must be the medication

OK, I get that there are people who are upset about the Supreme Court decision on the Affordable Care Act (Obamacare).  I imagine there are reasonable, well-informed people who are disappointed by the decision.  And in their disappointment and even anger they are trying to make sense out of the fact that a conservative justice like John Roberts not only upheld the ACA, but authored the majority opinion for it.  But then there are some who are so full of anger that they’re not being reasonable: they’re willing to take a cheap shot at Roberts and blame his actions on his disability. 

I’m not going to support the particular talk radio personality who started this slander by linking to his words, but you can do a quick search to find the comments at issue.  In short, this radio host can’t imagine how someone like Roberts could possibly come to the decision that he did, so of course the only logical conclusion is that he must be mentally impaired in some way.  So the host latches on to the fact that Roberts has a history of epileptic seizures, and says that the justice must be so doped up on anti-convulsant medication and that explains how he came up with such a wrong-headed decision.  It must have been the medication making his brain into this liberal mush of mistaken thinking.  Of course.

But maybe I’m being uncharitable.  Maybe this radio personality really does have a point.  I mean look at my own life as an example: I used to have very conservative political and religious beliefs when I was a teenager.  I also began having epileptic seizures when I was a teenager, and I started taking anti-convulsant medications.  Then I leave the small town I was raised in and start college in a big city, and pretty soon I’m taking women’s studies courses and going to radical protests and pretty much rethinking most of the moral and political beliefs I thought I knew to be true and right.  And now 20 odd years and who knows how many milligrams of medication later, I’m so far left that I am morally opposed to capitalism and racism and heterosexism and every other lefty “ism” you can think of, and I believe housing and healthcare and bodily autonomy and clean air and clean water are not just nice things but fundamental human rights.

It must have been the medication.

Or, you know, it may have been the dedicated educators who gave me the tools to think critically about the world, or the many people from different backgrounds and life experiences who helped me question my assumptions about the world, or the religious elders who taught me to use reason and conscience instead of unquestioning obedience when learning how best to live my faith.

I can’t speak for Roberts or the rest of the members of the Court who upheld the ACA, but I imagine they used a similar combination of intellect, reason, and conscience to come to their decision.  If only talk radio hosts would hold themselves to a similar standard before they spoke.


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thank you, Sisters

Catholic Sisters in the United States, you continue to be scrutinized and criticized by Vatican officials who claim to speak for the good of the church, but who are putting doctrinal conformity ahead of loving and serving the people of God.  I want to add my voice to the many who are speaking in support of your good work, and name just a few of the dozens, probably hundreds, of women religious who have made a positive impact on my life:

Sister Bernita, you were so kind to my shy kindergartener self.  And I still know the melody and words to your “Put Away Time” cleaning song.

Sister Joyce, you were the first woman I met who had a leadership role in ministry, both as the principal of my Catholic grade school and in leading us in song during so many liturgies.

Sister Rosemary, you made a special trip to be present at my First Communion.

Franciscan Sisters of Little Falls, as a teenager I didn’t understand the complex geopolitical realities of Latin American solidarity work, I just knew that the local convent was providing shelter for a family from El Salvador, and that it was a Good Thing.

Sister Ruth, you were a teacher-by-example of what it means to live in radical solidarity with people experiencing poverty and discrimination.

Sister Carletta, I wish I had known you better, both as my great aunt Philomine and as a woman who also studied at a Jesuit university.  I was honored to receive the Franciscan cross that belonged to you.

Sister Brenda, your office was a student lounge where all were welcome.  You helped put me on the lifelong path of acknowledging white privilege and challenging racism, beginning with myself.

Sister Mary Peter, you continued to wear a modified habit and veil and taught contemporary theology with joy in your voice.  You helped show me how to honor the traditional piety of my Catholic upbringing while also embracing new, progressive ideas.

Sister Fran, you taught me yoga and meditation, and ministered to me with wise and gentle counsel when I was in emotional crisis.

Sisters at the Eighth Day Center for Justice, your courage and dedication were an example to me and other student activists as we began to build our skills of political organizing and advocacy.

Sister Gloria, you were the first to read what became the first draft of my master’s thesis, and your affirmation of my topic and method helped keep me going during the difficult process of writing.

I cannot imagine how different my life would be without the positive influences of these and so many other holy women.  Thank you, sisters.

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share food, wash feet, change world

5Then he poured water into a basin and began to wash the disciples’ feet and to wipe them with the towel that was tied around him… 12After he had washed their feet, had put on his robe, and had returned to the table, he said to them, “Do you know what I have done to you? You call me Teacher and Lord—and you are right, for that is what I am. 14So if I, your Lord and Teacher, have washed your feet, you also ought to wash one another’s feet. 15For I have set you an example, that you also should do as I have done to you. (John 13:5, 12-15)

A lot of people who share my political opinions are confused about my Christian beliefs.  How is it that I can support anarchist ideas of anti-anthoritarianism and doing away with structures that put a single leader in charge of others, and then also be associated with a religion that has a long, sad history of abusing power and elevating leaders who unfairly dictate how the rest of the world should act?

Holy Thursday (Maundy Thursday) is one of my answers.  It’s the day when Christians remember the Last Supper, the Passover meal Jesus shared with his disciples before he was arrested and executed by the state authorities of the Roman empire.  But there’s also another event that is remembered on this day: Jesus washed the feet of his disciples.  He was the leader, the teacher, the one they looked up to for guidance, the one they followed.  And he turned that top-down power dynamic on its head.  He stepped out of the role of leader, and did the most menial of tasks, the job that servants and women (those lowest in social standing at the time) were expected to do.  I think it’s an example of what the Zapatistas of southern Mexico call mandar obedeciendo — leading by obeying.

Jesus told his followers it was also up to them to wash the feet of others.  This was not a one time symbolic performance, this was a model of how to live in community.  It is the task of Christians to continue this practice of washing feet, not just in a ritual performed once a year, but by finding ways to lead by serving, by challenging the notion that having power means wielding it over another, and instead sharing that power to serve the entire community.  It’s a belief and practice that informs both my faith and political ideals.

Share a meal, and wash one another’s feet.  No, it’s not exactly the anarchist slogan of “no gods, no masters,” but I think it describes a beautiful way for transforming the world, a way that transcends both religion and politics.

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Chris Hedges, please try again

Chris Hedges recently wrote a painfully ill-informed essay about black bloc tactics and violence in protest actions.  It’s a shame, because I think he does have some valuable wisdom to impart to activists who find themselves engaged in confrontations with law enforcement (regardless of how the violence starts).  Unfortunately I didn’t see any of that wisdom evident in his tirade.  Here’s what I wish Hedges had spent some time writing about.

Hedges wrote about the effects of war and violence on the human psyche in his book War Is A Force That Gives Us Meaning, and I wish he’d applied some of his insights from that book to his critique of black bloc tactics.  His book reflected on his years hopping from war zone to war zone as a journalist, and how those constant brushes with death turned him into a sort of adrenaline junkie, always needing a new fix of danger.  He convinced himself that it was necessary to continue to expose himself to dangerous situations, arguing that he was doing it for a noble, greater good and not out of a desire to experience an emotional rush that proved his life held greater meaning.  This constant exposure to violence and trauma took a toll on him, and caused him to rethink his work as a journalist.  I think his experiences have some some definite parallels for activists to examine.

These are not easy to questions to bring up, but I think activists need to candidly and honestly examine what kind of meaning we each attach to violence, whether done to us or for some, done by us.  For example, has it become the case that for some of us, violence can feel at once terrible and yet also exhilarating?  Have we begun to judge our actions not by how much social transformation happens, but by how hard the police clamp down on a protest?   Is there an unacknowledged desire to experience violence as a way to validate our cause, as proof that we are part of Something Important?

Again, these are questions that are difficult to raise, and they are even more difficult to talk about when folks are on the defensive because of condescending and inaccurate essays like the one Hedges wrote.  The left is in serious need of inter-generational dialogue and frank discussion about tactics and long term goals, but rants like the one Hedges wrote are not going to help.  We need to hear from veterans of protest movements and from those who have experienced trauma in their work to create a better world, we don’t need blame-tastic lectures on The Right Way to Protest.  Chris Hedges, please try again.  Folks pissed off at his rant, try to not dismiss him entirely.


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fifteen years later

“You are mortal: it is the mortal way. You attend the funeral, you bid the dead farewell. You grieve. Then you continue with your life.
And at times the fact of (his) absence will hit you like a blow to the chest, and you will weep. But this will happen less and less as time goes on.
(He) is dead. You are alive.
So live.”
– Neil Gaiman, Brief Lives

I dreamed of my cousin.  An early morning dream.  In my dream he was alive.  There had been no accident, just a big misunderstanding.  He just needed to go away for a long time, and his absence just appeared to be permanent.  In my dream my refusal to fully accept his death wasn’t proof of emotional weakness, it was proof of my faith.  I was the one who had faith.  He knew I wouldn’t be shocked to see him again.

I woke up feeling grateful for such a visceral dream, a dream where I could touch him again, a dream where everyone was happy and relieved and we could focus on mundane joys like watching my nephew play.  I woke up smiling.

And then the morning coffee is brewed and breakfast dishes need cleaning.  And it’s been fifteen years.

Some days it feels like a lifetime ago.  Some days I weep like it just happened.

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two executions, two murders

“You can’t fight murder with murder.” – Ross Byrd, son of Robert Byrd, Jr

I am opposed to the death penalty.  I believe it is murder.  I was opposed to last night’s execution of Troy Davis.  But I was also opposed to the other execution that took place.  I’ll be honest, I shed tears over the death of Troy Davis, but I did not cry when Lawrence Brewer was killed last night.  Brewer was an unrepentant racist who gruesomely killed James Byrd, Jr. in a hate crime that still turns my stomach to read about.  Brewer was most certainly guilty.  It was still wrong to execute him.   

Another execution is scheduled for tonight, this time in Alabama.  I know very little about this particular case, but for me, ultimately, the details of the case are not the point.  There are many reasons to oppose the death penalty, such as the disproportionate number of men of color on death row, or the number of people who are wrongly convicted and not guilty of the crime.  But even in a case such as Brewer’s, where there is no doubt whatsoever of the person’s guilt and the condemned shows absolutely no remorse, the death penalty is wrong, period. Even the most despicable murderer should not be murdered by the state.

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In need of direction.  Could not get a read on my internal compass.  Spinning.

I went to the ocean, I sat and tried to listen.

The ocean said, “up.”


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A Fr. Opat memory

I’m pausing for a moment today to remember and give thanks for the life of Fr. Ken Opat, osc, who passed away today.

My favorite Fr. Opat story is a short and irreverent one.  Like many others, I got to know Fr. Opat many years ago through a Catholic retreat program in central Minnesota.  He was the coordinator of the program, and often a spiritual director on the weekend retreats.  On the evening before one of those retreats began, he and those of us who were volunteering as the team for that weekend were meeting and going over last minute details.  Someone was reviewing the readings that would be used for the liturgies, and noted that the text in the missal would need to be changed.  The U.S. lectionary had recently been amended so that instead of saying “This is the Word of the Lord,” the lector would conclude a scripture reading by saying only “The Word of the Lord.”

Someone asked why that particular change was made.  The first to respond was Fr. Opat.  In his gruff voice he casually mumbled: “Some a##hole in the Vatican didn’t have anything better to do.”

At the time, I was pretty shocked.  At that point in my life I had rarely heard a cleric openly criticize Rome, much less swear while doing it.  It was a good lesson for me, a demonstration that it’s OK to question, and even criticize, those in authority.  It was also a lesson in priorities: Fr. Opat was not concerned with living one’s faith in a legalistic way.  He was more concerned with practical matters, like how to ensure that a three day retreat could be affordable to anyone who wanted to attend (it still costs well under $100 per person).  He was concerned with encountering Christ in the people he served, not in the minutiae of how a particular phrase ought to be translated.

Don’t get me wrong: I definitely think there is a place for pondering and wrestling with the smaller details of theology, such as the wording of the Mass (as the U.S. Catholic Church currently undergoes a major change in the liturgy’s translation it’s clear that much can be at stake when words are chosen).  But I think of Fr. Opat’s flippant comment, and remember that we ought to always consider our actions: is there something better we could do?


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The Slacktiverse

I’m very excited to be a part of The Slacktiverse blog as a regular contributor.  My first essay for the site, “There are no neutrals there” was posted today.  Take a look, and check out the great posts from the other new contributors (as well as the archive of Slacktivist posts by the site’s originator, Fred Clark).

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A new look for democracy

City Hall, San Francisco, 5 February 2011

My favorite sight at today’s solidarity demonstration in San Francisco.  Egypt and Tunisia are teaching the United States how to re-imagine democracy.

(“¡Que se vayan todos!” is a chant popularized in Argentina and elsewhere in Latin America, and means “All of them must go!”)

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