If you don’t vote, you don’t get to complain?

Vote or don’t vote, everyone has a right to complain about how they are governed.

I get the nice feeling of shaming folks for not being politically active. But why does this old nugget—if you didn’t vote, you don’t get to complain—get limited to voting as the decisive vehicle for speaking into political realities?

Why not:
  • If you don’t protest the war, you can’t feel sad when people die in war?
  • If you didn’t vote in your local school board elections, you can’t be upset when the teaching your child receives is inadequate?
  • If you don’t own property, and therefore pay property taxes, you don’t have a right to complain about property taxes being used for a new stadium?
Find a better way to challenge people to engage their right to vote. The reason why many folks don’t vote is because the system is so rigged, many feel apathetic.
Others don’t vote for principled reasons. Everything from believing that they should opt out of the machinations of government altogether to the belief that they should put their energies into fomenting revolution.
I had a few big reasons why, until 4 years ago, I didn’t vote (at least not nationally):
  1. If you don’t vote, you don’t get pushed into the “them” category. Republicans often don’t listen to Democrats. And vice versa. When you are a principled nonvoter, folks get irritated with you, but they don’t think of you as the enemy. And it allows you to have deeper conversations about politics. For real. It is something I miss about being a principled nonvoter.
  2. I saw the energy going into party politics as a big relief valve. Generally speaking, folks who vote tend to think they can effect change. And, generally speaking, we all overestimate the weight of our voices and choices. I saw the way the anti-war movement lost momentum after Obama’s election. There is a very real sense in which voting can be a way of avoiding responsibility rather than taking responsibility, since voting isn’t the only (or even most effective) way of bringing change.
  3. I saw voting as an act of complicity. As George Carlin said: “I firmly believe that if you vote, you have no right to complain. Now, some people like to twist that around. They say, ‘If you don’t vote, you have no right to complain’, but where’s the logic in that? If you vote, and you elect dishonest, incompetent politicians, and they get into office and screw everything up, you are responsible for what they have done. You voted them in. You caused the problem. You have no right to complain.”

Why, then, do I vote now? Because #3 is a bogus argument (as bogus as the argument that provoked this article). Because #2 isn’t enough of a reason, in and of itself, not to vote. I have the freedom and privilege to be able to advocate for a candidate AND work for change in other ways. I don’t put much hope in voting (at least at the federal level), but I recognize its strategic values. Because #1 no longer works for me; I’m already known as so far to the left, that my republican friends avoid talking to me about issues.

But more important than understanding why people may not vote, it is important to affirm…and fight for…the conviction that everyone has a right to use their voice to criticize their government. That is, after all, why so many people vote. If someone DOESN’T vote, are you really advocating that they shouldn’t speak against injustice? That’s like saying the only appropriate place to speak into politics is by voting.

American Jesus

Matthew 5:38-45 American Exceptional Version

38 “You have heard that it was said, ‘An eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth.’ 39 But I say to you, do not merely resist an evildoer. If anyone strikes you on the right cheek (or is even thinking about striking you on the right cheek), strike them down. Strike down their families. Strike down their villages. Strike down their nation, so that even their descendants live in fear. 40 If anyone wants to sue you and take your coat, take everything they hold dear and laugh; 41 and if anyone forces you to go one mile, force them, by any means necessary, to go one hundred miles. 42 Give to none who beg from you, for that enables laziness, and refuse anyone who wants to borrow from you, for that promotes idleness and entitlement.

43 “You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall love your neighbor and hate your enemy.’ 44 And I say to you, despise your enemies and preemptively bomb or drone those who defy you (or defy your ally or have natural resources vital to your sense of security), 45 so that you may be children of your God; for he makes his sun rise on the good, and sends rain on the righteous while bringing darkness to the wicked and drought to the unrighteous.

Jesus Hates Islamophobia

Every time a Muslim refugee or Muslim citizen commit a violent crime in this country, it gets fed through the right wing media machine. Then hundreds of people, most of them professing Christians, leave hateful comments filled with revenge fantasies and violent rhetoric. Read the comments section of any major media article that even mentions Islam and you’ll see what I mean.

I have three things to say about this phenomenon.

1) This is called confirmation bias. One tends to find what one looks for. One pays attention to those things that support one’s beliefs and tends to ignore those that do not. We all do it. It becomes a problem when a bunch of people do it all at once and allow this collective confirmation bias to drive them towards fear and violence.

If I thought elderly white people were inherently violent, I would tend to notice all the stories about elderly white aggressors and would tweet and post such stories. Everyone else with my same bias would do likewise until there is a torrent of articles about the violence of elderly white folks. It doesn’t matter whether or not statistical data confirms my suspicion, just like the data showing that Muslim refugees aren’t more violent than other groups of people doesn’t matter to bigoted folks.

I get that this comparison is simplistic. But not any more simplistic than attributing all of the violence happening in a region to your superficial understanding of their religion.

2) If you follow Jesus, you have absolutely no justification for revenge. You have no justification for desiring violence against your enemies. Not only does Jesus tell us to love our enemies and lay aside our weapons, we are explicitly told revenge is forbidden.

When you use your Christian faith or evoke Jesus to support violence against your enemies, Jesus (sitting in heaven, I assume) feels phantom pain in his palms, side, and feet.

3) If you are concerned about the rise of anti-Western sentiments in the Middle East, about the rise of violent groups in the Middle East, or about the way in which Islam has been interpreted by those groups with violent intent, then stop scapegoating your Muslim neighbors. Instead of giving into fear, do some proactive research. Learn about the history of colonialism and conflict in the Middle East. Research the way in which global powers (like the US, Russia, China and the EU) use nations and factions in the Middle East and elsewhere like pawns, supporting one group yesterday and then condemning them as terrorists today. Ask yourself “why would we do that?” Look at a map of US military bases around the world, and at a list of drone strikes committed by the US in the past decade and ask, “where does anti-American sentiment come from?”

5 Wonderfully Subversive Books I’ve Read to My Son

Exordium: The new year has come. And I turn 40 in exactly one week. This is a time of transitions for me. A lot of my previous work (largely through the Mennonite Worker) has lessened. In 2016, I begin work on a number of new projects (my Pastoral Study Project with the Louisville Institute, my work with the Carnival de Resistance, and beginning a PhD program (this one isn’t definite yet…I’m still discerning). I also hope (particularly if I don’t begin a PhD program) this will be a year in which I go deeper as a writer and artist.

To mark this transition, I am going to issue a series of lists. I don’t presume folks will find these lists interesting; I’m doing this for myself. Creating the future is bound up with embracing what’s passed.

I love to read and I read a lot. But I don’t much time for personal reading these days—no, most of my reading time is devoted to my son. Since before he could speak, Amy and I have read at least a half hour every day to our son. It is one of my favorite things to do. Over the past seven years, we’ve read a lot of books. Most of them have been a bit complex for Jonas. However, we’ve been a firm believer of resisting the urge to simplify language too much when talking to our son (children have a much greater capacity for language than most grown-ups realize). We also believe that teaching a child to enjoy stories and books is even more important than helping him with his reading and writing at home. As long as he learns the basics at school, we believe giving him a love for reading will allow him to be self-directed in his growth as a reader (and writer). We take a similar approach to art: instead of urging him to develop better technique, we just encourage him to have fun with art, knowing it will help him to get better and better under his own motivation.

Children’s literature is, pound for pound, the most subversive form of literature today. Books written for grown ups can be thought-provoking or challenging or convincing. A People’s History of the United States can help you see history differently. The vastitude that is Noam Chomsky’s corpus can convince you to be a Better Leftist. Reading about Malcolm X or Che Guevara or Dr. King can stir up radical fervor. But being thoroughly convinced of radical things will get you nowhere without imagination.

This is where kid lit has such power: the best of it sows seeds of discontent, making you long for a different world. It creates a void that, as you grow older, you can fill with strange subversive ideas. Good kid lit instills a healthy disobedience…a naughtiness that won’t ever except the logic of “because I said so.” Children tend towards impracticality. And the best of children’s literature lets goodness or cleverness or whimsy triumph. Which, as we know, isn’t how the world works. In the real world, you have to get a good job. You have to respect authority. You have to work within the system. You have to be realistic.

Kids don’t care about that crap. And children’s lit nurtures such disregard. And sometimes that disregard takes root and never goes away.

Yes, Important Books about politics or economics or religion can tell us why things should be different, or how things could be different. But children’s literature makes us wish things could be different. The why and how lack power without that longing.

There are a lot of books out there. A majority of them stink. Of the ones that don’t stink, few have the sort of philosophical or ethical focus we want to pass on to our child. Thankfully, with a little research, we’ve found a number of excellent books that are both well written and impart the sorts of insights we want to pass on to our son.

These are the five books that I’ve found best combine wonderful writing with an underlying message that subverts the dominant narratives of our society. I present them in the order I’ve read them to Jonas.

The Gruffalo by Julia Donaldson, illustrated by Axel Scheffler

This is the least obvious book on this list, because it doesn’t have a clear radical message. It is the story of a mouse who is approached by three predators (a fox, a snake, and an owl) and he survives through trickery. In each case he tells his hungry adversaries that he is waiting to meet the Gruffalo (an imaginary creature he makes up on the spot). Afraid, the fox, snake, and owl run off. Things get tricky, however, when the mouse meets meets an actual Gruffalo who, incidentally, enjoys the taste of mouse.

The book evokes the thousands of folktales that feature a hero who must triumph by using his or her wits. This is an important lesson…there are reasons why this theme proliferates folk literature. In our world, our ability to challenge the system doesn’t come by having the most power. The weak triumph, not by the strength of their arm, but by the caliber of their wits. Honesty is the best policy in relationships of trust, but when dealing with the powerful, I want Jonas to grow up learning how to be clever, sneaky, tricksy, and even dishonest (in the right context).

Stone Soup by Jon Muth

You’ve probably heard the story of Stone Soup–an old folk tale in which hungry strangers trick villagers into sharing their food. While it is an old, oft-told story, Jon Muth makes it his own.

Muth’s Buddhism shines through as he re-sets the tale in ancient China. His masterful illustrations (Muth is, after all, first and foremost an illustrator) pulse with wry serenity. It is a wonderful story about hospitality, compassion, community, mutuality, and creativity. Even if I didn’t have a child, I’d own this book. It is a work of art.

The Finn Family Moomintroll by Tove Jansson

While not the best of Jansson’s Moomin books, it is (in my opinion) the best stand-alone book and the one I recommend that folks read first. The Moomin books are the sort of books college students in the early 70s would read while on acid. But in a good way. Jansson’s imaginative powers are unsurpassed. Odd characters and strange plot devices make for whimsical reading, but, underneath it all, there is a quiet darkness that reminds you that Jansson is deliberately subverting a world where the Moomins could never exist.

The main character (though, honestly, he’s only the main character in the way Richie Cunningham was the main character of Happy Days) is a sort of white furry hippo that is named Moomintroll. He lives with his parents (Moominpappa and Moominmamma) in big round house (that functions like communal flop-house for any animals or creatures or people-things that drop by) in an wild-growing valley. Moomintroll’s best friend is a philosophical harmonica-playing vagabond traveller named Snufkin. The Moomins tend to be egalitarian (except for a gentle, wise, and non-coercive maternalism from Moominmamma). They tend to dismiss outside authority figures as comical fools. And they reject wealth and power. In one instance, they discover a pile of gold while looking for treasure. They decide to keep it because it would make for pretty garden decoration.  Children will enjoy it, and adults will find themselves stretched in unexpected ways.

If you remain unconvinced, check out 50 Lessons that Moomins Can Teach You About Life.

The Earthsea Cycle by Ursula K. Le Guin

This is cheating, since the Earthsea Cycle is comprised of six books: (A Wizard of Earthsea, The Tombs of Atuan, The Farthest Shore, Tehanu, Tales from Earthsea, and The Other Wind). The Moomin books can be read individually. Earthsea needs to be read in its entirety, much like the Narnia books that came before. If I had to pick only one of them, however, I’d go with the first.

Le Guin is a living legend. She is a recognized master in both sciene fiction and fantasy. And her books explore some pretty heavy themes: war, gender, shame, violence, anarchism, economics, and more. The Earthsea books begin with a young untrained wizard, Sparrowhawk going to a wizarding school (she wrote it in 1968…long before Mr. Potter began a similar adventure). In his arrogance and pride (he recognizes he is a great wizard but still feels the need to prove himself), Sparrowhawk unleashes a great evil in the world and must stop it before it does irreparable destruction. It wonderfully subverts the notion of a good guy killing a bad guy, since the evil Sparrowhawk must defeat is a shadow of his own making. The rest of the series explores death, power, patriarchy, and xenophobia. It elevates things like simplicity, equality, peace, accepting limits, gardening, community, and working with one’s hands. If any series of books could make you a better person, it is this one.

A Wolf at the Gate by Mark Van Steenwyk, illustrated by Joel Hedstrom

I suppose it is “bad form” to praise one’s own book. I wrote this book precisely because I felt that there weren’t enough books out that A) encouraged nonviolent ways of resolving conflict while B) telling an exciting story. Most of the books I’ve seen that explore nonviolence are, well, kind of boring. At least for kids like Jonas. Jonas doesn’t want to hear stories about Dr. King or Gandhi (I hope, someday, he will). He likes stories about bandits and ferocious beasts. The book has garnered some great reviews. Kirkus Reviews says it is “a coupling of narrative and illustration that should stoke the imagination of any young modern reader…A visually stunning work addressing themes of peace, generosity, and forgiveness.”

Unfortunately, it isn’t currently for sale. After being for sale as a self-published book over the past 9 months, it has gone off the market until it is re-released by PM Press on April 1, 2016. You can pre-order it here.

* * *

There are plenty of other wonderful books I’ve read to Jonas. Many of our favorites aren’t on this list. Two of our favorite series have been the Prydain Chronicles by Lloyd Alexander or the Chronicles of Narnia by C.S. Lewis. While wonderfully written, they perpetuate a worldview where the good guys fight the bad guys and win, in part through violence. They also both celebrate monarchy (and other authoritarian stuff). However, of these two, I recommend the Prydain series. It is not only better written (in my not-so-humble-opinion), but it has some wonderfully subversive moments (particularly in the book Taran, Wanderer.

I could go on. But for now, I’ll ask: “What wonderfully written subversive stuff have you read to your kid(s)?”


5 Books that Woke Me

Today is the first day of 2016. In about a week (on January 9), I’m turning 40. This is a time of transitions for me. A lot of my previous work (largely through the Mennonite Worker) has lessened. In 2016, I begin work on a number of new projects (my Pastoral Study Project with the Louisville Institute, my work with the Carnival de Resistance, and beginning a PhD program (this one isn’t definite yet…I’m still discerning). I also hope (particularly if I don’t begin a PhD program) this will be a year in which I go deeper as a writer and artist.

To mark this transition, I am going to issue a series of lists. I don’t presume folks will find these lists interesting; I’m doing this for myself. Creating the future is bound up with embracing what’s passed.

My religious and political views are markedly different from that of my 25 year old self. The catalytic event for my radical shift was 9/11. Many people become more conservative when terrorist attacks happen. The opposite happened for me. The lust for revenge, particularly among Christians, shook me (the intro to my book the unKingdom of God tells some of that story). And so, in the following couple of years, I began to dig deeper into my faith. Thankfully, I read some books that challenged me to the core.

And so, here are five books that were instrumental in waking me from my dogmatic slumber:

The Gospel According to Luke

Yes. It is a cheesy move. Listing “the Bible” as your favorite book is incredibly passe. But there it is. Reading the Bible, a book with which I was already well acquainted, shattered my lens. One post 9/11 day, I was reading the gospel of Luke and my mind exploded with the realization that I was a Christian who had, essentially, silenced Christ. Luke’s Gospel reveals a Jesus who is angry with the powerful and rich, who loves the marginalized and the poor, who preaches love for enemy and the laying down of swords. This Jesus called me out of the path I was on (I was, at the time, planning on becoming an Air Force chaplain) into a much more radical path.

Favorite excerpt:

He stood up to read, and the scroll of the prophet Isaiah was given to him. He unrolled the scroll and found the place where it was written:

“The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me to bring good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives and recovery of sight to the blind, to let the oppressed go free, to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.”

And he rolled up the scroll, gave it back to the attendant, and sat down. The eyes of all in the synagogue were fixed on him.

Then he began to say to them, “Today this scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing.”

Things Fall Apart by Chinua Achebe

The novel, which has received global aclaim, follos the life of Okonkwo, a village leader in Nigeria. The novel follows his life and the life of his family before British colonizers and Christian missionaries come and shows the way in which, well, things fall apart after that. My first insights into the wickedness of colonialism came from reading Things Fall Apart. Before that, I had never really imagined that sending missionaries into the world could be a bad thing. It was the first time I remember thinking “maybe missionaries till the soil for the seeds of conquest.”

Favorite excerpt:

The white man is very clever. He came quietly and peaceably with his religion. We were amused at his foolishness and allowed him to stay. Now he has won our brothers, and our clan can no longer act like one. He has put a knife on the things that held us together and we have fallen apart.

Resident Aliens by Stanley Hauerwas and Will Willimon

In the years since reading this book, I’ve grown ambivalent about Hauerwas. Nevertheless, this book helped me shed my patriotism and recognize that the church is at its best when it is a prophetic voice calling the world to a better way of life rather than as a chaplain to society…seeking access to halls of power where it can influence policy. Resident Aliens unleashed my inner Anabaptist and set me on the past to becoming a Mennonite pastor.

Favorite excerpt:

Mainline American Protestantism, as is often the case, plodded wearily along as if nothing had changed. Like an aging dowager, living in a decaying mansion on the edge of town, bankrupt and penniless, house decaying around her but acting as if her family still controlled the city, our theologians and church leaders continued to think and act as if we were in charge, as if the old arrangements were still valid.

Silence by Shusaku Endo

Silence, follows a Portuguese priest, Rodrigues, on a dangerous mission to Japan (during the Tokugawa shogunate). Rodrigues is sent to investigate the growing number of faithful apostatizing, particularly of Father Ferreira, a famous missionary. Rodrigues discovers a church under persecution and finds that his triumphant Eurpoean Christ is silent in the midst of it all.

If you don’t want any spoilers, skip to the next book on the list. My favorite excerpt comes from the climax of the book. When I finished reading the book, I had changed. It gave me a glimpse of a Jesus who suffers with the oppressed. Reading the book was like having a born again experience…it remains my favorite novel.

Rodrigues holds to his triumphant Jesus in spite of being tortured. But the stakes are raised; he is told that if he doesn’t forsake Christ by stepping on a fumie (which is an image of the crucified Christ) many of the apostate Christians will be killed. Does he cling faithfully to the Christ of the fumie, or does he forsake him, therein saving others? In this act he is confronted with an entirely different understanding of Christ, whose voice speaks after a long silence:

The first rays of the dawn appear. The light shines on his long neck stretched out like a chicken and upon the bony shoulders. The priest grasps the fumie with both hands bringing it close to his eyes. He would like to press to his own face that face trampled on by so many feet. With saddened glance he stares intently at the man in the centre of the fumie, worn down and hollow with the constant trampling. A tear is about to fall from his eye. ‘Ah,’ he says trembling, ‘the pain!’

. . . The priest raises his foot. In it he feels a dull, heavy pain. This is no mere formality. He will now trample on what he has considered the most beautiful thing in his life, on what he has believed most pure, on what is filled with the ideals and dreams of man. How his foot aches! And then the Christ in bronze speaks to the priest: ‘Trample! Trample! I more than anyone know of the pain in your foot. Trample! It was to be trampled on by men that I was born into this world. It was to share men’s pain that I carried my cross.’

The priest placed his foot on the fumie. Dawn broke. And far in the distance the cock crew.

The Brothers Karamazov by Fyodor Dostoyevsky

Honestly, I didn’t finish the Brothers Karamozov the first few times I attempted to read it. Russian novels are like that. But I read enough to be ruined. The Brothers Karamazov is often touted as one of the best (if not the best) novels ever written. The characters are complex (more complex than most people I know). It somehow manages to be one of the most philosophical works I’ve ever read. It grapples with the nature of God, morality, free will, faith, reason, tradition, and change.

In particular, it was the fifth chaptercalled the “Grand Inquisitor”—that ruined me. The chapter contains a parable (told by Ivan, who tends to be a bit of a cynic, to Alyosha, his pious novice monk younger brother) that demonstrates how the Church has discarded Jesus.  In the parable, Jesus returns during the Spanish Inquisition.  The people recognize him and flock around him.  He compassionately heals several of the sick and lame.  Knowing who Jesus is, an elderly cardinal–the Grand Inquisitor–promptly arrests Jesus.  Jesus is dangerous.  He threatens the status-quo.  The Grand Inquisitor visits Jesus in his cell, informing him that he is no longer needed. The Inquisitor explains that Christ was wrong to reject each temptation by Satan. If Jesus had only given people what they wanted, he could have ruled. The Church, which is now allied with the devil, is better able to give the people what they need.  The Grand Inquisitor sets Jesus free, but banishes him.  The Grand Inquisitor will continue to use the name of Jesus, but has replaced his teachings for ones better equipped to meet the needs of the people. Jesus silently departs to “the dark alleys of the city.”

There are too many great passages in this book, but here’s one favorite:

The more I love humanity in general the less I love man in particular. In my dreams, I often make plans for the service of humanity, and perhaps I might actually face crucifixion if it were suddenly necessary. Yet I am incapable of living in the same room with anyone for two days together. I know from experience. As soon as anyone is near me, his personality disturbs me and restricts my freedom. In twenty-four hours I begin to hate the best of men: one because he’s too long over his dinner, another because he has a cold and keeps on blowing his nose. I become hostile to people the moment they come close to me. But it has always happened that the more I hate men individually the more I love humanity.

Noticing a trend here? It is telling that 3/5 of my list are works of fiction. And 4/5 are primarily narrative. This is one of the reasons I’ve recently shifted to writing literature. I’m sure I’ll still write a few works of nonfiction, but I’m convinced that a good story is the best container for theological and philosophical depth.

What books have most changed the direction of your life?