Friday, August 18, 2017
Once again, the past weeks' newsfeeds have been filled with horrific images: images of angry people, defiant people, injured people, sobbing people. We've heard cries of outrage from clergy, politicians, activists, military leaders. Many of us have waited in vain for moral and compassionate leadership from the White House. We've heard, and perhaps engaged in, a lot of shouting (or posting in CAPITAL LETTERS). Most of us are hurt by what we've seen in our country, and around the world -- the bigotry, the belligerence, the bellicosity, the blame.
What we've also seen in the aftermath of Charlottesville are glimmers of some folks' "true colors." Many who've "toed a line" have been shaken out of their complacency (complicity?) and have stood up to hate. Many who've simply been quiet have found a voice. And, unfortunately, some who've claimed some sort of moral (?) high ground have been shown to be what they were all along: closeted Nazis, closeted anti-semites, closeted racists. Certainly it is time for them to be chastised, shunned, and, in some cases, removed from public office. These people are not the leaders of this country, despite titles.
In the course of all of the momentous events of this past week, I found myself having to do a very pedestrian chore: iron shirts. (Yes, it's true, I iron my own shirts!) I don't mind the task; it gives me an excuse to watch TV. Often the "show of choice" is some sporting event; equally often the choice is a favorite DVD. The latter was the case this week, and I turned on the mini-series "Gettysburg".* At the time, it had little, consciously, to do with the events of the week, but, in retrospect--especially in light of the statues of Confederate leaders being pulled down or otherwise removed--it seemed oddly appropriate.
For those who've not seen the film, it is, as the title would suggest, about the Civil War battle waged at Gettysburg, PA. It is NOT about all of the engagements, but focuses on several, linked to significant figures in the battle. One of those figures, of course, is Confederate General Robert E. Lee, who, in the last few days has been the subject of MUCH debate in our current conversation about the ongoing legacy of the Civil War. I do not want to enter into that debate, but, rather to point to a scene in the film that, of course, may or may not have actually happened -- film-maker's license is always possible!**
In the scene, General Lee is approached by one of his aides-de-camp on the morning of July 2, 1863. The major asks Lee if he would like breakfast, describing all the food that is available, "courtesy of the commonwealth of Pennsylvania". Lee declines, and asks how the local folks are dealing with the Confederate army's (temporary) occupation of their lands. The major tells Lee that there are some complaints about the army's taking of livestock and other provisions. Lee upbraids the army (through the major), charging that the army MUST behave itself. The major bristles a bit to reply that it would be easier "If the Yankees had behaved better in [a previous battle]". Lee reiterates his point, implying that, even in a battle, forces ought not adopt the bad behavior of the opposing force. He put the major, personally, in charge of making sure such things not happen.
Again, I have no idea whether such an exchange ever occurred. But what struck me was the suggestion--whether Lee's or the film-maker's--that honor ought not be surrendered, regardless of circumstances. Circumstances today compel us; images and rhetoric have the capacity to incite us to action . . . and that's a good thing. We absolutely need to act! We absolutely need to address and correct the ills that have plagued this country for so long. We absolutely need to call out those who would divide us, to show them up for what they truly are. But we cannot let our "killer angel" instincts overcome the "better angels" of our nature. There's too much at stake.
* Based on the Pulitzer Prize-winning historical novel Killer Angels (1974) by Michael Shaara.
** I could not immediately find the movie's scene in the novel.
Friday, August 4, 2017
It is one of the most iconic moments in (semi-)recent sci-fi/adventure cinema! The antagonist finally sees the "payoff" at the end of his villainy. Donovan, Indiana Jones' long-time nemesis, has seemingly beat Jones to retrieve the Holy Grail -- reputedly the cup that Jesus used at the Last Supper. In the climactic scene of "Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade", there are many cups from which to choose, and the lone knight left guarding the "treasure trove" warns Donovan to "Choose wisely". Donovan looks over the selection and picks a golden chalice, bedecked with jewels, reasoning that such a cup would have been worthy of Christ. Believing a legend that anyone who drinks from the Grail will live forever, Donovan dips the chalice in the water and drinks from it, and . . . . [Spoiler alert, it doesn't turn out well for Donovan!] The knight responds to Donovan's action, somewhat drolly: "He chose . . . poorly."
Donovan was doubly tempted as he made his choice. He was tempted by the idea of immortality (ignoring millennia of evidence to the contrary). He was also tempted by an idea that the most alluring choice would be the correct choice (alluring both because of the possibility of immortality, as well as its flashy opulence and that opulence's "connection" with power). His choice, as the knight observed, wasn't very good; his reasoning poor. Those of us who've seen the film (whether once, or innumerable times) know that Jones uses a different kind of logic and makes the correct choice. And, unlike Donovan, he doesn't test the promise of immortality ostensibly found in the chalice. He does, however, test its healing powers . . . [No spoiler alert here -- go see the movie!]
I think of this film every time the topic of "choice" rears its head. I recall a sermon in which I used this scene relating to the Hebrew Bible account of Joshua's call to the Israelites to make a decision between serving the gods of the Egypt they had just fled, or the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob. Joshua declared to those folks that, regardless of what they might choose, "As for me and my household, we will serve the Lord" (Joshua 24.14-15). I also recalled the scene again this week when I heard a great podcast with Humble the Poet on the "paradox of choice". The show was based on a book by Barry Schwartz with the same title. Recognizing that there are some reservations about Schwartz's premise, I could easily relate to his point that "too many choices can lead to paralysis". That is, we WANT to have many choices (just look at our supermarket aisles!), but we can spend a lot of time and mental energy making a choice . . . that may, ultimately, not be the best for us. (Donovan, you wanna chime in here?)
I'm also in the position of thinking about "choice" as I have a daughter heading off to college this fall. She has to field the question: "What will be your major?" (a question of choice). She does have an answer, but it's often qualified a bit (i.e., "Well, I might also be interested in . . .") . And, of course, I ask that question of students coming to DU. Aside from my own "asking-of-the-question" (and I try to do it in as non-directive a way as possible), I'm always pleased when the answer comes back, "I haven't chosen one yet." That answer could imply a "paralysis of choice". I would hope, however, that it would better indicate a struggle between choosing the "flashy" (or high-status, or lucrative, or parent-pleasing) or the "fulfilling" (or service-oriented, or personal-passion-related).
And then, of course, every time the topic of "choice" rears its head, and I recall Joshua and Indiana Jones, I'm thrown into my own challenge to evaluate what lies behind my choices. Do I "choose wisely"?
Friday, July 21, 2017
Some of you know that my office has a window facing into a hallway. That allows me to put up posters that can be read by passers-by. For several years, I've had two posters mounted. One is "The Green Rule"; as explained on its website: "Selected from many of the world’s great religious texts and spiritual teachings, the Green Rules were chosen to demonstrate that each religion and spiritual philosophy has a long-standing tradition of ecological stewardship." The other is "The Golden Rule", a poster showing the symbols of most of the world's major religious traditions, along with their version of "The Golden Rule" -- all some variation of "Do unto others as you would have them do unto you" (Luke 6.31 // Matthew 7.12).
The "Golden Rule", at least as stated above, is a restatement by Jesus and his followers of a verse in the Hebrew Bible book of Leviticus (19.18): 'You shall not take vengeance, nor bear any grudge against the sons of your people, but you shall love your neighbor as yourself; I am the Lord". Indeed, Jesus is recorded as pairing this verse with a portion of the Shema, a major Jewish "confession of faith" (Deuteronomy 6.4-9), when asked by one of his interlocutors, "Which is the greatest commandment?": “This is the most important: ‘Hear O Israel, the Lord our God is One Lord, and you shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind and with all your strength.’ The second is this: ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.’ No other commandment is greater than these" (Mark 12.29-31 // Matthew 22.37-39).
But, the apparent universality of this "rule" speaks, certainly, to some underlying -- either learned, or innate -- moral conviction. And, I imagine, many of us were raised (religiously or not) on its underlying assumption: that another person's well-being is to be considered equally as valuable as our own. The fact that most of us find it difficult to live up to the ideal does not lessen its importance or validity; it is a goal, after all. Something towards which to strive!
I was surprised, then, the other day, to be shaken out of my complacency about this "golden rule" . . . or maybe just forced to reconsider its (at least for Christians) roots. I was listening to an interview (and at this point, I can't remember, or find, exactly with whom) that made reference to the verse from Leviticus ("love your neighbor as yourself"). The interviewee pointed out that an alternate rabbinic reading to the oft-assumed "love your neighbor [in the same way] as you [might] love yourself" was to see your neighbor as yourself. Or to love your neighbor as if s/he was yourself.
This may be playing with words, and it may only be ME that finds the thought provocative. But the idea that I consider my neighbor's ideas/concerns/values as part of who I am has caused me no end of puzzlement. That neighbor with whom I disagree -- SHE's part of who I am? How do HER "bizarre" set of values intersect with MINE? The kid down the street with the VERY NOISY car -- HE's part of who I am? How does HIS insensitivity reflect (or resemble) MINE?
To take the other person -- the neighbor -- into the center of who I am. That's a bigger challenge than a "simple" moral injunction. But it certainly suggests a deeper grounding for "loving thy neighbor."
Friday, July 7, 2017
It was at the Battle of Bunker Hill in June of 1775 that the famous order "Don't fire until you see the whites (or color) of their eyes" entered the American phrase-book. It is unclear who first gave the order; most attribute it to either (or both) Col. William Prescott or Israel Putnam. Some accounts append to the order another directive: "And aim low!" It is also unclear as to WHY the order was given. Some suggest it was to save ammunition; others assert it was simply to increase accuracy or effectiveness. Regardless of who uttered the phrase, or WHY, one thing is apparent. Warfare, even in the 18th century, was primarily a face-to-face matter (although the introduction of artillery was beginning to change that). Battling from a distance is a more modern "innovation".
This "'collision" of different philosophies of engagement in war is brought to the fore in the current block-buster movie: "Wonder Woman." As the title character begins her quest to save humanity, she finds herself amongst a collection of "interesting" companions, one who is (ostensibly) a sniper, able to take down an enemy combatant from a long distance.* Wonder Woman asks, incredulously, " You can't see their face?" The implication is that there is no honor in such a killing.
One of the philosophies of warfare, of course, is to cause the most damage to the enemy with the least damage to one's own forces. The use of snipers, or any sort of long-range weaponry, helps meet that goal. And we've clearly seen that in play over the last century's battles/wars, whether it is carpet bombing, napalm or nuclear weapons. In some ways, it seems to me, this has become almost the "norm" in waging war. But, it comes at a price.
That "price" came to light for me the other evening as I was watching the 2015 drama "Eye in the Sky" starring Helen Mirren (and featuring Alan Rickman -- "Severus Snape" in the Harry Potter series -- in his last role before his death). IMDb describes the film: "Col. Katherine Powell, a military officer in command of an operation to capture terrorists in Kenya, sees her mission escalate when a girl enters the kill zone triggering an international dispute over the implications of modern warfare." Part of the "dispute" has to do with at the common ethical dilemma of whether it is better for one innocent person to die if it will prevent many more from dying. But the point related to the "price" to which I referred above has to do with the effects of drone warfare -- especially precision-strike drone warfare.
Hopefully without spoiling the film, the two "pilots" of a drone are put in the position of seeing the direct effect of their following of orders . . . even though they are piloting the drone from thousands of miles away. No longer was it simply killing-from-a-distance (which, of course it was), but the technology allowed them to almost "see the whites of [the victims'] eyes", and they were traumatized by what happened. What that suggests to me is that we may have become incredibly de-sensitized to the realities of taking lives -- whether in battle or on the "mean streets" of the US. And, when we are brought face-to-face with that, we are ill-equipped to deal with the psychological/spiritual effects.
We cannot go backwards in the practice of war; we cannot return to swords and bows-and-arrows. But, perhaps, when we look in the mirror and see the whites/colors of OUR eyes, we can recognize that the price of war -- for whatever reason -- means that the eyes of others, often innocent others, are closed forever. Closing our eyes to that reality puts our souls at risk.
* I was surprised to see an article in the Denver Post recently about a Canadian sniper who hit his target from a distance of over 2 miles!
Friday, June 23, 2017
Many folks associated with the University of Denver (and beyond) were shocked and saddened to learn of the tragic death of DU's Sturm College of Law professor Federico "Fred" Cheever last weekend. Fred suffered a massive heart attack while on a rafting trip with his family. Fred was well-known at DU, especially in the areas of environmental law and the University's efforts at becoming more sustainable. He was a guiding force in the establishment of DU's Sustainability Council.
His death creates a huge hole for so many, near and far. Indeed, before I even arrived at DU ten years ago, a lawyer friend in Berkeley told me I should look Fred up, and made an email introduction for us. I served for a while on the Sustainability Council, and saw him lead it with grace and skill. But I most often saw him in the fitness center on weekends, usually on an elliptical machine, with ruffled hair and baggy sweats. He always greeted me; he was that kind of a man.
Just a couple of days after news of his death flew around campus, I joined with a group of law school faculty and staff to share remembrances. A profound experience. And then, yesterday morning, I attended the regularly-scheduled meeting of the Sustainability Council. We learned of the DU Board of Trustees' recent affirmation of many sustainability initiatives -- many of which bore Fred's "stamp". Then, the meeting turned to reminiscences. Again, a profound experience -- sad, and healing, as many such gatherings are.
As part of his comments, Dr. Chad King, the Director of our Sustainability Center and a good friend of Fred's, read a poem (or two) that had been on Fred's door for some time.
THINGS THAT DO NOT MATTER
The logo on someone else's T-shirt. Toenail polish or not. Irony. Which vodka. The relative positions of knives and spoons on a set table. How long it takes someone to move forward after the light turns green. How anybody takes their coffee. Having or not having heard of a band. Five or ten bucks either way. Whether the waitress is a little slow today, and any number of things, which—if we can't bring ourselves to ignore them—become little quotidian obstacles to the sublime.
THINGS THAT MATTER
Physics. Whether or not you can see. Salt. The sublime. By what means people suffer themselves to be governed. The extinction of primrose or milkvetch or desert tortoise or lynx. Phosphorous. Promises. Insulin. Trying to know what matters and what doesn't matter. How you love.
- Rebecca Lindenberg (from her collection The Logan Notebooks, 2014)
At times like these, given all of my petty worries and concerns (e.g., fighting with Microsoft over an Xbox matter, or fretting over weeds in a garden plot), "Trying to know what matters and what doesn't matter" matters.
Thank you, Fred, for helping us keep our eyes on what matters. Ride on!
Saturday, June 10, 2017
[Note: It has been a crazy week leading up to commencement this year. Because of that, and the fact that I'm often asked for a copy of it, I am reprinting here the text of my invocation for the Undergraduate Commencement Ceremony today at DU. Of course, it was "under embargo" until after the ceremony, which accounts for the "day-late" newsletter. ;-) ]
Please join with me in prayer.
Holy One, known by many names, as we begin our celebration today, bind us together in a spirit of healing and peace, as we pay respect to the original Arapaho and Cheyenne owners - both past and present - of the land on which the University of Denver stands.
Holy Wisdom, you have given the gifts of grace and skill in teaching to professors and colleagues. Thank you for all that they have been to those who receive their diplomas this day.
Compassionate One, you have provided these students with communities of support and care throughout their educational journeys. For families of origin and choice; for the friends of playgrounds to those made in the classroom and dorms, we are grateful.
Divine Servant, administration and“behind-the-scenes” work are gifts from you we often overlook. For the trustees, administrators and staff who guide and fund this university, who keep track of requirements and grades, and who ensure the internet works . . . mostly; for counselors and medical personnel; and all those-groundskeepers and housekeepers-who provide such a wonderful physical atmosphere for learning, thank you.
Lover of Justice, the education these students have received here equips them to make a difference in the world in which they live. Amidst news of tornados and school-shootings; ethnic and religious conflict; struggling nation states; and political systems where shouting and sound-bites sideline civility and substance; imbue these graduates with a sense of hope for the future and a passion to right the wrongs they encounter.
Overcomer of Obstacles, we bid your special presence in the hearts of these graduates. They have excelled in the classroom, been champions in sports; and studied and served around the world. Faced with great challenges, losses and disappointments, they have prevailed—they have succeeded. Let them now, in the midst of happy celebration, hear your clear, encouraging voice saying, “Well done. But wait, there’s more!” May they, looking back at their years at DU, sense your call forward into a lifetime full of adventure and purpose, and know that you, and we, will be cheering them on!
Dancing Lord, be our partner as we celebrate with joy today!
Friday, June 2, 2017
In the fall of 2009, on the first day of classes no less, I experienced a relatively serious bike accident. I slipped on a muddy section of sidewalk, went down heavily on my right side, and suffered several micro-fractures in my pelvis. I was on crutches for six weeks. And, as some readers may recall, I reflected on that experience in this space (those posts can be found in the Archives section of our website; the entries are in the range 9/18/2009-10/9/2009). I learned an incredible amount during those weeks, such as: how level our campus is (NOT!); but, also, how the ADA rules and regulations make SO much sense; or how generous people can be with time and energy; and what its like to go through airport security when you can't walk. I had the opportunity to "live" in a different world for six weeks. Those memories came flooding back the other night as I was reading one of my favorite mystery author's latest books. Nevada Barr situates all of her tales in National Parks. Boar Island* is set in Acadia National Park in Maine and features some characters from earlier books in the series. One of those characters is Heath, a woman who, as the result of a fall at Keystone, was confined to a wheel-chair -- a chair she named "Robo-butt". The passage that got me going was:
Before the fall from Keystone, Heath had been brash and ballsy. After, she had been angry and self-destructive. When she finally realized that, though she couldn't walk, she was still a whole person, she found she'd changed. From the bastion of Robo-butt, the world was different, more layered and complex. Heath learned patience. She learned to watch people, to really listen, to genuinely see them. Something she'd not done much of when she was superwoman climbing tall mountains. Another skill she'd picked up was canniness, an ability to manipulate situations to her advantage, to manipulate people when she had to. Cunning wasn't a strength much lauded in literature or the media, but it was a strength all the same, and Heath respected it. (pg 52)
Certainly, Heath had much more experience in her chair than I did on my crutches. I didn't have to make any major changes in my outlook; I knew that there was a point coming soon (although it never seemed soon enough) that I would be "back to normal". That said, the experience of being dislodged, if only for a while, changed my perspective permanently. And, in that way, the experience was a blessing. It appears, similarly, that Heath's change-in-status brought about a change-in-outlook, an appreciation for other skills and strengths than those she had formerly valued. I was reminded the other night, and in recollecting the "Fall of '09", that many of the things we might consider "negative" are often just "different". And those differences can provide opportunities for growth and/or improvement in other areas of our lives. I believe that all of us have qualities -- some hidden, some quite visible -- that may place us in our own versions of Robo-butt. The challenge that Heath poses is whether we can learn to see that place as a "bastion", a "fortified place"**, a place of strength.
*Minotaur Books, 2016.
** Definition #2 from Dictionary.com