Friday, July 21, 2017

Health Care and a Compassionate Response

By now, we've all heard that Senator John McCain has brain cancer, and apparently a pretty deadly form of it. In the wake of that terrible news, the airwaves and social media have been filled with statements of sadness and support, as is appropriate. Many have shied away from any political angle to this development, and those who have ventured into politics with their comments are usually criticized for inappropriately politicizing the tragic health news of a man such as McCain.

Pastor/blogger John Pavlovitz, however, is clear in his belief that this is actually a completely appropriate time to talk about politics, specifically the politics of Health Care:
And that’s why talking about healthcare in the wake of this terrible news isn’t disrespectful, it isn’t in poor taste, and it isn’t political opportunism—it’s the goddamn point.The personal hell that John McCain and his loved ones are walking through right now is the point of it all.
I worry that many are going to focus on the political angle here ("Is it ever appropriate to politicize someone else's health crisis?") and miss the point that Pavlovitz is making in the majority of his article, which is about the importance, indeed the primacy, of compassion, especially when it comes to this issue:
John McCain deserves life. He deserves to have every available resource exhausted to try and make him well. His family deserves this. His wife and his children deserve it. The people who treasure him deserve it. They deserve it, not because he’s wealthy or known or “important”—but simply because he’s loved by someone who wants more time with him. That’s enough for me. Every human being deserves this. Every spouse and every child and every treasured person.
Most big debates are, at some level, really about a conflict of values, and almost all difficult, important debates are about a conflict of mutually agreed upon values. It isn't that you value X and I don't, it's that we both value X, and we both value Y, but X and Y are in conflict. And you and I have a different idea about how to prioritize those values, at least in this instance. 

No one thinks that, if health care were free, we should withhold it from anyone (or, at least no one that I care about in the least--I'll leave the complete crazies to their own devices). And, no one thinks that the government should do everything for everyone, or that it can do so (ditto on that last caveat). In theory, I think we all agree that people having health care is good, and that the government has to have limits on what it does. But, when we actually look at a particular situation, or a particular policy, the conflict begins. 

And, I'm pretty clear that, to me, compassion is the higher value. In this, and possibly in every debate, compassion has to come first. It's not the only value--there do have to be limits. We can't solve every problem, even if we'd like to. But, I start from a place of assuming that, as an advanced and highly prosperous society, we have an obligation to alleviate as much suffering as we can, in everyone that we can.

It's not a complicated philosophy: when people are in pain, when people are suffering, we should try to make it better. And, ultimately, I don't care who "we" is. I don't really care if the government does it, or religious institutions, or a flash-mob. I just want to see it end. If there was a private sector way for all people to receive reasonable and reasonably affordable health care, then I'd be thrilled to see the government get out of the Health Care (really, Health Insurance) business. I don't think that's really possible, so I want to government to stay in it. But, that's not my core fight. My core fight is: less pain, less suffering. Again, it's not complicated. But, that doesn't make it any less important.
I want John McCain to live. I want him to get to spend more time with those who would grieve his loss in ways I’ll never understand. But I want this for you too. I want it for your father and your children and your friends. I want it for those I love. I want it for people I agree with and people I don’t. 
We should be for one another. We should fight for each other’s life with all that we have. 
This is what America does when she is at her best.

Wednesday, April 19, 2017

What, exactly, do we mean by "White Privilege"

I read an interesting, short article in The Root. It takes on the always-sticky topic of "White Privilege." I like it, in part, because it takes a metaphor I've been bouncing around my in head, and then backs it up with data.

You see, I think that much of the resistance to the idea of White Privilege comes from people misunderstanding the term. White Privilege does not mean that all white people have it easier than all black people, or that all white people are racist, or that what a white person achieves wasn't earned. White Privilege simply means (as I understand it, anyway) that, in our society, it's easier to be white then to be non-white. And, that it's easier in important, identifiable ways.

The metaphor that I've been using, mostly my head, occasionally in conversations, has to do with a race — as in, a 50-yard-dash kind of race. Imagine that we were running such a race, but that all white people were allowed to creep up five or 10 yards before the starting gun went off. That would obviously be a huge (and undeniable) advantage. But, that doesn't mean that every white person would beat every non-white person in the race. It's absolutely possible that some of the non-white people, who didn't gain the advantage of a head start, could still cross the finish line before some of the white people did.

But, that doesn't mean that the race was fair, obviously. The non-white person had to be much faster than a white person just to be able to win by a little bit. 

If all the you can see are the results of the race, it might look pretty fair — the non-white people were mixed in with the white people, in terms of order of finishing. So, a person just looking at the results might not see any unfairness. And, if someone claimed the race was, in fact, unfair, that person might say, “How can you say it was unfair? A non-white person won!” That's pretty much what's happening when someone says that there can't be such a thing as White Privilege, because we've had a black president, or because they know some African-Americans who are successful, or some such. The fact that some African-Americans were able to "win" the race doesn't mean that the race was fair.

And, what the article brings to the conversation (besides a more concise description of this race-metaphor than I just gave you) is the data. The data which shows that African-Americans are more likely to attend poor schools, regardless of income levels. That African-Americans are at a disadvantage when it comes to finding a job, and to getting paid. That African-Americans pay a premium on their bank loans, and car insurance, and more, just because of the color of their skin.

No, it doesn't mean that life is fair to every white person, or unfair to every black person. It doesn't mean that every white person has it easier than every black person. It just means that, on whole, it's easier to be white than not.

That fact might make you uncomfortable, but it does seem to be a fact.

If you're interested in further conversation about this, consider joining us for a discussion of the book Waking Up White, this Saturday night at 7:00.

Thursday, February 23, 2017

Don't Mind the "Othering"

I'm spending the day at a "Clergy Convening" hosted by Faith In Florida, a Community Organizing group. The idea was to bring together clergy from various religions and backgrounds from all across Florida, and to let us start talking about, and making stronger connections in pursuit of, Social Justice. Although the organizers are dedicated to making sure that this group is as diverse as possible, for this particular gathering, it isn't completely so. Out of about 30 participants, I am one of four white people in the room. And, I'm the only Jew. I am, in other words, a distinct and visible minority here.

There have been a few moments of "othering," as it's known in some circles--some moments when I was clearly, albeit probably accidentally, marked as marginal. As not being fully of the group. There were a few comments from other participants about "people who look like us." In context, those were clearly references to African-Americans, and so at least for those moments, I was not being included in "us." There were also several prayers which invoked Jesus, and always in the first person singular, as in "we pray in Jesus's name.*"

* I did have to laugh especially at the one which began with several comments about coming together in unity, in all of our various forms and believes, and then went on to refer to us all turning to Jesus!

I obviously noticed these things, or else I wouldn't be writing about them. But, they didn't bug me very much, and that's what I'm really writing right now – why I wasn't particularly bothered by being "othered" a couple of times today. In part, it was just a question of proportion. I'm surrounded by people who are made to feel "other" on a regular basis – on a daily basis for some of them, I would imagine. To get overly sensitive about a moment or two when I was forced to experience a minuscule portion of their regular life seems awfully snowflake-ish of me, and I just decided to not take it too hard, basically.

But, it was more than that. What dawned on me was that, for me, this momentary marginalization was precisely that — momentary. It had absolutely no impact on my life, beyond this current moment. But, for most of the other people in the room, when they are marginalized, it's almost always one piece of a larger pattern of much more severe, and much more impactful, marginalization.

In other words, I was made to feel like I wasn't 100% part of this group for a brief moment or two. But, when I walked out of the doors of our little conference room, I went back to being a white man in America, which is a pretty damn privileged thing to be. I've got all the freedom, access, and power which comes, unearned, with my identity. But, when they are made to feel "other," it's not only the moment itself, but a reminder of the constant marginalization and disempowerment with which they live in our wider world.

Think of it this way – how hard is it to not have lunch? Well, that entirely depends on how long it's been since you've eaten. If you eat three meals every day, skipping lunch is not a big deal. If you regularly go hungry, and haven't had a decent meal in a couple days, then skipping lunch is probably a very big deal, indeed. And, it's pretty obnoxious of that first person to complain, especially to the chronically hungry person!

People sometimes complain about reverse-racism, and I'm not as dismissive of it as some people are. Treating anyone badly because of their race (or gender, or sexual orientation, etc) is never a good thing, and our society will be better the more of it we can eradicate. But, it's nice to remember that any racism, or any marginalization that I may endure is, because of the life I lead, always minor. And, ignoring it turns out to not be very hard at all, and actually feels pretty good.

Friday, January 27, 2017

Praying for the Siren

I recently decided to restart going through Rabbi Joseph Teluskin’s The Book of Jewish Values. It's a "short lesson a day" kind of book — certainly not one of the deepest books you'll ever read, but one with some good insights (and good fodder for sermons and blog posts, to boot). Lo and behold, the very first teaching is one I've loved for a long time, but had completely forgotten where I got it from. I'm pretty sure this book was the first place I saw it.

Rabbi Zalman Schachter-Shalomi (z”l) had a practice wherein whenever he heard the siren of an ambulance, police car, or fire truck, he would stop and offer a prayer, praying that they arrive in time to help whoever was in need, and that none of them would get hurt in the process. He suggested that we all do this, too.

Why should we do this? It doesn't seem that Reb Zalman (as he was always known) thought that our prayer would be efficacious, as that's normally understood; my stopping to ask God to speed them along and protect them does not make it any more likely that they will get there in time, successfully help anyone, or stay safe. My prayer doesn't affect them. But, my prayer affects me. My prayer for them will change my own state of being, at least momentarily.

It's easy to get annoyed by sirens. They're loud and annoying (on purpose!), and when we're driving, they often represent an annoyance, as everything has to stop for them. This practice of offering a prayer when we hear sirens is an exercise in sympathy. It shifts our attention away from ourselves and our own needs, trivial as they usually are. Instead, it focuses our attention on others who are obviously in much greater need than we are right now.

Most people "out there," at least in the Jewish world, seem to believe that the point of prayer is supposed to be to change God — that if we ask for something in the right way, it makes it more likely that we'll get that thing from God (many reject this notion of prayer, but they still assume that this is what prayer is, or is supposed to be; they just don’t believe in it). The truth is that, for hundreds, and maybe thousands of years, Jewish thinkers have often rejected this idea of prayer (not universally, of course. And, I imagine but don't know that non-Jewish thinkers are exactly the same way in this). Prayer doesn't change God — how could it? There are so many logical and theological problems with that idea, starting with the very notion that we have to ask for something at all — doesn't God know what we want already?

No — prayer can't change God, and prayer can't (by itself) change the objective facts of the reality in which we live (I don't care how hard you pray — you're just not changing the weather for this weekend or the outcome of the game you’re watching). But, prayer can most certainly change us. Prayer can change what we think about, prayer can change what we value, and prayer can help to change how openhearted and caring we are. And, much more.

Give it a shot. The next time you hear a siren, stop and offer a prayer for their safety and success. You might be surprised to find that, when you understand what a prayer is really meant to do, it almost always works.

Tuesday, September 20, 2016

Protesting the Anthem

There's been a whole lot of ink spilled over Colin Kapernick and his refusal to stand for the National Anthem. As I'm sure you know, he's doing so as a protest against the treatment of African Americans in this country. Many have joined in that protest in one form or another, many others have refused to, often condemning him, and those who have joined him, for being disrespectful to the flag, to the military, and to our country.

This morning, the news was filled with another story about an unarmed black man being gunned down by police. Another. Words fail, so I'm not going to even try to respond specifically to that incident, at least for now.

Here's what I want to say to anyone who is mad at Kapernick et al for what they're doing. Let's concede, at least for the moment, what you're complaining about. Let's concede that Kapernick is a whiny, privileged hypocrite. That he's aggressively disrespecting the military which has kept him safe*. That anyone who feels this way should just be quiet or (as ridiculous as this is on its face) leave the country. Let's, for a moment, let the worst version of Kapernick and his protest be what we accept as true.

* Although, I'll admit to being unbelievably frustrated that we've let anyone turn this into a debate about the military. The flag is not the military, and the military is not the flag. Unless and until someone actually calls out the military for something, conflating a protest against the anthem/flag with criticism of the military is just specious.

How bad is it? I mean--if Kapernick is everything his critics claim he is, what is he doing that's so bad? He's disrespecting a flag, and an anthem, and a country. I'm not a huge fan of that--I love our country, and as a religious person, I take symbols seriously. So, I'm somewhat ambivalent about the way he's protesting. But, that's all he's doing--protesting against symbols and institutions. Quietly and peacefully. That's as bad as it gets.

And, why is he protesting? Because black men keep getting shot by police when they've done nothing wrong. Because that's just the most heinous, egregious, awful, disgusting, unthinkable, evil manifestation of the larger reality, which is that racism is real, and it's present, and it affects people of color every single day in myriad ways, large and small. And that most of us who don't live daily with racism don't seem to be too bothered by that.

Disrespecting a flag vs. systemic racism. And, we're focussing on that disrespect.

If you don't like what he's protesting, or how he's protesting--fine. That's your right. But, if you think that the form of his protest is what's really important here, then we've got a bigger problem.

The world is on fire; let's stop protesting that we don't like the sound of the siren.

Thursday, September 1, 2016

A Thought About Interfaith Work

Just a quick thought about Interfaith work...

For the first time, and more and more, I'm having some success building Interfaith relationships here in Tampa. That's how I found myself having an early lunch today with Fr. Stephan Brown of St. Paul's church, and then attending the afternoon mass he celebrated with his congregation.

While he and I were talking, I remembered a metaphor for interfaith work, which really stuck with me while sitting in the congregation during mass. I can't say that I'm always good about using this framework, but I'm trying to! Here goes...

When I hear someone talking about their spouse in a loving way, I never get jealous, or defensive. If someone tells me that they're married to the best woman in the world, I don't feel the need to argue that, no, in fact I am! When someone tells me about how they met their partner, I don't think, "That's not the right way to meet someone." And, no matter how much someone extols the virtue of the person they love, I never find myself loving that person, or wishing I was married to them. But, what does happen is that it makes me think about my wife, and about our stories. And, that makes me happy. And, much of the time, hearing someone else wax rhapsodic about their partner makes me want to be a better partner myself--to make sure that my wife knows that I love her. Your stories of love aren't a challenge to my relationship; if anything, they're an aid to it, because your stories get me to focus on my own.

Ideally, it's the same with religion. Sitting in church today, I had no desire to be Catholic. I didn't want to accept Jesus as my savior, and I didn't wish that I had been brought up in the church. But, watching Fr. Stephan preach, and watching the faithful approach for the eucharist, did make me stop and think about my own religious life in a slightly different way from how I normally do.

The mass and the words of my new friend weren't my religion, and they didn't make me want to give up my religion, and they didn't feel like a challenge in need of a defense from to my religion. They were someone else's religion, and a beautiful example of that. And they made me love being Jewish, watching someone else loving being Catholic.

Wednesday, August 3, 2016

Ice Cream, Race and Privilege

Earlier today, I posted a little video on Facebook of a cop in Halifax who is pulling people over, ostensibly for some traffic violation, and then citing them for "driving without ice-cream," before giving an ice-cream cone to everyone in the car. I offered it as a feel-good counterpoint to all of the very serious (and very real) trouble with policing and race in America (and Canada, I presume).

A friend and classmate of mine gently but directly pushed back on me, pointing out how cruel it is to pull someone over when that person will almost inevitably fear for their safety. Even if the resolution is good, there's surely a moment when the driver thinks "Is this it?" Even if the intentions are good, which I assume they truly were, getting to the "good stuff" required playing on this woman's deeply seated fears. If I'm splitting hairs, I might challenge my friends use of the term "sadistic" to describe this, because the intent was to cause joy, not pain. But, that's a minor quibble--whether through cruelty or thoughtlessness, the pain that can be caused by this kind of thing is very, very real.

Here's another thing, though. When I first saw the video, I had that same thought. It wasn't as well developed, and certainly wasn't as strong, but I did think about that moment when the person in the car must have been afraid. I don't think I thought of it in terms of "feared for her life," but all of us who have been pulled over know that wrenching feeling of fear. For those who have seen like-skinned people killed for minor (or non-existent) traffic violations, that nauseating feeling must be incalculably greater. But, despite my learning more and more about what it's like to be a person of color in a situation like this, it just didn't fully register in this incident. It didn't seem like the main point. I mean, the interaction ended well, and she laughed, so all was good, right? It's just oversensitive to focus on that "little" moment when the cop was just trying to do something nice.

Still think it's not a big deal? Give this one a read:
To the untrained eye and ear, the black woman captured in the video sounded full of joy. But to black people everywhere, we know what loud, uncontrollable relief looks and sounds like. That relief that Maya Angelou once talked about that black women have perfected. That relief that forces you to laugh because you haven’t had the space to cry just yet. That relief every time we interact with police officers because we never know if we will leave that interaction alive.
Watching a situation, and being able to forget that for someone who looks like that, as opposed to someone who looks like me, it might have induced absolute, real-life panic? Thinking about the fear, but only briefly, and lightly? Thinking that a false pull-over might be, overall, funny and fun? There's a term for that.


Thanks, LR, for helping me see mine.