

The answer, of course, is the one man, of the Jewish people, who started his ministry like this:

He went to Nazareth, where he had been brought up, and on the Sabbath day he went into the synagogue, as was his custom. He stood up to read, and the scroll of the prophet Isaiah was handed to him. Unrolling it, he found the place where it is written: “The Spirit of the Lord is on me, because he has anointed me to proclaim good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim freedom for the prisoners and recovery of sight for the blind, to set the oppressed free, to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.” Then he rolled up the scroll, gave it back to the attendant and sat down. The eyes of everyone in the synagogue were fastened on him. He began by saying to them, “Today this scripture is fulfilled in your hearing.”

(Luke 4:16‭-‬21 NIV)

Jesus began with a declaration of the fulfillment of the Old Testament, after reading a prophecy about the blind being given sight, the oppressed being given their freedom, the poor having some good news and stunned his religious audience. Of course his message had a strong appeal to the Jewish people, who were looking for a tribal Messiah who would set them free from Roman rule. It is no surprise that in these discontented time such a man would quickly find a cult following and become a threat to the established religious order.

But Jesus continued to defy the expectations of his religious tribally-minded followers. He subverted their expectations by expressing admiration for the faith of a Roman soldier, an occupier, by going to the home of a Jewish tax collector (and collaborator) and by using the despised Samaritan people, the “deplorables” of the smug and sanctimonious religious people in his audience, as his examples of virtue. Not only did extend the boundaries of “love your neighbor” to those outside of the tribe, he also did it using it a person from a group that they despised.

The idea of a “good Samaritan” or a Roman with faith greater than all of Israel, common parlance today to many of us, would be repugnant to them. How dare he! How dare Jesus compare them, the self-proclaimed elites of their own ethnic tribe, to these unwoke heathens? How dare he criticize their measures of righteousness, their loud public proclaims of socially acceptable displays of sacrifice, defy their rules of ritual cleansing and then call them hypocrites! It is no wonder these hateful bigots tried to cancel Jesus.

Jesus, by praising the equivalent of a police officer and a “flyover country” Trump supporter who rendered aid to a traveler, defied both their tribal identity focus and oppression narrative. They were the good guys with the right to rule. And at first they concluded that Jesus was confused, they asked his disciples why he ate with the bad people, the privileged tax collectors and alt-right trolls. He couldn’t be all that wise if he didn’t know what side of the social justice fence to be on, could he? Of course Jesus had never turned anyone away, but some excessively proud hypocritical people did reject him and his teachings.

The role of underdog and social elite has flipped at many points in history. First the Christan Jews were persecuted by the anti-Christian Jews, then the Romans destroyed the Jewish center of culture, and took up persecution of the Jesus cult spreading in their own ranks, before converting to Christianity themselves. We can mention the Islamic conquest of the Holy Land and Europe before being pushed back by the Crusades. Constantinople was a bulwark of Christianity before becoming overrun by the Turks, who never were held accountable for their Armenian genocide and that eventually the inspiration for an underdog artist and war veteran seeking a “final solution” named Adolf Hilter.

The one constant during two millennia of turmoil, of nations rising and falling, of a brief period of European domination of the world (after shedding their own tribalism) leading to the present time, is that Christianity has always been force for outreach across tribal lines. Yes, some did wrap themselves up in the name of Christ without actually applying his teachings. Progress does seem to always be a matter of two steps forward and one step back. And yet this idea of tribes coexisting, the imperfect tolerance of those who look, worship or act differently from us, is the rare historical exception.

Tribe against tribe violence was and is the norm. God even directly ordered the destruction of rival clans according to the Biblical narrative. But those looking to see Ninivah destroyed, like Jonah angry and disappointed on the hill, should stop seeing themselves as God and repent. Jesus did not come to condemn the world, but that the world through him might be saved. So those hoping for the world to burn, especially the system that has benefitted them more than most, should be warned. Jesus didn’t come so that tribal grievances could be redressed violence against a rival tribe. He came to free us all from this cycle of sin and death.

Those promoting or justifying intertribal conflict and contempt are antithetical to Christ. While Jesus sought to erase these artificial boundaries, to free us from our mental prisons of prejudice and give us sight that sees beyond race and socal status, these impostors are like Judas. They envy rather than love their neighbors and would leave a man bloodied on the side of the road if he wore the wrong skin color or may even beat him themselves. They may couch their in the words of Christ, as compassion or concern for the poor, but their real aim is social status and political power.

Those who seek to divide the church (and countries) into competing identity groups, privileged and oppressed, have betrayed the cause of Christ and seek to bring people back into captivity rather than free them. They are spiritually blind despite declaring themselves to be ‘woke’ and have nearly the entire backing of the corporate and institutional system behind them despite flaunting a victim status. They are like the Pharisees, perpetually offended, and seek to destroy anyone who would expose them for the truly toxic people that they are.

Sure, Jesus did divide, but not along lines of ethnicity, gender or social status. He subverted, not by targeting the brutal Roman rule (or laws) nor by “down with the hierarchy chants” against Jewish religious leaders. No, instead he urged compliance, he told his followers to “turn the other cheek” when insulted and to go the “extra mile” when compelled by the occupying Romans to carry their gear. Even when delivering a withering criticism of the religious authorities, he acknowledged they “sat in Moses seat” and taught that the position itself should be respected even if the occupants were unworthy and corrupt.

Those comparing an unruly mob to an Old Testament prophet (even one as contemptuous as Jonah) and suggesting the current destruction is somehow God’s judgment have no theological or moral leg to stand on. The teachings of Jesus do not give anyone licence to judge nations, that is the work of God and the saints someday, not ours. Jesus, however, did stand up to the social elites then and they hated him. They whipped a mob into a frenzy with their false accusations, an ineffectual leader bowed to the demands of the mob and that’s why Jesus was crucified.

Conflict Builds Character: A Family Conversation About Race

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My own family situation was unique. As many good Mennonites do, my aunts and uncles, like my grandmother, adopted and there was no child left behind. Of course what this meant is there was some additional shades of color at family reunions and it had always seemed like this wonderful idyllic thing. And it certainly did help in the regard that it gave some children the privilege of a stable home and also likely helped us other cousins to humanize those of different color from our own.

But with this also came a negative side. Believe it or not, good little Mennonite children can also be vicious racists, being of a different skin color did indeed make that a focal point of conflict and I wonder how many seeds were planted then that fed insecurities that we all deal with and yet would be felt especially acutely by those adopted? My own feelings of not belonging did not have that one focal point, that specific thing that could be identified as a source, and yet I was still the “black sheep” regardless.

Still, I had the opportunity to talk to another self-identified “black sheep” of his family, my cousin Isaac, who like me, had a foot in two different cultures. He would spend most of the year with his white family in rural Pennsylvania, his parents my first cousins, and would also spend time with his black family in the inner-city of Philadelphia during the summer. Of course this gives him a very unique perspective on racial issues and definitely a voice worth listening to. So, when we started to argue about recent events, both of us talking past each other, he called and this is the result.

My Voice Doesn’t Matter

Taking a step back, Isaac and I are a different generation. I’ve been struggling, over the past few years, with feelings of betrayal for having embraced the ideal of racial equality and all that nonsense (which isn’t actually nonsense) about judging each other by the content of character rather than the color of their skin. Racism always seemed silly to me. What did it really matter what skin a person wore so long as they treated me decently, right? And that’s just how I would assume that most rational and sane people think. Unfortunately things are more complicated than that and that is what is creating conflict across this great nation.

My grievance started years ago, with something that I witnessed over and over again and maybe is best captured in a story from my school years when a mother, black, got on to the bus and screamed in the face of our bus driver, calling him “racist” and “redneck,” nasty things. Why? Well, he had had the audacity to apply the same standard, established for the safety of her children as much as all of us, but apparently the only thing she could see was that this white man (now beet red) was somehow mistreating her perfect darling angels for trying to impose a little order. The rest of us sat in stunned silence, the poor farmer working for a pittance was not a sophisticated man nor equipped for this kind of conflict nor were the rest of us.

That was one of many similar incidents where us polite people had to simply keep our mouths shut as some other folks got a free pass for their misbehavior. Polite culture means we avoided causing a scene, that we look the other way when the impolite people fight and basically do whatever it takes to avoid conflict. Conflict over the slightest perceived insult was the realm of bullies and other insecure people. We did not wish to be browbeat and berated ourselves. Our own grievances with this mistreatment would be mocked and belittled anyways, so we kept our heads low and did whatever it took to accommodate those less polite.

A few years, during the Obama presidency, many took issue with the massive expansion of government called by the misnomer Affordable Care Act. Of course, as a consistent fiscal conservative and one keenly aware of the costs, along with unintended consequences, of expanded government power, I was opposed. Many Americans did peacefully protest and yet, almost immediately, they were branded as racist by the media. I was appalled. But at least a black friend, a progressive, with a good education, would treat my own concerns as valid, right? It ended up being one of the most disappointing conversation of my life. A man, who already intimidated me for his advantages, dismissed my points with personal insults.

It was in that conversation and several others, after Obama’s call for dialogue about race, that I found out my own voice and experience didn’t matter in this ‘conversation’ about race. If I did not accept everything on their terms then I wasn’t understanding or lacked in empathy, which is absurd and definitely not terms that I would ever agree with in any other discussion. Nevertheless, it was what was, my skin color automatically disqualified my opinion, my attempts at consistently applied principles didn’t apply to their grievance, and I’ve always left feeling unheard. That’s the experience for many who don’t go 100% along with the protest narrative. Our voice didn’t matter.

A Time When Silence Is No Longer An Option

Over the past few years I’ve become a professional (yet hopefully harmless) agitator. After years of being a polite person or at least trying, wanting to go along with the Mennonite program, and finally it had just become too much. I had been told I was respected, affirmed in many ways, followed the rules, mostly, or to the best of my abilities and felt the other side of this social contract wasn’t holding up their own end of the commitment. My grievance had become too much to bear any longer and thus began my blogging here. It eventually boiled over and led me to leave my Mennonite tribal identity behind or at least to the extent that is possible.

But this emancipation was not complete. There was one topic, given past experience and potential loss of friends, that I avoided as much as possible. The politics of race, meaning the discussion of things related to measuring out justice and governance, is a third rail for those who wish to think outside of the established and acceptable narrative. As oppressed as some claim to be, the oppressed sure do dominate conversation, they have governors breaking their own shutdown orders to march, celebrities speaking out in solidarity and big corporations affirming their message without any word about the accompanying violence. If only I could be so oppressed.

It was with cities burning, small owners being beaten for defending their livelihoods, with my polite friends seeing “animals” and a growing number people dying in the violence, that I decided to take off my own filter and say enough is enough!

Everyone up to President Trump himself had acknowledged the injustice of George Floyd’s death. We had an opportunity for solidarity against police brutality, the officer was charged, and yet, after what seemed like a full validation of the concern, the protests only picked up steam. I might be a polite person, who avoids conflict when possible, but I don’t want to be beaten to death on account of my skin color more than anyone else and certainly was not going to wait untill the violence had reach my own doorstep to speak out. No, nobody asked me to mediate or broker a conversation. I knew that those on the ‘other side’ would likely tune me out, maybe even unfriend or unfollow me, and started my own form of protest.

The racially divisive narrative was a lie. Police brutality is a problem. The death of George Floyd is, by all appearances, an injustice. I have no problem with those who, on their own time and dime, without violating the rights of others, wish to protest. I know well the reality of racism, both historically and in the current year. And yet to frame everything of what happened in Minnesota in terms of race simply ignores reality and this sort of assumption about what happened will lead to anything but justice. If we were allowed to have an intelligent discussion on matters of race, if I had a partner in that discussion willing to see another perspective, I could explain.

The Call

Anyhow, it was in the midst of speaking out that someone with connection to me since childhood decided to speak back. That being my cousin Isaac. And it went predictably, online, as one would expect, I was “missing the point” and this first round came to a stalemate, with us moral posturing and might have ended there had Isaac not reached out with a phone call. It didn’t feel, at the end of an hour or so, that we agreed on too much. We had our times of animation, talking over each other, and emotion. But the reality is that we accomplished far more in our willingness to engage and so I did want to summarize a little of what I saw as significant, what I heard, where we agreed and where as diverged.

1) Not About George Floyd

The one thing that Issac and I seemed to agree on is that that this was not about only the death of George Floyd. In his view, this is about racial unjustice and draws upon his own experience of finding out what it means to be black as a teenager. He spoke of the fear that black (presumably men in particular) have in their encounters with police, the profiling he suspects when entering into white communities and some of the racist language he has encountered.

The circumstances surrounding Floyd’s death, that being his violent criminal record, his being on drugs and passing forged currency were inconsequential in his opinion. And I agree that this doesn’t make any difference as far as the guilt or innocent of Derek Chauven and the other officers. But where I diverge from Isaac is where he claims this death makes him equally vulnerable, as a black man, whereas I believe that criminal behavior and repeat negative encounters with law enforcement are going to dramatically increase the chances of dying at the hands of police.

So we agreed that it is not about George Floyd. But I see the only reason that we are talking about this case, as a nation, is because of Floyd is black and not because of the injustice.

2) Black Lives Is Not About Black Lives, But All Lives?

Isaac took issue with me saying that this was all about black tribal identity and racial solidarity, but was actually about police brutality and justice for all people. But, while saying this, he also defended the “Black Lives Matter” description and claimed it was a movement to respect all lives.

However, if this were truly the case, I postulated, why do we only have protests, riots and looting when it is a black man involved?

Why didn’t millions of Black Lives Matter protestors take to the streets and demand instantaneous prosecution of the black officer, Mohamed Noor, who shot and killed Justine Damond, an unarmed 40-year-old white woman in July of 2017?

Why did I never hear about the final desperate calls of a young man named Tony Timpa? “You’re gonna kill me!” “You’re gonna kill me!” “You’re gonna kill me!”

Timpa cried out thirty times, as officers pinned his shoulders, knees and neck down, and joked over his body as he slipped away in 2017? Why no outrage over the officers only being charged with misdemeanors and then having those charges dropped?

Could it be because Timpa was white?

And, finally, why did it not matter when Daniel Shaver, a 26 year old man on a business trip, in 2016, was shot five times, while crawling in compliance with police demands and having committed no crime?

His killer was acquitted, even briefly reinstated as a police officer just so he could receive a pension and nothing burned. Nobody said much of anything.

Why?

I know what my own answers to that series of questions is. My answer is that these deaths did not fit a racially divisive narrative. If this were truly about making all lives matter and police brutality, then these three cases would be an excellent opportunity to bring many people into the fold. No, that doesn’t mean that Isaac is insincere, not at all, but I do think the “Black Lives Matter” moniker is alienating and, frankly, insulting to those of us who have spent our lives treating everyone of all colors and creeds as if their lives mattered.

So, my point is if this truly is about police reforms, not racial tribalism or divisive political posturing, why not find descriptive language that matches that intention? Why not “All Male Lives Matter,” since most who are killed by police happen to be men, mostly white men, not women? Or maybe “Police Brutality Must Stop,” a title that would describe the actual mission if it is about change and reform of police violence? The point is that words also matter and I would much sooner jump on board a movement that didn’t falsely present the issue.

Isaac would likely disagree with everything I just said, that’s his right.

3) Isaac Wants Change, I Do Too

The real crux of the matter comes down to a difference of perspective. Isaac (who has friends who are in law enforcement) sees a “broken criminal justice system” and wants a change. I agree that there needs to be improvement, but also that there’s an elephant in the room not often talked about and that being that we aren’t actually being honest in our discussion about race or getting to those things that lead to more violent encounters with police. And that’s not blame-shifting, we can both hold police officers accountable and also get to some of those root issues shaping black outcomes as well, but there first needs to be some acknowledgement of that difference.

As things currently stand, polite people are forbidden to talk about things like black on black crime, we are not supposed to notice when public officials, journalists and activists downplay the ongoing murder and mayhem in the name of justice. We are not supposed to believe our own eyes when we see people, many of them black, with armfuls of stolen merchandise. Sure this may be a small minority, but let’s not pretend that this is only a few “white supremacist” infiltrators. It is time to stop this racism of lower expectations and have zero tolerance for using one injustice to excuse another. Again, that would restore some credibility and help accomplish the stated goals of the protests.

And we need to talk about this double standard. The polite people are fed up with being treated like second-class citizens and silenced based on their skin color. They are tired of being villainized or ridiculed for their peaceful protests of other forms of government oppression, equated to terrorists, when actual terrorism is being ignored and criminals lionized. We need to talk about this because even polite people won’t respect those who do respect them. If the goal is to eventually achieve equality (which is my own hope) then the pandering and patronizing must end. To achieve the change we need to be the change and to be the change we need to treat others as we wish to be treated.

Ironically, I believe some of the reason why many white people tune out is because they don’t feel heard themselves. Many, like me, feel unappreciated in a system that expects them to be polite people and then celebrates when their minority counterparts act out. It’s almost as if the minstrel shows have etched in this expectation that the black folk are supposed to sing, dance and keep us entertained, riot occasionally, that black people are unable to control themselves or their emotions and thus can be exempted if they are more aggressive, etc. But this is utter nonsense, there are many sober and serious black people, many emotional and expressive white people.

I do agree with Isaac, we should not hold police to a different standard than anyone else, they must be held accountable for their actions like anybody else, and I support the push for reforms. Where we seem to diverge the most is our perception of what’s important to consider. He would prefer a more narrow focus, on the problem of police brutality, where I am more interested in doing more to address the cultural issues that lead to negative outcomes and would improve the image of black men in particular.

4) I Want Appreciation, And As An Individual

It is not fair that Isaac, as intelligent and well-rounded as an individual that he is, gets lumped in with the crimes of any other black man or is even the defined in any way by his skin color. Likewise, I don’t want to be judged or held personally accountable for sins I’ve never committed as some are trying to do. It is absolutely absurd to me that some white people are out literally kissing the boots of black men. Please stop this insanity! Let’s just all learn to appreciate each others as equally individuals, okay? Fight prejudice in all forms.

I would also rather we start from a position of appreciation for the criminal justice system that we do have. It is far from perfect and yet I know first hand what happens where it doesn’t exist. The killers of uncle Roland, in the Philippines, despite many leads, have not been brought to justice and that’s simply because there’s not the law enforcement resources to bring to bear. It is extremely easy to criticize any system and yet we should also study what is working and why as well. The key to fixing or improving any system is having an intimate knowledge of how it works or why it was designed in a particular way.

I think that’s where Isaac and I differ the most, and also why we must talk, he wants change while I’m geared for caution and constraint. He protests for justice, now, immediately and on his own terms, while I ruminate about foundational principles and think about past incidents of mob rule. Neither of us are right or wrong in our approach. I understand his orientation towards action. He probably gets more done while I brood and ponder philosophies. We make perfect sparing partners. He knows enough about me to keep me honest and I know enough about him to do the same.

I appreciate that Isaac, while passionate, did not attempt to pigeonhole and treated me with respect, like an equal. As Scripture says, “iron sharpens iron” and I felt quite evenly matched. It was definitely a conflict, yet I never felt threatened, as I have in other similar attempts at honest dialogue and efforts to bring the racial divide. We ended up expressing our love for each other, something that I don’t think we’ve even done before given there is a whole multitude of cousins on my dad’s side, and the whole experience was cathartic for someone like me who cares deeply and often feels helpless to change anything given the complexity of everything.

It also inspired me to write this and help get our combined perspectives (albeit obviously biased towards my own perspective) out there for your consideration. But the more important take away is that we not ignore uncomfortable topics, that we not shout each other down rather than hear, that we engage in there types of true conversations, with two sides given, and find our common ground. I feel strongly that God brought Isaac and I together for a reason and the reason is to be that bridge between people. But Isaac deserves most of the credit, he didn’t fire shots and run, he was willing to engage in a meaningful dialogue.

The Dangerous Lie of Shut Down or Die

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False dichotomies pop up everywhere in the political discourse. You are either pro-life or you are a raging homicidal baby-killing feminist monster and, alternatively, you are either pro-choice or you are “at war with women” and would turn the world into “The Handmaid’s Tale” if ever given the chance. Of course, both sides of that dichotomy are grossly misrepresenting those on the other side. Some of the most vocal proponents of pro-life that I know are of the female gender, would rather not have their lives ruled by men or be treated like baby-making slaves. Likewise, many on the pro-choice side are intelligent and compassionate people who follow a different dogma as far as what does or does not constitute a separate human life.

Where you stand on the recent Covid-19 forced closures probably has much more to do with your politics than it does with your personal level of scientific sophistication. Sure, there are many, blinded by their own confirmation bias, who see everything they believe as being scientifically based and rational, but that is to be in denial of the role that their own emotions play in their judgment. The decision to shut down the economy due to the virus had has much to do with fear as fact. How do I know? Well, there weren’t a whole lot of reliable facts to go on when the decisions were being made. We had models, yes, but models are only as reliable as the data entered and the accuracy of the assumptions that they contain. Their predictions are not facts. What likely had a big influence is the scary stories coming from Italy and the lack of good information from China.

The Changing Understanding of Covid-19

I had been in favor of the shutdowns, initially, to give time to make a more accurate assessment of the actual threat and also to give time for our medical professionals to gear up amidst global shortages of personal protective equipment. Sure, many Americans are of the pigheaded mentality that they will drive eighty miles per hour into a blinding fog bank and then have massive pileups as a testament to their inability to slow down for anything. But it is only prudent to enter into a potentially deadly new situation, with many unknowns, with an abundance of caution. The arrival of Covid-19 onto the world scene was such a circumstance. The idea of social distancing to “flatten the curve” made sense at the time.

However, as a couple of weeks morphed into a month or more and the language of state politicians mysteriously shifted from slowing the spread (as we were told was the reason for the shutdowns) to trying to stop it entirely, while at the same time the there was growing evidence that the virus was not as deadly as first thought, was likely here earlier than had been previously known and may have actually reached the peak (unflattened before the shutdown measures had been implemented) in some places, I kept waiting for decision-makers to shift their policies according to the actual evidence. But they did not. Frozen by fear or too stubborn to revisit their previous decisions (or maybe even wanting to punish those opposed to their lockdowns and show who is boss, who knows?) there was no change. They were determined to plow ahead with their prior decision based on bad data, economic consequences be damned, so wear your masks, go to Walmart like good little citizens and shut up.

We all have an idealogical team we are pulling for, whether we realize it or not, and it can cloud our perspective of an issue. Sure, you might believe that your ignorance of virology is “common sense” (which, unfortunately, is probably common and yet good sense is not always common) and refuse to take reasonable precautions. Or you might think your own opinion (and that of the experts whom you agree with) is some kind of “scientific consensus” and an irrefutable fact. But the reality is that you might just be too arrogant (in your little knowledge or, rather, knowing just enough to be dangerous) to understand that there could be perspectives greater than your own. The frustrating part for me was always being caught between the false choices put out by those on either side of the political debate. Those calling the virus a hoax, dismissing the effectiveness of masks, and being generally ignorant only armed those pushing for control with a false moral imperative to double-down on their shutdown or die mantra.

Covid-19, while certainly deadly for many and even if those terrifying early estimates of a 2-4% death rate had held true, is nowhere near the Spanish flu. The real number, given growing evidence gathered by antibodies testing and from various ships where everyone was tested, shows a true death rate closer to 0.5% which isn’t too different from the seasonal flu over the course of an average year. Yes, it did certainly stretch our medical resources thin, and likely would’ve with or without the shutdowns, yet there is little evidence to show that our economic self-sabotage actually saved lives. No, if anything, we may have simply destroyed opportunity for those most vulnerable here and around the world for no real gain. It is quite possible, even probable, that more will die as a result of the forced shutdowns than were saved. In the end, the decision to shut down the economy was never a question of shut down or die. For many, it may very well be shut down and die.

False dichotomies are dangerous. They are lies. This polarization of our many choices can come with tragic results.

Economic Shutdowns Also Kill People

In my many discussions about Covid-19 I’ve run into many reoccurring and economically illiterate sentiments, like this one: “I’m sorry but I can’t believe I’m reading this. No compassion for human life and suffering?” That in response to a well-written article weighing the benefits against the costs of the economic shutdown. Apparently, in this person’s emotion soaked and one-dimensional brain, the only way you can show compassion for human life and suffering is to keep people caged in their homes and unable to feed themselves?

As a starting point, there was never a scenario where there could be zero deaths from Covid-19. That ship had sailed long ago, in China, when the authorities there continued to let people from the epicenter travel around the world (although not domestically) and sailed when many Western leaders were more concerned with things like “xenophobia” than the virus. Maybe had Europe joined the Trump administration in banning travel from the source of the outbreak there may have been a chance of containing it. But it was already too late by the time concern about the virus and death tolls had finally exceeded worries about political correctness and virtue signaling about race. Places like New York City and Los Angeles were going to see tens of thousands dead regardless of what was done at that juncture.

When the shutdowns began, in earnest, the virus was already deeply entrenched. The first verified case in France, for example, has been recently discovered to have been back in December already and much earlier than initially thought. It had likely spreading while some politicians here were still encouraging people to crowd the streets of Chinatown and was definitely being passed around while Italian leaders were telling people to hug Chinese people (from Wuhan, no less) in a misguided effort to prove they weren’t racist. The die had been cast and we were in for a wild ride.

But what we did have a choice over is how we responded to the threat. Certainly, the virus had not reached us all, and we could not know (without significant testing) if the peak of infections was a couple of weeks out or still months ahead. If the virus had reached relatively few of us and the death rates were already skyrocketing then the most desperate measures were completely justified even if it cost some lives. On the other hand, if the virus had already been in circulation for months and the hospitals weren’t already jampacked, there was very little to be gained and plenty to be lost from sweeping anti-economic measures. Those with strong social networks and a fat wallet, like the Hollywood celebrities urging us plebes to stay at home while they sip martinis in their hot tub, might not get it, but there are serious consequences to economic shutdowns even if you do not personally experience them.

For those who still think that there’s no harm done by shutting down (simply because they are amongst the privileged less affected and able to put food on their own tables), keep reading.

This idea that the economy is about Wall Street and stock portfolios is complete and utter nonsense. The concern many have about the shutdown has nothing to do with the fiction you hold of Scrooge McDuck swimming in his vault full of gold coins and perpetually worried about losing his wealth. Not at all. First, no billionaire (other than the Hollywood fantasy villain version) actually has moldy money, billionaires are billionaires because they make good investments and their investments are often in life-sustaining industries, like healthcare. Second, most of the economy is Y-O-U. The economy is, simply put, our transactions together, the labor we use to produce things of value to trade with others for our wants and basic necessities.

That out of the way…

Domestic Abuse, Drug Overdoses, and Suicide Rates

Shutdowns have consequences and the consequences are often much more devastating for those most vulnerable. I think often of my waitress and waiter friends, people in the restaurant industry, who have suddenly without warning had their entire income stream dry up by the executive fiat of someone who gets their paycheck via the state treasury or through an accumulation of assets. Sure, Trump and Congress have taken action to offset some of these losses by direct payments, unemployment compensation has been extended to many who might not otherwise qualify and yet that will do nothing for those permanently unemployed.

For many in the world, in the same way that Covid-19 is deadly to those with comorbidities, an economic shutdown is (or will be) that proverbial straw that broke the camel’s back. Sure, you can say that the guy devastated by the bills piling up and his bank account drying up, his business being shuttered, should see the bigger perspective. But that is no different from saying that we should not care about Covid-19 deaths because those most impacted were dying anyway and that their comorbidities actually killed them. The fact that not everyone is as financially healthy as you are or as emotionally able to weather the storm caused by the shutdown doesn’t undo the damage done to those who are more vulnerable.

The socio-economic cost of the shutdowns should be factored into the decision as much as the potential gain. Sure, there is a possibility (although it is not proven) that the shutdowns may spare a few that would otherwise have perished from the virus and accompanying complications. But there is definitely an uptick in things such as domestic violence and child abuse that comes with forcing weak and emotionally vulnerable people to stay confined together, away from their sources of stress relief and friends, for months. Believe it or not, not everyone shares your advantages in mental health, not everyone can keep doing their work via Zoom, we aren’t equal in this together as some will proclaim, some are isolated alone, and with only their suicidal ideations to keep them company for the duration.

And, for those of you looking down your noses in condemnation of the shutdown protestors at state capitals, thinking that your own rationality and compassion is what is guiding you, think again. True compassion would have some sympathy for those who are suffering from the economic consequences of the hasty and arbitrarily enforced shutdowns. Unlike you, they might not be able to afford to shelter in place for months at a time. The truth might be that you, in your fearful overreaction to Covid-19, simply do not care enough about their livelihoods being ripped out from under them and are too ignorant of the economic consequences, the increase in domestic abuse, drug overdoses, and suicides that accompany economically dire circumstances.

It is certainly no more dangerous to do a couple of laps around a state capital, than it is to go to Home Depot, Walmart, or the grocery store. I suspect the real issue some have has to do with political affiliations. It is a moral superiority contest between them and those who decided that the risk of government overreach and economic ruin is greater than the virus. Some would rather live in denial of the serious economic consequences they’ve imposed on others, ignore the evidence of the suffering caused by their selfish demands for safety at all costs (to their neighbors), and maintain their dangerous tunnel vision?

Of course, who knows, in the current political climate, maybe some would rather the protestors killed themselves than peacefully vent their pent up frustrations?

But this is far bigger than domestic politics…

Economic Downturns, Food Shortages, and Starvation

The most troubling and continuing consequences of the imposed shutdowns is the impact it is having on the agricultural industry and food supply chain. It was very early on when the stories started to cross my newsfeed about small farmers, in the Philippines, being forced to dump their produce. If one understood the labor that it took (most Americans can’t even imagine), that these farmers would give up their meager profits, it is hard to understand. But that is what happens when the market is closed down, there is no refrigerated warehouse to store their vegetables until things reopen again. And, sure, some of it is distributed to their neighbors, and yet the real demand comes from the cities. So the cities are cut off from their suppliers and the poor farmers from their buyers and only source of income.

Vegetables dumped in Benguet

I’ve realized recently that many people can’t understand logistics even at the most basic level and see the actions of agricultural producers here as being greedy or suspicious. When I mentioned how producers were culling herds due to processing plants being closed over Covid-19 concerns and the possibility of people starving, I had a guy respond with the following, “If we don’t want people to starve let’s start by distributing this food that is being wantonly destroyed by the factory farms.” His ‘solution’ may seem reasonable at first glance. I mean, why not? But then you have to considfer that these big producers would not just throw away their profits. They aren’t that stupid. And if they can’t process this protein then you can be 100% sure that government or anyone else is going to replace their production capacity. They are the specialists.

Sure, like in rural parts of the Philippines, the neighbors to these massive barns will get all the pork or poultry they will ever need. However, that’s nibbling around the edges of the problem. The real reason we have these “factory farms” is not to supply Union County and the surrounding communities. No, not at all! The real market for this meat is the big cities. So, while it is great that some rural neighbors get to fill their freezers at a below-market price, that is going to do very little for the needs of those downstream and cut off from their food source. A couple of “community gardens” in Brooklyn can’t offset the literal tons of beef, pork, and vegetables that are imported into that city every day. Don’t get me wrong, I love a ‘feel good’ story as much as the next guy, but this isn’t an issue that will be solved by a couple of generous farmers.

The abrupt shutdowns and closures are causing incredible bottlenecks that cannot be easily resolved overnight. Closing down schools and restaurants, for example, meant that all of the food in that pipeline, packaged for that kind of usage, was now jammed up. There are some grocery stores now selling meats that were originally intended for restaurants. But the retooling cannot happen like the flip of a switch. That is why some dairy processors, what specialized in supplying schools, had to dump their milk at the same time grocery shelves had run dry of the staple. That is why potatoes are piled up to rot in Idaho. When networks within the supply chain break down, when the market is majorly disrupted without warning, there are shortages in some places and over-supplies in other places.

Those big animal operations need to keep moving things along, the whole process can’t be held up for long before there are major problems, finished pigs need to be moved along or there is no room for the feeder pigs to go. Sure, they can change the feed to try to keep the finished pigs at a particular weight for a period of time. But eventually, something as to give. That is why there are piles of dead pigs a hundred feet long, going to waste, and soon enough the shelves will run empty as well. It will seem strange. Many won’t understand how it is possible, but it is happening and it is happening like a slow-motion train wreck.

That all said, I’m not afraid for myself or most Americans. We might miss out on a steak or pork chop. We will likely pay a little more for our food in the coming months. However, my real concern is for those in the many places around the world where people work hand to mouth. The rickshaw driver in Mumbai can’t afford to pay more for his family’s food and especially not after being locked in his own house for months. The person in a Manila slum, already living on “pagpag” (a Taglog term meaning “garbage chicken” or literally food pulled from the trash) will not do well when others are fighting over the disappearing scraps as food becomes scarce. Many in the world live on a very small ration, meat is a luxury to them, and now have been deprived of their income in a desperate fight against a virus that may not even be stopped by their sacrifice.

Making the Right Trade-offs…

There is no question about the seriousness of Covid-19. I have a close friend in NYC who lost two friends. They were both my age and died in their own homes. It is not a virus that should be laughed off or treated as no big deal. Tens of thousands have died and tens of thousands more will likely die and in a relatively short period of time. Sure, many of these people may have had comorbidities and yet they would very likely have been with us for many more years had they not had their encounter with this deadly virus.

It is possible that some could be saved from Covid-19 through the shutdowns. There is no solid evidence that this is the case. Nevertheless it is possible. That said, it is also possible that our efforts only prolonged or even worsen the pandemic by preventing “herd immunity” from ever happening, which means we could suffer more deaths from Covid-19 and also the experience the hardships of the economic shutdown.

Whatever the case, the “shut down or die” mythology needs to be confronted. Those looking for a perfect solution here are living in fantasy land. The hope that a vaccine will be developed quickly and then become widely available is (sorry, anti-vaxxer conspiracy theorists) basically a Hollywood fiction. We still don’t have a vaccine for SARS or MERS and may never have a vaccine for Covid-19. So, this idea that we can just hunker down and wait this out is not realistic. Sure, I would be glad to be proven wrong, it is possible, but there are also huge trade-offs to our waiting that need to be discussed.

Speaking of trade-offs: According to ASIRT, 1.35 million people die in car accidents every year (over 38,000 in the US) and an additional 20-50 million are injured (4.4 million US), some with permanent disabilities as a result. This, unlike Covid-19, is a ‘pandemic’ that disproportionally impacts the young and with no pre-existing health conditions. We could, quite easily, in the name of safety, ban all automobiles and save far more lives in a couple of years than the shutdowns ever would. Of course, we would never do that, we have valued the freedom of movement and economic advantages over the risk of serious injury or death. I suppose people feel more in control behind the wheel, but if we were really in control of the outcome of our trip then nobody would leave home knowing that they would get into a fatal car crash, would they?

Based on what we now know about the virus and death rates we should not have shut down the to the extent that we did. We may have saved a little on the front end, compared to Sweden who remained open, and yet will very likely end up in the same place as far as Covid-19 and far worse off in terms of the economic consequences. My fear is that many more will perish as a result of the shutdowns than from the virus. Millions of the world’s young and most vulnerable are suffering right now, as I write this, and could die of starvation. A good analysis must weigh all factors. We cannot be zoned in so much on one problem and only one solution that we cannot see any others. The virus from China is bad, but the panicky response of governments around the world may have made it many times worse.

Fear Is Contagious. Fear Is Deadlier Than Coronavirus.

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Spanish flu of 1918 was unusual, amongst modern influenza outbreaks, because it killed young and otherwise healthy people.  One of the possible reasons for this is an immune reaction called “cytokine storm” in which overreaction of a bodily system leads to a cascade of other failures and eventually to death.  I’ll let my friends who are medical professionals correct me on the details, but that is the basic idea and sufficient explanation to set the stage for this blog post.

The Herd Reacts…

The psychology of human behavior, in particularly how it pertains to people in groups, is a fascinating study.  We are social creatures and because of this our own response to anything can be easily influenced by the reaction of group.  If one person or several, who are considered credible by the group, start to do something new, it won’t be very long before there are many others copying them.  That is how fads and fashions are born, that is why religious people conform, we want to share in the credibility of the credible by doing what they are doing.  We do this unconsciously, like the contagious yawn, and can help explain what happened last week.

All of the cancelations of the past few days may very well come down to the actions of one man.  Rudy Gobert, days before becoming the first NBA athlete to positive for the Covid-19 virus, decided it would be funny to deliberately touch all the mics and recording devices in a news conference.  This led to the NBA suspending their seasons and, like Mrs O’Leary’s cow kicking over the lantern starting the Great Chicago Fire in 1871, one man’s caviler attitude could very well have triggered the response of the NBA and the long list of other cancelations that soon followed.

It goes like this: The NBA canceled because 1) a few of their players tested positive, 2) they realized they were no longer in control of the situation, and 3) they could possibly be held liable if the death of someone’s grandpa could be traced back to one of their sporting events.  So, in the name of public safety and all things good and right, they decided to approach this unknown risk by abruptly ending their season.  This, in turn, very likely influenced other leagues to follow suit for fear of their own inaction, despite knowledge of risk, becoming a heyday for trial lawyers everywhere or simply a public relations disaster.

The more leagues and events that cancelled, the more others felt pressured to do the same.  Sure, this was something rationally justified, the idea of “flattening the curve” or slowing the spread of a disease by “social distancing” soon became common parlance, and yet the spread of this idea to start canceling events seems also to be very much like the simultaneous run on toilet paper.  Anxiety disorder is something I know a little about and, while I’ve never been tempted to hoard toilet paper, it certainly has gotten in the way of my better judgement. 

So is the reaction to Covid-19 wholly rational or was it post hoc rationalization and basically a collective panic attack?

Nothing To Fear But Fear Itself…

I have a friend who was an Air Force medic during the First Gulf War.  He told me an anecdote you’ll never hear reported in the news, a behavior that doesn’t make any rational sense and yet is something he encountered a few times in the lead up to combat in Iraq. 

Apparently some of the young soldiers were so keyed up and anxious that they couldn’t take the pressure of the wait anymore, they would find a place where they had a little privacy (the porta-potties as I recall) and take their own life using the firearm issued to them.

It makes absolutely no sense.  Why would someone, facing the danger of death, be so anxious that they would actually kill themselves?

In times of crisis people want to do something, anything, to lose that feeling of powerlessness.  That is probably the reason why many people have recently started to stock up on things that really would not help them.  That is why young soldiers, concerned about losing their life, took their own life rather than continue to wait in fear.  Fear often leads to an irrational response.  And our most educated and elite, given responsibility to make decisions, are not immune to this kind of irrational “do something” impulse either.  Our leaders are capable of panic as much as any of us.

It reminds me of the story of Easy Company, told in the series “Band of Brothers,” where the Company Commander, 1st Lieutenant Norman S. Dike Jr. (or “Foxhole Norman”), was portrayed as being frozen by combat and unable to make a decision.  He had obviously been talented enough to rise up through the ranks and become an officer, but apparently he lacked the calm and collectedness to be an effective leader outside of a controlled predictable environment.  He had to be replaced by a more common and practical man, with the right instincts to get the job done:

During the assault on Foy, Dike had ordered a platoon to go on a flanking mission around the rear of the town. During their charge, he ordered them to take cover. His subordinates informed him they were going to get killed because they were sitting ducks.  At the same time, Captain Richard Winters, former commander of Easy Company and the Battalion executive officer, tried radioing him to tell him the same thing. Having no idea how to control the situation, Dike froze. Carwood Lipton, at that time the company’s first sergeant, later put it: “He fell apart.” He was relieved during fighting at Foy by First Lieutenant Ronald Speirs under orders from Captain Winters, then moved on to become an aide to Maxwell Taylor, 101st Airborne Division.”

Military Wiki, Norman Dike

Could it be those whom have power in our institutions are men (and women) of similar caliber to Dike?  Smart, capable of working their way up through the established system, and yet lacking the courage necessary to lead society through uncharted waters?  Some of them freeze in fear, others overreact in their anxieties, while others (seeing the bigger picture) are more more able to make good decisions and navigate the stressful circumstances of the present moment.  Running the NBA or being at the top of a government agency does not mean that a person is qualified to manage a crisis and in some cases those in those positions are probably going to make matters worse rather than better.

Self-sabatoge, Fear-based Overreaction and Titanic Failures…

It is really hard to know, actually, in a politically polarized time, when many are willing to cut off their nose to spite their face, what is a real crisis and what is merely an opportunity to try to undermine a political opponent.  In fact, there are some in this country who seem quite willing to destroy the economy in a desperate bid to get their power back and a few who even seemed to cheer the plunge in the markets.  When some see personal benefit in feeding hysteria and panic, it is hard to know who too trust when clearly not everyone is on the same team anymore.  

But that said, I would tend to see the fear as being real and the reaction a sincere effort to prevent the worst case scenario from happening.  It was easy, as Covid-19, ravaged China, to deny the severity of the situation.  For one, the Chinese government is not the most trustworthy source of information (add to the that they had every reason to minimize the outbreak as not to scare away investment dollars) and, two, it is very easy to dimiss China as a them rather one of us.  The real wakeup call was Italy, a country clearly on par with our own in terms of medicine, and how quickly a few isolated cases suddenly exploded.  And, unlike China, where the government kept a tight lid on information, the truth was allowed to escape.

What has happened since I see as being similar to when a driver dozes off, wakes up while crossing the rumble strips, and reactively jerks the wheel.  Their immediate reaction may spare them a trip into the trees, but it could also be an over-reaction that takes them head-on into an incoming tractor trailer.  It could be too little too late.  There are those right now who call the idea of “flattening the curve” a “deadly delusion” an that only complete containment strategy will make a difference.  But then I begin to wonder has the opportunity to save those most vulnerable been missed a month or so ago when we failed to close our borders when it was clear that China was dealing with something unprecedented in our own times?

They say had the HMS Titanic ran straight into the iceberg, rather than barely grazed it, some would’ve died from the violent collision and yet the ship would likely haved stayed afloat.  It is also strong possibility that they could have avoided a collision with the iceberg altogether if they had only used the rudder rather than try to reverse the engines.  The Titanic, unlike many ships of the period, had two outer propellers run off piston engines and one in the center that was powered by a turbine.  The outer propellers could be reversed quickly, the inner could not, and the result of their attempt to reverse being turbulence over the rudder which made the magnificent ship unresponsive.

Sometimes I wonder if it is too late to spare the lives that will be lost if we slam headlong into Covid-19 and let be what will be.  Yes, people will die.  But people will die regardless and crippling the economy may only add to the death count.  Don’t get me wrong, I believe cancelling unnecessary activities and avoiding large group gatherings is a precaution worth taking, as is practicing good hygiene, washing hands, wearing masks and self-quarantine.  However, I would also argue that wrecking the economy will only make matters far worse and must also be avoided at all necessary costs.

In my own mind there is a vast space between paralyzing fear or irrational over-reaction and blinding arrogance.  We can and should be getting prepared, but with deliberate calm.  We are at war, the strength of our enemy is not fully known, we must not recklessly expose our vulnerable flanks, we dare never freeze in fear.  It would be wise to buy some time, to allow better countermeasures to be deployed and that does mean social distancing, less travel, more cleanliness, and really what should be common sense.

What Is Coming?

Despite our best effort, war is coming. We can expect that in the coming weeks that case numbers will jump dramatically and, not only that, but ICU beds will begin to fill at an alarming rate.  We could see abandoned shopping centers and malls converted into makeshift hospitals.  We will probably see some “wartime medicine” or triage, where those most likely to survive are given access to treatment over those who have only a slim chance are basically left to die, so snap out of your dismissive stupor and conspiratorial denial now or you will not be prepared for the battle of the coming days.  

That is the truth. 

We are emotional beings, not wholly rational. 

We make poor decisions, both collectively and individually, that can turn a dire circumstance into an absolute disaster.

If you are seeing this only in terms of politics, who gets blamed or who benefits, you are the problem more than the virus.  If you have filled your cart with toilet paper because suddenly you feel vulnerable and don’t know what to do, stop thinking only about yourself and stop feeding into the anxieties of others.  It is time to buckle down, put aside partisan differences, selfish ambitions, and act together as one nation again.

In the end, remember, like the case of many who caught Spanish flu and died because of their strong (yet unhelpful) response, overreaction can be more deadly than the actual threat.  We cannot bring the economy to a grinding halt out of fear, instead we must thread the needle with a prudent and properly measured reaction.  There is no point in stopping the virus by killing the patient.  We should pray that our leaders are given extraordinarily wisdom and calm for this unprecedented event.

God bless!