Wednesday, September 28, 2016

Sexuality: Nature vs. Notion?

What does the word "natural" mean?

According to Merriam-Webster, "natural" is defined as "existing in nature and not made or caused by people; coming from nature; usual or expected."

When the Bible talks about sexuality, it uses terms like "natural" to describe heterosexuality.  And, up until the past few years, no society on Earth has really had any reason to presume otherwise.  At least, to presume that heterosexuality being "natural" meant that it was our default sexuality.  Even those people who did not believe in God or advocate for Biblical sexuality never challenged the practically unanimous interpretation of heterosexuality being our default sexuality.

Yet with recent explosive shifts in Western concepts of sex, our societal ambivalence towards traditional sexual morality, and the embrace by many modern thinkers of homosexuality as a viable - and even desirable - alternative to heterosexuality, we Christ-followers are being excoriated by our Puritanical hostility towards, as J.I. Packer calls it, the "Gay Way."  Sexuality has become a lifestyle and, instead of an activity, a characteristic of one's identity.  Gender is believed to be changeable, and based as much on emotions as biology.  Divorce has become established as an acceptable component of interpersonal interactions.  Adultery is cheered in our entertainment.  Pornography, by most accounts, is epidemic.

And as profound milestones like gay marriage rapidly appear to validate deviant sexual practices such as homosexuality, and as sincere Christ-followers grapple with the many questions over "nature vs. nurture," it's as if suddenly the idea has popped out of the blue; not to endorse sexual deviance, but to try and explain why much of it seems to natural:  Did God actually create us as being predisposed to heterosexuality?

Some social scientists have doubted it for years.  And might they be right?  After all, how exactly does such an idea contradict the Bible?  Is heterosexuality "natural," in that it's organic and inevitable, or is heterosexuality one of several forms of sexuality, along with homosexuality, bestiality, or bisexuality?  Depending on the source, some sex researchers list up to 22 different types of sexual preferences.

Has God created us as sexual beings, neither heterosexual or homosexual or otherwise?  Does the sexuality we embrace develop as a product of how we are raised, plus social norms, faith and morality, preferences honed by personal experiences, whether or not we've been sexually abused, and various other socialization factors?

To be sure, the truth of the Bible has been - and always will be - that homosexuality is a sin.  And, to be sure, the ways we followers of Christ have historically treated homosexuals have not always been honoring to Christ.  But has our response to homosexuality been based on a presumption that might be as old as our hostility towards those practicing it?

The Bible defines homosexuality as "impurity" and the "dishonoring" of our bodies (Romans 1:24).  It is a sin as much as heterosexual adultery, theft, greed, and being drunk (1 Corinthians 6:9-11). 

In the Romans 1 passage, the word "natural" that is used is the Greek phuskios.  According to Strong's Concordance, phuskios generally means "produced by nature; inborn."  However, Strong's specifies that in this particular passage, the word can also be used to mean "according to nature."

Of course, in terms of functionality, heterosexuality is the most "natural" use of biological anatomy.  Without being unnecessarily graphic, let's say that Protrusion A is inserted into Slot C.  The parts fit between man and woman.  However, the parts don't fit between man and man, or woman and woman.  Homosexuality tries to make them fit, but in ways that are not "natural."  I mean, just because Protrusion A can be made to fit into Slot B, doesn't mean that it's the best exercise of anatomical functionality.  For one thing, the female arousal apparatus is missing.  And for women to achieve a similar arousal from another woman, a completely artificial stimulant must be used.

And we're not even talking natural procreation here.  This is strictly the pleasure principle for which sex is so widely deployed.

Shucks, it's not even like standards of pleasure remain constant over time.  When the Bible was being written, apparently bestiality was somewhat popular, since the topic is mentioned four times in the Old Testament.  Doesn't that strike you as a bit bizarre?  If the Bible were being written today, would something like bestiality merit four different mentions?  Perhaps this is an indication that sexual sins can be trends, due in this instance to whether or not a society is more agricultural or more post-industrial.

Indeed, we cannot be blase about guarding Biblical sexuality, whether heterosexuality is our default disposition or not.  Humanity has proven itself adept at finding creative ways of sinfully exploiting everything good that God has given us.  How much more dire, then, the consequences of mistreating something as personally powerful as sex.  Not that sex is so crucial to our personhood that God intends for sex to be an intrinsic part of our identity.  Celibacy is actually celebrated in the Bible, but not the eunuch type.  Indeed, if we're going to honor God with our sexuality, we need to do it His way.

And God rarely forces us to do anything.

There's a confusing doctrine in Christianity called "free will."  It's a concept hardly anybody seems to fully understand, and entire denominations have been formed as people take different sides in the debate over whether God lets us be self-determining agents, or whether He ordains our steps from conception to Eternity.  Yet if we're going to acknowledge that there's free will someplace in our humanity, isn't our sexuality a big free will arena?  We decide if we're going to lust, or if we're going to have an affair, or whether we're going to procreate out of wedlock.  We do stuff sexually because we think it feels right to us.  It may even make sense to us, and seem so... natural.  Like the song says, "if loving you is wrong, I don't want to be right."

Heterosexuals do it.  Homosexuals do it.  We create our own stumbling blocks, not God.  If God does not pre-program us as heterosexuals, how much more responsibility must we have before God to honor him with our sexual choices?  Can a heterosexual defend their fornication simply by their preferred sexual orientation?  Can homosexuals do the same with theirs?  If Original Sin and the Fall of Man introduced all sexual sins into the panoply of possible human experiences, shouldn't we be shocked into another reality regarding how dearly we need to keep God's commands?

Not because God flipped a coin when it came to deciding that heterosexuality would be His holy preference.  The distinct biological nature of heterosexuality proves it is His design.  Heterosexuality makes the best use of the bodies God gives to each of us - bodies made in His unseen image.  Heterosexuality demonstrates not just human differences, but human union, as disparate parts fit together.  Heterosexuality depicts Christ's relationship to the Church, which is also described as His "bride."  Perhaps God could have made special flaps and locks on the parts of His created anatomical structures that He didn't want same-sex partners to use sinfully.  But He left them open and available, not to tempt people to sin, but to represent opportunities for His people to deny themselves, and exercise self-control if they felt a sinful urge.

God allows temptation to exist because people who ask Christ to help them defeat temptation demonstrate faith in Him.  If life were easy, and temptations didn't exist, what value would faith in Christ be?  Some people are tempted to eat more than they should.  Some people are tempted to drink more than they should.  Some people are tempted to talk more than they should (and maybe that's what I'm doing right now!).  Some people are tempted to have sex with a person of the opposite sex who is not their spouse.

And some people are tempted to have sex with a person of the same sex.

So, is our battle against homosexuality?  Or is it against all sexual sins?  You know what tempts you, and I know what tempts me.  Is it easier for us to figure heterosexual sins somehow matter less to God because they're "normal," or more "natural?"

I have a notion God despises all of our sins, heterosexual or otherwise.  And I have a notion all of these sins happen because He doesn't set us on autopilot.  Sexual or otherwise.

Tuesday, September 27, 2016

Did God Make You Heterosexual?

Nobody who knows me would say that I embrace change.

A former co-worker of mine coined the phrase, "Tim does not do new well."

Yet recently, I am finding myself in a curious position.  I'm actually considering a new way of looking at something.  Which is unusual for me.

What makes it even more unusual is that this evolution involves Biblical morality, a topic that has been a guidepost for my life since I was born.  My parents raised my brother and me in a robust, definitive evangelical environment, with faith in Christ's Gospel at the center of everything we did as a family.  My definition of morality mirrors the same one that untold generations before me have embraced, or at least acknowledged.  In fact, even among people who don't personally adhere to conventional Biblical morality, this version of morality remains widely recognized, albeit much maligned.

Nevertheless, at least when it comes to sexuality, I am gravitating towards a view that casts doubt on the way most of humanity has traditionally considered heterosexuality and homosexuality.  To me, and to others who've voiced similar opinions, it appears that mankind has historically erred by presuming that God made "man" and "woman" as distinctly heterosexual beings. 

Not that God makes any mistakes.  He has created us as sexual beings, and the sexuality He gives us is both a gift and a responsibility.  In its pure, created state, it is holy and just.

But is sexuality automatically heterosexual?  I don't think so.  I'm doubting it's the "default" position.  I'm saying God probably doesn't pre-program us as heterosexuals.

Yes, heterosexuality is what honors God, while homosexuality does not.  Heterosexuality is the basis for the family unit, which is the basis of any society, because heterosexuality provides the framework for procreation and the perpetuation of our species.  It is also within the imagery of heterosexual marriage that God describes the relationship between Christ and His church.

But this heterosexuality, indeed, is only holy within marriage.  Everything else is a form of deviant sexuality.  A result of our corruption because of the Fall of mankind and Original Sin.

God created Adam and Eve as man and woman respectively because His holy design is for the mutual pleasure of man and woman bound by a covenant with their Creator.  That part of Biblical morality isn't in question.  Technically, no part of Biblical morality is in question here.  Lust is still wrong.  Sex with a person who is not our spouse is still wrong.  But heterosexuality has been presumed to carry some sort of special dispensation of normalcy, while homosexuality has, throughout history, been widely perceived as aberrant and nasty.

And yes, according to God's Word, homosexuality is aberrant and nasty.  But it's as nasty to God as any form of heterosexuality that is expressed outside of a marriage covenant.  Lust is nasty to God, even though we seem to enjoy it a lot, because we do it a lot.  Every sin is nasty to God.  And when it comes to sexuality, all of God's teachings about marriage and sex are provided to us in the Bible with the expectation that we embrace everything that is good and everything that is bad about the sexuality God has given us.

Have we done so?  Probably not.

You see, when our sexuality was corrupted in the Garden of Eden, it wasn't just heterosexual adultery that entered the realm of possibility.  Original Sin also opened the door to homosexual desires, at least in some people.  You may personally have never experienced any homosexual tendencies at all.  But that doesn't mean you never will.  Temptations can be latent and deceptive, and they vary from person to person.  Homosexuality is believed to be the dominant sexual desire in approximately two to five percent of humanity.  But might it be dormant in many more people?  Has it been suppressed by forces of socialization that have historically penalized it and made it taboo?  And might our world's current infatuation with homosexuality have been exacerbated by a growing acceptance of it - or, at least, ambivalence towards it?  Might our flaunting of heterosexual sins made homosexuality seem relatively harmless, or at least not any more dangerous as heterosexual fornication?  Might people be experimenting with various forms of sexuality and discovering that, for whatever reason, homosexuality seems to be more pleasurable for them?

Perhaps because so many kids these days are growing up in single-family homes, the proper functionality of heterosexual affection is lost on them.  Maybe political correctness encourages people to explore feelings that society used to cloak.  But I don't believe that homosexuals were "born that way."  Just like I don't believe heterosexuals were "born that way."  I'm coming to the point of view that most people, at least, have the capacity to be either or both when it comes to being aroused by the same gender, or the opposite gender.  It's just that, during the course of our life experiences, most of us develop a traditional sexual appreciation for the opposite gender, because that's how we've been raised.  Or, we've been convinced by the Holy Spirit that anything else is contrary to God's design for sexuality.

After all, I'm told that monogamy is very hard!  Popular opinion says that for every person there's a mate, but that's a romantic fallacy.  In a completely heathen context, just about any of us could probably have sex with an untold number of other people of either gender, and probably fall in love with many of them.  Well, at least, a sort of lust that looks an awful lot like love!  Monogamy may be Biblical, and practical, and moral, and conventional, and historical, but it's not easy.  What is easy is blurring sexual lines and trying to get as much fun as possible out of our sexuality.  Staying with one opposite-sex spouse isn't exactly a reliable definition of fun.

But that's what followers of Christ are called to do with their sexuality.  It's called "faithfulness," and it's a Fruit of the Spirit.  Which means it doesn't necessarily come naturally.

Of course, another Fruit of the Spirit particularly applicable here is self-control.

We were all born with a God-given drive for sexuality, and I suspect that it's been through the overwhelming forces of normative socialization, over the course of millennia, that heterosexuality has been by far the most popular form of sexuality.  Much of heterosexuality's dominance likely came from the influence of religions like Judaism, Christianity, and Islam, all three of which teach that heterosexuality is what best honors their respective deities.  And frankly, I imagine that since our holy God, the Creator of sexuality, has designated heterosexuality as His only ordained venue for sex, He probably has given us the biological and emotional resources to embrace it more than homosexuality.  After all, God does not tempt us, so why would He create some people to be predisposed to something that displeases Him?

What happens is that, because of sin, sexual temptations abound.  And any sexual activity outside of a heterosexual marriage covenant is sin.  Therefore, we can't say we were born with a proclivity towards a certain sin, whether sexual or otherwise.  Think about it:  Saying we were born with a proclivity to gluttony doesn't excuse gluttony, does it?

If we're going to honor God with our sexuality, we need to admit that homosexuality is a form of adultery, just like heterosexual adultery.  Whether it's with somebody of the same sex or the opposite sex, deviant sexuality is not holy.  The whole question of "nature vs. nurture" becomes mute at this point.  Plenty of contributing factors can nurture various sinful behaviors.  We can justify just about anything by evaluating whether something is our fault or not, or whether a sin pattern appears to exist as a viable alternative to righteousness.  Feelings can be interpreted all sorts of ways, and emotions, and even things we consider erotic and provoke sexual arousal.

But just because something turns us on sexually doesn't mean it's Godly.

Temptation is still temptation.

Meanwhile, God expects His people to resist temptation, whether it's that extra piece of candy, or those lustful thoughts about a person of the opposite sex who is not our spouse, or even those lustful thoughts about a person of the same sex.

It's not the way centuries upon centuries of humanity has thought about sex.

But where in the Bible does God explicitly say that He's created people as heterosexuals?

For a follow-up essay on this topic, please click here.

Monday, September 26, 2016

Are Robots After Your Job?

Victor Scheinman died last week.

Who is Victor Scheinman, you ask?  Well, he's one of the engineers responsible for putting thousands of assembly line workers out of work.  He invented the "six degree of freedom" robotic arm, also called the Stanford Arm, named for the school he was attending when he invented it. 

To put it another way, Scheinman helped move the mechanization of repeatable tasks from the realm of science fiction to industrial science.

Okay, you say; but how does this impact me?

Well, the passing of Mr. Scheinman may not directly relate to your life, unless you used to be an auto worker, or you mourn the economic collapse of Detroit, or you're a futurist who looks forward to the day when robots will rule our economy.  For the rest of us, however, Scheinman's death serves as a reminder that, whether you realize it or not, we're standing on the brink of a brave new world in which robots and artificial intelligence just might impoverish many of us.

Yes, that's right:  That brave new future so many of Silicon Valley's brightest tech minds are crafting for us?  We just might not be employable in it.

Robots already build cars, and a lot of other gadgets we use every day.  Robots vacuum floors, change kitty litter, mow and water the lawn, and rock infants to sleep.  There are life-size, anatomically-simulating robots that will have sex with men.  Robots participate in surgeries.  They write news stories - thousands of them a year now.  Our military is developing drones equipped with tiny poison darts to replace human soldiers in some combat situations.

Indeed, robotics is just as much about replacing humans as it is cool technology.  Some experts are beginning to wonder if unemployment rates of 50% to 75% might be in the not-too-distant future for Western, non-agrarian economies.

Other experts hopefully predict that while robots will replace humans for most routine and so-called undesirable jobs, human creativity will be generating other avenues of employment that will offset the loss of traditional jobs.  But these optimists tend to be employed by companies - such as Google, Microsoft, and Apple - that stand to reap a significant financial windfall as their technology, ostensibly, helps lead this social and economic revolution.

There are also some giddy economists who see limitless new opportunities for people freed from the drudgery of chores overtaken by robots and artificial intelligence.  Companies will save money on salaries, personnel benefits, and all the other costs with which human workers burden their employers.  After all, computers don't make mistakes, and if they do, their artificial intelligence supposedly learns from them.  Computers don't take vacations, or have to leave early to take a child to the pediatrician.  Computers don't arrive late or take five extra minutes for lunch.  Computers don't lie, play office politics, get jealous, or steal from the company.  They don't require parking lots, transit passes, health insurance, or even an annual Christmas party.

Oh - excuse me - an annual "holiday" party.

Yeah, computers are already politically correct, too.  So, no discrimination lawsuits.

According to optimistic futurists, robots will save employers so much money in the long run, companies will have that much more money to hire folks to develop new products to sell.  New resources for investments and venture capital will be realized.  According to employment statistics, the Western workplace has already survived the telephone, automobile, desktop publishing, and other advancements we take for granted today.  There's only reason to hope for even better things as robots free us from the time-wasting, money-wasting drudgery that remains in the workplace of 2016.

For his part, the controversial physicist Stephen Hawking is taking a wait-and-see approach to the coming changes, saying that "we are facing potentially the best or worst thing to happen to humanity in history."

(Aside from the birth, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ, of course - as if Hawking unintentionally omitted human history's most pivotal figure from his analysis.)

Frankly, however, doesn't it all seem a bit audacious on the part of technology scientists to themselves determine those jobs that are mundane, or not worth the human toil that is required to perform them?  For a group of people who generally consider themselves to be on the forefront of progressive thought, their stratification of a task's value based on the level of intelligence, dirtiness, or prestige involved smacks of elitism, doesn't it?  Why not simply admit that you're exploiting technology not for the good of humanity, but for your own career's sake?  Robotics experts and artificial intelligence developers seem to be spending almost as much time justifying the morality of what they're doing as they are the mechanics of how they're doing it.

This all speaks to the dangers of subtracting the human component from theoretical baselines of both technology and capitalism, right?  The collateral damage of focusing on the lowest common denominator, or   reductionism, or survival of the fittest.  The lower the level, the more expendable we believe it is.  We value efforts to derive the greatest profit from the least cost, even if it costs somebody else. 

Although it must be said that China, an officially communistic nation, will have more industrial robots than any other country by next year, capitalistic or otherwise.  So, theoretically at least, the Chinese may provide a living laboratory when it comes the effects of robotization on unemployment.  Most Western countries have already relocated major chunks of their manufacturing industries to China, and capitalism, along with the entrepreneurialism and creativity it nurtures, has allowed us to at least survive this long without those jobs.  But can China's state-crafted economic model withstand our new era of robotics?  Perhaps their experience will serve as a template - or a warning - for ours.

Then again, many of us have maintained for years that conventional workers unions have outlived their usefulness, and are presently a drag on our economy.  But if you fear the robot revolution, perhaps workers unions are our biggest weapon in the epic employment battle looming before us.

After all, robots don't strike, but they also don't pay union dues.

Wednesday, September 21, 2016

Emotions or Facts in Death-by-Cop Sagas?

And... here we go again.

Two more black men killed by cops.  Terence Crutcher was killed by a white female cop in Tulsa, Oklahoma.  Keith Scott was killed by a black male officer in Charlotte, North Carolina.

And, as has become de rigueur across a broad cross-section of America's moralists following such shootings, pained demands for an end to police brutality have been issued once again.

After years of watching our country lurch from one racially-charged tragedy to another, it has become apparent that we have five distinct reactionary camps:
  • Group 1.  First, we have the traditional, sleazy, white bigots, who mostly view blacks as likely deserving of whatever police brutality may be inflicted upon them. 
  • Group 2.  Second come those fact-seeking whites who want to analyze the actual events leading up to and precipitating the police shooting.  These people tend to infuriate groups 3 and 5, because fact-finding tends to be a relatively emotionless task, and requires some patience and flexibility in terms of the twists and turns our country's legal process can take.
  • Group 3.  In the middle sit America's photogenic white-angst and white-guilt crowd of generally young, generally suburban-raised, generally middle class whites who see racial reconciliation as a matter of emotion.  These folks claim to be kind-hearted, unless they're dealing with groups 1 and 2.  They see racism through an ironically racist prism of white and black.  Either you're grieving over the killing of black people, or you're hostile towards blacks.  If you're a hip Millennial, or a trend-follower, this is likely your group.
  • Group 4.  Fourth are America's growing cohort of  middle-class blacks who simply want the same things most middle-class whites do; they've got a job to keep, a mortgage to pay, kids to get through school.  They've got white friends, they try to ignore the bigots in groups 1 and 5, and they just want peace, just like their white friends do.
  • Group 5.  Then we have the traditional angry black bigots, who mostly view things the same way white bigots do, only with everything reversed according to color.  This is a particularly angry bunch, whereas the bigots in group 1 are generally smug, since history is on their side when it comes to discrimination.

If I've missed anybody, it's probably because you're part of groups 2 or 4 and you keep you head down low, and mind your own business.

For the rest of us, however, think about it:  Of all these five groups, which one - or ones - is/are the healthiest?

I believe groups 2 and 4 are the healthiest groups, because we we know that there are facts and processes to life.  We know emotions are volatile and unreliable.  We don't let the mainstream media dictate our worldview. 

We also know already that racism is wrong.  We don't need to hear sermon after sermon about how to love each other despite our cultural differences.  We work and socialize with people of various skin colors and we barely notice the differences.  To us, racial diversity isn't as scary as groups 1 and 5 believe it to be.  Yet we're also aware that radial diversity isn't as placid as group 3 wants it to be.  There are differences, after all.  But we're working to make those differences less onerous, punitive, and stratifying.

Indeed, how many black people want to completely obliterate their blackness?  Probably the same number as whites who want to obliterate their whiteness.  It's not being different that's a problem.  It's not agreeing on how we should be the same that's the problem.

Wait... "How we should be the same?"

Well, if we're going to live in a productive society, in which we share in the benefits of our society regardless of our skin color, don't we need to agree on a few ground rules by which we'll all abide?  Things like - oh, just to take one example at random - obeying the police?

We have white cops, black cops, Asian cops, Hispanic cops, and female cops, and male cops, and who knows how many other kinds of cops.  We have hard-working cops, and we have lazy cops.  And we have corrupt cops.  We have racist cops.

And then we have cops trying to tell somebody like Terence Crutcher to stop walking when they're attempting to interrogate him.  But Crutcher kept walking.  His hands were on his head.  He was a father to four kids.  He was active in his church.  He was black.  But he refused to obey the police.

Why did he refuse?  Instead, he walked slowly to his vehicle.  But it had tinted windows, and the police had no idea who or what was inside the vehicle.  His hands were raised, but how quickly could he lower them and grab something with which to attack the officers?

Is it my white privilege that sees how the cops would be concerned for their own personal well being at that moment?  The cop who killed Keith Scott in Charlotte for reportedly not following orders (to drop his gun) was black.  So my white privilege works for both white and black cops?

The hipsters in Group 3 immediately pounce on questions like that and accuse me of lacking empathy.  Racial justice depends on white empathy, according to the peaceable moralists.  But why should I be empathetic for a person who defies police orders?

And is "empathy" the right word here?  According to Merriam-Webster, "sympathy" would be more appropriate, since it's "the feeling that you care about and are sorry about someone else's trouble, grief, misfortune."  "Empathy" is "the feeling that you understand and share another person's experiences and emotions."

But why should I want to share a person's experience of refusing to obey a cop?

By this point, our friends in group 3 would be fraught with frustration:  "But God tells us to mourn with those who mourn, and weep with those who weep!"  And sure enough, He does, in Romans 12:15.

But first of all, this is written for us in the context of both persecution and community.  In nearly all of the cop-involved killings of black men across America recently, in a variety of settings and scenarios, no court of law has found the officers guilty of violating any laws.  Is that persecution?  And if it is, why hasn't the President of the United States called for a sweeping reform of our Justice Department?

And in terms of community, the concept of law and order is an essential component of our ability to live in a productive society in which we share in the benefits of our society regardless of our skin color.  Didn't we agree on this just a few moments ago?

Let's not take Romans 12:15 out of context, but consider it in full:

Bless those who persecute you.  Bless and do not curse.  Rejoice with those who rejoice; weep with those who weep.  Live in harmony with one another.  Do not be proud, but enjoy the company of the lowly.  Do not be conceited.  (BSB)

Live in harmony.  Don't be proud.  If a cop asks you to do something, do it.  If you're a cop, and you've no specific reason to be questioning a black man, leave him alone.

As for Crutcher and Scott, if these guys were white, how many of their defenders would merely consider their refusal to cooperate with the police more belligerence than persecution?  And how many cops go out of their way to kill black men?  Is this really an activity that police officers plot?  Have you ever met a cop who enjoyed shooting people, let alone killing somebody, no matter their skin color?

I'm sorry that Terence Crutcher and Keith Scott were killed. I'm sorry that the cops who killed them felt like they had to shoot.  I'm sorry for all four families involved.  I'm sorry that so many Americans consider these tragedies proof that a vile conspiracy of police brutality pervades law enforcement.  I'm sorry that some cops seem to be more trigger-happy than others.  I'm sorry that they don't perfectly execute every single traffic stop and investigation.  I'm truly sorry.

But do you know something?  Proportionately, considering the percentage of black men in America, and comparing that to the number of people cops shoot, black men die by cops in higher numbers than white men.  After five Dallas cops were ambushed earlier this summer, I wrote about how it appears as though there's something going on with this situation between black men and cops, but all we know right now are the numbers.  And they appear to indicate that, to a certain degree, the folks in Group 3 have a point

Nevertheless, pandering to platitudes and glossing over the facts will not reveal truth.  Ignoring the commands of cops will still likely get you killed.  Do black men ignore cops more than white men do?  Do cops feel more justified shooting a belligerent black man than a white man?  Does their definition and tolerance of "belligerence" vary by race?  Does the violence that wells up within the black community whenever a black man is shot have more to do with latent anger over other issues that have little to do with police brutality?  Is it just the trauma of a cop shooting that provides a tipping point?

These are the types of questions many whites in Group 2 are asking.

Some people - especially in groups 1, 3, and 5 - think we know the answers to questions like these.  But do we really?

We won't know for sure as long as we focus on emotion instead of facts.

PS:  I tried to share this viewpoint of mine on a Facebook thread today regarding the Tulsa shooting.  This is how one young African-American replied to me:  Tim You are ignorant to African-American daily life. YOU ARE BLINDED BY WHITE PRIVILEGES, you'll never see the world we as BLACK MEN in America do, you should spend more time reading and shutting tf up instead of spreading your unwarranted opinions on a post that calls for empathy. And you wonder why we have a race problem, white men won't STFU and listen to the victims of these HIDEOUS AND DEPLORABLE crimes, instead "let's look at the facts" BITCH LOOK AT HUMANITY.

Tuesday, September 13, 2016

Hillary's Pneumonia-Gate?

Pardon me while I go Rush-Limbaugh here for a moment.

I'm going to sound like a rabid right-winger.  But Hillary is making me do it.

Is she really only suffering from pneumonia?

Let's parse this out, because like many in the media are already saying - both liberals and conservatives - Hillary's collapse into her security van on Sunday in Lower Manhattan reveals more about her and her campaign than a mere illness.

Okay, so she had a cough that wouldn't go away.  Last Friday, she went to her doctor in Westchester County, and the doc said she had pneumonia.  So that evening, she went anyway to a fundraiser (like either she or Donald Trump need the money) in which Barbara Streisand was present, and she called "half" of Trump's fans a "basket of deplorables."

Then on Sunday, she went to the 15th anniversary observance of the 9-11 attack at New York's World Trade Center.  It was humid and warm, yet Clinton was wearing a fitted pantsuit with a multi-layered blouse, complete with a closed-necked tie-thing that draped down the front.  Nothing loose, no exposed skin around the neck or d├ęcolletage; no attempt at dressing to accommodate the potential for a reaction to the weather, especially since it was an outdoor event.

Indeed, Hillary had her sunglasses on, fully expecting to be outdoors in the sun.  Or were those not merely sunglasses, as many have questioned, but special anti-seizure glasses, coated with that trendy blue glaze to minimize the intensity of light?

So, even if she does have pneumonia, is that the extent of her diagnosis?  What about epilepsy?  Some have openly wondered about Parkinson's, or even early-onset Alzheimer's?

Clinton's camp says she's fiercely private when it comes to her physical health.  That's the main reason she didn't tell folks about last Friday's pneumonia diagnosis.  But does a fiercely private person let the tabloids diagnose her erratic behavior for the court of public opinion to dissect, like I'm doing right now?  If she doesn't have epilepsy, or Parkinson's, or early-onset Alzheimer's, what's the harm to her privacy in flatly denying it?  Even if you're lying the littlest bit?  Shucks, we're used to the Clinton lies.  Unless they figure that lying about this won't stop our tongues from wagging anyway.

Clinton's camp says they'll release more information about her health in the coming days... as if they're waiting for another diagnosis to be confirmed, or more tests to come back from the lab, or her PR machine to come up with a better way to spin whatever bad news is in her medical chart.  But information vacuums aren't friendly to politicians like Hillary, since again, we all know her penchant for lying.  A lack of information generally means her people haven't yet determined which lie will work the best.

But how stupid do they think we are?

Hey:  It's no secret.  We know Clinton is no spring chicken.  Both she and Trump are retirement age.  When Hillary's husband ran for the presidency, political pundits raved about how young he was; George W. Bush, Al Gore, and Barak Obama were also in their 40's when they vied for the White House.  Maybe America's voters aren't ready for old people to reclaim the Oval Office, but now that the race is between two aging helmet-hair, died-hair sunset-facing grandparents, what difference would it really make to admit that with age comes a greater susceptibility to physical ailments?  Especially one like pneumonia, an illness that is fairly common and easily treatable?

Treatable with basic resources like rest and liquids.

Now, granted, if you were running for the United States presidency, with less than two months until election day, would you take off for two weeks and sleep through your recovery?  The presidency appears to have been Hillary's sole ambition ever since we voters came to know her back in the 1990's.  This has been her purpose in life; the key reason she stuck with Bill through the Monica fiasco; the balm soothing her indignity of being Secretary of State under a president who, as a fellow candidate, she couldn't stand.  Her very being seems to be boiling down to this imminent election.  So it's understandable that she would ignore her doctor's recommendations, and soldier through this illness like it was nothing.

The apparent lack of liquids, however, is another puzzling aspect of Sunday's bizarre episode.  What's the harm in carrying a bottle of water to an outdoor event?  Or why didn't any of her aides have water in those big tote bags they hang off their shoulders?  While they were waiting for the van to arrive, why didn't any of the people holding Clinton upright give her a sip of water, if she was struggling with the heat?  Instead, it sure looks like everybody is fully aware of what else is going on:  Their boss was having another epileptic seizure, and the last way you want to treat such a seizure is by trying to give the patient some water, which could make them gag or choke.

So what would be the big deal if Clinton has epilepsy anyway?  Is there anything about epilepsy that would make a person unfit to be president?  Does a president need to be 100% seizure-free during their entire term?  Sure, there's the specter of that ominous call in the middle of the night, with those folks at NORAD waiting to hit the red button.  But even if there is something about epilepsy that makes its victims unfit for the presidency, and Hillary's got it, isn't she being the biggest horses' patoot of them all by trying to cover it up?  Is getting back into the White House really worth so much personal deception?

It's easy to imagine Donald Trump, if he loses, simply shrugging his shoulders and huffing, "well, being president would have really put a drag on my business.  A really, really profitable business, I might add.  Now I can go back to making money."

Yet for Hillary, the presidency is what's driving her.  And something tells me that even if it drives her into an early grave, then she'll have considered it worthwhile.  At least Bill and Chelsea should be able to parlay that into even more money for their own family business.

Despite all that I believe is wrong with Hillary's politics, I personally hold no animosity towards her, and I hope she doesn't have anything seriously wrong with her physically.  I wish her good health and a robust constitution, even if it does mean she'd then be in better shape to act on her bad politics.

But it's a lot harder to wish somebody well when you suspect they're playing you along, especially as they're seeking to hold an office that demands an incredible amount of physical stamina.

Then again, to paraphrase her notoriously sly husband, maybe "it depends on what your definition of the word 'pneumonia' is."

Friday, September 9, 2016

9/11's Legacy Still Ours to Lose

In light of this past summer's terrorism across Europe, the civil war in Syria, the hundreds of thousands of refugees from Middle Eastern countries, and our own political season, consider this essay I originally wrote for Tuesday, September 11, 2012.  Parts of it now sound dated, but my basic point remains relevant:

We live today in a drastically different world than the one that existed September 10, 2001.

And we've gotten used to it.  9/11 is not only a day on a calendar.  It has become one of the most well-known dates in human history.  It is a noun, whose very mention instantly conjures up images of two skyscrapers engulfed in flames and smoke.  Or maybe firefighters marching up staircases towards an unknown fate, while dazed office workers helped each other trudge down those same steps.  Or maybe a group of otherwise ordinary airline passengers who chose immediate death over allowing their plane to be turned into a weapon.

An entirely new federal agency was created in its aftermath to make us feel safer.  We endure embarrassing pat-downs at airports and other wacky protocols because of it.  Kids today willingly march into war because of it.  Our Defense Department is stewing over a newly-released book about how America killed 9/11's alleged mastermind.  Billions of dollars have been spent in New York City to clear the rubble and construct a vast new complex of memorial structures, office buildings, and mass transit facilities that could hopefully withstand any future attacks at the site of 9/11's most graphic carnage.

In the conventional American spirit of optimism, we generally like telling ourselves that we're more prepared now to deal with any future attacks that might match or exceed 9/11's wrath.  And maybe it's true.  To a certain degree, we've made a conscious decision to give up some of our perceived freedoms so our government can keep tighter tabs on us and, hopefully, minimize other opportunities for unfriendlies to take advantage of our remarkably open society.  To date, nothing on the scale of 9/11 has taken place in the United States, and maybe that's indeed because we're more vigilant; not simply because unfriendlies haven't thought up anything worse... yet.

Conspiracy theorists have had some fun exploiting the unprecedented scale of destruction inflicted on 9/11, trying to claim that our own government perpetrated the attacks.  But if you really think our government could have carried out 9/11, you actually have more faith in government than those of us who think conspiracy theorists are delusional.

Other 9/11 hangers-on include liberals who still harbor suspicions regarding whether the Bush administration could have avoided 9/11 altogether.  How much did the Bush administration know from the terroristic chatter before 9/11, they ask.  But how much does it matter how much they knew then, now that they're all out of office?

One thing Bush did get right:  9/11 represents a significant battle in what we finally realized was a war against jihadist terrorism.  Muslims, who had been making steady progress assimilating into American society, suddenly found themselves back where they started with the American people: ostracised, vilified, and misunderstood.  Granted, it hasn't helped that as the developed world's war against Islamic fundamentalists has ramped up, many American Muslim clerics have stood silently by, neither cheering their new country on to victory, nor forcefully denouncing the destructive proclivities of their radical religious brethren.  Individually, many American Muslims profess allegiance to the United States, but the court of public opinion generally likes to hear such allegiances affirmed by prominent religious leaders in the public square, and that hasn't happened.

Instead, Muslims proposed building what inaccurately became labeled a mosque within blocks of the ravaged World Trade Center site in Lower Manhattan, and then took offense when millions of Americans took offense.  To date, a fanciful tower that would house the controversial Islamic worship center remains on the drawing board, while the nondescript building Muslims want to demolish for their new project hosts community art exhibits.  Meanwhile, Park 51, the intentionally neutral name for the Islamic group operating the cultural center, has bumbled through leadership changes and lethargic fundraising.

Maybe all of this fear, anger, destruction, and animosity that led up to 9/11, was displayed on it, and has resulted from it has produced something of genuine humanitarian benefit.  But if so, it's hard to see, and its cost hardly seems worth it.  Judging by right-wing efforts to preserve our Defense Department's staggering budget, it's hard to prove that the world is safer for Americans today, and judging by the rise of the Muslim Brotherhood in the Taliban's wake, almost impossible to prove it's safer for most Muslims.  The more hindsight we acquire, we may grow to remember 9/11 not as the end of innocence, since in the context of terrorism's trajectory, 9/11 wasn't first.  Rather, we'll see 9/11 more as history's place holder for when our planet finally faced mankind's inhumanity to man head-on.

Some Muslims say they can understand how America's pop culture and foreign policy (which sometimes relies more on our pop culture than diplomacy) contributed to 9/11.  That's one reason why many non-Muslim Americans remain suspicious of adherents to Islam.  It's a two-way street that oftentimes seems to hold non-Muslims to higher standards, thereby perpetuating their skepticism.

Mostly, however, Americans simply can't understand how different cultural mindsets can fail to appreciate the things we tend to take for granted.  We'd prefer for people from other cultures and countries who are jealous of our way of life to work towards the same principles we enjoy:  capitalism, republican democracy, relative freedoms, and personal opportunity.  Only uber-patriotic goofballs think we Americans are perfect, but many of us understand how our distinctives contribute more good things than bad to our quality of life.

To the extent that those who hate America aren't rewarded by a growing hatred of them by us Americans, the equilibrium in this conflict can remain tilted in our favor.

Which means, then, that 9/11 remains ours to lose.

Thursday, September 8, 2016

Libertarian Johnson No Alternative After All

Okay; quick question for you:

What is Aleppo?

With all the issues and responsibilities you have on your mind, did you nevertheless immediately recognize Aleppo as a key battleground city in Syria?

If not, you'd be forgiven if the correct answer didn't trip off the tip of your tongue.  After all, you're not running for president, and nobody expects you to be a foreign policy expert.  Unless, of course, you happen to actually make your living professing to be a foreign policy expert!

But what about Gary Johnson, this year's Libertarian candidate for president of the United States?  Do you think Johnson should recognize the name "Aleppo" when a reporter asks him about it in an interview?

As much as most of us tend to dislike both Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump, neither of these presidential candidates has failed to recognize the name Aleppo.  And it could be argued that Trump, particularly, is about as much of a foreign policy expert as I am, or you are!  (With apologizes if you actually are a foreign policy expert, of course!)

Our recognition of Aleppo shows how cognizant many of us are about Syria's civil war these days.  Even though hardly anybody seems to understand that mess, we've seen or heard enough about it to recognize the name Aleppo.  It's where much of the heaviest fighting has taken place.  It's where that compelling photo of the cute little boy covered in dust and blood was taken.

"The boy from Aleppo."  Remember?

If you don't, that's still OK.  You're not running for president.  But Gary Johnson is.  And if he wins the presidency, he'll have to be in charge of America's response to the Syrian crisis starting this winter.

Obviously, he's not ready to do that.

This morning, on MSNBC's program "Morning Joe," a reporter asked Johnson point blank, "What would you do, if you were elected, about Aleppo?"

Johnson's face was blank.  "About Aleppo... and what is Aleppo?"

Oooh... and this is the guy for whom I was considering voting, since I can't bring myself to vote for either Hillary or Trump.

And this isn't the only red flag I've found regarding Johnson.  I've known that he's a social liberal, but I'm learning how deeply his social liberalism runs.  And I'm learning that he's not as much of a fiscal conservative as most Libertarians are.

For one thing, Johnson has decided that the federal government should enforce immunizations upon our children.  Now, I'm not a parent, but if I was, and my wife was amenable to it, we'd probably have our children immunized.  But I absolutely do not want our federal government forcing kids to be immunized.  That is a family decision, or a school district decision, or at the very most, a state decision, depending perhaps on the ecological climate in that state.

I would think a Libertarian would be adamantly against such a big-government idea as forced immunizations.  Not Johnson, however.

But wait, there's more:
  • Johnson is a proponent of legalizing marijuana for recreational use.  He's even been president of a recreational marijuana company.  I didn't know that before this summer.  Did you?
  • When asked, during a Libertarian convention, whether America's involvement in World War II was moral, Johnson said "I don't know."
  • In 1995, Johnson began a two-term stint as New Mexico's governor.  At the beginning of his governorship, New Mexico's budget was $4.4 billion, but at the end of his governorship, it had ballooned to $7.7 billion!  The state's spending had nearly doubled in eight years.  That's simply atrocious.
  • Johnson seems willing to sacrifice religious liberty in favor of gay rights.  He's also publicly mocked Mormonism (of which I've no fan either) by conjuring the obscure 1857 Mountain Meadows massacre as a reason to deny religious freedom.  Johnson ended up backpedalling on the Mormon thing, but he's as bad as Trump when it comes to talking before thinking.  In fact, Johnson seems to spend almost as much time trying apologize for things he says as he does dithering his way through his original quotes.

Indeed, as the media begins to give him more coverage, Johnson appears increasingly uncomfortable trying to explain his views.  He verbally wanders around issues and doubles back repeatedly on concepts and facts that many of us already acknowledge - all the while avoiding an answer or opinion.  If this apparent lack of sophistication in dealing with the press is to be appealing to voters, Johnson has to at least offer relevant observations or stinging critiques of the status quo.  But he's not doing that.

Indeed, one of the reasons Trump has scored so much popularity involves his impatience with conventional media interviews.  But Johnson isn't even impatient.  He seems completely unprepared.

It's like he doesn't realize that this grand national interview he's begun is for the presidency of the United States of America.  We're not interviewing him to run another marijuana marketing company.

Granted, many Libertarians probably believe that Big Government has no business regulating marijuana, so Johnson's stance isn't particularly surprising.  But neither is it a healthy stance when it comes to America's executive office.  I don't mind legalizing marijuana for medical use in extreme cases where the prognosis is dire and the options of pain reduction or brain destruction are fairly irrelevant.  But science has proven that marijuana does indeed damage the brain.  So our government has no business encouraging its recreational use.

And Johnson's impertinence regarding the morality of World War II could be considered a reflection of the conventional Libertarian aversion to participating in wars on other shores.  But Pearl Harbor, the Holocaust, and America's need to control Russia's expansionism (hold your friends close, and your enemies even closer) provide easy answers for why even Libertarians - and especially their presidential candidate - should have little trouble defending America's involvement on a purely practical basis.

So Johnson isn't looking like a very good alternative to either Hillary or Trump after all.  And I'm going to stop recommending that voters consider his candidacy.  I'm not voting for him, so why should you?  I was never enthralled with him; I merely considered his viability more robust than I'm learning it really is.

This doesn't mean I've resigned myself to voting for either Hillary or Trump.  They're still both as unsuitable for the presidency as they were before I started learning this stuff about Johnson.  I've simply got more work to do in trying to figure out how to vote this fall.  And the clock is ticking.  Can you believe we're already well into September?

You don't happen to know of any decent presidential candidate out there, do you?

Doesn't have to be particularly smart or ethical.  After all, our standards aren't as high as they used to be.

Wednesday, September 7, 2016

Killer of Feral Cats Prompts Outcry

Someone's killing homeless cats here in Arlington, Texas.

Several local news sites this morning broke the big news:  Dozens of feral cats are being found dead at businesses along the railroad right-of-way through downtown Arlington.  Employees at these businesses - a range of small law firms, kitschy boutiques, printers, light industrial, and non-profit agencies - have been feeding these felines for years.  It's an effective, inexpensive way to control rodents, don't you know.

But somebody is believed to have now poisoned the cats, killing them in a most inhumane way:  Likely through antifreeze.  So gross, right?

So many beloved cats have died, a line of little white crosses now marches down part of Main Street in their honor.  Although it's doubtful any of the deceased were very religious.

Actually, animal abuse is against the law; even the abuse of non-domesticated cats.  And studies say that if a person is prone to abusing animals, that person's next step is their abuse of humans.  Either way you look at it, killing cats is not something people eagerly put on their resume.

At the same time, however, isn't it a bit odd that so many people are making such a fuss over this?  I mean, after all; a $5,000 GoFundMe account has been started to provide a reward for information leading to the cat killer's arrest and conviction.   Over $1,000 has been raised in just one week.

Is this a case of cat lovers with too much money on their hands?  Fortunately, this reward isn't coming out of public coffers.

Not that killing cats is an acceptable way to treat them.  But how many of these cat lovers mourn the rats being killed by the cats?  How many cat lovers use wasp spray, or roach repellent?  How many cat lovers want to force exterminators out of business for killing God's tiniest little creations en mass?

Is it because cats are cute?  Does cuteness somehow makes cats more valuable than, say, their fleas?  I mean, I don't like fleas.  When we've had pets in our family, I've readily killed their fleas.  So yes, I value dogs and cats far more than I do the pesky insects who bite them - and us.

But starting a $5,000 GoFundMe account?

It's not even like those cats were anybody's personal property.  They were feral cats!  Homeless.  Non-domesticated.  It would be one thing if somebody was going about a neighborhood killing cats a family had paid good money to purchase, spay/neuter, and otherwise maintain.

At least it's nice some people care about homeless kitties.

Back in the 1980's, I used to visit my aunt in Brooklyn every summer.  I remember getting up in the mornings, and looking out my aunt's big kitchen windows.  They looked out over a small concrete backyard belonging to her apartment building, where Mrs. Andriessen, who lived in my aunt's building, fed an array of stray and feral cats that haunted the block's various alleyways.

Mrs. Andriessen was older than my aunt, shorter, and stouter, and from watching her three stories up, I could tell it was a strain for her, setting the plates and bowls out for her feral brood.  My aunt would cluck that Mrs. Andriessen was becoming an old bag lady, feeding the cats and fussing over them like those poor souls who lives in squalor with their dozens of felines.  But Mrs. Andriessen wasn't poor, or even lonely, since she had family who lived nearby.  She simply had a thing about feeding the neighborhood's unwanted cats.  Even if she did look like the cat version of Mary Poppins' "tuppence-a-bag" Bird Woman.

Though her words are simple and few,
Listen, listen, she's calling to you:
"Feed the birds, tuppence a bag,
Tuppence, tuppence, tuppence a bag."

One summer, however, my aunt pointed out to me that there were only a couple of cats when Mrs. Andriessen came out to feed them.  "She doesn't know where all the cats have gone," my aunt said, somewhat intrigued herself at the mystery.  In an old urban neighborhood such as theirs, next to a city park, the rat population alone could feed hordes of stray and feral cats without Mrs. Andriessen's culinary contributions.

The day before, on my way from the airport to visit my aunt, I'd noticed a brand-new Chinese take-out restaurant at the corner of her block.

"Maybe the Chinese restaurant explains why Mrs. Andriessen's cats have disappeared," I offered.

"Oh, no!"  My aunt was horrified at the thought.  But then, as she considered it:  "Actually, the cat population only started to decline after they opened..."

Before long, all of the stray and feral cats were gone from the neighborhood.  Mrs. Andriessen would soon succumb to illnesses that would take her life, and people in the building wondered if her being deprived of one of her main sources of delight - feeding those cats every day - contributed to her decline.

Mom's pet project, as seen this afternoon
through our dirty patio door.
Back here in Texas, my Mom has become something of a Mrs. Andriessen.  Not long after we had to put down our beloved collie, Feliz, a black feral cat began haunting our backyard.  And not long after that, Mom decided that he needed some sustenance.  And ever since then - practically eight years or so - that mangy-looking black feral cat has been a regular presence.

He comes several times a day, and each time he shows up, Mom faithfully obliges him by putting out fresh kitty food, which he usually eats with relish.

(With "gusto," I should say.  Not literal relish, like on a hot dog).

Being a feral cat, he's not crazy about having human interaction.  Mom has been able to pet him, but only briefly, a couple of times in all these years.  Twice, he scratched Mom, prompting Dad, even with his dementia, to insist that Mom avoid any proximity to him.

That cat has obviously had a hard life.  He used to show up with open wounds and sores, with patches of his black fur missing, or an ear bleeding.  Oddly enough, he has a thin mark of white fur across his back, like somebody drew a white line in pencil.  We figure it must be a sort of residual mark from some scar he suffered when he was young; a scar across his skin that caused his hair to re-grow in a different color.

His most constant facial expression is a scowl.  He seems happiest when he's scowling, his eyelids slanted downward, his ears flattened, his whiskers in a frown.  He's certainly not cute, at least in the conventional sense of the term.

But he brightens Mom's day, even though we've never named him.  Considering his surly disposition, we figure he's probably happier not having a name.  Too much affection and attachment, don't you know.

All this to say that I understand the effect cats can have on people.

Still, if somebody poisoned Mom's nameless cat, we wouldn't call the police.  And we certainly wouldn't try to raise a $5,000 reward for the prosecution of whoever did it.

Shucks, a quick Google search found that a town in North Carolina is offering that much money for information leading to the arrest of two suspects who cops believe killed a 25-year-old man there on July 2 of this year.  Doesn't it say anything about our priorities when the going rate for capturing a small-town murderer is the same as capturing the killer of feral cats?

Talk about your tuppence a bag - for bagging those crooks!

Tuesday, September 6, 2016

Don't Put Heaven in a Box

What happens to us when we die?

Is that it?  Finito?  Kaput?  When we die, does life cease?  As my brother used to joke, "Thank you for being on our show!"

Or, is there a soul in each of us that continues onward, somewhere else?

These are questions, of course, that have daunted and haunted mankind for millennia.  Skeptics say religion exists to help us figure out answers to these questions.  We need some sort of belief system to answer such staggering ponderables, to provide some sort of incentive to continue on our life's journey, and to reward people for behaving in their current circumstances.  Good people then go to good places like Heaven, while bad people go to bad places like Hell.

Alternatively, the traditional evangelical theology of Heaven holds that God has not designed Eternity for "good" people per-say.  Heaven is for people who believe that Jesus is His Son, and He died on the cross of Calvary to pay the guilt of our sins.  Alternatively, Hell isn't for bad people; it's where people go who spend their life on Earth without truly confessing faith in Jesus Christ.  This means that plenty of "good" people end up in Hell, while plenty of "bad" people end up in Heaven.

In fact, the Bible teaches that apart from Christ's salvation of the souls of believers, we're all bad.  Goodness is only a matter of our opinion, not God's.  God is sovereign and all-knowing.  He doesn't have opinions.  He is truth.  Shucks, He's truth's Creator, and truth's Teacher, through the power of His Holy Spirit.

You can re-read that if you need to.  You've got time.  I'll wait!  And yes, as a born-again follower of Christ, I believe all of this.  To people who don't consider themselves evangelical Christians, it's all a bunch of fables and sanctimonious rhetoric.  But at least the things I believe about why we exist, and what happens to us when we die, are consistently taught throughout the Bible's 66 unique books.

So I believe that people like my father, and my aunt, both of whom recently passed away within this past year, are right now in Heaven, since both of them each personally professed faith in Jesus Christ as their holy Savior.  I'm not quite sure what they're specifically doing at this very moment, like I'm sure of what I'm doing.  I'm typing out a blog essay.  And right now, you're reading it.  However, if you have loved ones in Heaven, you're probably like me:  Not as sure of what they're doing right now.

Generally speaking, based on those passages of the Bible that discuss Heaven and the death of Christ-followers, we can be confident that our loved ones who "die in Christ," as the saying goes, are literally in the presence of God and Jesus Christ, in Heaven.  I believe that's where my Dad is, and my aunt.  And their mother.  And hopefully, loved ones you've recently lost.  And hundreds and thousands and ten thousands of other saints from around the world, throughout human history, who have believed what God has told us about Himself and His Son.

It's mind-boggling, isn't it?

Yet still, what are they DOING?  Are they milling about, like at a reception of some sort, sipping coffee and munching on hors d'oeuvres until the rest of us show up?  Are they chatting with friends who've been there much longer, like a drawn-out family reunion, or maybe standing in lines to meet the Bible's famous heroic personalities, like some autograph session, as everybody bides their time before Eternity officially begins?

Many of us like to anthropomorphize those who've gone on to Heaven before us.  We like to imagine that they're still watching us here on Earth.  We presume they're still interested in our comings and goings, our love lives, how our jobs are going, who's giving birth, who's graduating college, who's making a stunning play for their football team.  Somewhere up there, Heaven has celestial floor-to-ceiling windows, or maybe scuff-proof glass panes in Heaven's floor, through which saints can view us down here, despite the clouds somehow...  Or maybe God installed closed-circuit TV or WiFi in Heaven with supernatural 24/7 coverage and 100% uptime reliability.

It's comforting to imagine that our loved ones remain connected somehow to us here on this planet.  But is it Biblical to think that way?  The only time the Bible ever mentions somebody in the Hereafter watching those they left behind on Earth is Luke 16's account of the wealthy man in Hell, who looked over to Heaven and asked Abraham to send Lazarus over with some water.  Which, of course, is not a literal account of something that ever actually happened.  This is an allegorical parable Jesus told in order to convey the idea that faith in Him, and not faith in money, is the key to Heaven.

Other than that, there's not much of anything in the Bible to give us proof that people in the Afterlife are living the same type of limited, sin-tainted reality that we have here on Earth.

We do know that there's no marriage in Heaven, at least among ourselves (perhaps for some of us, that's a strong endorsement right there for Eternity with God).  Figuratively, we will be the "Bride of Christ," but what that will look like in a practical sense is something for theologians to debate.  We know there will be work for us to do, but it will not be laborious.  We won't be sick, or get tired, or sad.

It's all hard to imagine, since life for us right now is so full of good things that have been deeply corrupted by sin.

Some people - even faithful Christ-followers - tend to succumb to the impossibility of appreciating the fullness of Heaven's glory, especially when a loved one dies.  Indeed, grief can provoke distortions of reality - especially Heavenly reality.  There are some who say they receive visions of their dearly-departed from Heaven, and they've been able to maintain a continued relationship of sorts even after death.  Yet while I sympathize with those who grieve, I don't believe our loved ones sending us anything - prayers, love, good wishes, emotional connections, verbal communications - from their new Heavenly home.

Why not?

Because they're in God's holy presence!  Everybody who dies in Christ is immediately embraced by God's divine being.  The Bible says so.  "To be absent from the body is to be present with the Lord."

And considering how utterly magnificent it must be to find oneself in God's presence, won't mortal concerns pale in comparison?  We might fancifully imagine that our loved ones continue following along with us on our Earthly trek, even after they die in Christ.  But that's a deeply self-centered idea for us to have, isn't it?

Can you see the fallacy?

"Um... OK, I'm up here three mansions away from the Pearly Gates... I've got Jesus Christ over there, just beyond the Apostle Paul and my late brother-in-law... Oops - I guess I'm "late" too, or are the rest of the saints still on Earth the ones who are actually late?  Hmm... I wonder what's happening where I used to live?  I can look through the Celestial WiFi at something going on down there, even though it's where sin abounds...  Although, frankly, I can't even look upon sin anymore, now that I've seen God..."

Yeah; about that sin thing:  Are there blips in the Celestial WiFi so your loved ones can't experience your sinful thoughts?  Is there, like, a three-second delay on the transmission for Heaven's audio/visual tech angels to delete what your lustful eyes see?  Sure, we may think lots of parts of this Earthly life are pretty pure, but in light of Heaven, aren't most of our lives corrupted by sin?  Pollution?  Crime?  Speeding traffic?  Selfish thoughts?

Selfish thoughts.

Pining for loved ones who've passed into Glory isn't exactly selfishness.  But figuring they're still with you, and transmitting good vibes and lovely well-wishes from Heaven gets us pretty close to the very definition of selfishness, doesn't it?  Not that there's anything sinful about fantasizing how our dead relatives might be reacting up in Heaven to something that happens to us here.  But let's not start believing that our mortal lives hold more interest to folks in God's presence than, well, God's presence does.

After all, this faith we believe, including this Heaven place?  It's all based on God's glory, isn't it?  And if, when we die, God's glory isn't enough to distract us from what we used to have on Earth, than how magnificent is God's glory?

If Christ-followers go to Heaven when we die, being with God is our eternal reward.  Being released from the bindings and trappings of Earth - there's a reason they're called "trappings"! - is part of our eternal reward.

Right now, you and I can't adequately express what Heaven is like.  Or what our loved ones up there are doing right now.

We know what God is doing:  He's rejoicing over us, and He's singing as He's doing it.  But our loved ones who've died in Christ?  All we know for sure is that they're worshipping their Savior in person.

I'm thinking that's something consuming all of their attention at this point.  And frankly, wouldn't that be far better than whatever we're doing right now?

Friday, September 2, 2016

Dallas Holdout Stumps New Urbanism

If you're white, relatively prosperous, and ambitious, gentrification could be something from which you benefit.

At least, if you like big, aging cities that have managed to cultivate a hip grunge vibe within their older neighborhoods.

Gentrification allows mostly white, mostly affluent, mostly educated people to live closer to the center of a city than they could in suburbia.  Indeed, to gentrifiers, suburbia is anathema; it's where their parent live, it's where they grew up, it's vanilla and malls and so very, very not trendy.

The problem with gentrification, however, isn't that it's helping to revitalize vast swaths of America's biggest cities that just a few years ago were the not only not trendy, but quite dangerous as well.  Few fault gentrification because it helps salvage derelict buildings.  Gentrification provides an infusion of desperately-needed economic vitality, and repurposes land that has languished on city tax rolls.

The problem with gentrification isn't even that it mostly benefits affluent white people.  This is not so much a racial issue, as it is one of economics.  Hey, revitalizing old neighborhoods takes a lot of money.  Mostly because the people who have lived there during decades of urban decay haven't been able to afford to maintain their properties well.  Yes, urban blight is a direct result of white flight, but most of the whites moving back and "reclaiming" neighborhoods that became minority-majority don't see skin color.

They see opportunity.  They see shops and restaurants within walking distance of their apartments.  They see charismatic old buildings with details and craftsmanship you can't find these days in new construction.  They see a different type of lifestyle that requires less household maintenance than their parents have in suburbia, with those sprawling lawns.

Gentrification is not some racist ploy to make life miserable for the blacks and Hispanics who disproportionately filled-in the urban core as whites fled it.  Gentrification is an economic reaction to social trends that, actually, indicates far less hostility towards racial and cultural differences than those trends did that created urban blight to begin with.

But that doesn't mean gentrification doesn't have costs - especially for people who can't afford it.

Consider the case of Hinga Mbogo, who in 1986 dared to open an auto repair shop in one of the most dangerous neighborhoods of Dallas, Texas.  Back in the 80's, white flight had already decimated most of Ross Avenue, from downtown through Old East Dallas and beyond.  The formerly respectable Bryan Place neighborhood was reeling from its new status as a haven for drug dealers and gang wars.  Students at Dallas Theological Seminary, which held its ground on a leafy campus just south of Ross Avenue, and became something of a champion for urban missions, heard gunfire almost every night.

But Mbogo found a building he could afford, and opened his auto repair shop near where several others already operated.  It was about the only type of legitimate commercial enterprise that could survive in that environment.  His establishment is greasy and grimy, and completely unattractive.  But Mbogo cultivated a reputation for honesty and hard work.  He'd always wanted to own his own business, and Dallas was helping him fulfill that ambition.

He was a striver from Africa.  His skin color may be black, and he's striving towards a goal many college-educated white strivers wouldn't ever consider for themselves.  But Mbogo was there when Ross Avenue was at its worst.

Now that neighborhoods all around downtown Dallas are being rediscovered by those white strivers, however, Dallas officials want him gone.

Or at least, they want his shop gone.  The city has re-zoned his property against his will, because his grimy auto repair shop doesn't fit with the trendy redevelopment plans developers have for his neighborhood.

If Mbogo's plight is beginning to ring a bell, perhaps its because his story has been percolating for about 11 years now, with media outlets as prestigious as the Wall Street Journal voicing support for him.  Here's a guy who assumed all the risk when he started his business, and now, when he's in his 60's, finds the city pulling the rug out from under him, using a rarely-deployed trick akin to eminent domain, to deprive him of his livelihood.

How un-American is that?!

City hall's defenders contend that Mbogo has had 11 years to relocate his company.  And he's the last holdout along Ross Avenue.  Everybody else - there were several other similar businesses near Mbogo's affected by the city's 2005 edict - has already caved to city hall's pressure and moved out.  Mbogo has simply been the most stubborn, they say.  In 2013, he petitioned the city for a two-year allowance to defer his move.  He even publicly promised the city that he'd move his shop.  He claimed he was a man of integrity, and the city could take him at his word.

Yet he hasn't moved.  His deferment expired in April of 2015.  And Dallas officials say that now Mbogo has gone back on his word.  Not only that, but Mbogo has dug in, rallying his customers and supporters across Dallas (and now, the country), to defy the rezoning of his property.

In November of 2015, Mbogo held a press conference, asking for another extension and presenting a petition with 90,000 affirmations of support.  He was joined by lawyers from the Institute for Justice, a libertarian group that threatened to sue the city for Mbogo.

Instead, this past July, Dallas sued Mbogo, fining him $1,000 for each day since April of last year that he's kept his Ross Avenue shop open.  And that financial clock is ticking even today, and will for however long Mbogo doesn't move his business.

Is this what gentrification is supposed to be about?

Mbogo's detractors say that the law is the law, and he's violating it.  But what if the re-zoning was unfair to begin with?

Mbogo's detractors say he's standing in the way of progress that will benefit far more people that just Mbogo, his family, and his employees.  But are gourmet bakeries, high-priced restaurants, and hip wine bars suitable replacements for businesses run out of town simply because developers wanted the land for more lucrative projects?

Do the ends justify the means?

It's not like Mbogo is running a strip club, or a lead smelter.  It would be funny, though, if he was running an old bar - a bar that would likely be considered seedy by his new neighbors, who want their alcohol served in an establishment suitably reminiscent of a dive-like place, but still trendy enough not to be classified as "seedy."

Yet now his detractors say he's not being fair, considering how all of his old neighbors have been forced to close or move their businesses without the types of special favors he's gotten - and still wants - from the city.

Of course, the big problem here isn't Mbogo, or his auto repair shop.  It wasn't all of the other private businesses that have also been affected by the Ross Avenue redevelopment plans. The problem here is the Utopian visions developers and Dallas officials have for their new city.

Isn't it ironic how people who generally claim to be so pro-minority and pro-diversity suddenly become anti-local when it comes to their views on gentrification!  Okay, so people like Mbogo leveraged white flight, but doesn't he deserve not only the benefits of being a legal property owner, but also the benefits of holding his own when his Ross Avenue neighborhood was indeed one of the most neglected and dangerous in the city?

It's not that Dallas and its politicians don't have the right to zone a property according to their perceptions of what a neighborhood needs.  Indeed, if they'd decided to apply a new zoning designation on Mbogo's property to exclude an auto repair shop when he sells the property, that would be both normal and fair.  After all, Mbogo probably could have sold his property for top-dollar to somebody who wanted to construct a new luxury apartment building on the site.  That would be conventional capitalism at work, as Dallas continues to evolve.  As it is, Mbogo now claims that his property is hardly worth anything, since developers know about his protracted fight with the city.  Being forced out at this point means he has no negotiating power.

So that's his own fault, right?  Or is it unfair to Mbogo that his property was retroactively re-zoned, kicking him out?  City lawyers insist their tactic isn't eminent domain, since the city isn't officially reclaiming the property.  But isn't that merely a technicality?

Oddly enough, part of the fascination new urbanists used to cherish in old American cities involved the kind of organic randomness one finds in established neighborhoods that have undergone a series of transitions.  There's a quirkiness to places that have been around a while; a mix of styles and uses the likes of which suburbanization remains too new and regimented to have experienced.  Our urban fabric is frayed in places, and that used to be an attractive quality to more affluent newcomers.  They used to willingly tolerate - even embrace - the grime and grit of urbanity's tendency for aesthetic disorder.

So, has gentrification itself evolved?  At least in Dallas, anyway, it seems that new urbanists want a pre-packaged type of sterile cosmopolitanism that looks more like a TV sitcom set from Seinfeld or Friends than raw reality.

Those bumpy brick pavers, for instance, that cities paved over to keep car axles from breaking; those are now aesthetically desirable, even though women walking across them in designer heels look as though they're going to twist an ankle.  But a car repair shop?  Isn't there, like, a bad part of town where those should be located?

Too bad if Ross Avenue used to be one of those bad parts of town.

Although, considering how essential cars are in Dallas - despite the city's astronomic pricetag for its flashy light rail system - wouldn't having a reliable car repair shop located down the street from one's over-priced grunge-ethos loft be a plus?

When Mbogo opened his shop in 1986, his dream was to be an American entrepreneur.  And while the city of Dallas hasn't exactly denied him that dream - he could have acquiesced, sold out, and bought a place where his shop could relocate - they're certainly sounding very un-American.

Or does living in America not only involve dreams like Mbogo's, but also the dreams of big-money developers who think the plans for which they're striving outclass dreams like Mbogo's?

As it is, it wasn't fair for the city to re-zone Mbogo out of his business's current location.  Just because other businesses didn't fight city hall doesn't mean Mbogo shouldn't, either.  And while it does seem a bit awkward for Mbogo to obviously go back on his promise to move, perhaps a compromise can be found?

After all, with his rising notoriety and media fame, letting Mbogo keep his auto repair shop on Ross Avenue as trendy new hipster developments spring up all around it will make him and his shop something of a local landmark.  And new urbanists are supposed to love local landmarks.

Except when the complaints start trickling in from Mbogo's new neighbors.  Complaints about revving engines, clanking equipment, unpleasant odors, puddles of oil...

New urbanists like their grit and grime to be seen and not heard.  Or smelled.  Or even seen, unless it's really, like, super-photogenic.

Either way, whether he moves or stays, Mbogo is going to end up being forced to comply with somebody else's dictates.