I Am a Conscientious Objector

The most sincere and consistent Christian fundamentalist I ever met, Don Middleton, served as a radio and electronics teacher instead of a paratrooper during World War II because, he said, he could not read Jesus’ sermon on the mount, then pick up a gun and shoot somebody. In his negotiations as a conscientious objector, he offered to serve as a medic, but was rejected when he refused to carry a sidearm. He fervently prayed for the defeat of National Socialism in Germany and the Imperial Rule of Japan, but his conscience and faith prevented him from participating in violence of any kind. I am not a fundamentalist and I am not a pacifist, at least not a very good one, so we had our share of lively theological and political arguments, but always with a respect for one another borne of our shared and feeble attempts to be disciples of Jesus.

As we approach All Saints Day and remember with thanksgiving the great cloud of witnesses that surround us, Don Middleton has been on my mind: His wisdom has led me to declare myself a conscientious objector in the culture war.

I have been wondering what Don would have to say about our current state of affairs in this nation: both the war of words between our president and the North Korean leader and the culture war raging around sports. I think he could point to all the headlines today and say, “See? What did I tell you? War is stupid, including the culture war.”

To be clear about my own position, I think Colin Kaepernick’s cause is just and I think our current president is the most incompetent and therefore dangerous person to inhabit the Whitehouse since the dawn of the nuclear age. When the leader of North Korea sounds like the adult in the room, we are in a world of trouble.

I am a conscientious objector in the culture war because I cannot read Jesus’ sermon on the mount and then pick up my phone and fire off a tweet or a Facebook meme that restates my point in some aggressive and belittling turn of phrase like the last sentence of the previous paragraph and think I have accomplished a damned thing.

Moving our nation forward toward peace, unity, and justice for all will require an army of people willing to lay down their memes and pithy Twitter attacks and engage in real conversation.

It’s not easy and I often fail in my attempts.

It was mid-December a few years ago when I went to get my haircut in a barbershop that played Fox News all day long. As my hair stylist finished cutting my hair, the talking head on the TV railed against some company that trained their employees to wish people “Happy Holidays” instead of “Merry Christmas.”

“I’m never shopping there again,” the stylist raged, waving her scissors around, “and I tell you what, somebody comes in here wishing me ‘Happy frickin’ Holidays,’ and I’ll tell ‘em to step outside and see how happy they are with my fists.”

I had several excellent points I could have made about inclusiveness, the etymology of the word “holidays,” and Christian grace, but she was waving those scissors around. At least for that moment, I found pacifism to be a viable and prudent position.

I paid my bill and wished her “Happy Hanukkah!” as I walked out the door.

It was satisfying for a moment, but I doubt that my smart-aleck retort did anything to bring the conversation forward.

I am reminded every day of how counter-cultural it has become to carry on a civil conversation about important issues with someone on the other side. It is so much easier to verbally dehumanize others (a war tactic) than to develop and practice the skill of diplomacy—taking a stand without alienating those who disagree.

I invite you to join me in declining to participate in the culture’s war-like speech and have a meaningful face-to-face conversation with someone this week.



Godwin’s Law Suspended For At Least Four Years

Godwin’s law was recently suspended.

Can gravity be very far behind?

Once our first amendment gets upended,

And libel laws amended, redefined,

We will read sweet things on the internet

From journalists afraid of getting sued

If they dare use a certain sobriquet

To point out how the president’s unglued

From civility and democratic practice.

With comment sections thoroughly censored

We’ll never dare to use the word “fascist”

Once we’ve obediently surrendered.

We will all spend our writing time outside

Floating, while watching pigs fly, mystified.


On Hitting Bottom: Reflections on the addiction process and our nation’s future.

November 9, 2016.

Three elements of family systems theory come to mind this morning.

The first is societal regression.

The second is self-differentiated leadership.

The third is the systemic view of the addiction process.

Dr. Ed Friedman’s view of societal regression pointed to particular symptoms in a society that indicate diminishing maturity.

An emotional field is analogous to a magnetic field— emotional forces in an emotional field are analogous to unseen forces of attraction and repulsion in a magnetic field. A highly functioning emotional system will be characterized by clear thinking, transparent communication between all parts of the system, and clarity of mission, purpose, and direction.

A low functioning system will be characterized by emotional reactivity, the inability of people to hear each other’s point of view, and a chaotic or vague sense of direction.

Whether it is a family, a church or synagogue, a business (for-profit or non-profit) or a nation, the level of functioning in an organization will be evident immediately to someone looking through a family systems theory lens. The deeper the emotional regression, the more chaotic the system.

Name-calling, blaming, bullying, scapegoating, highly fused or cut-off relationships, fact-free emotional pronouncements, sabotage, and all-or-nothing thinking indicate a downward spiral in emotional functioning.

Clear thinking and planning based on evidence, playfulness among those who disagree with one another, workable compromises, and a clear vision of the future characterize highly functioning organizations.

A highly self-differentiated leader in an anxious system can state clearly where he or she stands while remaining in relationship with all parts of the system, even those who disagree with the leader and one another.

The mystery of societal regressions and progressions is how they get going and how they can be reversed. While it is clear that a highly self-differentiated leader is a necessary element in the process of turning around a societal regression, self-differentiated leadership is no guarantee. He or she often gets overwhelmed by the forces of reactivity and anxiety.

abraham-lincolnAbraham Lincoln, for example, exercised highly self-differentiated leadership to hold the union together through the civil war, and yet he was assassinated before he could solidify the unity to which he had dedicated his life.

Martin Luther King, Jr. provided highly self-differentiated leadership to the Civil Rights movement. He articulated a vision of the future (“I Have a Dream,” for instance) and then connected with his critics (many of the clergy to whom the Letter from a Birmingham Jail was addressed found themselves converted to Dr. King’s point of view.)

And yet, even the most highly self-differentiated leader can be overwhelmed by systemic anxiety—King also was assassinated before his vision could progress beyond its initial steps.

barack-obamaBarack Obama, an extraordinarily calm and self-differentiated leader in the face of reactivity, nevertheless saw his agenda sabotaged by a reactive system that refused to engage in reasonable conversation based on evidence. His attempts to advance a policy agenda were met with fact-free emotional reactivity and name-calling: born in Kenya, Muslim terrorist sympathizer, socialist, the Antichrist, and many more.

While it is important to name racism when we hear it, it is also helpful to identify the systemic emotional reactivity that gives rise to intense racism, xenophobia, homophobia, and sexism. When high chronic anxiety rules a system at the emotional level, denial kicks in. People will allow intensely racist remarks and behavior to go unchallenged, they may even participate in it, all the while denying that the racism exists. It is as if anxiety degrades our hearing.

To understand our present situation, I turn to the systemic view of addiction.

A systemic view of the addiction process differs from the individual model in important ways. While an individual model focuses on the individual addict’s experiences, genetic make-up, and temperament, a systems view looks at the family system(s) in which an addict lives. These factors, when they are all in place in the same family, make the addiction process highly likely to take off:

  1. Extended family emotional cut-offs
  2. high chronic anxiety
  3. denial
  4. the presence of a family savior
  5. intense emotional triangles.

Those processes serve as the fumes to the match—the presence of an addictive substance.

In our national emotional system, we have developed an addiction to anxiety.

In a highly divisive political and social environment, emotional cut-offs are rampant. Within families, religious organizations, businesses, and non-profits, differences of opinion and viewpoints quickly escalate into personal emotional cut-offs. The extended family of our nation becomes more and more characterized by cut-off as racial and religious groups retreat from one another, separated by neighborhoods, schools, and in the workplace.

High chronic anxiety feeds on itself. Whenever disrespect, insult, and general incivility get thrown around, and every action yields an equal or escalated reaction, the anxiety grows. In a society addicted to anxiety, blame and scapegoating develop a deliciousness that can never be satisfied. Each clear and obvious violation of behavior feeds the anxiety, and then requires more intensity the next time.

Denial takes the form of accepting lies as truth, for example in the fake news industry, or refusing to acknowledge the experience of anyone other than oneself. It also manifests itself in the refusal to recognize facts that may invalidate one’s own viewpoint. An environment of high anxiety deafens and blinds us and generally desensitizes us to facts.

In such an anxious environment, someone willing to step into the role of family savior, “I alone can fix this,” can temporarily satisfy the desire to get a break from the pattern of imbibing anxiety, then needing more the next time. The family savior, by projecting an attitude of authority, releases the rest of us from a sense of responsibility for the family’s or nation’s problems.

emotional-triangleAccording to Dr. Friedman’s interpretation of Murray Bowen’s family theory, whenever two people (A and B) find the anxiety rising in their relationship, they will naturally triangle in a third person or substance (C) to calm them down. Parents will focus on a child, or a family savior will focus on the addict’s drinking or drug use. The will conflict of one person in a triangle trying to manage the relationship between two others paradoxically has a stabilizing effect, but not in a good way. The more intense the triangles, the less likely the system will change.

What precipitates a significant shift in the system? How does a family or a nation in a spiraling emotional regression finally turn it around? How does it happen that a family savior gives up the role, or an addict gives up the substance, or a nation breaks its addiction to anxiety?

They hit bottom.

When they go as low as they can possibly go, they either die or push off of the bottom and go the other way.

So, from a family systems theory perspective, we can take heart. Electing as our leader the least differentiated leader we can imagine in Donald Trump gets us a little closer to hitting the bottom of our anxiety addiction.

How low can we go? Who knows? We may yet be a generation or two away from finding where the bottom is.

If, however, we can survive the next presidential term without getting exterminated, we may reach the point where enough people get fed up with the anxiety addiction that we hit bottom. We would learn how to take clear stands without necessarily cutting off one another. We would break our addiction to reading the comment sections where trolls hang out because we will grow weary of feeding our own addiction to anger and indignation.

We would begin to spend more time reaching across boundaries of race, gender, viewpoints, sexual orientation, economic condition, and nationality—all the other silos of separation that promote projection rather than relationships.

In the mean time, with each new horror of this administration, I will do my best not to blame, but to thank our President-elect for bringing us one step closer to hitting bottom.

Sonnet Before the End of Days

November 5, 2016


All the things that matter trigger madness

In a nation gulping anxiety

As an addict guzzles against sadness,

Emptiness, and haunting mortality.


Will the sun rise? Will all the planets track

Their normal orbits on November nine?

Or will they wobble, travel out of whack

If the Evil One (whether yours or mine)


Receives the title President-elect?

Will these fault lines in our democracy

Heal with time, or prove, by their effect,

Our ruler now is named Insanity?


Let’s all take a breath, let our anger wilt

Lest we destroy all our ancestors built.

The Lions of Nairobi are Escaping to the Suburbs

Washington Post Headline, September 8, 2016:


The Lions of Nairobi National Park Are Escaping to the Suburbs


Suburban lions, in a mere two score of years

will regret their move and wallow in nostalgia

for their former state of wildness. On instruments

not yet invented they will play and roar laments,

“Those were the days, my friend, we thought they’d never end

when we hunted and killed instead of sauntering

through supermarket aisles tossing frozen brisket

into carts. In our glory days we stalked our prey

for hundreds of miles, tawny, sleek, and ripped, so fit.”


Mark my words, the day will come when the lioness

can’t take it anymore. As she recalls the joy

of killing, chuckling at the way the little boy

runs to his mama when the lioness turns her

hungry gaze on him and lets slip a rumbling growl,

she remembers the taste of blood and crunch of bone

and the soft pleasure of swallowing tender flesh.

she says, “Forget these steaks measured in mere ounces,

hell with political correctness,” and pounces.


They Call It Bunny Hunting

Washington Post Headline:

“They Call It Bunny Hunting”


Agile as Mowgli,

Bounding through the forest

Barefoot over rocks and creeks

Swinging on vines from tree to tree

Our little digital natives

Run free through the digital forest

Carefree as Baloo

Innocent as bunnies

Hopping under the canopy of illusion

That their agility removes

Their vulnerability to

The eyes of the King Cobra

Who waits in the branches above.

We Need New Plan

“U.S. Agencies Investigating Covert Russian Plan to Disrupt 2016 Elections.

The Kremlin may be sowing public distrust through a cyber- and disinformation campaign.”

–Headline, The Washington Post, September 5, 2016


To: Boris

From: Natasha

Re: We Need New Plan


Our old plan to disrupt ze election

Has been uncovered by Amerikan spies.

New better scheme is midcourse correction

At last, zey ask Natasha to advise.

Forget computers. Zey are onto us.

Cyber-attacks are passé (to turn phrase).

New plan is old school: greed, drunkenness, lust.

Zey never expect what worked in old days.

We flood U.S. with vodka, best in world.

Make cheap to appeal to their greed; and then,

We really knock out boys with Ukraine girls.

But, what we do for those who like ze men?

Shirtless pics of Putin put me in mood . . .

I know! Statues of Donald in ze nude!



September 11 in Newfoundland

September Eleventh in Newfoundland


This story of kindness, almost buried

Beneath the ash and the smoking rubble

Born of hate, suspicion, and fear, carried

Light, a defiant fist of grace doubled

Against the blinding darkness of the day.

Today is just one decade and a half

Since seven thousand airline refugees

Landed in Gander, and she wears her myth

Of gracious hospitality with ease,

With far more ease than I can make it real

As I spin the yarn to a child too small

To have lived through that day, too young to feel

The horror of watching the towers fall.

The darkness she believes. She, too, knows grief.

But mass kindness? She says, “now that beats all.

Such hospitality defies belief.”

“Think of an anti-matter barroom brawl,”

I say, “a fit of contagious kindness

where instead of mirrors shattering, walls

of fear and hate tumble down around us.”

She grinned slyly before we parted, said,

“Then who would mind hearing, ‘You started it.’”

Texas In Dead Heat



Headline, September 6, 2016:

Washington Post 50-State Poll:

“Texas in Dead Heat”


Just as the deadly heat of summer

Gives a subtle indication

That it will soon be lifted,

A new dead heat descends:

Polls have shifted.

After one or two bearable mornings,

When a walk around the block

No longer wilts and drenches us,

We hear this news: “Dead Heat.”

Only recently we licked the pencil point

And added up the body count

From summer’s deadly heat.

Now we learn it may extend

In a different kind of misery:

Mud-slinging. Phones ringing. Door bells dinging.

After forty years of straight red line dancing,

Will Texas return to a state

Of Western Swinging?

Paz no mas. Viva Bob Wills.

The Dividing Line

“The line dividing good and evil cuts through the heart of every human being.”Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn, The Gulag Archipelago 1918-1956

Washington Post Headline, September 10, 2016

Who will Hillary Clinton’s ‘basket of deplorables’ comment actually alienate?

                        The Dividing Line

I’m thinking of three thinkers, Clinton, Romney, Solzhenitsyn.

In the basket of deplorables, what percentage fits in?

Forty-seven, Romney said, are slackers, takers from the rest

Half of Hillary’s opponents are someone-phobic, at best.

If we rounded up the slackers, put phobics in a basket,

Put slackers on a moon-bound ship, and shot the basket past it,

Would the left-behind be better, more humble and productive?

It’s not a plan, just a thought, if not good, at least seductive.

But what if Solzhenitsyn got it right about our race?

We’d all be left with half a heart, the other half in space.