WITH ONLY a month left before the start of the annual war on Christmas—my Bill O’Reilly desk calendar keeps me up to date on all the seasonal liberal conspiracies—there is still time to plan this year’s shopping, starting with a new president.
Despite the fact that most voters are in critical need of a discerning hand to guide their choice—a choice that requires more thought than is possible during the commercial breaks on “Dancing With the Stars”—Sojourners is forbidden from providing that guidance because of restrictions from the Internal Revenue Service.
But this election is too important for us to quietly surrender to 501(c)(3) rules, since acquiescence is the final sanctuary of the coward, if he knew how to spell it. This year, with our nation so divided, it is time for Sojourners to issue a clear endorsement of one candidate, regardless of the consequences (a word that uses the letter “c” with laudable efficiency).
WE HAVE committed acts of civil disobedience before—getting arrested for protests against South African apartheid, the secret wars in Central America, and the immoral budget priorities of Congress, and, in a lesser known act of conscience, loudly objecting to the watered-down beverages on tap at our neighborhood bar. (Always the clever one in the group, I called it “tap water.”) The pizza was also horrible, but we let that one slide. The arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice. Unfortunately, justice is probably going to get bent long before they add more pepperoni. You just can’t rush bad pizza.
But where was I? Oh yes, our brazen act of defiance against restrictions of our 501(c)(3) status. It should be noted that 501(c)(4) nonprofits are allowed more leeway, as long as their work is educational and contributes to the “social welfare” of the country. The fact that many 501(c)(4)s are mainly promoting the social welfare of industrial polluters, gun manufacturers, and other groups of interest to Karl Rove is beside the point.
AFTER NEARLY 50 years moving from place to place—usually under cover of darkness to stay ahead of colleges claiming we still owed library fines—the Sojourners staff is finally moving to a place of our own.
We’ve been leasing space up to now, paying increasingly higher rents as the nation’s capital has become a hip and happening city. (Which began soon after we arrived in 1975. Coincidence? Not bragging, but vintage clothing stores didn’t become popular in D.C. until we showed up wearing clothing that, unbeknown to us, fit that category.)
Over time, the poor neighborhood that God called us to was overtaken by Starbucks and Target, and our office expenses went up accordingly. To be fair, maybe God wanted chain stores to provide low-cost merchandise to our underserved inner city. But what kind of god would also bring in a Bed, Bath, & Beyond?! In all our years working for justice and tenant rights, we didn’t once yearn for luxury sheets or French-made kitchen utensils. (Although, when you need Brita filters, they keep them just inside the front door. With Target, you have to go upstairs. I’m just sayin’.) When organic food stores started moving in, it was enough to make us nostalgic for buying milk at the corner liquor store. (You had to check carefully the date on the carton, because milk tended to hang around the store longer than did, say, Colt 45, which seemed to be much more in demand.)
SO IN AUGUST we’re moving. We’re calling it Sojexit, like Brexit, but with fewer catastrophic global consequences. After four decades under the thumb of landlords, we will finally be under our own thumbs, all 86 of them, if you count the interns. Our seventh and final move will be to a building we purchased. “We” meaning Sojourners, a Mennonite bank, and hundreds of supportive friends who share our commitment to justice, reconciliation, and having to empty our own trash.
JULY IS the month of our long-awaited political conventions, the final stop in a torturous electoral journey that most assuredly made our Founding Fathers roll over in their graves, throw up in revulsion, then roll back over with a raging headache, severe back spasms, and an irritable bowel. It’s been a tough year.
The Democratic Party will be meeting in Philadelphia, “The City of Brotherly Love,” and Republicans will gather in Cleveland, “The City That’s Having Second Thoughts,” because there was once talk about delegates bringing in their own firearms. But local officials convinced them to bring in a covered dish instead. (Fortunately, this still comports with the NRA’s noble philosophy: “The only thing that stops a bad guy with a casserole is a good guy with a casserole.”)
Delegates from across the nation will be gathering to affirm the choice of their party’s primary voters, the common folk whose wisdom is not always appreciated on Capitol Hill, but whose wishes deserved to be carried out. It’s the very essence of democracy, which this year featured the aerobic benefits of pushing and shoving. Hey, nobody said it would be pretty. But sometimes you have to take the road less traveled—the one paved with good intentions and littered with the signs you ripped out of your neighbor’s yard. But eventually you get back to the main highway of truth so the limousines of hope can ... uhm ... nope. Lost the metaphor. Sorry.
IT’S EASY to imagine the pandemonium that will afflict the conventions this year, and not just at the nearest Starbucks when thousands of impatient delegates with raging headaches, severe back spasms, and irritable bowels line up before the morning speeches. (Tip: Leave room for cream and three shots of vitriol directed at the other party.)
THIS HAS BEEN a year of harsh rhetoric, vicious condemnations, and flagrant name-calling, and that was just between Apple and the FBI. It was much worse in politics, with candidates hurling invective at a pace not seen since, okay, last year. They’ve called each other every name in the book—a book that would be banned in most public libraries—and have made our political institutions the laughingstock of the world. And not in a good way.
Having frequently been a laughingstock myself, I know how much fun it can be, but this feels different. The very character of our nation seems to be turning into a bad-tempered sourpuss. And not in a good way. Having frequently been a bad-tempered ... (Editor’s note: Just get on with it!)
In this time of political rancor and unrestrained social hostility, Americans are yearning for words of kindness. They are craving that rare note of hope. Unfortunately, I cannot provide this. It pains me to do so, but I must join in the refrain of negativity.
I really don’t like our cat.
LIKE MANY CANDIDATES, this cat came without being requested, but unlike Marco Rubio, he never left. We heard his desperate mewing outside our home and took pity on this helpless newborn. We fed him from a bottle for a couple weeks, amused by his playful biting and scratching, unaware he was just practicing until his jaws strengthened and his claws grew more lethal. Now, he’s fully grown and no longer cute. (His head is angular, like John Kerry’s, but without the heavy-lidded weariness of diplomatic responsibility and enormous private wealth.)
He basically rules our small home, a place whose normal-looking outside hides a frightening secret within. It’s like that remote farmhouse where fun-loving young people seek refuge after their car breaks down. The house seems welcoming at first, but then a strange, rending sound is heard (the cat ripping the shower liner), or a crash in the near distance (the cat knocking over precious heirlooms, but not the ugly ones). Walking into a room, the young people sense they’re not alone, and then someone’s leg is suddenly grabbed from under the couch, or clawed at from behind a chair.
THAT STATUE of Jesus standing with outstretched arms over Rio de Janeiro has always made a powerful impression on me; namely, how tired I would get if I did that for very long. These days, I don’t even greet family members with outstretched arms without written permission from my orthopedist, much less stand on a hillside piously overlooking a large population. (Not that anyone would ask me to. I’m very busy.)
It’s an awesome Jesus, although it has no moving parts and doesn’t light up at Christmas. It’s shorter than our own Statue of Liberty, and less green, and you can’t walk up a stairway inside it to peer out the top of his head which, in my opinion, is the creepiest thing you can do inside an American shrine. Unless it’s watching a baby spit up at the top of the Washington Monument, which I did years ago, after walking up the 897 steps to prove the stamina and grit of youth. (Come to think of it, maybe it was me that spit up.)
Nonetheless, that Jesus statue stands over Rio, night and day, making the people below extremely uncomfortable because they’re being constantly monitored by the Risen Lord. One can only hope that Rio’s famous nude beaches are outside his peripheral vision. (No peeking, sir.)
Living in Rio is hard enough, what with speaking a language that’s not quite Spanish. Portuguese is to Spanish as apples are to oranges, if the oranges tasted like bananas. Unlike the rest of South America, Brazil got stuck with Almost Spanish because in the late 1400s colonial powers Spain and Portugal divided up the continent using the negotiating technique of the day: rock, paper, scissors. Portugal chose rock. It was a different time then, with a different mentality. Five centuries later, we now know you should always choose paper.
A federal court has ruled that the Flying Spaghetti Monster, referred to as “His Flying Noodliness” by fans and followers, is not, alas, the object of a real religion. In a 16-page decision, the U.S. District Court of Nebraska ruled that Pastafarianism is satire, not sacred, and that anyone who thinks it is a religion has made an error “of basic reading comprehension.”
ONE OF OUR articles this month encourages us to more intentionally incorporate the lives and wonders of children into our worship, which is a great idea, because if all the kids are in the sanctuary you don’t have to volunteer for child care.
But seriously, tapping the natural energy of the young would create a more holistic experience and open the door to a greater connection with the divine, assuming the divine has a short attention span and a constant runny nose and tends to giggle during silent reflection. Not to mention drawing pictures on the collection envelopes in the backs of pews. (If they don’t want children’s graffiti on those envelopes, they shouldn’t put them right next to those little yellow pencils, which the child invariably drops and, with cat-like speed, goes after it before the parent can grab him. A short time later, pencil in hand, the young one looks around under the pew but sees no familiar legs or shoes. He is lost, not unlike the sheep the preacher is at that moment talking about, the difference being that the parent now pulling the child backward by his feet is less the Good Shepherd of the New Testament and more the Vengeful God of the Old Testament who doesn’t give a crap about sheep. But I digress.)
A child-centric church is something I experienced firsthand growing up in the warm embrace of the Southern Baptist church. For me, Sunday was the best day of the week. There was no school, so no gym class with humiliating taunts from peers questioning my athleticism, no condescending teachers refusing to give credit for my book report on TV Guide (so much to watch, so little time, what with homework and all that).
Church was a place of safety and support, a time for the social outcasts of weekdays to finally feel appreciated and valued, particularly by the adults, who gladly drew us into the heart of the church, just as soon as they finished their cigarettes. (In those days, all have smoked and fallen short of the glory of God, although I think God cut you some slack if it was menthol.)
THE BRIGHT LIGHT of a full moon cast long shadows on the snow as the firefighters walked up to my home. It was 2:30 a.m., and they tramped single file through the narrow trench I had dug, the exact width of a single snow-shovel blade. (I’m familiar with my sidewalk. I know what it looks like, and felt no need to uncover all of it from the two feet of snow that fell in late January. It was called “snowzilla” or “snowmaggedon,” but I preferred to identify this monster snow as a “snonster.” But that sounds like a head cold, and it never really caught on.)
The firefighters were responding to a call I made after awakening to the strong odor of burning. It smelled like leftover barbecue, which is an utter impossibility in my household because when we have barbecue, we eat it greedily while emitting animal-like growls to warn away other family members, then lick the empty plates clean in a state of giddy delirium. There are never leftovers.
(Editor’s note: Okay, we get it. It wasn’t barbecue.)
I rushed outside to see if a nearby home was on fire, and I saw nothing. But the smell was still strong, so I felt I had to notify the authorities. Figuring my editor was still asleep, I dialed 911 instead.
AS ONE OF the few white males who has not declared his candidacy for president, I’m actually enjoying the relative calm before the upcoming election season. Our television shows are still punctuated by soothingly predictable commercials about luxury cars and erectile dysfunction. In a few months they’ll be railing against job-killing gay marriage and the evils of climate science, also job-killing, followed by the reassuring voice of a man who says “I apologize for this message.” (Kidding. But wouldn’t that be great?!)
At this point, with little at stake, the legions of Republican candidates are of interest only for their entertainment value, their speeches lacking in substance but their repetitive talking points ripe with possibility for drinking games. (Caution: When listening to Ted Cruz, don’t choose the words “constitution” or “unadulterated judicial activism” if you’re the designated driver.)
We’re at that sweet spot in time when Iowa is just a state known for its agricultural products (corn, I think), and when Hillary Clinton has not yet been compared to Hitler. If we think about politics at all, it’s to come up with reasons not to support Bernie Sanders. Because, if you set aside the oddity of a Vermont senator who still sounds like the Flatbush of his youth, there’s only one reason: his age. He’s 73, six years older than Hillary Clinton and decades older than Donald Trump, who is, like, 12, right?
IN THE FEW months remaining before our lives are completely taken over by computers, there’s still time to join the Resistance. Or start one, since most of us are unaware of the need to do so. I personally haven’t noticed because I’m waiting for my first heart attack to teach me how precious life is.
You’ve probably missed the warning signs because you’ve been too busy tweeting or friending people on Facebook. These seemingly innocent acts—designed mainly to reduce productivity at the office—are helpfully consolidating personal data for the ever-watchful mainframes to harvest later. And when the computers finally reduce us to a subservient species, unfriending them won’t save you.
Just to be clear, I’m not talking about the federal government’s massive monitoring of our phone calls, an effort that revealed most human conversation is not worthy of the monthly fees charged by Verizon, AT&T, or that new prepaid service called Boost, which I first thought was a nutritional supplement for old people. (The guy behind the counter looked at me funny when I asked what flavors it comes in. And when he tried to explain “pay as you go,” I was confused. With nutritional supplements, you pay, then you go, a little later.)
BUT THE GREATER threat is the increasing pervasiveness of artificial intelligence, probably the worst artificial substance ever created, if you rule out Cool Whip.
I love Jon Stewart. I mean, like “maybe jump the fence” love him. His presence on The Daily Show has spoken to and with my generation through some of our most formative years.
And yes, he tells fart jokes (which I also love). And yes, he editorializes, (which is nearly ubiquitous in “legitimate news” streams anyway). But he also often names what people are thinking, feeling, or what they can’t even put into words.
And then he helps us laugh about it, and at ourselves.
On a recent episode of The Daily Show, however, he took a more sober tone when talking about the slaughter in the headquarters of the French satire magazine, Charlie Hebdo. One comment in particular that he made stuck with me, not because it was funny or witty. Rather, it pointed to something we all need to consider more seriously, I think.
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