Deeds, Not Words

We really shouldn’t laugh at Donald Trump’s recent lie that, if facing the dangers that school officers faced in the Parkland, Florida shooting, he would have rushed toward danger, even if unarmed. It’s as obvious a lie as his hairdo, but Trump likely believes it, and that makes him a danger. Not because he’d ever actually take a risk (unlike, say, a 3 year old who believes he can fly and so jumps off the balcony) but because his overestimation of himself puts us all in danger.


A few years ago, blogger Chris Lavorie argued that every New Yorker caption contest could be won with the caption, “Christ, what an asshole!” That’s about all you need to know about Trump’s tweets, public speeches, and political leadership. We risk real danger of getting shoddy with our political commentary because he makes it just too easy.


I mentioned previously that we’ve been reading Aesop’s Fables. We hit upon one this week that spoke to the embarrassing accuracy of Trump’s self-assessment: The Boasting Traveler.

A man travels the world and returns to his hometown, where he brags about his adventures and accomplishments. A highlight is that, while in Rhodes, he made a leap farther than anyone could imagine. “If only you had been there to see it!” he tells his audience. Yes, in far-off Rhodes, he was quite an athlete.

Finally, a spectator interrupts his bragging: “Now, my good man, if this is true there is no need of witnesses. Suppose this to be Rhodes, and leap for us.”

Deeds, not words, Aesop tells us. [Image of a man, flanked by a rooster, hand son his hip and head thrown back, bragging about his deeds while three other people look on.]

A man who considers himself a business success despite all evidence is not going to “leap for us.” A man with Jewish grandchildren who eggs on anti-Semites is not going to defend children against anyone. And a man who so clearly needs to be liked is never going to take a deliberate risk to improve our nation.




Following Paul’s Model in Responding to Hate

Hi Joel,

I suggested previously that white supremacists couch their arguments in love of their own rather than hate for others. However, this doesn’t last. What makes a hate group a hate group is, definitionally, that they denigrate others based on social characteristics, such as race or sex or sexuality or disability. How do white supremacists jump from loving “your own kind” to hating others? Can we interrupt that jump through acts of friendship?

The set-up is there in every speech and YouTube video they produce. It is in the coded language that I fear many potential recruits simply don’t recognize urban blight for African American people, global elite for Jew. But someone always picks it up in the comments section. Someone with less finesse than folks like Ben Shapiro pipes up and just says it: Jews will not replace us isn’t just about ensuring that white people have a place in the world; it means doing so at the expense of Jews. Or African Americans, or immigrants, or Muslims. The comments sections, I fear, don’t lie. Our Google searches don’t lie.

So, what do we do about this? I want to offer only one suggestion here, from a source I don’t usually love: St. Paul.

In the book of Acts, Paul enters cosmopolitan Athens and sees altars and statues dedicated to deities from all over the known world—plus one altar “to an unknown God.” Some theologians argue that this wasn’t so much a single deity but a placeholder—a recognition among the Greeks that there were more deities out there who should be respected. Because, the writer of Acts tells us, the people of the city “would spend their time in nothing but telling or hearing something new” (which reminds me very much of the chatter you see on “racial realist” websites), Paul is invited to speak in front of the Areopagus, an outcropping near the Acropolis where public debates occurred. And though the polytheism of the city was offensive to Paul as both a Jew and a follower of Jesus, he does not begin with correction but with affirmation:

Athenians, I see how extremely religious you are in every way.  For as I went through the city and looked carefully at the objects of your worship, I found among them an altar with the inscription, “To an unknown god.” What therefore you worship as unknown, this I proclaim to you.

Then, in lovely use of language that was probably not lost on his listeners, Paul teaches them that their unknown god is the God whose name could not be known–the I AM Moses encountered, the unspeakable name of Yahweh. They were searching all along in the right direction and didn’t even know it!

In other words, Paul affirms what they love—religion, worship, relationships between humans and the divine. These things, says Paul, are exactly what they should be loving! In fact, what the Athenians are doing is exactly what God also loves, for God instilled in all people a desire to “search for God and perhaps grope for him and find him—though indeed he is not far from each one of us.” Then Paul ends his speech by quoting their own beloved poets Epimenides and Aratus back to them, saying, For ‘In him we live and move and have our being’; as even some of your own poets have said.”

St. Paul and I often disagree, but here I try to follow Paul’s teaching advice: begin by affirming the desire to know, the value of argument (which is often the form that these conversations take), admiration for truth-seeking, and, as much as honestly possible, affirmation of the things that the haters say they love: their neighbors, their families, the concept of “family,” their nation, the concept of “nation,” the masterpieces of the Western tradition, their faith.

[This is also, incidentally, how I teach my children to address accusations from their peers that my children hate God because they don’t say the pledge. We pretend we are Paul going to Athens, and we begin with, I’m so glad that you love God! I’m glad that you care that I love God too!)

We start there because people who end up making hateful arguments begin with love. Their self-perception isn’t of a hateful person but of a loving one—and a brave one, for he is risking being called hateful, all for his love.

Haters don’t start by seeing themselves as villians but as heroes. Above, artwork by Mr. Fish, drawing from Norman Rockwell and John Amor. In the image, an artist is crafting a self-portrait. He looks in the mirror, where we see a man wearing a Klansman’s hood. On his canvas, he paints Captain America. 

My job as an educator (which is to say that this might not be your job and it is not the job of every educator) is it to engage people critically in their claims of love, to help them untangle what love means and examine how it motivates destructive behaviors.  That untangling work requires listening and challenging students to reflect on their own words, helping them to identify where and why love and hate are intertwined, asking them to consider how this love shapes their identities and what conclusions other than hate their love might lead them toward.




Our mutual contempt


Screen Shot 2018-02-25 at 6.32.50 PM
He lost his daughter in a massacre. But he’s wearing a Trump shirt. Does he still deserve our sympathy?

Dear Rebecca:

One  thing that’s astonished me in the aftermath of the Florida school massacre: The contempt heaped upon the kids who decided to become political actors in its aftermath, demanding gun restrictions.

If there is any sense of sympathy for this kids — who, after all, just witnessed and survived their friends and teachers being shot — it’s not readily evident from the pro-gun side. This is distressing.

We seem to have a collective inability to to evaluate people (or the sympathy they deserve) outside of their political  stances. If you have a different opinion than I do, any obligation I feel to treat you humanely goes poof.

Hell, I’ll say it’s a problem for the left and the right: I’ve criticized the a-holes who criticized the mourning father wearing a Trump T-shirt. But it’s a problem for the right, too. We all need to do better.



Conservatives: Cede on guns or risk losing on climate change and capitalism, too

Hi Joel,

The National Review has been running pieces all this week devaluing the work of young people against gun violence—pieces like:

Gun Control Advocates Parade Grieving Teens who Make Simplistic Please

Parkland Slaying: Child Victims are Not Always Moral Guides


Backing Down to the Parkland Kids Won’t Save the GOP

The key arguments are that just because one has been a victim of a shooting doesn’t make one an expert on policy. Also, kids! Sheesh! Also, if liberals think kids are so responsible, why are we always fighting against letting them carry guns in public and on campus and at ever younger ages without any training or permits? Doesn’t that make us hypocrites?*

Yes, seriously, the National Review is in a pretty bad place these days. Imagine taking a job that required you attack kids for their “simplistic plea” of “Stop killing us!”

But gun fetishists have a reason to be desperate.

At some point, our political leaders will have to decide who they will listen to: the very powerful but old gun lobby or the largest generation of people since the Baby Boomers–you know, the ones who gave us so much of the civil unrest of the 1960s.

Image may contain: text

Above, the Grim Reaper holds an AR-15 rifle, the weapon of choice for mass shooter. His bony hand seeks to pick his next victim from the young people in front of him, as he counts “Eenie, Meenie, Miney–” A young woman stands in front of the crowd and finishes his sentence with a decisive “No.” 

In other words, ceding on guns might be politically smart for conservatives if it quells the rising tide of young people’s disgust with their ruling elders. Otherwise, we might just get action on climate change and economic inequality, too, areas where young people are far to the left of their grandparents.


PS. Remember that the Tax Reform bill that Congress passed in December says that your child is no longer a child for tax purposed as of their 17th birthday, even if they are just a junior in high school (like many 17 years old are). On the principle that taxation should guarantee representation, I think this means that they should get to vote. I assume that Republicans who supported the tax bill will support this move, right?


No brains, no heart, no courage: Trump responds to Parkland students

Hi Joel,

Remember the accusations that Obama was all brains? That Hillary Clinton couldn’t connect with people? Trump, on the other hand, we were told by his devotees, was authentic, a speak-his-mind kinda guy (which I don’t doubt, given the gibberish that comes out of his mouth).

Then this: images of his talking points for meeting with victim’s of the Parkland, Florida shooting.

Above, Trump’s notes remind him to ask, “What do you most want me to know about your experience?” and “What can we do to help you feel [safe?]?”  and to state “I hear you.”

His crib notes remind him to say, “I hear you.”

Somehow we managed to elect an actor of even less talent than Ronald Reagan. Still, you’d think that Trump could remember his lines without these prompts. Or, more, that a person might naturally have empathy for his fellow human beings and be able to speak to their concerns without being coached.  Especially if that person is the president. Like, we might expect that a person who has had Trump’s level of success to have some people skills. (Just kidding! He’s not successful at all, in just about any area: marriage, business, politics.)

Trump speaks empathy like I play the trumpet. I can make some sounds, and occasionally these sounds match up to what we recognize as musical notes. But that’s more by luck than by either natural talent or hard work, and no one would be fooled into thinking I was a musician, even if I put together a few bars.

Or, as Paul said, “If I speak in the tongues of mortals and of angels, but do not have love, I am a noisy gong or a clanging cymbal.” Trump can’t be accused of speaking like an angel, of course, but what is even clearer here is that he can’t naturally speak with love, either.



When Loves Leads Us to Hate

Hi Joel,

I want to come back to one of the hardest questions of Christianity and one that I think Mennonites have made important contributions to answering: How do we love our enemies? Can we (Is it even appropriate to be?) friends with people who espouse hateful beliefs and endorse hateful actions?

Having worked with hate group members for awhile now, I think they can offer us some insight here. And here is what I consistently hear from them:

They aren’t hateful. They’re loving.

Westboro Baptists don’t see themselves as hateful. They see themselves as loving. Indeed, founding pastor Fred Phelps, who died a few years ago, saw himself not as a harasser of queer people but as a missionary to them. To be clear, his goal wasn’t their conversion, because Westboro’s unique hyper-Calvinist theology teaches that only God can convict a person. Instead, they preach to warn, and warning, they argue, is a form of love.

It’s like this, one member explained to me: If you saw someone about to drive off a cliff, you’d warn them. You’d shout at them, “No! Stop!” Even if you knew it would upset them, you’d tell them. Even if it meant that they were angry at you, you would tell them. Indeed, if you allow your fear of their anger at you to dissuade you from speaking up—no, screaming out—you would be allowing your discomfort to take precedence over their safety. That is selfish.

This is why the church carries signs that say “Love Thy Neighbor=Rebuke.” Because, as Jesus explains in the story of the Good Samaritan, everyone is our neighbor, we must love everyone. Loving them means correcting them (“rebuke”) when they are in danger.

That might sound like an excuse for angry behavior, but I can tell you that almost every member of WBC I know truly feels this way. (There are singular exceptions who take I think do sadistic pleasure in their “rebuking” activities, and the church monitors these folks fairly carefully. Indeed, a criterion for joining is that your anti-gay actions can’t be motivated by personal homophobia, so someone who expresses too much personal disgust for gay people is flagged as a potential threat to the church.) In her memoir about their time in WBC, ex-member Libby Phelps say that there is no more sinister explanation: They were socialized into a subculture that teaches that hell is real, painful, and eternal. Nothing is worse than hell. They were taught that everyone outside the church is hell-bound—and likely some inside the church were too. Westboro Baptists preach that your only hope is that God has already elected you; their mission is to help you hear it, should God love you enough to open your ears.  Doing this is an act of love for people socialized into this church.

That often means getting loud (that is, offensive) as an act of love.


When I look more broadly at the claims that hate groups make, I began to see that it is love, not hate, at the center of their claims. Now, I don’t mean to say that hate isn’t part of what they do or that, in many cases, hate actors proudly claim the title of “hater.” But, in many cases and especially in their engagement with the public they are trying to persuade, they use the word love, not hate.

I don’t want to push the comparison to WBC too far, because I think that anti-gay groups are quite different from race hate groups (though most racist groups are also homophobic). However, this theme of love keeps coming up. Here are some other examples:

[W]e must first rid ourselves of the fear of being called “racists” and the other meaningless epithets they use against us. What is really meant by the [anti-racist] advocates when they peg us as “racists” is that we adhere to ethnocentrism, which is a natural affection for one’s own kind. This is both healthy and Biblical. I am not ashamed to say that I prefer my own kind and my own culture. Others can have theirs; I have mine. No group can survive for long if its members do not prefer their own over others.
— Mike Hill, Web essay, League of the South

Hill calls for “a return to a political and social system based on kith and kin rather than an impersonal state wedded to the idea of the universal rights of man.” That is, we should love those socially near to us (“kith and kin” rather than those far (“universal”).

From the violent Kingdom Identity:

We prefer the culture and abilities historically demonstrated by Christian White men over that of all other races.

From Gregory Hood of American Renaissance, the “intellectual” magazine of white supremacy:

White advocates must insist on the legitimacy of European-Americans pursuing their group interests, just as every other group already pursues theirs.

In each of these cases, it is love of one’s “own kind” that prompts hateful action. Indeed, the new “racial realism”—the term that what supremacists prefer over “white supremacy”—foregrounds the natural, intrinsic, common-sensical, and one might even say (if one were a white supremacist), genetic preference that we ought to have for those like us. This is an argument for separate but equal, for “peaceful ethnic cleansing” of non-whites from the US and Europe, for the “voluntary self-deportation” of immigrants. The goal isn’t the destruction of non-whites, immigrants, or Muslims but the rearrangement of the world to its proper (pre-Babel, for those looking for a “Biblical mandate” that multiculturalism is defiance against God) distribution. (White people get Europe, plus Canada, the US, and Australia.) “Invasive species” populations aren’t destroyed but returned to their “proper” homes. (All of this ignores, of course, that humans are migratory animals, that races have never been divided, and that white people aren’t indigenous to most of the places where we now live.)


In making this claim, white supremacists appeal to things that many of us, in fact, agree are good: families, safety, respect for cultural differences. Don’t we all, they argue, have a right to our cultures? To our own space? To protecting our families? To ensuring the welfare of our children and their children? To pride in our histories? To liking our own appearances?

“We must secure the existence of our people and a future for white children.” 

“It’s okay to be white.”

You see the connection. These are not claims about hating people of color or immigrants or Muslims. They are claims about ensuring that our own white children and white culture (Whatever that is.) have space. That makes them sound innocent and even fair.

In this view, even Jews will not replace us isn’t about anti-Semitism. It’s about preserving white (non-Jewish) space and making sure that white culture is celebrated for its role in world history.

Image result for 14 words tattoo

Above a 14 Words tattoo spells out the love that defenders of white supremacy say is at its core. 

Related image

“It’s Okay to be White” Flyers appeared on campuses this fall. An innocent statement, right? Tucker Carlson sure says so. And neo-Nazi groups loved this “prank.”

The wide-eyed college recruit to the alt-right may even tell you that this isn’t hate but multiculturalism, about respecting differences by ensuring that they can be maintained.

It’s about everyone finding their spot in the world. It’s about the separatism that is necessary to making that happen.

This is why we are seeing Latinos joining the alt-right. It’s why we’re seeing white nationalism in Orthodox Jewish communities.

It looks like love, not hate.

The hate comes later.


If the life of a child isn’t a reason to stop mass violence, what might be?

Hi Joel,

So, there are lots of possible solutions to gun violence, and lawmakers pursue none of them. Like, zilch. There are lots of reasons for their cowardice, including the fact that some of them are actually afraid of the citizens to whom they’ve deliberately fed a diet of fear and lies. Kind of like how children are afraid to go to school now.

One reason, I venture, is because they do not care about children. Letting children die from gun violence is just one more way that conservatives let children die–you know, like by threatening to take away their food, poisoning their air and water, and depriving them of medical help. So I don’t see an appeal to children really moving Republican hearts.

I venture that, in part, this is because children are (and are especially in the minds of conservatives) the work of women. As long as women are devalued, children are also devalued.

We grow them, bring them into the world, and do most of the tending to them. Of course, there are fantastic dads, fathers who raise their children without a partner at all or even with a mother who undermines his children’s well-being. But we’re talking large-scale trends, and that’s clear: children are the work of women.

So maybe we should stop working on gun violence because it kills kids because, frankly, I don’t think our current lawmakers mostly care about killing the work of women. Sure, they wouldn’t argue for actively killing children, but we have a long history of men destroying the things that women make and devaluing that which they achieve.

Image result for pro-life pro-gun

Huh. Pro-lifers argue for–and fight pretty effectively for–the rights of embryos and fetuses. Why don’t they fight with the same vigor for the right of school children not to be gunned down at lunch? Above, a bumper sticker with white outlines of a cross, a gun, and a heart on a black background and the words “Pro God Pro Gun Pro Life.”

Why else, then, might we want to not have regular mass shootings?

  • increased cost of security at public schools a necessary part security theater, which gives us the illusion that something is being done. Bonus feel-good points if we hire a veteran from a pointless war!
  • increased teacher turnover as more teachers realize that they’d rather work in an ER hospital, where violence is more common but less often mass, than a school
  • strain on local government resources in small towns where there aren’t dozens of ambulances or lifeflight helicopters available to remove dying children to hospitals
  • PTSD among rescue workers means high turnover rate here, too, so the expertise that comes from experience is lost
  • loss of productivity the day of and days immediately after as no one can think straight at work
  • the rest of the world despises us, starts putting us into the same category as nations that allow child marriages, child labor, and child soldiers
  • loss of Americans sick of this looking for jobs in places where their children are less likely to be killed, which is almost everywhere now
  • a generation of children will hate us forever

Do I sound disgusted? I am, because I really think that some of these reasons are more persuasive for lawmakers than the inherent worth of every life.