Violence is born of fantasy; so is the cure

and a little child

When a gunman kills twenty-six people in a South Texas Church there is no way you can talk about anything else.  That’s part of the web of reasons that people like Devin Patrick Kelley commit these horrid crimes–it’s a surefire way to get your name in the papers.  In fact, the New York Times has four separate stories running as I write.

Devin Patrick Kelley goes from obscurity to infamy in a matter of minutes.  No one knows who this tragic mess of a man is, and suddenly everybody is rooting through the detritus of his hapless existence looking for clues.  Why did he do it?  What was the motive?  Did he leave a note?

Right wing websites say Kelley must have converted to Islam and they have a picture to prove it.  Left wing websites insist that, surely, this time, we will have a serious conversation about gun control (all the while knowing that we won’t).

And then President Trump says this isn’t a gun thing, it’s a mental health thing.

It is clearly both.  We’ve got a lot of mental health problems in America, Trump ad libs, “just like other countries.”

Sure, every country has its share of mental problems, but America is special.  Americans are ten times as likely to die from gun violence than people in other developed countries in the Western.  We are special.

Gun violence is in our DNA.  Take Carole King, for example.  She was a big deal in my senior year of high school.  One song on her “Tapestry” album disturbed me at the time.  It starts like this:

Now, Smackwater Jack,
He bought a shotgun
‘Cause he was in the mood
For a little confrontation
He just let it all hang loose
He didn’t think about the noose
He couldn’t take no more abuse
So he shot down the congregation.

Contrasted with “Big Jim the chief”, the bulldog sheriff, and the self-righteous town people who are pleased to learn of the killer’s demise, old Smackwater Jack comes off like a hero.  It’s almost as if “the congregation” had it coming.

Songs like Smackwater Jack are distinctly American.  We like to fantasize about killing large groups of defenseless people.  We like gratuitous violence in our movies, our song lyrics and our computer games.  Just this morning the good folks on Sports Central were talking about the passion for destruction that motivates football players.  They thought that was a good thing.

H. Rap Brown was right, “violence is as American as cherry pie.”

Devin Patrick Kelley’s motive was depressingly simple.  He had been kicked out of the army.  He had been cited for animal abuse.  He had lost his family due to cruel and boorish behavior.  And he wanted someone to pay.  The folks at First Baptist looked like good targets because, from all appearances, they enjoyed intact families and the respect of a community that knows them well.

Kelley was fantaizing about his crime long before he strapped on his bullet-proof vest.  It’s the fantasy that gets these guys stoked for action.  “He couldn’t take no more abuse, so he shot down the congregation.”

Because violence is born of fantasy, visions of peace are the only antidote.

And now we’re talking about bringing guns to church.  Maybe its just the deacons who should be armed, or perhaps everybody with a license should be packing.  That way, if another Devin Patrick Kelley comes a-calling, he’ll die in a hail of bullets before he gets through the door.

More violent fantasy.

The only cure for violent fantasy is prophetic fantasy.  I believe in gun control (I’m Canadian for God’s sake), but that will only reduce the body count, it won’t solve the problem.  Our imaginations must be healed.

Consider these words from Isaiah 11:

With righteousness he shall judge the poor
and decide with equity for the meek of the earth;
and he shall smite the earth with the rod of his mouth,
and with the breath of his lips he shall slay the wicked.

The Messiah destroys the wicked with words of peace, not superior firepower.

Righteousness shall be the girdle of his waist,
and faithfulness the girdle of his loins.
The wolf shall dwell with the lamb,
and the leopard shall lie down with the kid,
and the calf and the lion and the fatling together,
and a litte child shall lead them.

Fantasies of peace are the only antidote to the fantasies of violence and retribution that haunt the American imagination.  If we start talking seriously about bringing our guns to church instead of our bibles, we will have denied our Savior in distinctly American fashion.

If we want a peaceful world, we need fantasies of peace.

Mississippi Supreme Court upholds Flowers conviction yet again

In a 5-4 decision,  the Mississippi Supreme Court has upheld the conviction of Curtis Flowers. 

The US Supreme Court had asked Mississippi to re-examine the Flowers case “in light of Foster” a case involving blatant racial bias in jury selection.

I was never confident that Mississippi would respond favorably to this request because the majority of justices are pro-prosecution conservatives.

But a 5-4 split demonstrates how controversial this case has become.  Conservative justices are beginning to realize there is something seriously wrong with the state’s case, but they can’t say so without giving their much-maligned state a black eye.

The Mississippi Court is divided between conservatives with a “nothing to see here, move along” approach and justices who view this case, and prosecutor Doug Evans, with well-earned suspicion.

Friends of Justice has been working with Curtis and his family for a full decade now and you can find the fruit of our labor here.

This fight is far from over.  If you want to know why the Mississippi Supreme Court has lurched to the right in recent years, read the last section of this post.  If you want to understand this case, read the whole thing.

Now the case returns to the federal arena.  So long as we’re talking about the minutiae of jury selection justice will not be served.  This case goes much deeper than that.  Unfortunately, the legal system has no way of acknowledging, or remedying, systemic racism.  In other words, this will be a tough fight, but justice will prevail.  I still believe that.

Preachers, strippers and the Word of God


Harvey Weinstein was just the beginning.  Now NPR’s Senior Vice president for news, Michael Oreskes, has resigned in the wake of allegations of sexual harassment.  And I just learned that production of House of Cards has been suspended until Kevin Spacey’s alleged sexual abuse of two adolescent males can be investigated.

All these stories feature a man in a position of power taking advantage of people who, thanks to poverty, the need of a job, or simple immaturity, aren’t in a position to say no.

Money drives a host of social transactions that are often viewed as consensual.

In an important Atlantic article, Brit Marling mulls the fraught connection between sex, power and professional advancement.

Weinstein was a gatekeeper who could give actresses a career that would sustain their lives and the livelihood of their families. He could also give them fame, which is one of few ways for women to gain some semblance of power and voice inside a patriarchal world. They knew it. He knew it. Weinstein could also ensure that these women would never work again if they humiliated him. That’s not just artistic or emotional exile—that’s also economic exile.

Back in 1999 I started writing a novel I never published. I called it Stirring up the Stars and it featured a preacher named John and a stripper named Maggie.

Maggie dresses like Rita Hayworth in Gilda because that’s the image she wants to project.

When John walks into the Toy Box Maggie recognizes him as the guy who preached the funeral if a former patron.  It helped that he was still wearing his “hi, my name is John” sticker he was wearing at the pastors meeting he had earlier left in disgust.

I  didn’t have much trouble getting into the preacher’s head, but I had never considered how it feels to be a stripper.  Who cares how strippers feels?  Well, when I started inventing my character, I had to care.

In one scene, Maggie tells John that they have similar jobs.  “People pay us good money to tell them they’re wonderful.  And the better we are at making people feel good, the more money we make.  It isn’t really about sex, or about God; it’s about saying whatever it takes to keep the customers coming back for more.”

Maggie has a point.  Preachers who reinforce the settled convictions of their people are celebrated; those who tell stories no one wants to hear quickly find themselves looking for another church.

And preachers who lose a church become social lepers with little cachet in the ecclesiastical market place.  Preachers who have never been driven into the outer darkness try not to think about the economics of pastoral life, but some of us don’t have that option.

What do preachers do when a message from God is burning in our bones, and the message is guaranteed to rile the faithful? The fire in Jeremiah’s bones got so hot he had to speak his fiery truth lest he die.

Prophets were not, are not, popular people.

Preachers have a certain power at their disposal, of course.  A few parlay their prestige into seven-figure incomes, but that’s rare.

Pastors are powerful because we get close to people.  Too close, sometimes.  Religious professionals who take advantage of a parishioner’s vulnerability are easy to hate; but the manipulative dynamic works both ways.

In every congregation there are a handful of people the preacher must please in order to survive. You don’t know who they are until you’ve been in the pulpit for six months, but they make their presence known.    Some of them are saintly folk, but they can be terribly troubled and vindictive souls lurking behind a facade of holiness.

You dare not tell these people what’s in your heart and on your mind.

We need to pay more attention to the economic realities that keep the fire shut up in our preachers’ bones until it consumes them from the inside.  Because, when that happens, the entire congregation gets burned.