Are We Entering an Age of Political Violence?

We Might Be Heading Down a Dangerous Path

The shooting in Alexandria, Virginia targeting the Republican Congressional Baseball Team is a horrific event on its face. Violence is always unwelcome. Being helplessly caught in the cross-hairs of an active shooter with no cover or defense has to be a terrifying situation. I empathize with every person present and their families, and hope for a full recovery of the victims, including staffers, police officers, and Rep. Steve Scalise, the majority whip from my home state, Louisiana.

This shooting is compounded by the fact that it appears to be an act of political violence. Just before opening fire the shooter, James Hodgkinsin, asked whether this was the Republican congressional team or the Democrats. We are fortunate to live in a country where violence seldom meets politics. Politics and violence come into contact so infrequently that many Americans take it for granted. Incidents like this remind us how fortunate we are to live in a country where the body politic is divorced from violence. There can be no freedom when politics are coerced by violence.

Obviously, the perpetrator, who has since deceased, was deranged. No one in their right mind would take to shooing at unarmed, defenseless people. But in an effort to both curb shooting violence and ensure that our politics remain devoid of violence we must ask ourselves what we can do to deter such acts in the future. Note I said "deter," not eliminate. I understand no measure is full-proof, but active measures can be taken to reduce the likelihood of mass shootings and acts of political violence.

The shooting this morning just outside the Capital is a perfect example of why Kathy Griffin's photo shoot holding the decapitated head of Donald Trump was unacceptable. I am not laying this shooting at her feet. I do not believe she intended any malice. I think she is a comedian who blurred the line between sensationalism and basic decency in an effort to garner attention and to make a buck and a political point.

Perhaps the line she crossed is somewhat elusive, and maybe even more so for a comedian. For example, the Der Spiegel cover depicting Trump holding the decapitated head of the Statue of Liberty is, in my opinion, perfectly acceptable political commentary because it insinuates "acts of violence" against the principles upon which our government restspolitical malpractice, if you will. It is symbolic. The Kathy Griffin photo shoot lacks symbolism. It fails to point past its obvious meaning. Griffin's photo shoot, even if it was not her intent, suggests that violence is an appropriate form of recourse against Trump. It indicates that Trump is so bad, so unacceptable that his death is warranted, even welcomedonce again, even if was a tasteless attempt to be shockingly funny. Therefore, the universal and immediate disapproval with which her actions were met and the subsequent consequences were appropriate and absolutely necessary in order to maintain certain levels of decency in public discourse.

The threat of political violence can never be tolerated in a free society. Political violence uses fear to manipulate the civic process. This is the definition of terrorism. Freedom and political violence cannot occupy the same space. One cancels out the other. We must guard the body politic against the threat of violence. To do that we must guard our thoughts and words against violent innuendo.

American government is a two-party system. It has been since its inception. The two party system dates back to the vicious rivalry between Alexander Hamilton's Federalist Party and Jefferson's Democratic-Republican Party. In order for a two party system to work, each side has to view the other as the "loyal opposition."  The idea of loyal opposition means that each side recognizes the other as loyal to the democratic principles upon which our government is established, while dissenting to the policies advocated by the opposing side. When the notion of loyal opposition breaks down, political violence ensues, which if left unchecked, may lead to civil war (See 1861 to 1865).

I, for example, disagree with 95% of the policies advocated by the present day Republican Party. However, they represent a constituency that is also enfranchised by the United States Constitution. They are accountable to that constituency. We win these political disagreements at the ballot box. And in a democratic state we win at the ballot box by advancing our arguments in public debate, organizing, and protesting. We must win the war of ideas. As demonstrated by Martin Luther King, this is possible under the most dire of circumstances without prostituting decency or resorting to violent innuendo.

The opposing party is a political adversary and not a physical enemy. They are co-participants in the American experience. Even now, in the most politically charged times of my life, the opposing party is not an enemy of the State. There are accusations circulating through the press and floating around the public arena that the President of the United States or perhaps some of his campaign aides colluded with Russia to meddle with an American election. I am a vociferous Trump critic and remain open to the idea that he or members of his campaign may have colluded with Russia. I also believe public discussion and debate about this, as well as tax reform, healthcare, and foreign policy is a civic duty. Even still, threats of violence against him or his supporters is unacceptable. A Special Prosecutor has been named to answer those questions regarding Russia. We must allow that investigation to administer justice and resist temptations to allow our standards of decency to slip. And even though Trump has himself called for violence at rallies, we can not overcome such callousness by going tit-for-tat, but only by rising above it.

Casual quips on social media about assassination or political violence are not acceptable. It is true that the overwhelming majority of people can issue and receive such tasteless comments without any thought of acting. However, there are those perverse minds that are ratcheted up by violent rhetoric. They see it as an invitation to act or as the normalization of something they have been contemplating, thereby a tacit endorsement of violence. Obviously, no one means it as such. It is careless. Kathy Griffin did not intend for her photo shoot to be taken that way, but it is essential that we reject such images and language because their are those that will take it that way. And since only an unbalanced mind would resort to political violence, we have to consider how such minds interpret our words and actions .              

The other side of the Alexandria shooting is all too familiar. It is another mass shooting. It is another example of a deranged person with easy access to high powered weapons firing into a crowd of defenseless people. America knows all to well the drill that ensues following a mass shooting. Whether it be on a baseball field, in a movie theater, or at a school, prayers poor in. I am not opposed to prayer. But prayer is empty unless it is supplemented by action. Prayer without action divorces spirituality from the world of responsibility, and in the case of gun violence, for reasons of political expediency. 

We can pray to be free of stress or anger, for example. However, there will be no increase of peace, serenity, love, or compassion, unless we are willing to identify and address the causes and conditions that give rise to stress and anger in our daily life. Similarly, we can pray for those affected by the shooting today. And they may even find some consolation in the fact that millions of people are praying for them. But unless we are willing to identify the causes and conditions that gave rise to the events of this morning and arouse the political will to address them, there will continue to be an epidemic of gun violence, as our recent history demonstrates. It is a relapsing cycle of gun violence, prayers, and fatuous debate with no end in sight unless we are willing to make common sense reforms.

Jesus Wasn't Polite Company

Well-intentioned followers of Jesus too often assume he was a warm, fuzzy guy. 

In him they see someone preoccupied with keeping the peace, not making waves. And there can be no doubt that Jesus was a peacemaker. He was non-violent to the core. But non-violent is not the same as non-confrontational.

Non-violence is an inherently confrontational practice. We need not look as far back as the Gospels to confirm this fact. Both King and Gandhi used confrontation to effectively dramatize injustice. Similarly, confrontation was a preferred tactic of Jesus. 

Jesus was undoubtedly a kind, compassionate, and loving man. But Jesus's message was subversive. His behavior, tactics, and rhetoric call to question the simple-minded ideas many of us cling to about love and compassion. The fire-brand that turned over the money-lender's table is tough to square with the overly sentimental image of Jesus many of us hold dear.

Jesus was not an "agree to disagree" kind of guy. When the Pharisees asked him, "Why do your disciples not live according to the tradition of the elders, but eat with defiled hands?" Jesus did not say, "To each their own. Now go in peace my brother." He instead called them "hypocrites" and said,
"You have a fine way of rejecting the commandment of God in order to keep your tradition!"

Ouch. That is the sting of brutal honesty. 

“Our ideas of God tell us more about ourselves than about Him,” said Thomas Merton. I suppose the same is true about Jesus. The always affable and courteous image of Jesus that occupies the altar of our mind conforms more to our fears and expectations, than the picture painted by the Gospels. It appears to be an image cast in the shadow of our fear of confrontation. We don't want Jesus to be confrontational because we are afraid of following him into the conflict.

Conflict can be scary business. 

Jesus never declined an invitation to a good debate, even when tensions were high. "They took up stones to stone him." Stop and think about that: "They took up stones to stone him." If there is ever a time to keep your mouth shut, it is when they take up stones to to stone you. Yet, Jesus offers perhaps his wittiest response of all to this stone-toting audience: "Is it not written in your law, 'I said, you are gods?' (82nd Psalm) Now if those to whom the word of God came were called 'gods'—and the scripture cannot be in error—can you say that the one whom the Father has sanctified and sent into the world is blaspheming because I said, 'I am God’s Son?' If I am not doing the works of my Father, then do not believe me. But if I do them, even though you do not believe me, believe the works, so that you may know and understand that the Father is in me and I am in the Father." He said that to people who were about to stone him!

I am not saying that Jesus was unnecessarily combative or the First Century equivalent of an internet troll, but I am saying that when ideas and practices deviated from the truth as he saw it, Jesus turned into that friction, rather than away from it. He was not concerned with "keeping the peace," so to speak. He said, "Do not suppose that I have come to bring peace to the earth. I did not come to bring peace, but a sword." Obviously, he is not referring to physical violence. He is talking about the sword of wisdom which cuts through those ideas, beliefs, traditions, and institutions that prevent us from realizing what he called "The Kingdom of Heaven."

Challenging someone's "beliefs" is often thought to be impolite. Social customs that place our religious ideas above dispute are built in memetic devices that aid those ideas in their struggle to endure. On the spiritual path, such etiquette is counter-productive. It compartmentalizes our beliefs, segregating them from the reality of our daily life, which is the environment they must learn to operate within. In fact, unless they learn to operate within that environment they cannot be considered proper beliefs.

Kant describes three degrees of conviction: opinion, faith, and knowledge. In brief, opinion is both subjectively and objectively insufficient; faith or proper beliefs are subjectively sufficient but objectively lacking; and knowledge is both subjectively and objectively sufficient. Sufficient to what? Establish truth. What is the minimum threshold of truth? According to the pragmatic theory of truth as fleshed out by William James—which is the most suited for our purposes—it is utility. When an idea inspires action and the corresponding result of that action proves to be useful, then that idea ceases to be a mere opinion and becomes a proper belief, though it lacks the persuasiveness or efficacy needed to be universally accepted as knowledge. This is the ladder our ideas must climb to become beliefs, the ascent of which requires study, debate, self-examination, and spiritual practice.  

Social taboos against openly critiquing religious or spiritual ideas do nothing more than guard those ideas against the pressure truth applies to them, which is what forces them to adapt or mature into proper beliefs. As a result, our ideas about spirituality fail to ripen into a practical and effective spirituality. They remain adolescent, under-developed, ill-suited for life in an adult world, which is why Jesus ignores this custom. He embodies the sentiment expressed by Paul when he wrote"When I was a child, I spoke like a child, I thought like a child, I reasoned like a child; when I became an adult, I put an end to childish ways."

Politics is another sphere of intellectual life that is often quarantined. We are afraid of the tension soaked conversation that ensues when politics, religion, or the ever combustible combination of the two surfaces. People tend to identify with the the ideas that collectively define their religious and political orientations and therefore feel internal friction—stress, fear, anger—when those ideas are challenged by competing points of view. Therefore, those conversations typically surface only in the "safe space" of like-minded people. And breach of this unspoken protocol is thought to be bad manners, as the old saying goes, "In polite company, it’s not proper to talk about religion or politics."

Jesus is not polite company! 

He is extremely critical of other's beliefs. In fact, the word "hypocrite" appears approximately twenty times in the Gospels. I am not suggesting we run around calling people hypocrites, but I am suggesting that open and honest debate is healthy, even necessary, for spiritual growth and a thriving democracy. We should be respectfully critical of other's beliefs, as well as our own. And by critical I do not mean rude, but "crit·i·cal: an analysis of the merits and faults of a given idea, proposal, or practice."

Beliefs are the ideas that orient us toward the world in which we live. They are those ideas upon which we act. When beliefs or traditions prevent ourselves or others from orienting their entire Being toward the reality of our daily life, they should be challenged. If there is a manner of living that is more fulfilling, then that life should be lived and any beliefs that prevent us from actualizing that life should be challenged. Avoiding this confrontation is a form of spiritual bypassing. When our ideas are challenged, it is an invitation to grow: an invitation to be transformed by the renewing of our mind.

I am not suggesting that walking the spiritual path requires us to become contrarians. I am simply saying that debate and discussion are an essential part of a balanced and healthy spiritual diet. And furthermore, they are part of the path outlined by the example of Jesus.

We have to be willing to have those uncomfortable conversations. Discomfort is the texture of kenosis, which is the active ingredient in spiritual growth. We have to be willing to question not only our beliefs and traditions, but the beliefs and traditions of others—not out of spite, but as an expression of love and fidelity to the truth. This is part of Jesus's yoke, his jnana yoga, if you will.      

Climate Change and Trump's Decision to Leave the Paris Agreement

Climate change is an observable phenomena that can be measured and the data can be collected and analyzed to produce a conclusion. This is the job of scientists, not the host of "The Apprentice."

The overwhelming scientific consensus on climate change is that it is demonstrably real and man contributes to this dangerous warming trend. This view is endorsed by 97% of all scientists that publish in the field.

What's more, climate scientists are the only people on the planet taking measurements, collecting and analyzing data about climate change. And yet, the reality TV star we elected President, in his hubris, has decided to disregard their conclusion and go on a hunch. Making policy decisions to the contrary of informed and uniform scientific consensus is arrogant, short-sided, and reckless. It binds future generations to the political whims and personal preferences of an ignorant and sophomoric mind.

The Paris Agreement is not perfect, but it is a giant step in the right direction, and America backing out of the deal will make it nearly impossible to strike another international deal in the future. It deals a decisive blow to both the planet and America's credibility.

You cannot make America great by destroying the planet America is on. "America First" cannot mean America comes before the planet it is a part of—that is like sawing off the branch you are sitting on.

To know the Paris Accord is a necessary step in the right direction, I do not need to understand the intricacies of climate science. Nor do the conclusions of climate scientists need agree with my personal politics. I only need to understand and accept that the epistemology of sciencethe method of collecting and organizing data in the form of testable explanations about the physical worldis superior to pure speculation.

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