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Monday, September 22, 2014


This article originally appeared in my newsletter in September of last year, but it is just as relevant today. You can subscribe to my free monthly newsletter by clicking here!



We live in a culture of violence. From entertainment to the streets, we alternately celebrate and decry the level of violence in our society and respond to it with an increased - and increasingly militarized - police presence.

Our family recently abandoned cable TV when Time Warner, the local cable company, decided to get into a dispute with the local NBC affiliate and stop carrying their signal until their dispute is resolved. We don't really know who is responsible for the dispute and very few people really care. The result was that cable TV stopped carrying the channel that broadcasts the Green Bay Packers' games just days before the first preseason game, forcing cable TV subscribers to watch the game on Telemundo and listen to the broadcast on the radio. You might think that wouldn't be a bad alternative. The problem is that radio runs on a five second delay, resulting in the play being over on the television before the play by play on radio even begins. If you aren't familiar with Wisconsin culture, interfering with our ability to watch the Packers is slightly less popular than cable TV in the Vatican deciding not to cover the Pope. We researched our options and found that we could buy an antenna, subscribe to Netflix, Hulu, and Amazon Prime, have more options than we did on cable TV and still save $75 a month. Goodbye cable TV!

Fresh with excitement over the new and old movies and television series I could watch I saw that one of my childhood favorites, Adam-12, was available. I chose the first episode of the first year, and there it was! What I couldn't fail to notice was the lack of flack jackets and M-16 rifles. They were also carrying revolvers instead of semi-automatic pistols, but if memory serves that may have been because semi-autos were a later development. They spoke to citizens with dignity and respect, in the clipped minimalist phrases typical of a Jack Webb production. Watching the program, which in its day won awards for realistically portraying police life, was stepping into another time, a time when the idea of "to protect and serve" didn't mean "occupy like the Marines." Don't misunderstand, I believe that in today's climate every police officer should have all of the protection they can get, including bullet proof vests. What I cannot help but wonder is if our government's history of responding to violence with violence hasn't in large part contributed to the perceived need for increased militarization of the police.

As I write this President Obama is prepared to attack Syria because it has allegedly used chemical weapons on its own civilians. Those are serious accusations that seem to be true. The United Nations is doing what the United Nations does best - wringing their collective hands and asking for more time. Experts, as well as civilians living in Syria, report that the Syrian government has done what cowardly totalitarian regimes everywhere seem to do and placed government and military installations in residential areas in the belief that such a practice will cause decent people to think twice before attacking because of the certainty of collateral damage - and such practices should make decent people think twice and even three times before attacking. Apparently, our government is not comprised of decent people.

One of the five Buddhist lay precepts cautions against the heedless use of intoxicants. The other four caution against killing, lying, sexual misconduct, and stealing. It has been said that the precept about heedless use of intoxicants is there because intoxication increases the likelihood of violating the other four precepts. Is there anything more intoxicating than power, and can we see that our government's misuse of power inevitably leads to lying and killing? What's more, can we see that it is absolutely insane to attack another country while knowing with certainty that because of the placement of their installations such an attack will kill countless civilians in order to punish them for killing their own civilians? At this point the murder weapon becomes irrelevant, because whether we are talking about nerve gas or a cruise missile the truth is no civilian should ever encounter either!

This leads me to a question I have been pondering for some time, but which would not make a popular Facebook post. The question is, "Can a person who claims to be religious or spiritual join the military without abandoning their spiritual or religious values?" Of course it is a loaded question because our "all volunteer" military preys upon the economically disadvantaged, promising them vocational training they can use should they survive their enlistment both physically and psychologically intact - something that is far from guaranteed and that recruiters are loathe to mention. The truth is that many "volunteers" see no other choice but to "volunteer." What of those who do have a choice, the officers? I was shocked at Erin's Marquette University reunion to speak with a man who graduated Air Force ROTC from that fine, Jesuit institution and now does drone target selection for the Air Force. I have to say, and others may freely disagree with me, that I do not find his occupation worthy of product of a Christian institution.

As we cavort around the world interfering in the affairs of sovereign nations, back at home the violence we freely distribute abroad is alive and well in our cities - and not just on the streets, but in private homes in the suburbs. Domestic violence is pandemic, as are sexual assault, child abuse, children resolving problems on elementary school playground through physical violence, and just about every other form of violence you can imagine. Veterans return home from combat with PTSD, street gang members also have PTSD from the violence they have experienced and witnessed, and we seem to always have more than enough money to create more victims at home and abroad but never enough money to treat them. We have money to kill, but not to build up, feed, educate, or employ. We are a morally bankrupt nation.

We need to find a way to teach our children a new way. We can no longer rely on our education system, churches, or government to do the job. We need to teach them that violence is unacceptable, and that there are no exceptions to that rule. Adults need to pull the phones out of their ears, shut down the computer, turn off the television, and decide that their greatest responsibility is raising children who know they are loved and who are taught basic moral and ethical values. Those of us who are older need to help young adults do this, because the truth is that many of them were not raised knowing they were loved and many of them grew up in a culture of domestic violence and street violence. They will need our help to learn that they, too, are of value and bearers of divinity.

This will require spiritual institutions that don't hide inside four walls and only attend to those who venture inside. This will require spiritual institutions that are more concerned about people than money, which would represent a 180 degree shift for most of our churches. This will require spiritual institutions that are willing to step out, take risks, and see their primary mission not as one of evangelism but rather as one of healing. Many will fall short of the task and simply disappear into irrelevance. Others will take their place, and that is how it should be. There is for everything and everyone, a time to die. Others are born to replace them. This is the great social justice challenge of our time. Who will rise to meet it?



Tuesday, September 16, 2014

The Limits of the Cultural Card

Domestic violence is the issue of the day in the National Football League. The news media have been
Peterson's son's wounds
covering the Ray Rice situation extensively, though it took the entertainment site TMZ to get the NFL to finally look seriously at Rice knocking out his then fiance in an elevator in an Atlantic City casino. Perhaps more disconcerting are the allegations that Minnesota Vikings' star running back Adrian Peterson beat two of his children, both four years old, with a switch. Picture have surfaced of one of the boys with open wounds on his body from the beating. Peterson has been indicted by a Texas grand jury in one of the cases, the other (from last year) was never prosecuted. It's certainly a horrifying situation, but it may be that the comments in social media are even more horrifying. It would seem that more than a few Americans are more than willing to see children as a piece of meat that can be beaten at will with no more justification than "that's what happened to me and I turned out alright." Of course, back when I was fetal, to coin a term, parents routinely smoked during pregnancy because the consequences of doing so weren't fully understood. Strangely enough, you don't hear too many people using the same kind of logic, that "I turned out alright," regarding mothers smoking while pregnant.
Trust your gut, Charles

Enter TNT basketball commentator and former NBA player Charles Barkley. Charles Barkley tells us that this sort of thing "is what parent's do in the south. It's cultural." The implication is that all cultural values are good values, and that nobody has the right to interfere with cultural values regardless of how they might impact their victims. By this logic, we shouldn't have prosecuted Warren Jeffs and the FLDS for their practice of forcing underage girls to marry much older men because it, too, was a cultural value. We shouldn't have given women the right to vote, because that was a cultural value and so was sacrosanct, the movement for equal rights is also wrong by virtue of challenging cultural values, we should still be throwing suspected witches in rivers because of cultural values, and - yes I will go there - slavery should never have ended because it, too, was a cultural value. The "cultural value" concept is a slippery slope when extended in an attempt to cover situations in which people are hurt and abused. Contrary to the opinion of Charles Barkley and (if he is to be believed) the American south, children are people - not property to be disposed of as one wishes. They are in fact human beings, and should have the same protection from physical violence that every other human being has. There is no legitimate cultural value that includes child abuse, and if you hit your child with an object that causes wounds I find your argument that such behavior doesn't constitute abuse to be vacuous.

In response to the Peterson indictment, the Minnesota Vikings did the right thing and deactivated him for last week's game. Then on Monday, after losing badly the day before, the Vikings reinstated Peterson. That's a hugely disappointing statement about where the priorities of the Minnesota Vikings reside. Vikings' owner Zygi Wilf has a shady past of his own, and despite being a billionaire recently held up the people of Minnesota for a new stadium for his Vikings to play in. He may be a lousy
football mind, but he can play the extortion game very well. A statement from Vikings owners Zygi and Mark Wilf would be laughable if the stakes weren't so high.

"Today's decision was made after significant thought, discussion, and consideration," the statement read. "As evidenced by our decision to deactivate Adrian from yesterday's game, this is clearly a very important issue. On Friday, we felt it was in the best interests of the organization to step back, evaluate the situation, and not rush to judgment given the seriousness of this matter. At that time, we made the decision that we felt was best for the Vikings and all parties involved.

"To be clear, we take very seriously any matter than involves the welfare of a child. At this time, however, we believe this is a matter of due process and we should allow the legal system to proceed so we can come to the most effective conclusions and then determine the appropriate course of action. This is a difficult path to navigate, and out focus is on doing the right thing. Currently we believe we are at a juncture where the most appropriate next step is to allow the judicial process to move forward.

We will continue to monitor the situation closely and support Adrian's fulfillment of his legal responsibilities throughout this process."

And if you believe that, I have some ocean front property in Nebraska I'd like to sell you.

Thursday, September 4, 2014

Muddle Headed Thinking and Jennifer Lawrence Nude Photos

This post is going to anger some of you. About half of you angry people will be angered for reasons that are good, and the other because you are so deep in the cult of celebrity that you can't see the forest for the trees any longer. Hopefully, whether you are angry or not, you take some time to pause and reflect on the content of this post and how you feel about it.

In case you have been living under a rock the last week or so, some hackers broke into either the cloud or the iPhone or email accounts of Jennifer Lawrence, Kate Upton, and some other celebrities and stole some nude pictures that either they or someone known to them had taken with their permission. In two of the cases, the pictures posted were taken of now adult celebrities before they reached the age of eighteen. Those pictures have been removed by the host site, while the others remain. They then posted those pictures on the Internet, which should surprise absolutely nobody. Apple, wanting to maintain the appearance of security in the iCloud, would have you believe that each of these celebrities' email accounts were hacked. While that's certainly possible, the simplest and therefore most reasonable explanation is that the iCloud was hacked. This is especially true given that the celebrities in question have said the pictures were on their iPhones, which then uploaded them to the cloud. For the purposes of this blog post, we will assume they were on the cloud - but if these people were emailing their nude selfies all over the place my argument would remain the same.

The eruption on social media and from women's organizations has for the most part been profoundly stupid. This sort of thing happens to non-celebrities all the time, most often because an angry ex-partner posts pics or videos to the Internet attempting to get revenge for the breakup, and women's groups everywhere don't scream and yell. In fact, a quick search of Google for "ex-gf porn" revealed eighteen million results. Where are the outraged voices? Where are the demands those sites be taken down? Even allowing that ninety-five percent of those sites don't really contain material from ex-wives and ex-girlfriends without their consent, that still leaves nine hundred thousand results! Even a one percent rate leaves one hundred eighty thousand results! Where is the outrage?

The message is, "Don't you dare mess with our celebrities because they are our gods and we worship at the temple of the cult of celebrity." Just for fun, let's take the arguments apart.

1. Posting these photos was theft and an invasion of privacy. I absolutely agree with this one, and am sure these people feel violated to one degree or another depending on the content of the pictures and their personal history. As someone whose home has been physically burglarized, I can appreciate this feeling - though in this case nothing actually came up missing, and so I suspect they really can't appreciate the violation that comes from having your home burglarized. In fact, because of the cult of celebrity, these people will probably never experience burglary and live fairly secure and isolated lives with no idea of the vulnerability of the average person.

Could it be that is why they were dumb enough to place their nude photos on the Cloud? This isn't victim blaming, as many have asserted, but rather a question about reasonable precautions. If your home is ransacked and you left the front door open, the insurance company will do their best not to pay your claim. Putting your nudes in the Cloud is rather like leaving the back door open (you should pardon the expression under the circumstances) and then being surprised when someone breaks in. Again, it's still wrong to break in and steal things, but surprise isn't really a reasonable response. In fact, most average people wouldn't put their nude pictures on the Cloud or in an email, but rather would store them on a flash drive lest the kids open your computer and both of your smiles in all their glory!

2. Women's bodies are their own...(I agree)...and that makes this sex assault. WHAT? Are you kidding me? Do you really want to cheapen what sexual assault is by defining the theft of a picture of someones body as sexual assault? That means if I steal a picture of your car I am guilty of grand theft auto, if I steal a picture of your house I have stolen your house, and if I take a picture of your child I have kidnapped them! Nothing could be more absurd.

3. This is a sex crime. Again, see the above paragraph. This is not a sex crime, it's a crime against property.

4. This is a sex crime because some people who view the pictures will use them to achieve sexual gratification from them. Perhaps they will, but some people find leather to be sexually arousing and we don't outlaw pictures of cows. What if someone feels a naked body is a work of art? Certainly the naked human form has been the subject of art work throughout history. Would that mean that this is an art crime for those people? We need to remember that is was not these women themselves who were stolen, but images of them. I'm reminded of members of primitive religious traditions that refused to allow photos to be taken because they felt having a picture taken resulted in their souls being stolen. What's more, a crime is a crime because of the act of the criminal involved, not because of what they or some other party will do with the stolen property. If that weren't the case, your car wouldn't be stolen until someone other than the thief drove the car and your jewelry wouldn't be stolen until someone else wore it.

I could go on and on about some of the even more absurd responses to this incident, but by now you get the picture. In fact, all this fuss had guaranteed that many more people than otherwise might have went and viewed these pictures. One might even wonder, and again this is not blaming the victim, how upset someone like Sports Illustrated cover model Kate Upton might be because less than a square foot of fabric has been removed from her body. Of course, I haven't seen all the pictures, but if we are talking about someones nipples suddenly become visible what has happened is something that wouldn't even make people in Europe blink twice. These are not, as far as I am aware, pictures of people making love to their partners - and if they were, I would really have to ask who in the world saves such things in the cloud! Again, all the bad judgment in the world doesn't make a crime less than a crime, but we all need to exercise a reasonable amount of good judgment and personal responsibility or we lose the right to be surprised when we are caught with our pants down.

Perhaps the lesson was can come away from in this story is that the Internet is not secure. I would have thought we knew that, but apparently it is new information to some. If your computer is connected to the Internet then the contents of it may be compromised. We can do the best we can to protect ourselves, but the chance is there nonetheless that a hacker will get in. If the Cloud was secure we would all be storing our banking information on it - but I am pretty sure that nobody would recommend doing that! If our phone automatically backs up our pictures to the Cloud we had better either disable the automatic back up or be careful about what we use our phone to take pictures of, hadn't we? I realize it isn't particularly sexy to talk about personal responsibility, but the truth is the more personal responsibility we exercise the less likely it is that our private information will appear in a news story. That's just common sense.

Monday, September 1, 2014

White Trash Buddhist

To those who have commented about "growing wearing" of hearing about poverty, may I respectfully suggest that your compassion practice could use a little boost?

There is an excellent piece on called "White Trash Buddhist" that you can find here. I was aghast at how many people commenting on the article were unsympathetic to the financial struggles of the writer as he tried to access retreat opportunities. My response, submitted to the website, is reproduced here: 

This is not the first article to point out that America Buddhism is in large part a classist and almost exclusively Caucasian endeavor - and I believe those two factors are not unrelated. As one who runs an interspirituality center, I understand the choices we make around overhead do influence cost - but those are choices. If I choose to derive my primary income from the Center, my costs escalate. If I choose to have a residential center, the number of beds will in large part determine my costs. Having lovely grounds is a beautiful notion, but they too come at a cost both to install and maintain. The higher my costs, the more I have to charge, the fewer people of average means who can attend. This is especially true for those of us in the middle of the country who also have higher travel costs associated with attending a retreat. Many of us, and as a disabled person on limited income that includes me, are quite simply priced out of attending retreat at least in part because every retreat includes another four hundred dollars or more for a plane ticket.

Are American Buddhist Centers imitating the trend of American Christian Churches in becoming Country Clubs rather than Spiritual Centers? There can be no doubt that many certainly are, while other local centers struggle to get by and offer affordable programming to all. The problem is that we are inundated by messages from teachers - especially ones at the Country Club Centers - that retreat is the ONLY way we will make significant progress on the path. It strikes me that message is more than a little self-serving. Others have pointed out that the Buddha didn't run to an exclusive spa-cum-retreat-center to become enlightened. I believe that is an important and excellent point. Perhaps it is our American need to combine vacation with spiritual study that has created a demand for these high end centers. I'm not convinced that's a combination that produces fruit in the real world as much as it produces culture shock when one returns home. Might not the Roman Catholic retreat center model, with comparatively austere accommodations, work better and at lower cost? I believe there is no accident that some Buddhist retreats have used such Centers effectively and at lower cost.

I believe that we have an obligation to ensure that practice opportunities are available to everyone regardless of their economic status. We can do that through contributing to scholarship funds as we are able, but a more significant impact would be made by developing some centers that are affordable to everyone. Let us not forget that the Buddha rejected the caste system of his day. We should exercise care that we are not reinforcing the caste system of our day.