Category Archives: Politics and Culture

A Curriculum for Radicalization

A Curriculum for Radicalization

“Radicalization” is the buzzword of the day.

We’re hearing that the couple who killed fourteen people San Bernardino were “radicalized” before they even met and married. Many are wondering what exactly makes someone become similarly radicalized. Others are anticipating that Donald Trump’s inflammatory proposals would not make us safer, but in fact give a great boost to ISIS’s effort to radicalize recruits to their cause.

Doubtless there’s a technical definition for radicalization in the literature on terrorism. But I wish they’d settled on a different word. Because the thing about fundamentalists and extremists—whether bomb-wearing terrorists, or a university president urging students to start packing heat, or a political candidate with fascist ideology—is not that they’re radical. It’s that they’re really not radical at all. They may dominate the news, and strike fear in our hearts, and inspire vehement denunciations on our part. But they are still playing by the rules of the world, and there’s nothing radical about that.

There’s nothing radical about using violence to make a point.
There’s nothing radical about rank tribalism that pits people against one another.
There’s nothing radical about whipping up fear and intimidation to get your way.
Such has been the way of the world for a long, long time. It may not always be cloaked in the language of holy war, but “I’m right and you’re dead” is an all too familiar refrain in human history.

Such violent acts are better labeled not as radical, but as the antonym of radical, which is superficial. Shooting up a room full of defenseless people is a cheap and shallow attempt to advance an agenda. And demonizing an entire religion of people because of the actions of a minuscule few is similarly cheap.

I don’t know whether our generation’s challenges are tougher than those of past generations. But I know the next several decades will test us in profound ways. Right now it’s the demonization of Muslims in the United States, despite the fact that they’re better educated than the general public, are largely accepting of gender equality despite stereotypes to the contrary, and have rooted out more terror suspects than U.S. government investigations. (Read more here.) But pick your issue: wealth inequality, racism, a broken political system. Global climate change may be the most looming challenge, with ripple effects in the areas of health, ecology, justice, economics, and yes, security and terrorism.

What we need are people who are truly radicalized—who don’t accept the rules of the game we’ve been conditioned to play… who care more about doing right than being safe and comfortable. Who are ready for bold, maybe sacrificial action when the moment presents itself. (Radicals will not sit quietly by while a Muslim woman is spit on and abused on a city bus, for example.)

As a follower of Jesus, he’s the one I look to for inspiration and guidance, but there are many places people might turn for such inspiration. Regardless of our various religious or philosophical perspectives, people of good will need to suit up.

It’s good to be kind, to give to the food pantry, to pay for the Starbucks order of the person behind you. But those actions, too, are rather superficial—and remember, the opposite of radical is superficial. That’s not the game-changer we’re after. So what does it meant to be radical, right where we live and work and play and serve?

I’ve been pondering that question a lot. I’m thinking we need a curriculum for radicals, but I need your help. Here’s what I offer as the most basic starting point for such a curriculum. What should we add?

Learn how to say “peace be with you” in at least five languages. I suggest two of them be Arabic and Farsi. Use them when the situation arises.

Intentionally seek out places where you are in the minority. As tribal people, we are most comfortable with people who look, think and act like us, and when we’re not, our lizard brain can kick in and we can feel threatened. But as our society gets more and more diverse, we (especially those of us who are white) need to be able to seek out different voices and see diversity as a strength.

Find beauty even in terrible circumstances. Being a radical for goodness will be long, grueling work, with more defeats than victories. We need the vision to see beauty even amidst struggle.

Catechesis for radicals: What are the stories we need to be steeping in as radicals? I nominate Eyes on the Prize, the documentary about the civil rights movement. In high school, my government teacher arranged for us to watch it after school, and if we made it through all fourteen hours, he gave us two extra points on our final grade—not our grade on the final exam, our grade for the semester. That’s how important it is.

All right, fellow radicals—what am I missing?

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Image: metro_radical by Frederick Dennstedt, creative commons license

Trevor Noah: There’s a New Court Jester in Town

 

 

 

A New Court Jester in Town

I’ve written a lot about Stephen Colbert and how much I appreciate someone with such a strong yet progressive Christian faith, reaching the audience he does. I listened to an interview with Trevor Noah of The Daily Show recently, and I find myself equally appreciative to have his voice in our cultural conversation.

Noah grew up in Mandela-era South Africa–and he grew up “very very poor” in Soweto. His background gives him a very different perspective, and it’s a welcome one. (If you haven’t seen his bit about how Donald Trump is an African president, check it out now.)

Noah has talked about how bizarre it is to be as dirt poor as he was, now navigating fame and fortune. Here’s one exchange between Noah and Linda Holmes, the interviewer:

I was going to the Emmys and someone suggested I get a stylist. I inquired as to how much a stylist cost. And I was told anywhere between 5 and 25 thousand dollars.

Per what?

Per styling!

Per individual event?

No, I thought it was to buy the person as well! But it’s not. This is what people are paying! I couldn’t bring myself to do it. In fact I said I would rather take the money, buy one outfit myself, take a chance on that red carpet, have it out with the fashion police, and then take the rest of the money and give it to charity… and at least I know every time I’m on the worst dressed list, there’s a bunch of kids cheering, because they know they got the money I would have spent looking good.

He also addressed head-on the good intentions of people who say, “I want diversity in hiring—this position is open to absolutely anyone,” but then do nothing to ensure that people of color or women even hear about the position. We rely on our own networks to find people, Noah says—it’s an understandable impulse, but when our networks are comprised of people who look and think like we do, it doesn’t get the job done. For example, when The Daily Show put out a call for correspondents, they plugged into the network of agents and managers, and got something like 1,000 applicants… four of whom were black people. He thought “Well, maybe black people don’t like the Daily Show.” Then he was in a comedy club and met up with a table full of black comics, one of whom said, “Hey, if you need anybody for The Daily Show, I’d like to try for it.” Turns out none of the people around the table had heard about the casting call because none of them had agents or managers. Diversity is work, Noah concluded, but it’s worthwhile work… and if you put out a call to your usual networks and do nothing else, you haven’t done the work.

Jon Stewart often saw himself as the court jester for the media. They were his target, and he was at his best when battling their excesses and biases. Trevor may end up being the court jester for the privileged. Which could be very interesting to watch—especially if he can do it with a smile and a laugh. I’m interested to see where the show ends up.

Are Religious Children Less Generous Than Non-Religious Ones?

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Last week The Guardian published the results of a study that claims to demonstrate just that:

Almost 1,200 children, aged between five and 12, in the US, Canada, China, Jordan, Turkey and South Africa participated in the study. Almost 24% were Christian, 43% Muslim, and 27.6% non-religious. The numbers of Jewish, Buddhist, Hindu, agnostic and other children were too small to be statistically valid.

They were asked to choose stickers and then told there were not enough to go round for all children in their school, to see if they would share. They were also shown film of children pushing and bumping one another to gauge their responses.

The findings “robustly demonstrate that children from households identifying as either of the two major world religions (Christianity and Islam) were less altruistic than children from non-religious households”.

Older children, usually those with a longer exposure to religion, “exhibit[ed] the greatest negative relations”.

Someone asked me a few days what I thought about the study. I said, “Non-religious people get to feel superior and vindicated in their choices, conservative evangelicals can complain about the liberal media, and progressive religious types can geek out by wondering about sample size and methodology. Something for everyone.”  I can’t speak to the quality of the research, though I’m told it’s a peer reviewed study, which counts for something. On the other hand, Robert tells me that half of all psychological studies are unreplicatable, so…

But assuming this study is accurate, what would account for a lack of generosity in religious children? Not sure. For the record, I don’t think you need to have a religious tradition or belief in God to be a moral person. And at the same time, there is a strain of judgmentalism in some expressions of Christianity, and apparently Islam too, since that was also mentioned in the study.

But I do have one small hypothesis.

For the past several months, our family has been between churches. Since I finished my tenure at Tiny Church, we haven’t found a church to call home. I may preach in 2-3 congregations a month, but many of these are in other cities, so the kids don’t come with me.

During these months without a church, I’ve been keenly aware that it’s my job and Robert’s job–and pretty much ours alone–to teach generosity and kindness as spiritual practices. I say “as spiritual practices” because to some extent they also learn these attributes at school, during team sports and in other activities. But there’s usually no deeper meaning underlying them–it’s just the way you treat people.

Anyway, if this is our job and ours alone, we will want to approach it with great intentionality and care. Whereas parents who are religious may be relying on their faith communities to do a lot of this work. I used to hear this often from parents when I was a pastor–they rarely felt equipped to pass on the tenets of their faith to their children, and really hoped the church would do it instead.

Yet we know from study after study that parents are their children’s most important teachers. Which means that if parents are relying on faith communities to do this work, then the work isn’t getting done nearly as effectively.

What do you make of the study?

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photo credit: lone kid (6 of 8) via photopin (license)

Building a Bike Shed Out of Starbucks Cups: Beyond the #WarOnChristmas

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The other day I vented on Facebook,

November 8 and I’m already tired of the War on Christmas. No, not the people who are upset by Starbucks cups and Happy Holidays. The people who are upset with those people and compelled to post about it. I’m declaring war on the war on the War on Christmas.

My tongue was firmly in cheek (that last sentence! Come on!), but still, there have been a number of of blogs and FB posts, reposted and shared widely, decrying the outrage over Starbucks’s red cups and companies that say “Happy Holidays.” For the record, I agree with my colleagues that cries of persecution are juvenile and beside the point of Christianity. Most of them are clever, thoughtful and well written.

The problem is–and granted I am in a lefty Christian bubble too much–the reaction to the so-called War on Christmas seems way outsized to the controversy itself. Thus far the “War” seems to amount to a handful of articles, most of which mention the same 3-4 Christian leaders or groups, then sprinkle in quotes from various cranks with Twitter accounts.

I don’t doubt there are people who are offended by what they see as the secularization of the Christmas season. What I question is my tribe’s tendency to go straight to smackdown. Especially since this happens like clockwork every year. Must we do this?

I include myself in this question. Yeah, I didn’t jump on this particular bandwagon, but I’ve jumped on plenty in my day, and I have the limp and the hearing loss to prove it.

The critiques of the War on Christmas (what I called the war on the War on Christmas) legitimize a perspective that frankly doesn’t deserve legitimacy. (Telling your barista your name is Merry Christmas to force them to say those words? Really?!?) But more important, it amounts to building a bike shed. Which is what this post is really about.

Back in the 1950s, C. Northcote Parkinson identified the bike-shed problem, which has come to be known as Parkinson’s Law of Triviality. In a nutshell:

A management committee decides to approve a nuclear power plant, which it does with little argument or deliberation.  Then comes the decision on the color of the bike shed at the plant, during which the management gets into a nit-picking debate and expends far more time and energy than on the nuclear power plant decision.

Or put another way, the amount of discussion is inversely proportional to the complexity of the topic.

Anyone who’s ever served on a church council will recognize this, though it goes way beyond the church. This is the discussion about the color of the carpet in the parlor instead of why the church is dying, or the color of the corporate logo instead of the toxic office culture.

Red cups are easy. #Blacklivesmatter is complex. Westboro Church is easy. Syria is complex. We don’t always have to tackle complex issues on social media. But nor should we be seduced by stuff that really, really doesn’t matter. Again, I am writing to myself as much as anyone else. Please hold me to this.

Hopefully by now the red cup kerfuffle is waning. But other potential “battles” will come–it’s only November 10. I’d personally like to see us not jump into critiques of the War on Christmas. Not because there’s nothing to critique–there is. But because it’s too easy. I also suspect there are powers out there that benefit from our outrage and our division. If nothing else, this has been free publicity for Starbucks, whose coffee and red cups I enjoy–but it’s a multinational corporation that frankly doesn’t need our signal boost.

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Image courtesy of my friend Meredith Kemp-Pappan. 

Three Reasons Why “Because It’s 2015″ Is So Brilliant

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Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau has put together the most diverse cabinet in his country’s history. Not only does the cabinet have gender parity, but it features two aboriginal politicians, two persons with disabilities, and three Sikhs. It’s also the youngest cabinet than any past administration.

When asked why having a gender-balanced cabinet was important to him, Trudeau said, “Because it’s 2015.” My friend Michael called it “the mic drop moment of the political season.”

Predictably, there are people who are crying about quotas, and criticizing Trudeau for passing over qualified [white male?] candidates out of political correctness run amok. To that I say psssshhhh. For three reasons:

  1. The wisdom of crowds depends on a diverse crowd. If you’ve read James Surowiecki’s book with that title, you know that large groups of people are surprisingly good at arriving at the right answer on things. (That’s the poll-the-audience option on Who Wants to Be a Millionaire.) BUT, that crowd needs to be as diverse as possible, in order to correct for biases and blind spots. All other things being equal, Trudeau’s cabinet will be wiser than one in which everyone comes from the same background, even if that background happens to be exemplary.
  2. It matters that people see leaders who look like them. My little niece saw a picture of Hillary Clinton recently and asked who it was. My brother said, “That’s Hillary Clinton, she’s running for President.” My niece stared rapt at the picture and said, “I want a woman president.” Ultimately Clinton will have to earn our votes, or not. But seeing people who look like you, especially when you’re young and dreaming of what’s possible for yourself, is huge. (And let’s face it, there are still plenty of old white men in Trudeau’s cabinet.)
  3. It acknowledges that in a complex world, there is rarely a single “right” or “best” option. When people argue against, say, affirmative action, they often complain that the [white, male, whatever] candidate gets passed over for an unqualified or less-qualified [minority, woman, whatever] candidate. This strikes me as a very old fashioned notion. In a world as complicated as ours, once you weed out people who are clearly not qualified, you may be left with multiple qualified candidates, albeit with different skills and backgrounds. This happens in college admissions–if a school admits 500 students, there’s probably going to be very little difference between candidate 500 and 501. That’s an uncomfortable truth if you’re #501, but it’s simply the reality. The idea that there is one and only one clear answer seems very romantic, like believing there’s one soul mate out there for everyone. Eh. Not really. Instead there are flawed people who measure up to one another like apples and oranges, so you have to be rational and discerning, but ultimately trust your judgment. Or put another way:

Why indeed?