Save Your Prayers

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It must be me, but frankly, I am sick and tired of hearing people say “you are in our thoughts and prayers.” It seems that those words are the thing to say these days. Those words are said after just about every crisis or disaster in this country. News anchors and commentators say them. Politicians say them. Preachers say them. I am sure that they are all well-meaning people, but those words have become a cliché.

I suspect that God is tired of hearing those words, too.

And I am quite certain that the people we so readily say that we are praying for are really tired of those words as well:

We pray for hungry people instead of skipping our second latte of the day and buying them lunch.

We pray for a friend battling depression instead of sitting with that person for a few minutes and really listening.

We pray for the families of murdered black men instead of speaking directly to the institutionalized racism in law enforcement and to the darkness of our own hearts.

We pray for the victims of sexual assault instead of dealing with the misogyny, sexism, and pornography that devalue young women in the eyes of both young and old men.

We pray for the members of the LGBTQ community when they are terrorized instead of demanding that churches and other institutions fully affirm their humanity and celebrate their inclusion.

We pray for innocent American Muslims who endure violence instead of calling out ignorant bigotry from our preachers and politicians that breeds hatred.

We pray for the victims of another mass shooting instead of fully engaging in the battle for legislation that would make guns and assault rifles more difficult to purchase.

Well, stop praying already!

Save your prayers, for heaven’s sake!

STOP!

Stop tossing off hollow words to the heavens when you are standing on the bloody ground of a hurting world.

Stop being on the front lines of suffering and calling for some invisible backup you hope will come to the rescue like the Seventh Cavalry in those old western movies.

Stop acting as if so much of the terrible stuff passing in front of you is beyond your ability to do something.

Stop feeling so good about yourself for feeling bad.

Compassion alone is useless. We need to get our hands dirty. Praying for God to move while we sit on our collective derrieres is not redemptive religion. It is empty religion.

This is not about passing the buck to God; this is about realizing the potential to love and to act that is in each one of us.

US?

Yes, us.

We have been given life and breath and gifts and resources and abundance, and if we stop hoarding them so much, we may soon find that the space around us becomes less and less horrible.

If we dare to step outside of our laziness and selfishness and apathy, we may find that we are no longer content to just pray. We may feel burdened to become the answer to prayer; to become part of the solution, rather than part of the problem.

If we stop asking God to do what we are already wired and equipped to do, our prayers will change. Those prayers will not be delivered to the heavens above, but to the mirrors that reflect our images here and now on earth.

If there is a prayer to be prayed, let it be the one attributed to Saint Francis of Assisi, which in part reads: “Lord, make me an instrument of your peace. Where there is hatred, let me sow love; where there is injury, pardon; where there is doubt, faith; where there is despair, hope; where there is darkness, light; where there is sadness, joy.”

John F. Kennedy said it so well in his 1961 Inaugural Address: “With a good conscience our only sure reward, with history the final judge of our deeds, let us go forth to lead the land we love, asking His [God’s] blessing and His help, but knowing that here on earth God’s work must truly be our own.” (The italics are mine, not Kennedy’s)

So pray less and do more!

Yes, I am sick and tired of hearing people say “you are in our thoughts and prayers.” I hope you are as well.

[Thanks to blogger John Pavlovitz for the inspiration for this piece]

A Time to Hate

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“Silence in the face of evil is evil itself…Not to speak is to speak. Not to act is to act.” -Dietrich Bonhoeffer

How many times have we heard that the problem with the world today is that we have forgotten how to love? It was over forty years ago that Hal David and Burt Bacharach wrote What The World Needs Now Is Love, a song that contains the lines: “What the world needs now is love, sweet love./It’s the only thing that there’s just too little of . . .

So the problem is not particularly new.

While I admire the sentiments of the song, I believe the problem is not that we have forgotten how to love, but that we have forgotten how to hate – righteous, clean, disinterested hate. Hate is a strong and provocative word and I neither invoke it lightly nor frivolously. I suspect that at first blush my belief may sound shocking, controversial, and even dangerous, but please bear with me and let me explain what I mean.

Evil currently stalks the world in many forms; and moral people, afraid of being poisoned by hate, have become indifferent to evil. We have forgotten how to hate and what to hate. Forgetting how to hate can be just as damaging as forgetting how to love. I realize that, immersed as we are in a culture that exhorts us to “turn the other cheek,” such a statement can sound quite absurd. We need to remember the wisdom found in the Talmud: “Those who are kind to the cruel will end up being cruel to the kind.”

There is a hatred from which we instinctively recoil. In so many of its manifestations, hatred is ugly, vicious and destructive. It does fully as much harm to the subject as it does to the object. It is pitiful to think of people going down to the grave, nursing animosities that affect body, mind and spirit.

But are there not evils that should be hated – evils that should arouse in us both loathing and abhorrence? How can we look on war or racism or slums or prostitution or economic exploitation or murders in our cities with anything other than detestation? There is a hatred that is clean, disinterested and free from malice, what the writer of Psalm 139 calls a “perfect hatred.

As he worked in the slums of London’s East End, Salvation Army General Bramwell Booth expressed that “perfect hatred” when he said: “My God, how I detest the enemy that has wrought this havoc.” Without such selfless and righteous indignation, evil goes unchecked and flourishes.

When one thinks of the great reformers, almost all of them without exception were passionate in their righteous indignation. That passion is indispensable to moral leadership. Think of those who have led the way in societal change:

  • think of Amos, the Hebrew prophet, thundering against the oppression of the poor;
  • think of Martin Luther, the Augustinian monk, assailing the evils of the Roman Catholic Church’s indulgence system;
  • think of Dorothea Dix, the Roman Catholic social activist, dedicating her life to improving the care of the mentally ill;
  • think of the Grimke sisters – Sarah and Angelina – the first white female abolitionists, crusading not only for the abolition of slavery, but also against the racism and sexism of mid-nineteenth century America;
  • think of Rosa Parks, the woman whom the United States Congress called “The Mother of the Modern Civil Rights Movement,” refusing to obey bus driver James Blake’s order that she give up her seat on his bus. This action of civil disobedience started the Montgomery Bus Boycott and launched Martin Luther King, Jr. into national prominence; and lest we forget,
  • think of Jesus of Nazareth, the itinerant story-telling Jewish rabbi, taking a whip in his hands and driving out of the temple the moneychangers and those who sold oxen, sheep and pigeons – all of whom had made the temple “a den of thieves.”

Disinterested hatred has had a part in all beneficial reforms. Such hatred is not incongruous with love. Indeed, dare we describe as either loving or good anyone who is incapable of hating wrongdoing? Can we not say that hatred of evil is not only permissible, but also mandatory?

But I know that such a statement is difficult, for obviously there is a problem here. How can one hate and at the same time love? How can one be angry and at the same time just? How can one rise up in righteous indignation against some flagrant iniquity and at the same time preserve a loving spirit? To those questions, I would argue that hatred is a valid emotion – an appropriate response – when directed at the truly evil: at those who have gone far beyond the pale of human decency by committing acts that threaten the basic fabric of civilized living. I am particularly thinking of:

  • the individuals who, for no apparent reason, lined up four teenagers in Newark, New Jersey, made them kneel against a wall, and then shot them in the head, execution-style; or
  • the terrorists who flew airplanes into New York skyscrapers or the suicide bombers who planned to blow transatlantic commercial aircraft out of the sky, killing appalling numbers of people; or
  • the white supremacists who dragged a black man three miles while tied to the back of a car; or
  • the three terrorists who coordinated nail bombings in Belgium: two at the Brussels Airport in Zaventem, and one at the Maalbeek metro station in Brussels. In these attacks, thirty-two victims and three perpetrators were killed, and over three hundred people were injured; or
  • the extremists who attacked Istanbul’s airport and killed forty-seven people and wounded over two hundred; or
  • the three suicide bombers who struck near the Stade de France in Saint-Denis, followed by suicide bombings and mass shootings at cafés, restaurants and a music venue in central Paris, killing 130 people; or
  • the attackers in the deadly assault on a bakery/cafe in Bangladesh, killing at least twenty hostages, ending a nearly eleven-hour siege; or
  • the Syrian dictator who is responsible for at least 250,000 deaths, twelve million more homeless, cities and historical treasures in ruins, the economy devastated, and no end in sight; or
  • the twenty-nine-year-old American security guard, who killed forty-nine people and wounded fifty-three others in a terrorist attack – also considered a hate crime – inside Pulse, a gay nightclub in Orlando, Florida; or most recently,
  • the radicalized sniper who killed five Dallas police officers in the deadliest incident for law enforcement in the United States since 9/11 and the Kansas City, Missouri man who went on a shooting rampage that left two police officers, a sheriff’s deputy dead, and three others wounded in Baton Rouge.

Such people are irretrievably wicked. Such people are not just utterly irresponsible; they are deeply immoral and profoundly amoral. Therefore, not to hate such evil persons is itself evil and constitutes a passive form of complicity. We are obligated to despise and to resist such wickedness at all costs.

I know that the Judeo-Christian tradition teaches that the true object of proper hatred is the sin, not the sinner, whose life must be respected and whose repentance effected. But does this teaching apply to impenitent and hardened monsters who pay no heed to correction? For us to extend forgiveness and compassion to them in the name of religion is just insidious.

What is needed so badly in our time is a clean, disinterested hatred of evil. When one thinks of the wrongs that cry out to be set right, the apathy of the average person is really astonishing. Shortly after Dr. Martin Luther King Jr began his dauntless fight for civil rights in the South, it shocked him that more support did not come from Christians, and in particular, from Christian clergy. In his book, Stride Toward Freedom, Dr. King wrote: “History will have to record that the greatest tragedy of this period of social transition was not the strident clamor of the bad people, but the appalling silence of the good people. Our generation will have to repent not only for the acts and words of the children of darkness, but also for the fears and apathy of the children of light.”

What is the reason for such a timid, culpable, and criminal silence; for such a lack of righteous indignation; for such an absence of vigorous, passionate, and horrified protest; and for such a shortage of sharp, intelligent, and constructive criticism? Why are we so prone to sit back and to do nothing, content to tolerate existing wrongs and to take the line of least resistance?

I must admit that I do not have all the answers to those questions, but I do believe that when there is no passion, no white hot fervor, no ardent love of the right, and no burning hatred of wrong, we have become morally and spiritually flabby. In such a time, we need to be reminded that when the First Dynasty of ancient Egypt was falling into ruins, someone was brave enough to inscribe the following words on the side of a tomb: “No one was angry enough to speak out.” Those words are reminiscent of Dante Alighieri famous line: “The hottest places in hell are reserved for those who, in times of great moral crisis, maintain their neutrality.”

The lesson in all this should be clear: our moral flabbiness will not be averted unless there is an end to timid silence; unless there is a rebirth of moral conviction; and unless there is sharp, unsparing, intelligent criticism of irresponsibility and immorality. In a time when basic principles are treated with contempt, we need prophetic voices to confront real issues, arouse moral and social concerns, and bring to the surface all that is the deepest and best in each of us.

Robert F. Kennedy was one of those prophetic voices. During his 1968 presidential campaign, Kennedy was fond of quoting a daring line from George Bernard Shaw’s 1921 play, Back to Methuselah. Quoting Shaw, Kennedy said: “You see things; and you say, ‘Why?’ But I dream things that never were; and I say, ‘Why not?’”

If we dare to dream of a world freed from inequity, oppression, war and exploitation, and if we hope for a world characterized by justice, freedom, peace and respect, then the question remains for us to answer: Why not? Why not, indeed!

“For everything there is a season and a time for every matter under heaven . . . A time to love and a time to hate.”  – Ecclesiastes 3:1, 8

 

 

 

 

 

Memo to Donald Drumpf, er, Trump:How to Keep America Safe without Building a Wall

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To “The Donald”

I took down my Confederate flag (which you CAN’T buy at Walmart, Amazon, eBay and Sears any more), removed my gun rack from my pick-up, tossed the “Don’t Tread on Me” flag, gave the Doberman Pinschers to my mother-in-law, stored my AK-47assault rifle, and peeled the NRA sticker off my front window.

I then disconnected my ADT home security system and quit the dubious Neighborhood Watch and Citizens On Patrol groups.

Next, I bought four flags: a Pakistani flag, an Iranian flag, a Saudi Arabian flag, and a Libyan flag. I then put one at each corner of my yard. Later, I purchased the traditional black flag of the Muslim tradition with a white shahada inscribed on it (which you CAN buy on the Internet) and ran it up the flag pole.

Now the local police, the county sheriff, the FBI, the CIA, the NSA, Homeland Security, the Secret Service, and even Bond – James Bond are all watching my house 24/7. I’ve NEVER felt safer in my life and I’m saving the $69.95 a month that ADT used to charge me.

Subsequently, I bought burkas for my wife and me to wear when we shop or travel. Everyone moves out of our way and security can’t pat us down.  If they say I’m a man wearing a burka, I just answer that I’m feeling like a woman today. Easy.

Hot Damn – and with sincere apologies to Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr – Safe at last, safe at last, Thank God Almighty, I’m safe at last!

Ain’t America great or what?

Sincerely,

A Safe and Secure American

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The Final Chapter

Some stories haunt us forever.” So reads the caption on a publicity piece for a new film documentary entitled The Witness, which opened recently in selected theaters on 3 June 2016.

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“Kitty” Genovese photographed in her grandparent’s backyard in Brooklyn, 1959

It was the crime of the century – or at least the crime of omission of the century. Within weeks of her violent murder in 1964, “Kitty” Genovese had become synonymous with a whole condition of human behavior. The “Genovese Syndrome,” as the condition is called, is the act of consciously ignoring a person in peril, and is still applied as a descriptor of events the world over. Some examples include the genocide in the early 1990s that left 800,000 Rwandans dead with very little intervention from either those within Rwanda or the international community; the early 1830s “Trail of Tears” relocation of the Cherokee nation who was forced to give up its lands east of the Mississippi River and to migrate to an area in present-day Oklahoma and which very few people ever raised much of a fuss, if any at all, over this disgustingly awesome mistreatment of an entire race of humans; and, of course, the Holocaust during World War II, the most repugnant, globally violent disgrace of the reputation of humanity, in which the German citizens of the villages near the concentration camps of Dachau, Buchenwald, Bergen-Belsen, Sachsenhausen, and Ravensbrück, to name a few, could not have ignored the stench coming from them and knew perfectly well of the atrocities and the horrors inside the camps to Jews and other “undesirables,” such as Gypsies and homosexuals, and yet made no effort to save one life.

In case you do not recall the details of the Genovese case, here they are as reported in the venerable New York Times on its front page of 27 March 1964: Catherine Susan “Kitty” Genovese was a twenty-eight-year-old bar manager in Kew Gardens, a neighborhood in the New York City borough of Queens, who was randomly stabbed by a stranger named Winston Moseley – who later told police he was just looking for a woman to kill – then raped and robbed by him after he returned to finish the job. The New York Times later upped the figure to thirty-eight witnesses who heard and even who saw some part of the attack but did not call police and failed to intervene or even call attention to it. Like a lot of ghastly true crime tales, this one soon stopped being a simple account of a tragedy and became something bigger: a story about the anonymity and callous indifference of big cities and the people who live in them.

I used the Genovese story in a sermon about the Good Samaritan. Here is what I said in that sermon: “A tragic example of such non-involvement of individuals is found in the distressing story of Catherine Susan “Kitty” Genovese.

“Having driven from her job working as a bar manager early in the morning of 13 March 1964, Genovese arrived home at about 3:15 a.m. She parked her car about 100 feet from her apartment’s door, located in an alley way at the rear of the building. As she walked towards the building, she was approached by Winston Moseley. Frightened, Genovese began to run across the parking lot and towards the front of her building, trying to make it up to the corner towards a major thoroughfare. However, Moseley, who ran after her, quickly overtook her and stabbed her twice in the back. Genovese screamed, “Oh my God, he stabbed me! Help me!” Her cry was heard by several neighbors but, on a cold night with the windows closed, only a few of them recognized the sound as a cry for help. Moseley ran away and Genovese slowly made her way toward the rear entrance of her apartment building, seriously injured. Moseley returned ten minutes later and found Genovese, who was barely conscious. He proceeded to further attack her, stabbing her several more times. While she lay dying, he raped her, stole about $49 from her and left her in the hallway. The attacks spanned approximately half an hour.

“Newspaper reports after Genovese’s death claimed that some thirty-eight witnesses either watched the brutal stabbings or heard her cries for help and failed to intervene or even summons the police. It was a huge story at the time and it captured a great deal of public attention. The question was: Why did not anyone come to the aid of “Kitty” Genovese? The answer seemed to be that people had become afraid to become involved. Genovese’s story became a symbol of a new sickness, of a new epidemic, of a new disease sweeping the country: non-involvement when individuals see other people beaten up in life. In fact, since that fateful night in 1964, sociologists have even come up with a term for what happened that night on the streets of Queens. The term is “the “Genovese Syndrome,” a social-psychological phenomenon that refers to cases in which individuals do not offer help in an emergency situation even when other people are present. On the Jericho Road in Jesus’ story, “the “Genovese Syndrome” can be observed in the non-involvement of the priest and the Levite to the man left for dead by the side of the road.”

But I was wrong in saying those things. I was not alone, but I am sorry that I contributed to this questionable narrative. As it turned out, nearly every claim in that dramatic story was dubious, a fact that Bill Genovese, the victim’s brother, goes about exploring with a poignant obsessiveness a half-century later in the documentary, The Witness.

Bill Genovese has spent more than a decade trying to understand how and why his sister died and who exactly she was. The Witness chronicles the twists and turns of that search. In the documentary, Bill Genovese finds the truth. He uncovers a lie that transforms his life – a lie that condemned a city, and defined an era.

Like most people, Genovese’s initial understanding of the murder came from a sensationalized, now-debunked New York Times story whose front page headline screamed: “37 Who Saw Murder Didn’t Call the Police.” Genovese and his siblings spent the next thirty years shielding their mother from articles that just kept coming. She never recovered emotionally from losing her eldest child and died in 1992.

So let me set the record straight: There were not thirty-eight eyewitnesses to the murder, which happened first outside and then in an apartment vestibule, although there could have been many more ear witnesses. Only a handful of people probably saw Winston Moseley attack “Kitty” Genovese, and one yelled, “Let that girl alone.” At least two neighbors claim to have called the police, although police logs have no record of those calls.

Another neighbor, Sophia Farrar, ran to help Genovese and held her as she died. “All five-foot-nothing of her went flying down the stairs at 3:30 in the morning,” Bill Genovese marvels. “She doesn’t know what she’s going to come upon. She hadn’t given a second thought to whether the guy was still there or not.” That heroic act, however, did not conform with The New York Times’ portrait of urban indifference. There is no mention of her in the 1964 article.

Speaking of that article, Genovese also interviewed Abe Rosenthal, who helped shape the narrative because he was city editor of The New York Times when “Kitty” Genovese was murdered.

“Where did the number thirty-eight come from?” Genovese asked Rosenthal. Rosenthal responded with a sardonic laugh. “I can’t swear to God that there were thirty-eight people. Some people say there were more, some people say there were less,” he said with a casual flip of his hand. “What was true: People all over the world were affected by it. Did it do anything? You bet your eye it did something. And I’m glad it did.” (Rosenthal later wrote in his book, Thirty-eight Witnesses, that the number had come from Michael J. Murphy, the police commissioner, over lunch at Emil’s Restaurant and Bar on Park Row, near City Hall.)

The Witness is very much a film about a story we think we know. And it is also a film about the profound effect of a tragedy on a family’s life. It is such a public event that in many ways it has erased “Kitty” Genovese’s life within the family. Indeed, many of “Kitty” Genovese’s siblings and their children have put the murder behind them, to the point that one grown niece first found out about the story in one of her high school class.

The film’s main character is Bill Genovese, one of “Kitty’s” many younger siblings. He adored his big sister and was devastated not only by losing her so suddenly and violently, but also by the account of her death in The New York Times – specifically to the paper’s coverage, which was not only incorrect, but also willfully exaggerated to sell newspapers and to create an American illustration of the famous explanation of how the Nazis rose to power: evil triumphs when good people to do nothing. Or to quote Dante Alighieri: “The darkest places in hell are reserved for those who maintain their neutrality in times of moral crisis.”

The story certainly shaped Bill Genovese. He was just sixteen when “Kitty” was murdered. After he graduated from high school, he enlisted in the Marines instead of going to college. “My decision to become a Marine and to go to Vietnam was inspired in part by my sister’s death,” he recalls. “I did not want to be one of those people who sat by and did nothing, but I was also inspired by President Kennedy’s inaugural speech – the ‘ask not what your country can do for you’ speech. It was the call of the times.”

Bill Genovese lost both his legs in Vietnam. “Lying in the middle of that [rice] paddy, I was completely alone,” he says in the movie. “I thought of “Kitty.” What was it like for her when she realized no one was going to save her?” It is the closest he has ever come to understanding how his sister must have felt on Austin Street that cold March night in 1964. His story ended differently than hers, of course. “I thought that no one was going to notice me there, but then my fellow Marines rescued me,” he relates. Bill Genovese is now in a wheelchair after losing both his legs. “I lived to tell the story,” he says. And he has lived to tell his sister’s as well.

If I seem to make The Witness sound like a film about journalistic ethics, more so than a story of the Genovese family’s loss, well, it is that. For a good part of its running time, the film is mainly about what happens when the institutions we entrust to tell our stories fail us. And The New York Times failed us this time.

Bill Genovese is the “Sherlock Holmes” in this matter, tracking down the real story for reasons of his own personal purging. Nevertheless, the information he gleans by studying coverage of the case and by contacting the reporters tells us a great deal about the relationship between a free press and the society it chronicles. The film insists that for every benefit accrued by telling a wrong or concocted story – such as the invention of the 911 emergency system, which came about partly as a result of the public feeling collectively ashamed of itself after Genovese’s murder – there are downsides as well, some of which are severe.

One of the major downsides from the Genovese murder coverage was a hyped-up perception of cities as coldblooded places where people neither know nor care what happens to their neighbors. That might be true in certain situations, but not in this one – hopefully, not in most. When groups of people behave callously or indifferently to violence or suffering, it is rare that every single person who is aware of it does not care enough to lift a finger. Bill Genovese ultimately learned that people on his sister’s block did, in fact, act like members of a community, but unfortunately many of them did not know exactly what was happening or had no way of effectively acting as a group. It even turns out that somebody did call the police about “Kitty” Genovese; the police just failed to respond properly.

Though I find that the press abuse angle is infuriating, the story of Bill Genovese, his family and his friends is devastating. The movie shows how extraordinary an event (such as a murder) can complicate the grieving process. Bill and his brothers relate in the film that they were so young when their sister died that they did not really know her as a person, and that as they grew up, they were so consumed with the idea of her as a symbol that they never learned the details of her life prior to the attack. Bill Genovese discusses some of those details in this film, and the result might be the most satisfying and moving part of the story. As one watches and listens as the details of “Kitty” Genovese life – rather than her death are filled in – she becomes a fully-developed human being, maybe for the first time since television and films began retelling her story. This is a powerful film, but perhaps its greatest triumph is that for a brief time it resurrects Catherine Susan “Kitty” Genovese and lets us see her as a person and lets us celebrate her short-lived life, rather than her senseless death. And maybe that is enough to make this, the final chapter of her tragic story.

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The Witness movie poster