Should We Punish Hate?

(Please don’t judge my intent before you’ve read the whole essay. And know that I welcome “enlightened guidance,” correction, and exposure to knowledge I do not currently possess. Thanks.)

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Imagine you are beaten senseless and robbed by someone of your own race. The perpetrator is a junkie in need of a fix, and you’ve just cashed your two-week paycheck. The thief empties your wallet of cash, leaving you bloody and unconscious, sprawled in a dirty alleyway.

Now imagine the same beating by someone of a different race. This person does not steal from you, but spews hateful, racially-charged language during the beating.

In the first case, the crimes committed are assault and robbery. In the second case, we are looking at an assault that would likely also be categorized as a hate crime.

Once apprehended and convicted, should the bad guy in the second scenario receive a harsher sentence because he hates you? Is the assault-plus-hatred somehow a worse crime than the assault with the intent to rob? Here’s another ethics questions for you: Which crime would you rather be a victim of, the one where you’re robbed but not hated or the one where you’re hated but not robbed (the beating is the same either way)?

To the point: should we punish criminals for what they do or for what motivates them to do what they do?

You see, Johnny Skinhead can sit in his moldy, darkly-lit basement his entire lifetime, surrounded by neo-Nazi posters, slogans, and literature—his grayish little white-supremacist heart beating with savage hatred for all Jews, gays and non-white people—but if he never harms anyone, never vandalizes someone’s property, never commits a crime … we can’t arrest him. The FBI acknowledges that hate itself isn’t a crime, but should it be a reason to escalate punishment when it is associated with the commission of a prosecutable offense? Is that logical, is it reasonable?

Please, please, do not get me wrong here. I’m not pro-hate. Hate sucks. It’s ugly and it does unforgivable, despicable things to (and in) the hearts and lives of people all over the world, every single day. If I could abolish hate with a nice, shiny piece of legislation, I’d do it in a heartbeat.

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Hatred, however, is a slippery devil. It doesn’t care much for rules. More worrisome still, it doesn’t only belong to “those horrible people” we imagine when we think of those who commit hate crimes.

Nope. We all hate sometimes, don’t we? Even if only for a moment.

Surely, we’re tempted to hate “Jihadi John,” the masked ISIS operator who beheaded multiple non-combatants (many of his brutal executions were posted on the Internet). It wouldn’t be hard to hate 22 year-old Dylann Roof, who callously murdered nine African American churchgoers while pretending to join them in a Bible study. Wouldn’t we be justified in hating Omar Mateen for his ruthless massacre of 49 people at a gay nightclub in Florida?

Let’s admit it. We have sometimes been guilty of hating the haters.

We have maybe even hated our exes, our bosses, our neighbors, cops, priests, or politicians.

Should we turn ourselves in at the local police station, confess our hatred and await sentence? Luckily, we’ve already established that hate alone is not a crime. But, wait. Isn’t it a little contradictory to say hate isn’t a crime but it is a reason to increase the severity of the penalty for the commission of a crime?

I think I get the idea of hate crime legislation. Handing out harsher penalties to those whose crimes are an “offense against a person or property motivated in whole or in part by an offender’s bias against a race, religion, disability, sexual orientation, ethnicity, gender, or gender identity” might help discourage people from committing such crimes.

Okay. Maybe. I’d like to see the stats. Regardless, as a matter of principle, are we not, in fact, punishing hate? You know, that thing the FBI told us wasn’t a crime.

Let’s consider something else. Jihadi John, Dylann Roof, and Omar Mateen didn’t emerge from the womb consumed with hatred and a desire to do harm to infidels, black people, or gay people. These criminals were infected with the hateful biases of their families and/or peers. In a way, each of them is a victim of a mindset passed on from generation to generation.

People who commit hate crimes were taught to hate. This fact in no way excuses their behavior or means they shouldn’t face justice. But it does mean, in my opinion, that the helpful (ethical, empathetic, compassionate) reaction here probably isn’t to up their sentences.

Punish them according to what they’ve done. The three I have mentioned? They are serial murderers. Punish them accordingly. Life in prison or the death penalty works in each of these cases.[1] Punish hating vandals for vandalism, hating assaulters for assault, and so on. Prosecute them to the full extent of the law … for what they’ve done.

In addition, necessitate their enrollment in some de-programming classes. Re-educate them. Expose them to loving, intelligent, kind, merciful people who are in the ethnic or religious groups they despise. Find the root of the hate. Expose the fallacies of the philosophies they’ve been fed their whole lives. Chip away at the hate with education and love. Mostly love.

There are paths out of extreme hate groups. Let’s help offenders find them.

Punish crime. Heal hate. End the cycle.

 

 

[1] Jihadi John is believed to have been killed in a targeted drone strike. Dylann Roof has been sentenced to death. Omar Mateen was killed in a shootout with police on the day of his murderous rampage.

Walking the Labyrinth

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I walked the Earth-Wisdom Labyrinth on our church’s property today. I’ve been attending the Unitarian Universalist Church of Elgin for almost two years and I’ve been a member for less than a year. Because this season of my life is so full and challenging, regrettably, my attendance there is spotty. I am always glad to have attended on those Sundays I make it. Today was my first labyrinth walk.

A few details about the labyrinth (copied from church website):

  • It is made up of over 25 tons of stone.
  • It spans more than 93 feet in diameter.
  • It winds in for 1/3 mile and out for 1/3 mile.
  • It’s one of the largest labyrinths of its kind in the world.

What did I learn on my walk today?

  1. That my mind is an obnoxiously busy place and has trouble shutting down the “constant dialogue” machine. My thoughts kept wandering to the comic. What would it be like if we had to navigate the labyrinth on unicycles? Is that Columbian Gold Minister Leslie is burning in the center (the answer is “no”)? If I suddenly hopped over a few rows, would anybody say anything? How fast could church member Todd get to the center and back on his bike (he bikes a lot)?
  2. The labyrinth takes longer to walk than I figured.
  3. Spiderman (or it might have been a very young churchgoer wearing a Spiderman jacket, I can’t be sure) does not recognize the implied constraints of the labyrinth, and yet he is not invulnerable to the slipperiness of the ice-coating on the path. Still, his powers seemed to protect him from harm (thankfully). Spiderman is adorable.
  4. As we walked in silence, the sound of our collective footsteps—as they softly crunched on the pavement and less-softly crackled over the icy areas—created a comforting, constant rhythm. It reminded me I was not alone on the path. It made me wonder what the experiences of the other walkers were like. Did some of them have the same trouble quieting their thoughts? Did some recite mantras? Did some pray? It made me reflect on the fact that even as we walked the same path, The Way was different for each of us.
  5. I encountered a few stones whose juxtaposed edges fit together nearly as neatly as puzzle pieces. That made me wonder if their placement was deliberate. It made me contemplate how things you might not think would fit together can (like atheists, Christians, and Buddhists—oh my). lab-2
  6. It re-confirmed what I’ve been thinking for a long time now. UUCE feels like home to me.

What a cool way to start the new year!

I will walk the labyrinth again. Wonder what I might learn next time…?

 

Death as a Halloween Prop or What Does it Mean to Really Live?

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It isn’t surprising that we seek to take the “sting” out of death by making it into a cartoon lawn ornament, or wearing it as a costume, or embracing a belief system (religious or secular) that enables us to make peace with it.

Death is the great, inescapable, metaphysical killjoy waiting in the weeds for every man, woman, and child. Clearly, it is the end of one thing: our consciousness in this body on this planet in this moment.

We long to believe that it may be the beginning of another thing; because, if it isn’t, the little light that is “us” winks out forever. We are the center of our universe. We can only perceive life through our singular prism. A world that goes on without us, is a world that might as well not exist.

“Every man dies. Not every man really lives.” Said William Wallace, as portrayed by Mel Gibson in the movie “Braveheart.” And this simple statement is the crux of the matter, isn’t it?

We move through life wishing away mortality because we fear we have not lived well. “Really living” is something most of us feel we have yet to accomplish. It is out there. Maybe it’s falling truly, madly, deeply in love. Or maybe it’s a great friendship we don’t yet know. We think real life is waiting in a thousand future moments. It’s writing that song or that screenplay or that novel. Getting that royalty check—that validation of our worth, our talent, our intelligence. It’s in reconciling with our dad or our son or … you know who.

I watched my elderly mom die slowly for two years. She wasn’t a perfect saint. She didn’t live a perfect life. But she absolutely had zero fear of death. This had a lot to do with her unwavering faith, but it also had a great deal to do with her being able to look back at her life and feel good about it. She knew she’d been a good wife and mom and friend. She knew she’d (mostly) lived well and loved well. This, I believe, gave her a peace about facing death.

She also was 89. She’d lived a long life. I’m confident it’s a very different thing to get a terminal diagnosis when you’re 45 or 29 or six.

At the very end of her life, my mom was still as a stone for three days, didn’t move a millimeter. I have to admit, it was a bit eerie standing over her during that time, saying, “I love you, Mom,” out loud, not knowing if she heard or understood. She looked like a corpse. The only thing that told me she was alive was the fact that, very slowly, she was still breathing. Finally, that stopped.

Seeing death in such an intimate way, up close and personal, is something you don’t forget. Not ever. But it’s my mom’s life that I reflect on, far more than her death. I am grateful she was my mom. I’m lucky I had her as a model.

I’d like to be able to say that today I’m living well and loving well. All I can say is that I’m trying. I’m as caught up in ego and worries about everyday things as the next guy or gal. Maybe more.

What, then, does it mean to “really live?”

I’m tempted to say it’s about living in the present tense, appreciating each moment, seeing the beauty in small things, doing everything you can to be at peace with all people, finding meaning and purpose in loving family and friends, following your “calling” in every aspect of life, finding your spiritual bearings, you know—seizing the bloody day and all that…

I guess that I believe those things are all part of “really living.” However, I believe them to a much larger extent than I am actually doing them. So, it feels fraudulent to say them. It feels like someone else’s list.

And yet … these ideas are the best I’ve got. So, I will say … I’m working on it.

That’s all I’ve got. How about you?

(It seems this blog keeps inspiring me to write: https://writerswithoutmoney.com/ This post is 95% a comment on left on this guy’s blog. He’s smart and insightful and I enjoy disagreeing with him in a friendly way. He takes it well.)

 

Thanks Science, Thanks Religion

Nature is amazing. The stars. Animal life. Microscopic life. Forests. Oceans. 

Science has done astonishing things with its ability to deconstruct nature, explain it to laymen (sometimes in terms we mostly understand). 

Science is useful when its analyses lead to good medicine and a more thoughtful approach to the use of natural resources.  

But science is forever USELESS when it comes to the things that we yearn to know. Most of what truly matters to people in life remains entirely outside the domain of its relevance: love, friendship, the “high” we experience in an encounter with literature or film or music or any kind of art that moves us, the transcendent sense of awe we feel before nature, the search for purpose. 

Such pursuits are not the job of science, never have been. When we try to make science a God, we have made a horrifying error bound to result in things like sterilizing races we deem as inferior or using unwitting people in tests without any thought to the morality of doing so. 

Yes, the USE of science can accomplish great moral good too. Feed more people. Teach us how to live sustainably. But scientific principles, when applied, are only as “good” as the souls of the people behind their application. 

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The same is true of religion. Its application is only as good as the hearts of its leaders and adherents. Religion can spread brotherly love or divisive rhetoric. It can elevate us or turn us into groveling idiots. 

People can be beautiful and noble. Sadly, they can also be really fucking dangerous. Power in the hands of people is the most dangerous thing of all. In the guise of religion or atheistic totalitarianism or socialism or communism or democracy … humans having power over other humans is the great bugaboo of all suffering and tragedy. 

And this boils down to intent. Do those in power want to minister to the people or manipulate them? Do they want to serve them or make them subservient?  

These are moral questions, not scientific ones.  

So, thank you science … for heart transplants and AIDS treatments and flat screen TVs. 

Thank you religion … for prayer that brings connection to the sacred, for the dissemination of ideas that lead us to give to others, to love mercy and to seek justice and peace. 

Just watch your hearts, atheists and theists and agnostics. This is where all future hope will come from. This is where our doom will come from.  

Consider well what manner of thought and belief you deposit and nurture therein.

(This post inspired by another blog post: https://writerswithoutmoney.com/2015/08/04/the-surgeon-on-the-mount-or-science-the-theology-after-god/comment-page-1/)

 

What the *&@# is the matter with people?

Depending on who you ask, tool-making humans may have been around for as long as 60,000 years.[i] Where have we arrived as a species?

The rich oppress the poor and the strong oppress the weak. We have resources enough to care for all, still one person dies every four seconds from hunger or hunger-related causes.

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You would think we would have figured it out by now, this thing about human kindness, about loving your neighbor, but it seems we haven’t. Not by a long shot.

Let’s examine just a little of the more-modern wreckage, shall we?

According to the Iraqi Body Count project, as many as 175,000 non-combatant Iraqis were killed in George W. Bush’s Iraq War.[ii] What a ghastly cost. And for what?

During the Rwandan Genocide 800,000 men, women, and children were butchered—often hacked to death with machetes or beaten with farm implements—all this taking place in 100 days, while Bill Clinton (and the leaders of every other nation) failed to take any meaningful action.[iii] Samantha Powers called it “the fastest, most efficient killing spree of the twentieth century.” What better proof of, “All that is necessary for evil to triumph is for good men to do nothing?” (The “goodness” of any given political leader is a matter of some dispute.)

Fact is, we, as “civilized” homo sapiens, seem to consistently completely suck when it comes to attending to the things that really matter in life. And we seem to excel at finding new ways to exhibit callous inhumanity.

Nor can we look exclusively at governments, corporations, and greedy millionaires to be our evil-doing scapegoats. We have to look at ordinary people too, the ones living next door, the ones living with us—yes, we even have to look at the human being in the mirror. Because regular folks are abusing children; husbands are beating and cheating on wives; we are gorging on food and purchasing luxury products while others starve. We are lying, stealing, coveting, failing to love and forgive, turning a blind eye to a thousand injustices … and on and on. We are the problem. I am the problem.

We want to believe we’re evolving upward as a species … but the statistics are telling another story.

No political party or race or class or creed has a monopoly on deceit or cruelty. Evil is, fundamentally, a human problem not a political problem; though its exercise on a grand scale seems to relate closely to the “power corrupts” notion. Power can poison the formerly humble when the glitter of its promises begins to affect their vision.

Republicans brought us Watergate and Kent State. Democrats got us entangled in Viet Nam. A Republican administration brought us the Iraq War and “enhanced interrogation.” A Democratic administration dropped two weapons of mass destruction on non-combatants with high-end estimations of nearly 200,000 killed (includes long-term aftermath deaths) in Hiroshima and Nagasaki combined. (A coherent argument can be made that these bombings ultimately saved lives because they ended World War II, but it’s a slippery moral slope, isn’t it? It’s still the USA using WMDs to murder tens of thousands of civilians.)

So don’t try to tell me it’s those d***ed Republicans or Democrats that are ruining life on planet Earth. It’s people. It’s us.

Of course, individuals and governments are doing good things every day too: aiding the suffering, caring for the destitute and disempowered. People perform simple acts of kindness to help total strangers all the time: they help little old ladies cross the street, push stalled cars off highways, buy lunch for the homeless, etcetera. We are, indeed, capable of “rising to the occasion.” These acts are being done by Democrats and Republicans, conservatives and liberals, the religious and the non-religious.

If we all woke up tomorrow and every living human truly “loved his neighbor as him- or-herself” (not as a religious principle, but a philosophical one) we could do away with the military and police. We could close prisons. We’d be living in John Lennon’s utopia. Unfortunately, that’s an idea we’re still “imagining” and not living out. As Metallica said, “Sad but true.” Hey, Metallica might not have been the first ones to say that … but they said it the coolest.

Yes, you and I have to decide what to believe in, what ideas to support and oppose, and this will mean picking a political representative whose espoused values line up most closely with our own (if we haven’t yet become so cynical that we’ve given up entirely on the whole dog and pony show called politics). So go ahead and pick your guys and gals. Wear a pin if it makes you feel good.

But please don’t pretend that everything’s going to be swell “once the nice people get in office.”

‘Cause that hasn’t worked so far. Maybe you noticed. Expecting it to happen this election cycle might be a tad naïve.

So, what are we to do? Give up?

Your job is to be a light where you are. Love your spouse, your kids, your neighbors. Be kind to those with whom you disagree. Disarm them with unconditional love. These are your most critical earthly tasks (and mine). This life-thing is not about winning an argument—that’s for courtrooms (and, c’mon, how just are the decisions coming out of courtrooms these days, really, whichever way they may lean?).

Could there be some human movement that truly makes the world a better place?

Well, it’s already happened, hasn’t it? Abolition. The Civil Rights Movement. Women’s rights. Gay rights. War protests. Occupy protests. These ideas began somewhere and they changed things. Not that those problems are resolutely solved. They aren’t. But there’s been progress. So, there’s hope. Go ahead and join a movement you believe in. Write that check. March that march.

Just keep checking your heart. When you feel yourself harboring ugly feelings toward those whose ideas you oppose, realize that, in all likelihood, you’d be them if you’d been raised by their parents, grown up in their neighborhood, been born in their generation. Try not to just tolerate them. Challenge yourself to love them. That will free you from anything that might morph into hate. Your best chance of changing someone else’s heart is to begin by changing yours.[iv]

Hug people you love. Lift them up with words of encouragement and acts of service.

And don’t forget to lighten up. Life’s too short to be indignant all the time. Have a nice cold beer, or Diet Cherry 7UP, or whatever your beverage pleasure is. Have an M&M (I recommend Peanut). Smile, laugh. Help others to smile and laugh. As often as possible.

That is all.

Oh, yeah: peace.

[i] Start Date for Human Civilization Moved Back 20,000 Years or So

[ii] Iraq Body Count Site

[iii] Samantha Powers: Bystanders to Genocide

[iv] Sally Kohn: Let’s Try Emotional Correctness

Dear Mr. Spong

I have a feeling I’d like you if we met. Perhaps we’d chat over a cold beverage (something imported, let’s say from Holland). We’d talk about life and death and spirituality and science and man’s search for meaning.

Since that’s a very unlikely proposition, I am instead writing this letter that you’ll never read. Because I can.

spong

You, sir, I will necessarily concede, are a whole lot smarter than I am. Your level of formal education far exceeds mine, as does your extensive life-experience and study. The accomplishments of your career are significant and impressive. I would have no prayer of winning a philosophical argument with you, and I’d probably hesitate to try if I were in your presence. I’m sure a lengthy talk with you would be fascinating, enlightening, and a pleasure for me.

But, since you aren’t here to gently decimate my arguments, I am going to argue with you. In a friendly, respectful way. I hope you don’t mind.

At the beginning of your book, Eternal Life: a New Vision, you go very much out of your way to convince the reader how plainly obvious it is that we (humans) are a product of many accidental events.

I have to propose that this is not plain at all. I have to suggest that there is an entirely different way to view our arrival on planet Earth … as quite dramatically and irrevocably inevitable.

It’s not that complicated an argument, really. It can’t be. Because, like I said, I’m not that smart.

Let’s start with a simple illustration.

Suppose Billy bats a baseball intended to land somewhere in the vicinity of his friend, Tommy (presumably so that Tommy might catch the ball and throw it back). However, when bat and ball meet, the ball’s trajectory sends it flying into and through Billy’s neighbor’s (Mr. Johnson’s) living room window.

As it turns out, Mr. Johnson is a very reasonable fellow and, when he catches up with Billy and Tommy (who have run off out of sheer terror), he assures them he is not mad and only wants them to talk to their parents and get the window fixed. More interestingly, Mr. Johnson excitedly invites them over to his house to take a look at something he tells them is, “Really quite spectacular.” That something is the hole left in his window by the ball. As they stand before it, the boys’ mouths drop in amazement.

The hole in the shattered glass looks precisely like the profile of Abraham Lincoln’s head and torso. Uncanny. Beyond improbable. A freak accident if there ever was one.

Or is it?

Yes, you might make a lengthy, complicated argument stating that any of countless, tiny adjustments in Tommy’s throw, Billy’s swing, the wind, the ball, the bat, the curvature of the Earth (you get the idea) … and that hole would have looked like any other random hole in a glass window. And you would be right.

However.

Your point is moot. All of the circumstances and nuances of nature and that moment were exactly what they were. And, from the beginning of time, that outcome—the one that left an Abe Lincoln-shaped hole in Mr. Johnson’s living room window—was absolutely unalterable and completely certain. Put another way: because that event did happen, it had to happen.

Now, apply this notion to humanity’s rise from amoeba to ascendance.

All those events, those “accidents” you describe so eloquently? That infinitely dense ball of matter (the “cosmic zygote,” if you will), the arrival of one-celled living things, sea-life making its way to land, the fall of the dinosaur, the evolution of a primate to modern man? Because those things did happen, they had to happen.

Again, yes, I know, if the sun were in another position, if the dinosaurs hadn’t been wiped out …

But this is conjecture on what might have been, nothing more. It’s like arguing that the team that won the Super Bowl would not have won if only Quincy the Quarterback hadn’t thrown that boneheaded interception in the fourth quarter. (He did. It’s done. Get over it.)

The fact is that, hyper-complex cosmic circumstances being what they were, mankind was most assuredly inevitable. You, dear Mr. Spong, were inevitable. Precisely you. Exactly as you are, with your height and eye color and hair color and temperament and potential for intellect. You had to be born. As did I. And my neighbors, and their ill-tempered wiener dog, Puddin’.

This doesn’t necessitate God in any way. Ours may indeed be a purely material world. Blind matter, and a universe without intention, making absolutely sure that you and I (and all our ancestors) came into existence. Conditions being what they were, we couldn’t not happen.

And yet. No. I don’t buy the random non-intention of that scenario. Not really. Maybe that’s the truth of things. But it sounds wrong, doesn’t it? There’s a cause and effect problem of epic proportion there, in my estimation.

And this is where I invoke God. Not because I can prove God. I can’t. No one can. But I would suggest that the idea of God is (at the very least) no more absurd than mindless matter incrementally building the human mind, leading to consciousness and ultimately self-consciousness. The cosmic zygote came from … where again? Exactly. You don’t know. No one does.

You pick your unlikely conclusion. I’ll pick mine.

Religion is a different matter. I’m not talking about religious ideas of God (that would be a separate and more dubious undertaking, though I certainly have my beliefs); I’m talking about God as the uncaused cause, the unmoved mover. The one utterly inexplicable, irrational, incomprehensible thing that explains everything else. Here at least, as crazy as the notion may sound to some, the cause is sufficient to produce the effect. In a purely material creation you have to have a virtually infinite string of inexplicable materials and events where the spinning of spontaneously-appearing inanimate particles leads to living beings who contemplate their mortality, write poetry, compose symphonies, transplant vital organs, and build ships that carry them into outer space; beings who sing and dance, laugh and weep, hope and despair, love and hate, create and destroy. Fascinating accident, indeed.

Or is it?

B.Y.O.G.

It sounds a little crazy, I know: Bring Your Own God to the party.

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But, in fact, we do already.

Even if you go to a church where very specific theology is taught, very specific creeds invoked … I can guarantee you that not every member/attender embraces every word of what comes from on high.

We come into church service with slightly different versions of God informing our faith.

As Rob Bell says, “We shape our God, then our God shapes us.” (Love Wins, p 97)

Exactly right, Mr. Bell.

In my church, the Unitarian Universalist church, that truth is not just acknowledged, it is encouraged and celebrated. The Baptist sits between the Buddhist and the atheist. Each is pleased to let the other believe what they do (or don’t) believe.

When I look back on the evolution of my faith, I can see that I have moved toward a God that continues to become less and less punitive until, finally, “he” (the language of accommodation) isn’t a punisher at all, but full only of compassion and grace, light and love.

Faith is a weird thing. It surely can divide us. The divisions can be lethal, tragically. Or our desire for “higher truth” and “enlightened selves” can lead us to a place of magnificent unity and community. It would be my prayer that this is The Way we choose…

Namaste.