The Cult of Martyrs and Schools in the 21st Century

Christians all over the world, in all of our history, have revered martyrs. People of faith, they gave their lives in defense of their faith, or for a greater cause. In John’s Gospel (John 15:12) Jesus tells his disciples that “[n]o one has greater love than this to lay down one’s life for one’s friends.”

Once again, we woke up today to learn about another school shooting, and again in Colorado. I won’t bore you with the details but we’ve learned a great deal since the 1995 shootings at Columbine High School. Virtually every school (from kindergarten to 12th grade) now does active shooter drills and virtually all students, teachers, and other school staff think about what they would do when confronted by an active shooter.

Kendrick Castillo, an 18 year old student (along with several other students) faced that reality and ran toward the shooter. Kendrick was shot and killed. By all accounts he and the others stopped the shooter and prevented more carnage.

Last week, when murder visited the University of North Carolina, Charlotte, Riley Howell also took a bullet to protect others.

Kendrick and Riley gave their lives to save their classmates and we should honor their courage and pray for those whose lives they saved.

But we should also express anger that they needed to do what they did. Columbine High School, Sandy Hook, and countess other schools should be sanctuaries, places of safety. Chabad of Poway and other places of worship should be sanctuaries. We shouldn’t have to teach our children how to respond to active shooters and we shouldn’t have to hire armed security to make our places of prayer and fellowship safe.

If you think I need to be lectured on the 2nd Amendment please don’t waste your breath or my time. Our neighbors and our children shouldn’t be thought of as acceptable collateral damage and your desire to shoot assault weapons shouldn’t be an acceptable alternative when Viagra no longer works.

I pray for Kendrick Castillo and Riley Howell and their families. But I also pray for a place where they could have grown up, married, and raised families who would have benefited from their bravery and integrity.

The Trump Chronicles, Volume 120: Your Shutdown Appears to Hurt Everyone But You

As I write this we approach the 26th day of the partial government shutdown. We’ve had shutdowns before but this is our longest.

This shutdown does not affect all federal employees and is called a “partial shutdown.” But that’s little comfort to those are not being paid. And those who are not being paid are divided into two groups: essential and non-essential.

The non-essential federal employees cannot work and are not being paid. Essential employees must work and are not being paid. So what’s the difference? Good question.

I believe that all federal employees are essential because they serve all of us. In the past few days I’ve suggested that we abandon essential and non-essential and instead use the words safety related and non safety related. This made some sense because safety related employees guard our safety (e.g. the Federal Bureau of Investigation and the Transportation Security Administration) and we can’t function without them. But other agencies provide essential services that don’t endanger our safety.

But here’s where it get complicated for our President: as the shutdown continues we’re finding that his base may suffer from his unwillingness to care about the work that our federal employees do. As a candidate he promised to improve the lives of American farmers and by overwhelming numbers they voted for him. But his protectionist policies make their lives more difficult because other nations reduce how much they purchase from us. We can see soybean farmers as an example.

In response to this Mr. Trump allocated subsidies to soybean farmers. Some of them grumbled that they chose farming to grow crops, not to cash checks but I haven’t heard of anyone who refused to cash the checks.

But the government shutdown has meant that farmers aren’t getting their checks.

Today we received word that 2500 federal employees were ordered back to work to ensure these farmers get their checks.

In other words, 2500 federal employees who haven’t been paid since the government shut down are now ordered back to work without pay so that the President can ensure that the minority of Americans who voted for him will continue to receive checks for not farming.

It’s hard to imagine that anything will make him care for the people who work for him and stop pandering to his base.

How Low Will They Go? At This Point We Still Don’t Know

As I write this it’s been six weeks since fourteen children and three adults were murdered at Stoneman Douglas High School; you can see a list of them here.

This week is Holy Week in the Christian tradition and Spring Break for many students. This past weekend many survivors of the massacre traveled to Washington D.C. to call for an end to gun violence in schools (President Trump, meanwhile, spent the weekend at Mar a Lago).

I was proud of the job they did. Most teenagers fear public speaking but we heard voices that make us hopeful of the future. Well, not all of us.

Several “adults” in our nation used this event to bully these courageous Americans. Emma Gonzalez has come under particular criticism. For reasons she need not explain she wears her hair short. Two weeks ago she was called a skinhead lesbian by a Republican candidate for the House of Representatives in Maine. In fairness, this candidate withdrew from the race.

During her speech on Saturday Emma ripped up a paper target. But a conservative website photoshopped it and replaced the target with a copy of the Constitution, implying that she was un-American.

Emma was born here but her father was born in Cuba and the jacket she wore had a Cuban flag sown on her shirt. Republican Steve King of Iowa said this: “This is how you look when you claim Cuban heritage yet don’t speak Spanish and ignore the fact that your ancestors fled the island when the dictatorship turned Cuba into a prison camp, after removing all weapons from its citizens; hence their right to self defense.” Mr. King ignored her trauma, her determination, her travel, and her words. Instead he focused on a patch on her shirt that honored her ancestors.

For what it’s worth the Cuban flag was designed in 1848 or 1849 and adopted as the official flag in 1902. It bears no connection with Communism or Fidel Castro. Let me draw an analogy: My maternal grandfather was born in Boston, Massachusetts but his parents were born in Ireland. Like many Americans I’m proud of my heritage and while I don’t wear an Irish flag on my sleeve, I know I can. But if I did and someone saw my patch and accused me of supporting the Irish Republican Army I would not answer well. I’d accuse that person of caring not at all for me or those I love. I’d accuse that person of lying to silence me.

That’s what Emma’s bullies have done. While she speaks truth or power, they speak power to truth. They hope that their power will so intimidate her that she will cower into the shadows.

I haven’t met Emma, but I pray her truth will win out. I see her as a brave young woman who did not choose this path, but when confronted with her role, she grabbed it. I feel certain that while this weekend showed us our first glimpse of a young woman who makes us proud, it won’t be our last.

Vaccines: They Have Your Back (and Your Childrens' Back Too)

National Infant Immunization Week Blog-a-thon with woman holding baby. #ivax2protect

This week we celebrate National Infant Immunization Week, sponsored by the CDC, or the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

I’ve filed this post under both “celebrating” and “ranting” and with good reason. Two hundred and twenty one years ago Edward Jenner (1749-1823) began to explore smallpox, a virus that devastated populations at that time. Thirty percent of those who came down with the disease died of it and many of those who didn’t were scarred for life. Mr. Jenner noticed that those who suffered from a much milder disease, cowpox, appeared to be immune to smallpox. He suggested that if he could give people cowpox (which was virtually never fatal) he could ensure that they would not be in danger of contracting the much more dangerous smallpox.

He was right. And more to the point, he gave birth to the vaccine movement. Today we see vaccines as a treatment, a way to introduce something into our bodies that will protect us from dangerous diseases.

Vaccines stimulate our immune systems to protect us from dangerous diseases. You can find the list of these diseases here.

That’s why I’m celebrating. But I’m also ranting because in 1998 Dr. Andrew Wakefield published and article in The Lancet that claimed there was a link between the MMR (measles, mumps, rubella) vaccine and autism.

As you can imagine this created incredible anxiety among parents of infants. Nothing frightens parents more than the idea that they are doing something that will harm their children.

In the immediate aftermath of Wakefield’s article, the percentage of children who received vaccinations plummeted.

But on further observation it became clear that Wakefield lied. Other doctors replicated his experiment and none of them replicated his results. The Lancet withdrew its support as did everyone who partnered with him and in 2010 he lost his license to practice medicine.

I’d like to tell you that Mr. Wakefield’s fraudulent claims had no traction and that parents once again vaccinated their children, but this is simply not true. The combination of Mr. Wakefield’s lies, his influence on American celebrities like Jenny McCarthy, and the general belief in health conspiracies leave us with the reality that thousands of our children are not properly protected from easily avoidable diseases.

Some of these parents mean well and are overwhelmed by bad information from sources who capitalize on their ignorance. Others find misinformation an easy way to punish the other parent in custody disputes.

Regardless, parents who refuse to vaccinate their children place them in needless harm’s way. They claim that vaccines are “poison” that will harm their child when in reality vaccines make their bodies work better. Vaccines have our backs in the sense that they make us stronger.

This week, if you’re the parent of an infant or know someone who is, please encourage them to keep up with their vaccine schedule. When these infants are old enough to talk they will thank you (and so will I). While I didn’t like getting shots as an infant, toddler, or child, I’m grateful to my parents that they protected me.

We live in a time of “alternative facts” and conspiracies, where bloggers and (so called) journalists find an income stream in lying. I don’t begrudge their income stream, but I do wish to call out plan to put children in danger to make a buck.

Don’t believe them. Vaccinate your children.

Expertise Needs Our Support

From my earliest memories I’ve recognized truth does not depend on our opinions or desires. Facts are facts, even when they’re inconvenient.

I’ve been blessed to have born into a time and place where knowledge was valued and the smartest people in the room should be heard and respected. Good leaders told the truth and journalists reported factually.

But in the last few decades we’ve seen this model challenged. The 24 Hour News Cycle recognized that they didn’t need their viewers to be informed, but instead they needed their viewers to stay tuned. On March 8, 2014 Malaysian Air Flight 370 disappeared and we still don’t know what happened. In the days and weeks after its disappearance CNN and other news outlets learned that as long as they covered Flight 370 they claimed high ratings. Their ratings plummeted when they left this coverage for other stories. And so they continued to cover Flight 370 long after they had anything to report.

On March 19th, 11 days after the disappearance, CNN reporter Don Lemon suggested that the plane was sucked into a black hole. I don’t think anyone believed this, but after 11 days he was running out of things to talk about.

We see countless more examples, but in the early 21st Century we need to recognize we are consumers who increasingly want to be told what we want to hear more than we want to be told the truth.

And that’s a bad thing. This doesn’t serve us well. We need to hear uncomfortable truths because that’s how we grow and learn.

As I child I was told about Adam & Eve, Noah’s Ark, and other events from the Bible. As an adult I learned that many of these stories were myths. They were true but not factual. But today I’m surrounded by fundamentalists who believe that every animal alive today entered Noah’s Ark in the year 1656 BCE and emerged 40 days later when a dove flew off and returned with an olive branch that spontaneously appeared after all the plants and trees were drowned in the flood. In a Gallup Poll from 2014, 42% of Americans identify as Creationists (ie, the world was created 6,000 years ago over the span of 6 days).

I’ve been thinking about this because a few days ago I heard an excellent essay from Tom Nichols, the author of The Death of Expertise. You can watch him here and I suggest you do.

In case you don’t, let me take some excerpts:

A few years ago a mischievous group of pollsters asked American voters whether they would support bombing the country of Agrabah. As you might expect, Republicans tended to support military action while Democrats were more reluctant. There’s only one problem: Agrabah doesn’t exist. It’s from the animated Disney film Aladdin. Only about half the people surveyed figured this out.

Increasingly…laypeople don’t care about expert views. Instead many Americans have become insufferable know-it-alls, locked in constant conflict with each other, while knowing almost nothing about the subject they are debating.

How did this happen? How is it that people now not only doubt expert advice, but believe themselves to be as smart, or even smarter, than experienced professionals? Parents who refuse to vaccinate a child, for example, aren’t really questioning their doctors. They’re replacing their doctors. They have decided that attending the University of Google, as one anti-vaccine activist put it, is the same as going to medical school.

We need to find our way back from this ego driven wilderness. Historically, all people return to valuing expert views in times of trouble or distress. We’re all willing to argue with our doctors until our fever is out of control. Let’s hope it doesn’t come to that. But that’s where we’re headed. And unless we start accepting the limitations of our own knowledge, then each of us is failing in our obligation to participate in our democracy as involved, but informed citizens.

Well put Mr. Nichols.

The Justice Chronicles, Volume 28: We Should All Be Concerned About the Holman Rule

The last few months I’ve written extensively on President Elect Trump out of a concern over where our nation is heading. I’ve also wanted to chronicle his Presidency for future reference; I got the idea from James Fallows who wrote The Daily Trump.

But in the last few days I’ve come across something that concerns me and it comes from the House of Representatives, something called The Holman Rule.

In 1876 the House passed a resolution (the Holman Rule) that allows individual members of Congress to target individual federal employees and reduce their pay to $1.00 per year (effectively firing them). On January 3rd this Congress voted to bring it back. Proponents claim this will allow the firing of dishonest, ineffective or lazy federal workers.

My fear, and the fear of others is that individual members of Congress will use this rule as a way of settling scores.

Career federal employees are often tasked with delivering bad news to elected officials. In it’s January 10th edition, The Washington Post spoke about Arthur Katz, who worked for FEMA, testified before a Senate subcommittee. He said: “I testified before a Senate subcommittee regarding the gross mismanagement of FEMA, including our lack of preparedness for natural disasters. My bosses weren’t at all pleased, but my civil service and union protection meant that I couldn’t just be fired. A few months later, Hurricane Andrew hit Florida, and my warnings about FEMA’s problems were proved correct. I kept my job and continued in federal service until my retirement.” Imagine if his bosses at FEMA were able to ask Congress to have him fired?

The General Accountability Office (or GAO) is tasked with overseeing that federal monies are spent properly. Since their job is essentially telling Congress when money isn’t being spent properly, can we imagine any scenario where they will feel their job is secure?

Can anyone feel they can speak truth to power when power has shown its eagerness to stop them?

Fake News: It Has Real Consequences

Last month we learned about “Pizzagate.” Social media took off with the false account that the restaurant Comet Ping Pong, in Washington D.C., was a front for Hillary Clinton and others to molest and traffic children.

I have a hard time imagining anyone would believe something so preposterous, but on November 27th, Edgar Welch drove from Salisbury, North Carolina with an AR-15 assault rifle to “investigate.” He entered the restaurant and pointed the rifle at an employee who was able to escape. He fired it a few times before surrendering to the police. Mercifully no one was injured.

But it could have gone differently. Posting (and profiting from) fake news is getting out of control. One of my favorite podcasts, Planet Money recently tracked down the author of a fake news outlet, the Denver Guardian. He wants it to appear to be a newspaper and it’s not. But enough people go to this website that he’s able to sell advertising and he’s making a good living. You can read about it here: here.

Many of us grew up seeing the National Enquirer at the grocery store and I think most of us recognized their stories are false. But it now appears that the crazier the story, the more believable it is. The conspiracy theorists still hang on to false stories even when proven false.

America, do yourself a favor: next time you see a suspicious story, check it out on Snopes. They do good work.

The Election Chronicles, Volume 34: Why is Hillary Unpopular? You May Not Like My Answer.

This will surprise nobody, but we will elect a new President in less than 100 days. I’ve been eligible to vote since 1978 and I’ve never missed an opportunity. It’s the least I can do to express my gratitude to our Founding Fathers and everyone who fought in the American Revolution.

But in the 38 years since I’ve been an eligible voter, and the 56 years that I’ve been alive, I’ve never witnessed an election so polarized.

And let me say this as a Democrat: Donald Trump isn’t a bad choice. He’s a dangerous choice.

But that’s not my point. Instead, I wish to talk about why Hillary Clinton is so unpopular. I believe it’s latent sexism.

Eight years ago the election of Barack Obama unleashed racism that many thought was in our past. But we heard thousands of voices who criticized President Obama as someone who won’t lead all Americans because he is African American. He (and his people) care “only for their own people” and don’t care “for the rest of us.” In fact, look at him: he can’t be one of us. He must have been born somewhere else.

Now, his same party has (once again) nominated someone who cares only for “her people.” In the same way that the candidacy of Barack Obama uncovered latent racism, the candidacy of Hillary Clinton exposes latent sexism. Just as racism has informed much of our history with people of color, sexism continues to inform our belief in the relationship between men and women.

Most Christians, myself included, cringe at the belief that women are “temptresses” because in the Book of Genesis the character of Eve gives the forbidden fruit to Adam. I don’t think any reasonable person still believes it, but this was a common belief in the Middle Ages.

I find the idea of women as temptresses inane but archaic. But I’m more troubled by the persistent idea that women should not occupy positions of authority. You can read about it here. A small but noisy corner of the Christian world misuses the words of St. Paul to argue that women should not be in positions of authority over men.

But I’m most offended (as a husband, son, and brother of exceptional women) by the idea that women are, by nature, bitchy and conniving. They can’t be believed and they can’t be trusted.

Not only that, but strong, intelligent, and decisive women wish only to emasculate us. Women who want to “wear the pants in the family” are to be feared.

I first learned about Hillary when her husband Bill ran for President in 1992. Since then I’ve heard the following charges against her:

  • Whitewater: When Bill was running for President he faced accusations that he and Hillary invested in, and benefited by, a development in Whitewater, Arkansas. They didn’t. In fact, they lost a great deal of money in their investment. They were accused of throwing their partners under the bus but they didn’t. They lost money.
  • Health Care: In 1993 Hillary proposed universal health care for all Americans. It didn’t work and she was accused of trying to destroy America by sinking it in piles of debt.
  • Vince Foster: In 1993 Clinton friend Vince Foster shot himself in Ft. Marcy Park in Virginia. Even though he suffered from depression and feared that he would lose his security clearance if he sought help, Hillary is still suspected of killing him and dumping his body. She was devastated by his death but continues to be accused of killing him.
  • Benghazi: On September 11, 2002 four members of our diplomatic corps were killed in Libya by a terrorist attack. At the time Hillary was the Secretary of State. While she grieved the deaths of her friend Chris Stevens and others she was accused of causing this to happen. House Republicans, led by Darrell Issa have spent $7,000,000 in a failed attempt to blame her for the attack. Darrel, by the way, is in danger of losing his seat.
  • Email: The foolish investigation into Benghazi showed that Hillary used an email server not connected to her State Department account for emails that were not, at the time, considered secret. Given the false accusations of her in the past we can hardly fault her for her concern over her privacy. Nevertheless we do need to look into this. We all do email and most of us don’t worry about who is reading what we write. Our privacy depends on the fact that most people don’t care about our correspondence. Hillary does not have that luxury. I’m satisfied that she served us well in her positions as First Lady, Senator, and Presidential Candidate.

I will vote for her in November because I believe she will lead our country well. I also think that our first woman President will honor my wife, my mother, my sister who are exceptional.

The Election Chronicles, Volume 33: I Alone Can Fix It. Really?

This week we are watching the Democratic Convention but I have to confess I still can’t get over last week’s Republican Convention. Frankly it’s something I can’t unsee

But one line from Donald’s speech continues to haunt me. I wrote about this two months ago but Don is simply not a Republican: he is a Fascist.

Don himself made my point last week when he announced that I alone can fix it.

Taking aside the fact that no one alone can fix it, we should all be frightened. In a little over 3 months we will elect a president but Trump apparently believes he will be elected king.

I’ve spoken about this before, but the framers of the Constitution viewed our President as the leader of the Executive Branch, one of the branches of government.

Don does not. He calls on us, the voters, to give him the power to do whatever he wants with the promise that he will protect us from those who wish to harm us.

But in the end, he will harm us the most. Concentrating power in one person never works in the long run. That dictator, sometimes quickly, sometimes slowly, eventually makes decisions that benefits him at the expense of others. Even when the others helped him achieve his power.

If we truly listen to him, Don has spent his campaign telling us who he will benefit: rich, white, men.

He has spoken with contempt on women, Mexicans, Muslims, African Americans, and poor people.

Who has he supported? He has spoken well of Vladimir Putin. He tried to duck question about the Ku Klux Klan’s favorite son David Duke falsely claiming he didn’t know who Duke was.

Our Constitution famously opens with the phrase “We the people of the United States, in Order to form a more perfect Union, establish Justice, insure domestic Tranquility, provide for the common defence, promote the general Welfare, and secure the Blessings of Liberty to ourselves and our Posterity, do ordain and establish this Constitution for the United States of America.”

In a real sense, a vote for Donald Trump is an abdication of “we the people” for ” you alone can protect us.” He has made it clear that he has no interest in compromise, discussion, or shared leadership.

Vote for him at your own peril.

Brexit: See What Happens When You Use Your Vote To Send a Message?

Last week citizens of Great Britain voted whether or not to remain a part of the European Union. The EU began its formation after World War II as a way to prevent events that caused world wars that informed much of the 20th Century. It found its roots in 1950 but most people point to 1993 when the “Single Market” was completed with the free movement of goods, services, people and money. Most countries adopted a common currency (the “euro“) and you didn’t need a passport to travel between countries in the EU.

Implementing these reforms hasn’t always been easy, but like the blending of any family, its members attempted to reach for the common good and recognized that each of them did better when they all did better.

But an undercurrent of opposition has always found its place among conservatives who felt individual countries traded away some of its sovereignty. They also felt it opened them up to unfair burdens imposed by immigrants.

Conservative Prime Minister David Cameron supported membership in the EU. But facing opposition from his own party he promised, in January 2013, that he would call a referendum to leave the EU sometime before the end of 2017. This past February 22nd he announced June 23rd as the date of the referendum.

Smart money and bookies never thought the referendum would call for Britain to leave the EU. But it did, by a margin of 52% to 48%.

This led to great consternation and concern over the last few days. Virtually every economist believes that this will be economically devastating to Britain, and to a lesser extent Europe and the world (including the United States). There’s wisdom to this: limiting trade and immigration has historically devastated nations (history nerds like me point to the Smoot Hawley Act of 1930).

Panicked reaction to Brexit comes not only from those who voted against it, but also from those who voted for it thinking it wouldn’t pass. Simply put, they used their vote to send a message. Using an old, anonymous quote: If you want to send a message, use Western Union.

There is reason to believe that thousands of Britains voted to leave the EU not because they wanted to leave the EU but because they wanted to express their nostalgia for the 1800s when “the sun never sets on the British Empire.”

Now they recognize that their votes have backfired. As an American, what do I take from this?

Well, it’s worth noting that we’re in the middle of a Presidential election.

Hilary Clinton believes Britain should have voted to stay in the EU. She feels that Britain, and the rest of us, would have done better if they had remained. On the other hand Donald Trump claimed that the vote was good because it benefits him.

The same economists who fear Great Britain leaving the EU also fear Donald Trump. Nearly half of US voters tell us they will vote for Donald out of anger at “the establishment.” But many of them will vote for him not because they want him to lead our nation but because they want to send a message that they don’t feel their needs are being met.

OK, I get it. Many voters feel that the “American Dream” is gamed toward the wealthy and we need a revolution to even the playing field. But much like the vote to leave the EU, a vote for Donald Trump will make everyone’s lives worse, not better. Xenophobia and protectionism hurts everyone, but it mainly hurts those without a safety net. It hurts the waitress when her customers can no longer afford to go to breakfast after church. It hurts the local police officer, firefighter, or teacher whose salary depends on property taxes that fall of the cliff when property values plummet. And it hurts people who are depending on their 401(k)’s for a secure retirement.

This is my call to American voters: use your vote to decide who will best lead us for the next four years. If you want to express your displeasure over today and/or your nostalgia from a time when your life was better, send a telegram.