Impunity

Politically Reactive is one of my favorite podcasts. The hosts, Hari Kondabolu and not-my-spirit-animal-because-that-would-be-culturally insensitive W. Kamau Bell, are funny and insightful and they have incredible guests on every week. I started listening as the election was winding up. Their episode after the election… a sheer “what the fuck just happened” moment… was incredibly cathartic. I was thrilled when I learned that they would be doing a second season and I have been grateful for their voices that echo both my terror and my desire to amplify important voices and to do my part in keeping the world from going to shit.

On a recent episode, they interviewed Naomi Klein, author of the new book “No is Not Enough: Resisting the New Shock Politics and Winning the World We Need”. It was a compelling interview, as all of theirs tend to be, but there was a phrase that came out during the interview that has been been bouncing around my head and heart now for a days. Klein admits that Trump is indeed skilled at branding and she goes on to say that “Trump’s brand is impunity through wealth”. That hit me like a ton of bricks. Think about the now infamous Access Hollywood tape. I hate to even reprint those words here, but for the sake of making my point, I will. This was a piece of the conversation that Trump and Billy Bush had with italics added for emphasis:

Trump: …I better use some Tic Tacs just in case I start kissing her. You know, I’m automatically attracted to beautiful — I just start kissing them. It’s like a magnet. Just kiss. I don’t even wait. And when you’re a star, they let you do it. You can do anything.

Bush: Whatever you want.

Trump: Grab ’em by the pussy. You can do anything.

Not convinced? How about the January 2016 campaign speech in which Trump joked “I could stand in the middle of Fifth Avenue and shoot somebody and I wouldn’t not lose voters”.  This is the Trump doctrine, in a nutshell. This is what he is selling to the American people, the idea that there is a certain level of wealth, power, celebrity, and/or influence that lifts you above the laws of the land or the laws of common decency. It’s what he believes of himself and his wealthy, elite friends. It’s also what he wants to believe for the country, that we’re powerful enough to not have to play by international rules. It suddenly occurs to me, as we watch person after person within the administration be connected to Russian intelligence or other ethically questionable actors, that what Trump is trying to prove is that he has reached a point where is finally and completely beyond repercussions for his actions. A person who thinks and acts this way would be a natural partner for politicians who are only beholden to monied interests and not to the constituencies they swore to serve. It’s terrifying to think that their of people of faith who have bought into this way of thinking.

It wasn’t long after listening to Klein’s episode of the podcast that I heard the news about Bill Cosby’s sexual assault case ending in a mistrial. While I know that the legal system is far from done with Mr. Cosby, there is still a part of me that has to question whether or not Cosby’s fame and influence is keeping him out of prison at least for now. Cosby and his family as stood on his reputation as an educator, an entertainer, a philanthropist, a civil rights icon, and groundbreaking social icon to claim that he is not capable of the things of which he is accused. The fact that history continues to bear out is that having access to that level of power actually makes one more likely to commit certain atrocities without being under the level of scrutiny that someone without power might experience. It’s hard for many of us who grew up watching him on television to separate the image of the father I always wanted in Cliff Huxtable from the seeming predator that is Bill Cosby. We don’t want it to be true, and so we make excuses. We blame the victims. We buy into conspiracy theories. We bury our heads in the sand instead of allowing ourselves to contemplate the very likely scenario that several dozen women are telling the truth. This is how power works.

We’re in love with power. We’re enamored by it. And for some reason, we have cultivated the idea that the pinnacle of power is being able to escape accountability. If the people and structures that we believe in can be scrutinized just like anyone else, then what real power do they have? And more importantly, how solid are the things in which we believe?

I carried these thoughts with me until I heard that the police officer who killed Philando Castile was not being convicted on his murder. I watched that video when it was released. I tried not to, but I couldn’t let myself off the hook. Add Castile’s name to the list of people killed by police officers who received no convictions. It’s a travesty of justice, but as a nation, we believe that police officers should operate with impunity. We tell our kids that “cops are your friends” and we buy the lie that they exist to serve and to protect. We’ll refer to one bad apple, forgetting that they spoil the bunch. For decades, police forces have operated in black neighborhoods without accountability. Video evidence has changed nothing. Hashtags have changed nothing. Calls for independent reviews of policing have changed nothing. The police system is in place to protect the status quo for the elites who already find themselves above the law. Let’s not forget that Brock Turner only spent three months in jail because of his “promising future”.

I am angry and I feel a bit hopeless right now. I want my kids to know that there is justice in the world. I believe in that so much that I stood up twice to take my denomination’s discipline for the same action. It was badly mishandled and only now seems to be in the process of being corrected. We can’t in good faith tell our kids that the systems they are supposed to trust are working properly. I’ll never have enough power or influence to protect my kids from consequences nor would I want to if I did. I believe in accountability. I believe in justice. I believe in things being made right as best that they can, but what I see when I look at the world are circumstances that would make Micah, Amos, and Isaiah scream from every corner. “Woe to you who pervert justice!”

I’m angry and I feel a bit hopeless… I don’t want to live in a world where the wicked act with impunity…

The Fighter: An Ode to Scott

There are all kinds of friendships that you have in your life. There are best friends. You’re blessed if you get more than three of those in a lifetime. There are good friends. Usually that’s your inner circle, the folks that you call up when big life events happen. I guess the number of these you have may depend on whether you are an introvert or an extrovert. It may also depend on how much you want to invest in those people. There are drinking buddies, people with whom you may never have many serious conversations, but you laugh and generally enjoy their company when they are around. This number can be infinite.  There are the friends with whom you only share a moment in time. You may not have ongoing contact, but because of that one shared experience, you’ll be bonded for life. This number tends to depend on the number of truly remarkable experiences you have in life.

Then you have important friends. They can certainly overlap with the other groups, but they’re more likely to be on the periphery, not in the inner circle. What sets them apart is that when they show up in your life, they make an impact. I have a small handful of these friends, people who show up and I know that their presence is going to change me in some fundamental way. My friend, the Rev. Scott Clark, is one of those people.

Scott and I met in seminary. He came to San Francisco Theological Seminary (SFTS) during my second year. He and his partner Jeff lived above my wife and I. We would sometimes process the previous night’s episode of Gilmore Girls as we climbed the steep hill towards our classes, but where our friendship really formed was in the van. SFTS is part of the Graduate Theological Union (GTU), a consortium of theological schools, most of which are in Berkeley. Those of us who lived in Marin County would have to take the schools’ vans across the Richmond Bridge to get to our GTU classes. I don’t remember which class I was taking or which one Scott was taking, but they started around the same time so we and several of the Korean students would hop on a van and cross the bay. Our classmates seemed happy to have the time where they didn’t have to use the English many of them were learning simultaneous to their seminary education, so Scott and I would chat along the way.

I don’t know if I ever told him this, but those conversations with Scott were incredibly important to me. First and foremost, Scott is just a fun person to talk to! He’s smart, witty, and oozing the charm that is stereotypically associated with Southerners. It didn’t take many conversations to realize that Scott had something else going for him; a deep sense of passion for the church. In 2006/7 when we would have been making these trips, it was still not legal in our denomination to ordain LGBT candidates to ministry, but Scott had a very evident sense of call, a robust faith in Jesus Christ, and a love for the church that I myself did not have at the time. It’s this love that inspired me and still does. I was very close to dropping out of the ordination process. My presbytery wasn’t very helpful in my care process and seemed to be putting unnecessary obstacles in may way. (The more things change… anyway…) I watched Scott move confidently through obstacles because of his love for a church that at times did not love him back. His belief in the good that the church can do kept me going.

Fast forward a few years. I was pastoring a church in Springfield, Ohio. Amendment 10-A to the PC(USA)’s constitution passes. It is a time of great celebration for most of the people in my circle. Many of my friends had been fighting this fight for a long time. Still, at that point anyway, I had some friends on the conservative side of things who were unpleased. They saw the church as losing its way and deviating from the Bible. In what I think was an act of being conciliatory, I wrote a blog post entitled “What if I’m Wrong?”. The central point I was attempting to make was that those of us on the “winning” side of this debate should practice humility as we’re all, at our best, attempting to discern the will of God. I certainly stand by the need for humility and generally consider the question of potential error essential in theological conversation, but Scott commented on my writing in a way that was incredibly instructive. These are his words :

if you are wrong on this issue, then Jeff and I are wrong by virtue of our life and love together — my call is wrong, my marriage is wrong. We are actually against God, when we are trying to be for her as best we can. Now, again, I KNOW that you did not in any way shape or form mean that. And I never would even have shared this thought because I don’t want you to feel guilty or worry that I am offended here. I’m not (and I’m not just saying that 🙂 But that’s how I hear the question, or perceive its import/implication, and I thought it might help with the question you raise with me in the message.

From my social location, as ally, I was missing the context of Scott’s social location. It was a lesson that has become incredibly important to me: I cannot equivocate as an ally. If I am for someone, I have to be all in for them, not for them with qualifications. And Scott is the perfect person from whom I should learn this lesson. He is a lawyer by training. He knows what it means to be all in for the sake of defending what he believes is right. Within our church’s system, he has stood in defense of ministers who have performed same sex marriages and there is no gray area there. Either you believe that marriage is a gift God has given to all people or you don’t.

It’s in this role of defense that Scott has once again shown up as a key person in my life. I won’t say much about the details as my case is ongoing, but I have written before about the context. Scott was not there to argue my innocence. I screwed up. I own that. I have owned it for three and a half years. Scott was defending me from a process that had gone off the rails and lost focus of its goal. I called Scott up a few months ago and he has been working diligently with Shannon and I on my case. Last week there was a meeting  around the case and I could not have asked for a better person to be in my corner. Scott was prepared, organized, articulate, and persuasive. I expected all of those things. What maybe caught me a bit off guard was Scott’s passion. Scott is a fighter! The same passion that I’ve heard him express for the church in the past was on display here. I know a lot of that is because we are friends, but the fact of the matter is that e genuinely cares about the church living up to her best ideals, ideals rooted in the grace of Jesus Christ. Were I not dead inside, I would have cried at his mention of the church’s missing out on my gifts and skills. This wasn’t just about me, it was about the church…

… but it was about me, and that fact has made me uncomfortable and I have finally put my finger on why: for most of my life, I have wanted people to feel that I am worth fighting for. My father was out of the picture. He clearly wasn’t going to fight for me. I wanted my mother to fight for me and my siblings against my abusive stepdad. Never happened. I wanted my siblings to stand up for me. Never happened. There have been other instances where I have desperately wanted someone to step between me and chaos and say “no more”. That’s what Shannon did for me and continues to do. And that’s what Scott did for me last week. He made me believe I was worth fighting for. That is a gift I cannot measure. There is no “thank you!” big enough.

There are all kinds of friends in the world. The good ones are the ones who will fight for what they believe in, fight for themselves, and fight for you. Everyone should have a friend like that. Everyone should have a friend like Scott.