Thoughts On Thanksgiving

For as long as I can remember I’ve loved Thanksgiving. Full disclosure, as a child I didn’t much like turkey as I found it a dry version of chicken but that was before turkeys were engineered to taste better. But I liked the fact that it gave me a Thursday and Friday off from school.

And like many children of the 1960s I was heavily influenced by the Peanuts “A Charlie Brown Thanksgiving,” and more to the point, Linus’ account of the shared meal between the Pilgrims and the Indians in 1621. Alas, like many historical events, our image has little to do with the actual events. If you want the true story of the first Thanksgiving, let me steer you to Mayflower: A Story of Courage, Community, and War by Nathaniel Philbrick.

Nevertheless Thanksgiving has become a time to recognize gratitude. Thanksgiving became a national holiday in 1861, instituted by President Lincoln. He proclaimed it during a time of great suffering, when the future of the nation was in doubt.

Now, near the end of 2021, we have a great deal to fear. Many of our leaders continue to ignore the devastating realities of climate change and our role in its creation. Here in the United States many of our citizens have used victimization to ignore the simplest of truths and the most obvious of events.

And yet we give thanks. Thanksgiving does not depend on optimism, the preponderance of evidence, but on hope. There is darkness in even in our best days but more to the point there is light even in our worst days.

Years from now we will look back on Thanksgiving 2021 and recognize not only what was wrong, but what turned out right. Gratitude (Thanksgiving) allows us to celebrate that now.

Saying Goodbye To My Friend Pete

Last month I learned that my friend Pete Fullerton died of cancer. He had been diagnosed seven weeks earlier and his last journey was, gratefully, peaceful.

If you’re a fan of 1960s folk rock you may recognize him from We Five and their hit song You Were On My Mind.

In the fall of 1983 I was a seminarian with the Stigmatine Fathers, living in Los Altos, California. At the time I took classes at St. Patrick’s Seminary in Menlo Park. As part of our education we were all assigned to a parish. We were expected to participate in the ministry of the parish but we were given some freedom to choose what we did.

I was assigned to St. Williams and St. Nicholas Catholic Churches in Los Altos. I was asked to participate in the youth ministry there; at first I declined because I already had experience in youth ministry and wished to broaden my experience.

Nevertheless I agreed to I meet a couple that lived in the parish and had teenagers in the group. My first dinner with Pete and Sue Fullerton changed my life in ways that continue to take my breath away.

They were raising five children. Pete worked as a security guard and Sue worked in the Catholic school that allowed their children to attend tuition free.

Suffice it to say that they convinced me to participate in the youth ministry program, working with the youth minister Greg Kremer.

In addition to their participation in the youth group they began a charity called the Truck of Love. I grew up Catholic and was familiar with organizations that helped the poor. But Pete and Sue (and others) taught me not only to give, but to give with enthusiasm. They taught me that we shouldn’t give to the poor because we think we’re better than them but that we should give because we are all the equally loved. Generosity isn’t a value but a commandment.

They also taught me that we are called not just to give what people ask for but what they need. Pete taught me to ask “What else do you need?” When people in need ask for something they often ask for less than they need out of embarrassment. But when we tell them that they are loved and deserve what they need we give them the freedom to ask.

One more memory: On June 13, 1987 many of us gathered in upstate New York for the wedding of our friends Greg and Kate. The next day I took a canoe onto Lake Ontario intending a short trip. Alas, I stupidly found myself in over my head when the canoe capsized and I couldn’t paddle back to shore. Greg, Kate, Pete, Sue and several of my friends spent the night praying that I would be found. I spent the night knowing that I was the only person on earth that knew I was alive.

As you can guess I survived, but I learned that those who spent the night not knowing about my survival divided into camps. Some believed I would be found alive and others were preparing for my death. But Pete spent the night telling those gathered that no matter what happened to me they would find a way move forward.

In the years since I’ve often thought of that. So many times I’ve found myself subject to events beyond my control where I expect, hope, or pray for a positive outcome. Pete taught me not to pray for a particular outcome but instead to pray for the strength and faith to accept what happens.

When I learned that Pete was diagnosed with a cancer that infiltrated his brain I called him and Sue. Pete responded, as I expected, with his faith, humor, and love. He knew his days were numbered and decided to live the rest of his life with the love he shared with me.

I pray that when my time comes I will show the grace, humor and love he gave me.

The Justice Chronicles, Volume 39: The First Monday In October

Historically the Supreme Court begins its term on the first Monday in October. Most of the time this date means little to anyone who doesn’t follow the court. But this year, well, it’s a different story.

For much of its history we’ve seen the court as being above politics and their decisions were unpredictable. Not so much today.

Today most descriptions of the court tell us that there are six conservatives: Chief Justice John Roberts, Clarence Thomas, Samuel Alito, Neil Gorsuch, Brett Kavanaugh, and Amy Coney Barret. There are also three liberals: Stephen Breyer, Sonia Sotomayor, and Elena Kagan.

This matters because this year they may render a decision on an issue that has divided our nation for more than sixty years: abortion. Before 1973 the ability of a pregnant woman to terminate (abort) her pregnancy depended mostly on where she lived and how much money she had. In 1971 a pregnant Texas woman wished to end her pregnancy but she lived in a state where abortion was illegal. She filed a lawsuit claiming that Texas violated her right to privacy and the case, Roe v. Wade made it to the Supreme Court.

On January 22, 1973 the court decided, by a vote of 7-2, that abortion in the first trimester (13 weeks) of pregnancy was within the rights of the mother and cannot be outlawed. Pregnancies in the 2nd trimester (14-26 weeks) could be terminated with restrictions and pregnancies after 26 weeks were protected. Since then it’s been assumed that abortion was unlawful when the fetus/child was viable, that is, could live outside the womb. Opinions differ but it’s generally held that a child at 24 weeks can live outside the womb (full term is 40 weeks). It didn’t take long to divide the country.

Those who opposed abortion identify as Pro Life and those who supported abortion identify as Pro Choice.

At first the only strong Pro Life voice in the United States was the Catholic Church but by the early 1980s they were joined by Evangelical Christians

Since then these groups have formed an uneasy alliance and virtually all their energy has focused them on overturning Roe v. Wade. During the 1980s this became a cause for the Republican Party and since 1984 it’s been enshrined in their platform. Republican Presidential candidates since then have all promised to appoint Supreme Court Justices that will vote to overturn Roe V. Wade.

We may be on the cusp of that. Of the 9 justices all six who are listed as conservatives have been appointed by Republican presidents. During their confirmation hearings they all promised not to have preconceived opinions on abortion and would decide any case on its merits.

Nobody believes that. As I write this the Court has agreed to hear the case of Dobbs v. Jackson Women’s Health Organization. Mississippi passed a law that prohibits abortion after the 12th week of pregnancy. Since this case was filed Texas passed a law that prohibits abortion after the 6th week of pregnancy (often before the woman knows she’s pregnant). If the court finds in favor of Mississippi it will, in essence, overturn Roe v. Wade.

Cards on the table, I’m pro life. I know any number of people who describe themselves as “oops babies.” In other words their conception was unplanned and unexpected, but not unloved. I’m not naive and I’m not certain that we will ever get to zero abortions. But I believe we can look to Switzerland for guidance. Theirs is a three pronged approach. They provide sex education in schools, they make birth control free and universally available, and they work to raise the socioeconomic level of all their citizens so that nobody chooses abortion out of economic desperation.

Their abortion rate isn’t zero but it’s pretty low. But reversing Roe v. Wade also won’t eliminate abortions in the United States. It will simply allow states to write their own laws (as they did before 1973). Mississippi and Texas will certainly outlaw abortions but states like California and New York certainly will not. Women with enough money will simply travel to states that allow abortion.

But perhaps most troubling of all, women in those states without the ability to travel find themselves with few options. Some of them will choose to have illegal abortions that often lack the safety measures they need.

Some will say that people who choose to break the law shouldn’t complain about bad outcomes. But many of these women are barely past being girls. Some pregnancies are not consensual and some of them are the result of sexual abuse by someone they knew who broke their trust.

Simply put, overturning Roe v. Wade won’t get us to a pro-life nation. I fear it will draw us further away.

Thoughts on the 20th Anniversary of 9/11, Volume 3

OK, this is my final essay on the 20th Anniversary of 9/11. I had hoped to finish this by 9/11 but that didn’t work.

In my last essay I spoke about how President Bush asked for and received Congressional approval to combat the “war on terror” without any way to measure either success or completion. This allowed him to avoid seeing 9/11 either as a criminal act or an act of war.

President Bush is and was a devout Christian. He credits his faith with his decision to stop drinking and change his life.

But he also believed that as Christians we struggle constantly with a world caught between good and evil. Among other things this caused him to proclaim the planners of 9/11 as part of the axis of evil in early 2002. He stated that Iran, Iraq and North Korea sought our destruction (interestingly omitting Afghanistan, the nation giving safe harbor to Osama bin Laden).

By articulating that we are “good” and those other nations are “evil” he set up a paradigm whereby only those who were on his side were worthy of God’s love. Opposing him wasn’t simply mistaken, it was sinful. And while he stated several times that we were not at war with Islam, he should have known he unleashed that very prejudice.

When he decided to invade Iraq in 2003 he justified it by claiming Iraq and its leader Saddam Hussein were developing and stockpiling “weapons of mass destruction” intending to attack the United States. The only link between Saddam Hussein and Osama bin Laden lay in the fact that both identified as Muslim, though their practices were dramatically different. At the time I claimed that Hussein and bin Laden were both Muslims in the same way Bill Clinton and Pat Robertson were both Baptists.

President Bush also hinted that Hussein helped plan 9/11 without any evidence. Shortly after the invasion his administration admitted there were no weapons of mass destruction even though his administration claimed we knew where they were.

In any war we need to articulate why we are right and our enemies are wrong. But President Bush went farther and laid the groundwork for the belief among many that all Christians are good and all Muslims are evil. The 9/11 terrorists may have claimed to be Muslims but members of the Ku Klux Klan identify as Christians. Muslims who wish us evil constitute a minuscule percentage of Islam.

I prayed after 9/11 that these acts of terrorism would not only bring us together but unite us in our determination to choose love over hate, courage over fear. Alas, I feel we are going in the wrong direction. Prejudice against Muslims and anyone who appears to be Middle Eastern continues seemingly unabated. Our fear has emboldened some of us to reject the very values on which our nation was founded.

I was blessed to witness an exhibition at the Smithsonian Institution called A Nation of Nations that celebrated our diverse past and shared future.

I pray we will be that again and that the 30th Anniversary of 9/11 points in a better direction.

Thoughts on the 20th Anniversary of 9/11, Volume 2

In my last essay I spoke about my experience and feelings on the day of the attack. There I admitted I couldn’t encompass all I wanted to say in one entry. I hope to keep this to 2 volumes, but we’ll see.

In the first few weeks and months it was good to see that as a nation we came together. Like most Americans I had not voted for President George W. Bush the previous November. I felt he didn’t have enough experience, or frankly, smarts to run the country. But, like most of us, I fell in line behind him and I have to credit him with his ability to articulate our grief and pain.

But I felt at the time that he needed to make a critical decision. We knew early on that the mastermind of the attacks was Osama bin Laden who led a terrorist organization called Al Qaeda. We also knew that he was living in Afghanistan and the government of Afghanistan (led by an ultra orthodox Muslim group called the Taliban) granted bin Laden refuge.

So do we treat these attacks as a criminal matter or an act of war? If we saw it as a criminal matter we would deploy the FBI to investigate and hope to capture bin Laden and those who planned the attack. If we saw it as an act of war President Bush could convene Congress and ask for a declaration of war against Afghanistan according to the Constitution. It should be noted that the Congress has not done this since December 8, 1941.

President Bush did neither. Instead he addressed Congress and asked for support for a war on terror. It was overwhelmingly granted.

Unlike previous declarations this did not specify a nation (even as wars in Korea and Vietnam did). The declaration gave no indication of our objectives or even when we would know the war was over. President Bush spent the rest of his administration using this equivocation to his advantage.

Shortly after the declaration we began to round up those we suspected had a hand in the attacks. So here’s the problem: if we saw 9/11 as a criminal attack these people would have been suspects and would have had certain rights (the right to remain silent, the right to counsel, the right to be arraigned, etc.). If we saw 9/11 as an act of war these people would have been prisoners of war (POW’s) and would have had certain rights (support from the Red Cross, the right to be treated within the rules of the Geneva Convention, etc.).

But the Bush administration skirted these rules and made up a category called “enemy combatants.” This allowed them to detain people with virtually no protections. They were sent to prisons in several locations, primarily to the US Naval station in Guantanamo Bay Cuba. The Bush administration then argued that these detainees didn’t fall under the jurisdiction of the United States as they were being held in another country (Cuba) but since Cuba has no jurisdiction over Guantanamo that was a blatant lie. Some of these enemy combatants have been held for nearly 20 years with no ability to argue their case or ask that prosecutors prove their case.

Twenty years later we still don’t know what victory in the war on terror is.

OK, this essay is long enough. Looks like I’m going to Volume 3.

Thoughts On The 20th Anniversary Of 9/11, Volume I

For the past few weeks I’ve been thinking of the events of September 11, 2001. I originally thought I could do this in one essay but I can’t. Today I’m writing Volume I. Stay tuned.

We all remember where we were when we got the news. The previous April Nancy and I bought a house with her recently widowed father, Al. My parents came out for a visit to see our new home and were scheduled to return on September 12th. They didn’t and weren’t able to leave until the following Sunday the 16th.

When we heard the news that a plane crashed into one of the World Trade centers we immediately turned on the TV. We were both getting ready to go to work and we pulled ourselves away from the TV. By that time we knew that the other World Trade center and the Pentagon had been hit. On my way to work I learned about the final crash in Pennsylvania.

We all spent the morning wrapping our heads around the reality of what happened, and as a Christian I first thought about how Heaven would have to open more lanes to accommodate all those now in line.

It didn’t take long for us to recognize that our world had changed and we needed to update our view of terrorism. Since the early 1970s we’ve recognized that planes were subject to hijackers but the prevailing wisdom was that the pilots should follow their directions and let those on the ground negotiate with the hijackers.

We had no plan for hijackers who demanded that the pilots surrender their seats. We had no plan for hijackers who never intended to negotiate but instead intended to kill themselves, all the passengers, and thousands of innocent men and women in buildings who were working at their jobs.

In the last 20 years I’ve thought a great deal about what they were thinking. I’ve thought about the passengers of American Airlines flight 11 and United Airlines flight 175, who crashed into the World Trade Centers. Also American Airlines flight 77 that crashed into the Pentagon and United Airlines flight 93 that crashed into a field in Pennsylvania but was likely headed to the Capitol. We don’t think much about this but I also think about those in the World Trade Centers and the Pentagon who watched planes headed toward them, recognizing that they were targets. At some point they must have known that they were living the last few minutes of their lives and must have felt a combination of anger, fear, and grief. They must have known that they were leaving parents, siblings, spouses, children, grandchildren, and friends. I pray their last few seconds were filled with prayers.

Much has been written about those on United Airlines flight 93 who knew about the attacks and sacrificed themselves. They hoped to overpower the hijackers and land the plane safely but weren’t able. Their heroism makes us proud to be Americans.

I also think about those who didn’t die because of dumb luck. The man who overslept and missed a meeting at the World Trade Center. The woman who got caught in a long line and missed her flight. The soldier who found out at the last minute that he didn’t need to attend a meeting at the Pentagon.

More on my next essay.

Thoughts On Our WIthdrawal From Afghanistan

Shortly after the events of September 11, 2001 we learned that Osama bin Laden masterminded the attack. We also knew that he was protected from capture by the Taliban, a terrorist organization who occupied Afghanistan. The Taliban identified as Muslim but denied basic rights and education to women. Most of us believed the Taliban to be evil because of their beliefs but felt we couldn’t invade another country only to impose our values on them, noble though they may be.

Osama bin Laden wasn’t a member of the Taliban but was instead the head of another terrorist organization (who also claimed to be Muslim) called al Qaeda. When we demanded that bin Laden be turned over to us Afghanistan refused.

At that point the administration of President Bush had a choice to make. They could either see the 9/11 attack as a criminal matter and dispatch the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) or they could see it as an act of war and ask Congress for a Declaration of War.

They did neither. Instead, on September 18, 2001 Congress authorized President Bush to “prevent acts of international terrorism.” On this authority President Bush sent troops into Afghanistan. But here’s the problem: In December our troops were closing in on bin Laden in Tora Bora, in Afghanistan close to the border with Pakistan.

But at the time the Bush administration were more interested in invading Iraq because they claimed that Iraq stored “weapons of mass destruction.” They didn’t but the invasion of Iraq pulled out troops that could have captured bin Laden. Simply put, we were at war with both Afghanistan and Pakistan and bin Laden avoided capture.

That’s where things stood at the end of President Bush’s 2nd term in 2008. He was replace by Barack Obama. President Obama ended the occupation of Iraq in 2017. On May 2, 2011, on orders from President Obama, Osama bin Laden was killed in Pakistan.

So if we invaded Afghanistan in 2001 to capture or kill bin Laden and we did that over 10 years ago, why have we continued to be in Afghanistan? Good question.

President Bush famously claimed that we weren’t in the business of nation building and had no interest in forcing our American values on another nation. But that’s exactly what we tried to do. Both Presidents Obama and Trump claimed to wish to leave Afghanistan but neither did it.

This year President Biden found himself saddled with a war that none of his predecessors were willing to end, and he decided to end it.

Yes, it’s a mess. Yes, many good people in Afghanistan believed our promise to liberate them from the terrorists that drove girls and women from classrooms and the freedom to go outside their homes.

And yes, perhaps most importantly, we promised good, honest Afghans that if they helped us they could look to a better future for themselves and their families. Now many of these Afghans find themselves trapped in a country no longer their own, fearing reprisals from the Taliban, and wondering why they trusted our promises.

I don’t blame them if the regret helping us. War is an awful thing and promises easily made become hard or impossible to keep. Their vision was our vision for a free and inclusive Afghanistan, and that vision now lies in tatters.

I grieve for them. I also grieve for the brave and heroic American men and women who were placed in harm’s way. Some of them sacrificed their lives. Others came home with horrific wounds (physical, emotional, and spiritual) that will haunt them the rest of their lives. But all came home wishing for a different outcome, and many of them will likely never reconcile the guilt they feel in making promises they intended to keep.

As Americans we need to stand for the promises we make. We are a nation founded on the belief that each and every one of us has the God given tools to create a nation that embodies truth, justice and love.

Finally, and we didn’t learn this after Vietnam, we should never land boots on the ground without deciding in advance what victory would look like. If our goal was to kill or capture bin Laden, we achieved that 10 years ago. If our goal was to create a new Afghanistan in our own image, we should have had that debate 20 years ago.

Thoughts On America’s Declaration of Independence

I’ve been ruminating and thinking about this post since the 4th of July (our annual celebration of alcohol and pyrotechnics). We celebrate this day, and we should, but in some circles it comes with a certain amount of anger and division.

Some groups think we should feel gratitude for our freedom and any criticism equates to a lack of patriotism. Others steadfastly insist that our nation continues to fall short and celebrating our freedom is premature as it’s not complete.

Let me, once again, take the middle ground and hopefully shed some light instead of heat. By the way, if you’ve never read the Declaration of Independence it’s worth a read. You can find the text here.

The document makes two declarations: we are no longer a colony of Great Britain, but instead we are an independent nation; and we are all created equal, given our rights by God and not a King.

The first was easy: we are no longer British subjects. Of course the British didn’t agree to this until 1783 when they signed the Treaty of Paris and acknowledged our independence. That was the easy part.

When Thomas Jefferson (1743-1826) agreed to write this document he was only 33 years old, but was well read in philosophers of the time. His most famous phrase, our entitlement to “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness” actually came from John Locke (1632-1704).

Mr. Jefferson also declared that “all men are created equal” even though he would continue to own slaves for the rest of his life. He and the rest of the signers recognized that the survival of this new nation depended on the continuation of the institution of slavery.

I believed Mr. Jefferson struggled with these two aspects of his life. I believe he wished this new nation didn’t depend on slavery but he was aware that it did and was aware that there was no way he could have run his plantation without slaves. I’ve formed this opinion after reading Master of the Mountain: Thomas Jefferson and His Slaves by Henry Wiencek. It’s less than 300 pages and it’s worth a read.

I believe we can equate equality with the ability to vote; if you can’t vote you can’t fully participate in how our nation is run and are always subservient to those who can vote.

But in the late 1700s only a few Americans could vote, basically white, male landowners. Children couldn’t vote (and still can’t). Women weren’t able to vote in all elections until 1920. Residents of Washington D.C. couldn’t vote for President until 1964 and still don’t have representatives in Congress.

And, of course, adult, male, newly freed slaves were guaranteed the right to vote by the 15th Amendment to the Constitution in 1870 but their actually ability to vote was spotty at best (and nonexistent at worst) until civil rights legislation passed in the 1960s.

In short, a look over our history in the last 245 shows that the those eligible to vote has gradually increased. I say this with some irony as I am a white, male, landowner myself.

Several states are passing legislation that I believe intends to discourage voting among certain groups, and I believe that we need to fight against this. And sadly there is reason for discouragement in the short run.

But the phrase “all men (sic) are created equal” has always been inspirational. I believe that if Mr. Jefferson came back to life he would be pleased that the institution of slavery was gone and I hope he’d be embarrassed that his long term relationship with Sally Hemmings, one of his slaves, was known.

In the end I believe we should celebrate the 4th of July while at the same time recognizing that the phrase “all men are created equal” continues to challenge us.

Happy Juneteenth

On this day in 1865 the last of those enslaved in the former Confederate States of America learned they were free. It happened in Galveston, Texas when Major General Gordon Granger proclaimed General Order Number 3.

Interestingly enough, those enslaved Americans had been technically been free since January 1, 1863 when President Abraham Lincoln issued the Emancipation Proclamation.

President Lincoln never believed the Confederacy was a valid nation but were instead states in rebellion against the country. Because of that he insisted that they were subject to our laws and the Emancipation Proclaimation decreed that anyone enslaved in those rebellious states were automatically freed from bondage.

Obviously slaveholders in the South disagreed and declined to tell their slaves of their freedom. At the time they still expected to win the war. But on April 9, 1865 General Robert E. Lee surrendered and ended the Civil War.

But still, slaveholders in Texas refused to free their slaves. It wasn’t until June 19, 1865 that word got out to everyone.

Juneteenth reminds us not only that freedom can never be taken for granted. Juneteenth ended legal slavery but it didn’t end racial discrimination. Today we find many of these same states passing laws that make voting more difficult (disproportionately affecting people of color) and demanding school history curricula that downplays slavery.

So while we celebrate let us continue to remain vigilant.

Thoughts On Watergate, 49 Years After the Fact

On June 17, 1972 a small group was arrested in the Watergate Office Building in Washington D.C. Twenty six months later, President Nixon became the first American President to resign from office. He knew he would otherwise be impeached and removed from office.

It was worldwide headlines at the time but you really have to be either 60 years old or a political junkie (guilty on both counts) to remember this. Here is the elevator pitch on what happened:

In 1972 President Nixon ran for reelection against Senator George McGovern. It was a runaway from the beginning and McGovern won only Massachusetts and the District of Columbia. But the Nixon administration formed a committee called “The Committee to Reelect the President” in the hopes of not only winning, but winning big. A few members of the campaign decided to find out what the McGovern campaign was doing and broke into Democratic National Headquarters in the Watergate building to wiretap their phones. On the second try they were caught and arrested. President Nixon knew nothing about this until reading it in the newspaper but ordered his aides to pay money to the defendants to plead guilty and say nothing about the break in. In return their families would be taken care of. Obviously it didn’t work and by the end almost everyone involved went to prison.

I find Watergate particularly topical today. President Nixon served our nation well in many areas but not here. He believed he was above the law and bribing people to remain silent was justified. He didn’t see himself as subject to the law.

During this time many Americans were frightened that getting away with this would embolden him to continue to consolidate his power and violate the balance of power that our Constitution demands. We may have come closer than we ever knew. President Nixon continued to insist that he did nothing wrong and there was a “silent majority” who would support him.

Perhaps the greatest indication of our democracy happened on August 7th and 8th, 1974. A President resigned and a new President took office. We showed that nobody is above the law.

I write this at a time when the most recent former President believes his reelection was stolen from him and expects to return to office in a few months. He won’t.

We are still a strong democracy that believes nobody is above the law.