Ruth Bader Ginsburg: 1933-2020

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Ruth Bader Ginsburg in 1977 / Credit: Lynn Gilbert


Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg lived a remarkable life. Appointed to the nation’s highest court in 1993 by President Bill Clinton, she presented herself as someone who was soft-spoken while also distinguishing herself a firebrand of the court’s progressive wing and, in her octogenarian years, a cultural icon, being dubbed “the notorious RBG” by her fans. Her death on Friday brought raw mourning, moving tributes, and a looming political melee as Republicans and Democrats began to draw their battle lines with President Trump already preparing to nominate a new, likely far more conservative, judge to serve as the justice who, if confirmed by the Republican-controlled Senate, would fill Justice Ginsburg’s seat.

There has been much that has already been said about Justice Ginsburg at her passing. And, with the hindsight afforded us by history, there will surely be much more to say into the future about her and her legacy. Her judicial philosophy alone will no doubt be the subject of many yet-to-be-published books as we, as a nation, continue to debate the merits of Constitutional interpretation philosophies like textualism, originalism, and her preferred method of seeing the Constitution as a living document, subject to broader interpretations that can reflect our zeitgeist.

Philosophically, I have questions about Justice Ginsburg’s method of Constitutional interpretation. I have reservations about many of the opinions she rendered. I stand opposed to her view of and her advocacy for abortion. Nevertheless, many of the stories that have been shared about her upon her passing deserve our reflection. In an article for Slate Magazine, Dahlia Lithwick recalls Justice Ginsburg’s humble sense of self. The justice knew she was the beneficiary of the hard work of many who came before her. She may have been called a pioneer, but she never forgot that she was also a payee. Ms. Lithwick writes:

Whenever she spoke, Justice Ginsburg was at pains to say that she stood on the shoulders of giants. At her confirmation hearings, in her prepared statement to the Senate, she was meticulous about who truly deserved the credit for her landmark career, and it wasn’t RBG: “We could not have come to this point – and I surely would not be in this room today – without the determined efforts of men and women who kept dreams of equal citizenship alive in days when few would listen. People like Susan B. Anthony, Elizabeth Cady Stanton, and Harriet Tubman come to mind. I stand on the shoulders of those brave people.” I never heard her give a public speech in which she didn’t thank, by name, the allies, champions, fighters, of whom she inevitably saw herself as a beneficiary; she cast herself as someone lucky enough to be in a long line of champions and fighters, and also as someone set and determined to pay it forward to the people who would someday stand on her shoulders.

Her gratitude for how others had shaped her and paved the way for her is something worth emulating, for we too ought to be thankful to those who, by their sacrifices, have made our lives better and our opportunities broader.

But it wasn’t just Justice Ginsburg’s gratitude for others that endeared her to so many; it was her warmth toward others. Her friendship with the late devotedly conservative justice, Antonin Scalia, has become the stuff of legend. Upon her death, Justice Scalia’s son shared a story from Judge Jeffrey Sutton, who clerked for Justice Scalia in the early 90s, who admitted to being confused by Justice Scalia’s close friendship with Justice Ginsburg:

During one of my last visits with Justice Scalia, I saw striking evidence of the Scalia-Ginsburg relationship. As I got up to leave his chambers, he pointed to two dozen roses on his table and noted that he needed to take them down to “Ruth” for her birthday. “Wow,” I said, “I doubt I have given a total of twenty-four roses to my wife in almost thirty years of marriage.” “You ought to try it sometime,” he retorted. Unwilling to give him the last word, I pushed back: “So what good have all these roses done for you? Name one five-four case of any significance where you got Justice Ginsburg’s vote.” “Some things,” he answered, “are more important than votes.”

As we enter into what is sure to be a contentious nomination fight and presidential election, maybe we should let Justice Scalia have the last word as we remember Justice Ginsburg: some things are more important than votes. Why? Because better than the wielding power is loving people.

His words are words to live by as we energetically debate in the months to come who should fill her seat.

September 21, 2020 at 5:15 am 1 comment

Dealing with Depression

This weekend at the church where I serve, we began a two-week series on mental health. A new study, published in The Journal of the American Medical Association, found that symptoms of depression in adults across the country has more than tripled since the COVID-19 pandemic began:

In the weeks after the outbreak prompted quarantines and stay-at-home orders, 27.8% of those surveyed had at least one symptom of depression. That compares to just 8.5% of people in 2017 and 2018.

And it’s not just that the proportion of people experiencing signs of depression had increased by mid-April – the burden of those symptoms increased as well. After the pandemic caused a radical shift in daily life, there were “fewer people with no symptoms and more people with more symptoms.”

None of this is particularly surprising. It is difficult to imagine a scenario where the societal upheaval we have endured over these past few months does not have an effect on our mental health.

Struggles with mental health are nothing new. In Psalm 119, the Psalmist has a line that jumped off the page at me as I was reading it as part of my morning devotions this past week:

My soul is weary with sorrow. (Psalm 119:28)

I wonder how many of us can relate to these words because we feel the weight of these words?

The question, of course, is: What do we do when we do feel the weight of these words? In the series we are at my church on mental health, we are talking about how there is both a clinical and a spiritual side to depression. Both must be addressed. Clinically, depression can – and often should – be treated through professional counseling and, perhaps, medication. Spiritually, the Psalmist offers a great place to start in order to address our depression:

My soul is weary with sorrow; strengthen me according to Your word. (Psalm 119:28)

To heal in our depression, we need a word from the Lord – a word that He loves us, that He will take care of us, and that there is hope for us.

If you’re struggling in depression right now, please know that you’re not alone. Please seek clinical help if you need it. But please also meditate on God’s Word. It is full of people who felt like you do. And it is full of people who God helped like He will you. Depression does not need to be determinative. God has a word of hope for you in His Word.

September 14, 2020 at 5:15 am 1 comment

Divorce Inquiries Climb as the Pandemic Lingers

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Among the casualties of the coronavirus are many Americans’ marriages. New released data indicates that sales of divorce agreements have soared by 34 percent during the pandemic. The pandemic seems to have had especially adverse effects on new marriages, with couples married five months or less pursuing divorce at double the rate of 2019. According to The Daily Mail, “the combination of quarantine life, wavering finances, mounting unemployment rates, illnesses, deaths of loved ones, mental illness and child care” has led to the spike in divorce inquiries.

As long as there has been marriage, there have been stressors and strains on marriages. History’s first marriage featured a husband who ill-advisedly blamed his wife for his bad behavior after he ate some forbidden fruit. When he was confronted by God over his sin, he claimed: “The woman You put here with me – she gave me some fruit from the tree, and I ate it” (Genesis 3:12). His was quick to blame his wife instead of taking responsibility for his own sin. And couples have been following in his footsteps ever since.

In Jesus’ day, countless numbers of marriages were crumbling. Many Jewish rabbis in the first century permitted husbands to divorce their wives for pretty much any reason. There was one school of thought that actually taught that a husband may divorce his wife “if she spoiled a dish for him,” or “even if he found another woman more beautiful than she.” Jesus, however, was having none of this. He pointedly declared: “I tell you that anyone who divorces his wife, except for sexual immorality, and marries another woman commits adultery” (Matthew 19:9). Jesus wants couples to remain together, even during trying times.

COVID-19 has certainly brought its share of trials. Many marriages are struggling. Some are not surviving. But hope is not lost. Jesus, at the same time He confronts those who don’t take seriously a commitment to marriage, also comforts those who are struggling in marriage. He knows circumstances can become difficult, and He cares.

So, if you are struggling in your marriage, now is the time to ask for help. You can certainly reach out to the church where I serve, Concordia, and we would be happy to talk with you. COVID-19 has created enough casualties. Let’s not add our marriages to that sad list.

September 7, 2020 at 5:15 am Leave a comment

Help After Hurricane Laura

When Hurricane Laura slammed into the Louisiana and Texas Gulf Coast border, it cut a path of destruction that will take years to undo. The storm surge reached nine feet in some places. Sustained wind speeds peaked at 150 miles per hour, making it a Category 4 hurricane and tying the record for the strongest winds of any hurricane to make landfall in Louisiana. The scenes of devastation have been hard to look at. So many homes have been ruined. So many communities have been crushed. And even some lives have been lost.

The power of a storm like Laura reminds us of two things. First, it reminds us of the power we don’t have. We don’t have the power to stop a storm like this. We don’t even really have the power to fully prepare for a storm like this. But second, a storm like Laura also serves as a testament to the power we do have. We do have the power to help each other in times of crisis. We do have the power to love each other through seasons of pain.

And, as has been the case after so many other hurricanes, stories of those who have stepped up to help are already emerging – like that of Leonard Harrison, a volunteer with the Cajun Navy, who, while others were fleeing from the storm, drove 14 hours from Wilmington, North Carolina in his F-250, which he calls “Goliath,” to help with water rescues. He wound up rescuing 28 people from perilous high waters. He was using the power he had to help people in need.

While we do not have power over storms, God does. As the Psalmist reminds us:

He stilled the storm to a whisper; the waves of the sea were hushed. (Psalm 107:29)

But for all the power we don’t have over storms, we must keep in mind that we do have power after storms. We do have the power to love each other, like Leonard Harrison did. And this power has been given to us by God. As one of Jesus’ followers, John, writes:

Dear friends, let us love one another, for love comes from God. (1 John 4:7)

God has given us the power of His love so we can love each other. As we begin the process of cleaning up from Laura, now is the time to use the power God has given us instead of complaining about the power He hasn’t.

The Gulf Coast is counting on us.

To donate to Hurricane Laura relief, click here.

August 31, 2020 at 5:15 am Leave a comment

A Shrinking Design for COVID Times

First, a confession: I have not eaten at a Taco Bell in years – perhaps decades. But when I heard that the famed fast food chain was redesigning their dining areas, I was intrigued:

Starting next year, the restaurants will encompass 1,325 square feet (123 square meters) compared with an average 2,500 square feet for Taco Bell restaurants now. 

Two drive-through lanes will highlight the new restaurants, enabling faster service for eaters who order through the chain’s app. The new facilities will provide contactless curbside-pickup service.

This is in response, the designers explained, to a new reality – that fewer people are eating out since the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic. Obviously, this is a trend that these designers believe will continue well into the future.

I think they could be right. Even as restaurants re-open, anxiety levels remain high. Many who once felt comfortable around strangers now prefer the company of a close group of friends.

In some ways, Taco Bell’s redesign is a return to the roots of the fast-food industry. When fast food restaurants first started dotting the American landscape, many of them did not have dining areas at all. They were drive-up and walk-up food stands. Indeed, the first Taco Bell had a walk-up window only and was no larger than a two-car garage. But a lack of a dining room does not mean that community around food no longer matters.

In college, my fast food haunt was a nearby Jack In The Box. Its two tacos for 99 cents was too good a deal for a college student to resist. Though I would never actually eat at the restaurant, I would also never eat from the restaurant alone. A buddy would always go with me to the drive-thru and we would bring a bag of tacos back to our dorm to share. The community was incredible, even if the food was not.

Numerous studies have been conducted on the importance of meals and community. The Atlantic summarized a few of these studies a few years back:

Using data from nearly three-quarters of the world’s countries, an analysis from the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) found that students who do not regularly eat with their parents are significantly more likely to be truant at school…

Children who do not eat dinner with their parents at least twice a week also were 40 percent more likely to be overweight compared to those who do, as outlined in a research presentation given at the European Congress on Obesity in Bulgaria… On the contrary, children who do eat dinner with their parents five or more days a week have less trouble with drugs and alcohol, eat healthier, show better academic performance, and report being closer with their parents than children who eat dinner with their parents less often, according to a study conducted by the National Center on Addiction and Substance Abuse at Columbia University.

With such pronounced sociological benefits, it’s no wonder that in the early Church:

They broke bread in their homes and ate together. (Acts 2:46)

COVID-19 has taken a lot from us, including, for many, a center of community in restaurants. Many restaurants remain shuttered. For those that are open, the experience is not the same. Half empty dining areas and blocked-off tables provide a strange – instead of friendly – experience. But community will outlast COVID. After all, we need each other. Whether in our homes, in a dorm room, or in a restaurant dining room, we will find ways to be together. The early Church did. And we still will.

For right now, eating out may be dangerous to our health. But figuring out ways to be together that don’t spread disease remains good for our souls.

August 24, 2020 at 5:15 am Leave a comment

Processing a Pandemic

“When the pandemic is over…”

I’ve heard these words spoken over and over again by many people. And, I agree with them. I do believe this pandemic will eventually pass. But in my darker moments, I must admit that I also wonder about these words. I want to ask: “You say, ‘When the pandemic is over.’ When, pray tell, might that be?”

I have a feeling I’m not alone in asking this question. Not only am I not alone in asking this question among those around me; I am also not alone in asking this question among those throughout history.

In a really interesting long form piece for New York Magazine, Andrew Sullivan takes his reader on a whirlwind tour of plagues throughout history. His descriptions of many historic plagues are gruesome. Take, for instance, the plague that swept through Rome in 536:

Black rats arrived in the Roman port of Alexandria. They carried with them their own parasite, a flea that lived on the rats’ blood and could survive up to six weeks without a host – making it capable of enduring long sea voyages. And as the bacteria spread among the rats, and their population began to collapse, the fleas, desperate for food, sought alternatives. Living very close to the rats, humans were an easy target … For several days after infection, you were asymptomatic, then grotesque black buboes appeared on your body – swollen lymph nodes near where the fleas had bitten. Death often came several days later.

John of Ephesus noted that as people “were looking at each other and talking, they began to totter and fell either in the streets or at home, in harbors, on ships, in churches, and everywhere.” As he traveled in what is now Turkey, he was surrounded by death: “Day by day, we too –  like everybody – knocked at the gate to the tomb … We saw desolate and groaning villages and corpses spread out on the earth, with no one to take up [and bury] them.”

This is not even the worst of Mr. Sullivan’s descriptions. His recounting of the 1918 flu pandemic here in the States is even more jarring:

In her book Pandemic 1918, Catharine Arnold notes that “victims collapsed in the streets, hemorrhaging from lungs and nose. Their skin turned dark blue with the characteristic ‘heliotrope cyanosis’ caused by oxygen failure as the lungs filled with pus, and they gasped for breath from ‘air-hunger’ like landed fish.” The nosebleeds were projectile, covering the surroundings with blood. “When their lungs collapsed,” one witness recounted, “air was trapped beneath their skin. As we rolled the dead in winding sheets, their bodies crackled – an awful crackling noise which sounded like Rice Crispies [sic] when you pour milk over them.”

But as the summer of 1918 began in the U.S., relief spread. Maybe it was over. And then, in the fall, confident that a vaccine was imminent, several cities, notably Philadelphia, hosted war-bond parades, with large crowds thronging the streets … In the coming weeks, the city morgue was piling bodies on top of bodies, stacked three deep in the corridors, with no ice and no embalming. The stench was rank. City authorities were reduced to asking people to put their dead loved ones out on the street for collection.

This is horrifying.

But Mr. Sullivan is not simply content to leave his reader with dreadful descriptions of plagues past. He also invites us to grapple with some hard truths that our being revealed by our present plague, like this one:

We are not in control.

This is most certainly true.

Christians, for millennia now, have known this and proclaimed this. But they have also trusted in and told of One who is in control – One who can, and even does, heal the sick and raise the dead.

Mr. Sullivan notes:

Reminding humans of our mortality, plagues throw up existential questions. 

They do. Whether we take the time to grapple with these existential questions, however, is up to us. Historically, people have answered threats to their existence in one of two ways:

Let us eat and drink, for tomorrow we die! (Isaiah 22:13)

Or:

Even though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil, for You are with me; Your rod and Your staff, they comfort me. (Psalm 23:4)

Some are confronted by a time like this and simply resign themselves to revelry, for they believe that this is all there is. Others are confronted by a time like this and hope for a restoration, for they know this is not how things should be – but they also believe that there is One who will make things as they can be. And they believe that this One remains with us to comfort us, even during a pandemic.

Which way will you respond to this present moment? Choose wisely.

August 17, 2020 at 5:15 am 2 comments

Disaster in Beirut

When I first saw the video footage out of Beirut, I, like so many, was horrified. As so many others have noted, what began as a raging fire turned into what looked like an atomic bomb explosion in the heart of Beirut’s harbor – complete with the mushroom cloud that literally knocked people down for miles around.

But it was not an atomic bomb. It was not an attack by some nefarious force or enemy nation. The culprit here was negligence. It is now being reported that at the site of the explosion, there were thousands of tons of ammonium nitrate stored alongside a cache of fireworks. How they got there is a case study in incompetence. The Guardian interviewed a former port worker, Yusuf Shehadi, who explained that the Lebanese military had demanded that the ammonium nitrate be housed there. Mr. Shehadi explained:

We complained a lot about this over the years. Every week, the customs people came and complained and so did the state security officers. The army kept telling them they had no other place to put this. Everyone wanted to be the boss, and no one wanted to make a real decision … The port workers did not put the chemicals there in the first place. That outrage rests with the government.

The fireworks stored there date back all the way to 2010, after customs confiscated them and needed a place to put them. Apparently, a decade was not long enough for customs to find a more suitable storage spot for the fireworks. In other words, this was a disaster waiting to happen. Of course, now that the disaster has happened, there is plenty of finger pointing, but little to no responsibility taking.

After history’s first disaster – humanity’s fall into sin – just like with Beirut, there was plenty of finger pointing, but little to no responsibility taking. When God discovers that Adam and Eve have eaten from the tree He had forbidden to them, both of them are quick to try to pass the buck:

The man said, “The woman you put here with me – she gave me some fruit from the tree, and I ate it.” Then the LORD God said to the woman, “What is this you have done?” The woman said, “The serpent deceived me, and I ate.” (Genesis 3:12-13)

Sadly, this finger pointing did not solve anything. It only led to death – just like in Beirut. In that town, the latest death toll stands at 154 with more than 5,000 people injured.

When Jesus is on trial before Pontius Pilate, there is plenty of finger pointing going on. “We have found this man subverting our nation. He opposes payment of taxes to Caesar and claims to be Messiah, a king,” some say as they point at Jesus (Luke 23:2). “He stirs up the people all over Judea by His teaching. He started in Galilee and has come all the way here,” others accuse (Luke 23:5). And just like in the Garden and just like at Beirut, this finger pointing leads to death – Jesus’ death. But this death is different.

The prophet Isaiah says of Jesus’ crucifixion:

Surely He took up our pain and bore our suffering. (Isaiah 53:4)

Rather than taking the fingers of His enemies and pointing them right back at them in their sin, Jesus willingly took up their finger pointing and he took up responsibility for the sinfulness and brokenness of the world.

It is unlikely someone will actually step up to take responsibility for this tragedy. In reality, no one person can. There are no doubt dozens if not hundreds of people who were complicit in this dangerous storage setup. And besides, no amount of human finger pointing or human responsibility taking will bring back those who have lost their lives in Beirut’s tragic explosion. There is only One who can take responsibility in a way that will actually solve this tragedy – in a way that will actually bring those who have lost their lives back in a resurrection. And His name is Jesus.

He takes responsibility for what we cannot.

August 10, 2020 at 5:15 am Leave a comment

John Lewis: 1940-2020

John Lewis’s 80 years of life on this earth were electric. As a child, he aspired to be a preacher, practicing his sermons on the chickens on his family farm. He was ordained as a Baptist minister, but never served at a congregation. Instead, he devoted himself to the Civil Rights Movement – becoming a Freedom Rider, speaking at the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom, and nearly losing his life on what has become known as Bloody Sunday – March 7, 1965 – in Selma at the Edmund Pettus Bridge when Alabama State Troopers beat demonstrators who were marching there for voting rights. Mr. Lewis had his skull fractured by the troopers, and bore a scar on his head in testimony to their brutalization of him the rest of his life. In 1987, Mr. Lewis was elected to the House of Representatives, where he served Georgia’s 5th congressional district until his death. In 2011, Mr. Lewis received the Presidential Medal of Freedom from President Obama. Mr. Lewis passed away July 17, 2020. His funeral was held this past week at the historic Ebenezer Baptist Church in Atlanta where he was honored by three past presidents and many other dignitaries. He also became the first black lawmaker to have his body lie in state in the U.S. Capitol. Many disagreed with his politics, especially in his later years. But people on both sides of the aisle respected his character and so many of his accomplishments.

For all of John Lewis’s accomplishments – and for all the ways he has been honored as a watershed figure in American history over these past couple of weeks – he never lost sight of his simple faith in Christ.

In his book, Across That Bridge: Life Lessons and a Vision for Change, he wrote:

Faith, to me, is knowing in the solid core of your soul that the work is already done.

This, in many ways, is a summary of what it means to believe the gospel. The world around us looks broken and terrible – especially these days. We see a pandemic raging and racial tensions flaring and political coalitions clashing. It looks like sin is encroaching and death is marching and Satan is winning. But Christians believe that sin, death, and the devil – even if they look like they are triumphing – have been defeated. The cross is the declaration that the work of salvation against all evil has already been accomplished by Jesus. As Mr. Lewis would put it: “the work is already done.”

John Lewis continued his meditation on faith by writing:

Even if you do not live to see it come to pass, you know without one doubt that it will be. That is faith.

John Lewis saw many things come to pass. Just five months after Bloody Sunday, President Johnson signed the Voting Rights Act into law. But, of course, there are still many things for which we are still looking to be. There are still many problems that we face, not the least of which is the hatred and vitriol that has come to mark so much of our public discourse. But to quote the congressman again:

Release the need to hate, to harbor division, and the enticement of revenge. Release all bitterness. Hold only love, only peace in your heart, knowing that the battle of good to overcome evil is already won.

These are words we need now more than ever. Thank you, Mr. Lewis, for leaving them to us. Rest in peace until the resurrection of all flesh.

August 3, 2020 at 5:15 am 1 comment

The Desperate Plight of the Uighur Muslims

In a story that, in my opinion, has gone disturbingly under-reported, the United Kingdom has leveled shocking allegations against the Chinese government of serious human rights abuses against Uighur Muslims living in that country. The BBC reports:

UK Foreign Secretary Dominic Raab has accused China of “gross and egregious” human rights abuses against its Uighur population… 

Reports of forced sterilization and wider persecution of the Muslim group were “reminiscent of something not seen for a long time,” he told the BBC…

China’s UK ambassador said talk of concentration camps was “fake.” 

Liu Xiaoming told the BBC’s Andrew Marr that the Uighurs received the same treatment under the law as other ethnic groups in his country. 

Shown drone footage that appears to show Uighurs being blindfolded and led to trains, and which has been authenticated by Australian security services, he said he “did not know” what the video was showing and “sometimes you have a transfer of prisoners, in any country.”

When a nation is accused of forcefully sterilizing an ethnic and religious group and shipping them by trains to camps, it is difficult not to reflexively conjure images of the abuse and genocide of countless Jews under Nazi Germany in World War II.

If the charges against the Chinese government are demonstrated to be true, the world must stand together in opposition. Persecuting or murdering any group of people is simply unacceptable.

In a speech from 2018, Senator Ben Sasse of Nebraska spoke out against Russian corruption and authoritarianism. He said:

The American people are a people, and we are a nation that believes in human dignity. We believe that this isn’t just true of 320 million Americans. It’s true of 7.5 billion people across this globe. We believe in free speech, freedom of religion, freedom of the press, freedom of assembly, the right of protest not because the government gives us those rights but God created us with dignity.

Senator Sasse’s point is critical to keep in mind as we seek to address this current crisis. What is happening in China should matter to us in America not because China has violated some arbitrary American principle of human dignity, but because China has violated the true and righteous reality of human dignity. That humans have certain immutable rights is true, as Senator Sasse points out, not only for Americans, but for all 7.5 billion people across the globe. When these rights are violated, we should stand up. When ethnic and religious groups are tortured, we should yell, “No!”

Though we may not share a common faith, Christians and Muslims share a common humanity. We also both understand that there is something beyond what we can merely see, taste, touch, smell, hear, and discern with our senses. We believe that there is a God who is all-powerful. Because Christians also believe in an all-powerful God who is all-loving as well, we should reflect His love by loving our Muslim neighbors and speaking out for their welfare and against those who would seek to rob them of their dignity – and lives.

People everywhere have a right to life. May we pray to the God who has not only given a right to life to the Uighurs, but also gives hope for a life that is eternal through Christ.

July 27, 2020 at 5:15 am 1 comment

Considering Cancel Culture

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It used to be a term reserved for struggling sitcoms. Now, it’s something that happens to businesspeople, politicians, stars, and journalists.

Cancellation.

Recently, a variety of voices have expressed concern over what has become known as the “cancel culture” that seems to be running roughshod over our society. “Cancellation” refers to an attempt by one group to destroy and discredit some person or some other group with whom they disagree.

In a letter published in Harper’s Magazine, a group of progressive luminaries expressed their concern that:

The free exchange of information and ideas, the lifeblood of a liberal society, is daily becoming more constricted. While we have come to expect this on the radical right, censoriousness is also spreading more widely in our culture: an intolerance of opposing views, a vogue for public shaming and ostracism, and the tendency to dissolve complex policy issues in a blinding moral certainty. We uphold the value of robust and even caustic counter-speech from all quarters. But it is now all too common to hear calls for swift and severe retribution in response to perceived transgressions of speech and thought. 

It turns out that this letter caused such a stir that some signatories asked for their names to be removed. Why? Because some others who read the letter wanted to destroy and discredit those who signed it. They wanted to cancel those who expressed concern over cancel culture.

Just days after the above letter was published in Harper’s Magazine, an opinion columnist for The New York Times, Beri Weiss, published a scathing public resignation letter, also decrying the pernicious “cancel culture” she perceived to be prevalent and personally directed toward her within the halls of America’s paper of record:

My own forays into Wrongthink have made me the subject of constant bullying by colleagues who disagree with my views. They have called me a Nazi and a racist; I have learned to brush off comments about how I’m “writing about the Jews again.” Several colleagues perceived to be friendly with me were badgered by coworkers. My work and my character are openly demeaned on company-wide Slack channels where masthead editors regularly weigh in. There, some coworkers insist I need to be rooted out if this company is to be a truly “inclusive” one, while others post ax emojis next to my name. Still other New York Times employees publicly smear me as a liar and a bigot on Twitter with no fear that harassing me will be met with appropriate action. They never are. 

It is critical to understand that “cancel culture” is not the coin of just one particular political party, culture, or time period. Humans have been cruel to each other and tried to destroy each other when they have disagreed with each other for a very long time. The question is: what do we do about it?

In one sense, we must begin with ourselves. We cannot stop the unscrupulous from being cruel, but we can be measured in how we respond to the unscrupulous. Here are some responses to cancellation to consider:

  • Love. Responding to those who hate you with love is not only biblically orthodox, it’s generally wise. Responding kindly instead of in kind to those who want to destroy your reputation or livelihood will almost certainly throw your enemies off because it is not the response they want or expect. Speaking well of your enemies disarms them and garners the goodwill of others toward you.
  • Humility. If others are angry with you for something you have said or believe, it is worth it to ask: Do they have a point? This question does not assume that the person who is upset with you is completely correct, nor does it imply that they are handling their disagreement with you well. It simply means that they could be right on something even if they are wrong on many things. And if they are right at all, you want to learn from them. As strange as it sounds, those who hate you can also be those who teach you. Whether you’re willing to learn is up to you.
  • Truth. Responding with love and humility does not mean you forsake what you believe to be the truth. Love and humility do not equal appeasement. Even if the person who is trying to “cancel” you refuses to listen to you, others will. Don’t be afraid to make your case.
  • Gentleness. Sometimes, people become offended not so much by what someone has to say, but by how they say it. Don’t argue a point with the deleterious intent of triggering or offending someone else. Instead, argue a point in the hope of coming to a consensus with someone else. A little bit of gentleness in how you argue can prevent a lot of cancellation when you argue.
  • Empathy. As easy as it is to become defensive and upset when someone angrily disagrees with you, it can be just as easy to become cold and calculating when you disagree with someone else. You secretly wish them ill rather than well. You dream of humiliating them in a debate. When they fall prey to calamity, you feel a spark of schadenfreude. Resist these urges. Listen to and learn from those with whom you vehemently disagree. If you want others to give you a hearing, you need to give them a hearing. Cancellation is no better from you than it is for you.

With all this being said, we must admit that certain people and philosophies do hold views that are deplorable and unacceptable. But more often than not, destroying people’s lives does not lead to the destruction of their views. Their views, when confronted in anger and vitriol, often wind up being merely hardened. So, instead of trying to cancel those with whom we disagree, we could try something else: we could try persuading them. And we could remember: debating ideas does not mean demeaning people.

People are more than their positions.

July 20, 2020 at 5:15 am Leave a comment

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