Saturday, January 29, 2011

Head Bone Connected to the... Cell Phone

    all around the world, anywhere you go, everybody’s on the phone,
    driving down the road, something you should know is that
        everybody’s on the phone,
          they’re all talkin’ to someone talkin’, is everybody talking 

                but me?
          would somebody do one thing at a time, please?..

    walking down the street, strangers that you meet,
        they’re talkin’, but they’re all alone,
    it’s really hard to tell the crazy from the well
        now that everybody’s on the phone,

            all over the supermarket, chattin’ in the checkout line,
            I’m so happy to hear her tumor’s benign..
            that was more than I wanted to know,
            why your former boyfriend had to go,
            I have conversation overload, now that everybody’s on the phone..

    standing face to face in a public place,
        there are certain things you would not say,
    but since you’re on the phone, although you’re not alone,
        now you say them anyway,

            so swear like a sailor loud enough to make a grandma frown,
            at least she has a hearing aid to turn down..
            that was more than I wanted to know,
            why your former girlfriend is a ho,
            I have conversation overload, now that everybody’s on the phone..

        your family history, plumbing emergency,
        impending bankruptcy, why you put your dog to sleep,
        your infidelity, recent vasectomy,
        if you’re not telling me, then say it quietly, please!..

    all around the world, everywhere you go,
    everybody’s on the phone,
    driving down the road, better take it slow, now that
    everybody’s on the phone, everybody’s on the phone…

                                                                       Copyright 2008 © Brad Yoder

As someone who uses a cell phone mostly while out of town (and seldom gives out the number) I like the above piece written by our son, a Pittsburgh-based singer-songwriter, and am especially fond of the line "it’s really hard to tell the crazy from the well now that everybody’s on the phone."

Reminds me of a little encounter I had one day as I was walking from our local library to my office. A middle-age man was sitting on a bench outside having an animated cell conversation using his latest blue tooth phone, the kind that makes it appear that one is either just talking to oneself or to some imaginary friend.

Apparently feeling a little self conscious about this as he saw me coming, he interrupted his phone conversation to say, "I'm really not crazy, I'm just talking with someone on my new phone."

"Well, I happen to be a psychotherapist,” I said, “so in case you need any of my help, my office is just up the street."

We both laughed, after which he continued his conversation with, "You won't believe this, but a psychiatrist just came by and kidded me about being crazy!"

Of course he hadn't heard the “psychotherapist” part right (a fancy name for a licensed counselor), but I do wonder sometimes, wouldn’t we all be saner (to say nothing of safer) if we did a lot more reflecting and a lot less round-the-clock texting and talking?

And as a result, in the spirit of the Ezekial-based spiritual, “Dry Bones,” we might even “hear the word of the Lord” sometimes as we walk or drive somewhere.

Tuesday, January 25, 2011

Justice Gone Awry

A judge I spoke with recently told me that without the use of plea bargaining, where a deal is reached in which a defendant receives  a lesser sentence in exchange for a guilty plea, the courts would be hopelessly backed up with more cases than they could handle.

When a defendant is actually guilty, I can see such an arrangement saving time and court costs and perhaps living up to its name as a “bargain.”  But when a defendant is not guilty, should he or she, while under oath to tell “the truth, the whole truth and nothing but the truth,”  feel coerced into giving up their right to due process that might exonerate them, simply because of the threat of receiving a dreadfully long prison sentence?

It reminds me a little of a practice once known as "tavern justice," where the attorneys on both sides of a case would get together with the judge over some ale the night before a trial and work out some kind of agreement without the defendant actually being present. They would then go through the motions of a hearing the next day with the outcome already determined.

A sobering case of injustice that made national news earlier this month involved Cornelius Dupree Jr., who on the basis of DNA testing (made possible by the Innocence Project), was finally released after spending 30 years in a Texas prison. 

Dupree had refused to plead guilty when convicted at age 20 in a Dallas rape and armed robbery case because he knew he wasn’t guilty--even though that would most likely have resulted in a lesser sentence. And as a model prisoner he had several opportunities to make parole if only he would admit he was a sex offender. For example, in 2004 he was all set to be released, but he was told he would have to attend a sex offender treatment program based on "four R's," recognition, remorse, restitution and resolution. He couldn't get himself to agree to even the “recognition” part, knowing he hadn’t committed the crime.

After his release, a dozen Dallas men who had also been exonerated after having served a collective total of over 100 years of time for crimes they didn’t commit came out to celebrate his freedom. In each of their cases, like Dupree’s, they were convicted on the basis of eyewitness misidentification in a police lineup, a common cause of wrongful conviction.

And might Dupree’s original sentencing also have been influenced by his race? There is no way to know for sure, but according to an article in the February, 2011, Sojourners magazine, there are more African-Americans in prison or on probation and parole than the total number that were enslaved just prior to the Civil War. And while people of all colors use and sell illegal drugs at similar rates, African-Americans are ten times more likely than whites to go to prison on drug charges.

To add to a list of concerns about our justice system, the Human Rights Watch organization recently estimated that there were currently three times the number of people who are mentally ill in U.S. prisons there are in U.S. mental health hospitals. Given the emotional stress a prison environment creates for even mentally healthy people, imagine what it must be like for  people with paranoia, a bipolar or anxiety disorder, or suffering from clinical depression.

In graduate school I remember once having to meet in a small, narrow classroom where a large marker board took up most of the wall space at the end of the room from which the professor spoke. One day the board in question was badly tilted, with one end being lower than the other by at least six inches. I found myself so distracted by that crooked, askew marker board in my view that before the hour was over, I felt nauseous.  My world was not square and upright in the way I was used to.

Which reminds be of a plumb line the Biblical prophet Amos once used as an illustration of his nation’s loss of integrity. She was no longer acting in conformity to the standard of divinely inspired justice. She was off center, leaning away from the plumb line of  uprightness and integrity, favoring the rich at the expense of the poor, the powerful over the powerless, the haves over the have nots.

When that happens, we should all become sick to our stomachs, and actively join the prophets in calling for “justice to roll on like a river, and righteousness like a never-failing stream.”

P. S. As a dedicated supporter (and board member) of Gemeinschaft Home, a residential re-entry and recovery program in Harrisonburg, I invite you to join me in becoming a "Friend of Gemeinschaft" by writing a check of $50 or more and mailing it to Gemeinschaft Home, 1423 Mt. Clinton Pike, Harrisonburg, VA 22802. Or you can contribute online at as a way to personally help recovering people get a new start.

Thanks for your help!  

P.S. Here are the lyrics to one of my son's recent songs on the subject:

Friday, January 21, 2011

Saying No to War

“As disciples of Christ, we do not prepare for war, or participate in war or military service.”
This succinct statement taken from Article 22 of my church's "Confession of Faith in a Mennonite Perspective"  sets us apart from all but a small fraction of other Christians around the world, although I am heartened by more and more individuals and denominations, notably Quakers and the Church of the Brethren, supporting this position.  Yet the above was embraced universally by believers in the first and second centuries, and by most Anabaptist-minded (later Mennonite) Christians since the 16th century.

To cite two of many examples, Tertullian, a leader and theologian in the early church expressed this vision when he spoke of the church as a people who “join to beat their swords into plows, and their lances into sickles.”  Origin of Egypt, a contemporary of Tertullian’s said, “Nor do we ‘learn war any more,’ having become children of peace, for the sake of Jesus, our leader.”  

To them, Jesus spoke the final word from God on issues of war and peace.  War was simply over for Christians, a thing of the past. Menno Simons and other outspoken leaders and martyrs in Anabaptist and other renewal movements simply helped revive this conviction. Menno himself wrote, "True Christians do not know vengeance... their hearts overflow with peace... The regenerate do not go to war, or engage in strife...  they are the children of peace, who have beaten their swords into plowshares."

Sadly, few followers of Christ over the centuries have maintained such positions, which has resulted in Inquisitions, Crusades, multiple wars among so-called Christian nations in Europe and elsewhere, and Christians defending and participating in every kind of military adventure imaginable, all in the name of God and country, and each case defended as a "just war." And there has been a gradual erosion of anti-war conviction among Mennonites as well, members of a small “peace church” that has maintained for most of 500 years that military membership and church membership are incompatible.

To me, a weakening of any church’s position on this kind of witness represents a crying shame.  Surely there is a need for at least a remnant of people somewhere who consistently teach and demonstrate that Christians, by definition, are people who will not harm or kill under any circumstances, not even in a time of war, not even their enemies (and certainly not their fellow believers) anywhere in the world.

I see this as not about some sectarian “peace position,” but about an “agape position,” about Jesus's followers being a people defined by their passionate love for God above every other love or allegiance, and by a compassionate love for neighbor--friend, foe and foreigner alike. 

And lest we reduce agape to being a mere sentiment, an attitude of niceness, or as simply a benevolent feeling toward others (one that still allows us to engage in their destruction under certain circumstances), the New Testament makes clear that God's kind of unconditional love is defined by its actions, not merely its motives or emotions.  Thus Jesus, in explaining what loving ones neighbor actually means, tells the story of a Samaritan binding up the wounds of his mortal enemy, a Jew.  And Paul, in Romans 13 (the very passage that urges respect, rather than armed resistance, toward even the occupying, crucifying, terrorist Caesars) makes it clear that love will "do no harm to a neighbor." Period.

As Ghandi once observed, Christians seem to be the only ones who believe Jesus and the New Testament are not absolutely clear on these points: Do no harm.  Return good for evil.  Take up the cross, not the sword.  Follow Jesus’s personal example of a completely nonresistant life, who taught, "My kingdom (government) is not like those of this world. If that were so my servants would fight."

If, in our baptism, we receive a missionary commission to evangelize and reconcile God’s enemies to God and to each other, how can we accept a military commission to harm them?  And if we are convinced that in Jesus God’s future kingdom has already been inaugurated, how can we also pledge, under oath, to become a part of an enterprise committed to harming or coercing others “in the national interest”?

Clearly, most decent people, Christian or not, would renounce the following as immoral and unacceptable:

breaking and entering
lying and other forms of deception
physical, psychological, or other forms of torture and abuse
armed robbery
malicious wounding
organized acts of terrorism
using racial or other demeaning slurs
using explosives to destroy people or property
destroying land or other natural resources
stabbing or strangling
forcing people from their homes or communities
committing mass murder

Without question, most believers would speak out against members of churches engaging in such behaviors--and would disapprove of their supporting or belonging to any groups or organizations that do--yet raise no objections when military forces routinely encourage, train and/or command people to do all of the above and more.  Thus we are in danger of accepting, on a mass and organized scale, what we could not accept or allow on any other basis. Unlike legitimate police force, necessary in human societies to maintain order within national boundaries (and intended to preserve life and bring individuals to justice under laws designed to protect individual rights), military forces have a long history of plundering and destroying without benefit of such civilized restraints.

True, we pacifist Christians must repent of the many "beams" of self righteousness, materialism, and cowardly indifference that interfere with our moral vision. Because of these we may not always “see clearly” to lovingly help remove any specks of militarism from another’s eye.

But remove them we must, all of us, lest history write off the church as having been irrelevant and mute in one of the most pressing moral issues of all time.

I like this piece by Edna St. Vincent Millay:


I shall die, but that is all that I shall do for Death.
I hear him leading his horse out of the stall; I hear the clatter on the barn-floor.
He is in haste; he has business in Cuba, business in the Balkans, many calls to make this morning.
But I will not hold the bridle while he cinches the girth.
And he may mount by himself; I will not give him a leg up.
Though he flick my shoulders with his whip, I will not tell him which way the fox ran.
With his hoof on my breast, I will not tell him where the black boy hides in the swamp.
I shall die, but that is all that I shall do for Death; I am not on his payroll.
I will not tell him the whereabouts of my friends nor of my enemies either.
Though he promise me much, I will not map him the route to any man's door.
Am I a spy in the land of the living that I should deliver men to Death?
Brother, the password and the plans of our city are safe with me; never through me
Shall you be overcome.

Sunday, January 16, 2011

The Right to Bear Cars

Senseless killings by deranged people with semi-automatic weapons raise legitimate questions about gun rights and gun ownership. But if vehicles can be regulated in the interests of public safety, why not weapons?

Considering the arguments of some who react in horror to any such suggestion, here’s my tongue in cheek proposal for another amendment to the U.S. Constitution, as follows:

    “A well regulated transportation system being necessary to the wellbeing of a free State, the right of the people to keep and bear motor vehicles shall not be infringed.”

    Had the founding fathers been able to foresee America’s love of motorized vehicles, they would have made a constitutional provision for their free and unfettered use. But with all due respect, they could see no further than the ends of their muskets on this one, so it’s up to us to create the following inalienable rights for ourselves:

    1. No more state imposed vehicle taxes, registrations, or license fees. Since the power to license and to exact fees represents the power to control, you can see the kind of slippery slope we’re on here.

    2. No laws to regulate traffic speeds, impose annual inspections, or limit the width or weight of vehicles or freight carried on the highway-- as long as no crimes are committed. After all, it isn’t cars, but people, that endanger people.

    3. No driver’s license or examination requirements.  Decisions regarding who may operate a vehicle (or at what age) would be left to the discretion of individual heads of households.

    4. No state mandated liability for damages involving one’s vehicle.  Requiring such insurance is just another form of government interference and control.

    The urgency of the above is apparent when you consider the indisputable fact that without it law abiding citizens will soon lose their right to keep and bear vehicles, and as the Good Book says, “when cars are outlawed, only outlaws will have cars.”  Who would want to live in an America where its upright citizens, the police, and even its “well regulated militia” would lose all their cars, trucks, motorcycles and armored vehicles?

    Just kidding.

Friday, January 14, 2011

Should We Ever NOT Forgive?

Recent killings by deranged gunmen bring up the question of forgiveness for people who commit terrible crimes of that kind.

When a similarly deranged shooter killed innocent Amish children at the Nickle Mines School in southern Pennsylvania in October, 2006, that religious community instinctively responded with grace and kindness. Everyone saw their actions and attitudes as amazing examples of Christian forgiveness.

I wonder if their response shouldn’t simply be considered an incredible form of “give-ness,” the giving up of any revenge or hate and the demonstration of a truly Christlike and unconditional love for an enemy who had harmed them in the most terrible way possible.

I prefer to call that cross-like love. The forgiving part is up to God.

Jewish writer Dennis Prager questions the notion that we “should forgive everyone who commits evil against anyone, no matter how great and cruel, and whether or not the evil doer repents.” He also believes we can only forgive those who have sinned against us, not those who have sinned against others.

“If we forgive everyone (unilaterally) for all the evil they do,” he says, “we have substituted ourselves for God.” Even Jesus, he adds, when interceding to God to forgive those who crucified him, “never asked God to forgive those who had crucified thousands of other innocent people.”

As a Jew, Prager does affirm Jesus’ idea of having us forgive those who wrong us based on their repentance, just as God surely does. He just wonders whether many of us have trivialized forgiveness, turned into something that’s about making us feel better rather than, like the God of the Bible, being concerned with both justice for evildoers and compassion for them when and if they repent and commit themselves to genuine change.

What got Prager to thinking about this was seeing a news article and photo of some students in West Paducah, Kentucky, some years ago displaying a large banner with the words “We forgive you, Mike!” referring to the 14-year-old who had just  shot and killed 3 teenagers at Heath High school. He believes they/we have neither the power or the right to forgive on others’ behalf.

So, should we distinguish between loving evildoers versus pronouncing them forgiven? The first is an initiative toward even the unrepentant, the second is a response based on a complete 180 degree turn on the part of  the one seeking forgiveness.

Please understand, I strongly agree that we should forgive our debtors. But a debtor, by definition, is one who is fully aware of what he or she owes and is unable to repay. A person who denies having committed an offense is not a debtor. Nor is the person who insists the offense is not really their fault, as in, “The devil (or my temper, my addiction, or my bad upbringing) made me do it.”

I have a book in my office with two title pages, one on the front and another on the back. It’s actually two books in one, written by David Augsburger. The first title is “Caring Enough to Forgive” which takes up approximately half of the pages, and the other, reading from the reverse side of the book, is “Caring Enough Not to Forgive.” 

The latter is a jarring title for those of us who’ve been taught that forgiveness is something we grant everyone unilaterally, no strings attached, just proclaim them off the hook. But Augsburger believes the implied condition for all of our “forgiving others their trespasses as we ask God to forgive us our own” is one clearly stated in Luke’s gospel, which says, “If others sin against you, and if they repent, forgive them.”

Meanwhile, for all who choose not to repent, we continue to love, do good to, and pray for them without question. All the while remembering that we are always in need of plenty of forgiveness of our own.

I'd love to have you respond with your thoughts below.

Wednesday, January 5, 2011

Touched by Taizé

 It was enough to make your heart hurt.

Eight mature male voices, members of the music group Cantore, opened the monthly Taizé service I attended tonight.

Let thy holy presence come upon us, O Lord...

Emitte Spiritum tuum...

And then a time of silence.  Some Epiphany readings. Singing. More silence. Kneeling by a wooden cross on the floor in front of the sanctuary. Placing prayer candle there. More silence. More singing.

Worship is not filling ourselves with something. It is creating a space for the Holy to fill.

It didn't matter that there were only several dozen people in the auditorium of the Park View Mennonite Church. The candlelit space was filled with something that felt dense with mystery and meaning, a sense of presence I felt could have tempted an agnostic to embrace faith.

Then Cantore,

Abide with me, 'tis eventide, the day is past and gone...

I was glad to be able to walk home in silence, alone under the star-lit heavens. I wanted to take some of that God-graced solitude with me.


The Taizé Community is an ecumenical monastic order in Burgundy, France, made up of about 100 brothers who come from a variety of Christian traditions and from about 30 countries across the world.
The order has a strong commitment to peace and justice which it nurtures through prayer and meditation. Over 100,000 young people from around the world make pilgrimages to Taizé each year, where they are encouraged to live in the spirit of kindness, simplicity and reconciliation.

The service at Park View is held at 8:30 pm on the first Wednesday of each month.

Monday, January 3, 2011

Ten Reasons Not to Invade Iraq

Eight years ago I wrote the following letter that appeared in the March 8, 2003, Daily News-Record, twelve days before the US invasion of Iraq:

Editor, DNR:

Here is my list of the top ten groups opposed to the use of bombs and missiles (weapons of massive destruction) to depose Saddam Hussein:

10. Fiscal conservatives: It’s irresponsible to spend $100 billion we don’t have on this kind of blitzkrieg--and that is if all goes as planned. It may cost untold billions more to win this war and to keep the peace.

9. Die-hard pessimists: Nothing will go as planned, and we could be getting ourselves into another Vietnam.

8. Eternal optimists: Saddam, like our former archenemy Fidel, is advancing in years and won’t be around forever. And there are far less costly ways of containing him.

7. Internationalists: Moving forward without stronger support from the UN and other allies will only weaken our much needed influence around the world.

6. Isolationists: We’ve got enough problems at home, and shouldn’t use our defense forces to stir up a hornet’s nest half a world away.

5. Environmentalists: The planet can’t afford this kind of devastation and misuse of its resources.

4. Pro-Israel advocates: Further turmoil in the region could further threaten Israel’s survival.

3. Pro-life advocates: Countless numbers of unborn children will be murdered, and even more of those already born will suffer and die.

2. Pro-peace advocates: Let’s stop resorting to unspeakably barbaric ways of dealing with human conflicts.

1. Followers of Jesus: There are many fellow-believers in Iraq who are our friends. As to our enemies, we are under orders to love them, not kill them.