Wednesday, October 16, 2019

Yes, Even "Those People"

This is Part 2 in a series during the the month of October focusing on how dialogue and encounter—particularly between Christians of different denominations—is a way that Jesus himself showed us how to respect life.

Part 1:  Ecumenical and Interreligious Dialogue is a Respect Life Issue

“Why does he eat with tax collectors and sinners?”
Mark 2:16

One of the most astounding things about Jesus' earthly ministry 2,000 years ago was how he encountered people.

Jesus loved and talked to anybody and everyone. However, he seemed especially concerned about going directly to those most marginalized by the rest of society. He was always living the Beatitudes (Matthew 5:1-12) by including the excluded and making the last one first.

So for example, if he were approached by two people, and one had a comfortable and established place in society and the other was an outcast, Jesus  probably would go to the outcast first. He loves them both equally, and he goes to the outcast, first.

Today, we have a fancy way of describing that. We call this the preferable option for the poor in the Catholic Church. We are to love everybody, but when we have the option, we prefer the poor (and we always have the option).

It's like saying all people are equal—especially the poor and forgotten. This is a logical conundrum perhaps but it makes sense through the eyes of faith!

If that's confusing, you are not alone. The elder brother in the Prodigal Son (Luke 15:11-32) story had difficulty understanding this, as well. There was such a lavish reception for the return of the younger son that it didn't feel like the love was equal, especially for someone who didn't seem to deserve it, in the eyes of the older son.

There's a modern way of looking at that:  Yes, of course all lives matter, and because all lives matter, that's why we say "black lives matter." It's an example of "the last shall be first." We are lifting up the ones most put down. Like Jesus, we love everyone and we go to the poor first. We anxiously await the healing and wholeness of our society by witnessing to it this way.

Sometimes we make this out to be more difficult than it is. If you are a parent with a son and daughter, I'm sure you love them both equally. But if the son had just fallen and broken his leg, you would drop what you were doing with your daughter to get your son to the hospital.

Our categories have changed somewhat since Biblical times. Our world is not divided between Samaritans, lepers, tax collectors and the "possessed," these days. We just don't understand the world in those terms, anymore. However, those same dividing lines are there, just termed differently. Our world today is one of Muslims, immigrants, black people referred to as "thugs" and LGBTQ+ persons. Just like in Jesus' time, not only are people unfairly excluded by they are blamed on top of it—they are called "sinners" even though they are not necessarily any more sinful than anyone else. But mainstream society wants a way to rationalize their treatment, after all, no one wants to think of themselves as unfair or cruel.

Further, our world is divided is between conservatives and liberals, Christians and atheists, Catholics and evangelicals, the university educated and the street smart, pro-choice and pro-life, you name it. Each side has demonized the other. The less we know of each other, the easier it is to demonize each other.

Who are those that society wants to relegate to a lesser status—a lesser class—a lesser caste? Those seemed to be the groups that Jesus went right toward. After all, the Samaritans, lepers, tax collectors and the possessed were considered the lowest of the low when Jesus walked this earth.

Jesus was constantly witnessing to the God-given dignity of every person and the equality of all. He moved through society as if he didn't recognize at all its labels, statuses, privileges and restrictions on recognizing human dignity. But in a sense he did recognize them, because witnessed against them. He just kept putting the last first, turning tables and shocking everyone. After all, he had developed quite a reputation for hanging around with "sinners and tax collectors" (Matthew 9:10-17,Mark 2:15-22,Luke 5:29-39). He did this to such an extent he became known for associating himself with society's discards.

I can almost hear Jesus saying through his actions:
Jesus: "Yes, even "these people"!"
Bewildered disciples: "Even them??"
Jesus: "Yes, especially them!"

Can you get to know some unpopular, hated group of people to such an extent that you get known as one of them? That you suffer along with them? Eschewing society's labels and getting to know people directly is still as radical and life-affirming today as it was when Jesus walked this earth two millennia ago.

Wednesday, October 9, 2019

Ecumenical and Interreligious Dialogue is a Respect Life Issue

Jesus talks to a Samaritan woman.

Have you ever paused to consider that dialogue between people of different Christian and non-Christian religious traditions is actually a way to respect life itself?

Respect Life Month

Every October, the U.S. Catholic Church celebrates Respect Life month.

People of other faith tradition are certainly welcome to join in the prayer, events and simply the focus of attention that such a commemoration brings.

Setting aside a time to reflect deeply on the dignity of life calls us to consider all the ways that human life is disrespected, disregarded and simply ended in our culture. Certainly, we can point to certain key issues where human life is threatened in direct ways, such as abortion, war, the death penalty, assisted suicide and others.

Diagnosis: Throwaway Culture

But the more we reflect, we come to understand what Pope John Paul II so often said: We live in a "culture of death" where life is simply treated like unwanted junk mail that we throwaway without a second thought.

Even those certain issues have their roots in many seemingly benign activities that over time bear really terrible fruit. What I mean is: When someone chooses to cross the line and do an extreme action such as killing another human being, that action did not simply happen in isolation. There were undoubtedly many years of slow and steady dehumanizing words, inferences and actions that paved the way, unfortunately, for this terrible action. 

A person who ends another person's life crosses a line, but all of society should reflect on ways we all may have some responsibility for what we did to take that person right up to the line, so to speak. Yes, every individual is responsible for her or his own actions--but none of us lives in a vacuum. We are constantly being influenced by those around us, and this is especially true for the youth. Advertisers and political propagandists bombard us constantly with images and ideas, and it does affect what we do. Otherwise, there would be no advertising industry and political campaigns would focus on issues rather than images, but we see that's not the case.

Virtually every Christian tradition affirms that all human life is created by God with God-given dignity--that means all life, all the time, everywhere. That message is bursting forth on nearly every page of the Bible (this link has some choice passages to consider). Yet, in our fallen world we humans put dividers where God has not put any.

Both consciously and unconsciously, we humans start deciding that some people are more important than others and that only certain people deserve special consideration. We convince ourselves there are reasons for this (using inaccurate generalizations) even when our faith informs us that this is not the case.

Treatment:  Dialogue, A Necessary Tonic

One of the best ways to resist the throwaway culture that disregards life is to dialogue with other people. And by "dialogue" I do not mean just a random conversation, however nice that may be. I mean to truly encounter the person in a relationship of equality, respect and peace.  It means taking a genuine interest in another person and being truly open to what another person has to offer.

Real dialogue with another person is a profound act of defiance of our culture of death. To truly dialogue with someone that means you respect this person in her or his full God-given dignity. It is an attempt to understand the person on his or her own terms--to get to know them as they truly are, not based on what others have said about them. It is a way to get past the labels and to encounter the true person. It is a way to ultimately establish peace.


Labels enforce the throwaway culture. We have all heard comments such as these:

"Oh, that person is just a criminal, so I don't have to respect him."

"They are just a bunch of Muslims, so we should be afraid of them."

"That (African-American) kid is just a thug, keep him at a distance."

"They are just a bunch of liberals (or conservatives)--not worth our time hearing what they have to say."

"People are mistreated in detention? They are just illegals, so they must deserve it."

Any time the word "just" is used to describe a group of people, you know the throwaway culture is in full operation, i.e. "they are just Muslims."

On top of that, we often attach other descriptors that are unfair, such as "terrorist Muslims" or "criminal immigrants" or "thug" when we are referring to African-American males, but almost always those broad-based descriptors are neither fair nor accurate.

Encounter: The Way of Jesus

To truly encounter another person in her or his full humanity is to do what Jesus did time and time again throughout his earthly ministry as reported in the Gospels. He continued to treat every single person with full respect, including--and perhaps especially--those that the rest of society wanted to disregard: The hated Samaritans... the unwed mother... the adulterer... the diseased or mentally ill... even the slimy tax collector. People often asked Jesus "Why are you bothering with such-and-such a person?" Jesus always went past their imaginary walls and encountered the person.

In doing this, Jesus gave us a model to follow.

In Their Own Words

Jesus did not always agree with every single thing that every person did--and neither should we. We can and should maintain our principles. But that should never stop us from truly encountering another person as respectfully as Jesus did. We should hear their perspective in their own words before we decide that we disagree with them. Let people tell their own story. Honor that. Let them describe themselves and assign their own labels for themselves. Let us truly value each and every person and what they have to say.

I would go as far as to say we should never judge the actions of a group of people until we have worked hard to get to know its members and hear them describe their circumstances in their own words. That includes immigrants, Muslims, Middle Easterners, criminals, unwed mothers, everyone.

And then in a relationship of true equality, let us share our story with them.

The Use, Misuse and Non-Use of Religious Labels

Religious labels are very often used to cause this division and misunderstandings. What comes to mind when you hear the following words: Muslims, Jews, Catholics, evangelicals, pagans.... with each of those terms, I bet we immediately have images, definitions and even fears that immediately pop into our minds. These imagines impact the decisions we make when our nation chooses to go to war with certain nations. It impacts the decisions voters make in regards to our criminal justice system, in particular the death penalty.

In the case of the Islamic and Jewish faiths, religious labels are often used to justify violence. You see actions of terrorism when Jewish synagogues have been attacked here in the U.S. by hate groups or individuals and when our nation goes to war with a "Muslim nation."

Violence is also justified by refusing to acknowledge the religious faith of people. For example, I do not recall a single news article that tells us about the "Christians at the southern border." NEVER. I have been following the news on immigration for many years and I never have I seen this stated boldly or directly.

Yet, virtually every immigrant, refugee and asylum seeker at the southern border--who is being cruelly detained and their families separated by current border enforcement methods--can all be described as evangelical, Pentecostal or Catholic Christians. Calling them "Christians" would increase sympathy for them which is no doubt why we ever hear them described this way.

But when it comes time to wage war with a Middle Eastern country, suddenly all we hear is that this is a "Muslim nation." That is because the public has been programmed to attach negative connotations to Muslims which decrease empathy for them.


Whenever I have set labels aside and have truly tried to imitate Jesus and encounter people on their own terms, I have immediately discovered that these labels were unfair, incomplete and often downright wrong. By talking to a Muslim man and hearing his story, I am re-affirming my faith in the God of all who created everyone with dignity. I am taking back control of my life and my thoughts from the forces of marketing, propaganda and prejudice. I am making my own decisions rather than being swayed by clever spin campaigns. I am re-affirming that my faith comes first and my politics come second--always. And perhaps most importantly: I am respecting life.

Thursday, October 3, 2019

Earth Matters: Unity on and with the Earth

In celebration of the Ecumenical Season of Creation this year, we have been exploring themes of life, death, decay and rebirth on this blog. The first article focused on production, consumption and waste in general and the second was on natural burial.  We continue these themes here with a theological view of oneness and unity:


All go to the same place; all come from dust, and to dust all return.
Ecclesiastes 3:20 (NIV)

The article Humanity and nature are not separate – we must see them as one to fix the climate crisis has been both fascinating me and haunting me lately.

It has a good thesis:  We humans used to see ourselves as part of nature but rarely do so anymore. A more accurate understanding of this would help us address climate issues better.

However, I'm skeptical that we have lost this sense of oneness due to the Judeo-Christian tradition, as the article suggests. That being said, I believe we (I'll speak primarily of Christians here) have a lot of work to do to make a more ecologically-supportive theology more well-known and activated.

There are many theological beliefs in play around these issues. But certainly we can all agree that we are indeed a part of nature in so many basic ways. After all, we breathe in and exhale the same air that was produced by plant respiration. We drink the same water that fish live in. The very cells in our body are formed by the minerals found in the soil. Our food is comprised of other plants and animals. We are literally part of nature as understood this way. 

So not only do the materials in our body come directly from nature, but we are part of the same cycles of water use, respiration, birth, rebirth, decay and recycling/composting as everything else in nature.

Some in the Judeo-Christian tradition would say, however, that humans are ontologically distinct from the rest of nature. Others would say that our souls give us a life beyond this world, regardless of what the material reality. Other theologians remind us that a core Christian conviction is the resurrection of the body. Meaning: It's not just that we have detached souls that will live on in Heaven forever, but that there will be an ultimate redemption of the social order. "On earth as it is in heaven" is a description of the Kingdom that Jesus calls us to and asks us to pray for.

In Genesis 3:19, Adam is told that "for you are dust and to dust you shall return." All too often, Christians understand that the redemption through Christ will remove us from this cycle of life and death which doomed Adam and his descendants. 

Is there where we got off track? One interpretation of that would imply that we are only a part of the earth's rhythms and natural cycles of death and decay until we experience the redemption through Christ.  However, I would caution us in this. We need to understand this using the Lord's Prayer for help: Yes, Christ redeems but that redemption does not totally pull us away from earth but rather makes it so that the earth is like it is in Heaven. See Colossians 1:9-20 and the redemption of all things.

Again, there are many beliefs here. But regardless of what happens after this life, we are here now and so are our descendants. We are still a part of nature and its processes. When the earth gets hot in the summer, we get hot, too. When the earth cools in the winter, we cool, too. When the earth has prolific growing seasons, our food is more available and cheaper. When it doesn't, famine is not far away.

I'm not convinced that the reason for this break is the influence of the Judeo-Christian tradition, as the above article suggests.

I see degradation of ecosystems all over the world, not just where the Judeo-Christian footprint is most apparent. The atheistic Soviet Union, Buddhist China and Muslim Indonesia all have terrible ecological footprints. Of course, it is always possible to say this is a consequence of European colonization and a Christian worldview. Perhaps, but it should be pointed out that when the Europeans (and their religion) were kicked out, few bothered to reinstall a different ecological consciousness.

But on the other hand, we Christians haven't spent a whole lot of attention focusing on the relationship between humans and the rest of the earth. The environment is just that--it's there as a backdrop. We can certainly tease out a theology of the environment. I'm part of groups doing that very work today. But it hasn't been emphasized or developed the way theology around other issues has been over the centuries.

Theologically speaking, there are three primary ways of viewing the relationship of humans to God and the rest of nature:  

1. The first is pantheism. This means that humans, nature and God are understood as enmeshed together. Everything is part of the same oneness, even if we take on different forms and appear distinct. Most pagan religions and even perhaps some Eastern religions tend to be in this camp.

2. The second is the polar opposite, depravity: Creation is generally seen as a depraved place, meaning completely absent the presence of God and thus absent all goodness.  Calvinism is one of the most well-known and extreme versions of this brand of theology, but it is common in varying degrees throughout Christianity, most especially in Protestantism. God may appear in certain forms (such as the person of Jesus) or send his Bible or angels from time to time, but otherwise creation is distinct from God entirely and absent all grace.

3. The third is panentheism. This sees creation as infused and pulsating with the presence of God.  Creation is distinct from God and thus is technically speaking depraved, but we understand that God is present with us. God is with us. We are always in relationship with God and grace can be found here. The sacramental imagination of Catholics, Orthodox and Anglicans lends itself to this brand of theology.

Is there something about the Judeo-Christian tradition--or just Christianity more specifically--that lends itself to division? Is our fractured view of our relationship with nature just another symptom of a deeper fracture that gives rise to denominational divisions or the devaluing of life in our social issues? I disagree with the linked article which suggests we need a break from the Judeo-Christian influence and a return to the pantheism of Pagan or Eastern traditions in order to sustainably live on this world.

I believe Christianity has a tremendous unifying message. But I do admit that in the Christian tradition we haven't focused on that enough. Perhaps it is because we don't spend enough time contemplating the mystical, cosmic dimensions of the oneness Jesus calls us into.  To paraphrase Pope Francis, we keep putting walls when Christ has put a bridge.

Yes, that linked article oversimplifies the relationship of Christianity and the environment. But it does raise a fair challenge:  Can every Christian--whether you are a devotee of Calvin, a sacramentally-inclined Catholic or a member of some other theological tradition--articulate and describe your faith in such a way that includes an environmentally sustainable future for humanity?

Whatever our theological traditions, one thing is certain:  We need a theology that can express our relationship to grace while also helping us live responsibly on the earth. 

Friday, September 27, 2019

Natural Burial

Blessed are those who mourn, 
for they will be comforted.
Matthew 5:4

I had the privilege of hearing this powerful testimony below about natural burial. This man buried his wife and lovingly took care of her remains. This is at Narrow Ridge Earth Literacy Center in eastern Tennessee. They host a natural burial preserve on site.

[This was an emotional testimony. Minor edits have been made for readability, but we tried not to tamper with it to much.]

If I may just tell a short story of Alice…  My name is Grant, and I’d like to tell a short story of how this came about.  

My wife was a hospice nurse for 15 years.  She knew the process and helped many families walk through this journey.  And she had actually researched out and found this place here.  We had been to South Carolina to research natural burial, as well.  

This is something that she wanted—she had a favorite quilt of her grandmother’s that she wanted to be wrapped in.  

At the start of this whole process, I knew some of it and I didn’t know some of it—cause as a husband and wife we were married for 27 years, she does things and I do things and I don’t know everything that she does. And so, when she passed away, I was like, "Uh oh!”  Here’s some information, I knew basic stuff, but I didn’t know the whole story. That following week after she passed I found the whole story.  

So in general, we knew how she was going to be buried. We knew it was going to be here. I knew the contacts to call to organize. Ok, Alice has passed away, and what was going to happen, then I had six friends of mine that I had employed to come with me. I would call Mitzy or Bill [from Narrow Ridge], and they would have had the backhoe operator to dig the hole, and we would have brought her up that day or the next day and placed her in the ground and buried her. 

Well, God may have had a little alternate plan there, because it was January 6th and if you go back and look at the calendar, that day this major… I’m sure God’s up there saying, "You don’t have a clue what you’re doing, we’re going to have to slow this thing down!"  What was that thing called? A polar vortex that came down… Cold! And it was like 2 degrees and there were 6 inches of snow on the ground, and so instead of bringing Alice directly up here, from home, I had to call the funeral home. I said, "I just need you to come by to pick her up and take her to your place, don’t do anything to her. Then we’ll figure it out as the week goes on."   

So, I didn’t really know anything beyond just wrapping her up and bringing her here and burying her, and it was a Monday morning early, and so somewhere around Tuesday evening I started. I got on Google and I started Googling “green burials” and “home funerals” and different things like that and I found this YouTube series of videos about people that cared for their loved ones in a deeper way rather than the business model that we have today where the funeral home takes them, they prepare them, and they do everything and you don’t do anything except show up to the funeral home and stand beside the casket for a few minutes and then go to the graveyard.  So, I … so this was Tuesday evening, so Wednesday, I went to the funeral home and I said, "I want to dress her, I want to prepare her for burial, and I said, ‘Can I do that?’ and they say, ‘Why, sure.’" And it was just real candid.  

And so on Thursday, I had a few of my friends to go with me to the funeral home.  I brought her grandmother’s blanket, her quilt. And so, I had the funeral people, they brought her into this room, and we left the room, and I said, "Just place her on that… and put a sheet over her, and let me have 20 minutes, 30 minutes, with her by myself, and then I’ll get my friends to come in." 

So you know, I just… one of the things that is so powerful about what took place, there’s no doubt that doing this process was one of the most meaningful things that I’ve ever done in my life, and I can’t imagine doing anything that’ll be any more meaningful but to serve and to take care of my wife during this time. 

And so, I just… I brushed her hair, I wiped her, I cleaned her off, I had some clothes picked out that some of the ladies at church… I took several things and I said okay, "I want this skirt, what goes with it?" so you know, and I got them involved and helped them make a decision.  And so I dressed her, in the YouTube video I had learned how you dress a deceased body, and I dressed her and I got her all in general clothes and I brought all my buddies in and they helped me to tuck her in and make her real nice.

And so, the most meaningful thing that took place in this whole process was she was dressed, she was fresh, she was clean, she was all (whole) in excellent…, you know, I was ready to start closing up the blanket, and so I thought I had made a mistake, because the way I had folded the quilt, when it came to, it just came like this, and I thought, oh no, it’s not going to stay like this…. And the funeral lady said, I got a big needle and some thick thread and so we started down there and we came up just made little stitches so it was just really cozy and really nice and just, it just looked right. 

And so when we got to right here [pointing], when we sewed up right here, all of a sudden I realized this is a moment in my life that will be like no other because whenever… it was time for me to close her face.  And out of everybody in the world that could be the person to do that, who better to do that than her husband, the man who loved her for 27 years?  And it was just a beautiful thing.  It was hard to do.  It was a beautiful thing, it was the most meaningful thing I have ever done. And I kissed her, and I brushed her hair, and I closed her eyes, and we finished.  And then they had a shroud that we had and we finished tying it up and so we stayed there and we talked for about 30 more minutes, and I told my friends, "Okay, I’m at peace. We can do now."  This was Thursday, and then we buried her Friday.

And so, I was totally at peace with serving my wife in this way.

And so we left, went home, and then Friday we came up here, the hole was dug, and we just had a few friends and family, said some proper things, and one of the things that Alice and I did in life our mantra was, we will be participants in this life, not spectators… this is not a spectator sport, it’s full contact. And so I want to be involved in everything that was part of it.  So when it came time to let her down into where the hole was dug, I jumped down in there, I said, "Ok anybody freak out cause I’m jumping in" and all that was around her was the blanket and the shroud, and I knew that, and there was a big pile of dirt right here, and I had my friends, they all brought shovels, and I said, "Don’t wear your good clothes, because we’re gonna work."  And I want to serve her in one last way here.  So I jumped down in that hole and then they brought her over and set her down real gentle.  And I had brought a 5-gallon bucket with me, because I was thinking you know when you start digging in the dirt, I don’t want this dirt to go down and hit her body hard.  And so they filled up this 5-gallon bucket and I would pour it out and I would smooth it out and you know, it probably took around 12, 15 buckets, and then I was like, "Ok, we’re there, can do this," so they helped me out and we filled in the rest of the hole. 

I came up for the first couple of months twice a week. I could not stay away,I had to come up.  I came up and there wasn’t grass growing then, but I would pick around in the dirt, helped to smooth it out, cause it and I got it settled in good.. and when it came time for mowing I asked, "Who mows this?" And they said, "Whoever’s available."  And so I said for the year 2014 I want to volunteer to do that.

And so I’ve mowed it… I let it go, I let it get too high… well, it rained!

Just being part of here, I planted the wildflowers, I mow around Jack in front of her, he’s the recipient of some of these wildflowers, I’m like "Here Jack, here’s a few for you."

That’s the story of what took place.

The takeaway from this that I want to say is that having the opportunity to do this here opened up new avenues for me to express my love to her.  And the emotional and spiritual benefit of taking care of her in that way is the most meaningful… I cannot imagine doing anything this meaningful ever again.

[This was the end of Grant's testimony, but some questions were asked.]

Do you have to work through a funeral director to at least get transportation?

Mine was that way because I had several days involved, when she passed away the weather was pretty ferocious. You can just move from death to burial.  From your house or a hospital pickup, go home.

The funeral home takes care of so many things, death certificate and all that, and you just have to do that yourself?

I need her picked up and kept and then delivered to the burial site, but we’ll figure out the days as the weather changes.  Early Monday morning she passed away and Friday we buried her.  It cost me $1850 to pick her up and bring her here, and they did the death certificate, and had that had not taken place with the weather . . .

Quite frankly, the weather was a good thing, because it slowed me down to think and to do that part that I needed to do.

It is not required that a funeral home be involved.  Once the coroner comes in and pronounces someone dead, and gets that little bit of paperwork started… you get the death certificate, you have to have that.  But you do not have to use a funeral home for anything.

It’s an ongoing educational endeavor of Narrow Ridge, because hospitals are a little reluctant to hand over a body, even if you have the death certificate.  It’s their practice and custom to hand it over to a funeral director, but that’s not required by law to do that.

There are people who will say it’s the law to do this, but these are assumed laws…and some of those people are saying it in good faith.

Narrow Ridge did offer a home burial workshop and have connections with people who know how to do that and would be glad to share information.

[End of Q & A]


What are your thoughts on this testimony?

How important is it how we treat others in death as well as in life?

This post is a continuation of the Ecumenical Season of Creation. We previously explored themes of decay and rebrith, and a natural burial is another way to interface with these themes.

A natural burial may seem strange to our modern society, but it was once a regular part of life. After reading this testimony, it makes me pause to think:  Has our modern society divorced us too much from natural rhythms? Have we lost something important in the grief process by outsourcing the burial process to strangers? Have we become too fractured and disconnected? After all, Jesus tells us to turn toward our grief and mourning, and he never suggests we do anything to diminish it.

This piece focuses on the emotional and spiritual aspects of natural burial, but there are others:  There are environmental benefits as well as financial benefits. It is also a witness of simplicity. There are differences between a natural burial and a green burial.  See this link for explanation.

Ecumenism of Hate?

It's not every day that the Roman Catholic pope suggests magazine articles for the faithful to read.

But that's just what Pope Francis did during a recent meeting with Jesuits in Mozambique and Madagascar.

In this blog post, I'm looking at the section subtitled "Fundamentalist Ecumenism" in one of those articles. It appears in Evangelical Fundamentalism and Catholic Integralism: A Surprising Ecumenism.

The authors are Antonio Spadaro, a Jesuit Catholic priest, and Marcelo Figueroa, a Presbyterian pastor from Argentina who is a close associate of the pope.

Their core argument is fascinating and thought-provoking:  In the USA, there are religious groups who have no interest in an ecumenical relationship with each other but who still join together to advocate for common causes. The groups mentioned in this article are those on the conservative right--that includes some Catholics integralists as well as some Evangelicals, Pentecostals and Protestants on the religious right.

Overall, both groups are cold at best--and hostile at worst--to ecumenism. Yet, here they are working together.

The expression given to this kind of relationship:  Ecumenism of hatred.

At first, I thought this was an extreme description. After all, "hatred" is a pretty extreme word! Further, I have known many Catholics and evangelicals who have grown to respect each other through this work, even if they didn't begin that way. Is that a fair way to describe them?

It is an ecumenism of hate because, well, technically speaking, these groups hate each other.

That is indeed a strong word. What I mean is:  They "hate" each other in the sense that neither thinks the other has anything of value, at least nothing that the other side doesn't already have. Neither is really interested in getting to know the other.  Both sides hold that they--and only they--have the truth in a singular way. They have no interest in getting to know the other on one's own terms.  The only valuable conversation between them would be for the purposes of proselytizing in order to destroy what is unique about the other and mold them into our version of ourselves. These groups are for all practical purposes competitors. Despite this, they are willing to work together to pursue this common vision, even though their common vision ultimately excludes each other! If either side were to dominate they would gladly snuff out the other. Despite this, the Catholics have adopted an evangelical world view and visa versa. It's a very strange set-up if you look at it this way.

By contrast, a true relationship of traditional ecumenism is about "inclusion, peace, encounter and bridges" to use language from the article. In a truly ecumenical relationship, both sides are open to the other. Each would be receptive to what the other may bring to the table. You make room for each other. There is respect for each other. There is a hope and a sense that another group brings something of value, perhaps something that both may need. Perhaps another groups just shows the vastness of God in new, unimagined ways.

However, this ecumenical approach is seen as problematic if you already believe you have it all so nearly contained in a particular box so that no further dialogue is necessary. The only communication left in this scenario is to proselytize--in other words, to get the other to leave their box and enter your box.  The only goal here is to obliterate the other. Again, that may also seem like a strong word, but if the only goal is mold the other into what you want for them, then it truly is a fair description. Ecumenism, on the other hand, is a way to grow in awe and wonder and to respect each other as we already are.  We can and will still certainly disagree on some things while still being open to one another.

That kind of thinking is not possible when groups believe that the totality of truth is contained in their locked sphere to such an extent that they determine there is nothing of value in the other.

Is Ecumenism Incompatible with Religious Conviction?

Some people worry that ecumenism and having religious convictions are incompatible. They worry that ecumenism just leads to a watering down or a denial of the truth of a particular religious tradition. The worry that ecumenism presents a zero sum formula: The more we affirm the value in another denomination the more we are reducing the value of our own.

Not so.

I see ecumenism not in zero sum terms but more like a rising tide that lift all boats. It is a way to grow in awe and wonder. Personally speaking, my ecumenical relationship have only deepened my own relationship with my own faith tradition. Many other ecumenists have said very similar things.

One can still hold convictions while still respecting the gifts that others bring and can still be open to new insights and new ways that God is working in others. But mostly an ecumenical relationship just means being open to and interested in others and entering into a dialogue as equals from the standpoint of true respect.

More Catholic than the Pope?

It used to be that no one questioned the Catholicity of the Catholic pope, but in these days of internet conspiracies little is surprising in that regard, anymore. Nevertheless, all reasonable people should agree that the pope is one of the most Catholic people there is, if not the most.

In light of that, it is worth mentioning that all recent Catholic popes have been strong ecumenists. Their openness to truly encounter another person on their own terms did not threaten their Catholic standing. If even the most Catholic of all the Catholics can be ecumenical without becoming less Catholic, then we should all be able to move forward into ecumenical relationships without fear!

Left vs Right?

"Ecumenism of hate" is not necessarily a commentary on the specific causes that these groups are advocating for, such as abortion, religious freedom, etc. However, the article does exercise cautions in approaches that would blend the church and state in theocratic ways--that is partly due to the fact that religious groups so often get manipulated by political forces even when they think they are the ones doing the influencing. However, this commentary is less about the validity of right vs left as it is about the approach. The concern is when people join forces with others absent a true spirit of ecumenical cooperation.

Even though certain conservative culture warriors are the examples given in the article, it is worth asking if other groups also fall into these same tendencies. Or is this a tendency seen more on the right? In general, ecumenism is far less popular with conservatives of all denominations. However, that doesn't exclude moderates and those on the left from also having "put a wall where a bridge should be", to paraphrase the pope. It may be a constant challenge for each of us to critically reflect on all the ways we dismiss the other and avoid true encounter with one another and ultimate with God.

Ecumenism = Necessary

The #1 takeaway I have from this article is that ecumenism is necessary. 

If we don't engage each other in true respect, openness, dialogue and peace, then logically speaking, we otherwise dismiss their value and are engaged with them in a witness of mutual elimination, exclusion and overt competition. We run the risk of falling into a narrow fundamentalism that doesn't permit the light of wisdom to enter and does not honor the space for the Holy Spirit to work. In this way, ecumenism is simply not optional. It is a challenge and part of the "permanent mission of the Church," as other Catholic popes have articulated. We can never stop being open to each other and engaging each other in true dialogue and respect.  If we don't, we are not neutral but rather hostile to one another by the very fact that we deny the presence of any value in the other. This is the challenge before us!

Tuesday, September 24, 2019

Ecumenical Season of Creation: Patterns of Use, Re-Use, Decay and Re-Birth.

We are right in the middle of the Season of Creation: September 1st through October 4th.

While it is critically important year round, this is specifically a time when churches all over the Christian spectrum have decided to come together in a common witness to care for the home we all share together—the planet earth.

September 1st is the start of the new year in the Orthodox calendar, and October 4th is the Feast day for St. Francis of Assisi, patron saint of animals and all things related to the environment. Francis is recognized in the Catholic Church but is one of those universal figures who is beloved most everywhere. Denominations all across the Christian spectrum are partners in this effort.


This ecumenical season of creation makes me stop and think about how seasons come and go: They cycle and repeat throughout our lives in an unfolding spiral as time presses forward. It makes me realize that God has given us a model of how we ought to utilize the materials on this earth. We should model our use of the earth's resources according to the cycle of seasons that the earth has shown us.

Pete Seeger shows us a way forward:

“If it can’t be . . . 
reduced, reused, repaired, rebuilt, refurbished, refinished, resold, recycled or composted,
then it should be . . . 
restricted, redesigned or removed from production.”
—Pete Seeger

As you can see from the list, Pete Seeger's recommendations make good sense. The item that gives us the biggest bang for our buck is to "reduce." Simply do not use excess materials in the first place. For example, when it comes to clothing, reduce the amount of clothing you buy. For the clothing you do own, reduce unnecessary washing. Both of these options save on money, chemical pollution, energy usage and your time which could be better spent elsewhere. "Recycling" is a wonderful thing, and I am an avid recycler myself. But recycling is what we do when all else fails. This is even more true lately when there is such a poor market for recycled materials at the present moment.

I believe that Seeger is trying to get us to think about patterns of consumption, decay and rebirth. Everything needs to be part of a sustainable, ongoing cycle. If we have created items that only have a single use and have not devised a way to either re-use them or return them back to the ecosystems from which they came, then we should not be producing those items. Humans have always been part of a sustainable relationship with the earth, but in recent decades our consumption has far outpaced the earth's ability to absorb and mask our impact. Looming global climate change is the most egregious consequence of this, and the predictions are dire.

Pope Francis articulated a similar thought this way:

But our industrial system, at the end of its cycle of production and consumption, has not developed the capacity to absorb and reuse waste and by-products. We have not yet managed to adopt a circular model of production capable of preserving resources for present and future generations, while limiting as much as possible the use of non-renewable resources, moderating their consumption, maximizing their efficient use, reusing and recycling them. moved from production.”
Pope Francis, Laudato Si, Chapter 1, Paragraph 22

Any farmer can tell you that whatever comes out of the earth will eventually go back to it. A farmer is wise to take care of the soil, air and water so that farming can be sustainable. If you don't build up the soil after harvesting your crops, it won't be long before the soil is depleted and will not yield nutritious, healthy crops, anymore.

Yet, much of our industrial economy is unbalanced—too focused on producing new items. It has given far too little thought to disposal, re-use and recycling of them. I'm sometimes amazed given all the technological advances of our modern society that we have not come up with a better way of handling our trash than simply putting it all in a giant hole in the ground and covering it up. Seriously, that's what a landfill is! At some point, logic dictates that we will run out of land for this, run out of important materials or simply toxify everything. All that waste sitting in those landfills came from somewhere. It shouldn't be "waste" forever but rather allowed to be recycled or returned to the earth. That would match the patterns God has shown for how we are to be a part of nature and care for it.

Monday, September 16, 2019

A Theology of Borders: The Dignity of Work

Freedom consists not in doing what we like, but in having the right to do what we ought.

-- Pope John Paul II, Homily at Camden Yards, Baltimore, October 8, 1995

Most Christian denominations affirm the right to life, the right of people to work and migrate and the right of nations to establish and maintain borders. These must all be held in balance*.

But how does Christian theology derive the right of a nation to have a border? What does that have to to with the Bible or the life of Jesus?

Let's break it down: Theologically, a border is an extension of the right to private property--which is an extension of the dignity of work--which is related to the dignity of life itself.

Okay, that sounds like so much gobbeldy-gook! Let's use this example to break it down further:

Imagine yourself a carpenter. 

All human life has dignity, being created in the image and likeness of God. We are all in agreement here, right?

But human life is not static--we are built do move and to do. Another word for "life in motion" is our vocation--our life's work. It's not enough to simply be alive in the narrowest sense, we also have our life mission to do. After all, to be fully alive is to "do" as well as "be." Everyone with me so far?

All humans have the same vocation--to love and God and neighbor. Jesus made that abundantly clear (Jesus himself is recorded as having instructed this here: Matthew 22:36-38; Mark 12:28-34Luke 10:27; John 13:34-35. Other examples: Romans 13:8-10Galatians 5:14). But each of us lives out that mission differently. Some have the vocation to be a carpenter.  

So where do borders and private property come in?  It is simple, actually: In order to properly follow God through your vocation as a carpenter, you need access to tools. If you have to wait several months to borrow a hammer and saw, that will negatively affect your ability to live out your God-given vocation. So having reliable access to tools is essential. [In truth, privately owning tools is not the only way to guarantee access, as collective ownership arrangements can also serve this purpose quite well, but for the purposes of this piece let's stick with talking in terms of private ownership.]

Borders function is more or less the same way. If you are are building furniture, for example, you need space to do that. If you build furniture in public areas, your work may be disrupted when nature has other plans or when children or farm animals stampede through. There are also safety concerns in that. So in order to live out your God-given vocation to be a carpenter, you have a right to establish a "border"--you may erect a building in which to do your work uninterrupted and safely. 

God respects our freedom, but our rights are neither absolute nor totally open-ended. Our right to have tools and create borders is for the purposes of loving God and neighbor. See quote at the top from Pope John Paul II.


The same rights that an individual has can also apply to groups of people. People have the right to congregate together to form nations. But our collective and individual vocation is the same--we congregate in order to love God and neighbor better than we could on our own. And nations have the right to access to resources and space to do this work. This is how Christians understand it even if your secular neighbors see it differently.

This is where the concept of social justice comes in. Just as there are individual rights and responsibilities, so too are there rights and responsibilities for whole societies and systems.

Hierarchy of Rights

Ok, so people have the right to life and to work and nations have a right to establish space for themselves with a border. What happens when these rights come in conflict?  

Some rights serve a higher purpose than others. 

For example, your right to establish a private carpentry shop is valid. But if people are fleeing from high flood waters due to a hurricane, they certainly have the right to break into your shop and disrupt your work to find safety.

If someone's life is in danger, or if their life is so seriously restricted that they cannot live out their vocations, Christian theology would say that their right to life trumps your right to a border (all else equal). They may cross your border--even without your permission--in order to save their life or to fully live out their life mission.

However, sometimes it may seem like rights are in conflict but in a deeper look we may see that they are actually not in conflict at all. The purpose of your carpentry shop is, after all, so that you can love God and neighbor more fully. Your shop being a safe refuge would certainly accomplish that. Perhaps you are building furniture for the poor.  So their intrusion may certainly disrupt your carpentry work, but those folks won't need furniture if they aren't alive. Perhaps instead you can use your carpentry skills and resources to build shelter for them and go back to furniture making after the crisis.

So nations have a right to establish a border, but that right is never an absolute. It has to be weighed against other needs, some of which may be more important. The earth was created for all, after all. Having private property and space can serve a God-given purpose and may even be essential to fully living out our vocation. But hoarding resources while others are starving or severely limited is never of God. Yes, that means those of us with abundant resources may have to give a little--or a lot--and that's okay.

So people have the right to migrate in order to protect their lives and well as to live out their own vocation to work. The rest of us have an obligation to make room for them.  After all, a border is not just to exclude but rather to create a space where you can include others in a better, safer, richer way!

In a way, when people come to the border--or across it--begging for help, they are in a sense making our work easier. I say this not to make light of a genuine crisis and the difficulties that arise on both sides. But it is "easier" in the sense that we don't have to go looking for people to serve or spend time discerning what to do--the people we need to love are literally right there.


For a deep dive into related concepts, some of which inspired this piece, I highly recommend Laborem Exercens by Pope John Paul II.


* -- This piece is mostly built on Catholic theology but many of the same principles are articulated in Protestant and evangelical theology, as well.

Tuesday, September 10, 2019

Church Fire: Christian Unity Comes to the Rescue!

This reflection was shared by a Catholic pastor who lives and ministers in rural Mississippi.

My greatest experience of Christian unity happened about 12 years ago. 

It was late in the evening after a long Wednesday. I was ready for bed but reading.

There was a knock on the door. I was getting settled in and was not in the mood for visitors. 

The person announced that there was a fire! I grabbed my wallet, keys and some clothes and ran out the door, grateful for this intrusion.

Within 14 hours, the church, the rectory (where I lived) and the parish hall were completely consumed in the flames.

It was a hot August day. It never went below 90 degrees all night and was mostly over 100—and that was before adding the extra heat from the fire itself. Seven firefighters went to the hospital due to heat exposure and exhaustion. 

Despite the calamity, I was amazed to see blessings everywhere I turned. The wider Christian community responded virtually immediately:

Representatives from the Mennonite community were at the fire and helped organize relief all through the night. They brought ice water and cold towels for exhausted workers.

The next morning, the local Presbyterian Church told me:  "Our classrooms and hall are yours. We'll have to work out a schedule and lines of communication, but we can do it."

The Episcopal Church said it has an unused office for the Catholic pastor. It even has a private entrance. In time, they put a beautiful sign up.

The Methodist congregation agreed to take over duties of the local food bank that the Catholic Church had been doing.

The Disciples of Christ offered to host local AA meetings and made sure people who needed this group did not miss even one meeting in the transition.

About a dozen Baptist churches took up a collection and sent money.

A Pentecostal pastor shook my hand. When he walked away, I realized he had put $100 in my hand. I remember a conversation I had with him about a week before when he confided in me that he was hurting financially.

Months later, I found myself in need of heart surgery. This was probably due in no small part to the stress brought on by the fire and all its consequences. When I woke up from heart surgery, sitting beside me was an Assembly of God pastor—literally holding my hand and praying for me.

When we think of Christian unity (sometimes called ecumenism) we often think about it in terms of theological dialogue. We imagine representatives from different Christian groups and denominations coming to terms with our various doctrinal differences. Perhaps some of those differences are mere misunderstandings, perhaps some can be resolved through dialogue and study, and perhaps we just have to learn how to sit with the differences that we just can't figure out how to get past at this point in time.

However, the work of Christian unity is also at least partly about discipleship—living out the call of Jesus to "love one another as I have loved you" (John 15:12).

Just do it! Just get out there and love one another! 

Be Christ to one another.

Thursday, September 5, 2019


The huddled masses, desperate, weary, worn, scared but hopeful.

When a foreigner resides among you in your land, do not mistreat them. The foreigner residing among you must be treated as your native-born. Love them as yourself, for you were foreigners in Egypt. I am the Lord your God.

Leviticus 19:33-34 

I've seen this quote from Scripture a lot lately in reference to the immigration debate in the U.S. I'd like to focus on a part that we often gloss over:

"for you were foreigners in Egypt."

Let’s break this down.

So much of the Old Testament is about a people who are always forgetting where they have come from. When times were tough, they would beg to God and to anyone else who'd listen. But when the good times came, their haughtiness returned. They were quick to forget what it was like before. They judged others more harshly, lost sympathies for the suffering and generally forgot the poor. We  resonate with these stories because today we are still at risk of falling into the same habits.

Native Americans have been here for thousands of years. Africans were brought here as slaves. Virtually everyone else is either an immigrant or a descendant of immigrants. And most immigrants did not arrive in the best of shape. Many were fleeing war, persecution of all kinds or poverty. In short:  Most didn't come here because life was all that grand back home. Most were begging for help, an opportunity or just a space to live in peace.

Even if you don't have a living memory of being a foreigner, you still would not be here today if people mistreated your ancestors when they were foreigners in need. It doesn't matter if all of your ancestors came here "legally." Besides, that's always a debatable point. When the first European settlers arrived to the New World, they made no hesitation about pushing out the people who were already here. Driving out established cultures of people certainly meets any thinking person's definition of "illegal." On top of that, dig into the past and learn the finer details of how waves of immigrants from different countries arrived and you'll find that the process was a whole lost messier (and yes, very often illegal) than you might have thought:  See this link for explanation.

So many Americans living today are descendants from the people on the Mayflower. But those folks would probably have died if it weren't for the generosity of the Wampanog. Have we been as generous to them and their descendants as they were to us?

If you are white, somebody probably helped your ancestors when they arrived here. At the very least, they created a safe, peaceful system to live in and thrive. Someone almost certainly helped your ancestors when the chips were down, when one person's--or one nation's--generosity made all the difference between life and death. You would be not here today otherwise. That should still matter to you today. That should be a permanent reminder to walk more humbly, judge less harshly and be merciful to all--because we were all in that position at one time.

The quote from Leviticus doesn't say "your ancestors were foreigners." No, it says "you were foreigners." Whether you were born yet or not doesn't seem to matter. Most Americans today--especially white Americans--simply do not think of themselves as "a people." Their ancestors were just some people who came over on a boat, but we rarely think of them as "us." It is not normal for humans to be so disconnected and to lose the ability to identify with one's own ancestors and say "we" when referring to them.

Lack of Collective Identity in the White Community

Part of the issue is something I've heard in a paneldiscussion on racial reconciliation at the Southern Baptist Convention in Birmingham, Alabama: The white community does not think collectively. In fact, most white people do not even self-identify as members of "the white community." We think individualistically.  However, the African American community has developed a more collective understanding--what happens to one black person happens to all. I think their approach is much more honest and much more human than what white people do, and I appreciate this panel for making these points.

If you think individualistically as most white people are trained to do, then it's hard to notice all the ways that the system has supported, encouraged and enabled you and your efforts. It's easier to take credit for successes and downplay all the ways the community and the system has helped you. It is also easier to disavow any responsibility for helping your neighbor if individual effort were the sole determiner for success--you can simply blame them for their struggles and rest easy with a clean conscience.  However, this is not an honest nor a responsible read of the situation. 

And in light of the Scripture verse at top:  It's easy to forget that what happened to your ancestors still matters to you today.  The past matters. Our families matter. We would not be here today if somebody didn't help out our ancestors.

The prevailing idea in the white community is that we are disconnected individuals. There is no such thing as a "system." Your own hard work and enterprise is all that is needed for success.

Why would people in the white community gravitate toward this idea? Simple:  If you are the group with virtually all the power, wealth and privilege, and all white people are so some extent (yes, even the very poor), it behooves you to deny the system because the system is unfair.

Black people tend to see themselves as members of the black community. They have a more collective identity. What happen to one black person happens to them all. And the successes of one black person also is felt by all. This is normal and natural. It is the white community which is unusual because we try to divorce ourselves from that.

White people forget that we are a people, we have a history, we have inherited both a good and a bad legacy that we have responsibility for. We forget that we belong to each other and have responsibilities to each other. Why?  It is easy when a group has most of the power, privilege and wealth to want to divorce themselves from a collective identity. It's easy to want to duck responsibility and to take credit for things that are at least partially the result of  class and racial privilege.

Monday, August 26, 2019

The Church is Failing the Gun Debate—and Young Men

The church is failing the gun debate.

More to the point: the church is failing its men—especially young men.

There are a many young men who are aimless, uncertain and who feel something is lacking. They are looking for meaning and purpose in life. They may not even know they are searching. Doesn't this describe each of us at some point in our lives?

Our communities, congregations and families are fragmented. Everywhere these young men look, people and institutions have little meaning to offer and even question whether there is meaning at all—at least, nothing worth finding.

One day, a young man holds a gun. Suddenly, he feels powerful—important-—impressive.

He never forgets that feeling.

Of course, limiting access to weapons of mass destruction is common sense. Random individuals walking around with loaded assault rifles and zero accountability to anyone or anything was never the intent of the 2nd amendment. If you need proof, just look at the thousands of weapons the military already has off limits to the general public. This should be obvious to anyone.

But all the well-reasoned arguments in the world won't compete with that feeling of meaning and power that an adrift young man suddenly stumbles upon when he holds a gun. There are great arguments here about the original intent of the 2nd Amendment. But those arguments fall on deaf ears when many feel like their very life is at stake if they were to lose access to certain guns—and they are right, but not in the way they think: They sense they would lose their identity and that feeling of meaning and power they have unfortunately never felt anywhere else. So they fight for gun rights with intensity.

These people, mostly men, have never felt meaning and power anywhere else in their lives—THIS is where we are failing as a society. The church especially is failing because it has a message that far surpasses what guns or gun culture could ever hope to offer.

What the Church offers

Unfortunately, the church often enters the gun debate in the same ways as the secular culture—either arguing for or against gun control. But that's not where the church can be most effective in this debate.

There are lots of ways—and much better, more edifying ways—to find meaning, power and stature in life than through gun ownership. There are other place to take risks, rise up to challenges and be brave. There are other ways to make a difference in the world—and I would argue, far better and more satisfying in so many ways. But we are failing as a society for neglecting to introduce these to young men.

Reaching out to the poor, the needy and lost can take more bravery than anything you could ever use a gun for. It takes more creativity and is more of a challenge, too. I've seen it and felt it. And I will never forget that feeling. The excitement of church missions—to build, to serve, to preach the good news—takes all the guts you could ever hope to muster and leaves you with a deeper sense of fulfillment than possibly anything else—but we aren't inviting young men into this!

Think of how Abraham followed God's call and led his family from the wilderness to the Promised Land. Or how Noah built the ark against all odds and against public scorning. Or how Joseph guided a pregnant Mary to a safe place to give birth, and then shepherded them all to Egypt as refugees to escape Herod's wrath. Think of men in mission today, such as Rev. Gregory Boyle who has befriended many of the nation's most dangerous gangs. Or those bringing medical supplies to war zones—or water to remote, parched areas—or education to impoverished children. Good fathers, husbands and workers. The list goes on and on. There is more excitement, challenge, belonging and meaning there than anything else you could imagine!

The excitement that comes from gun ownership is merely about power, and power is never as meaningful or satisfying as the mission that Jesus calls us into through the Beatitudes (Matthew 5:3-10) or the Parable of the Sheep and Goats (Matthew 25:31-46), for example.

Even more fundamentally, the church teaches that every person has dignity and worth. Every person has the image of God and shows us something of God.

It's one thing to own or use a gun for self-defense or for hunting. However, a line is crossed when that gun becomes enmeshed with a person's identity—when that gun is necessary for a person to feel good about themselves. In this case, gun idolatry has set in.

We Can Do Better

We can do better as a society. We can't simply neglect our men and boys as a society and then be surprised when society starts to crumble—and mass shootings are a very good indicator of that crumbling. Catholic priest Fr. Richard Rohr has a great video series about this. He argues that just about every traditional society had rites of passage and a system of mentorship for the young, especially for young men. We don't have that today and the results are disastrous. 

I walked by a gun store the other day. There were a few guys in there perusing guns, holding them. You could see how that very environment—that access—that privilege—that ritual... changes their posture, it changes their energy. It gives them a sense of importance, power and meaning. You could just see it radiating off of them. Having all that power at their disposal gives a sense of awe and responsibility. In this way, gun stewardship is a kind of a rite of passage for some men. Maybe for some guys that sense of responsibility can be a good thing—good training, mentorship and a culture that supports these goals about guns can help people manage that great responsibility and rise to the occasion (but this goes back to being "well-regulated"—the example of Switzerland shows how a well-regulated gun culture could work). But for so many others this power does not come with an equal share of responsibility, and innocent people are paying the price with their lives and well-being.

The Plight of Young Men

Young men are under a lot of pressure:

1.  They are expected to achieve and to provide for their families. Yet, society has made it increasingly difficult for this to happen.

2.  Hollywood tells them that they must lead and dominate at all times. Yet, real life doesn't work that way.

3.  On top of that, these men are also fed a message that success is solely determined by one's individual efforts. They are told you can't point to any societal factors but only your own hard work and enterprise (despite overwhelming evidence to the contrary, this myth persists).

4.  Even further, there are fewer and fewer places where men gather for camaraderie, support and private conversation. My barber used to tell me what his shop used to be like a generation ago: Men would gather on a weekend morning for far more than a haircut and shave. They played pool, smoked cigars and talked about family, sports and the nation. This was once common and is now rare.

5.  Then on top of all this, society tells them that they are over-privileged! Make no mistake: White, male, hetero, Christian privilege is real. But people who assign those labels rarely give witness to the whole story, and this only makes it more difficult to talk about and address the real problems of privilege.

So what do these men do?  They try to boost themselves to make up for it. They carry guns. Some take steroids or drive big trucks. Then many in society make fun of them for that. It's a no win situation. Many young men respond by isolating themselves with their own friends and tune out the rest of society, since the rest of society clearly doesn't understand them. They are trying to live up to the impossible standards that society and Hollywood have set, without having much of a stabilizing influence of older men in their lives offering a better vision and a chance to be part of something good and decent.

We are failing males in our society, including—maybe especially—the ones we call "over-privileged." Yes, their privilege is real, but underneath it is a more complex story. They don't have good mentors, they don't know where else to find meaning—and more importantly, they don't seem to have a sense of their own value and dignity without needing a gun (or wanting to overpower others) to feel good about themselves. Whether or not they discern a gun can be useful for self-defense isn't the issue... the issue is they shouldn't need a gun to feel complete or whole as a human being. We can complain about them and talk about the dangers of fragile, insecure men—and that danger is real. But I actually feel for guys in this situation. We don't know how to raise men, how to talk about men and how to support men. And we see the results.

Is it any wonder why so many young men, especially white men, fall through the cracks and find meaning and belonging in gun culture and in internet chat rooms where this unspoken rage finds an outlet? All this pressure, and a poor understanding by the rest of society of what it means to be male today, leads to stress. They carry a profound internal rage and don't know how to manage it. Some cope with their rage by finding another group to pick on—immigrants, other races, the disabled, lgbtq+, etc. Add in the experience of being bullied or unpopular and many simply reach the breaking point. There are so many young men who are just one mentor away from succumbing to this.

The feminist movement has created space to talk about what it means to be female and what it means to be a woman. Unfortunately, we have made the tragic mistake of assuming that men do not need the same kind of conversation about what it means to be male and what it means to be a man.

Whether or not people discern a gun can be useful for self-defense isn't the issue... 
the issue is they shouldn't need a gun to feel complete or whole as a human being.