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.



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.

Satan Declines to Endorse Donald Trump

The world’s first political consultant sat down recently for a rare interview. Here is a partial transcript.

Satan, I know that spreading evil in the name of God throughout the world keeps you awfully busy. Have you taken any interest in the presidential elections in the United States?

Of course. Where there is power, I take an interest.

Do you have a favorite presidential candidate? 

It is too early for me to tip my hand, but I will say this. Vladamir Putin and I share many common interests.

 Are you saying you endorse Trump? Putin speaks highly of him.

As Scripture says, I am more subtle than that. I cannot help but like Trump. He promotes bigotry, lies skillfully, belittles others, and worships money and power. All of that is in line with my agenda. His desire to kill innocents gives me a shiver of satisfaction.

But, you’re not ready to endorse him?

I am not laughing with delight as when the music died, but I am smiling. His plan to ban Muslims from the land of the free and the home of the brave certainly caught my attention. It is so perverse I cannot help but lust for his soul. And his fragrance, have you smelled it? Essence of musk with traces of burning sulfur and brimstone. Exquisite. And yet, I have reservations.

What would those reservations be?

I have this nagging feeling that he is too perfect. I suspect he is pandering to the evil voting bloc.

You don’t think he really believes what he says?

I do not care whether or not he believes it. He might, he might not. My concern is that if he is elected, he will start making deals with people other than me. As a candidate, he serves my purposes deliciously. As a president, he would be unpredictable.

You are afraid of Donald Trump?

Not afraid, just aware. I am concerned that, given a position with more power than he has now, he might stage a coup and claim my throne as Prince of Darkness and Father of Lies.


Donald Trump, my Presbyterian brother

In my little Presbyterian corner of the Christian community, there is much hand-wringing over the nation’s leading demagogue describing himself as a Presbyterian. “He’s not actually on the rolls of any Presbyterian church,” we are quick to say. The talking heads on cable TV demand that we moderate Presbyterians renounce the demagoguery of the Donald, but they will not give us any airtime to do so. “We don’t need some Presbyterian clergy person to tell us what a Presbyterian is, we have Trump the Presbyterian and he’s much more entertaining than you.”

trumps-macys-new-yorkOur Stated Clerk even sent the Donald a letter earlier in this primary campaign season reminding him that the Presbyterian denomination’s actual position on refugees and immigrants stands in opposition to his campaign rhetoric. As far as I know, he has not responded, not even a tweet.

We can see where this is going. There will soon be long news programs on the inherent racism, sexism, and Islamophobia in the Presbyterian DNA going back to John Calvin and John Knox.

With Trump as our loudest un-appointed spokesperson, Presbyterian Churches will be the target of vandals who spray-paint “DOWN WITH PREDESTINATION!” on our church doors. Men wearing khakis and blue blazers will get harassed by the TSA at airports and Presbyterian women will have to surreptitiously remove their James Avery Presbyterian symbol nose rings before they leave church for Applebee’s Sunday lunch. The Unitarians will hold vigils in front of Presbyterian Churches with signs that say, “Dump Trump!” “Denounce the Demagogue!” and “Presbyterians, Go Back to Scotland!”

O.K., that probably will not happen.

But, since I cannot seem to convince the world that Trump is not one of us, I have decided to embrace him as a brother, and explain him to the world.

He is the greatest performance artist ever.

Some have speculated that he’s secretly trying to get Hillary Clinton elected, but I think it goes much deeper than that.

Donald Trump gets easily bored with the shenanigans of most rich men. Trophy wife? Done that. Conspicuous consumption? Been there. Reality TV show? Tired of it. Run for president? Now, that sounds like fun.

This campaign is the uber-rich man’s version of the redneck’s famous last words, “Hold my beer and watch this.”

Trump will soon reveal that his campaign is pure satirical theater, a performance artist’s pièce de résistance. He is actually still the liberal he used to be and his rhetoric on the campaign trail is a work of art designed to reveal the darkest part of the heart of America’s soul. Total depravity is the only Presbyterian doctrine that is provable with evidence, and Trump is generously providing us with all the evidence needed to convince us of The Truth.

“You think racism is no longer an issue in the U.S.? Watch this!” And his poll numbers climb as he insults Mexicans and encourages beating up an African-American man.

“You think sexism is fading away? Watch this!” He insults women and his poll numbers climb.

“You think we’ve come a long way since we interned the Japanese in 1942? Watch this!” And he proposes banning entry to the U.S. for Muslims. When asked “even those returning from overseas deployment in our armed services?” his spokesman replies, “All of ‘em,” and his numbers continue to climb.

Serious people say, “This is not funny anymore,” but like all edgy comics, once he has made everyone uncomfortable, he’s just getting started.

By the time he finishes this campaign, he will have given it his all. He will have fully developed the character of the American Demagogue and no matter what he says in the future, no matter how many times he protests, “It was art! Art, People! When the Donald does performance art, he does it better than anyone has ever done it before!” he will never be able to separate himself from this role. As Captain Kirk is to William Shatner, as Archie Bunker is to Carroll O’Connor, the American Demagogue of the 2016 campaign will be Trump’s career-defining role.

He will have sacrificed everything for this role, his energy, his reputation, and his future career as a performance artist. (But not much of his money, he wouldn’t go that far). But, he’s done it all for his country, to bring us to repentance, to hold up a mirror and show us what we’re really made of. “You think you’ve come so far,” his performance tells us, “but you ignore the fact that you have perfectly normal looking people walking around who will cheer when someone with money and a bunch of bravado says we need to institute a religious test for travel into this country. Wake up, people! Make America great again! Repent of your racism, your nationalism, and your Islamophobia!”

Just you wait and see. This has to be what he’s doing. He can’t possibly be serious, even if he is a Presbyterian. But, he’s not. No, really. He’s not.