Archive for August, 2010

If you were my age or older in 1968 (I was eight years old) you remember.  If you were young you heard the names, saw the images on TV and sensed something in the faces of your parents.  If you were older you felt it in the world.  Things were going wrong.  First Martin, then Bobby.  Chicago.  Paris. Czechoslovakia.  Black fists raised in Mexico City. The streets of most American cities–war zones.  Vietnam–1200 killed each month, half a million troops there by the end of the year, no end in sight.

The world felt out of control.  Now, as an 8 year old I was focused on one thing: Bob Gibson.  He was not just my hero.  He was a god.  And he was a black man.  This led to a great deal of confusion on my part because not very many nice things were said generally about “those people” (in their cities*) and certainly not much (if anything) nice specifically about MLK.  In fact, in our house he was a communist, pure and simple.  His death was not discussed.  He was not missed.  No one mourned.  My sisters mourned Bobby–I mean, they sobbed.  But I think it was because of his good looks.

Anyway, Bob Gibson was on his way to an all-time record for least number of earned runs allowed per nine innings pitched in history: 1.12.  He was so dominating that in 1969 they lowered the pitching mound to “even the playing field”.  I am not writing about Bob Gibson today. (Though I spent that summer and many thereafter imitating his windup and flinging balls against the barn wall while playing that same imaginary perfect game over day after day.  Gibson (I) always won.  It was always a shutout.  It always came down to a last-batter strikeout.) But given what Bob Gibson did that summer you know it must have been a crazy world indeed for me to notice anything else. And yet, I did.

I don’t know how I knew that dad was suffering but he was.  He had always been anti-communist, ever since I could remember at least.  He read Sword of the Lord and listened to Carl McIntire (look them up).  He read US News and World Report and attended (I did not realize until later) John Birch Society meetings.  He had issues with depression around that time but I have never learned whether it was job-related only (his narrative), because my mom was really sick (partially paralyzed and we did not know why), or because the world was going to hell and he felt out of control.  It was probably some combination of all three.

All I know is that dad really connected to George Wallace that year.  I don’t remember the exact date but sometime when the weather started getting cold dad started sporting a “Wallace for President” button, put a bumper sticker to that effect on our car, and went to see the man himself at a campaign swing in Hershey, PA (chocolate town).  Dad was angry and Wallace had some answers. (more…)

Robert’s Farm (IV)

Posted: 27 August 2010 in Robert's Farm
I have not been forthcoming about the farm.  It is actually not just “Robert’s” farm.  It is Debbie’s too.  My omission was wrong but I wanted a simple title and Robert was the one who invited me out in the first place.  So, it is not surprising that I think of it as “Robert’s”.  But, in fact, it is Robert’s and Debbie’s.  I did not see Debbie today, or last week either.  She is “back to school”, meaning that she has been back at her job as “lunch lady” and classroom monitor at a local (small, rural) elementary school not far from the farm.  Ken Meter, food system analyst and executive director of the Crossroads Resource Center (“a non-profit organization, works with communities and their allies to foster democracy and local self-determination” their website says) wrote this week that “89 percent of all farm family income comes from off-farm sources.”  Not sure the source of his statistics but it makes me wonder about Robert and Debbie.  I have to develop a deeper relationship with Robert before I can ask him about his particular case but I wonder about the inability of farmers to earn a living from their farms.  We all need to eat.  We all need food produced by farmers (directly or indirectly).  Is anyone else bothered by the fact that the vast majority of farmers can’t earn a living farming?  

I have been trying to decide if and how to “celebrate” the one year anniversary of my decision not to fly (data: between 1984 and 2009 there was only one 12-month period during which I did not fly–having covered something like 500,000+ miles on my way to 45 nations over that 25 year period).  In one sense it is no big deal.  After all, most of the world’s 6+ billion people will never board a plane.  Flying is merely a confirmation of extreme privilege so making note of not doing it is kind of like “doubling down” on that privilege.  Indeed isn’t it possible that my original decision was little more than a self-congratulatory “environmental correctness?”  Just another white guy who has helped to systematically trash the planet crowing about how “good” he is for having made a valiant decision to keep trashing while pretending he is not…

Let me pause right here and own those criticisms.  Let me acknowledge their validity.  Let me confess my hypocrisy.

And then let me tell you what I have learned during this year.

1.  Not flying is good for my health.  Flying is one of the most stressful things I ever did by choice. We are not meant to be herded like cattle while our every action is scrutinized as if we are about to commit a heinous act of self- and other-destruction.  I feel better not doing it–a lot better.

2.  Not flying has disabused me of the idea that my work is critical to saving the world.  When you jet across oceans and mountains and land in a place with no running water, rampant infectious disease, and deep poverty you get an incredibly inflated sense of your own necessity.  You don’t come to learn, to listen, to be with people… No, you come to dispense–wisdom, technique, solutions…  You are “important” in your own eyes.  Not flying helps you keep your feet on the ground (pun intended) in this regard and that too is healthy in a different kind of way.  It is no fun playing at “savior”.

3.  Not flying has forced me to deal with the joy, messiness, fear, dreams, success, failure–to deal with life–in my home town. It sounds strange to say, but not flying has forced me to live closer to home and that is a good thing.  Those who know me know that Jacques Ellul has been a precious resource for me over these past years.  You may not realize that Ellul (most agree) was the one who coined the motto: “Think Globally, Act Locally”.  Ellul understood better than most people the weight of the global challenges humanity faces but he also believed deeply that there are no global solutions; only local ones.  I am learning to live, work, listen and act in my nearby.  That is hard work.

4.  Not flying has allowed me to learn new things and to become an apprentice (of sorts) for the kind of things that my heart tells me matter.  I am learning (with fits and starts) how to grow my own food.  Just last week I dug my first potatoes since I was about 8 years old.  I hadn’t planted them but I helped harvest them–maybe next time I will have planted too.  I am learning to listen to the stories of people whose lives have been filled with hurt and dehumanization without feeling the need to offer pat technical solutions.  I am learning how to fix my bike (I am so ashamed to admit this).  Not flying means I have time to think about the things I really need to learn.

5.  Not flying has made me more available to my family–perhaps a mixed blessing for them.  I used to wear as a kind of badge of honor the fact that I traveled 60% or even 70% of the time (something I did for years–mostly by plane).  I know, that is really heinous, especially because I had two little kids at home and a spouse who had my assistance less than half-time in the monumental task of raising them.  Why did I do that?  See point 2 above… Look, I am not going to live with regret about what might have been.  My kids are great kids (adults now) and my wife is still with me and tells me that she both loves and likes me (I ask her nearly every night to her exasperation).

6.  Finally, I have learned that traveling at the speed of bike and feet (with an occasional train trip and an even rarer car ride) is to travel at a human pace.  In the end I think that is the biggest lesson from this year: I feel like a human being again.  And that is good, because whatever else I have become over the years, I am still a human and I need to live like one with the limits of time and space that affirms that humanity. Not flying has liberated me to live with limits.

So… where does this leave me now?  I am renewing my “one-year sabbatical” from flying for another year.  I would say that I am extending it forever but I have learned the really hard way (trust me on this) that you should never say never.

Criticize me if you want (for the reasons noted above), but wish me luck.

For Part I of this series go here, for Part II go here and for Part III go here

Power and the Powers

In the previous section we reviewed some advocacy principles based on Yoder’s The Christian Witness to the State.  Here we will take the first of several excursions into the concepts of “power” and “powers” and what they mean for our advocacy efforts. I introduced the concept of “powers” in the previous section and we have seen the idea of “power” in the basic definitions of advocacy in Parts I and II of this work.  While there is only a one-letter difference between the words power and powers, that letter makes a great deal of difference for our analysis.  The basic definitions of advocacy I have laid out suggest that our advocacy efforts are directed at those in power, because we assume that they can and should do something about the injustice of concern.  The concept of the “powers” focuses not merely on those who hold power but on the systems, ideologies and structures (institutions, for example) in which they work and in which we all live–and their influence on creating or maintaining justice.

Talking about power acknowledges that certain individuals and institutions are given (or take upon themselves) the right to make decisions that affect the lives of other people.  However, stating that institutions (states, corporations, churches, universities, voluntary organizations, etc.) are powers acknowledges that they have an identity and force that are more than the sum of the individuals that work within them, and points to a “spiritual” reality about their ability to constrain or promote human flourishing.  While the idea of powers is not a uniquely Christian concept (in the film The Corporation for example, corporations are presented as supra-human entities that transcend the full control of the individuals who work within them and who have an identity of their own), in this section we will examine it in light of the biblical concepts of “principalities and powers” (among other terms).


The “national debate” (quote marks not optional) on the Islamic Center in Manhattan is about chosen historical traumas, bigotry (in some cases) and fear manipulation.  As has been the practice of the ruling classes ever since that September day in 2001, Americans are being told to fear that unknown thing that will, if it succeeds, take away their most precious possession: freedom.  They are being trained to dread the evil that might strip them of the way of life to which, they believe, they have an inalienable right.  The “liturgy of the media” (see James K.A Smith) is (and has been) forming Americans to fear, indeed to hate, the Muslim as the subversive agent who will steal their birthright and change forever their lives.

The whole affair has, at turns, amused, angered, shocked and saddened me.  In the end, however, it has made me think about what subverting the American way of life would really look like and who should be (notice I did not say “are) the people most likely to subvert it.

I have concluded that if things were the way they should be, the various pundits and commentators would be raining down their invective, not on Muslims, but on the followers of Jesus.

I suspect most people will not agree with me on this.  After all, didn’t Jesus say, during his Sermon on the Mount: “Let your light shine before men in such a way that they may see your good works, and glorify your Father who is in heaven?”  Doesn’t that imply that if his followers did what they were supposed to Fox, NBC, NPR, etc. would run regular segments, not condemning them, but rather thanking God for the wholesomeness of their acts?  It might imply that but there is another, harder, reality of which Jesus also spoke.  He said this to his followers according to John:

If the world hates you, you know that it has hated Me before it hated you. If you were of the world, the world would love its own; but because you are not of the world, but I chose you out of the world, because of this the world hates you. Remember the word that I said to you, “A slave is not greater than his master” If they persecuted Me, they will also persecute you…

Pretty strong words–hate is a strong word… But then crucifixion is a strong punishment, reserved for those who represent a deep threat to the status quo–to the “order of things”.  Why did the leaders of that time hate Jesus and, in turn, why might they hate his followers?  The truth is that “good works” will win you some plaudits (even Jesus experienced that).  So what will earn you that kind of death dealing hate that made the cross such an inevitability for Jesus (and his followers)?

In other words, how do Palm Sunday and Good Friday fit so conveniently into the same week?

Glen Stassen has, I think, the key to this in a chapter entitled “The Kind of Justice Jesus Cares About” in Transforming the Powers. Stassen summarizes the work of a number of well known theologians and biblical historians when he points out that the well-known story of Jesus cleansing the temple was, not only most likely the proximate cause of his arrest, trial and crucifixion, but also neither an act of violent revolution nor an attempt to reform temple worship to make it better. No, what Jesus did was a symbolic act of protest against injustice and how that injustice was being covered up. Standing against injustice is what got Jesus killed–it is why the powerful hated him.

Stassen suggests that Jesus’ “fight” for justice (throughout his public ministry) had four elements: 1) it was non-violent; 2) it confronted the wealthy; 3) it confronted those who dominate (oppress) others and; 4) it included–brought in–the outcast and powerless.

Which leads me to conclude that if things were the way they should be… the followers of Jesus would be the one’s under attack by a system that is violent, hungry for power and Mammon, and dehumanizing of the poor and “ordinary people”, because his followers would be working for justice in the way he did.  This, to me, is the great lesson of the so-called “Ground-Zero Mosque” debacle.

Riding out to the farm yesterday I passed a tomato field just starting to undergo an “industrial harvest”.  That is probably not the term for it but the scale of the operation, and the size and number of heavy pieces of equipment involved seem to make it an apt description of what I saw.  It is tomato harvest time in the valley (a bit late due to chilly weather of late and a showery spring).  It is the time of year when large open bed “hopper” trucks (again, probably not the correct term), each towing another hopper, roll along the county roads day and night loaded with what will become our tomato sauce and paste.

Every intersection and freeway on-ramp is littered with the fruit that could not cling to the top of the pile as the trucks took the corner.  One could manage a fair harvest of usable tomatoes just by biking up and down the county.  The machines that do the harvesting are truly amazing, swallowing plant and fruit in a conveyor system that leaves nothing behind but dirt.  Tractors bring the hoppers to the edge of the field where they are hooked to the trucks and off they go.

Up at Robert’s we harvested… tomatoes.  We worked our way down the rows: Robert, his daughter, a hired hand and yours truly.  We talked. We listened. We watched hawks circle.

“Get two boxes of mixed (yellow and orange) for the fair.”  Robert says to his daughter.  “Make sure they are the big ones.”  He explains that they donate two boxes during the county fair and that they are sliced to put on hamburgers and such.  The rest of the harvest today goes to farmer’s market up in the foothills on Saturday.  The tomatoes are beautiful and I always snag a few that birds have pecked or that are “cosmetically challenged” (as Robert says) to take home.  Sweet and shiny, I don’t mind sharing them with the birds and ugly means very little as a slice lands on my tongue.

Just about when we are finished picking a man pulls up in a farm-sized twin-cab.  He and Robert talk and it seems like a nice neighborly conversation (and it is).  Turns out the tomatoes in the field across the road (a huge field that seems almost a mile square) are not quite ready to be harvested (industrially) and have a fungus they need to spray for right away.  Since Robert’s is a certified organic farm the spraying operator wants to make sure Robert is aware of what’s going on and knows that the wind is not going to send the fungicide onto his farm.  Robert appreciates that and in a few minutes a bright yellow plane is diving towards the adjacent field.  It feels like an impromptu airshow–I can almost imagine someone strapped to the wings as it does loop-the-loops–but this is serious business.

The tomatoes we just picked and the ones across and down the road are about as different as two things can get and still be called the same thing: tomato.  On my way back home the field I had passed earlier is empty.  The harvester, tractors and “hopper” trucks all gone–moving on to the next field as the process continues without let-up for over a month.  (more…)

Beautiful Desolation

Posted: 17 August 2010 in Everything Else...

I don’t know exactly how to tell you what I saw. To say it was a new perspective captures one part of what happened.  I had flown over it, climbing out of the valley, craning my neck like a child to glimpse its grandeur, its solitude.  A perspective.  A good one.  But then to get up close and realize the riot of life in a square mile; to smell the air overflowing with scents so diverse that my nostrils twitched like a horse’s; to tread timeless rock; to “discover” lake and pool… Yeah, a new perspective is part of it

Lake Aloha, Desolation Wilderness

Beyond that I saw into the things that condition one’s view of the world.  That too is a new perspective I suppose.  This rock.  These trees.  That marsh.  Those flowers.  They put you in your place.  They are sufficient in themselves and they stand, not waiting for you, for me, to bring them meaning.  But they do wait to see what we–what you, what I, might do.  How we might choose to live.  What we might put into the air, drop on the ground.  What we call traces they might call invasion.

In the valley we have weeds.  They are not from “here”.  They are foreign and we say unapologetically that they are invasive.  And we burn and we dig and we cut them away.  Up there in the beautiful desolation I was reminded that maybe I am invasive too.  This is not a plea to “leave the wilderness alone.”  It is not hand wringing about “humankind as cancer.”  It is just about a new perspective.  That’s all.