28 May 2020

George Floyd, rest in peace. As for those still here ...

. . . don't expect peace too soon.

I'm writing about the death of George Floyd for no reason related to my own insights or wisdom, but only because not to write anything just feels wrong.

Why this death? Why this particular victim of an ancient and constant phenomenon? Is there any indication that the death of Floyd, the shocking scandal of the police violence that killed him, and the subsequent protests and riots, constitute a turning point? I have no answer.

So many potential "turning points" and "teachable moments," of varying degrees of seriousness but blazing diagnostic clarity, have come and gone in recent memory:
The weight of all this evidence is clear: whatever we feel about race, whatever ideals we may have, however our parents and communities of origin shaped us, our actual degree of day-to-day social safety depends too much on our racial appearance. My individual goodwill is beside the point; I'm white, so if you're black and don't know me, you're just a bit safer, statistically, to stay on your guard or avoid me altogether. What is the individual human cost of constantly living with vigilance when around people of another race? What is the cumulative human cost of so much alienation? This is the persistent reality in the USA, and in other countries as well.

On top of all the progressive political points being made (and well made) by commentators in the wake of George Floyd's death and the ongoing overflow of anger on the streets of Minneapolis, I'm most troubled by the spiritual diagnoses. Read Kyle J. Howard's "Why Do They Riot? Rioting and the Overflow of Racial Trauma," which groups together his series of tweets from earlier today Please read the whole thing. Here are some points that spoke directly to me:
6. White America does not listen to the laments of Black people unless it’s forced to. Historically speaking, white America has always waited until the black community has exploded due to its ongoing trauma & rage at injustice before they’ve been willing to act… out of fear.

7. I do not condone rioting, but I also recognize it as a part of the cycle within a society that establishes caste systems. People who wield power against others can only do so for so long before those under the oppression explode. Power is rarely ever willfully relinquished.

Freedom Riders, 1961; source.  
8. It doesn’t have to be this way. Black and white people COULD come together and make a stand against the Kingdom of Darkness and the racialized oppression it has promoted within our world. It will not happen unless there are white people willing to count the very real cost.
Of course, being white, I noticed point 8 right away, and being a Christian, I could not miss theologian Kyle Howard's reference to the Kingdom of Darkness. For me, the church is the obvious laboratory and incubator to test Howard's challenge:
  • The church is (or ought to be!) independent from the principalities and powers that find it convenient to divide us by race and class, and to keep us helpless in our bondage -- or worse, ignorant that this bondage even exists!
  • The church is (or ought to be) a place where we regard each other as God regards us, where outward appearance and social situation take their proper place as we recognize that we are all made in the image and likeness of God.
  • The church is (or ought to be) the place where it dawns on us that reconciliation with God and reconciliation with each other are inseparable. We see how important it is that we discern anything that seeks to block reconciliation -- whether it's internal attitudes or external forces -- and the freedom to disrupt that bondage.
  • The church is (or ought to be) where we expect miracles and supernatural revival to honor and meet our fears, and feed us with joy. It is that joy, that hope, that trust and abandonment, that can draw spiritually hungry people together, rather than our progressive theories or white people's messiah complexes or performative self-flagellations.
  • As we envision what it will take for us to "make a stand against the Kingdom of Darkness," it is (or ought to be) the church who learns how to count and share the cost.
To draw on early Quaker references, when we are new creatures in Christ, we go back through the flaming sword into the Paradise of God, where we live once again in peace and equality as helpmeets to each other. I am so hungry to hear that our meetings and churches are enjoying this quality of relationship, taking territory from Satan in the process, and breaking down strongholds of violence and objectification.

This kind of work is not going to be easy. There is plenty to do for all gifted people (and ALL are gifted!) ... from prophets and pastors to teachers and treasurers. As with every front in the Lamb's War, we know that those who temporarily seem like enemies (racist police, for example) are actually in bondage themselves -- though we still expect justice to be served. We will be saddened but not fatally shocked when yet another outrage occurs. America's territorial demon of racism has been at it for centuries, and defeating it is not the work of a day. But, as believers, it is our work.

I was a bit nervous about using the language of spiritual warfare in this post. I actually believe that evil exists, and that its Author is our only actual enemy. All other "enemies" are fabrications designed to alienate us from each other and keep us from working for each other's liberation. Authors as diverse as Walter Wink and C. Peter Wagner have helped me understand this warfare. However, the terms of spiritual warfare have sometimes been used by right-wing Christians to demonize (!) people they oppose. For example, a subset of Donald Trump's "court evangelicals" (John Fea's term) have drawn on this language to exalt his presidency and demean his critics. This misuse of powerful spiritual language, of course, can play right into Satan's purposes.

You may not use this language as I do, or maybe not at all, but maybe you can see my overall point: the structures of objectification, oppression, and violence serve the Kingdom of Darkness -- principalities and powers and evil in high places (see Ephesians 6:11-20) -- and are not simply attributable to the designated human villains we're being told to hate.

Related posts:

Cheryl Townsend Gilkes on the killing of George Floyd: When you are kneeling, you are worshipping ... but whom? [My own contrast: the backlash against Colin Kaepernick for kneeling.]

Eugene Robinson: Black lives remain expendable.

William H. Lamar IV on the coronavirus, bad theology, and their impact on communities of color. (Thanks to Jim Fussell, via the Quaker Theology group on Facebook, for the link.)
I am a preacher. So as I dust the COVID-19 crime scene, I am ultimately in search of theological fingerprints.

What kind of God-talk makes possible a refusal to provide the universal health care that may have mitigated this crisis? What kind of God-talk makes possible a refusal to invest the money necessary to end homelessness? What kind of God-talk makes possible the racializing of criminality and poverty? What kind of God-talk gives political power to science-denying policymakers?

The answer? White evangelical God-talk. The injustices that many communities are experiencing as a result of the novel coronavirus are inextricably linked to this theology. The evidence is irrefutable.
(Are you tempted to try to refute this evidence? I am, but he's got a case. It's not exactly a purely theological case, but we see how race is embarrassingly decisive in how many evangelicals make their policy choices.)

Jonathan Aigner: Worship IS essential, but so is loving your neighbor.

Speaking of John Fea, he reports that Jerry Falwell Jr. designed his own unique COVID-19 mask.

Russians under lockdown arrange their own intricate versions of famous art masterpieces.

This is a video I embedded here about seven years ago ... now, thanks to widespread use of videoconferencing, it looks strangely up to date! See the comments on the YouTube site to get JR's explanation of how he put the video together. (And here's a recent article about JR -- the musician/scientist, Jean-Rene Ella-Menye.)

21 May 2020

When fear is a gift // a guest post

Judy Maurer is this week's writer. She is a recorded minister in the Sierra-Cascades Yearly Meeting of Friends.

The college brochure said the campus was on a bluff overlooking the Rock River. It didn’t mention that just to the north of campus, also overlooking the bluff, was a steel foundry. Beyond that was a massive complex for the making of engines. The foundry belched clouds of sulphur across the campus every Wednesday afternoon. A friend who was allergic to eggs had to shut herself up in her room.

On other days, it was a nice campus, with classrooms and the library at one end and the dorms at the other end. Linking the two ends was one street of frat houses, largely unpopular and unpopulated. The college was innovative and international, and the town was small and leafy-green Wisconsin. Fresh from my senior year in high school in Barcelona, I was still deep in reverse culture-shock in the days when people didn’t recognize the problem. I thought I was the only one to feel so crazy. I only felt normal in my Spanish lit classes. I took as many as I could, and ended up with an accidental major in Spanish.

Even as a new arrival on campus, I recognized the signs of danger. With the college classrooms, library and student union on one end of the campus, the walk from the library to my dorm late at night tended to be a solitary one. It was a long, dark, lonely walk. Walking home from visiting a friend off-campus was dark, too - all those large, lovely trees hid the street lights, and townspeople tended to close up shop and stay home after around 9:00 pm.

That first year, I would refuse to walk alone after 9:00 pm or so, early hours for a college student. My female friends would tell me not to be silly. I was very shy in other ways, not tending to bother others. But in this I was resolute. I would not visit them late, nor leave a party alone. I remember my friends’ impatient reponses. My fear was unpopular; it was regarded as stupidity, and bending to it was a sign of weakness.

By my third year, it had all changed. A wave of rapes had hit campus. One of my friends escaped an armed rapist. A male friend of mine was inconsolable when his date had gotten angry with him, had stormed out, walked home alone and was raped. It was terrible.

But I was not one of the victims. I had listened to my fear. Sometimes, fear is good.

I remember this now because I have, like many, endured social media messages denigrating those who are cautious about covid-19. Here’s one that sent me over the edge: In a discussion about whether restrictions are unconstitutional, a friend of a friend wrote, “I totally respect your right to live in fear and stay home as long as you feel it’s necessary.” The underlying message -- “I am so much better than you because you are giving in to your fear.”

Sometimes, fear is good. Sometimes when fear whispers to you, all you need to do is obey. It’s your gut saying, “there is something very wrong here.”

We tend to think of Jesus as being totally fearless. If he ever felt fear when going up before the Sanhedrin or Pilate, he didn’t give into it. He knew the result would be an excruciating death, but he continued toward it.

However, there’s one passage that tends to be skipped over. It’s right after he raised Lazarus from the dead. That really caught people’s attention, and his increased popularity was a direct affront to the leadership. After the first century equivalent of a zoom meeting of the chief priests and Pharisees, “from that day on they planned to put him to death.”

Here’s Jesus’ response:

“Jesus therefore no longer walked about openly among the Jews, but went from there to a town called Ephraim in the region near the wilderness; and he remained there with the disciples.”John 11:54

If you want to be like Jesus, pay attention to your fear, and do not walk openly about.

There are other types of fear, of course. When I was eight months pregnant, the bulk of the baby who is now 36 and living in London, was weighing on me so much that I couldn’t sleep well. We lived on a busy street, and each time a motorcycle went by I woke up, alert to the danger of… of what? I didn’t know. I only knew I woke up in terror. When a motorcycle came up behind my car as I was driving, I’d grip the steering wheel tightly until it would catch up with me and pass me, and I’d be able to breath again. I thought I was crazy.

Then my mother came to visit, and she happened to say to me, “Do you remember when Paul would come out and visit us on his motorcycle?” Paul was an old family friend I should never have been left alone with. But I was left alone with him, at the age of three.

I thought, “I remember, Mom. I remember.” When I heard his motorcycle coming, I knew to be afraid, and that fear stayed implanted in my brain, long after he was no longer a threat. My brain enlarged its alert state to include all motorcycles coming up behind me, ever and always. It was my body remembering.

I've learned that this strange, unrelated fear is common among assault and other trauma survivors. It makes you feel crazy, but you’re not. It’s merely an evolutionary mismatch. If an early human witnessed a lion attack, all the details of the lion attack would be warnings of the next one -- the lion’s roar, the quiet sound of the switch of the tail, for example. These days, all the things that happen at the same time as a trauma are not harbingers of the next one -- we just feel like they are.

If an old Beatles song was playing on the radio when you witnessed a knife fight and someone you love got hurt, then for the next forty years, your brain will tell you to be extra vigilant when you hear “when I get old and losing my hair, many years from now...” Just a few bars from that harmless song will make you feel very afraid. It can be paralyzing, or cause you to explode in anger.

The good news is that these days, science can explain these reactions. Here’s the classic read on the subject: Bessel A. van der Kolk’s The Body Keeps the Score: Brain, Mind, and Body in the Healing of Trauma. There are also good ways, such as EMDR, to help the body store traumatic memories so that they no longer have that sort of hold over you.

Therefore, this kind of fear -- a trigger from PTSD -- is another reason not to denigrate those who are afraid. Many of us have earned our fear the hard way.

There’s also a fear that comes from a sense of helplessness and uncertainty. Familiar ways of understanding things are gone, and it’s downright scary. That is a mindless kind of fear. Jesus healed a man who came to him who was living naked among the tombs, without any restraints -- he could break off any shackles put on him. “Night and day among the tombs and on the mountains he was always howling and bruising himself with stones.” Mark 5:5 This must have been a rather frightening thing for newcomers -- a mad man was living naked near the city, and was so strong he couldn’t be restrained. Townspeople had probably grown used to it.

Then Jesus healed him, and the unclean spirits went into a herd of pigs, who raced to the cliff and died. When the townspeople saw him sitting there “in his right mind and clothed,” what was their response? Gratefulness? Awe? Nope. Fear. Mark 5:15: “and they were afraid.”

They were afraid of the man only when he was in his right mind and wearing clothes? That’s what the scripture says. But what comes next is worse. They didn’t make very good decisions. Mark 5:17: “Then they began to beg Jesus to leave their neighborhood.” They could have had Jesus among them -- healing, teaching, inspiring, loving. But no, they responded to their mindless fear of something they didn’t understand by begging Jesus to leave.

I have done that, too. In the beginning of the pandemic, I was in a grocery store when suddenly I was very afraid of all that could happen. I let the darkness into my mind, all the “what if’s” gripped me, and I could no longer think clearly. I was seized with a desire to protect my family - by buying out the store. It would not have been a good decision! Fortunately for my bank account, I recognized the moment. I let myself breathe, counting the breaths in and out. When I got home, I sat in a comfortable chair, read the Bible, and then sat in prayer, repeating a favorite scripture, over and over.

After 20 minutes or so, I felt a deep connection with God envelop me. I felt restored to myself. In Mark 5, the person who was not afraid of Jesus, and who made the best decision, was the one who had been closest to Jesus -- the man who Jesus had healed. As Jesus gets back into the boat, he begs Jesus to let him come along. But Jesus tells him “Go home to your friends, and tell them how much the Lord has done for you, and what mercy he has shown you.”

Many times as the darkness begins to grip me, and my mind seems trapped in a circle of “what if?”, prayer and meditation connect me to God and restore my soul. It’s just like Psalm 40:2-4 describes:

He drew me up from the desolate pit,
    out of the miry bog,
and set my feet upon a rock,
    making my steps secure.
He put a new song in my mouth,
    a song of praise to our God.
Many will see and fear,
    and put their trust in the Lord.

Doug Bennett speaks to Durham Friends (Maine, USA) on what it means to be alive.

Among those pushing to reopen the USA are large numbers of Republicans. What's the evangelical role in this pressure?

Speaking of evangelicals ... an interview with Mark Noll.

Reinventing Pendle Hill's daily Quaker worship in the Zoom era.

Slate on Little Richard and the music he shaped: Jack Hamilton. Tom Scocca.

Little Richard appears on Granada TV in 1964, with Sounds Incorporated and the Shirelles. Note his rendition of George W. Cooke's "Joy in My Heart," starting at 13:21.

14 May 2020

Home, part two

A few days ago, one of our friends arrived in the USA from a period of Quaker service in another country an ocean away.

As I wrote a greeting to her, my fingers had already typed out the words "Welcome home," when I had a sudden impulse to backspace and delete the word "home," and all my familiar complicated feelings about that word came back to me.

On the one hand, it is one of my favorite words. In concrete terms, it refers to a very specific and beloved bundle of comforts and conveniences located in Portland, Oregon -- a place where I eat and sleep and keep warm and clean, where I am close to those I love beyond words, where I spend my nonworking hours -- and, these days, my working hours, too. Just outside our walls, Judy is doing amazing things with the garden. Our neighboring children play in our trees. Our home provides a sort of stability, at least for now, that we wish everyone in this world could experience.

On the other hand: out of the twenty years since we bought this home in Portland, we spent almost half the time in another home entirely -- an apartment on Yalagin Street in Elektrostal, Russia. It's an apartment where our landlord at the time now lives, having promised us that we'd always be welcome back for a visit. Hundreds of these blog posts were written at my desk in that comfortable apartment, using the computer that our friend Gleb built for me out of parts we bought together at the computer parts store near the Danilov Monastery in Moscow. I know every meter of the 35-minute walk between that apartment and the institute where we taught English and mass media classes, and I often dream about the institute building. That's why I couldn't simply write "welcome home" to our friend -- what if her place of service overseas had an equally homelike grip on her?

"Home" also has a wider set of references, as Becky Ankeny said at the Friends pastors' conference I described in the blog post entitled Home. These associations include the webs of relationships that anchor our identity, our sense of belonging -- our work relationships, for example, and our church relationships.

Those webs are precious, but also fragile. Less than two years after that pastors' conference, our yearly meeting suffered a painful separation. And a year after we left Russia, the government refused to renew our institute's accreditation, scattering our wonderful community of colleagues and students.

Becky reminded us not to let these versions of "home" become idols, hiding the truth that our only real and eternal home is in God. After that conference, my favorite short prayer became "I want to dwell in You." But God also granted us places to dwell here and there on my favorite planet, and each place helped shape who I am now.

I had planned to go back to Elektrostal for a week in March, but the pandemic intervened. Someday I hope to make that trip. When it happens, I'm sure that some people in Elektrostal will say "welcome back," but in my fantasies about that future moment of reunion, at least one person will remember to say, "Welcome home."

Related posts:

Mike Farley: To trust in God when all human ingenuity and will are exhausted is not defeat....

Danté Stewart: On Ahmaud Arbery and Running While Black.

Welcoming the refugee in Ayia Napa, Cyprus (thanks to Fulcrum Anglican for the link).

Yevgeny Kaspersky: the majority of cybercriminals are Russian-speakers.

Northside Friends Meeting, Chicago, invites us to observe a day of mourning for those we lost owing to COVID-19. Their proposal suggests May 25, Memorial Day in the USA.

ISS docking simulator, screenshot. Source.
COVID-19 truths.

Perpetual War Dept.: The betrayal of the American soldier.

You too can prepare for the upcoming flight of the first Dragon spacecraft to carry a crew: here's SpaceX's International Space Station docking simulator.

Digitizing the records of Shakespeare and Company, Paris.

The late Magic Slim in Brazil. I love the comment, "From this you can learn what 'groove' means...!"

07 May 2020

Quaker experiments, part two

The first time I visited the Quaker meetinghouse in Ottawa, Ontario, my visit had nothing to do with the Quakers. I had been invited to the weekly gathering of the Maranatha fellowship, to which my Canadian family belonged. Maranatha's gatherings happened to be at this meetinghouse, in the large hall that had once been a Plymouth Brethren congregation's sanctuary. There was a stone cross and crown emblem over the main entrance.

The next time I stepped into that building, it was August 11, 1974. This was my first-ever visit to a Quaker meeting. The entrance was on the building's east wing, and the room we met in was much smaller than the main hall, although more than adequate for the worshipers that Sunday morning. Chairs were arranged in two concentric squares facing a table in the center. On the table were a Bible and a copy of Christian Faith and Practice. A tree limb in the rough shape of a cross was mounted on one wall.

I've described that first experience of Friends elsewhere, so here I'll just say I knew immediately that I'd found my spiritual home. As I plunged into the life of the meeting, I could see that the main hall of the old building was impractical for the Friends community, but was a resource for community involvement and rental income. The Maranatha group, a charismatic fellowship, met in that hall, and so did the Metropolitan Community Church, serving the LGBTQ community. The Great Canadian Theatre Company used the hall temporarily at one point. In any case, the space didn't go to waste.

However, the increasing costs of that property forced the meeting to think about other alternatives. One of the meeting's members, John Leaning, was an architect, urban planner, and author of what became known as the Leaning Plan. This was a proposal to adjust traffic patterns in the meeting's neighborhood, the Glebe, to increase its livability as a community. For Ottawa Friends, he headed up a project to convert most of the building into two residential condominiums, while still retaining adequate space for the meeting's own purposes. On my visits since then, I've been intrigued by how well this co-use of a single building seems to work.

Has your meeting or church tried a similar experiment? How has sustainability impacted your property decisions?

Years later, when I moved to Richmond, Indiana, I became part of another Quaker meeting with a significant property-related challenge.

We became members of First Friends Meeting (formally Whitewater Monthly Meeting of Friends), housed at the "cathedral" on East Main Street between South 15th and South 16th streets. It was a cathedral in two senses: it was built as the meetinghouse for Indiana Yearly Meeting, and it was cavernous. The balcony seating alone was bigger than many Friends meetinghouses.

However, thanks to the friendly community inhabiting that space, I soon got used to the scale, and felt very much at home. Our children treated the place as an extension of their own home, playing on and under the meetinghouse benches with no unnecessary awe of the place's size and grand history. So it was that they, and we, felt shaken when the city's engineer informed us that we had until winter to find another place to meet -- the roof supports over the main meeting room were so fragile that they could collapse without warning.

1997: First Friends Meeting's building as demolition begins. Source.
Ken Sherer on one of the fatal flaws:  "This anchor has lost nearly all its support." Screenshot from this video.
As we gathered for worship and business in the meetinghouse library (which wasn't directly under the condemned roof), it didn't take long for us to reject the possibility of propping up and restoring the old structure. The cost would have been more than building a new meetinghouse. On top of our already large maintenance budget, such an undertaking would have, in effect, made us museum custodians rather than disciples. We would have been serving our property rather than having the property serve us.

The decision to sell the old property, knowing it would be demolished to make way for retail space, was not easy. The old meetinghouse was a significant part of the cityscape of downtown Richmond. Several local preservationists pleaded with us to reconsider our decision, but their pleas did not come with funding.

Looking toward the future, we considered ways to meet that didn't involve property, such as meeting in a theater or auditorium or in smaller groups at different locations, but all these alternatives were either impractical or too divisive. Finally, we found unity around a proposal to build a modest, functional building on existing Quaker property, the Friends Fellowship Community retirement campus.

To build a new meetinghouse as economically as possible, the meeting asked the architect and the contractors to design ways of incorporating volunteer labor wherever possible. The architect, Jack Hodell, was already well acquainted with Friends culture. As the building neared completion, members of the meeting gave many hours of work in painting, finishing, and landscaping. The meetinghouse that resulted had no claims to cathedral grandeur, but was simple, beautiful, and serviceable.

The new meetinghouse, with a partial view of solar panels. Source.
I left Richmond twenty years ago, but I've been glad to see evidence that the concern for appropriate scale and stewardship at First Friends seems to have continued. For example, the meeting had been spending about $4,000 a year for electricity. About a dozen years ago, Friends researched the cost of installing solar power, but the cost seemed prohibitive. However, in the meantime, costs of such installations have declined, so a couple of years ago the meeting approved installing solar power panels on the roof -- and there is plenty of roof angled to the south. The installation, now complete, may have the potential to generate enough electricity to cut the annual power bill in half.

In the old Yearly Meeting cathedral, the roof turned out to be the weak point. Maybe the new roof's value as power source is a just compensation.

How has your meeting or church ensured that your property (if any) serves you rather than the other way around?

Quaker experiments, part one.


Trustworthy, part four: churches' choices

Where should we meet?

Newspaper story about First Friends' solar project.

What lessons are we being taught about Queen Esther?

The case for Norman Borlaug as a Lutheran saint.

The inside story of how Harry Potter was translated into Yiddish.

In case you need a summary of today's developments in the USA's continuing descent into authoritarianism.

Domingo Samudio (Sam the Sham) and the original Pharaohs, hosted by Mike Douglas. (Yes, it's true. At one time I had every single Sam the Sham album!)

30 April 2020

Radio shorts

The soundtrack to my life up until college was Top 40 radio. During college, my favorite radio program was CJRT's "Music to Listen to Jazz By." Later, in our Richmond, Indiana, years, I listened to "Mama Jazz" on WMUB, and the blues programming on WVXU. In the early 1990's, I also listened to shortwave radio, especially the BBC. The radio was never far away.

And then ... goodbye, radio! With the advent of the Internet and MP3 players, my interest in broadcast radio as entertainment slowly faded, to be replaced by Internet radio (classical stations such as NRK Klassisk and Radio Orpheus), podcasting (The Bible for Normal People and Political Gabfest, among others), and my own MP3 playlists. Now I rarely even think about my radio experiences of my past, but during a recent Internet search I came across a treasure trove of old booklets and old memories -- the Gernsback Library, archived as PDF files, that suddenly and vividly led me back to my first experiences of radio.

Sources: diagramdiode  
I had originally found those booklets in my father's old childhood bedroom in Oslo, Norway, back in 1963, and brought them back with me to the USA. I could not wait to build the crystal radio described in one of the booklets. Within a few days, I had built my first radio. I cheated a bit -- I bought a manufactured 1N34A germanium diode instead of using a galena crystal rock and a cats-whisker wire as shown in the booklet. To my delight, the thing actually worked, and the audio in my headphones was quite loud. No matter that it only received WJJD, Chicago's "Country Gentlemen" C&W station. The song "Flowers on the Wall" may have my introduction to irony.

For my second radio-building attempt, I added a variable capacitor to the circuit and was then able to receive TWO stations -- WJJD, as before, and the Top 40 station WCFL (the "Voice of Labor," for the Chicago Federation of Labor). Taking advantage of my parents' near-total neglect, I started listening to WCFL at every free moment, on my home-built radios and then on the 6-transistor radio I got for Easter one year.

(The radio had originally been intended as a Christmas gift, but when my parents began suspecting that we kids had found their hiding place for Christmas gifts -- and they were right! -- they punished us by not giving us those gifts. At Easter they relented.)

In our hermetically sealed, alcohol-dominated home, WCFL was almost my sole connection to the wider world, until my sister and I rehabilitated an old television. (I did go to school, of course, but, until my last two years of high school, I was usually intensely private, afraid of being asked awkward questions about my family. I never went to dances, parties, athletic events, or any after-school activities.)

WCFL's tightly packaged pop-rock-soul formed my musical tastes in those years -- with one important exception, my early love for classical music. In my earliest years in Norway and Germany, my grandparents always had classical music playing, for which I'm now very grateful.

WCFL didn't usually stray from the formula used by its peer stations nationwide, the forty or so most popular "singles," mostly safe, non-controversial rock music, soul music, novelty records (Sam the Sham, "The Hair on my Chinny Chin Chin") and occasional cross-overs from blues and gospel (B.B. King, "The Thrill Is Gone"; Slim Harpo, "Baby Scratch My Back"; The Edwin Hawkins Singers, "Oh Happy Day.") With rare exceptions, these stations did not play tracks that went beyond three minutes. Life at home was always like walking on eggshells; WCFL's constant jingles and relentless cheerfulness suited me just fine at the time.

Otis Spann; source
I credit one WCFL personality, Ron Britain, for my life-long interest in blues. Even as a Top 40 disk jockey he was unique, using one-and two-second comedic sound clips to amazing effect, even during scripted ads, obviously playing with the limits of the formula. (Listen to the show here for typical examples -- I actually remember this specific show!)

To go beyond the formula, however, he had to persuade the station to give him an extra slot, named the Subterranean Circus, to present non-mainstream artists' music, along with his interviews, and tracks that were over three minutes long. He probably introduced Jimi Hendrix to Chicago audiences. Among other artists on the Circus were blues icons Albert King and Otis Spann, and suddenly the normal Top 40 fare seemed very pale.

Black churches have had an important role in my Christian development, and one in particular is linked with radio station WCFL: Chicago's First Church of Deliverance, whose services I listened to faithfully (and secretly) every Sunday at 11 p.m. It wasn't just the music, although that was important ("Jesus Is a Healer"!). I was equally fascinated by the prayers and sermons of Clarence H. Cobbs, the founding pastor, who began his ministry in 1929 and was still going strong when I was listening to him in the late 1960's. I can't exactly explain what drew me to these broadcasts; my own conversion was still years away, but I'm sure the inner work had begun.

Being the "Voice of Labor," WCFL presented other non-Top 40 content regularly, particularly on Labor Day. One special broadcast, a speech by Floyd McKissick to the American Bankers Association, made such a deep impression on me that I copied it word for word in my diary, using the recording that I had made on my little Concord reel-to-reel tape recorder. Near the start of his speech he said:
Last year the main topic of discussion ... the fad was the President's Report on Civil Disorder, a report which warned that America was becoming two separate nations -- one black and one white. I think we spent -- this is not in my prepared text -- I think we spent over a million dollars to get this information, and any kid that's fourteen years old, that's black, in St. Louis, New York and Chicago could have arrived at the same conclusion.
Reading this blunt speech now, fifty years after it was given, it's hard for me to believe that McKissick, the former head of CORE, was a Republican.

(For the full text, see the scans below, following this week's selection of links.)

Andrea L. Turpin takes C.S. Lewis's sermon, "Learning in War-Time, and re-reads it in today's pandemic context.

Frederica Mathewes-Green on not-so-doubting Thomas.

Micah Bales on the Kingdom of God and why it has no heroes.

Michael Fowler, the Dougherty County coroner, on the reopening of Georgia.

Martin E. Marty on hope in apocalyptic times:
Even with all the talk about “returning to normal” sometime in the (hopefully near) future—something I admittedly hope for—it is also very likely that the world to which we will “return” will not be the same one we “left.”
Are pro-Kremlin disinformation outlets becoming disenchanted with the coronavirus?

Albert King, with a song that Ron Britain played on his "Subterranean Circus."

23 April 2020

"The problem is the problem," part two: paying for health care

Maybe it takes a public health emergency of pandemic proportions to expose the full absurdity of how the USA pays for health care.

Somewhere in the back of our minds, we probably always knew this, but three factors related to the COVID-19 pandemic have made this a strategic moment to pay fresh, urgent attention.
  • The client base of the U.S. health care system, as this emergency makes clear, is 100% of the population.
  • One person's health crisis is potentially everyone's concern.
  • A health crisis is now adding trillions of dollars of expenses to the federal budget (never mind the states!), with no compensating new income.
Health care in the USA has mostly been left to the marketplace, unlike schools, police and fire protection, public libraries, the census, and highways. Even Medicare, which may have been the most dramatic exception to this rule, is fragmented and partial enough to leave plenty of room for private vendors to fill the gaps.

Health care's dependence on the free market is based on a myth: the relationship between an independent consumer contracting with an independent professional in the community to provide medical services in times of need. Although cash was usually expected, it was certainly not unheard of for doctors (maybe especially in rural areas) to be paid by barter. A doctor might treat two or even three generations of a family.

This mythical doctor had no priority other than your health. Lobbyists for this classic system fiercely defend our right to choose our doctors and build congenial relations with them, per this heartwarming myth. I know doctors who, even today, try to honor this private-contract fee-for-service model and the ideals of individualism and human-scale medicine embedded in it.

Continuing with our private-contract model: when your requirements went beyond home treatment and the equipment in the doctor's bag, you might have spent time in a local hospital, another part of the myth. In the old days, the hospital was little more than a glorified dormitory, a very clean place where doctors and nurses could separate, treat, and monitor you more efficiently. The doctors, nurses, and support staff were the heart -- and the main expense -- of the hospital. Operating rooms were not dramatically different from other rooms, maybe with better lighting. A new hospital could be built for around the same cost as a school. The point is, the business model for health care was modest, local, sustainable.

The onset of medical technology and the pharmaceutical revolution changed everything but the myth. I'm very grateful for these developments -- they have saved many lives and may someday save mine. However, the costs of these fantastic machines and lifesaving medicines have rendered the old private-contract business model completely null and void.

Into the breach came a new intermediary between client and doctor -- the health insurance companies. As with all insurance, their purpose is to share costs across a large enough population that individual cost spikes can be spread over the whole pool of participants as well as over time, making individual costs predictable and manageable. For that, the insurance companies must charge enough to cover those costs, plus a reserve, plus their own salaries, benefits, and administrative costs, capital expenses, directors' fees, stockholder dividends, audits and fraud prevention, lobbyists, taxes, and so on.

Insurance companies, inevitably, also have different priorities than the rugged individualist doctor: to increase income and decrease expenses. To this end, in many cases you must choose a doctor or clinic from their list, and you and the doctor must justify certain procedures against a list of what's customary. You must not exceed the hospital-stay standards they set. Your monthly premium for this may be as much as 25% or more of a typical middle-class after-tax salary -- even more if prescriptions, dental care, and eye care are included. If you are lucky, your employer will pay most (but not all) of this, so think carefully about moving to another job.

Have I set up the scene accurately? My purpose isn't to tell you things you already know, but to zoom our focus back to two important points that have never changed:
  • Health care costs money.
  • We all need health care sooner or later, or our families do. It's an inelastic demand.
The USA pours 18% of our GDP into health care. (2016 figures.) Among wealthy countries, the nearest anyone comes is Switzerland, which devotes 12% of its GDP to healthcare, despite Switzerland's having a median age of over 42, compared to the USA's median age of 37.6. More generally, the average amount spent on healthcare per person in countries comparable to the USA ($5,198) is half that of the USA ($10,348). Despite these outsized levels of expenditure, most American patients spent less time in the hospital for similar conditions and procedures than patients in other countries. Outcomes were not dramatically better in the USA; they were marginally better for some situations and marginally worse for others. Financial outcomes (with attendant stresses!) were, of course, incomparably worse: half a million bankruptcies per year ... in a normal year.

In the USA, the last big debate about this state of affairs was the leadup to the Affordable Care Act. However, then and now the debate usually focused mainly on improving existing arrangements, not on the basic problem: how to connect every person with the affordable health care they will inevitably need. And, too often, "reform" meant preservation of the allegedly crucial role of the health insurance industry.

What does the preservation of this intermediary organization, which has already broken the "sacred" tie between client and doctor, cost us? Read this article on billing and insurance-related (BIR) costs, and additional administrative costs beyond BIR, and see what number leaps out at you.
In a 2003 article in The New England Journal of Medicine, researchers Steffie Woolhandler, Terry Campbell, and David Himmelstein concluded that overall administrative costs in 1999 amounted to 31 percent of total health care expenditures or $294 billion—roughly $569 billion today when adjusted for medical care inflation. A more recent paper by Woolhandler and Himmelstein, which looked at 2017 spending levels, placed the total cost of administration at $1.1 trillion. [See original for footnotes.]
If we let the problem be the problem (thanks, Bob Gill), we will ask how much it would cost to provide adequate health care to everyone. If that raw intention shorn of all other agendas would cost less than $1.1 trillion to do so, let's soberly consider what it would take to get those savings -- and how to advocate for those solutions. In most comparable countries, the government organizes access to health care, just as it organizes or collaborates on every other universally-needed public service with high barriers to entry.

(What do I mean by "high barriers to entry"? This definition of what governments should do, and not do, is what differentiates single-payer health-care financing from "socialism." Everyone needs clothes, but the government need not get involved with clothes -- the market can support innumerable private vendors. Same with food, but of course emergency situations may need some government intervention. Utilities such as electricity are often a public-private collaboration. Many other requirements or discretionary purchases can easily be met by the open market, with the government doing no more than is necessary to ensure public safety and discourage fraud. In general, government confines itself to managing public services that are at a scale of cost and volume simply beyond the capacity of the free market. To the extent that millions of people in the USA simply cannot afford the care they need, we are spending $1.1 trillion to administer a fragmented and unsustainable system.)

If we let the insurance industry lobbyists define our "problem," we will be warned that "someone must pay, after all" ... and we will be confronted with the awful prospect of ... higher taxes. We're not supposed to shine the same light on the "tax" that private insurance imposes on us, nor the relative efficiencies of our existing U.S. government insurance program for civilians, Medicare. (The difference in administrative costs may not be as great as Bernie Sanders asserted, but it would be substantial.)

If we reduced the roles of private insurance, would we then face the prospect of thousands of unemployed insurance employees and impoverished stockholders? Some of those employees could presumably work for Medicare or whomever the new administrators would be. In any case, the problem isn't "how to keep a system in place for the sake of its current beneficiaries," but how to connect every person with the affordable health care they will inevitably need. Every argument in favor of keeping today's broken system depends on not asking that overriding question. Is this the right question, and is now the teachable moment?

The word "taxes" does not intimidate me, nor should it. Taxes are simply the amount we pay to cover the promises we made to ourselves and each other, through our legislators. Don't like those taxes? -- Don't make those promises! (Or replace the legislators who enacted them.) If you suspect that taxes are spent inefficiently or corruptly, that's a separate problem to be investigated and corrected, not an excuse to avoid contributing to the public good.

One theological point. Some conservatives will question whether or not it is specifically government's responsibility to make that connection between every person who needs health care, and the doctor or pharmacist who can help. I see it slightly differently. It is our responsibility as fellow humans and fellow citizens to make sure that connection happens. The government is simply the mechanism; our values are the driver.

Of course, that too is an arguable point ... maybe we should just focus on our own family and everyone else can go to hell. For Christians, of course, that's a completely unsustainable argument, but the coronavirus crisis also tells us that it's also an epidemiologically flawed argument.

How Congress made sure that health insurance companies would not suffer in the current unemployment crisis.

Jan Wood on a sturdy faith:
One consequence of times like this is that it strips away the facades of our lives — individually and as a nation. It moves us past the particularity of our theologies to the bedrock question: how does God work in times like these?
Stassa Edwards on dancing through our bad year. (Thanks to @Mepaynl at Christianity Today.)

Nancy Thomas on how a Quaker retirement community is facing the pandemic.

Spencer Wells reviews Jon Kershner's John Woolman and the Government of Christ.

Jeanne Stevenson-Moessner reviews Gene Fowler's Church Abuse of Clergy.

Lincoln's Bible comments on Donald Trump and his relationship with the USA's intelligence community, which (she says) knows much more about him than he would want to admit ... and they would want to admit.

Chuck Berry sings the blues.