FOX Outed

Disgusted by the way Bill O’Reilly ran his cage-match shout-fests, I’ve scrupulously avoided FOX News for the last fifteen years. As TV has invaded our public spaces, that has come to require some discipline. Management often chooses to impose their political views on restaurant patrons. So at the local Jack in the Box, I turn my back to the FOX monitor and take the lesser of two evils: watching grown men ruin their bodies doing things that were intended to be forms of play.

Today it was the dual monitors that bracketed the bar at the Best Breakfast and Lunch in Port Hueneme. Confronted with the finishing counter, I couldn’t help but glance around for some visual stimulus. Much to my surprise, I found myself reading a FOX panelist explain that the reason America has a serious problem with mass violence is easy access to military-style weaponry.

Interest piqued, I kept on following along, and couldn’t help but burst out loud in laughter.

The response to sanity came a few minutes later, when another panelist retorted that America doesn’t allow easy access to guns, it protects the rights of citizens to protect themselves from tyranny. Now this is fatuous: a despotic government doesn’t need to wage war to subjugate a modern society – it only needs to turn off the water and power and stop collecting the garbage. But what brought on laughter was the unintended inference from a mouthpiece for a party that controls all three branches of the US government.

FOX admits that the Republicans are tyrants!

So I began to laugh, really heartily, and wondered why Trevor Noah can’t produce such hilarity. Maybe I’ve got it all wrong. Maybe FOX isn’t shifting to the loony right to protect its brand from Breitbart, maybe it’s competing with Comedy Central.

But what would be the right byline?

The students in Parkland recognize the irresponsibility of Republican gun policy, as do some Republican Party donors. If the young and the sane recognize the need for sensible gun reform, that seems to leave only the senile as defenders of the gun industry. So should we think of FOX News as “Senility Central?”

That seemed to fit when Rush Limbaugh was brought on for the interview. I couldn’t help by think that Madame Tussaud’s had diversified into animatronics. The wavy pouf, painted face and elegant suit brought to mind a story by Horace Mann describing the antics of a senile man who encounters a beautiful boy while at a beach resort. Mann’s telling forces the reader to skirt the shadows of pedophilic sensibility. Limbaugh tends in a different direction, but perhaps no less offensive to the “forgotten men” that he claims to represent. It’s an implicit sympathy for entitled royalty.

Feeling that I was wandering into a Lewis Carroll novel, I listened in incredulity as Limbaugh intoned his support for full amnesty for all illegal immigrants, given a Democratic stipulation that that they not be allowed to vote for 15-25 years. Wow, Rush! Just throw all those jobless listeners of yours under the bus, why don’t you?

But wait, there’s more! The interviewer asked whether the Republican electorate wasn’t concerned that the recent tax bill was going to cause the budget to explode. Limbaugh countered that “not a single listener” had called in to complain. Again, I know that the young and the sane are concerned with the problem, so that leaves the senile as the patrons of Limbaugh’s blather – perhaps most prominent among them being Rupert Murdoch.

Tyranny arises when the political elite seeks to secure its privileges free from the discipline of responsibility to the public. That would-be tyrants take cause with a propaganda machine such as FOX is alarming, until we see how inept and clumsy the lies have become as occupants of the conservative echo-chamber wanders further and further from reality.

He that Lives By the Gun, Dies By the Gun

The parable of the Good Samaritan is offered by Jesus in response to a challenge by a Hebrew lawyer, an expert on the law, who asks “Teacher, what must I do to attain eternal life?” Jesus responds with a question of his own, prompting the lawyer to summarize the law. Rather than listing the main categorizes and precepts, the lawyer says [NIV Luke 10:27]:

‘Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your strength and with all your mind’; and, ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.’

To which Jesus affirms:

You have answered correctly. Do this and you will live.

Obviously the focus is not this life on Earth, but the life of eternity lived with God. It is in this vein that we should also interpret his warning to the disciple in the Garden of Gethsemane [NIV Matt. 26:52]:

Put your sword back in its place, for all who draw the sword will die by the sword.

This is not a prophesy of human retribution, but one of a piece with his testimony that eternal life can only be found through him. When we depend upon violence for our security, we sunder ourselves from the spirit of love that forgives all sins – the same spirit that thereby gains the power to heal the wounds in our souls.

So to those that both:

  • see gun ownership as a necessary antidote to governmental over-reaching, and
  • threaten those that see violence as the greatest wound to civil society:

You may be able to assert your power in this world, but you surrender participation in the world to come. You may assert your freedoms in this society, but unless you lay down your weapons of your own volition, you will be left behind when the Prince of Peace welcomes souls into his kingdom.

You see, love amplifies all things, and to allow into heaven those that believe in violence would be to allow violence into heaven, and amplify its presence. That would be to betray those that have invested and suffered  in peace for His promises. He will not bend to the ‘freedoms’ presumed by the NRA, even if they are enshrined in the US Constitution.

Disarming Incivility

Constitutional wrangling aside, as a Christian, my personal choice is to renounce violence as a means of conflict resolution. My experience is that a disciplined commitment to this choice overwhelms aggression in those that come into my personal space. This can manifest in two ways: either the aggressor realizes that I see them as a brother, causing their fear to melt away; or their aggression, finding no harbor in me, turns self-destructively inward.

I have many personal qualities that empower me to renounce fear: I am a man, tall without being imposing, and physically fit. I possess rare intellectual talents and traits of character that make me desirable as an employee. I have modest aspirations that I articulate clearly, and project good will that allows me to manifest my intentions where others might collide with bureaucratic restrictions. Last but not least, I have associations that bring patience and endurance gained through experience of the cycle of life and death that stretches over a billion years.

Recognizing the rareness of these assets, I sympathize greatly with those that crumble under the pressure of aggression. For me, the most powerful moment in the sit-in coverage was the testimony of a female representative describing the routine terror she suffered as a child when threatened by her gun-toting father. Listening to her summary of those events, I could hear the frightened girl crying out for aid.

So when someone touts their Second Amendment right to bear arms, I wonder why their protection against “infringement” must tread so heavily on the desire for others to renounce violence. I trust law enforcement, and see that our modern industrial economy provides financial levers to control governmental abuse of force that did not exist when the founders wrote the Constitution. These constraints are strengthened because mastery of military technology requires a focus that creates dependency upon civilian production of goods and services. On the other hand, I see the ready availability of weapons creating an arms race between police and criminals that tramples upon the peace of mind of the law-abiding citizen. Contradicting the claims that our freedom is secured only when a well-armed citizenry opposes the natural tyranny of governments, I believe that the greatest threat to my safety – and the safety of those I cherish – is the proliferation of arms.

On the whole, then, I am a citizen that would like to renounce his right to bear arms. I would like to be able to limit my associations to those of like mind. Why is it that Constitutional prohibitions against infringement of that right prohibit me from living that desire? Can I not form a community that requires people to leave their weapons outside our borders? But once formed, is that community not governed by laws, and does not the Second Amendment prohibit such laws?

Shot-Sighted

As a boy that grew up scampering through the sage brush on the hills above the school, when we stopped for a bathroom break on one of our early camping trips, my first thought was to duck under the barbed-wire fence and wander in the woods it protected. I was tame enough to check first with my mother, who drew my attention to the sign:

NO TRESPASSING

Violators will be shot on sight

 “Don’t they have to give you a warning first?”

“That is the warning,” my father observed.

Looking up and down the lonely road, I thought, “But what if their car broke down and they need help?”

It was my first collision with the thought that property ownership trumped human life, and I was a little shaken by the experience.

I don’t see the signs much in my area any more – perhaps because most of the agriculture and ranching has disappeared. But technology may also have something to do with it: with helicopters and radio trackers, it’s probably pretty hard for cattle rustlers to disappear into the wilderness, and aerial crop dusting probably dissuades most casual fruit pickers. The spread of drone aircraft will also make easier to bring thieves to justice without risk of a confrontation.

It was only later that I learned that these signs were also posted frequently by those engaged in illegal activity. The classic image is the moonshine distiller or hillbilly sending off the “revenooer.” But I was confronted by another case when working on a friend’s deck up in Redding one summer. A piercing scream of terror came from the house across the fence – but there was the sign. None of the locals so much as turned a head in concern. I guess it wasn’t the first time.

The Bundy Family now camped out at the Wildlife Refuge in Oregon says that they are “defending their way of life.” One of their number, finding himself in the minority in a discussion of violent confrontation, went out to make a stand in the cold, observing that he had grown up with the wind in his hair and the sun on his face, and he would rather die than spend a single day in jail. On hearing this, I thought of Michael Douglas in Falling Down. A defense industry engineer, laid off and denied visitation rights to his child, trades in weapons in an escalating rampage, finally being gunned down before his daughter.

The Sheriff in Oregon has asked the invaders to leave, observing that they don’t have the right to come in with their guns and tell them how to live. But I wonder if anybody has asked the Bundy’s to consider what would happen if we all chose to act as they did. Will they take cause with the older software developer, defaulting on his mortgage because ageism makes it difficult to find employment?

The scariest exhibition, however, was the Alabama legislator who avowed on national television last night that the reason we have remained a democracy is because our government is afraid to confront its armed citizens. Comparing the M-1 Abrams tank and fighter jets to the hand-held weaponry in the homes of our citizen militias, we might draw a comparison with the armed knights of the middle age and every farmer with a pitchfork. Comparable parity of weaponry in the Middle Ages did not deter tyranny, nor does it do so today.

The Founders designed an institutional system that pitted the three branches of government against each other in a federation of states with their own security services. This institutional competition was designed to prevent any one branch or level of government from being able to impose its will on citizens. That the legislator suffers from a such a deep misunderstanding of how our constitutional system safeguards our liberties is perhaps the most frightening aspect of this situation, particularly because it has often been the Federal Government that has stepped in to ensure the rights of those intimidated by state and local authorities.

Devolving coercive power down to the citizens seems to promise only that those that relish and glorify violence will be able to terrorize those that don’t. We’ve worked long and hard to escape that condition. Why give in to it now?

San Bernardino

Once again we are confronted with a massacre – the work of an unbalanced mind unable to manage confrontation without a resort to violence.

The gun lobby caters to these people – principally criminals, as most semi-automatic handguns are recovered at crime scenes. The NRA has fought against implementation of methods that would ensure traceability of weapons flow through criminal hands for just this reason – it is the life-blood of their industry. And then there are those terrorized by criminal activity, those confronted with a steady diet of shootings, whose self-esteem and self-confidence erode slowly, until they grasp at the tools of terror as a means of asserting themselves against a violent world.

The NRA mouthpieces believe that we should all buy a gun, and spend hundreds of hours at firing ranges maintaining our expertise in their use. The sane consider this and their mouths fall agape. I mean – what do we maintain a police force for? Why should the public invest its energy in mastery of arms when we can earn enough money in that time to pay others to protect us?

The only reason is because the NRA fosters a mentality of violence in a community that is vulnerable to a loss of self-control. It is precisely these people that should be denied access to guns.

Given the statistics – more than one mass shooting a day this year, with no incidents that I am aware of in which the shooter was brought down by a gun-toting citizen – it seems reasonable to conclude that those prone to violence are the only ones making use of their weapons. The statistics are even worse when we look at domestic violence and suicides. So why are we allowing the gun industry to sell weapons at all, for other than sporting purposes?

It is time to end this cycle of terror, where protection of the rights of gun owners is used to mask a systematic practice of funneling guns to those that should not be allowed to bear them – a practice that generates violence that is used to stimulate additional gun sales.

It’s like trying to cure the plague by giving people the plague. It’s insanity. Really, think about it: do we really want to live in a society in which the first thing we think about every time we leave the house is being prepared to kill someone else? Why do we insist on permitting conditions under which it is impossible for the police to relieve us of that burden?

Confronting Fear

Perhaps piqued by surveys that reveal that nearly half of all Republicans believe that our president is secretly a Muslim, Barack Obama has published a conversation with his favorite Christian author, Marilynne Robinson. The first half of the essay ends as a cliff-hanger, with Obama responding directly to Robinson’s declared pessimism with his own declaration of faith in the Christian virtue of doing quietly what is right. This practice is now his only explanation for why, despite appearing unwashed behind the ears, the candidate in 2008 became President. In retrospect, he now recognizes an inexplicable resonance with the small-town electorates that lead the primary schedule.

Eager for the conclusion, I did a number of online searches before returning to the New York Review and discovering that the transcript was a prepublication release for coverage to be completed on November 12. Intrigued by his celebration of Robinson, I followed the links to her recent reflection on Christianity and gun violence.

Since Roseburg, I have taken this topic up a number of times, arguing that both sound public policy (and other posts on 10/2 through 10/8) and Christian ethics requires that we improve our regulation of gun acquisition. But in reading Robinson’s essay, I was immediately disturbed. That essay has a subtly chiding tone, contrasting the rebelliousness of America’s modern gun culture with the patient and non-violent endurance of Christians confronting political persecution during both its early years and the Protestant reformation. It celebrates Calvin, who was the tyrannical overlord of Geneva, applying the ultimate sanction against the Unitarian “heresy” of Michael Servetus. Finally, while declaring that we should tread lightly lest we allow our own views to color our understanding of the mind of Christ, Robinson’s innate pessimism is reflected in her selected passage from scripture (“He who lives by the sword dies by the sword”) and invocation of the Final Judgment, which she implies will involve the destruction of those that idolize fear in the form of a gun.

I finished the reading in somewhat of a panic, and spent a good half an hour trying to find contact information for Marilynne. Her author page on Facebook receives little traffic, and it appears that she no longer holds an academic posting. So I went back to the NY Review of Books and submitted a letter to the editor with a link to my post on the relationship between government and self-governance.

In motivating my effort to contact Marilynne, I offered that:

The men “prowl[ing] in the woods” will not be swayed by an argument framed against the great sweep of history, but rather in terms both visceral and personal.

The solution, as I think President Obama would agree, is to manifest the strength the arises from the discipline that settles upon us as people of faith:

Christianity resolves the tension between vulnerability and freedom through celebration of the evidence in Jesus of the divine power that supports our capacity to love.

When we confront and accept that evidence, there is simply no room left for fear.

Anger Got the Best of Me

I apologize to those who have been following my commentary on Roseburg. I spent most of Friday morning at work with the Kleenex box when I wasn’t holding my head in my hands. I am emotionally worn out, and have been indulging my anger when I should have been focusing my intentions toward the community that has been so deeply wounded. I pray that they find the strength to open their hearts to Christ in this moment, so that he may help them bear the burden of their sorrow.

However, Friday day ended with a message from James Kushner, who heads the Society of St. James, publisher of a number of conservative Christian magazines. His message regarding abortion echoed many of the statements I made in my post on September 30th. He pronounced the Supreme Court decision as the beginning of a long descent into moral darkness for America.

Given the use of abortion as a political issue to redirect attention from inaction on gun control and financial justice issues, I felt obligated, as the shooter in Roseburg specifically targeted Christians, to respond with following message.


Mr. Kushner:

I know that this is a contentious issue, but following the killing of Christians in Roseburg yesterday, your message touches a raw nerve.

As evidenced by Jesus’s crucifixion, laws are no substitute for compassion. I won’t prescribe policy for you – you need to follow your own conscience. But as you do not write of specific spiritual experience, I hope that these thoughts give you some sense of the complexity of the problem of abortion as I navigate it. The spiritual aspect of pregnancy is something that not every man is sensitive to.

I therefore ask your consideration:

1. A sin is a sin because it leaves wound in the soul, delaying our reunion with God.
2. I am concerned by your resort to material reductionism. Life does not begin when the sperm penetrates the ovum. It begins with the infant soul enters the womb. This can happen long before material conception, or well into the process of development, and typically ONLY THE MOTHER KNOWS.
3. Early in development, the fetus is a weak anchor for the infant spirit. The primary wound of an abortion is therefore entrapment of the infant spirit in the womb. A loving father has the capacity to rescue the unborn child. I have done this upon encountering spirits trapped for years after the procedure. They were ready to give life another chance.
4. The wound of an abortion is not less than the wound of growing up unloved or in a household ruled by fear. Rather the opposite, in my judgment. It is up to the parent(s) to negotiate with the unborn spirit the circumstances of its birth. I have participated in one such negotiation, and the consensus of the mother and child was that they should wait until a man was joined to the family. To be explicit – they agreed that the pregnancy should be terminated.

While most pregnancies abort spontaneously, I would prefer that no surgical abortion be committed. However, as a child I was confronted by the story of a young woman in my religious community who came back from Mexico in a pine box. Making abortion illegal is not going to prevent harm when out-of-wedlock pregnancy carries powerful stigma. The only lasting solution is to make our youth stronger. Those of us with the opportunity to create strong children should not judge too harshly those that grew up without that benefit – and we should certainly not force a woman to carry the burden of a weak man’s aggression. As Jesus did, we need to meet people where they are, and focus on healing and learning, rather than beating them down with the cross of their mistakes.

In entering through the “narrow gate” of self-control, I see our struggle with our sexuality as an essential part of the journey, much as is our struggle with gun violence and “freedom” (the “broad gate” that Jesus warned us against). But I doubt that any surgeon finds satisfaction in performing an abortion, unlike the youth who taunted the Christians he murdered yesterday, or the hedge fund manager who takes home a billion dollars a year. Not everything can be settled on this one issue, and abortion policy should not be offered as a cover for those committing far more egregious crimes of governmental negligence.

Brian Balke