Friday, January 05, 2007

Letter to a Right Wing Nation

As many of you know, I took a hiatus from blogging for about a year. Like Rip Van Winkle emerging from sleep, when I went back to the blog I discovered a lot had changed. Most of the blogs that used to link to mine had given up on me (can't say I blame them), as had many of my regular readers. But I found there was a new blog linking to mine, a blog called "Right Wing Nation."

Perhaps, now that I am starting up blogging again, this is a good opportunity to reiterate a few things I have mentioned in the past. I am an Orthodox Christian who lives and writes from a socially and politically liberal perspective. I'm a pacifist, a vegetarian, and a socialist/distributionalist. I am anti-death penalty, and favor eliminating the stigma attached to homosexual people in society and in the church. And my family and I, in the various situations in which we have lived over the past number of years, have attempted to live in community with the poor, to make disadvantaged people a part of our lives. This is really the basis for the Guerilla Orthodoxy blog: it is one family's attempt at living out a personal preferential option for the poor.

So it was a real surprise to discover that someone whose tag line is "peace through superior firepower" is linking to my blog.

Now, I want to emphasize that I'm not complaining about this (and not only because I don't want to lose one of my few remaining referrers!). Despite my own ideas and leanings, I happen to think there are many things that are more important about a person than his or her political affiliation. Whether you are a Republican or a Democrat or a Constitutionalist or a Green, it doesn't answer some of my most basic questions about you: Are you kind? Are you fair? Are you generous?

Moreover, I genuinely believe (appearances in this country often to the contrary) that it is possible for people of good faith on the right and on the left to work together on some very difficult issues if we are willing to surrender some of our preconceptions, rather than using these issues as fulcrums to leverage ourselves into power. Take abortion, for example, one of the most divisive issues of our time. If you study the statistics about abortion, you will soon learn that one of the strongest predictive factors as to whether or not a pregnant young woman will get an abortion is poverty. The country that has the lowest abortion rate in the world is not the country with the most restrictive abortion laws, but rather the one with the most liberal abortion laws, the Netherlands. Why is this? Probably because there is very little poverty in the Netherlands, a narrow gap between rich and poor, a generous medical leave program, and health care for everyone.

A world without abortion is not a world with better laws. It is a world without desperation. So being pro-life doesn't just mean passing stronger abortion laws. It also means working to eliminate poverty, narrowing the gap between rich and poor, making health care accessible to everyone, and creating a society where family is more important than productivity or profit. I'd like to think there is a "win-win" on abortion, a way for people on both the right and the left to agree that every abortion is a tragic event, and to work towards eliminating the root causes of abortion, rather than endlessly reiterating the "right to life/right to choose" dichotomy like a bad and endless beer commercial ("Tastes great!" "Less filling!").

So this is my letter to a right wing nation. I'm glad you're here, I really am. I just wanted you to know where "here" is.



Working on Broadway

So this morning when we got up, Jeff was still asleep in the doorway of the church next door. After breakfast, I brought him some coffee and blueberry flapjacks, and we talked a little.

Jeff's story was familiar in many ways. He's lived all over, including Hawaii and Alaska. Like a lot of people I've met, Jeff went on the street when his family network of support disintegrated: his mom died young, his dad remarried soon after, and then more or less disowned Jeff and his sister in order to focus on his new family. He's 42 years old, and been on the street for over ten years. He has the worn look of someone who's been out for awhile; the average age of death for people on the street is 43 (as compared to about 70 for the rest of us).

One of Jeff's biggest problems is that he has no ID, nor does he have the ID necessary to get ID. This has become a very big problem for homeless people since 9/11, when the standards for getting identification were significantly raised. When you're moving all the time and have no safe dry place to store stuff, it's easy to lose your ID, have it stolen, or ruin it. Then you need a certified copy of your birth certificate to get a new license or state ID. But Jeff doesn't have a birth certificate, nor does he have the means to get one, and without a birth certificate, no ID. And without ID, its difficult for him to get assistance or services, and easy for him to get arrested. As he put it, "It's like they say, 'in order to work on Broadway, you have to have worked on Broadway.'"

Jeff told me he thinks his sister may have a copy of his birth certificate, but she's moved to Arizona, or maybe Florida, and he doesn't have contact information for her. He doesn't remember the spelling of her married name, but thinks he can get it. I told him I'd give him a hand trying to look her up on the Internet sometime.

This evening, I saw that he was still there under a pile of blankets, though in the morning he had said he was going to try to move on to another place where some friends were staying. It's a blustery and rainy night, no time to be traveling, so I figured he was going to hunker down for one more night. After dinner, I got some shells and cheese and Eritrean style vegetables together on a plate, along with some hot coffee, and brought them out for him.

When I got out to the church doorway, I could hear music and singing; a service was going on inside. And Jeff was gone.

Thursday, January 04, 2007

Sleeping in the alcove of God's house (again)

Our new house is next door to a church. Not a nice, beautiful, suburban chapel, but a big, boxy, urban church that looks like it wanted to be a warehouse like all the other cool buildings, but instead ended up as a church.

Tonight when I got home, there was a guy sleeping in the back entrance to the church (which faces our house). The she-guerilla told me he'd been there all afternoon. She had left some homemade caldo verde soup and biscuits for him on the steps, but he hadn't stirred.

So I went out and walked halfway up the steps. "Friend," I called out. No answer. A little louder, "Hey friend, would you like some coffee or something?"


"That sounds good."

So we brought him some coffee and reheated the soup and biscuits (and added a piece of baklava left over from a Christmas plate), and we gave him a blanket out of the garage. He said his name was Jeff, and thanks. He didn't seem too interested in talking, so I said I was sorry he had to be out tonight, and went back in.

A few hours later, we turned up the heat. It's cold out tonight.

I thought about Milton, who used to sleep "in the alcove of God's house." I wondered how he is doing, or if he is even still alive.

It's tough out on the damn street.

Tuesday, January 02, 2007

The Legend of Old Befana

So since the purchase of our home, I have been reflecting on what it means to create a hospitable and inviting space. On Christmas day, we decided to have some guests over, a few people who otherwise didn't have any place to go. We invited Stan and Mona over, with their daughter Stephanie and Mona's son Romero. I first met them in the Salvation Army shelter last February; now they are in an apartment, but still in a pretty precarious situation. Romero is not quite 13 years old, basically a good kid in a horrible situation. I see so much gentleness in him, watching the way he takes care of his two-year-old baby sister. He's still a child, but just old enough to have started to become intimidating, at that age when we stop adoring children and start fearing them, especially if they have dark skin. He wears his baseball cap cocked to the side and punctuates his speech with wide, gangly, hip-hop gestures, talking about Tupac Shakur and "the street" and "keeping it real." But he's still enough of a kid to look up from time to time to see if you notice him, to make sure you're still listening.

Romero was suspended a couple of weeks ago for bringing a knife to school. When I heard this, I couldn't help but think of the knife his stepfather Stan brandished when he had a nervous breakdown a couple of months ago, the day Romero had to help tackle him to protect his mom and sister, and then watched the paramedics take him away in an ambulance to the mental ward. When I came over a few hours later, there was still blood on the wall, Stan's own blood from where he slashed himself when he was struggling with Mona and Romero.

Now Stan is back with the family; he's taking his medication regularly and appears to be doing much better. But Romero has started carrying a knife, perhaps because it makes him feel strong and tough and "real," perhaps just in case he needs to protect his mom and sister again. And the guidence counselor at the school is saying he may not be readmitted to school in January because of the school's "zero tolerance" weapons policy.

In the Italian Catholic tradition, the season between Christmas and Epiphany is a time for telling the story of Old Befana. According to the legend, Befana was a grouchy old woman who kept a neat house and did not like children. One day, she sees a wonderful sight: a magnificent train of camels, wise men bedecked regally, and a little child who tells her that they are following the star, seeking the Child who has been born a king. When Old Befena hears this, she says "humph" and goes back to her sweeping. But the story has captured her imagination, and so before long she lights a fire in the oven and prepares her very best sweets for the new king, then hurries after the wise men, now long gone.

She is still searching to this day.

It is said that on Epiphany eve, Old Befana creeps into the room of all children and peers into their sleeping faces, seeking the Child born king. And she leaves sweets for every child, saying to herself, "Who knows? Perhaps this is the one."

For some reason, I imagine Old Befana coming to Romero's room. I see her looking deeply into his still boyish, not-quite adolescent face, relaxed in sleep. And then silently leaving sweets.

Perhaps Epiphany is calling all of us to this: to learn to see through the eyes of Old Befana. To see in each face, even those we are tempted to fear, the face of the Child. To keep saying to ourselves, "Perhaps this is the one."

What makes a boy like you go bad?
What makes a man so lonely and sad
That he'd poison all he knows
And in one year, just let it go?

And all that time you were telling me
You were fine
Aw, silly man, silly boy.

"Dirt and Dead Ends," from Despite our Differences
Amy Ray, The Indigo Girls

Sunday, December 31, 2006


Someone who is close to me wrote on her blog:

At a recent holiday dinner, I heard a man with a red moustache say,

"My house belongs to the Lord. And so does my car. So if Jesus wants to take them, that's okay with me."

I don't believe him.

I wonder what that means, "If Jesus wants to take them"? It made me think that maybe if this guy were carjacked by Jesus, he'd be OK with that, but if anybody else tries it, he's definitely pressing charges.


Saturday, December 30, 2006

Just Another Killing

The last thing my wife said to me last night when she came into the bedroom after turning off the computer was, "They killed Saddam." This morning I awoke to the story all over the newspaper, and to all the questions that are being asked. Will Saddam's execution bring peace? Will it bring about greater stability? Will it be the end of one chapter in Iraq's history, and the beginning of another, better one?

Everyone seems to agree the answer is "probably not."

I saw profound irony in the statement of President Bush, that Saddam received "the kind of justice he denied the victims of his brutal regime." In fact, this kind of "justice" was all too prevalent under Saddam's reign. His execution is just another killing, and all the trappings of officialdom cannot make it otherwise. His death, like all the other deaths that came before and all the deaths that will come after, will not bring peace.

Lately, as a part of my morning reflections, I have been reading the sermons of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. After finishing with the newspaper, I read his sermon "Loving your Enemies." The sense of tension and counterpoint in this sermon could not have been greater. Following are a few excerpts from; you can find the text in its entirety here.

Another way that you love your enemy is this: When the opportunity presents itself for you to defeat your enemy, that is the time which you must not do it. There will come a time, in many instances, when the person who hates you most, the person who has misused you most, the person who has gossiped about you most, the person who has spread false rumors about you most, there will come a time when you will have an opportunity to defeat that person. It might be in terms of a recommendation for a job; it might be in terms of helping that person to make some move in life. That’s the time you must do it. That is the meaning of love. In the final analysis, love is not this sentimental something that we talk about. It’s not merely an emotional something. Love is creative, understanding goodwill for all men. It is the refusal to defeat any individual. When you rise to the level of love, of its great beauty and power, you seek only to defeat evil systems. Individuals who happen to be caught up in that system, you love, but you seek to defeat the system...

It’s not only necessary to know how to go about loving your enemies, but also to go down into the question of why we should love our enemies. I think the first reason that we should love our enemies, and I think this was at the very center of Jesus’ thinking, is this: that hate for hate only intensifies the existence of hate and evil in the universe. If I hit you and you hit me and I hit you back and you hit me back and go on, you see, that goes on ad infinitum. [tapping on pulpit] It just never ends. Somewhere somebody must have a little sense, and that’s the strong person. The strong person is the person who can cut off the chain of hate, the chain of evil. And that is the tragedy of hate, that it doesn’t cut it off. It only intensifies the existence of hate and evil in the universe. Somebody must have religion enough and morality enough to cut it off and inject within the very structure of the universe that strong and powerful element of love...

Now there is a final reason I think that Jesus says, "Love your enemies." It is this: that love has within it a redemptive power. And there is a power there that eventually transforms individuals. That’s why Jesus says, "Love your enemies." Because if you hate your enemies, you have no way to redeem and to transform your enemies. But if you love your enemies, you will discover that at the very root of love is the power of redemption. You just keep loving people and keep loving them, even though they’re mistreating you. Here’s the person who is a neighbor, and this person is doing something wrong to you and all of that. Just keep being friendly to that person. Keep loving them. Don’t do anything to embarrass them. Just keep loving them, and they can’t stand it too long. Oh, they react in many ways in the beginning. They react with bitterness because they’re mad because you love them like that. They react with guilt feelings, and sometimes they’ll hate you a little more at that transition period, but just keep loving them. And by the power of your love they will break down under the load. That’s love, you see. It is redemptive, and this is why Jesus says love. There’s something about love that builds up and is creative. There is something about hate that tears down and is destructive. So love your enemies.

What might have happened if we had loved Saddam? What if, instead of breaking his neck with a rope, we had kept him alive in a place where he could do no further harm to others or himself, treated him humanely, allowed him to read, and offered him access to moderate Muslim clergy? Might he eventually have recognized the horror of his actions? Might he one day have repented? Yes, I know this is a one in a million chance, but such things do happen. A change in Saddam would have a chance of bringing about change in Iraq; then he might indeed have become a symbol of a new chapter in the country's history. Now, he is merely a symbol of the fact that the Shiites are executing Sunnis, instead of Sunnis executing Shiites.

Every person who commits acts of great evil contains within himself or herself the key to understanding that evil, and so to redeeming, transforming, and healing it. When we kill that person, the key is lost forever.

My morning meditation was from Mark 13:12-13, "You will be hated by all because of my name. The one who endures to the end will be saved." What does it mean to endure to the end? Perhaps it means, in the midst of hatred, to abide in love, not to succumb to hate or to the tactics of those who practice hatred. It means remaining steadfast in the confidence that love is, as St. John Chrysostom says, τό ισχυρόν, the greatest power, the strongest force on earth.

It doesn't come by the bullwhip
It's not persuaded with your hands on your hips
Not the company of gunslingers
The epicenter love is the pendulum swinger

If we're a drop in the bucket
With just enough science to keep from saying fuck it
Until the last drop of sun burns its sweet light
Plenty revolutions left until we get this thing right.

The Indigo Girls, "Pendulum Swinger," from Despite our Differences

Friday, December 29, 2006

On moving into an "up and coming" area

We bought a house.

This is a first in the life of the she-guerilla and me. A friend of mine remarked that we'd be switching over to the Republicans any day now.

Lots of people have asked us, "So where did you move? What part of the city?" When we tell them, they often look a little surprised at first, but then quickly recover and say, "Oh, that's an up and coming area." At first, I felt a little twinge of pride when people said this (how smart we were to buy a house in an "up and coming" area! That kind of bear!). But after the third or fourth time, I started to get suspicious and began wondering what this phrase really meant.

We bought a house in a minority neighborhood. Our new home is in a part of town traditionally associated with African-Americans. We are right next door to a predominantly African-American church, shared by a Latino congregation that meets on Saturday nights. One of our neighbors is from Ghana, a woman who lives with her daughter and at least one other tenant, also from Ghana. Another neighbor from across the street, Brian, is African American; he has a big, beautiful son named Rasheed, with deep ebony skin. We chose this neighborhood because we weren't comfortable in the lily-white upper-middle class part of town where we were renting, and wanted a place where there was diversity and a sense of community.

It's an up and coming neighborhood.

I suppose "up and coming" is probably the nicest possible way of saying "down and out with possibilities." You can't exactly call it a nice (read "white") neighborhood, but maybe in time it will get nicer (i.e., more nice white people will move there and drive the housing prices up so the minority and low-income people will have to leave and find someplace else to live). In saying this, I'm acutely aware that I am a part of this process of gentrification. I think I'd feel differently about being here if we had bought the house from an African-American family, but we did not. Our coming didn't change the demographic.

Today I was reflecting on Jesus' teaching in the Gospel of Mark with regard to the Son of David. Jesus asks the question, "If the Messiah is the son of David, how can David call him Lord?" The traditional exegesis is that Jesus is speaking about his own divine status as the Son of God. But perhaps there is something more to this passage.

David was the perfect example of an "up and coming" ruler, a man of deep-seated ambition. David was a winner. He never lost a battle. He successfully engineered the downfall of Saul, after marrying Saul's daughter so as to have a clear claim to the throne. He successfully united the Northern and Southern Kingdoms of Israel under his rule, and began a dynastic succession of kings that spanned some twenty generations.

Jesus' point was that the Messiah would be something more, something greater than David, David's own Lord. But he would do so not by winning, but rather by losing, by an act of voluntary sacrifice. There is a kind of deep irony in the statement "Sit at my right hand until I place your enemies beneath your feet;" Jesus' enemies are placed beneath his feet only when he is lifted up on the cross.

Jesus was a down and out Messiah.

The scribes expected a Messiah like David. And who could blame them? Everybody loves a winner. Isn't that what we expect at the Second Coming: the Heavenly Winner? I wonder why are we so hard on the Scribes and Pharisees for seeking that which we ourselves so eagerly desire?

We made a conscious decision to move to this neighborhood. So please don't pity us, and spare us the whole "up and coming" thing. We didn't choose this place in spite of the diversity, but because of it. We came seeking a sense of connection to a wondrously diverse human community.

We're glad to be here.

Tuesday, September 05, 2006

If life were more like the X-Files...

A post I've been saving for awhile. This grew out of an X-Files DVD binge last year.

  1. Every time you heard a bump from the ceiling, it would be followed, a few seconds later, by something starting to drip.
  2. Every time you passed a hole or some kind of dark opening, you would feel an irresistible urge to pull out a flashlight (which you always carry with you on your person) and crawl down into it.
  3. All uniformity--people who drive the same nondescript dark sedans, wear the same dark suits, or sport the same dark sunglasses--would be regarded as sinister and conspiratorial.
  4. Creepy music would play frequently in the background, making otherwise mundane tasks like opening the mailbox or reaching into the garbage disposal preludes to disaster.
  5. Conduits that lead to places you cannot see--drains, vents, manholes, etc--would be a source of endless fascination for you, and would always have occupants.