Sunday, July 26, 2015

Dollars, Sense, and #Gunsense

This week I’ve been following news of the ALEC gathering and attendant protests in San Diego. ALEC, the American Legislative Exchange Council, describes itself as a non-profit think-tank serving conservative state legislators. It’s also been described as a secretive bill mill for major corporate interests. Funded by corporations, corporate trade groups, and corporate foundations promoting and profiting from privatized prisons, privatized schools, fossil fuel, weapons and tobacco, the organization creates “model legislation” and trains and motivates state legislators to introduce the bills in their home states. ALEC boasts that 1 in four state legislators are members, and that over one thousand ALEC-proposed bills are introduced in state legislatures every year, with one in five enacted into law.

My interest this week was prompted by education. ALEC grades states on their compliance with the ALEC agenda of defunded public education, unregulated privatization, and “free choice” for disabled students that funnels public dollars to for-profit cyber schools. K12 INC, a private corporation that is a key ALEC sponsor, has benefited in the millions from legislation that forces local PA school districts to pay cyber and charter school without local oversight or proven educational benefit. 

Midweek, the shooting in the Louisiana movie theater, so soon after the deaths in Chattanooga and the horror in Charlestown, turned my attention from schools to guns, mass shootings, and the reminder that not all mass shootings make it to the national news. 

In Philadelphia last month, seven people were wounded in a Monday afternoon shooting in Kensington, just blocks from the church where I helped lead a summer children’s outreach every July for over a decade. Three children were hospitalized: two 10-year-olds and one 3-year-old girl. Just days earlier, a shooting at a West Philly block party left another seven wounded, including an 11-year-old girl struck on the knee, a 13-year-old boy with a shot to the shoulder, and an 18-month-old girl rushed to Children’s Hospital with a neck wound. 

Those shootings came too late for the March 30 Gun Report which described shootings of children in Kalamazoo, Milwaukee, West Palm Beach. And since they didn’t happen in schools, they didn’t make it onto the log that lists an average of one shooting a week in US schools since 2012.

Not long ago on our back patio, a friend who has lived many years in Australia recounted the fallout of that country’s mass shooting at Port Arthur in 1996: a conservative Prime Minister said “that’s enough,” the legislature agreed, a strict gun control measure was passed, a gun buy-back program cleared the country of more than 600,000 guns,  and there hasn’t been a mass shooting since.

Here in the US it appears we’re headed in the opposite direction. Every time a weeping parent says “No more!” the NRA springs into action, shoveling out statistics on why only guns can keep us safe, and only by arming ourselves can we remain free and hold off complete tyranny.


Follow the money, which leads us back to ALEC.

Until outcry over the Trayvon Martin case and the Castle Doctrine of Stand Your Ground, the NRA was a major component of ALEC. ALEC’s “Public Safety and Elections Task Force” initiated, wrote, and promoted Stand Your Ground laws as well as legislation gutting gun safety regulations, Concealed carry and guns on campus have been pushed by model ALEC legislation, while legislators have also been encouraged to sponsor and pass bills limiting municipal barriers to machine gun sales or armor piercing bullets.

Until the early 1990s, there was general agreement: regulations restricting the sale and use of weapons keep us all safer while allowing for appropriate use of certain classes of guns. The NRA was a friendly organization promoting gun safety, hunters’ groups, instruction in gun use for kids at camp.

I was once an NRA member myself, the kid version. I earned an NRA Sharpshooter pin on B-B guns, and a Marksman First Class patch with twenty-twos.

I have nothing against guns. I have friends and relatives who own guns, who hunt, who enjoy rifle ranges or skeet shooting. I also have friends and relatives who want nothing to do with guns, who wouldn’t even play paintball because of the implied violence.

That shouldn’t be a problem. Agree to disagree. I don’t know anyone who thinks completely unregulated firearms would be a good thing. And I don’t know anyone who wants to ban guns completely, or see all guns removed from private hands.

But as I said, somewhere along the way something changed. It became impossible to advocate for reasonable regulation without being accused of wanting to outlaw guns. 

Since 1994, many gun restrictions have been lifted, and any attempt to move in the other direction has been voted down. Decisively. At the cost of careers, reputations, and reasonable public discourse.  
What happened?

I’m no expert, but it seems almost obvious: if there’s a limit on legal guns, once people who want them have them, a few, a modest collection, the gun industry’s market slows. And in an economy based on unrestricted growth, on constant demand, on greater profits this month than last, anything that slows that growth is the enemy.

Which is why the gun industry has poured millions into the NRA, into ALEC, into legislation advocating more guns, and more dangerous guns, for anyone who wants them, deliberately working to destroy anyone who gets in the way. 

According to Josh Sugarmann, executive director of the Violence Policy Center, "Today's NRA is a virtual subsidiary of the gun industry. While the NRA portrays itself as protecting the 'freedom' of individual gun owners, it's actually working to protect the freedom of the gun industry to manufacture and sell virtually any weapon or accessory."

“If guns are outlawed only outlaws will have guns.”

That’s one of the slogans introduced by the NRA.  It’s dishonest on lots of levels: to start, as I said, no one wants to outlaw guns. Even in Australia, guns are still permitted, but with clear legal safeguards, and outright bans on automatic repeat weapons like machine guns. 

“Guns don’t kill. People do.” 

That’s another NRA slogan. If you’ve been in a situation with escalating violence, you know: violent people are scary. Violent people with baseball bats, kitchen knives, crowbars are very very scary. But violent people with guns? Impulsive, angry people with guns? Something else completely.

“Guns make us all safer.” 

Seriously? '

Try telling that to the family of the pregnant Kensington mom shot in a drive-by shooting. 

Or the kid who witnessed a murder, admitted she saw it, and was shot a month later. 

Or the four year old who shot himself in the eye, playing with a gun in his babysitter’s home. 

Or those toddlers caught last month in the mass shootings on Philadelphia streets. 

The more than 30,000 depressed men each year who grab a gun and end it all. 

“Any controls will start us on a slippery slope, leading to a ban on all weapons.”

This may be the saddest, most dangerous idea of all: that any step away from extremity can be interpreted as a mad dash toward the opposing extremity. Concern about unregulated commerce is interpreted as a move toward communism.  Suggestion that some sectors of common life (Education? Health care? Roads? Prisons?) might be best handled by public, rather than private, entities is interpreted as outright socialism. Yet without incremental reform, nuanced concession, reasoned compromise, unbiased research, policy becomes a football tossed to and fro by angry, irrational extremists.

For me, policy and politics are shaped by what I know of the families in Kensington: the children afraid to pass the drug dealers on the corner, the young adults struggling to stand firm against the implacable pressures of poverty and violence. The trauma that shadows even the healthiest children, causing them to flinch at the backfire of a car, anxious and fearful at the slightest hint of conflict. 

In Philadelphia, groups opposing unregulated guns proliferate: Mothers in Charge, Ceasefire, Neighborhood Partners to End Gun Violence. Every weekend, on some street corner, or church, or local park, there’s a vigil: in memory of someone killed by a gun, in protest of a notorious gun shop, in prayer for greater protection from the scourge of gun violence that shapes the daily life of those in urban neighborhoods.

Nationally, Mayors against Illegal Guns, a coalition of over 1000 current and former mayors, joined forces in 2014 with Moms Demand Action for Gun Sense In America to form Everytown for Gun Safety, a coalition of more than ‘”3 million mayors, moms, cops, teachers, survivors, gun owners, and everyday Americans” commtted to enacting and enforcing common sense gun safety legislation.  

Back at ALEC, a new initiative, ACCE (American City Council Exchange), has been formed to meet the “threat” from local governments on everything from regulation of shale gas to minimum wages to to for-profit charter schools to local gun safety.

I’m troubled by Christians who proudly repeat slogans promoted by groups like ALEC or the NRA.

Troubled at how little we know about the motivations behind our laws, or the loyalties of our lawmakers.

Praying that maybe this time, we’ll decide we’ve had enough.

Those who live by the sword will die by the sword.

And those who trust in guns? 

Will never be safe.

Or free.

[This summer I'm reworking some earlier posts, as travel and time outside limit my time for blogging.Parts of this appeared, in substantially different form, in the July 15, 2012 post, Guns and Good News.]

Please join the conversation. Your thoughts and experiences in this are welcome. Look for the "__ comments" link below to leave your comments. 

Sunday, July 19, 2015

And So the Young Are Taught

There was a child went forth every day;
And the first object he look’d upon, that object he became;
And that object became part of him for the day,
or a certain part of the day,
or for many years,
or stretching cycles of years.
The early lilacs became part of this child,
And grass, and white and red morning-glories,
and white and red clover,
and the song of the phoebe-bird
(Walt Whitman)

I spent last week with children and grandchildren, breathing in blue sky and birch trees and moss and hemlock. We paddled around a quiet lake, naming the little coves and landings: “Boulder Bay,” “Forest Fort.” We hiked some trails along running water, freed a fish caught in a rocky kettle.

I’ve been thinking about Whitman’s notion that what we look on and respond to as children becomes inextricably part of us. Maybe even part of our children, and their children. Recent study of the brain seems to support this: childhood trauma can cause lasting emotional, cognitive, relational harm. Exposure to violence, even in very young children, can yield symptoms of  post traumatic stress disorder, including hyper-vigilance, anxiety, inability to focus, aggression, anti-social behavior. 

There’s a generational aspect to brain development and mental health: we’re shaped by those before us, and we pass on what we’ve been given.

Yet there’s some choice in this, some ability to redirect, rebuild, re-channel.

If what we do as children builds connections in our brains, strengthens some regions, by-passes others, then surely it matter where our children turn their attention, and the time we spend helping them to see beauty, health, kindness and joy can shape the adults they’ll become.

I grew up with a grandmother who paid attention to nature.  Squirrel antics, bird calls, unfamiliar wildflowers, strange cloud formations: she treated the small occasions of nature like personal treasures. I can remember going to visit when she was in her seventies and eighties. She’d have things to show, discoveries to share: a new groundcover blooming behind her metal shed. An unusually shaped tomato, warm off the vine.

Those gifts of attention stay with me and shape the way I view the world. I remember the afternoon, back in the sixties, when she pulled her Chevy convertible to the side of the road to stop and see where the mockingbird was: she hadn’t heard one since her childhood in Oklahoma. And there it was, on a telephone line, singing its unmistakable song. I still think of her whenever I see, or hear, a mockingbird.

I’ve done my best to share that attention with our kids. They accuse me of dragging the family to “squirrel  museums,” and laugh that I signed them up for “nature tots.” I confess to both accusations. Now there’s another generation to pay attention to, and with. We prowl through Black Rock Preserve, searching for fossils, or poke sticks in the Black Rock pond, looking for fish. I’m regularly presented with unexpected gifts: a painting of a backyard bird, a well-preserved snake skin, a fragment of an abandoned nest. We investigate the contents of our decades old “nature bowl,” sharing stories of some of the more intriguing specimens.

My grandmother also taught me to pay attention to need: to look beyond myself and see the pain of others. There was nothing easy about her life, and yet I don’t remember hearing her complain. Instead, I remember her calling attention to the generosity of others, and insisting on kindness toward those in need around us. Skippy, an odd boy years older than us, mentally challenged in ways we didn’t understand, was always welcome in our yard. And if he invited us to his house, a block away, to see his monkey, or swim in his pool, a glance from Grandma would quiet our objections.

A multitude of pets helped me learn to pay attention. So did younger cousins. Children who have nothing to care for, no smaller living things to attend to, can miss the joy of empathy. Learning to make a cat purr, taking time to tame a parakeet, facing my own fear of the dark to go out at night to reassure an anxious duck, entertaining cousins while the grownups talked on and on: those were skills of attention I’m thankful to have learned.

And so I look for ways to pass those skills on to others. The parakeet and duck are incidental, but the ability to see what pleases another creature, and then provide it, seems essential.  The ability to see what’s needed in a situation, then finding a way to offer it, doesn’t come naturally. It comes through the trial and error of caring for a smaller sibling, friend, or cousin, the afternoons spent cutting and pasting to make a card or gift or other offering for someone sick, or sad, or lonely. It comes from helping to plan and prepare for a party or celebration, thinking about what might please the guests, then feeling good when everyone has fun.

Attention to words was another gift I was given. God’s word, primarily. My grandmother kept her Bible open on the kitchen table, wrote notes in the margins. “Read this!” she’d say with quiet excitement. “Then look at this! What do you think it means?” Surface interpretation wasn’t what she was after. She saw such riches in the words I found myself memorizing passages, puzzling over them myself, carrying them through life like a treasure. Holding the health of certain passages against deep hurts and turning my attention toward a story far beyond me.

My husband grew up with a tradition of bed-time questions, and I learned a similar practice of reflection at a camp where I worked: What did you learn today? What was a thing of beauty? What are you thankful for? Quiet conversations at bedtime can prompt attention throughout the day. There are always new things to be learned, new beauty to celebrate, gifts to be thankful for, if we take time to pay attention.

It’s easy to focus our attention on the burdens of the day, or to allow our thoughts to be clouded by the loudest voices around us. Easy to turn our thoughts to difficulty and pain and what we wish and what we never had.

Yet, when my attention slides in harmful patterns, I hear my grandmother’s voice:

“Whatsoever things are true, whatsoever things are honest, whatsoever things are just, whatsoever things are pure, whatsoever things are lovely, whatsoever things are of good report; if there be any virtue, and if there be any praise, think on these things.”

I am thankful that I was taught to think on, attend to, celebrate the beauty and grace of the world around me, the things of good report, words of health and goodness.
I’m thankful to spend time with the next generation, and the next, shaped, and continuing to be shaped by choices of attention in the generations before us.

We are people of open water and small boats, birch trees and birds, quiet conversations around blazing fires. Attentive to each others’ needs. Thankful for God’s kindness.

   I tremble with gratitude
   for my children and their children
   who take pleasure in one another.
   At our dinners together, the dead
   enter and pass among us
   in living love and in memory.
   And so the young are taught. 
                       (Wendell Berry)

[This is a revision of a post from 2011, Paying Attention, Next Generation. I'm reworking some earlier posts this summer, as travel and time outside limit my time for blogging.]

Please join the conversation. Your thoughts and experiences in this are welcome. Look for the "__ comments" link below to leave your comments. 

Sunday, July 12, 2015

How Wide and Long and High and Deep

This summer I’ve been tracking the Pennsylvania budget impasse, and doing what I can to advocate for restoration of deep funding cuts to our state’s education. I’ve been writing emails to representatives and key legislative leaders, encouraging others to do the same. We have the most inequitable public education in the nation. I know some of those children in schools without libraries, library books, librarians. And I know some of those young adults who had hoped to college and found any help to get there had vanished.

I’ve been asked why I care. Most people I know don't. Not much. Unless their own kids are in one of those schools most affected.

Why care?

I’ve been finding that caring is a calling, and I can point to the start of mine.

It was a quarter century ago, an evening after a too-long, too-hard day. We had three small nieces spending the week with us, to give their parents a break, and I’d made the mistake of letting the whole crew camp together in our basement playroom. We had a baby, asleep in her room upstairs, and five excited children arranged between a pull-out couch and some comforters on the floor. Upstairs it was quiet. Downstairs, it was mayhem.

I was tired, impatient, ready to be done with the day. We’d done too many trips to the bathroom, too many last drinks of water, too many “just one more” stories. Lights, and night lights, had been on and off too many times to count. I sat on the hard wood of the basement steps, head in hands, and prayed.

I’m sure it wasn’t an eloquent prayer. More along the lines of “I don’t know how to do this, I don’t know why I put myself in this place, and God, I don’t love these kids. And I don’t feel like you love me. Show me. Show me that love that surpasses knowledge, and help me love these kids.”

No bright lights. No sudden voice. No angel song. But on those hard wood stairs, in that dark stairwell, I felt suddenly surrounded by a warmth and care that pressed in close and filled my empty heart. And I had a vision of God’s love. Not a visible vision, but a strange sense of being loved with a love that was firm, and patient, that would take as long as needed, that would hold me steady no matter what wind or waves swept past me. That wasn’t comparing me to anyone else, wasn’t grading me by some impossible standard. A warm, present, listening love, that melted my hard sad heart and still brings me to tears when I think of it.

Trying to describe it, I realize words fall short.  God was giving me a glimpse of a passage from Ephesians I had prayed without knowing what I was praying, words I had memorized and taped inside my kitchen cupboard door:
For this reason I kneel before the Father, from whom every family in heaven and on earth derives its name. I pray that out of his glorious riches he may strengthen you with power through his Spirit in your inner being, so that Christ may dwell in your hearts through faith. And I pray that you, being rooted and established in love, may have power, together with all the Lord’s holy people, to grasp how wide and long and high and deep is the love of Christ, and to know this love that surpasses knowledge—that you may be filled to the measure of all the fullness of God. Now to him who is able to do immeasurably more than all we ask or imagine, according to his power that is at work within us, to him be glory in the church and in Christ Jesus throughout all generations, for ever and ever! Amen. (Ephesians 3:14 to 21) 
I had understood God’s love – in concept. And I had tried to live it- as a job description, a too-hard task I’d been given along with all the other too-hard tasks. But did I grasp it? Was I rooted in it? Was I filled with it? Was I strengthened by it?

My own parents disappeared a month before I turned two. They were married too young, had four kids too fast, and struggled with undiagnosed depressions and disorders in a time when no one knew how to help. My siblings and I grew up in our grandparents’ home, until my grandfather sold it and announced he was done with parenthood and with us. From there, it was a rocky road through high school, with uncertain attention from our grandmother and other adults who appeared and disappeared as they were blown along by the changing circumstances of their lives.

I had no doubt that I had been loved along the way, but a limited vision of what strong, steady parental love would look like, and not enough experience of it to pass along.

I’d seen, from a distance, some imposters. I’d seen the selfish parental love that treated the child as extension of the parents’ ego. I’d seen the needy love that would give anything to earn the child’s approval. I’d seen dictatorial parents who treated their children like robots, or little wind-up toys. I’d seen neglectful, episodic love, swooping in to say “Isn’t she cute!” then turning away to other interests. I was thankful to have been spared those facsimiles of love, but not sure the task-oriented form of care I’d been given, and knew how to give, was enough.

And yes, I’d been told that the very definition of love was Christ’s death on the cross. I’d memorized John 15: “Love each other as I have loved you. Greater love has no one than this: to lay down one’s life for one’s friends.”

And yes, I was familiar with that famous chapter about love, 1 Corinthians 13. I’d memorized it in high school, and memorized it again as a parent: “Love is patient. Love is kind. It does not envy, it does not boast, it is not proud. It does not dishonor others, it is not self-seeking, it is not easily angered, it keeps no record of wrongs.”

I worked hard on all of those things: patience was almost impossible. Kindness? Sometimes. Anger? That depended on the day. Record of wrongs? Still working on it.
The fact is - it was work. And that was the heart of the problem: it was all work. Rocking a baby late at night. Diapers. Laundry. Long, bored afternoons. The challenge of making dinner while kids whined underfoot. Work.

But there was an inner deficit, a hollowness inside that sang its sad song to me in those late night sessions while I rocked and sang a fussy baby back to sleep. I could do the work of a parent, but the heart of a parent seemed to be missing. I had started from a place of depletion - and the more I gave, the emptier I grew.

Sitting on the basement steps, I found something in me changing. It wasn’t a “conversion” – I was already following Christ as faithfully as I knew how. It was what Paul described in Ephesians: I began to grasp the boundless love of Christ, and began to be filled, in a new way, with the boundless fullness of God. Calling out for help, I found that help holding me, surrounding me. Singing a new song to my tired, hungry heart.

So what was different? The best I can say is I began to understand, somewhere beyond my head, what that phrase, “God’s love,” really meant. I was no longer trying to earn something that I knew I could never earn. I knew, in some deep, unexplainable way, that I was loved, and that God’s love, even when I couldn’t feel it, was present, at work, surrounding me.

From that evening on, I knew my role as parent was to do my best to offer a reflection of that love: Unchangeable. Wanting their best. Not dependent on their good behavior, their compliance, their good will. I could love them when they slammed the door, and could remind them, patiently, that they were free to be angry, but not free to be rude. I could love them when they made me look bad, interfered with my plans, challenged my priorities.

It started there, but bubbled far past that. If God loved me beyond understanding, beyond width and length and height and depth, then there was no edge to that love flowing past me, into places of need I had never seen before.

POWER: Philadelphians Organized to Witness Empower & Rebuild
I’ve watched with amazement as that love reaches through me to embrace others I’ve met along the way: silent children with hungry eyes, angry teens itching for a fight. Awkward adults caught in their own unyielding dramas.

And it bubbles up in waves of longing for equity and justice for those I know God loves: overworked teachers in crowded classrooms, desperate parents wanting a decent chance for their kids. All those beautiful, needy little ones, part of God’s family, children of his heart, waiting for the same care given other children.

That love flows out in ways I often can’t predict, can’t explain, sometimes can’t control. 

New every morning. 

Stronger every day.

For this reason I kneel before the Father, from whom every family in heaven and on earth derives its name. I pray that out of his glorious riches he may strengthen you with power through his Spirit in your inner being, so that Christ may dwell in your hearts through faith. And I pray that you, being rooted and established in love, may have power, together with all the Lord’s holy people, to grasp how wide and long and high and deep is the love of Christ, and to know this love that surpasses knowledge—that you may be filled to the measure of all the fullness of God.

Now to him who is able to do immeasurably more than all we ask or imagine, according to his power that is at work within us, to him be glory in the church and in Christ Jesus throughout all generations, for ever and ever! Amen.

[This is a revision of a post from 2011, Love Is.  I'll be reworking some earlier posts this summer, as travel and time outside limit my time for blogging.]

Please join the conversation. Your thoughts and experiences in this are welcome. Look for the "__ comments" link below to leave your comments.