Saturday, May 28, 2016

The “emperors” of the Equality State have no clothes

“Home, home on the range
Where the deer and the antelope play;
Where seldom is heard a discouraging word
And the skies are not cloudy all day.”

Samuel Johnson is the 18th century writer who was called "arguably the most distinguished man of letters in English history." He once said, “No man but a blockhead ever wrote except for money.” If that’s true, I’m a blockhead. I may earn barely enough from my writing to be entitled to call myself a “professional writer,” but not enough to match the widow’s mite.

Five years ago the Wyoming Tribune-Eagle (WTE) invited me to write weekly columns. The years have come and gone. Those weekly submissions now number more than 250 published columns. Samuel Johnson would ask, “Why do it but for the money?”

Reader reaction is one answer. And it comes. A surprising amount is positive. Many critical responses are thoughtful. There are exceptions with common themes such as “if you don’t like Wyoming, you can leave.” Some wonder sarcastically whether I know how many people disagree with my opinions. The question answers itself. Why bother to write if you’re saying only what readers find agreeable?

Recall the Hans Christian Andersen story, "The Emperor's New Clothes.” The emperor is naked. Everyone sees he’s wearing nothing. No one says anything, fearing they’ll be ostracized. A young child finally blurts it out, "The emperor has no clothes!"  

When you’re willing to acknowledge that aloud, it makes some readers uncomfortable. One asked, “Given your familiarity with Wyoming, I wonder if you would be able to write an article on what you like about Wyoming.” 

Wyoming doesn’t need another cheerleader. There are plenty of others happily filling that important role. There are fewer willing to acknowledge the state of the emperor’s attire.

To be clear, I don’t claim to be the only one speaking up. Fortunately, the WTE permits diverse voices to be heard. Alas, much of Cheyenne and Wyoming is happier when “never is heard a discouraging word and the skies are not cloudy all day.”

But, as the reader noted, I am familiar with Wyoming and it’s that familiarity that compels me to write what I do.

I’ve lived here some 65 years. I’ve seen Wyoming from a wide variety of perspectives including 10 years in the legislature, practicing law in Wyoming courtrooms for 20 years, lobbying in the state house for 22 years, and having been an ordained minister for 17 years. Perhaps it’s just me, but there seems to be more injustice than justice for too many Wyoming families.

The most poignant experiences came in my eight years as director of the Department of Family Services and heading the state’s mental health and substance abuse initiatives. Administering child welfare and poverty programs, and working with families impacted by disabilities, low-wage jobs, discrimination, addiction, and/or mental illness, brought me face-to-face with people on the sidelines.

God has a plan for our lives, a plan revealed over a lifetime. One door closes. Another opens. We weave our way through life as each experience builds on the next. So it was, a path leading from politics to law and on to seminary studies brought a realization that the Gospel is fundamentally about not remaining silent in the face of injustice.

Lawmakers claiming to care about “the people” demonstrate little concern for their lives. They balance the budget by slashing or eliminating programs for the poor, the elderly, and the disabled while refusing to increase the minimum wage. Knowing layoffs in the mining industry were imminent, they refused to expand Medicaid to help care for unemployed miners.

The more you learn about those of our neighbors who are marginalized, stereotyped, and left behind, the more you feel somebody needs to say it. The “emperors” of the so-called Equality State have no clothes.  

Just as there is a common thread among the criticisms of my writing, so it is that the lives of these Wyoming families is a common thread among my columns.

Saturday, May 21, 2016

Baseball’s why God gave us grandchildren.

It doesn’t feel like spring yet in Wyoming but it is. How can you tell? Because it’s opening day for children playing baseball. They only do that in the spring. No less an expert than the late Major League Baseball Commissioner Bart Giamatti said so in his famous poem about the game. “The game begins in the spring, when everything else begins again.”

For grandparents, baseball “begins again,” as their grandchildren begin playing ball.

This spring our family is part of the Great American Pastime. We’ve joined hundreds of grandparents in a timeless ritual. This year it’s our grandchildren’s turn to learn to play. My grandson is six years old. It’s the beginning of a long career leading to the majors. Well, who knows but it is a family tradition. 

My dad, his siblings and their parents were migrant farm workers. Summers and falls were for working the fields between Texas and Colorado. But springtime was for baseball. Dad was good enough to play semi-pro ball and the love of the game never departed his soul.

Baseball was in his DNA and genetically passed along to his children. Baseball was an important part of our lives. We played Little League, collected baseball cards religiously, and sat down as a family to watch the “Game of the Week” each Saturday. It was the only baseball game televised in those days. With no team in the Mountain Time Zone, it was also the only chance we had to actually see Mickey Mantle, Roberto Clemente, Warren Spahn or the others. We leaned more about math from analyzing their statistics than we did in school.

In the old days, there weren’t a gazillion playoff games before the World Series. The first place team in each league played in the World Series, which ended before the snow began falling.

Those were the days before Major League Baseball became addicted to the big money television contracts. Back then, the World Series was played during the daytime. School classrooms stopped what they were doing so that teachers and students could watch every game.

During the early days of our childhood we lived in a small house on 17th street in Cheyenne next door to a vacant lot. It was our baseball field. Each day after our dads got off, we played a sandlot game lasting until the sun fell so low the hitter couldn’t see the pitch. 

It was our “Field of Dreams.” If you shared the experience of playing ball with your father, you, like I, got a little teary as Kevin Costner’s movie character Ray Kinsella recognizes the ghost-like figure standing at home plate is his long departed father John. Ray regrets the two, like most sons and fathers, had unresolved issues when John died. Those issues dissolve as father and son get one last chance at a game of catch. The emotional scene leaves us all dreaming about what it would be like to play one more round of catch with a long-departed father. “If you build it he will come.”

Baseball’s why God gave us grandchildren. We get another shot at the game. We watch them and remember what it was like to don the uniform that makes you part of the team and head for the diamond. We watch them work with a coach, realizing suddenly the game doesn’t come naturally. It has inexplicable rules. You can overrun first base but not second or third. A foul ball is a strike except when you already have two strikes. Forget teaching six year-olds the intricacies of force-outs. That’ll come later as will hitting the cut off man.

There are only two purposes now. One, make sure these kids like the game, have fun, learn sportsmanship, and want to come back next spring. The second is about grandpa’s heart. Baseball, Bart Giammatti’s poem claims, “breaks your heart.” He was wrong. My heart certainly didn’t break watching my grandson walk onto the field of his dreams on opening day.

“Play Ball!”

Friday, May 20, 2016

Burning witches at the stake-a time-honored American tradition

Burning witches at the stake is a time-honored American tradition. Each generation finds some form of witch to burn at their stake. This generation seems especially obsessed at maintaining the tradition. Otherwise Donald Trump would not be leading in the polls.

It’s a practice that started not long after illegal 17th century immigrants began arriving from Europe. They came to avoid the religious intolerance they experienced there in order to impose their own forms of religious intolerance here. As they stepped off the boat, the oppressed became the oppressor.

Stacy Schiff, a Pulitzer Prize winning writer, chronicled the 1600’s ordeal in “The Witches-Salem 1692.” Schiff’s book is an unpleasant read in the midst of the growing American witch-hunts aimed at Muslims, immigrants, and transgender people.

The book jacket prepares us to understand why Salem’s experience has continued relevance. “With devastating clarity, the textures and tensions of colonial life emerge, hidden patterns suddenly, startlingly detach themselves from the darkness.”

It is especially noteworthy that the core of Salem’s witch-hunts was unwelcomed religious tolerance. One Puritan preacher of the day told his flock that religious tolerance “qualified as a satanic idea.”

Abuse of Christian scripture was the bedrock of those beliefs. Discerning God’s will was their preoccupation. They knew the saved, like the damned, had been selected before birth. Their duty was to make certain the two didn’t mix. They maintained a “holy watchfulness” over one another.

That sounds like what some folks are talking about when they cheer the end of what they call “political correctness.”

Witchcraft raptures political correctness. It disappears into the clouds. Bigots are no longer confined to using socially acceptable words when speaking of others. They can call it as they see it even if that means overtly targeting Muslims, gays, trans people, poor people, or racial minorities. There’s no need to learn more about others when a leading presidential candidate ratifies your prejudices and notions. Witchcraft thrives on resentments while offering explanations for the perceived slights visited upon majority white, Christian, heterosexual males.

Intolerant Americans are being “radicalized.” Read the home-grown bigotry in your neighbor’s online comments following the recent Wyoming Tribune-Eagle story of Sheriff Dannie Glick’s warning about alleged terror cells in Wyoming. “Sorry,” said one anonymously, “To color Islamists as being near equal to Christians isn't going to work. They're all stone age creatures.”

Another local citizen wrote, “How about a "Muslim Watch" program like Neighborhood Watch?”

The Red Scare did the same in the 1950s. Joe McCarthy didn’t actually burn victims at the stake. He manufactured hatred. Dozens took their own lives. Among them was Wyoming Senator Lester Hunt. Thousands more lost careers and families.

With that history and the lessons it taught, how shockingly easy it’s been to go there again. We said, “Never again.” But it’s as though some Americans feel this is their once-in-a-lifetime chance to do unto others as the Puritans taught.

According to the Anti-Defamation League’s Center on Extremism, dozens of hate crimes have been committed in the United States against American Muslims in recent weeks.

Arsonists target Mosques. A woman who threw hot coffee in the faces of Muslims during their prayers. Bus passengers in Seattle attacked a Muslim man. A Muslim storeowner in New York was beaten severely by someone yelling, “I kill Muslims.” In a Wyoming community, bacon was thrown at a man erroneously thought to be Muslim. Muslims are removed from airplanes because they make Americans “uncomfortable.”

The targets were American citizens.

Where is the humanity in making others fearful as a way of assuaging our own fears? Imagine yourself as one of those against whom our fears are being taken out. Imagine what it’s like to be an American-Muslim not knowing when an angry, fearful person will accost you or your children on the streets, in the grocery store, at your place of worship or in your own home.

Then imagine how much harder it would be to “radicalize” young Muslims if Americans welcomed peaceful people of their faith.

Saturday, May 14, 2016

Time to rewrite the Bible?

The current debate about which bathrooms transgender folks may use is the last straw. The time has come. The Christian canon or Bible must be revised.

“Canon” derives from a Greek word referring to a standard of measurement. Religious canons are standards against which people measure their faith, writings believed authoritative within that faith.

For 2000 years the Christian authoritative writings include the New Testament. But that canon has apparently proved too difficult to understand for many Christians. There’s a part of “love your neighbor” they’ve not been able to grasp. “Judge not, lest you be judged,” confounds people accustomed to helping God with quality control. Some employ the Christian canon as a weapon, beating others over the head with it, quoting it to support notions and prejudices about women, the poor, persons of other faiths, racial minorities, gays, lesbians, and transgender people.

The New Testament must simply not be clear enough. Jesus’s message about turning the other cheek and doing unto others as you would have them do unto you has been lost on too many Christians.

For some, the Book has become a graven image of God, an idol. Jesus said, “Love your neighbor as yourself” and then departed. Some tired of waiting for his return. If he isn’t coming back, they feel the need to judge others in his stead. As the children of Israel crafted a golden calf when they tired of waiting for Moses, these Christians have their own idol.

Jesus said you couldn’t serve two masters. You cannot serve God and the Bible simultaneously. You’ll be, as Matthew 6:24 says, “devoted to the one and despise the other.” If you use the Bible to justify marginalizing some of God’s children, you’ve chosen the Book of God over the God of the Book.

There were ancient believers who thought it a mistake to reduce the rich oral history of the faith to writing. They argued that once you write about God, you are making God in your own image. They thought it was supposed to be the other way around. 

Those who wanted a written canon won the argument. Criteria were established to determine which writings would be canonized. Canonical writings must have withstood the test of time and have been accepted by a sufficient number of people to be considered worthy.

As Christians consider a new canon, that criterion seems helpful. Cervantes’s “Don Quixote” or Manzoni’s “The Betrothed” might qualify but Franklin Graham’s sermons and Pat Robertson’s prophecies would not.

To be considered, books should have a clear message. God loves all the children. Red and yellow, black and white, all are precious in God’s sight. God loves them all including those who are gay, lesbian, transgender, Muslim, Buddhist, uncertain, or atheist.

Who would be on the decision-making committee? Jesus’s choice, I’m guessing, would be people on the margins of life. Membership would be open to the poor in spirit, those who mourn, the meek, those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, the merciful, the pure in heart, and the peacemakers.

It would be easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for most politicians, TV preachers, or Wall Street predators to be at the table. There’d be prostitutes but no one who questions why prostitutes were participating. There’d be addicts and others who were hurting, homeless or hungry. There’d be refugees but no one who built walls to keep them away. Lazarus would be there but not the rich man. Neither gender nor sexual identity would bar anyone from taking part. There’d be people of every faith and those with none.

Seated at this table would be only those who could imagine no countries, nothing to kill or die for, and no religion too. They could imagine no possessions, no need for greed or hunger but instead a brotherhood and sisterhood of God’s creation sharing the world.

Imagine. Imagine the standard these folks would establish for measuring our faith in God and one another.