Is a God who survives enough of a God?

Is a God who survives enough of a God?

So, there’s an image of a bumper sticker making the rounds of the Internet over the past few days. Russel Moore used it as a sounding board to level a sharp and important critique of playing fast and loose with the faith in order to secure a political gain. His starting point is assuming that the bumper sticker is in favor of firearms. But, I think he misread the slogan. He sees the bumper sticker as using Jesus as cover for some mere and short-sighted political agenda. But, what if the sticker is using our love of guns and self-defense to smuggle in the absurdity of such a savior.

I’m saying the sentence, “If Jesus had a gun he’d still be alive today,” works better if you see it as a Trojan horse. jesus gun 2If you chuckle and say, “Hell yeah,” because you think the right to bear arms in self defense would solve a lot of societal ills, then you’ve already taken in an invasive idea that’s meant to undercut you at the heart. Because Jesus wasn’t trying to stay alive. He was trying to save us.

The image of Jesus drawing down on the centurions and shooting his way out of Gethsemane like the OK Corral is patently ridiculous and that’s the whole point. There was something more important to Jesus than his own survival. If Jesus had the same attitude towards guns and self defense as many professing Christians on the political right, we simply wouldn’t have a Savior. It seems, then, pretty urgent to dig into this disconnect. Are there actions on our part that might reveal our survival instinct to actually be an idol?

The question this bumper sticker really asks is not about political liberty vs constraint. That’s how politicians frame the gun debate, and there the argument rages. But, Christian faith always goes further than asking “Can I?” It also asks, “Why do I want to?” That might just be the question Christians ask the least and to tragic results. The question this bumper sticker urges us to confront is where exactly our call to be Christ-like ends and where our call to preserve our own temporal life begins and at what expense.

It’s a hard question to ask, but we need to ask it. Should a Christian kill another person? Is self defense an adequate reason to extinguish the image of God? Is the defense of children or family? Or, is desire to bear arms a sign that love for this world outweighs our faith in its Creator? A symptom of our fear of death preceding our fear of God?

I don’t have an easy answer. I certainly wouldn’t condemn someone who actually did use lethal self defense when they or their family faced actual harm. But, the rest of us only have the theoretical fear of such a catastrophe. And theoretical fear is something that can run rampant and roughshod over our faith if we don’t watch out. It’s here that I absolutely agree with the point this bumper sticker is trying to make*. I cannot universally condemn the use of guns. But I can look on the desire for guns with almost universal suspicion because the fear of death has always threatened to undermine the fear of God. And that’s the real heart issue that the church has to address (and address again and again for each generation because the fear of death takes endless forms).

Is our faith sufficient cause to embrace weakness?

* Incidentally, I also agree with the point Dr. Moore makes in his essay, I just see firearms as the personalized version of the grasp for political power that he calls out. I don’t think you can speak to one without having to speak to the other.

 

 

Please, God, Don’t Let Amazon Come to My Town

Big news this morning is that Amazon wants a second HQ in North America. I see a lot of people speculating about possible locations and I see a lot of giddy anticipation. 50,000 jobs! Average salary above $100k! Who wouldn’t want that to come to their town?

I don’t.

Having worked for the behemoth and been to Seattle a handful of times, I can tell you one thing. Amazon coming to town is great for Amazon and it’s actually pretty terrible for the people who already live there. Here are a few things to expect:

Instant Gentrification
That much of an artificial jump in the average income for a city will have catastrophic effects on property values. Well, to be fair, it’ll only be catastrophic for the poor who will no longer be able to afford the taxes on their homes if they own them and who will no longer be able to afford rent from landlords who can suddenly quadruple their ask because 50k new workers who can afford it will gladly pay to live close to work.

I rode a lot of taxis in Seattle and one thing I learned is that working class people had to live 1.5 hours away from the city just to afford housing. That amounts to an extra three hours per day away from home and family just to get to and from work. This is an enormous burden to put on the community and family structure of all the invisible people who will clean the offices, cook the food, drive people around, and all the other jobs that will pay far less than $100k.

Crippling Cost of Living
When Amazon gave me the choice to move to Seattle with my current salary or be laid off (‘reduced in force’ was their charming euphemism), I would have had to take a nearly 50% reduction in real pay just to afford the cost of living increase. So, unless you get one of those jobs that pays above $100k, you’re going to suddenly find that having Amazon in town takes a good bit of the zing out of your paycheck.

An Opportunity Mirage
Those 50k jobs are a great press release item and I’m sure a highly effective bait to dupe money-blinded city councils and state legislatures into shelling out huge tax incentives so that billionaires technocrats can be expand their earthly footprints. But, the boost to local employment will likely be much smaller. Amazon will recruit at least nationally, more like globally, and while the tax base will increase which will be good for the state and city books, a huge chunk of those taxpayers will be people who were already well off who just relocated to be well off here instead. Some of this may trickle out as benefits to the working classes because the state and city will have more revenue to work with, but somehow that seems like a thin hope. I would imagine more displacement than mobility and a doubling or tripling down on income inequality.

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Those are just a few concerns that have mostly to do with economic quality of life. I can’t even begin to imagine how the political climate will change with that much money and influence riding in, though Google’s recent silencing of dissent does not paint a rosy picture. The entire success of Amazon is built on the spurious foundation of abstraction–abstracting people from their communities and making them ‘human capital’ that simply roams the face of the earth in search of the next job, abstracting the actual human toll of having so much stuff available to buy so cheaply and at such convenience off into the slums and backwaters of the globe where conveniently out-of-sight-out-of-mind people will work for peanuts, abstracting satisfaction from anything satisfying and re-centering it on the mere act of consuming. This is nothing short of the disintegration of what it means to be human.

The tech sector thrives on disruption. They like to call it creative destruction, which is really an appalling contradiction in terms. I wish that people would look beyond the explosive growth in Seattle and the profusion of skyscrapers on literally every street corner–a radical transformation of the aesthetic character of the city to match the grotesque transformation of the economic character–and see that when the thing being destroyed is a community so that a new community can replace it, there is no amount of good done to the ‘winners’ that can compensate for the wrong done to the ‘losers’.

Please, God, please don’t let Amazon come to my town.

Neighborly Hope

Neighborly Hope

It strikes me that any politician only wins by the slimmest popular margin (and sometimes not by a popular margin at all). Their use of power–and this is the inherent nature of power; it cannot do otherwise–will please half of the population and send the other half into bouts of depression and paroxysms of outrage. So I cannot for the life of me figure out why anyone who claims to be a Christian would throw any flamboyant support at all towards any politician, much less the mode of the in-the-highways, in-the-hedges gloating and mocking and general mouthing off that passes for political speech these days. In doing so, these professing Christians (of all political stripes) are showing themselves willing to alienate half their neighbors just so they can feel like a winner in a losing game. Talk of depression and outrage, that pretty much does it for me.

I’m not saying people shouldn’t have political leanings or even an idea for what kinds of policies would best serve the common good. I’m just saying, what happened to that ambition to live a quiet life? To do your level best to live at peace with people? Have we so bought into the narrative that politics is the final arbiter of riches and ruin–a narrative that, mind you, tilts awfully heavily in favor of the politicians–that we are too afraid to laugh at such a preposterous notion? And live out that laughter by being decent neighbors?

We’re too caught up in the utopian, the treadmill lies that we’ll get there just around the next bend, but only if the right people hold the reins. We need a good does of the apocalyptic, the settled realization that, based on a few thousand years of pretty much ceaseless and fruitless power struggle, things are pretty well going to flame out long before we get anywhere so we’d best look away from the squabbling in the dining car and consider that ghostly spirit seated up in the engine. Christians are supposed to believe God is that one up there with a hand on the whistle and a hand on the brakes working to save as many from ruin as will be. It’s why we go on so much about ‘Thy Kingdom come’. It’s because that Kingdom is supposed to be so much more desirable and assured that it cools our jets about wrestling over this one.

What can a government do? They can stop and start the flow of money and they can stop and start the infliction of punishment which is, as I said before, laughable along the arc of the cosmic. And it’s also a real source of suffering for those on the receiving end. Is it really such a good look to be merrily clutching the coattails of someone’s oppressor?

To put it another way, if you’re waiting on the power of kings and presidents, you’re going to be waiting an awfully long time. Anyone in this country who’s been waiting around on a state-drafted and -enacted solution to the human condition has been waiting 241 years and things have only gotten as good as they are now. I mean, we have free wifi just about everywhere, but all that’s really worth is bringing the full scope of human atrocity and pettiness into our pockets and living rooms. We did get penicillin, though, and that’s hard to find fault with.

So, while I realize that the world is crazy and it’s a perfectly good instinct to want to stop the crazy, against the blinding angels of our misplaced hope, nonetheless, I pledge my grievance:

The hope for preventing crime and dissuading criminals isn’t legislative, it’s neighborly.

The hope for feeding hungry kids and and keeping the homeless from freezing to death isn’t legislative, it’s neighborly.

The hope for rebuilding the family unit as a stable and reliable source of flourishing society isn’t legislative, it’s neighborly.

The hope for anyone not already hell-bent on racial hate isn’t legislative, it’s neighborly.

The hope for anyone not already hell-bent on seeking an abortion isn’t legislative, it’s neighborly.

And, by God, no strong right arm of any legislature will ever be the hope for anyone hell-bent on anything. Then, hope can only be neighborly.

Scraps: Awkward Pauses

I had to cut this from something I’m working on, but it’s a darling so rather than kill it outright, I’ll just let it live here. It came from a paragraph about reviving the art of conversation in a world drenched with communication.

You have to navigate awkward pauses (which, the awkwardness might actually be just the realization that someone needs to venture some vulnerability to keep the conversation moving and, to your mutual embarrassment, neither one of you is brave enough. Hence that feeling you both try to disown by calling it “awkward” rather than “mutual and embarrassing cowardice”).

Reading Maps and Splitting Stones

Reading Maps and Splitting Stones

This continues a short series on re-thinking how the church might consider its relationship to politics. More here. What do I mean when I say ‘the church‘? Rather have it all summed up in a song?

In America, we like to boast that our government represents the will of the people. At least, that’s what the winners love to say. More cynical observers suspect that our governing powers—and, more broadly, our cultural powers—actually have an agenda of their own which they dupe, swindle, and strongarm people into abetting. It’s an interesting idea and makes for great storytelling, but I don’t believe even such a power could really lure people somewhere they didn’t already want to go. In the end, I would argue that the law of our land does indeed reflect the will of the people. And, for the church, this is highly useful.

Mightier than the sword
Yesterday, we considered the image of the government bearing a sword. Of course, this is a true image, but I remain convinced that it is tricky territory to imagine the church as playing a part in wielding that sword through its vote. So, I’m going to propose a new imagery to help us understand our American political moment. Instead of bearing the sword, let’s imagine our government bearing a pen.

If our representative government does indeed reflect the will of the people, then that would make the work of our government—making and enforcing laws—something like that of a cartographer, drawing a map of the cultural landscape. If the law of the land shows a vast plain of sexual ethics, looming mountains of identity politics, or a remote badlands reserved for Biblical morality, that tells us that those things already exist.[1] They originated in the desires of the people and the government merely drew the map to get people where they wanted to go.[2]

If you can believe that this is true, then it would be lunacy to try and ‘use’ the powers of government to change the culture. It would be as sane as re-drawing a map of the United States with the Rockies over on the east and expecting that the mountains themselves would pick up and shuffle across the continent. The government may set boundaries that effectively guide some people, but by and large, people tend to go where they want to go and the government eventually catches up. Look at the trend of marijuana legality for a good example. People want to get high, lower incarceration rates, and raise some tax revenue, so they did the work of making a marijuana-friendly culture. The government is now following along, making it law. It’s not always perfectly clear, but the basic pattern of demand leading to supply is fairly reliable in our country, even in politics.

So, instead of fighting tooth and nail in an ugly war to draw a lunatic map of wishful thinking, what if the church admitted that the government is only sketching out what already exists in the wishes of our neighbors? That campaigns and polls are things to be read and studied, but not fought for as if our lives depended on them? When all of the dust of every nasty campaign settles[3], we may not have the elected officials we would choose, but we do have one thing: a crystal-clear map of our mission field. What can we make of our votes in light of this?

An orientating experiment
Well, we can make our votes something of an experiment. No longer seeking control, which all-too-often involves awful compromises on integrity masked as tactical decisions, we could submit our vote into the maelstrom as a little beacon of what we value. toy-boatThen, we see where our values end up on the map and we watch where other values land, too. Alongside this, we listen. Politics, after all, involves a good deal of talking. Listen to how people talk about their values, how people talk about what threatens their values, and how people talk about what means are acceptable for enshrining their values in Law. This should give us a pretty clear picture of where we stand, where we might like to carry our good news, and some paths we might take to get there. Then it’s just a matter setting out on our journey. And this is one place where over-investment in politics can actually hinder. If we are too wrapped up in winning, too fearful of losing, we might just lose our courage[4] to bear any sort of good news in the world at all. That would be a grave error.

My desire here is to offer the church a way to think about campaigns and elections that leaves space for us not to succumb to the hysteria around us. We have better hope than politics, so we can definitely cool our jets. Sabers will be rattled, doom will be prophesied, mocking degradations of complex human character will be passed off as righteous condemnation. It’s all brief and momentary noise.

The subversive art of resistance
What makes this kind of political engagement so challenging is that, one, it asks of us a quietness in the face of a lot of spittle-lipped and purplish rancor[5] and, two, it asks of us a good deal of patience. It’s perfectly understandable to feel threatened in our political climate. People seem awfully volatile, and it’s easy to read in rumbling signs and wonders of a renewed faith in totalitarianism. When we feel threatened, we want to shout back in the face of each accuser, to reach for something strong to defend ourselves. In fear and unease, we face our most critical time for discernment. We must not panic. We may have to bite our tongue and endure scoffing or even abuse, but wasn’t this the very way of the Jesus we claim to follow? If no ‘winning’ power is worthy of the church’s support, it remains a worthy choice to align with no power and work in exile. After all, even seemingly helpful powers should be kept at a wise distance because power is fleeting and fickle. Christianity is not a faith of direct power, anyway. There are two ways to crack a heavy stone. There is the noisy expedience of the hammer and there is the quiet patience of the tree root, and our faith is a likened to a seed.

In the end, I’m not advocating for political withdrawal. I am absolutely advocating for a renewed political restraint. We must take serious note of how Jesus related to the powers of his day. To say they were odd bedfellows would radically overstate the relationship; they were nowhere near the same bed. If Jesus resisted Satan’s temptations to earthly power in the desert and later stayed on the cross, and if Paul and Silas stayed in jail after the earthquake, if Stephen saw fit to be stoned to death, and if all the other etceteras are true and yet Christianity survived, surely we can see that there is something of the power of this world that Christianity does not need and in fact refutes.

Living in a country with a fairly representative democracy does afford the church with opportunity, but it’s an opportunity to understand, not to control. The church must seriously engage the work of unclenching the fist of political control and embracing its real mission of loving neighbors and proclaiming relief from the troubles of this world. What might this look like?

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[1] To say nothing of the high and steep cliffs off which our technological wonders can blindly, blithely drive us.

[2] This, of course, puts us as a citizenry in the rarely enviable position of getting what we wish for.

[3] As much as it can settle now in our crazy days of infinite campaigning.

[4] Or our compassion

[5] Or in the face of smug dismissal.

A Superhero (costume) Lament

A Superhero (costume) Lament

Tis the season for costumes and make believe. Personally, I don’t dress up anymore (though I did craft a pretty stellar Shaun of the Dead costume a few too many years back, complete with hand-carved cricket bat and a dart lodged in my head), but my oldest son is getting to the point where he has definite ideas about what he’d like to dress up for on Halloween, and for all the various little candy-getting enterprises that crop up at the end of October. It was at one of these trunk or treats that I observed something that has troubled me as I’ve looked back on it: my son got embarrassed.

We have had a bug costume sitting around our house since my son’s first Halloween five years ago. He loves it and wears it often. So, when he chose it for the recent trunk or treat without hesitation and with a big smile on his face, it wasn’t a surprise. We put it in the car and headed for the party. When we arrived, though, his enthusiasm for the bug vanished. At first, I chalked this up to his typically-reserved demeanor in big crowds. But, as I watched, another explanation came to the surface. All the other boys (all of whom were older, but not by much) were wearing either Star Wars or Marvel costumes. I’m afraid my son suddenly looked at the bug suit he loved and found it alien and ill-fitting in a room full of superheroes. I get a sharp pang when I consider what this might have felt like for him. Did he feel childish? Did he feel foolish? Did he feel like he had made the wrong choice? All I can say for sure is that he wore the bug suit only very briefly and at every costume party since, he’s opted for his Iron Man or Spiderman suits.

I know some of my son’s change of mind comes from the natural conformity that exists to a greater or lesser extent in all of us. We like to feel like we’re among peers, that we’re in a welcoming community, so we all pitch ourselves towards what we perceive to be normal. In healthy circumstances, this is a good thing. It helps bind us together. My son’s sudden change, though, has left me feeling sad, like he was manipulated somehow. That his feeling of exclusion was an intentional act. Not by the other kids, they were all friendly as can be. Still, my protective instinct has raised its hackles.

Making hay out of the community instinct
I remember back when Disney first bought Lucasfilm and Star Wars. A friend with daughters expressed his concern that Disney was poised to do for boys what it had already done for girls: homogenize and aggressively. Raising a son has me reporting from the front lines of boyhood that I believe this is absolutely coming to pass.

I think Disney knows full well that kids tend to want to fit in, so they set out to create pop culture products scientifically engineered to hit all the right pleasure centers in a kid (and their parents) so that their audience will reach a critical mass and become the thing that kids want to conform to. This outcome would, obviously, be great for their sales, but I don’t think it’s good for our communities. Not at a Disney scale.

Paving over pleasure
A while back, a friend of mine, Mike Cosper, wrote of his family’s recent trip to Disney World with their two daughters. He called it ‘Grinding Through the Pleasure Factory’ and I highly recommend it (reading it may even help some of the following make more sense). He drew out some insightful and alarming parallels between Disney’s marketing practices and the observations of Hannah Arendt on consumer culture, mass society, and totalitarianism. Please, read it.

I did find myself parting ways with Cosper at the end. He, being generous and, probably, wiser, sees space in the Disney machine for intimacy, joy, and the formation of human connection. His family enjoyed those things on their trip. I, being cynical and, definitely, grumpier, see the existence of joy and human connection in the Disney-fied world of mass-marketed childhood as things that happen despite the marketeers’ best efforts, as an unconscious act of defiance

Of course, Disney and its subsidiaries take great pains to present a diverse cast of characters so that nobody feels left out. But, is it important that nobody feels left out or that no dollar is missed? Disney is so aggressive (and effective) in their marketing efforts that another subtle message is getting through. Though there be an array of characters for us to relate to, they’re each trademarks registered to the big mouse. Disney isn’t in the business of making space for joy, for discovery, for human connection. Disney is in the business of making money, and they method they have chosen is akin to paving.

Disney goes to great lengths to pave over us all, taking the normally craggy and faceted surface of culture, with its peculiar local inflections and sub-species, and smoothing it out into a monolithic, unblemished demand for the pleasures the corporation sells. Just read about the layers of quality control—focus groups, test screenings, animation rules, market research, advertising, co-branding and crossovers, etc.—that Disney employs to keep their product pure and potent. They are hard at work making sure everything is dialed in to make their products as appealing as possible to as many people as possible. It’s almost as if their ideal vision is on single mass organism lining up to purchase as often and as much as instructed.

That we still find moments of joy, that we find characters that echo things we feel ourselves, that we find ways to connect to each other, all of this speaks to an irrepressible power of humanity. Not unlike a weed growing through a sidewalk speaks to the fierce determination of nature and says nothing of the civil engineer’s desire to incorporate green space.

Totalitarian economics
It’s easy to contrast what Disney does with a totalitarian political regime, replete with brutal policing of dissent, and not see much overlap. I’m not so sure that they don’t have plenty in common, though. Both the marketeer and the dictator want to control something. One seeks to control our actions, the other seeks to control our desires. In that light, economic totalitarianism is quite terrifying even if no blood is shed.

Economics is not just about how we spend our money, it’s root is in our affections. Any attempt to herd us as people into demographic audiences, reducing is as much as possible into that single, predictable mass in order to more efficiently sell us things, must be done by manipulating those affections. While a dictator may control our movements, they do not often gain access to our hearts precisely because their power is focused on restricting our bodies. In the totalitarian voodoo of marketing, the implications for our liberty are, if anything, more alarming than those presented by any state precisely because they are so invisible. The manipulation waged by the market is done at the soul level. Our very desires are the target, our very hearts, and this is a serious threat no matter how freely we can move.

This manipulation is complemented with the artifice that we are always free to choose otherwise. Try to figure out a way to live outside the influence of our industrialized, urban-leaning, sustained-by-money-alone economy, though, and this ‘freedom to choose otherwise’ begins to look like a myth. The economy works hard to make sure our most viable choices stay within the economy itself. Sure, you can eschew the spate of Disney characters, and the economy will gladly offer you another set of characters. Fox has the X-Men. There’s Harry Potter. Lego has a whole multiverse. Pixar has its own thing going (oh wait, that’s Disney, too). It’s still all in the family, all part of the consumer economy. Just don’t go further afield, or you’ll be The Outsider. And doesn’t the mainstream have a whole arsenal of ways to make The Outsider feel their otherness keenly and as derision?

And here it all comes back to a little bug costume. It’s one of those things that doesn’t easily compute in the mass economy. It doesn’t tie into a movie franchise, it doesn’t beg the purchase of more stuff. As a plaything, it’s an island. It stands alone and is satisfying to my son. At least it was. Of course, Disney didn’t have anything to do with my son’s choice. All they did was convince enough people to buy into their universe of stuff so that my son suddenly felt weird. That desire not to feel weird is something that Disney and the larger mass culture can count on and exploit in a thousand subtle ways while keeping their own hands squeaky clean.

Raising boys in the pleasure factory
I don’t know the solution as a father. I am trying to help my son fall in love with other things than the TV, like working in our garden or building things or books. Already, though, these branded characters have already staged a hostile takeover of our public library. They pervade every shelf, drowning out the diversity of the well-crafted one-off characters with the flood of the franchise. Good lord, though, so many of those franchise books are terrible.[1]  Poor writing, though, is surely a chink in the armor that Disney will soon stitch up. They’ll use the power of language just like they use all of their other creative tools: as expedients of their bottom line.

I feel a bit helpless in teaching my son to seek better against such a tide of the branded, flashy, and popular. But, I have seen the line between what he’d choose on his own and what he chooses in the crowd, and it stole away a piece of my heart. I see anew that there are enormous corporations trying to sculpt his preferences toward the fattening of their own bottom line. It certainly spooked me. And I feel an invigorated sense of mission to help my son grow into the kind of courage that can stand out, that can resist the paving-over force of mass culture. It doesn’t matter all that much with a costume, but someday it’ll matter about truly important stuff and I hope I can help him be ready.

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[1] Particularly horrible are the Star Wars early readers books. No plot, no characters, just endless exposition of various characters and locations and the end. It’s so obvious the only goal is to keep these commercial entities ‘top of mind’ for the kids. If it were about developing the pleasures and skills of reading, they’d be better-written.

Anonymous Is Not Your Friend

Anonymous Is Not Your Friend

Every once in a while, Anonymous pops up on social media being feted for publicizing some list or other of dirty deeds and ghastly associations which they’ve uncovered on a server somewhere. The last one I saw claimed to report members of law enforcement who were also members of the Ku Klux Klan. The general consensus when these unveilings circulate is one of celebration. People seem delighted that this faceless entity (if it can even be called an entity, disorganized as it is) has the power to drag bigotry out into the light where it can be properly brought to shame. As for me, I’m skeptical.

Not too long ago, I happened to catch part of a documentary about Anne Braden on KET. Anne and her husband landed themselves in a bit of hot water back in the 50s when, on behalf of a black family called the Wades, they bought a house in a Shively, a white neighborhood in Louisville, KY. The Wades had been stonewalled in their attempts to purchase a suburban home on their own. As you might imagine, things got hot and were pretty quick about it.

carl-and-anne
Carl and Anne Braden

Someone(s) burned cross in the front yard either the night the Wades moved in or some night shortly thereafter. Before long, someone actually bombed the house, put dynamite right under the window of the room where the Wade’s young daughter slept. God’s mercy, the family was out at the time and nobody was hurt.

What brings this to mind when I think of Anonymous sifting the ether to expose Klan affiliations is the obvious issue of racism, but also this. The 50s weren’t just a time of racial upheaval, this was also the McCarthy Era. Communists were lurking inside ordinary-looking Americans like lit dynamite ready to explode and rip apart the fabric of our society. The Braden family were witch-hunted as such. Anne’s husband Carl was tried and jailed for sedition for buying a house that persons unknown tried to blow up because of the skin tone of the inhabitants. There was a right and a wrong way to think and the halls of power were at work to get everyone thinking in line.

One might think that their mutual opposition to racial animus puts the likes of Anne Braden on the same side as those whomevers in Anonymous, but this couldn’t be further from true. The Red Scare was driven by an institutional fear of ideas that thrived on the clamor of people accusing each other. When you look at 50s as a time when the relatively secret wheels of government power churned in an effort to make mincemeat of scary thoughts, it seems plain to me that Joseph McCarthy’s legacy runs right to Anonymous via a straight, unbroken line.

On the subject of Klan affiliation, Anonymous opposes what I oppose. But, they are not my ally. Their chosen methods make them a foe of another stripe. When power is exercised behind the blank slate of anonymity, that has all the totalitarian trappings of a police state. By delving into citizens’ private lives and policing privately-held beliefs, dredging up some muck to be brought to shame and, I’m sure they hope, retribution, these digital thought police are a disgrace to liberty (and this is not even getting into the fact that just posting a found database with no context or actual reportage shows a complete lack of journalistic integrity that makes a gossip and a mockery of the standard of press a free society requires). But, Anonymous gets away with it because they have cherry-picked an easy ideology to attack. They exploit our cultural blind spots to make alarming power plays.

Consider the Nazis. Nobody would say now that hunting down Jews and their sympathizers was a noble thing, but within the bubble of Nazi Germany, it was the height of national pride to do so. I mean, they threw some pretty damn extravagant parades to celebrate some pretty damned egregious acts. Point being, it’s hard to see your gross totalitarianism when everyone agrees with you. And to act so from a place of hiding is beyond bad, it’s frightening.

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Let’s take a full stop here. Racism is a moral wrong. I personally anchor this thinking in the belief that the same God made us all and that gives us a terrific depth of dignity not to be mocked. I do not in any way believe that we as people should leave racist ideas unchallenged, especially in places of authority like the justice system. I do in every way believe that we as people should listen to our neighbors when they’re hurting and angry and join with them in seeking reconciliation. I shy away from using the word justice here because that term is so fraught and so righteous that I pale to think of human attempts to exert it. Let justice roll, but don’t ask me to roll it. I’m unqualified. I like the idea of reconciliation better because it implies a mutual work on all sides. But! I believe this mutual work should start in the camp that’s hurting least, because the camp that’s hurting most needs people to listen and care.

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Back to faceless hackers. You might say that ordinary people need the protection of anonymity to stand up to tyranny, and that may seem true. But, can individual acts of tyranny actually resolve institutional acts of tyranny? Put another way, if the people succeed in changing the balance of power in their favor, will they then give up their own tyrannical power or will they double down to ensure that the world stays as they like it? I’m not a trained historian, but I know enough about my own human nature to bet on power preserving power, not virtue.

What it comes down to is this: privacy is threatening. Who knows what evil lurks in the hearts of men? These days, we all do. Our always-on, always-wired-in world has given us a vision for much more darkness than we could have ever imagined even 20 years ago. Not only has the Internet revved the news cycle up to redline levels of horrors per minute, but it has given people a space to air out the darkest corners of their hearts and minds. Complete depravity is but a comments section away. Seeing the havoc in the human heart on full display shouldn’t necessarily be surprising—especially for those like me who take something like the Sermon on the Mount at face value—but it is certainly bracing. I understand the impulse to stamp out the flames. Privacy is threatening.

So, we need to have courage. We need to have the secure conviction that resists fear. To begin with, we need known people working to know each other. We need to have compassion and persuasion in our arsenal. About that word. Arsenal used to simply indicate a wharf, a place to dock and repair boats. It literally means a house for craft or skill. These days, though, we use the word indicating a place to make and stockpile weapons. This seems to illustrate our tendency to weaponize all craft, to make our human arts into instruments of power and victory. I imagine this drift in meaning might have come as ships became more instrumental in conquesting war, fighting abroad, and the industry of shipbuilding came under the claim of warmakers. Maybe it’s that we can’t travel without fighting because we find contrary cultures so threatening. In any event, it’s a shame that we feel the impulse to weaponize every tool we have for handling injustice and disagreement.

I propose we de-escalate a bit. When it comes to handling distasteful and even horrific ideas, let’s make our arsenal back into a house of craft. Not the craft of war, but the craft of peaceableness. I’m borrowing that word from a hero of mine, Wendell Berry, because I like it so much. It doesn’t presume that the success of peace is guaranteed or even always possible, but it it puts the weight on us to make peace an option. As scary as that is in the face of the horrors of the human heart, it’s pretty sound advice. If two parties are armed for war, war it will be. Inevitability. If one party is willing for peace, there is actual possibility. When it comes to opposing racism, we must resist the pull of war in our gut. War we have. Making peace, the art of reconciliation, is a much more complex path. It is choosing vulnerability while insisting on dignity. It is a high calling and it is risky, but it is good. And it takes far more courage than hiding behind spoofed IP addresses, proxy servers, and nameless names.