Tuesday, September 30, 2014

Both Sides Use Videos To Glorify Killing

F-22 fighters delivering death, destruction and dismemberment
In my 9/13 post I expressed my outrage over videos that show ISIS beheadings, acts of terror no doubt applauded by their bloodthirsty supporters. I've recently also seen numerous videos that show the effects of air strikes on ISIS targets, which I'm sure are also applauded by US citizens eager for revenge.

Sadly, we have come to accept drone, rocket and other air strikes as antiseptic and routine, the equivalent of just another hit in a video game. Civilian casualties are seen as “collateral damage”, and enemy fighters we kill are dehumanized, not seen as equally precious to God and to their civilian families.

When Fascist planes dropped bombs resulting in the deaths of large numbers of noncombatants in the 1937 Spanish Civil War, there was a worldwide outcry. Pablo Picasso did his famous painting “Guernica” in protest, and governments around the world denounced the tactic as an act of terrorism.

As late as September 1, 1939, President Franklin Delano Roosevelt decried the "inhuman barbarism" of such bombings which "sickened the hearts of every civilized man and woman," and "profoundly shocked the conscience of humanity".

But in a very short period of time Hitler’s strategy won the day, and Allied forces in World War II engaged in wholesale saturation bombings of German populations. Soon thereafter President Truman gave orders to completely obliterate two Japanese cities with atomic bombs.

In February, 2003, at the 58th anniversary of the fire bombing of Dresden, German survivors of that 1945 firestorm joined with survivors of the bombing of Guernica to issue the following appeal:

“As our television sets show bombers preparing for war against Iraq, we survivors of Guernica and Dresden recall our own helplessness and horror when we were flung into the inferno of bombing—we saw people killed. Suffocated. Crushed. Incinerated. Mothers trying to protect their children with only their bodies. Old people with no strength left to flee from the flames. These pictures are still alive in our memory, and our accounts capture indelibly what we went through.

“For decades we—and survivors from many other nations—have been scarred by the horror, loss and injuries we experienced in the wars of the 20th century. Today we see that the beginnings of the 21st century are also marked by suffering and destruction. On behalf of all the victims of war throughout the world we express our sympathy and solidarity with all those affected by the terror of September 11 in the USA and the war in Afghanistan.

“But is that very suffering now also to be inflicted upon the people of Iraq? Must thousands more die in a rain of bombs, must cities and villages be destroyed and cultural treasures obliterated?”

Their voices went unheeded, and now we are again resorting to extreme “shock and awe” tactics in order to degrade and destroy terrorists we ourselves have helped create.

While civilians are not being deliberately targeted in our fight against ISIS, President Obama is using the same violent war tactics as his predecessors. In the words of anti-war activist David Swanson, “He can get away with some abuses and worse and be forgiven because he engages in wars more eloquently and reluctantly. But the people who die in the wars are just as dead...”

Following the 2001 attacks on the World Trade Center the U.S. experienced an outpouring of sympathy and support from all over the world, including many of the Muslim nations with whom we are now in conflict. We could have resorted to waging peace on a massive scale, working to make sure that perpetrators of 911 kinds of violence were degraded and disenfranchised.

Instead we chose revenge. And now we are reaping the brutal consequences.

Sunday, September 28, 2014

Teaching Our Children Some Real Respect
In parenting classes I've taught over the years I've been impressed by how concerned parents are about raising children who show genuine respect toward them and others.

When I taught my Positive Parenting class to ex-offenders, many of whom have felt "dissed" by society, they strongly expressed that same concern. And even though many of their parents had abused them with the harshest punishments imaginable, most staunchly defended the practice of "butt-whipping", believing it was the only way to "teach children some real respect".

But do all of our attempts to teach respect disrespectfully or violently just teach fear, instil anger and ultimately promote more violence?

Children, someone has wryly noted, are a lot like people. They aren't dumb, they're just short and inexperienced, and it is our duty to teach them what they need to know to become successful adults. Generally the same things that work with taller and older people are also the things that work best with shorter, less mature people.

In the real world we know that we teach best by use of careful and repeated explanation and lots of good demonstration over time, along with appropriate and respectfully administered consequences when offenses occur.

So I often ask parents, "When our children misbehave, are they simply defying us or might they often be imitating us?' Can we successfully teach patience impatiently, teach kindness unkindly or teach self control when we are ourselves are out of control? In other words, most good behaviors children learn they learn by loving elders who demonstrate and teach these qualities on a a consistent basis.

In each parenting class we begin by listing some of those good traits we want our children to take with them throughout their lives, long after we have any direct control of their choices. Then after highlighting such qualities as respect, courtesy, kindness, unselfishness, good work ethic, concern for others, picking up after themselves, being able to manage their anger, etc., I ask "How many of these qualities can we instil in our children by harsh lectures or beating?" and "How consistently are we demonstrating these traits ourselves?"

Of course parents can't be perfect, and the good news is that we don't have to be in order to be good role models. The secret is to recognizing when we fail and not being afraid to apologize when we miss the mark.

Which becomes another one of those good traits we teach by example.

Here's a link to another post on child discipline.

Friday, September 26, 2014

My Awfully Cheap Cosmopolitan Wardrobe

Some 1,100 died in recent Bagladesh garment factory collapse
"Come now, you rich, weep and wail for the miseries that are coming. Your riches have rotted, and your clothes are moth-eaten... Listen! The wages of the laborers ...which you kept back by fraud, cry out, and their cries have reached the ears of the Lord of hosts."
James 5:4

According to a check of clothing labels in my wardrobe, I benefit from the near slave-wage labor of garment workers in over a dozen countries, many of them making less than $100 a month. I found only three of my older jackets and one shirt with "Made in the USA" labels.

These are among the more common countries represented:

Dominican Republic

Thanks to the thousands of underpaid workers putting in long hours in oppressive environments who are manufacturing and transporting my clothes and shoes, I have the luxury of getting to decide what combination of things to wear every day, choices few of them can afford. I also have the problem of deciding what items to get rid of to avoid overcrowding our modest size closet. Some of my items were purchased at our local thrift store to begin with, but I'm still extremely rich, wardrobe-wise, when compared to those who toil day after day sewing all of my stuff.

This morning as I dressed for the day I breathed a prayer for these desperately poor clothing servants and their families. Are we willing to pay more in order to provide more decent conditions for them?

Meanwhile, I just learned that a new store, Green Hummingbird Fair Trade Clothing, has opened at 320 S. Main Street in Harrisonburg, and will be having its Grand Opening Saturday, October 4, from 1-5 p.m., complete with food, music, door prizes, a fashion show, and massages.

Doesn't look like there's much here for men, but I'm glad that at least someone is promoting fair trade in our community, along with places like Artisans' Hope, 821A Mt. Clinton Pike, and Ten Thousand Villages at 181 S. Main Street in Harrisonburg.

Wednesday, September 24, 2014

Solitary Torture

See Infograph World Blog for full view
According to the Center for Constitutional Rights over 80,000 U.S. inmates are currently being held in solitary confinement for 22-24 hours a day, some of them for years on end. In many cases their only physical exercise involves being taken in handcuffs and shackles to pace back and forth in another solitary location.

Originally this form of confinement was seen as a way of encouraging offenders to reflect on their misdeeds and experience repentance and a changed life, but it turned out that it was far more likely to lead to psychosis. In the past century such cells have been used more and more frequently as a means of punishing troublemakers in prison, sometimes including "jail house lawyers"advocating for fellow inmates, along with truly violent and incorrigible inmates.

In our local jail segregation cells are used routinely for disciplinary reasons, and sometimes for the protection of an inmate who is in danger of being harmed by his or her cell mates. Such sentences in the “hole,” for either the prisoner’s protection or for in-jail violations, may be for weeks at a time.

In all fairness, overcrowding at our local jail, along with challenges of limited budget and personnel have Sheriff Hutcheson and his staff stretched to their limit. Our jail, built for 208, is double bunked and typically houses from 375 to 400 inmates, some having to sleep on the floor. The Sheriff feels he has few choices at times but to resort to using the restraint chair, segregated cells, and even the dreaded isolated padded cell, which is sometimes used for suicidally depressed persons they fear might harm themselves.

It doesn't take a mental health professional to know that prolonged confinement behind bars is certain to have a negative impact on anyone's emotional and physical health, and to be deprived of human contact and normal forms of sensory stimulation and physical activity in a solitary cell will have an even greater crazy-making effect.

Our Harrisonburg-Rockingham Regional Jail has a contract with Southern Health to provide at least one nurse on site around the clock to meet the medical needs of inmates. In addition, a retired MD from Staunton is available on a marginal-time basis.

But for mental health needs, the jail has only its annual contract with our local Community Services Board, a board of which the sheriff himself is a designated member. This paltry $15,600 annual agreement is sufficient to only cover the cost of a Psychiatric Nurse Practitioner for three hours a week.

We can, and must, do far better than that.

For an earlier post on this subject, go to this link.

Monday, September 22, 2014

Who Has Grumbling Rights? A Reflection On A Sunday's Lectionary Texts

When I reviewed the Exodus 15 text for last week, the one about a newly liberated people complaining about their hardships, I found myself feeling more empathy than usual.

It's easy to criticize these folks who grumbled about things like recurring water and food shortages, but didn't they have a right to be upset? After all, they're having to journey on foot through desert heat while carrying their meager possessions with them, and without the luxury of overnight motel accommodations.

Most of us, accustomed to air-conditioned transportation and comfortable lodging at a Hampton Inn, wouldn't have lasted a single day under those conditions.

Which makes this a serious lesson about whether or when we have grumbling rights and when we have only gratitude rights. It always depends on our perspective, and on how we do our mental bookkeeping. That is, do we mostly make note of, and record, our deficits, our losses, our deprivations? Or do we enter and celebrate our many undeserved assets, blessings and benefits?

I was reminded of the humorous song "Grumblers" by Thoro Harris I learned when I was a child:

In country, town or city some people can be found
Who spend their lives in grumbling at everything around;
O yes, they always grumble, no matter what we say,
For these are chronic grumblers and they grumble night and day.

O they grumble on Monday, Tuesday, Wednesday,
Grumble on Thursday too,
Grumble on Friday, Saturday, Sunday,
Grumble the whole week thru.

They grumble in the city, they grumble on the farm,
They grumble at their neighbors, they think it is no harm;
They grumble at their husbands, they grumble at their wives,
They grumble at their children; but the grumbler never thrives.

They grumble when it’s raining, they grumble when it’s dry,
And if the crops are failing they grumble and they sigh,
They grumble at low prices and grumble when they’re high,
They grumble all the year ‘round and they grumble till they die.

We all have our share of both stresses and blessings, but like our financial accounts, if our deposits exceed our withdrawals we can live in the black, can experience a sense of abundance, even of plenty. On the other hand, if we, like the above grumblers, see our perceived losses as being greater than our assets, we live in a state of scarcity and want, and will tend to be complainers.

This Sunday's gospel reading from Matthew is a story about some laborers who grumbled about an employer giving each worker a full day's pay even though some had put in many more hours than others. Jesus' point is that each person deserves a living wage, and that the rest of us who have plenty should be grateful for this kind of just provision instead of being envious or resentful.

The Psalm 105 passage reframes the Exodus story, focuses on God's gracious deliverance for a people who had experienced only bondage and suffering and were offered liberation and new hope.

In the Philippians passage, the missionary Paul, writing from prison, gives up his grumbling rights and counts his blessings instead.

Sounds like a lot depends on how we do our bookkeeping.

Saturday, September 20, 2014

To Our Civil Servants: Pardon my "R├ępondez S'il Vous Plait" Request

Which part of RSVP ("Reply please") don't they understand?
If you've ever written to an elected official and not gotten a response, you're not alone.

Here are my two most recent examples:


Several weeks ago I sent an email to the members of the Harrisonburg City Council and the County Board of Supervisors with a petition regarding local jail expansion that I had posted on my blog. Since it was signed by 125 local citizens, I assumed they would at least take time to read it and make some kind of response.

The petition asks for an additional year, at least, for our community to consider the proposal due by late November by the Richmond-based Mosely Architectural firm regarding plans to add more jail space. This proposal is to then be voted on by City and County representatives before December 31, allowing us a mere month to examine what's in the report.

Since any proposed construction will likely involve millions of taxpayer dollars, many of our local citizens see a need for taking more time for the process. The City of Richmond, for example, is taking five years for a similar study.

All that being said, I got only one reply to my email. One.

A week later I resent the message and link, this time addressing each representative by name, which resulted in my getting at least a brief acknowledgment from half of them. But only half.

I know our elected servants are busy and undoubtedly get a lot of correspondence, and I don't expect an extended essay from every public official I write to. But I do expect at least the courtesy of  something that helps ordinary citizens like me feel like our input isn't just an annoyance.


Just prior to that I had sent a hand-written personal letter along with a copy of one of my blog posts urging parole reforms to each member of the Virginia Parole Board as well as to Governor Terry McAuliffe, Attorney General Mark Herring and Commissioner of Public Safety Brian Moran, again expecting at least an acknowledgment from someone on their staff.

The response? Zero. Zilch. Nada.

Am I not doing something right here? Or don't our public servants really want input from ordinary taxpayers like you and me?

Wednesday, September 17, 2014

Is Race Still A Relevant Category?

proposed wording of Census questions on race
Throughout our nation's history, the U.S. Census Bureau has used the discredited and inadequate “five races of mankind” as a basis for recording the race and ethnicity of its citizens: "White; Black; American Indian or Alaska Native; Asian; and Native Hawaiian or other Pacific Islander."

I 'm sure there must be some need--for purposes of comparison with other nations, or to note trends in our own history--to use such designations, but I still wish racial labels would become less and less important.

My August  blog entitled "Where Have All The Racists Gone?" had a link posted on Facebook which got an unusual number of comments, including on in which I suggested we might just avoid using racial designations altogether unless they have something directly to do with the scientific study of skin pigment or when we're referring to a sociological study involving some kind of useful research.

To which one friend responded, "Color blind doesn't work. It just glosses over biases. Better to be actively advocating for diversity and encourage people to learn about their own culture and appreciate that of others."

That sounds wise at one level, but I still wonder just how color conscious we should be, or how important it is to pay attention to dozens of kinds of other designations of things that distinguish us from each other. 

For example, should the Census Bureau also include categories like the following:

Swiss-German Caucasion (my "race")
Mixed Irish, African American, and native American (a nephew's "race")
Left handed versus right handed
Blond, brunette or red headed 
Kinky, wavy, straight and/or disappearing hair
Pink, tan, bronze or dark skin shade, with or without freckles
Tall, short, stocky, thin, obese
Eye color

Such a list could go on and on, leaving unanswered the question of what information about others' physical characteristics really have anything to do with anything.

Perhaps some day a simpler version of a census question on race might be the following:

___ Human
___ Inhuman

Monday, September 15, 2014

Birds Weigh In On The Climate Debate

Link to September issue of Audubon magazine
"Follow the money," is something I frequently hear from both sides of the ongoing debate on how or whether humans are contributing to climate change.

That's why I pay special attention when a reputable non-profit organization like the Audubon Society publishes their results of studies on the subject.

Over half of our bird population, according to their findings, face significant relocations, problems with adequate food supply and even possible extinction based on what they believe to be largely human-caused factors.

I do realize the climate change issue is beyond complex and that no individual or group knows absolutely everything that should be known in order to come up with the best possible response. But to believe that the majority of the world's climatologists, remarkably united in their urging us to drastically reduce our carbon emissions, are in some kind of secret conspiracy to mislead us for the sake of their financial gain just seems preposterous to me. The scientists I know, independent to a fault, are all too eager to distinguish themselves by proving their peers wrong.

And to believe that groups like the National Geographic Society and the Audubon Society would join such a massive conspiracy and believe they could do so without being exposed as charlatans is way beyond believable to me.

I also find myself paying attention to some of my friends who devote hours of their time and tons of energy to help raise awareness of this issue, good people I know for a fact will never profit in the slightest from their efforts.

On the other hand, some of the following are in fact benefiting significantly by taking the public policy stands they do:

Saturday, September 13, 2014

Bombings And Beheadings Are Equally Barbaric

Picasso's "Guernica", in response to the first aerial bombings, 1937
"Do not repay evil with evil."
All of us were sickened recently to learn about videos of enemies so evil as to decapitate two people in an act of revenge for U.S. bombings in Iraq.

One U.S. response has been to launch yet more air attacks against ISIS (or ISIL) in return for these and other acts of genocide against Christians, Yazidis and Shiah Muslims in Iraq. Violence, as always, just keeps on engendering more and ever worse violence. 

Take aerial bombing, for example.

Victims taking a direct hit are instantly obliterated into unrecognizable bits of bone, blood, brains and other body parts, though not subject to prolonged suffering. Others experience sure and unimaginably agonizing deaths from untreatable burns and other wounds. Still others may survive but be left with injuries from which they will never recover, suffer severe lacerations and loss of limbs, and endure lifelong psychological traumas

Which act of terrorism should we consider worse, when each is unspeakably despicable? 

Sadly, drone and aerial strikes have become accepted as antiseptic and routine, the equivalent of just another hit in a video game, although nothing could be further from reality.

One reality being that one day all perpetrators of any acts of barbaric brutality will surely have to give an account.

Thursday, September 11, 2014

Why Does Jesus Say So Much About Hell?

The Valley of Gehenna
According to author Benjamin Corey, there was no Hebrew word for hell in first century Israel, but Jesus had more to say about Gehenna in the gospels than he did about heaven.

Why is this, we may ask? Isn't Jesus supposed to be all about kindness and compassion toward everyone?

Cory notes that the word Jesus uses, "Gehenna", literally refers to the Valley of Hinnom just outside of Jerusalem, a God-forsaken place where garbage--sometimes including unwanted dead bodies--was disposed of in a continuously burning fire.

Jesus' references to Gehenna are a part of his tough-love warnings to his audience, a way of making a powerful point about the danger of ignoring or countering God's plan for bringing salvation and healing to the world. For example, in Matthew 23:33 we hear him issuing the following message to the wealth- and status-loving religious leaders of the day:

“You are nothing but snakes and the children of snakes! How can you escape going to Gehenna?”

I note that in my reading of the Gospels that Jesus never gives these kinds of warnings to the hurting and the weak but always to the complacent and powerful, the religious and self-righteous. In the tradition of the Hebrew prophets he is making the strongest case possible about the need for all to repent and turn their self-centered lives around, lest they become subject to God's wrath.

In a similar vein Jesus warns those who offend ("sin against") vulnerable children by saying it would be better for such if they had "a millstone fastened around their neck and be cast into the depths of the sea." Strong words indeed.

It is certainly clear that the real Jesus is not simply the nice preacher saying reassuring things to people in power, but in the tradition of the prophets is incensed and outraged by the way people ignore the poor and fail to offer hospitality to the stranger.

Rabbi Abraham Heschel describes these Hebrew prophets as "some of the most disturbing people who have ever lived," and adds,  

"Instead of dealing with the timeless issues of being and becoming, of matter and form, of definitions and demonstrations, he (the prophet) is thrown into orations about widows and orphans, about the corruption of judges and the affairs of the market place. The world is a proud place, full of beauty, but the prophets are scandalized, and rave as if the whole world were a slum... What if somewhere in ancient Palestine poor people have not been treated properly by the rich? ...Why such inordinate excitement? Why such indignation?"

Heschel then adds, "The things that horrified the prophets are daily occurrences all over the world."

Jesus, in addition to being our deliverer and redeemer, is just such a prophet, with just such a sense of indignation.
* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * 

Post script: Here's a note I just sent in response to someone who was surprised and disappointed that I would post something so controversial and so unlike his vision of a loving God: 

"Regardless of how we interpret texts regarding a future judgement, one thing that's really clear to me is that if in this life we have lived selfishly and "fared sumptuously every day" while the Lazaruses of the world were starving, there will be a day when we will seriously, terribly regret having lived the way we did. We may even get to that point in this life, for that matter, when or if our economy crashes and/or the world's hungry nations rise up and destroy us."

Tuesday, September 9, 2014

What Would Jesus Earn? Salary Inequities Within Christian-Based Organizations

Find IRS information here about CEO earnings of non-profits
In her August 2014 Sojourners article “The Rich Get Richer”, Julie Polter notes that “ninety-five percent of all economic gains in the U.S. since the Great Recession went to the top 1 percent”, and asks, “What does our growing wealth inequality mean for the future of democracy?”

We need to be asking similar questions about what kinds of wage disparities are acceptable within faith-based institutions. What does increased wealth inequity within church-related agencies mean for the future of Christian non-profits?

Thankfully, the pay gap between those at the top and bottom of the wage scale in most faith-based institutions is far less extreme than in the case of major corporations, with the possible exception of certain televangelist organizations. But the gap appears to be widening, and  if one checks out websites like, which lists CEO salaries of non-profits as required on IRS Form 990's, one can be in for some big surprises.

My observation is that when Christian-based non-profits first launch they tend to demonstrate the kind of passion about the group’s mission that makes them willing to make great financial sacrifices in order to accomplish their goals. Then as an organization grows and becomes more mainstream and institutionalized CEO wages and benefits tend to rise to six figures and beyond while the wages of entry level staff remain static.

Dale Ressler of Lancaster, Pennsylvania, head of Friends of Shirati Hospital, clearly represents a non-profit that is in this first stage of development. Ressler, after spending many years in Tanzania working with the Sharati hospital, remains so committed to its mission that he, with the support of his wife Kisari (a native Tanzanian), and with the help of a board of volunteers, raises around $100,000 a year in support of needed medical supplies and equipment. He draws no salary for his fundraising efforts and supports himself by holding down another full time job.

James Stauffer, son of Bible instructor and later president of Eastern Mennonite School J. L. Stauffer, recently told me he learned that in the early twenties his father received a wage of $60 a month from EMS (now EMU), which in today’s dollars would equal about $860, or $10,320 a year. He said most school employees took it for granted that they would need some kind of outside work in order to provide for the needs of their family. The Stauffers raised chickens and took in boarding students.

Even when J. L. Stauffer became the school’s president James doesn't recall his salary  increasing significantly, which illustrates that in EMS’s pioneer stage, competitive wages weren’t seen as a high priority. And during the Great Depression that followed, the school simply couldn’t afford to pay higher wages in any case.

As time went on, Mennonite schools and other agencies became more conventional in their salary scales, with a primary goal being to remain competitive with other institutions vying for qualified teachers and administrators. Today’s Mennonite college presidents generally have salaries and benefits that, while still far below those of big name universities, have increased to well over five times that of entry level instructors. The gap is even greater for the growing number of part time (adjunct) instructors hired, who typically receive no benefits at all.

Christian Aid Ministries in Berlin, Ohio, with an annual relief aid budget of nearly $100 million, is a relatively new conservative Mennonite and Amish Mennonite organization founded in 1981. In its present phase of development it pays its CEO a modest (by most standards) salary in the low $90,000 range. The assistant director earns two-thirds of that figure, and CAM’s chief financial officer’s salary is about midway between the two. Keeping the salaries of administrators relatively low helps keep the organization’s fundraising and administrative costs to 2.4% of its budget.

One wonders how this picture will change as CAM becomes more establishment and less cutting-edge over time. Will it follow the trend toward ever higher CEO pay, and of eventually relying heavily on well paid advancement and development staff to do year round fund raising for them?

Here are some of the kinds of questions we should be asking of our church-based agencies:

1) In light of growing concerns about the gap between worker and CEO pay in the U.S., do you have a policy that governs the salary/compensation differential between highest and lowest paid workers? If so, what is the ratio of your highest-paid to lowest paid staff?

2) In light of ongoing concerns about the gap between rich and poor in the U.S. and between us and the rest of the world, what salary levels do you believe to be acceptable for heads of justice-promoting, Christ-following organizations like yours? $50,000? $100,000? $200,000? $500,000?

Ron Byler of Mennonite Central Committee recently responded to a similar inquiry with the following official MCC statement:

     Policies for salaried/hourly staff will provide a fair wage that is comparable to other faith-based agencies doing similar work, taking into account MCC’s size. 

  o Salary levels will maintain no more than a five to one ratio from the highest salary to the lowest within Canada or the U.S. This will often mean that salaries at lower levels will generally be above market rates and salaries at management levels will generally be below market rates.

o Salaries will be reviewed annually, taking into account changes in the consumer price index and relevant economic conditions.

Jesus once told his followers, “Every disciple, when fully trained, will become like his master.” Doesn't this mean that as Christians we should at least consider the question, “What would Jesus earn?”

Sunday, September 7, 2014

No, Let's Not Send The McDonnells To Jail

Last week Virginia's ex-Governor Bob McDonnell and his wife Maureen were found guilty of illegally accepting some $177,000 in gifts and loans while in office.

I don't presume to know all of the reasons the jury agreed on its verdict--one that in any case is sure to be appealed--but even if they are guilty as charged, what good would be served by either or both of them spending years in behind bars?

I say that primarily because I'm against spending millions on incarcerating non-violent offenders in general, regardless of their race, nationality or social status. It would make far more sense to have those who commit crimes to make actual restitution for their deeds rather having the rest of us foot the approximately $30,000 annual bill to feed and care for them behind bars.

The McDonnells, like so many citizens charged with crimes, pose no physical or other danger to society. They just need to be made fully accountable for making their wrongs right.

The best way to do this, in the opinion of more and more people, is through a restorative justice process in which offender and offended (in this case Virginians whose trust they have betrayed) agree together on how they could actually "pay their debt to society". Punishment itself doesn't accomplish that.

A restorative justice approach might include having Bob and Maureen make a public apology, for a start, along with coming up with $177,000 or more, plus the equivalent of the sum of all court costs, to contribute to Virginia's state budget and/or to some other agreed on cause. In addition, they could be asked to put their energy and skills to constructive use in some form of assigned public service that would benefit the citizens of the Commonwealth.

Otherwise, if they are simply put behind bars for a combined 10-20 years, who will pay? Innocent taxpayers will, of course, to the tune of up to a total of half million or more. To say nothing of the waste of having two talented and otherwise good people remain unproductive and without contributing to the well being of society for the duration.

Meanwhile, if imprisonment is not a rational way to deal with the socially privileged McDonnells, how is it such a great idea to keep incarcerating all of the rest of the millions of U.S. citizens who are also non-violent offenders? And how can simply adding more jail space here locally be defended as a good investment?

We can do much better than that.

Here's a link to more posts on criminal justice.

Friday, September 5, 2014

Where Have All The Racists Gone?

Some of us still remember the days of segregation and discrimination against people of color in our state and nation.

I recall my late friend George Blakely describing the long rides to the Lucy Simms School that students of color from the Elkton area had to endure, seated on hard benches in back of an old bread delivery truck (without side windows) that served as their school bus.

I personally remember the separate colored and white public rest rooms, water fountains and waiting rooms, along with the balconies or separate seating areas in public auditoriums for people of color. Churches and cemeteries were separated by race, and the back seats of Greyhound or city transit buses were reserved for African Americans.

Some time ago I even ran across a notice in an old copy of the Rockingham Register announcing a KKK meeting to be held at the former Massanutten Caverns Lodge right here in our county. That may seem hard to imagine today.

But have all of the vestiges of this era of discrimination and racial bias disappeared since the 1954 Brown v. Board of Education Supreme Court decision? Or the Civil and Voting Rights Acts of the sixties? Have all of our racists, to use the words of Pete Seeger, simply "gone to graveyards, every one"?

Many Americans appear to think so, judging by how quickly they accuse others of "race-baiting" or using the "race card" whenever the subject is even mentioned.

But unless we have come to believe that we can magically legislate morality and acceptance of others regardless of skin color or national origin--something I remember people vehemently denying could be done when Jim Crow Laws were being challenged--the problem of racial bias most certainly remains with us.

Witness the number of all white congregations in our area, and the small number of minorities in our police force and sheriff's departments--in spite of some improvements here over time.

Even closer home, I need to look at my own list of close friends and associates. How many people of other races, nationalities or faiths are a close part of my life?

At the deepest level, I need to search my own heart and repent of whatever racism may still exist there, probably a lot more than I have been willing to admit.

Wednesday, September 3, 2014

Five End Of Life Wishes

An excellent book on this subjuct
As I enter my last quarter of life, here are some of my final wishes:

1. My first is that with whatever life I have left I can still be investing some good time and energy into causes I’m passionate about. I’m not about to retire just because I happen to be a decade past 65.

Fortunately, my health is still pretty good, but I realize I have only so much good time left, so my wish is to be able die used up and somehow “finished” to the greatest extent possible.

Jesus’ own next to last words were, “It is finished,” not so much as an expression of despair as of a life mission accomplished. Then his final words were, "Into your hands I commit my spirit".

I know I’m not Jesus, and I know no human goal is every fully reached, but I want to die feeling like I’ve given it my all, so at the end of my life, like at the end of a day, I can “lay me down to sleep,” content and ready to give my life a rest.

One of the things we may dread most about dying is the fear of never having fully lived, or of not having left any legacy of accomplishments behind. These don’t have to be huge things, just things that have made some kind of difference, that have left some kind of footprint. There’s a rabbinical saying, “All mortals die twice, once when they draw their last breath, and again when people no longer speak their name.”

2. My second wish is to leave a good and enduring legacy to my children and grandchildren. They know, and I know, that there probably won’t be much in the way of an estate or a lot of cash left over for them. So I’m working on a last will and testament of another kind, naming the blessings I want to leave behind for our offspring, the faith and values Alma Jean and wish to  have passed on--so that their children and their children’s children will carry some of the good parts of us forward.

3. A third end of life wish is to make sure that when I become incapacitated and my body is no longer capable of breathing on its own or able to take nourishment, that I’m simply given palliative care to help relieve any excessive amount of suffering. I don't want to be put on a respirator and have tubes forced down my throat or anything else that keeps me from communicating as well and as long as possible with my family and loved ones.

I know I can’t really control all of this totally, and that I could end up incapacitated for a long time through some accident or complicated illness--and maybe I’ll even lose my reasonably sound mind through Alzheimers or worse--in which case I pray my family will still love whatever is left of me to the end.

4. Which relates to my fourth wish. I want to die and be buried without a fancy casket and an expensive vault. My current instructions are to use a simple concrete vault and a welfare casket, the ones they don’t have on display at your local funeral home, but store in a back room somewhere, like the kind my parents were buried in.

If I could really have it my way, I would be fine with a Jewish-style funeral, one of which I attended about a year ago, where they don’t embalm the body, but lay it in in a plain, unvarnished pine casket and bury it without a vault. And while the rabbi reads reflections from Jewish scripture people take turns placing a shovel of dirt directly on the casket, not attempting to shield anyone from the reality of dust to dust, ashes to ashes, earth to earth.

Interestingly, on the same day I attended the Jewish funeral I also attended an Old Order Mennonite one, where a similarly plain wooden casket, made my one of the members of their church, was placed in a wooden vault, also subject to decay. Family members and friends took turns covering the grave while hundreds of congregants sang hymns in beautiful four-part harmony.

Poet Wendell Berry, in a piece he calls “Testament”, writes :

So treat me, even dead,
As a man who has a place
To go, and something to do.
Don't muck up my face
With wax and powder and rouge
As one would prettify
An unalterable fact
To give bitterness the lie.
     Admit the native earth
     My body is and will be,
     Admit its freedom and
     Its changeability.
Dress me in the clothes
I wore in the day's round.
Lay me in a wooden box.
Put the box in the ground.

I could be OK with cremation as well, though some members of my extended family are not, nor am I sure how they would warm up to the idea of "natural burial", where one's body is simply buried in a shroud and covered with earth, a totally natural process in which we welcome becoming one with the earth from which we came.

I love the Irish blessing which says,

May the blessing of earth--the good, rich earth--be with you...
May the earth be soft under you when you rest upon it,
tired at the end of the day.
May earth rest easy over you when at last you lie under it.
May the earth rest so lightly over you
that your spirit may be out from under it quickly,
and up, and off, and on its way to God.

5. Which brings me to my last wish, the “up, and off and on its way to God” part. I live with a deep sense of mystery when it come to things eternal, knowing we can at best only through “see through a glass dimly” when it comes to anything beyond our human senses.

But  there are some seemingly “unbelievable” things I’ll always consider too good not to be true, that some day “what is sown perishable will be raised imperishable; what is sown in dishonor will be raised in glory; what is sown in weakness will be raised in power; what is sown a natural body will be raised a spiritual body.”

This is not just something I hold on to for dear life, it is something that tenaciously holds on to me. And it’s my final wish, as in the African-American spiritual, “I want to die easy when I die, shout salvation as I fly...”

Some more reflections by Wendell Berry:

... do not let your ignorance
Of my spirit's whereabouts dismay
You, or overwhelm your thoughts.
Be careful not to say
Anything too final. Whatever
Is unsure is possible, and life is bigger
Than flesh. Beyond reach of thought
Let imagination figure
Your hope. That will be generous
To me and to yourselves. Why settle
For some know-it-all's despair
When the dead may dance to the fiddle
Hereafter, for all anybody knows?.." 

Or in the words of Job, "I know my redeemer lives." 

I close with some of my personal musings on my recent 75th birthday:

Can an old man continue to see visions and dream dreams
and finally lay himself down to sleep
well content when his time comes
feeling finished and fulfilled
at winter's end and eager to
welcome eternal spring

Monday, September 1, 2014

Guest Post: Is Our Virginia Parole Board Dysfunctional?

The following is a condensed version of something recently sent me by a Virginia inmate who has worked hard for decades to earn the parole he was assured he would get when he entered a plea instead of having his case tried in court. He wishes to remain anonymous for fear of retaliation.

The unsanctioned activities of the Virginia Parole Board are counterproductive to Virginia's Adult Reentry Initiative, a plan to reduce recidivism rates and help state and local governments cut prison costs and save taxpayer dollars.

Prison maintenance costs are increasing every year, and at the same time Virginia's correctional facilities are as crowded as ever while more and more sentenced prisoners are backed up in  local and regional jails awaiting transfers to state correctional institutions.

Virginia's Truth-in-Sentencing Law grandfathered parole release for all prisoners sentenced prior to July 1, 1995, which means there are still thousands of old-law inmates waiting to be released on parole. Some signed plea agreements with verbal promises from attorneys that they would make first or second parole after they had served a number of years and completed mandated treatment programs. Yet the justice system, through its parole board, is finding ingenious ways to back out of its part of the commitment.

Parole eligible prisoners are often denied parole because the "war on crime" has become such a political issue, and for many in power it would seem like political suicide to have  large numbers of felons released back into society. In addition, many people get locked up because some police officers are overzealous, or because public defenders often fail to provide effective defenses, or because of mental illnesses. Authorities often see it as cheaper to lock people up than to treat them.

 VADOC programs aim to build up prisoners'self esteem, hopes and dreams by providing cognitive-behavioral treatment programs, education, and vocational and job training only to have the Parole Board tear it all down, with a grant rate of under 4%, one of the lowest in the nation.

These men and women are confused and disheartened. Do they save up money for release or spend money waiting to die in prison? Most have done all they can do, to no avail.

VADOC has completed a study on recidivism and found those convicted of violent crimes and sexually-based offenses had the  lowest recidivism rates. Those who committed such crimes in their youth eventually grow up to become the kind of mature, responsible individuals who can be safely returned to society where they can be monitored and supervised, and in many cases placed on Home Electronic Monitoring, which has proved to be highly successful and incomparably cheaper than keeping people locked up.

Some of the unlawful and unethical methods used by the VPB include dredging up old cases that are decades old, tracking down surviving victims and/or their families, and thus opening old wounds and asking intrusive questions about the continuing impact of old crimes. In addition to being traumatic to surviving victims and their families who are trying to move on with their lives, such methods represent forms of double jeopardy, since all the information related to the crime was already examined at trial and factored into the sentence decades or more ago.

Many cases of error and confusion have been associated with the work of the Parole Board:

1. Parole-eligible prisoners have received a one-year deferral only to find later that it was changed to a three-year deferral.

2. Some parole-eligible prisoners have received official denial letters with the name of the Board's chair imprinted on it even before they were able to speak to the parole interviewer.

3. There are all too frequent clerical errors in a prisoner's file, information they are not able to review ahead of time.

As a result of the way Virginia's expensive parole system is set up and operated, many parole eligible prisoners have come to the conclusion that no matter what evidence is offered at the hearing by the parole interviewer, that his or her impact on the Board's decisions is negligible.

Some examples of old-law prisoners who would present no risk to society if released on parole:

1. A nearly blind 82-year old who has served 38 years and is a model prisoner.

2. A model prisoner who has served over 40 years and who will be deported to his home country once he is paroled.

3. Countless men and women who have been model inmates, have earned single cells, and have a good work record, clean prison records, and excellent job references.

4. Hundreds of men and women who have met the criteria for Geriatric Parole release and have completed a treatment plan and become model prisoners.

Regrettably, Parole Board members tend to overestimate the likelihood that a released prisoner under supervised parole will re-offend. Ironically, they sometimes grant parole to prisoners who, judging by their institutional conduct, don't deserve it and who typically come right back to prison, thereby justifying the Board's extreme caution and miniscule parole rate.

May we suggest that the Governor of Virginia, jointly with the Virginia Secretary of Public Safety, form a task force to investigate and address the above concerns? The board should be transparent like all state agencies and submit to performance evaluations that would hold it accountable for its results and not cover up for its deficiencies.

* * * * * * * * * * * * *
Check this link for more posts on this subject, then make a phone call and/or send a letter expressing your concern to the following current members of the parole board and to the Governor, the Secretary of Public Safety and the Attorney General (along with a copy of this post if you wish):

Ms. Karen Brown, Chair
Algie T. Howell, Jr., Vice-Chair 
The Reverend Doctor A. Lincoln James
Mr. Sherman R. Lea
Mr. Minor F. Stone
     c/o Virginia Parole Board
     6900 Atmore Drive
     Richmond, VA 23225
     (804) 674-3081

Governor Terry McAuliffe
P.O. Box 1475,
Richmond, Va.  23218

Mr. Brian Moran
Office of the Secretary of Public Safety
P.O. Box 1475
Richmond, VA 23218
Office: 804-786-5351
Fax Line: 804-225-3882

Mr. Mark R. Herring
Office of the Attorney General
900 East Main Street
Richmond, VA 23219
(804) 786-2071