Living Beyond Embarrassment

Living Beyond Embarrassment

My spouse, Elaine, lives with the belief that there is nothing that can’t be improved with duct tape.  She is right — about 10% of the time!  It is a running joke for us.  Examples abound: screen doors, chipped flower-pot, refrigerator shelf corners, or uneven table legs can all be “fixed” with duct tape.  Occasionally when there are efforts to repair a clock or extend a hotdog roasting stick, I confess to being embarrassed.  Mostly it is fun discovering the duct-tape-inventions of my frugal spouse.

Attachment-1Such small embarrassments are more than outweighed by my love for her and knowledge that she has many more reasons to be embarrassed by me.  My shirt may carry too many spots from spilled food from recent meals, I may greet someone by the wrong name, or ask for a comment to be repeated the seventh time, when I can’t acknowledge my hearing loss, I know I am an embarrassment for her.  Much more so than a little duct tape here and there could fix.  Elaine deserves the “most embarrassed by a spouse” award.

Embarrassment is on my mind recently.  Serious embarrassment, not the sort easily ignored, laughed away, or mended by duct tape.  We all, or most of us, know about embarrassment. I think of the big institutions in my life — my nation, my state, my church.  I was helped by Neil Gross who writes, Americans embarrassed by President Trump are experiencing vicarious embarrassment not for him but for the country. They’re embarrassed that, with Mr. Trump as president, the country’s claims to virtue, leadership and moral standing ring hollow.” (see Neil Gross, New York Times, 6-16-17, Does Trump Embarrass You?)

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It is not the shameless pettiness, the vile language, or the ill-considered tweets that are most embarrassing.  As Gross names it, it is an embarrassment related to our national standing in the world.  We are all painted by the brush of Donald’s obvious ignorance and intolerance.  He is our representative, our national voice and when he behaves like a six-year-old, each American loses something precious, something immeasurable for our nation and world.

Week after week there are multiple examples of Mr. Trump’s lack of knowledge, non-existent curiosity, or his disregard for basic decency.   I am embarrassed “early and often” as they say.  However, methinks the behavior of this seventy-one year old adolescent is not the core issue.  We have not been carried to this current sad emotional valley by Donald Trump alone.  There are multiple reasons we have arrived at this place.

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Congressman Steve Scalise was shot last week while practicing for the annual baseball game between Republicans and Democrats in Congress.  Scalise was apparently chosen because he is in the Republican leadership in Congress.  A deeply troubled man from Belleville, Illinois, is said to have shot Scalise and others out of his anger over the political direction of our nation.   What tragic madness!

Fortunately, congressional leaders responded with calls to lower the rhetoric, end the vitriol and display our national unity, despite our political differences.  Good.  This is a much-needed message.  However, our problem is not just mean-spirited language and the damage it produces.  Our nation didn’t arrive at this place suddenly.  The ugliness and embarrassment didn’t begin in 2016.  Year after year, we have lived with denials and multiple embarrassments.  We have considerable makeup work to do to regain our sense of national pride.

Sadly, the horrible scenes played out on the practice field in Alexandria, Virginia last week were the 154th mass shooting in the United States in 2017.  Over 6,800 persons have died due to gun violence in the first six months of 2017 (see: U.S. gun violence in 2017).   Might it be that we should have acknowledged this reality and our embarrassment sooner?  Might it be we should be persistent and ever more diligent in demanding change?  I do not claim that stronger gun laws would have prevented the shooting on that Virginia baseball field.  We will never know.  However, I am convinced that having restrictions on who can purchase guns, especially assault weapons, would have reduced the number of mass shootings this past year.  This is our continuing embarrassment.gun-166507_960_720

The fact that our nation did not take strong measures against gun violence following the deaths of twenty children and six adults murdered at Sandy Hook School in Newton Connecticut, just prior to Christmas in 2012, makes it clear that our problems, our embarrassments, go much deeper than the divisive actions and language of Donald Trump. 

Years ago, former Speaker of the House, Richard Gephardt, told me he believed that “politics is our best substitute for violence.”  I agree, mostly.  Still, when four out of every five adults in the nation want stronger gun laws and yet nothing is done we have a problem.  We should all be embarrassed.  Whether it is the vast sums of money now distorting our elections, the abuses of social media, the use of fake news, voter suppression, gerrymandering or all of the above, we should be embarrassed. 

What can we do?  Let me suggest four things:

  1. Take personal responsibility.  Let’s not get stuck in our embarrassment and pretend these problems will be resolved by others. This is our nation.  In large and small ways we need to stay active in seeking leaders and institutions that exemplify the best of who we are as a people.  Now is not the time to retreat into safe enclaves.
  2. Plan and act locally.  Find ways you can make a difference where you live.  For some this will mean working with civil institutions and people of good will nearby.  Others of us live in what might be called “citizenship deserts.”  In Indiana, my home state, there is a selfishness and meanness (even in our churches) that makes working on the behalf of the poor or seeking environmental holiness difficult.  In places like this our work is more basic.  We need to build new networks of courage and encourage small communities of care to thrive and expand. 
  3. Speak on the behalf of the poor, the vulnerable, the stranger.  Perhaps it is to end gun violence, perhaps to welcome the immigrant, perhaps in support of Medicaid coverage for the poor, perhaps to protect our threatened environment.
  4. Act now.  Channel that embarrassment.  Do something today.  It may be as simple as calling your congressman, your mayor or governor.  Support measures that build up rather than destroy our civil society. 

Drop the duct tape and join in helping our nation move past our many current places of embarrassment.

What you take into your Hands, You take into your heart

Via Hand and Heart: Part II

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The Knotted Gun sculpture by Carl Fredrik Reutersward, United Nations, New York

 December 14th, 2012.  Sandy Hook Elementary School, Newtown, Connecticut.  It has been three years — such horror.  If there were ever evidence that we are following a misguided path regarding access to guns in our nation, Newtown is the evidence.

Twenty-seven murdered.  Children, teachers, a principal — all sacrificed to our nation’s inability to think or act rationally to protect the innocents.

In the early autumn of 2013, ten months after the tragedy, I was invited to preach in a congregation in downstate Illinois.  During the sermon on the text of “reaping and sowing,” I spoke of our inability to address the gun violence in our culture.  At that point, ten months after the Sandy Hook murders, Congress was still unable to offer even the slightest form of intelligent response of healing or hope for an alternative approach.

Following the worship service a well-spoken gentleman approached.  He didn’t appear angry but he did begin by saying he wanted to disagree with the sermon.  “Okay,” I said, “Please share; I am eager to learn.”  At this point he said that I should not have mentioned guns — “talk about violence, if you must, but when you make it ‘gun violence’ you make it political.  People can also hurt others with a knife.” He went on “if more people were armed the innocent could be protected from the crazies.” 

I was speechless, frightened really.   I didn’t want to have an argument right there in the fellowship hall.  A long pause followed.  I prayed.  He was obviously a sincere, intelligent man — one who had the courage to speak of his disagreement.  After what seemed like an eternity, I reached out and took his hand, still not knowing what to say.  Then, these words came, “How long have you worshiped fire arms?  Is it possible that you may have substituted trust in guns for trust in God?”  To my surprise he squeezed my hand and instead of taking up the argument he said, “I’ll have to think about that” and dropped his head.

Later I found out that this man was active in state politics… If he changed his perspective on the gun lobby his work would be in jeopardy.  He too was frightened.

The scripture lessons at Christmas tell the story of the birth of Jesus, yes.  There is more.  This story continues as it moves toward the story of the slaughter of the innocents and Jesus’ family becoming refugees to avoid his murder.  Herod sends out word that all the male infants should be killed.  I am reminded of the cover of the New York Post the day following the Sandy Hook tragedy.

tumblr_mf2xwj6iFj1rv4aqro1_1280Congress continues to give more protection to gun owners than to the innocent ones who face the terror of sick, troubled and misguided folks who find it easier to own a gun than have a license to drive a car.  We are not helpless… even in the face of difficult odds against change.  Let me suggest that you look to the work of the Brady Center at Brady Center to Prevent Gun Violence.

In Part I of this reflection I spoke of the movie Witness and the scene where the grandfather Eli is speaking with young Samuel about the gun he has found.  He says to the child “What we take into our hands we take into our hearts.”  This is one of two scenes I will always remember.

When the movie first came out in 1985, I was teaching an urban studies class for future pastors in Chicago.  One afternoon the class went to see the movie and then came back to discuss it together.  There were about twenty students in the class, approximately half of them were from the Mennonite or Brethren traditions.  The other students were a mix of Presbyterian, Baptist, Reformed and Methodist. 

The discussion turned to the second unforgettable scene for me from the movie.   It is near the end of the film.  Gunmen come to the Amish farm to track down and kill Detective Book and members of the Lapp family who witnessed a murder in Philadelphia.  What ensues is dramatic, haunting and amazing all rolled into one.  I won’t spoil you by giving you the ending of the movie, but I want to share the reactions from my class to one scene in particular.  The grandfather is facing an approaching gunman.  He looks into another room where Samuel can see him as he motions.  Grandfather Lapp’s hand is out at his side, clenched and moving slightly up and down.  The boy understands and runs to perform the unspoken task. 

In the debriefing of the movie Witness with that class in 1985, I asked how many thought the grandfather was signaling for Samuel to go ring the bell to gather the neighbors.  All of the Mennonite and Brethren students raised their hands.  I asked how many thought the signal was to go get the gun… almost all of the rest of us thought it was signal to get the gun.

The difference in what was seen by the two groups continues to haunt.  One group had grown up knowing the power of community when faced with danger; others of us had learned to prefer force and power.

 

 

 

 

 

 

What you take into your hands, you take into your heart.

Via Hand and Heart: Part I

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The Knotted Gun sculpture by Carl Fredrik Reutersward, United Nations, New York

 

The movie Witness opens with eight year old Samuel Lapp (Lukas Hass) witnessing a murder.  Philadelphia detective John Book (Harrison Ford) questions the boy.  What did he see?  Detective Book is aware that young Samuel is now in danger.  As the plot unfolds, the detective is shot identifying a suspect; still he manages to drive the Amish boy and his mother to their farm. 

Upon arrival in Lancaster county, Detective Book collapses from his wounds.  He is now in the care of this Amish household/community.  Two scenes from this movie are particularly thought provoking for me.  The first scene is of Eli, the grandfather (Jan Rubes) talking with Samuel about the discovered gun.  Witness Youtube video: Eli and Samuel.  Eli says to the youngster “What we take into our hands, we take into our hearts.”  The scene is a too easy summary of one pacifist’s philosophy — still it carries power when thinking of the violence in our modern world.

In the wake of Paris, San Bernardino, Charleston, Colorado Springs, Newtown… [This list of the massacre of innocents can go on for pages] what will we take into our hands and hearts?  Thus far in 2015 there have been more than 40 mass murders in the U. S.  Of these, two involved persons claiming Islamic motivations.  Of over 12,500 gun deaths thus far this year, 19 were done by persons claiming a perverted radical Muslim identity.  We in the United States now have more guns than people.  To what end?

Congress is so controlled and manipulated by the gun lobby that all sensible legislation is blocked.  A majority of Americans are seeking restrictions on gun ownership and usage.  Does this change any thing?  No.  Background checks?  Nope.  This week there was a vote asking that those who are unable to fly, who are on a terrorist watch list, be restricted from purchasing guns.  One would think this is an easy “yes”, right?  No way!   Can we limit the purchase of guns designed for military style use?  Nope.  Limit the amount of ammunition in a cartridge?  Not a chance.  Have electronic finger print control allowing only the licensed owner to fire any new weapon?  Are you kidding?  Not in the U.S.!  We are suffering from a suicidal social addition.

In Indiana we have the added burden of being the major supplier for the armaments sold that are used in the murders on the south side of Chicago.  Will the Indiana legislature act to have universal background checks on gun purchases?  You know the answer — it is “No, no, no.”

At Liberty University this week, Jerry Falwell Jr. encouraged every student to have a handgun — this as part of what a Christian should be about in these days.  He praised the ability to have a concealed weapon and said this would take care of our “Muslim problem.”  Alas.

Two of my friends made cogent responses to Mr. Falwell.  Let me close this Part I of “What we take into our hands” by sharing links to these.   My friends Will Willimon and Sara Wenger-Shenk give us perspective on how we proceed.  They help us better understand what it means to respond to Falwell as a different brand of Christians.

See Willimon’s at: Pistol-Whipped Preacher

See Wenger-Shenk’s at:Practicing Reconciliation

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