Election 2016: Accepting Personal Responsibility

This is the first of a series of posts I will be writing about the election season we just endured and my thoughts about the political situation we find ourselves in. These posts are meant for everyone. People of all generations, all walks of life, all identities, and all political leaning will agree with some of what I write and disagree with other parts. I hope I communicate my thoughts well to everyone and that they serve to spark beneficial dialogue with and introspection within those that read them.

If there is an over-arching theme to these posts, it is perhaps best summarized in the words of Joseph de Maistre, a French political thinker, who once wrote, “Every nation gets the government it deserves.”


Election 2016: Accepting Responsibility

While some celebrate the election of Trump and the continued GOP control of Congress, many, such as myself, are disheartened by the results of the election. We fear the GOP agenda, empowered by their election gains, will pose a risk to our rights, our social status within society, our healthcare, our economic futures, and even our very lives. It has been said that we can be part of the solution, part of the problem, or part of the scenery and, politically speaking, too many U.S. citizens have chosen to be part of the scenery and in doing so have become part of the problem. I am one of them. Before I write anything about anyone else, any other citizen or any other political party, I must acknowledge my personal responsibility in contributing to situation I now fear will harm many people. My political inaction, my disengagement with politics and my political laziness contributed to our present circumstances. Before I continue to any analysis of the 2016 election or our present political circumstances, I need to start there.

Refusing to Vote

In the past I have failed to exercise a basic responsibility in a democratic country: voting to elect our national leaders. I vote in local elections and on specific local issues but before 2016 I had never voted in federal elections.  I have had my reasons for choosing not to do this, but that means that I consented to the status quo which I view as terrible.

In 2016 I choose to vote in the national elections but I didn’t even do that well. I failed to register as a Democrat in time to vote in support of Bernie Sanders, the candidate I favored during the primary election season. This was the point at which my vote would have actually counted and had the most practical impact…and I did not get around to it. My first attempt to register with the Green Party was lost by the state of Massachusetts and because I did not double-check my registration I found out I was unable to vote in local elections when I attempted to. My second attempt to register with the Green Party was successful and I voted for Jill Stein in the general election. While this vote in a deeply Democratic Blue state was pointless beyond attempting to help the Green Party claim 5% of national votes, I at the very least showed up.

Voting But Disengaging from Politics

However, I fear that even if I had voted for one of the two-party candidates in a swing state, the most powerful single citizen vote in our present political situation, this is not enough. I do not think voting as the end of political engagement but more one aspect of it, or even the bare minimum in our country. Even if one views voting as pointless and refuses to do so, there are still many other forms of political engagement.

I fear many people, including myself, are politically active only during the election season and nominally engaged at that. We vote for the candidate most like us and perhaps convince others to vote, and then disengage from the political process for the next 3-4 years. If we win, we trust our candidates to follow through on their campaign promises and govern effectively, often ignoring clear situations where they do not. If we lose, we blame everything on the actions of the other political party, often ignoring clear situations where the other party has a valid point or our own party’s failings put them into power.

Political engagement is far more than voting I believe one should stay politically engaged. We should maintain public pressure on our leaders to follow through on promises, remain true to their values, compromise when necessary and generally keep them in check. However, this requires staying informed, learning about ways to exert political pressure effectively, and putting in effort to the political process. It also includes being able and willing to criticize the leaders we identify with, identifying, calling out, and working to correct valid problems with their leadership.  We must do this even as they face unwarranted criticism from their political opponents. Personally, I have generally failed to stay politically engaged beyond voting.

Am I Part of the Solution, Part of the Problem, or Part of the Scenery?

Overall,  when I ask how I have attempted to influence on our political system I draw a huge blank with few exceptions. I am forced to accept that I am not the Civil Rights activists but those who stayed at home during the marches. I realize I am not the ones who fought for women’s right to vote, but those that stayed in the background and wanted to see how things would play out. I realize I am not the Anti-War Activists of Vietnam, but the Silent Majority who was counted as for the war because of their silence. I have never communicated my desires or concerns to my representatives in local or federal government in any way shape or form, beyond perhaps signing a few petitions online that were safely ignored.

There May Be Many Reasons To Be Politically Disengaged But There Are No Excuses For Being Politically Disengaged

There are many demands on our lives. There are educations to finish, bills to pay, children to raise, careers and business ventures to pursue. There are relationships invest in and personal changes we want to make. All of these require some of our finite time, resources and effort. It is tempting to stay disengaged and simply hope that the status quo gets better or at least is maintained, despite all evidence to the contrary.

There are also many valid reasons to feel politically dis-empowered in what is left of the democratic process here in the U.S. Our votes seem inconsequential based on where we live. Corporations and special interests have hired an army of lawyers and lobbyists to bend our political leaders to their will, armed with financial resources none of us will ever see in our entire life. While the two-parties may be different on wedge-issues, there are many more cases in which their agenda and governance are indistinguishable and equally problematic.

However, the words of Pericles are just as true today as they were in his:“Just because you do not interest in politics, does not mean politics won’t take an interest in you.”

Politics shapes our shared social experiences from the mundane to the incredibly important. Politics determines how fast we are legally allowed to drive on roads and if minority groups are protected or oppressed by our laws. Politics determines where we will resettle and incorporate refugees or create more by invading a foreign country. When we disengage from politics we give up whatever say we have in the direction of our nation and our own futures as we are part of it. 

While we may feel dis-empowered I have come to believe that everyone has as much political influence as they are willing to create and we are limited more by our lack of strategic effort than the actual structures we face. I have been too disengaged to shape the politics that have shaped our course as a nation. That course ultimately led us to Trump, and while I lament our arrival here, I cannot do anything until I accept personal responsibility for my inaction and act differently in the future.

I know I am guilty of this, and I invite my readers to consider how involved or disengaged you really are in our political process as I continue to write about this election and our present political situation as a nation..

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Obama’s Executive Action on Guns – Follow Up: What can be done to address issues with guns?

As I said in my previous post, I would like for the mass shootings in the U.S.A. to stop, and I would like for the overall decline in firearms violence in the U.S. to continue, if not accelerate. I would also like to see accidental deaths by firearms, suicide by firearms and other similar problems be addressed by our society. While I am a firearm owner, and I do not want to see civilian firearm ownership banned, I think *one part* of our society’s answer to these challenges can come in the form of sensible gun-legislation.

In my previous post I went through Obama’s Executive Actions on gun in detail and found that it was a mixed bag. The NRA and GOP would have you believe that Obama is coming for your guns to impose martial law, fanning the flames of hysteria to drive record gun sales. The Democrats and gun-control advocates would have you believe these actions will help end gun violence or at the very least be a first step towards it, when in fact some of these actions are vague, insufficient or will do nothing (in my estimation) to address issues with guns.

So what can be done to address issues with guns and what type of sensible gun legislation can be part of our response to issues with firearms?  I will address this question by breaking down the issues with gun into four basic categories: accidental death and injury, suicide, and gun crime.

1. Accidental Death and Injury: Every year there are tragic incidents involving firearms where individuals injury or kill themselves or others with firearms being handled improperly. There are at least two ways we can reduce this issue.

  • Increased firearm handling and storage knowledge for gun-owners: Many of these issues are rooted in people improperly handling firearms.  Gun owners need to take their decision to own a firearm very seriously. I fear we live in a culture where access to firearms goes far beyond those who come from communities and families with that encourage responsible gun culture. The individual must take firearms seriously and ensure sure they and everyone who could possibly access their gun, understands the fundamentals of firearms safety. I say this as someone who had access to firearms before anyone every sat me down and taught me the basics of gun safety. I could have easily injured myself and/or others. Perhaps legislation like California’s requirement that you demonstrate your familiarity with safe firearms handling before purchasing a handgun and similar legislation can be developed in other states.
  • Gun Safety Technology: We need to fund gun safety research. Specifically we need to develop technology that prevents anyone but the authorized user from firing the gun. Obama is pushing for this with DoD, DoJ, and DHS mandates. This has been developed in the past but widespread implementation was blocked by a combination of NRA lobbying efforts and fears about these safety features failing and keeping authorized users from using them in critical situations.  While I do not think we should mandate these safety features on all firearms I agree with Obama that we need to push past both of these barriers and at least make these safety features an option on the market.

2. Suicide: Roughly 2/3 of the firearms related deaths in the United States are from suicides. People struggling with suicidal ideation who have access to firearms are at great risk. Most suicide attempts involving firearms are successful and the decision and result are instant so a person cannot be talked down from it or rescued from it in many circumstances. There are a few things we can do to help reduce the number of suicides by firearms and suicides in general.

  • Increased Mental Health Awareness: Mental health issues, including depression, still carry a stigma. People refrain from talking about it, or refrain from seeking help, because of this issue. Suicide is especially stigmatized as it involves death and the choice to end ones own life which are especially difficult to talk about for a variety of reasons. Legislatively I think we can continue to fund effective outreach programs, especially in hard to reach communities, to help people better understand depression and suicidal ideation. The more people who understand depression and suicidal ideation, the more people who can recognize it in themselves, in their loved ones, and seek or encourage their loved ones to seek, professional help.
  • Legal Ways for Family/Friends to disarm individuals dealing with suicidal ideation: While people may take their own life in many was the specific danger access to firearms presents to those struggling with suicidal ideation can be better addressed. I think that California’s new law where family can go to a judge and seek to temporarily remove a person’s firearms from them to allow for psychological evaluation is a good thing that I hope to see replicated in other states. In a related way, legislation that keeps firearms out the hands of domestic abusers should be in every state as some of the firearms related suicide are actually murder-suicides. (Sidenote: In 2012 I was going through another battle with depression and was the closest I had ever come to committing suicide.  Knowing the specific dangers access to firearms represents, and realizing that I had begun to think about using my rifle to kill myself, I called my parents and had them take my gun and give it to a family member for safe keeping so I would not have access to it.  While I was clear-headed enough to recognize this issue, and certainly part of me still wanted to live not everyone who owns a firearm and is struggling with suicidal ideation will be at this place.  Giving the family a legal mechanism to disarm their loved ones will save lives.)
  • Universal Healthcare: Some people who are struggling with depression are not being treated because they lack access to mental health treatment.  Some people become suicidal because of physical health issues that could have been avoided or more effectively treated if they had regular access to medical care.  Universal healthcare is a solution to both of these issues and it needs to happen in the United States.

3. Crime: We lose roughly 10,000 people a year to homicides involving firearms.  While it should be noted that this is 0.0000314% of our national population, firearms related crimes are in decline, and murder rates are at a historic low, it would still be good to see firearms related crime continue to decrease. So what can be done?

  • Fight Gun Crime By Fighting Poverty And the Wealthy Elite: I am a rather firm believer that a lot of the crime, including gun-crime, in the United States is driven by poverty. There certainly will always be people who choose to do evil, and choose to do evil with firearms, and I do not believe poverty *causes* crime, but for many crime becomes a more viable or compulsory option as their practical options are limited by poverty and related issues. We need to work towards ending the intentional under-resourcing of specific areas and communities and fight back against the stranglehold wealthy individuals, interests, and groups have over our nation and the flow of its resources and prosperity.  Legislation, political action, union organizing and community organizing that can effectively reduce poverty and inequality will have the side benefit of reducing crime and firearms related crime. One major action we could take is close tax loopholes and subsidies for many major corporations and then redistribute that money to the poorest and most crime ridden communities in the U.S. If we invested the money every U.S. based corporation hides in offshore accounts, keeps in tax havens abroad, or dodges through loopholes (created into law by politicians they effectively own) we’d have a lot less poverty in the U.S. or at least would be able to reduce its impact on people.
  • End the Drug War: One particular problem driving up gun violence here (and in other countries) is the Drug War. Prohibiting specific substances creates an illegal economy that supplies a demand which doesn’t disappear when we make specific substances illegal. Many poor marginalized communities see a vicious cycle where “tough on crime laws” mark an individual for life and they have no other choice but to stay involved in this illegal economy they may only have ventured into out of economic necessity or environmental circumstance. Ending the Drug War, clearing all non-violent drug related convictions from people’s records, releasing all inmates currently detained on non-violent drug charges, reinstating the right of felons to vote, shifting towards a mental health perspective of addiction instead of criminalizing it (as Portugal has) and investing in our communities (in ways as mentioned above) will certainly work towards reducing gang violence which accounts for roughly 2,000 homicides a year and often involves firearms and drugs.

These are some of the basic steps and legislative actions we can work towards to help reduce accidental death and injury, suicides and crime involving firearms.  An astute reader would note that only a few of these suggestions involve legislation specific to guns. This is not an oversight on my part.

From the outset I hope I have made it clear that sensible gun-legislation can and should be one part of, but not the totality, of our efforts to reduce issues related to firearms. While the presence or use of firearms in all of these issues requires us to think of sensible gun-legislation as part of the problem, the connection these issues have to larger issues (such as mental health, poverty, crime, etc.) invite us to look beyond making new gun legislation as the only conceivable method to address these issues. So while we need to have more candid and sensible conversations about gun-legislation, that is free from self-serving misrepresented stats, the gross influence of lobbyists, and the emotional reactions fanned by politicians, we also need to have similar sensible conversations about a great many other things impacting our society.

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Obama’s Executive Action on Guns: A review by a gun-owner for sensible firearms legislation.


I would like for the mass shootings in the U.S.A. to stop, and I would like for the overall decline in firearms violence in the U.S. to continue, if not accelerate. I would also like to see accidental deaths by firearms, suicide by firearms and other similar problems be addressed by our society. While I am a firearm owner, and I do not want to see civilian firearm ownership banned, I think *one part* of our society’s answer to these challenges can come in the form of sensible gun-legislation.

But what do I mean by sensible gun-legislation? Currently I think three types of gun legislation:

  • Sensible gun legislation that is law: These are laws that strike the right balance between wanting to curb social problems with firearms (crime, suicide, accidental death, etc.) while respecting the Second Amendment. They force gun culture in the U.S. to be more responsible and I think that’s great. Example: In California you have to show that you know how to properly handle and store a handgun before you purchase it. 
  • Sensible gun legislation that isn’t law: There is sensible gun legislation that is not law. This often the result of NRA/Firearms manufacturers lobbying efforts, the fear of our government become repressive, or politicians pandering to the Right. Example: Why isn’t the above California law Federal/national?
  • Non-sense gun legislation that is law: There are gun laws that make no sense. Often they are the product of public outcry over especially heinous crimes involving firearms, that has been whipped up by media focus and political haymaking. This style of legislation makes us feel like we are “doing something” about firearms violence when we are not. They just inconvenience firearms owners or infringe upon the Second Amendment without justification. Example: In California it is illegal to own a traditionally set up AR-15 rifle. However, a Ruger Mini-14 ranch rifle, which almost identical in function and form but not cosmetically an “assault rifle” is legal. This makes no sense.  Additionally rifles, of any type, are rarely used in crimes. In 2011, only 3.7% of firearms homicides were committed with any sort of long rifle. While firearms crimes in California have fallen, and some attribute this to the tough legislation passed in California, I would suggest this is more just following national trends. 

What Obama is Proposing:

In response to a number of mass shooting and due to the lack of Congressional actions, Obama has announced a series of Executive Actions to Reduce Gun Violence and Make our Communities Safe. I want to summarize what I believe Obama is actually proposing and evaluate what is being proposed.

  1. Background Checks: Obama is requiring any “firearms dealer” regardless of if they conduct sales primarily at a store, a gun show or online to obtain an FFL license. This license would require them to perform background checks for all sales. Dealing in firearms and not having this license carries a jail sentence of five years and a $250,000 fine.While this would theoretically be used to punish people who are operating as firearms dealers without an FFL (and that’s fine by me) the language is worrying and the law redundant.

    In regards to the wording there is no set limit or clear guidelines in regards to who deemed to be “operating as a firearm dealer” provided by the government. It is even stated that people who have made one sale or even one or two guns have been charged in this manner.  To me this ends private firearms sales. Who in their right mind would sell a gun from their collection to a friend or to another person if they could later be charged with acting as a dealer without an FFL? I’m not saying this is necessarily a bad or good thing, I’m just saying this actions has a larger impact than what is technically stated.

    Furthermore legal online gun sales already have to be shipped to a licensed FFL dealer who runs the background check and then you can pick it up for them.  So what loophole is this actually closing?

    Additionally, while the background check system that FFLs are required to use has stopped ~2 millions firearms purchases to people who should not have them, according to the ATF a number of licensed FFL dealers are being used by firearms traffickers or in collusion with them. These firearms end up in the hands of criminals even though the backgrounds checks passed. What would stop new dealers from registering and doing the exact same thing? At least the process would put them under more scrutiny but the problem still remains.Finally, the actions includes putting a stop to a process where citizens apply to legally obtain NFA items by forming a trust or corporation. NFA items cover specific firearms (such as fully-automatic firearms, short barreled rifles, and short-barreled shotguns) and firearm-related items (such as suppressors). Normally you have to apply for them and get the signature of a Chief Law Enforcement Officer (CLEO) in your area and pay a tax stamp.  To avoid some of this hassles some have formed trusts or corporations to work around this or expedite the process.  This action closes that option but it is also notable that the ATF has removed the CLEO signature requirement which was a major impediment to many people and the reason this alternative path was used.  Additionally it should be noted registered NFA items are essentially *never* used in crime. Since 1934 there have been two crimes involving legally owned NFA weapons.  Overall this directive closes an alternative path to NFA ownership that is no longer needed and does not really impact firearms crime, suicide, or accidental discharge.

  2. Streamlining and reinforcing existing systems: A number of the Executive Actions included steps at streamlining and reinforcing current existing systems and laws.First, upgrades will be made to the background check system and an additional 230 FBI agents will be hired to add staffing for it to increase the speed of the background check system and make it available 24/7. Currently a firearms dealer can legally sell an individual a firearm if the background check does not come back in three days so technically an individual who shouldn’t have a firearm could purchase one if the system was too slow. It is unclear how many such purchases this streamlined system may prevent and how many of these purchase lead to firearms related issues.Additionally 200 ATF agents will be hired “to help enforce our gun laws.” This would bring the total number of employees to ~5,000 and the total number of agents to ~2,700. Part of this new added manpower will be used to track illegal online gun sales, including those occurring in the “dark net.”  While I’m not exactly sure how much impact additional agents will have on firearms issues I am glad the ATF is expanding to the “dark net.” This is an area where I think a lot of illegal guns sales could potentially happen in the future.Finally $4 million will be used to enhance the National Integrated Ballistics Information Network. This will centralize a lot of the processing of ballistic evidence from crimes so that a firearm used in previous crimes in different criminal jurisdictions can be connected.
  3. Domestic Violence:  The Attorney General has called for the renewing of domestic violence outreach efforts. Now domestic violence is a factor in firearms crimes, but this point is so vague I cannot even evaluate it. What programs are being renewed? Are the programs that are being renewed working? Who has access to these programs? The only clear part that I would agree with on principle is removing firearms from domestic violence offenders, a law we already have in California when and where a restraining order is in effect, but again, this is only encouraged and I’m not sure what other states have similar laws already on the books.
  4. Mental Health: The third point of Obama’s Executive Actions is centered on mental health, and this point is perhaps the most problematic to me.Before addressing the specific aims, I just have to say the inclusion of mental health in gun control laws appears to imply that the mentally ill are inherently violent and prone to gun violence. This is problematic and reinforces the stigma surrounding mental illness. Almost the exact opposite is actually true: the mentally ill are far more likely to be victims of violence than perpetrators of it, a fact the White House even confusing admits to in its own press release. That being said, there are three moves these actions attempt to take.
    First, “The Administration is proposing a new $500 million investment to increase access to mental health care.” While any additional allocation of funds to mental health care in the U.S. is welcome, a one time investment of $500 million (nationally) falls far short of what is actually needed.  Mental health issues are expensive to treat in the current predatory and capitalistic healthcare system we have in the U.S. According to the APA mental health issues, “were one of the five most costly conditions in the United States in 2006 with expenditures at $57.5 billion.”  While a lot of suicides by firearms are the result of depression, it is unclear what other firearms issues these funds are designed to prevent.Second, the Social Security Administration will forward information on, “75,000 people each year who have a documented mental health issue, receive disability benefits, and are unable to manage those benefits because of their mental impairment, or who have been found by a state or federal court to be legally incompetent” to the appropriate authorities that will prevent them for owning firearms. While I agree there are people who should not own firearms, including those who due to mental impairment cannot be responsible gun owners, this is already a law and has been since 1968. This action means that more people will be reported to the background check system than previously, which is overall a good thing, but I cannot think this will have a significant impact on firearm issues.Third, the Administration is seeking to remove barriers created by HIPAA that would prevent mental health professionals from reporting relevant mental health issues to the appropriate authorities. While I agree with this on principle, and it appears the Administration struck a good balance between privacy and public safety on this issue, I again do not see this making a large impact. That’s just my suspicion and I would like to see how many firearms issues would have been prevented if a personal dealing with mental illness, that was in treatment, could have been reported before they legally purchased a firearm and committed their crime or committed suicide.
  5. Gun Safety Technology: The President is directing the DoD, the DoJ, and the DHS to spearhead the research into and adoption of gun-safe technology, “that would reduce the frequency of accidental discharge or unauthorized use of firearms, and improve the tracing of lost or stolen guns.” There are numerous problems this directive is attempting to address and issues I have with this directive.First, there is the issue of accidental discharge. If there was a way to keep guns from going off accidentally I would love to see that developed and implemented. This increases gun safety by hopefully eliminating or significantly reducing death and injury caused by accidental discharge.  That being said no gun will ever be 100% safe so shooter training and proper firearms ownership, storage, and handling can never be stressed enough.Second, there is the issue of stolen guns.  Some firearm crimes involve stolen firearms. If a stolen iPhone can be tracked, why not a stolen firearm?  While tagging every firearm with a unique trackable signature of some type so Law Enforcement could locate a stolen firearm once it is reported as stolen, makes perfect sense it also raise concerns. Giving the Government the ability to know exactly where every firearm is in the United States is a great power and one that could be abused.Third, if there was a way to make sure only an authorized user could use a specific firearm that would be great for law enforcement. Law enforcement officers are occasionally killed with their own firearm, and if their firearm would only work in their hand, this would solve that issue.  The same technology could be used by civilians who are concerned about being disarmed or those with small children.


Overall I feel like these Executive Actions are a mixed bag but generally leave me underwhelmed.  There are actions that enhance or reinforce existing sensible gun legislation (such as background checks), but there are also non-sense gun legislation that I fear will do little to “Reduce Gun Violence and Make Our Communities Safe” and simply inconvenience or needlessly restrict law abiding citizens (such as closing the NFA “loophole” and investing a token amount into mental health access).

However, it does not appear to me that any of these new actions would have prevented any of the recent mass shootings so I do not expect them to prevent similar ones from happening in the future. Nor do I see anything that I would think would markedly hasten the general decline in firearms violence that already exists.

While I’m not a member or supporter of the NRA it is telling that this assessment was essentially shared by the NRA, for whom one spokesperson quipped, “This is it? This is what they’ve been hyping for how long now? This is the proposal they’ve spent seven years putting together? They’re not really doing anything,” adding that at first glance the proposals appeared to be, “surprisingly thin.”

In my next post I’ll write more about other concrete steps we might take or additional sensible gun-legislation that we could think about to address the issues related to private firearms ownership.

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Don’t Call White Supremacy a Mental Illness

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[Sidenote: This is my first blog post in a very long time.  Sometime after #Ferguson I just stopped writing. I was at a loss for words on the many pressing topics facing the world. To be honest I began to seriously question if we can even make the world a better place at this point, so was it really worth writing about issues that aren’t going to change? For a small number of reasons I’ve started writing again.]

Immediately after the terrorist attack in Charleston, before the shooter was even in custody, people were quick to suggest that shooter was either mentally ill, motivated by white supremacy, or some combination of the two. As the dust settled it became rather abundantly clear that the killer was motivated by white supremacist ideology.

Some joked, as I have in the past, that white supremacy could or should be classified as a mental illness. The inference is that someone must be crazy to believe in white supremacy. While I couldn’t help but smirk at the suggestion, recently I have come to believe that we should not suggest white supremacy could or should be seen as a mental illness as it combines the two concepts and this is very problematic. I say this for two main reasons.

First, combining white supremacy with mental illness, especially in the context of hate crimes and terrorist attacks, adds to the stigma surrounding mental illness.

White supremacy motivates and sustains all kinds of violence,s injustice and evil in the world. Some of these injustices, like the prison industrial complex, enjoy widespread acceptance.  Some of these injustices, such as the terrorist attack in Charleston, are widely condemned. Either way it is a source and force of evil in the world, and one that still operates today.

When we associate mental illness with white supremacy, and some of the more glaring crimes and atrocities it motivates, we encourage the mistaken belief that people dealing with mental illnesses are a crime just waiting to happen. The mentally ill in general become seen as one breakdown away from lashing out, perhaps lethally. This adds to one of the main challenges facing mental health today: the stigma surrounding it.

People are generally very ill informed about mental health and where ignorance exists, assumptions, myth and fears grow like weeds. This all fuels a stigma around mental health issues that adds to the difficulty of addressing them. Because of this stigma people struggling with mental health issues fear seeking professional help because they do not want to be labeled or seen as “crazy.” Because of this stigma people who are dealing with mental health issues in their family do not seek help or knowledge because they wrongfully feel shame or fear community scrutiny and judgment.

While it is true that in some mass shootings and other crimes mental illness has proven to be a factor or even the primary factor in the situation, overall those struggling with mental illness are far more likely to be victims of crimes than perpetrators of crime.

A friend of mine, Kevin Kurian, a PhD candidate in Clinical Psychology, pointed this out recently with some sources for those that are curious:

As you watch the news, please consider the following…
Fact: “Specifically, 3%, 4% and 10% of crimes were related directly to symptoms of depression, schizophrenia, and bipolar disorder, respectively.” (Peterson et al., 2014)
Fact: You are almost 3 times more likely to be a victim of a crime if you have schizophrenia. (Khalifeh et al., 2015).

Second, just as importantly, conflating white supremacy with mental illness helps us (by this I mean primarily, but not exclusively, white people) evade our shared responsibility to deal with white supremacy in 2015.

The existence of mental illness is a fact of life. What I mean by this is that as far back as we can look into recorded history it appears humans have experienced and struggled with what we would now identify as mental illness. Likewise, as far as we may look into the foreseeable future, it appears mental illness will impact some people despite our increased understanding of them and our development of treatments for some mental illnesses. We can say with confidence, “Some members of our society do and will experience mental illness” just as surely as we can say “Some members of our society do and will experience physical illness.” While we may mitigate the negative impact of some mental illnesses, effectively treat others, or possibly even cure some, mental illness is not going away.

When we suggest white supremacy is a mental illness, jokingly or not, we put white supremacy in that same category. This is a subtle but deeply problematic shift. When white supremacy is understood in the same way as mental illness is understood, it is seen as a fact of life that we have little influence over. The unjust systems, atrocities and evils white supremacy continues to sustain become seen as an unfortunate but unavoidable tragedies. The mass-murder that took the life of nine Black people in a church is understood to be a tragic event, not unlike death caused by a forest fire, or an outbreak of a lethal illness.


Consequently, this shift enables people to evade responsibility for challenging white supremacy. When white supremacy is seen as a fact of life, we cannot really end it, only perhaps mitigate the worst of its consequences. Therefore we ultimately bear little or no responsibility for its ongoing carnage and certainly no responsibility in stopping it. For who can be held responsible for ending something that cannot be ended?

The reality is white supremacy is not an unchangeable fact of life like mental illness. There was a time in history, not to long ago, that white supremacy did not exist. The concept of “white people” did not even exist a few centuries back. The beliefs that make up white supremacy and institutions built around white supremacy were made by humans and can be unmade by humans if we want to really grapple with it.

The mass murder in Charleston was not a tragedy caused a mental illness we could have done little to nothing about.  The mass murder in Charleston was an ideologically motivated terrorist attack that was inspired by a lot of white supremacist narratives that enjoy mainstream support. Understanding this situation rightly is certainly a lot more uncomfortable, and certainly implicates a lot more people than one lone gunman, perhaps even ourselves, but understanding it rightly is necessary if we really want to make any progress when it comes to addressing white supremacy as it exists today.

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Episode 8: Cole Dutter and the California Drought and California Agriculture

On today’s episode we will be discussing the the California drought and its impact on and relationship to California agriculture.

Episode 8 – Episode 8 – Cole Dutter and the California Drought and California Agriculture.

Beyond this podcast I would encourage those concerned about this drought to consider the fact that this is a much smaller part of a global problem regarding the desertification of the world and the increasing scarcity and rarity of potable drinking water.

For more on this topic, check out the documentary film Blue Gold, which is free to watch on Youtube and linked below.

Thanks for listening, I hope you enjoyed today’s episode. Feel free to email me any questions, comments or concerns at speakfaithfully@gmail.com


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Episode 7: Damian Webster and the Two Row Wampum

damian webster


On today’s episode we will be discussing the Two Row Wampum with Damian Webster.

Episode 7 – Damian Webster and the Two Row

Thanks for listening, I hope you enjoyed today’s episode. Feel free to email me any questions, comments or concerns at speakfaithfully@gmail.com


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The Global War on Terror Racket

Major General Smedley Butler

War is a racket. It always has been.

It is possibly the oldest, easily the most profitable, surely the most vicious. It is the only one international in scope. It is the only one in which the profits are reckoned in dollars and the losses in lives.

A racket is best described, I believe, as something that is not what it seems to the majority of the people. Only a small “inside” group knows what it is about. It is conducted for the benefit of the very few, at the expense of the very many. Out of war a few people make huge fortunes.

Maj General of the Marine Corps and  Smedley Butler, two-time winner of the Congressional Medal of Honor

On September 11th, 2001, terrorists attacked the United States. I will never forget watching the planes fly into the tower, or the bomb threat that closed my school later that day. Like many I was shocked and angered.

While I did not understand the history that had transpired to bring about this attack I wanted revenge. 9/11 cemented my resolve to join the military and serve my country, a plan only foiled by the fact that I was medically disqualified.

Even though I was far removed from most of the US’s actions since then as I pursued college, graduate school and work, the Global War on Terror has still been a defining endeavor that has shaped world events and U.S. policy at home and abroad over the last 13 years. In many ways the Global War on Terror has cast a shadow over the world that no one could really escape. As Obama has now officially extended this war to Iraq (again) and Syria to combat the Islamic State, I am forced again to ask what this great endeavor has cost us and if it has even achieved its goal.

What has the Global War on Terror cost us?

The United States has paid dearly for the Global War on Terror, and has offloaded many more costs onto other countries, usually to the most vulnerable people in their nations.

The U.S. alone has spent $4-6 trillion dollars.

We have lost 6,639 service men and women and many more will be living with and dealing with the physical and psychological wounds for the rest of their lives.

We have killed at least 174,000 civilians in Afghanistan, Iraq, Pakistan, Yemen, Somalia and elsewhere. This is a conservative estimate, and the number is likely much higher due to U.S. intentionally under-reporting and classifying civilians as combatants with no evidence. Millions more have been displaced, impoverished, diseased, traumatized and/or wounded due to our actions. Considering the dead civilians alone we have killed 63 times the number of civilians we lost in 9/11.

We now live in a world under pervasive, warrantless U.S. surveillance. Civil liberties, constitutional rights and freedoms in the United States have been degraded significantly and our respect for those rights abroad is non-existent if it ever was.

We have seen an exponential increase in the militarization of police forces as police departments cross train in counter-terrorism and receive military gear from the government.

We have further sullied our global reputation with our willingness to pursue this war through very immoral means including fanning the flames of sectarian war, funding death squads, utilizing torture, practicing indefinite detention and operating without consequence or boundary in the world of black ops.

We have sown the seeds for the very extremism and terrorism we sought to defeat, and future generations around the world will be dealing with individuals understandably seeking vengeance for our actions against them.

And what have we gained from all of this?

While we killed Osama Bin Laden, this did not end terrorism. After 13 years and all of the above costs, an extremist group now has a presence, influence and military equipment in Iraq and Syria that Al Qaeda had previously never achieved.

Perhaps most importantly, we are still afraid. Thanks to blowback from our actions and intentional fear-mongering by politicians and the media, a majority of U.S. citizens now believe ISIS has sleeper agents in the United States and support military action against the group.

The Global War on Terror Racket

I am tempted to suggest our political and military leaders have been inept, that they have misspent our money and pursued the wrong strategies.

If fear the truth is much worse.  If these failures were the result of incompetency we could elect new officials and promote different generals.

However, I fear that the failures of the Global War on Terror have not been bumbling mistakes but calculated moves designed to keep us and the world in a state of perpetual war and fear.

The Military Industrial Complex’s Golden Goose

The Military Industrial Complex, that Eisenhower warned us about, is now thoroughly embedded within the power structure of the United States. Initially the Cold War provided a climate of fear that made it easy for the US to garner public support for an arms race against the USSR. This arms race kept the world on the brink of World War III but financially ruined the USSR and made those in the military industrial complex vast amounts of wealth, millions of which was used to buy politicians and policy in DC.

Since the fall of the USSR, the military industrial complex has tried to keep its populace in a state of fear against an identified threat in order to maintain our outrageous annual defense spending and their profits. Sometimes these threats have been states and in other cases they have been non-state actors. Iran, Iraq, China, Russia, Terrorism, Communism and a variety of democratically elected and socialist leaders around the world have been cast as the imminent threat to the United States. The threat doesn’t have to be real, or even make sense, it just has to scare people into thinking a strong U.S. military active around the world is our only path to safety.

In many ways the Global War on Terror is the military industrial complex’s golden goose. Terrorism is a vague threat that can strike anywhere at any time. People’s reaction to terrorism is visceral and ill-informed; people demand military action be taken to make them safe without ever seeking to understand the situation or even do basic fact checking. U.S. interventions cause civilian casualties, foster extremism, and invite understandable resentment and retaliation against us. Retaliation against us by those that we have wronged reinforces the threat of terrorism and justifies more defense spending, more interventions, and more infringements on civil liberties..

This cycle of violence, fear and animosity does not benefit any average citizen of the world; it only benefits people in the industry of the war and those seeking their campaign contributions. While it is glaringly obvious the outrageous costs of the Global War on Terror have failed to win it, companies like Halliburton, which made $40 billion on the invasion and occupation of Iraq alone, and Raytheon, whose stock hit an all time high when Syria destabilized, will not let it end anytime soon.

With this in mind, maybe this September 11th it would be best if we did not double-down on nationalistic propaganda and restate our desire for another pound of flesh, one that has already been taken from people who had nothing to do with 9/11 sixty-three times over, and instead contemplate who is keeping this disastrous Global War on Terror going and how to stop them.

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Pray for Iraq but Question your State


Sen. McCain with leaders and operatives of the Free Syria Army, some of whom were members of Al-Qaeda in Iraq and are now members of ISIS.

Sen. McCain with leaders and operatives of the Free Syria Army, some of whom were members of Al-Qaeda in Iraq and are now members of ISIS.

Recently I have seen a host of “Pray for Iraq” memes, events and posts on my Facebook feed. Many, perhaps most of the people I know on Facebook are Western Christians from the U.S. and Canada. Many of them, including myself at the time, supported the 2003 invasion of Iraq. Some of them, even those admonishing others to stand in solidarity with those in Iraq, have rather broadly supported U.S. foreign policy and defended or argued for our actions in the larger Global War on Terror.

It appears that this sudden renewed attention and concern for Iraq has resulted from ISIS’ push into Iraq. ISIS subsequent behavior has cemented their reputation for being a brutal and evil organization centered on an extremist ideology. Some of ISIS behavior has been aimed directly at Iraqi Christians (and other minority groups) which is probably why many of my Christian peers identify with those suffering and are bringing attention to it.

I will not discourage people from praying for and expressing solidarity with Iraqi people, but  I think it is just as important, if not more important, for such persons to question the role of the United States in all of this and act accordingly. I say this because U.S. policy in Iraq is at the root of the rise of ISIS and the suffering of Iraqi civilians. Let me explain.

US Policy in Iraq, The Salvador Option and the Rise of ISIS

ISIS and their actions in Iraq coalesced in an environment of extremism and sectarian violence that was intentionally fostered by the United States. We encouraged this violence by categorically backing the Shia PM al-Maliki politically, economically and militarily despite his efforts to exclude other groups from the political process and power. We trained and equipped Shia militias and re-branded them as elite police units that have acted under his command. We turned a blind eye to the fact that these units operated as state backed sectarian deathsquads, responsible for numerous human rights abuses, including extrajudicial killings and torture. In fact, this is what we wanted them to do.

We fostered this sectarian violence in an attempt to split the resistance in Iraq. We wanted Shia and Sunni Iraqis to fight each other, instead of fighting US occupation forces in a coordinated manner as they did initially after the invasion. This tactic lowered the overall number of U.S. deaths, so U.S. politicians could quell increasing dissent at home and pull out sooner, but sowed violence, injustice and resentment that we knew would have a long-standing ill effect in Iraq. The fact that we pursued this form of counter-insurgency strategy in Iraq has been rather clear since at least 2006. This policy has been a bi-partisan endeavor as it was initiated under Bush but has been continued and even escalated under Obama as Obama increased funding to al-Maliki before the current ISIS push.

This is not the first time the U.S. has implemented this counter-insurgency strategy. In the context of U.S. policy this strategy is referred to as the Salvador Option after Salvadoran Civil War, a conflict in which we intervened by pursuing the this same strategy. This doctrine is essentially to “fight terror with terror,” though we often stay one or two stepped removed from the actual killing and torture to avoid any moral or legal guilt in the violence we are directing. As if to underscore how little U.S. foreign policy has changed since then, the same person who was our man on the ground in the support of El Salvadorian deathsquads also had a hand in Iraq: U.S. Col. James Steele. Gen. Petraeus, a key figure in the Iraq occupation, even visited Steele in El Salvador to study under him for a time.

Simply put, during the occupation the U.S. fostered a civil war that smoldered and sometimes raged for years for our benefit. Even after the U.S. pulled out of Iraq, after achieving its fundamental goal of privatizing Iraqi oil so that Western companies could profit, this violence still went on but has been largely ignored by Western media because there were no more U.S. deaths. Obama claimed the ending of an unpopular war as a feather in his cap, but the carnage went on, out of sight and out of mind.

The extremism necessary for groups like ISIS to form was created in this U.S. orchestrated environment of injustice, human rights abuses, political disenfranchisement, external occupation and exploitation. It was during this time that the U.S. encouraged Saudi Arabia and Qatar to help fund ISIS and perhaps even provided direct aid and training to ISIS when they were ostensibly primarily fighting Assad in Syria, another regime that, like Saddam’s, we supported and then turned onIt was in this environment that even people who did not agree with ISIS’ ideology collaborated with them because the alternative of the “democratic” U.S. backed al-Maliki regime was just as bad or worse. This collaboration is what has allowed for ISIS to make such rapid gains and get their hands on a lot of U.S. supplied military hardware. For those of us in the USA, horrified by the actions of ISIS, we must accept the fact that we created an environment where ISIS could thrive, we encouraged our allies to fund them, and we may have even funded and trained them ourselves.

Understanding and Stopping/Changing U.S. Policy is Fundamental to Stopping Groups like ISIS

My point in all of this is that many appear to assume that ISIS’ formation and ideology “just happened” like some force of nature in the region. Others, perhaps shaped by the intentional fanning of Islamophobia in the post-9/11 U.S., believe that ISIS is “just another” expression of violence and anti-Christian sentiment inherent to Islam (which it isn’t). The reality is that Iraqis, after having suffered under the U.S. supported Saddam, after having suffered under the US supported UN sanctions against Saddam, after having suffered the invasion and occupation of their lands by U.S. forces, after having suffered under the U.S. supported “Shia Saddam” of al-Maliki are now suffering under the occupation of ISIS, a group primarily formed in the wake of and by U.S. policy in the region.

The common thread in all of this suffering that has killed hundreds of thousands of innocent Iraqis of all faiths is U.S. policy, a policy dictated by the wealthy, a policy that primarily benefits the wealthy, a policy that offloads the cost of this policy onto others, and a policy which is often pursued by immoral means. To pray for Iraq but not consider how the U.S. has acted in Iraq and elsewhere, to pray for Iraq but not consider what consequences these policies have had for others, to pray for Iraq and not ask who has really benefited from all this, to pray for Iraq but continue to broadly and uncritically support U.S. policy is a recipe for a continuation of the status quo. More policies will be rolled out that benefit a handful of people while the violence, injustice, and misery caused by the pursuit of these policies will be offloaded onto other people, especially the most vulnerable in the world.

So by all means, Pray for Iraq, but Question the State.

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Gaza, Blaming the Victim, and Violent Resistance


Credit: Carlos Latuff

Blaming the Victim

During the most recent bombings and incursion into Gaza, many in Israel and around the world blamed Palestinians, especially and particularly Hamas, for the violence Palestinians have been suffering at the hands of Israel. People quite literally blamed the victim, suggesting Israel’s hand was being forced, and the massive disproportionate violence it unleashed in the last several weeks was something it regrettably had to do in order to stop Hamas. The rationale was that if only Hamas had never fired any rockets, or would cease firing rockets, or would never have built any tunnels, or had never stockpiled weapons, or had never kidnapped and killed the three Israeli teens, there would be no bombings or incursions and the regrettable but unavoidable collateral damage. Naftali Bennett, an Israeli minister, certainly employed this train of thinking when he accused Hamas of “committing mass-self-genocide.” The argument that Hamas intentionally incurs this violence upon themselves in order to drive up civilian casualties and win a public relations victory against Israel is also built upon this notion.

Nevermind the fact that it was admitted (but later retracted) by an Israeli official that Hamas wasn’t responsible for the kidnapping of the Jewish youths that sparked this all offnevermind the fact that the Israeli government knew the youths were dead but still raided Palestinian communities which inflamed tensions, nevermind the fact that Israel is laying waste to entire neighborhoods, nevermind the fact that the UN Goldstone report found it was Israeli, not Hamas, that used Palestinians as human shields, nevermind the fact that the larger systemic violence, dehumanization and humiliation of Palestinians pre-dates and post-dates Hamas’ existence, (etc. etc. etc.), this line of thinking is illogical and morally abhorrent to me.

Blaming the violence of oppression on violent resistance to oppression exonerates the oppressor, demonizes the victims of oppression and ultimately is a recipe for perpetual conflict and escalation. The ultimate cause of this conflict is settler colonialism; foreigners came into Palestine and asserted themselves as the rightful owners and sovereigns of the land through force, a situation that has had to be maintained through systemic violence and injustice against Palestinians. So, to paraphrase Miko Peled and others: violent Palestinian resistance is in response to much more massive violent Israeli oppression; if Israel wants Palestinian violence to stop, it needs to stop its violence against Palestinians, end the siege of Gaza and establish an inclusive democracy and justice in its nation. Blaming Palestinians or Hamas for the violence of Israel only serves those who want to see the conflict continue and the state of Israel to continue following its present course of increasing right wing extremism.

Lessons from Black Liberation

When various Israeli media outlets, spokespeople, rabbis, and politicians employed this argument, blaming Palestinians for casualties Israel has inflicted, and when various U.S. media outlets, spokespeople, pastors and politicians repeated these arguments, all I could think about was an interview I had seen of Angela Davis. Take a few minutes and watch this interview, part of footage filmed by a Swedish TV crew that was recently discovered and featured in the Black Power Mixtape.

While Davis was speaking from the context of black liberation and resistance to the systemic white supremacy in the United States, I believe this interview touches on a few points that I think are pertinent to any assessment of the use of violence by the Palestinian resistance that’s not hasbara.

First, if violence can be justified whose violence justifiable?

When asked if black liberation might be pursued through violence Davis’ words first point us to consider the underlying merits of the principles and goals that are being pursued by violent or non-violent means. In the grand scheme of things the Palestinians are pursuing a just cause whereas Israel’s overall goals appear to be maintaining a Jewish-Supremacist state built upon ethnic cleansing, land theft and Zionism. If there is any “moral” violence happening within that context it is coming from the Palestinian resistance, not Israel.

Second, if violence is used as a form of self-defense, whose violence is a form of self-defense?

Later, Davis’ words also bring up the concept of violent resistance as a necessary form of self-defense that should be expected when people are suffering from massive systemic violence. Since at least the Nakba, Israel has created and maintained its state through the violence against Palestinians in one form or another, regardless of if the Palestinians were violent or not. In this context it would be absurd to demand or expect no violent resistance from Palestinians.  In this context violent resistance is self defense. Even though violent resistance to a system of oppression like this often takes the form of asymmetrical warfare/guerrilla warfare that occupiers and their allies label as terrorism even the UN has affirmed “the legitimacy of the peoples’ struggle for liberation form colonial and foreign domination and alien subjugation by all available means, including armed struggle.” (Emphasis added.)

Third, if all violence is to be condemned and rejected (regardless of context) what violence should be the focus of this criticism and dismantled first?

Some Palestinians and some supporters of Palestine may be uncomfortable or unable to affirm every type or manifestation of violence utilized by Palestinians in their self-defense. Some may see certain types of violence as immoral (regardless of context), counter-productive politically or militarily in the long run, or are committed to non-violent methods for whatever reason. (I am one such person due to my faith and my allegiance to the teachings of Jesus.)

How can such persons work towards Palestinian liberation, affirm the Palestinian right to self-defense, recognize some Palestinians lament the censure of their right to self-defense by their allies, and yet to be true to themselves and their own principles? On this tension I believe Davis’ interview can also be instructive.

In Davis’ day there were white and black people who condemned all violence, saw violence as counter-productive, and/or feared the violence might directly impact them. When the Swedish TV crew asked Davis about the possibility of violence being used within the struggle for black liberation, it was a question born out of this concern regarding the use of violence.  

Davis responded to this question by appropriately situating this question within the context of the extreme forms of violence black people had endured at the hands of the State and the hands of white supremacists.

The message of this response I think was clear. People were wringing their hands about the possibility of violence being used within the struggle for black liberation but had been silent as violence against black people had raged unchecked for centuries. If people were categorically against violence, why were they focusing on the relatively small violence coming from the black resistance, instead of interrogating the much more deadly, much more widespread, and much more unjust violence that was being used by the State and white supremacists?

Put another way, if a person believes all violence is counter-productive or immoral and as such all violence deserves to be critiqued, condemned and dismantled, the source of the greatest and most unjust violence should be their primary concern.

Within the context of Palestine it is clear that the violence of the State of Israel should be the chief and primary concern of anyone categorically against violence. The death toll between Palestinians civilians and Israeli civilians incurred during Protective Edge underscores this point. Even with Iron Dome possibly not working at all, Israeli lost two civilians as Palestine lost 1,504, billions in infrastructure, and a humanitarian crisis that will take years to recover from, even if the siege is lifted.

To wring our hands about violence coming from the Palestinian resistance while diverting attention away from the violence coming from the State of Israel, or even equally focusing our attention, is to fall into a trap that ultimately serves the State of Israel.

While people such as myself may have to utter a word of censure to Hamas’ use of unguided rockets against civilian areas or similar behavior, we should save the lion’s share of our moral outrage and our efforts to dismantle systemic violence for the State of Israel.

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The Second Great Awakening and the Emptiness of Evangelicalism

Evangelicalism in the United States, and Christianity in the United States in general, has many problems. One only need to compare what is acceptable in Evangelical culture to the teachings of Jesus to see some of the more obvious conflicts. These problems go beyond the failings of individual leaders or the simple fact that human frailty constrains our ability to live out our espoused ideals. To me, Evangelicalism is empty; it is an easily distracted civil religion, led by charismatic leaders who may or may not follow Jesus’ teachings, that is easily co-opted by other agendas and ideologies.  I would argue that a lot of these problems stem from structural, theological and systemic issues at the foundation of Evangelicalism, some of which started during the Second Great Awakening. To explore this issue a bit more, after briefly introducing what the Second Great Awakening was, I want to focus on three problems within Evangelicalism that have come from this time: a focus on theatrics and technique, a focus on charisma, and the proliferation of a shallow Gospel.

What was the Second Great Awakening?

The Second Great Awakening was a second Christian religious revival in the United States that started in the late 18th century and continued into the early 19th century. This Second Great Awakening was actually a number of different revivals that unfolded in many different geographical areas, in many different denominations, but were nonetheless theologically and practically very similar. Revivalists in the cities and the frontiers hosted revival meetings that presented the Gospel to thousands of people at a time. Often these revivals events unfolded over the course of several days before moving onto the next area. During this time millions converted to Evangelical denominations causing a dramatic rise in their membership. Christianity in the U.S. still bears the impact of these movements. Today roughly one fifth of the U.S. identifies as a “born again,” evangelical Christian, direct theological and ideological descendants from this time.

While there are arguably some positive or progressive developments from this era, I want to turn to the three problems I think were initiated in this era and are still with Evangelicalism today.

A Focus on Theatrics and Technique

GSTS69420 VII-3

A depiction of a typical revival camp meeting on the Frontier.

The revivals of the Second Great Awakening were as much theater as they were preaching or teaching. The revivalists of this time recognized the importance of presentation, technique and entertainment to their endeavors and quickly incorporated them into their revivals. Everywhere a revival went, a theater like stage (such as the one depicted in the drawing above) was present. Plays, lighting, music and other methods started being used to cultivate an environment ripe with emotionalism and excitement to foster conversions. This was perhaps especially effective in the frontier revivals, where the remote location meant any large gathering of people would bear the promise of excitement far beyond what the area normally saw.

This begs the question if the revivals were the work of the Spirit or the work of man and emotional manipulation. Even in their day some revivalists worried conversions were being manufactured through the methods revivalists were using, not through a true conversion brought on by a genuine response to hearing the Gospel. The revivalist Nettleton, in worrying over the agency of God in the Second Great Awakening wrote, “Should a revival be desired, the machinery would go into gear and it would be created through sheer willpower and method.”

The practice of using theatrics and technique to cultivate a specific response from the congregation never left Evangelicalism. It can be found at large mass rallies and contemporary revivals but also in your average Sunday service. Walk into any Protestant church in the United States and they will probably have a designated stage with at least a modest lighting and sound system. Some churches have spent hundreds of thousands of dollars on lighting and sound systems that rival local theaters and cinemas. This theatrical apparatus is used to foster an environment of entertainment and emotionalism, ripe for religious experience. It is any surprise some hold a consumer attitude towards church attendance, where they attend churches so long as that church can provide the spiritual experience they are looking to consume or enjoy?

A Focus on Charisma

broadway tabernacle 2

The Brooklyn Tabernacle, created for Charles G. Finney, was either the first or the forerunner of the megachurch in the U.S.

The Second Great Awakening also rather quickly became centered around personalities. As the revivals unfolded a handful of specific revivalists became incredibly well known. Soon lecture halls and tents were erected specifically so that these famous revivalists could be heard and enthralled by as many people as possible, hopefully leading to a revival in the area. The creation of the Brooklyn Tabernacle (pictured above), built so that thousands of people could hear Charles G. Finney speak at one time, is one such example of this.

In the environment of the revivals it was charismatic leaders with strong voices, handsome faces, and winsome personalities who won the most converts, received the most attention, and gained the most sizable following. This led to a situation where personal charisma become the most prized trait in a Christian leader. Education, character, or knowledge of and allegiance to the teachings of Jesus, became afterthoughts to a leader’s ability to win and keep a cult-following through personality alone. For example while Nettleton expressed his worried that the revivals were not authentic and were being manufactured, Finney responded by basically saying, “Well it works.” History has shown that the unconcerned Finney is remembered by many while Nettleton is essentially forgotten.

This preference for charisma has never left Evangelicalism. In her piece The Line Between a Heretic and a Prophet is Thin, Suey Park, stated that “What I didn’t realize was how much white evangelical Christians would cherish this skill [the ability to perform and be liked]; the church often values charisma over character.” This Evangelical preference for charisma over character is not something new, and if anything it has heightened. Evangelicalism is today essentially captivate to super-apostles who write books, run mega churches, go on speaking circuits and launch movements, whose success is due more to their personality than any other aspect of their life or faith.

A Shallow Gospel, and Room for Other Ideologies

Most importantly the Second Great Awakening sparked the proliferation of a very shallow Gospel.

The revivalists employed an incredibly simple and short Gospel in their work. It went was something like this:

Humanity is sinful and deserves eternal punishment. To forgive us, God sent his only son Jesus to die for our sins. To get into Heaven and avoid going to Hell, a person has to pray to accept Jesus as their Lord and savior.

I call this Gospel the Evangecube Gospel, or the Heaven’s Gates Hell’s Flames Gospel after some more contemporary methods used to share this same Gospel. When combined with charismatic leaders using theatrics and techniques to stir up emotionalism, it was (and is) wildly successful at winning converts.

The problem is then that these newly minted followers of Jesus had a faith based on a dubious spiritual experience that was grounded in an understanding of the Gospel that is either woefully incomplete or an altogether false representation of the Gospel.

Even if accepted as the Gospel message, it must be admitted the Gospel of the revivalists is a very shallow or narrow Gospel that omits much of the scriptural story. This Gospel is devoid of any connection to or even mention of the history of Israel. This Gospel is devoid of any of Jesus’ teachings that He would have His followers embody and live out. This Gospel cannot be reconciled with the historical and cultural context within which it supposedly originated. While many verse-bites allegedly support this Gospel (*glares at John 3:16*), it cannot be reconciled with a broader reading of scripture. Ultimately this Gospel is about assuring a person of their individual salvation and not much else.

This shallow Gospel leaves a lot of room for other ideologies to creep into the lives of believers. This has produced a situation where people claim to be Christian followers of Jesus, and perhaps even identify their faith as the central aspect of their identity, who live their lives according to other ideologies, many of which conflict with the teachings of Jesus.

As history has progressed other ideologies have indeed taken root within American Evangelicalism, to the point where they eclipse the actual teachings of Jesus. Nationalism has crept in, allowing for followers of Jesus to violate Jesus’ teachings on non-violence without concern. Consumerism, capitalism and materialism has crept in, allowing for followers of Jesus to violate Jesus’ teachings on wealth. The pursuit of the American Dream has crept in, allowing followers of Jesus to pursue the well-being of their family while ignoring the plight of all others, despite Jesus’ teachings on justice and social welfare.

What does this all mean?

The Second Great Awakening set the evolutionary trajectory of Evangelical Christianity for decades to come, if only because of the sheer amount of people these revivals won to the Evangelical movement. A focus on theatrics and technique to craft an emotional/spiritual experience, the focus on charisma, and the proliferation of a shallow Gospel are three main aspects of Evangelical culture and theology that come from this era. Of these, the proliferation of the shallow Gospel is perhaps the most problematic. Because the Evangelical Gospel is so thin, it barely conflicts with other ideologies, so long as these other ideologies do not present an alternative pathway to personal salvation. This created room for other ideologies to creep in and even dominate Evangelical culture and theology, without anyone realizing how inappropriate these ideologies are for followers of Jesus. If this issue is to be addressed, the core definition of the Gospel in Evangelicalism must be addressed. Anything less will probably be as fruitful as polishing the brass on the Titanic.


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