“Breaking through the atmosphere And things are pretty good from here Remember everything will be alright”
from “Sign of the Times” by Harry Styles
So to celebrate my birthday this year, I don’t get to go out, but I do get to choose whatever I want to watch on television. Thank goodness for Netflix and HBO and Prime Video. I choose not to watch the news where deaths due to the coronavirus (as of this writing) are approaching 1500 in the US. When I woke up yesterday, 1001 people had died from this pandemic in our country. In the time it took me to put on my socks – literally – 1005 people had died. We are nowhere near the end of this catastrophe. These are strange days.
If anything, the last 2 weeks of sitting in my house have made me feel incredibly grateful. I’m grateful for my job – as a college professor, the beat goes on, and I know I’ll still be working/teaching even as we struggle as a country to get our feet back under us. I feel grateful for my college and how they are working to try and help students and instructors meet the unprecedented demands this crisis presents. I am painfully aware of the work and childcare challenges that some of my family and friends face and the difficult choices they have to make. I’m grateful for good health, the safety of home, and for technology that allows me to stay connected to family and friends, to check in and have a sense of normalcy in this abnormal state. I’m blessed to have a wonderful wife and best friend who I’m glad to spend a lot of time with. And I am grateful for friends who send birthday wishes, gifts via Amazon, gift cards for wine delivery, and the beautiful yellow box of cookies left on the doorstep, with my friends who delivered them standing at an acceptable social distance on the sidewalk to wish me a happy birthday. A sign of the times.
All of this also has me thinking of what we owe to each other. This is also the title of a book about ethics by T. M. Scanlon. If you’re a fan of “The Good Place” on NBC, you might have heard the ethics professor, Chidi, refer to this book from time to time. Scanlon’s book is about fairness and responsibility within the social contract we have. The responsibility we owe each other in this time is kind of a paradox: we show our commitment to one another by staying away from one another. We show concern by practicing isolation. By engaging in social distancing, we show how we care for the least among us: the most vulnerable who have underlying health conditions, the elderly who may not be as strong, and the poorest who don’t have access to health care. But the danger isn’t just for these parts of society. It touches all of us, or it will in time.
In describing his idea of the social contract, John Rawls imagined what he called a “veil of ignorance.” It works like this: Think about creating a just and equitable society for everyone. What would make the society fair for you and everyone else? Although you could never eliminate all of your personal biases and prejudices, you should consciously try to eliminate or minimize as many of them as possible. To do this, Rawls suggests that you imagine yourself in what he calls “the original position” behind a veil of ignorance. Behind this veil, you don’t know anything about yourself, your abilities/disabilities, or what money and resources you have. You don’t know your own sex, race, or country of origin. Behind such a veil of ignorance, we start with the same set of attributes: we are all rational, free, and morally equal beings. We all have the same opportunity to rise or fall equally. Rawls and Immanuel Kant and the Bible have this ethos in common: that we should treat everyone as we would want to be treated. It’s not a radical idea, but it is not radically practiced in everyday life.
This is the unique position we find ourselves in. We have to remember now that every choice we make now has a real consequence, and every choice is an opportunity to show the better angels of our nature. The virus that courses among us is no respecter of persons. Movie stars, elite athletes, and politicians are as at-risk as the common man, as at-risk as you and me. How we deal with this moving forward will show our commitment to fairness and equity. This is another sign of the times: in a nation that likes to see ourselves in individual terms, our collective vulnerability is on full display, and like it or not, we depend on each other now to find our way through.
Later today, I expect I’ll make a wish and blow out some candles. Although it is a superstition to keep the wish secret, I’m going to risk it and share that my wish is for all of us to think of each other before or at least equally with ourselves. God Bless America.
This post is about something you have quite possibly never heard of: podcasts. As in broadcasts for the iPod. My first experience with podcasts was way back in 2004. Podcasts were a fairly new iTunes genre, but I loved radio shows on NPR and audiobooks, so the podcast offered a familiar and simultaneously unique form – almost like a weekly magazine but free. My favorite: Pottercast, a podcast dedicated to rehashing everything in the Harry Potter lexicon and speculating on how the series might end. One of my favorite episodes featured an interview with Matthew Lewis – he played Neville Longbottom in the movie franchise.
And now you’ve seen my nerd card.
For some reason, despite the moderate success of standout programs like This American Life, podcasts didn’t really take off at first. They remained kind of a fringe form of media: low-budget, low-interest. Eventually, the Harry Potter book series came to a close, and I stopped listening to Pottercast and all other podcasts for a while. While the iPod itself is now virtually extinct, podcasts have hung in there, playing to a small audience week after week.
But then came a little podcast called Serial from the producers of This American Life. Season 1 of Serial hit the airwaves like a lightning bolt. If you have any curiosity about podcasts at all, download this podcast immediately and start listening. The well-produced series also presented a compelling mystery told by skilled storyteller and former crime reporter Sarah Koenig. Serial is the story of a closed case that feels pretty unresolved – the 1999 murder of a high school student from nearby Woodlawn, Maryland named Hae Min Lee. Lee’s ex-boyfriend Adnan Syed was convicted of the crime, but the facts and circumstances made his conviction, well, un-convincing. (An aside: Syed won an appeal for a new trial and the Maryland Court of Special Appeals is currently weighing the state’s appeal of that ruling for a new trial. Justice is not just blind but painfully slow and bureaucratic.) Whereas This American Life had always focused on telling several bite-sized stories on the same theme in a single episode, Serial took a new approach. Koenig unfolded the story a little bit more week by week; Serial not only held listeners in rapt attention but spawned other true-crime podcasts in its wake, including Undisclosed, Truth & Justice, and Accused. This year the producers of Serial kept the ball rolling with a new podcast, S-Town, that presented something like a southern-gothic murder-mystery. No spoilers here, but the story takes a dramatic, strange turn that left me thinking, “What am I listening to?!” – yet I couldn’t turn it off. The new format of S-Town and Netflix-style dropping of all episodes at once pushed the genre in a new direction again.
The Podcast Renaissance is going strong, and I am in awe of how many truly exceptional programs are being produced. Podcasts have transformed my commute, my workout, and my yardwork – I can’t wait to immerse myself in these episodes. When I can’t sleep, I reach for my headphones- usually a bad idea because I get engrossed in the story and don’t want to sleep, but it’s better than the 2am television waste land. Search the iTunes charts, and you’ll find some truly esoteric stuff. There’s also some pretty mainstream stuff. Pottercast still exists, in case you’re wondering – they have a new episode up once or twice a month.
Of all the truly wonderful podcasts on the charts, I would like to focus on two of them for you that I am obsessed with right now: Ear Hustle and Revisionist History.
Revisionist History features Malcolm Gladwell, celebrated cultural critic and author of books such as Blink and The Tipping Point. I love the premise of his podcast: that some things we take for granted as settled history deserve a closer look. He takes on a wide range of historical and social issues, from Winston Churchill to country music to the educational system. Gladwell always takes an angle that I am not expecting, and I truly do learn something every time I listen to it. My only criticism of the podcast is that Gladwell sometimes goes too quickly for an oversimplification of complicated problems – maybe this is part of the limitation of a 30-minute conversation, or maybe he just really believes in Occam’s Razor. A good example of this is in the Season One episode called “Food Fight” about wealthy private colleges Bowdoin and Vassar. He starts by comparing the dining options at the colleges and then progresses to a discussion of the efforts each college makes (or doesn’t make) to offer better access to low-income students. His general point is that because Vassar has cut back on dining options and student amenities, they are able to admit more low-income students. I asked a former student of mine who happened to attend Vassar during the time Gladwell recorded that episode, and she pushes back on his summation that basic options are the burden that more fortunate students must bear in order to increase opportunities for low-income students. She pointed out that the college still spends plenty of money on non-student related amenities, such as champagne-rich faculty parties, new houses for administrators, and purchasing some rare, expensive golden bird for their art collection. My student shared that Vassar made this acquisition at the same time they were preaching austerity to students, saying they’d have to cut back on providing access to basic health items such as sanitary products. So yeah, not just about food. But even though his food for students argument is a bit reductive, Gladwell does raise an interesting point about how colleges choose to use their money – and this applies to all colleges and universities, not just Vassar and Bowdoin. It makes me think harder about how my own college spends its resources.
In addition to Gladwell’s program, another real standout for me is the new podcast called Ear Hustle. If you read Piper Kerman’s book Orange is the New Black or have seen the sensationalized series on Netflix by the same name, you probably have some notions and also some questions about life for the incarcerated. Ear Hustle is set in San Quentin State Prison and produced by two prisoners, Earlonne Woods & Antwan Williams, and a local
artist, Nigel Poor. To “Ear Hustle” means to eavesdrop – thus the podcast is what it is like to listen in on what actually happens in prison. One of my favorite episodes is called “Cellies” – about the pitfalls and politics of choosing and enduring a cellmate. That’s right – sometimes you have a say in who your cellmate might be, and the decision is pretty complicated. The episode called “SHU” explores the effects of long-term solitary confinement in Pelican Bay where SHU inmates are held. SHU stands for Security Housing Unit, and it is absolutely the loneliest place on earth. Woods himself spent a year in SHU and can personally speak to the way it altered him. His stint was nothing compared to other men who contribute to this episode – some of them spent decades in the SHU before getting released. Fortunately, due to a 2013 inmate hunger strike, the prison changed its policy and no longer commits prisoners to the SHU indefinitely; the maximum time there is five years – which is still an awfully long time to spend with no human interaction and no chance to breathe fresh air or feel the sun.
Ear Hustle does not pull any punches and does not romanticize the plight of the inmate. The inmates are not portrayed as animals or as completely reformed saints, but as flawed men who feel the weight of what they’ve done and who face the consequences of their choices daily. The self-awareness of the inmates is disarming and somewhat unexpected. The goal of the project, I think, is simply to lift the veil so we can better understand these men – not to pity them, but to humanize them. Our criminal justice system needs desperate reform, and perhaps seeing prisoners as people – not numbers, not problems – is a good first step in that process. So the podcast is not just entertainment, but a subtle exercise in activism.
The great thing about a podcast is that it allows for deep, extended listening. I have always loved listening to things – it probably goes back to when I was a kid and used to listen to baseball games on the radio with my grandfather. Too often, it seems to me that we do what I like to call resistant listening – especially when it is something that challenges us or that goes against things we already think or believe. We don’t listen to understand – we listen in order to respond – because we live in a contentious, litigious society where everyone wants to have the last or loudest word about things. Podcasts are helping me become a better listener and by extension a better thinker about a variety of subjects – some things I never thought I’d be interested in. Because of podcasts, I really think about the criminal justice system, I really think about how my brain works, I really think about my biases and how to be more aware of them. Podcasts inspire research, questions, and conversations. From politics to pop culture, true crime to television, there really is something for everyone. And more than that, we can all stand to become better listeners.
In addition to the ones I have already mentioned throughout this post, here are a few podcasts that I highly recommend (all available through iTunes):
I apologize for missing my First Friday deadline – the first week of classes has me playing catch up, but here we go! Better late than never.
So, I have watched with interest as the controversy around Colin Kaepernick has unfolded. For those who have not heard, the NFL quarterback has decided to sit during the playing of the national anthem, thereby exercising his right to peacefully protest. He is doing this to continue to call attention to the reality that people of color are subjected to injustice on a daily basis. Because of his protest, he has been called a traitor, his jersey has been burned, and people have called him a hypocrite because he happens to make money as a football player.
A couple of things come to mind here:
1. “The Star Spangled Banner” is the national anthem, and I come from a proud military family. When I hear the anthem, I stop. I face the flag. I legitimately contemplate the sacrifice of our military – tears come to my eyes. That’s just who I am. I feel respect and pride. It is my first amendment right to feel that way. Okay.
2. But, I live near Baltimore. I attend games at Camden Yards. Fans yell “O” when we get to the part of the verse that goes, “Oh, say does that Star Spangled Banner yet wave….” – some fans yelled “O” during the Olympic medal ceremony when Michael Phelps was on the podium during the Rio Olympics last month. He laughed. Both shouting “O” and laughing during the anthem could be considered disrespectful, no? I missed the outrage on that, but I did see that Gabby Douglas got hammered for not putting her hand over her heart when she was on the podium. Hmm….
3. Did you know that Francis Scott Key’s song has multiple verses? We only sing the first one. In the third verse we find these troubling lines: “No refuge could save the hireling and slave / From the terror of flight or the gloom of the grave” Well.
I could go on, but I think the main point is emphasized by US Soccer star Megan Rapinoe, a gay woman, who has also decided to silently and peacefully protest by kneeling during the anthem. The point, and it is an important one, is this: as great as this country is, and as much as we embrace the belief that we are all created equal and deserve equal rights and equal protections, the reality is that this equality is not reality – it is an ideal. For minorities, including immigrants, people of color, and LGBTQ citizens of this country, life is different. If you have never experienced inequality, I am happy for you. I know personally that my wife and I sometimes hesitate before holding hands or showing affection in public – even though Maryland is one of the more progressive states in America. There is always the nagging fear that someone will take exception to our existence and act aggressively about it. We had to wait a few years after we were sure we wanted to be married to legally be allowed to get married in our home state while somewhere in Alabama, Arkansas, Alaska, Connecticut, and many other states, sixteen-year old heterosexuals were allowed to exchange vows with full support of the American government.
The First Amendment guarantees freedom of speech and freedom of expression. That is exactly what the patriots of the Boston Tea Party demonstrated when they dumped the tea in the harbor to show their displeasure over taxes. It’s what empowered Martin Luther King Jr. to lead the marches against the unequal treatment of African-Americans in the mid-twentieth century. Freedom of expression allowed Vietnam War protestors to speak out in the 60’s. It’s the same freedom of expression that allows the Westboro Baptist Church to show up at military funerals and voice their opinions. It’s the freedom to say that you disagree. No matter your politics, it’s the freedom that we all have.
To quote Aaron Sorkin (via the film The American President), “America isn’t easy. America is advanced citizenship. You’ve got to want it bad. ‘Cause it’s gonna put up a fight. It’s gonna say, ‘You want free speech? Let’s see you acknowledge a man whose words make your blood boil, who’s standing center stage and advocating at the top of his lungs for that which you would spend a lifetime opposing at the top of yours. You want to claim this land as the land of the free? Then the symbol of your country cannot just be a flag [or an anthem for that matter], the symbol also has to be one of its citizens exercising his right to burn that flag [or sit during that anthem] in protest.’ Now show me that, defend that, celebrate that in your classrooms. Then you can stand up and sing about the land of the free.”
In my ethics class this week, we used this issue as an icebreaker. What I am happy with is how thoughtfully my students considered this question. They have, at a young age, embraced a nuanced view of the world and the reality that we can reasonably disagree without casting each other in the roles of patriot or traitor. As someone who believes that the purpose of education is to produce compassionate, independent-minded, informed, and empathetic citizens, this gives me a lot of hope.
Free speech does not just mean that we only celebrate or protect those who agree with us. Free speech is bigger than you or me or our opinions. If you think Kaepernick and Rapinoe are wrong for exercising their right to peacefully demonstrate freedom of expression, you have totally missed the point. It does not disrespect the military. It does not disrespect America. When I stand for the anthem, I celebrate the very freedom that allows them to sit or kneel in protest. That is what freedom really means. You can disagree, but your disagreement does not make them wrong. Let Freedom Ring.
One of the most important skills we teach students in college is the ability to exercise critical thinking. To be good, honest, productive citizens of the world, critical thinking is absolutely essential – it helps us understand when and how and why to accept or reject an argument and how to form our own ideas and values. This skill is especially important as we are becoming adults in the world and figuring out not just how to make it in life, but what things we will live for and work for – how to put ourselves into a positive position in the world. Critical thinking is defined as “the intellectually disciplined process of actively and skillfully conceptualizing, applying, analyzing, synthesizing, and/or evaluating information gathered from, or generated by, observation, experience, reflection, reasoning, or communication, as a guide to belief and action. In its exemplary form, it is based on universal intellectual values that transcend subject matter divisions: clarity, accuracy, precision, consistency, relevance, sound evidence, good reasons, depth, breadth, and fairness.”
When it comes to supporting a political candidate, many of us fail this critical thinking test. Some of us look for a candidate who supports a single issue that we care about or we find one who we think is the lesser of two evils. Historically, Americans have tended to vote optimistically – for candidates who represent hope and forward thinking like Ronald Reagan or Barack Obama, two of the most popular presidents of the last half-century. Voters in the American electorate say they like to see positive change and cling to those core American ideas like “freedom and justice for all,” or “the American Dream,” or “We hold these truths to be self-evident: that all men are created equal.” These are inclusive, aspirational ideals. Given that, Donald Trump is a candidate that mystifies many political observers because he is not inclusive or aspirational or optimistic; even his campaign slogan, “Make American Great Again” has dark undertones to it as people ask themselves the valid question: When was America “great”? What are we trying to go back to? (See this clip from The Daily Show for some hilarious satire on this question.) Candidate Trump seems comfortable alienating entire demographics of American voters. He relentlessly uses pejorative language to take shots at people who disagree with him or that he feels have been “mean” to him. He even denigrated the parents of a fallen American hero because they challenged him on his statements about Muslims. (The Khan family are proud American Muslims, immigrants whose son, an Army Captain, bravely died in service to this nation.) Part of his appeal, supporters say, is that he’s not a politician – he just says what he thinks when he thinks it – no filter. In a recent study from the Pew Research Center, support for an experienced candidate is stronger among Democrats and Independents than Republicans. He’s not experienced, he clearly lacks foreign policy knowledge, he does not understand the global economy, and he has dangerous warlord-like ideas about how to strike at ISIS (go after their families – their wives and children…wait – that was Macbeth, right?). This lack of experience, a perceived strength among Republicans, is not winning over the general electorate. And yet, despite some losses in the polls this week, there is a solid block of about 30% of the country who are determined to vote for Trump no matter what, even as prominent Republicans, longtime members of the party he represents in this election, are denouncing his candidacy and in some cases, even vowing to vote Democratic in November. Recently, elected officials such as Rep. Keith Ellison have asked the question that Mitt Romney and others have been asking for quite some time: what will it take for you to re-think your support of Donald Trump? Or is Trump right that he could shoot a man on 5th Avenue and not lose any votes? It ceases to be a Republican or Democrat question – it’s a moral question about what temperament and moral character we require in a president.
In an article titled “Why Facts Don’t Matter to Trump’s Supporters,”Washington Post reporter David Ignatius points out the unsettling dynamic that, even when confronted with the worst of Trump, those who want to vote for him will not be swayed. They are not thinking critically about the choice. They know that Trump makes things up – like his claim that he watched thousands of Muslims celebrating the fall of the Twin Towers or that he saw a video of cash being delivered to Iran or an attack ad against his rival that contains a blatant lie – and even when confronted with the evidence of these wild, false claims, Trump supporters are not moved. Ignatius says, “the reason is that people tend to accept arguments that confirm their views and discount facts that challenge what they believe” – something known in psychology as “confirmation bias.” We believe what we want to believe. For those who don’t actively attempt to think critically, the way we think about things stems from our past beliefs – and facts only make it worse, make us dig in our heels even in the face of logic and reason.
So what do we do? Well, as the saying goes, the first step is to admit there is a problem. I truly believe that voters want to make a good, conscientious choice at the ballot box. Confirmation bias is an unconscious activity. We are not aware that we are making bad judgments – until we are. But there also has to be a willingness to fix the problem. Accepting alternative views is hard – even on a small scale, it is hard for us to do. Most of us don’t like to admit we are wrong, that our thinking is flawed, or that someone else might have a better idea. Our egos and emotions prevent us from thinking clearly. But if we can put that aside, then perhaps we could begin to address the problem.
And it is important to address the problem. The stakes are very high in this election. It is not unreasonable to say that by voting for a party and its candidate, you are endorsing the statements, ideas, and values of that candidate. You are declaring that you support them, expressing allegiance to them. And that says as much about you as it does the candidate or the party. The term of this commitment is potentially 4 years.
I am not going to say that you should vote for one candidate over the other. You are not wrong to note that I seriously question the virtue of voting for Donald Trump, but by default, that does not mean that I think you should vote for Hillary Clinton. I think you should critically think about it. There are actually 4 parties and 4 candidates to choose from this election year (Democratic, Green, Libertarian, Republican). A critical thinker must consider every bit of it: the candidate, the party, and the platform. And then you have to make that decision, a deeply personal and important decision. The etymology of the word vote reveals that it stems from the word vow – a vow is a wish, a promise, one of the most sacred things we do. A vote is one of the most sincere acts we perform in life – or at least it should be. What I will say is that it does matter when and how and why you accept the arguments of a candidate and that you come to that acceptance with eyes fully open, understanding what led to that decision and how you may rationally justify it. No candidate is perfect, of course, but it is imperative to think critically – to come to a decision out of an exercise of reason to arrive at a place of value. Choose wisely.
Last year, a podcast called Serial gripped the nation. It was the story of a Baltimore-area high school honors student named Adnan Syed who was convicted in 1999 for the murder of his ex-girlfriend Hae Min Lee. This story has the stuff of great mystery: romance, possible love-triangle, shady characters, murder, and a cover-up – all told beautifully by Serial’s host, Sarah Koenig. If you have never listed to season one of the Serial podcast, you should. And also this post will mean nothing to you unless you have. But if you did, you likely had all of the same questions I did at the end. Like many other listeners, I could not let the story go once the podcast was over – there was just too much that didn’t seem right, too many unknowns.
Serial spawned several other podcasts, most notably Undisclosed and Truth & Justice (formerly known as Serial Dynasty). These podcasts picked up the story where Serial left it. The Undisclosed team consists of three lawyers: Susan Simpson, Colin Miller, and Rabia Chaudry, a lifelong friend of Adnan Syed who has made it her personal mission to seek a new trial in this case. The lawyers have meticulously gone through testimony, tapes, files, and the timeline of events to give a more complete picture of the Hae Min Lee murder case. Truth and Justice is a podcast created by Bob Ruff, a former fire chief and investigator. Initially, Ruff’s podcast was a forum for fan theories, but he soon put his investigative skills to work in pulling on different threads of the case to see where they went. Some of the revelations have been surprising. It would likely take you weeks to binge-listen to all of the first seasons of Undisclosed and Truth and Justice, but it’s well worth it.
There were several puzzles that Serial left us with, but I’m going to focus on what I think are the 5 big ones. Over the past year and a half since season one of Serial wrapped, much more information has been revealed, and thanks to Undisclosed, Truth and Justice, and Adnan’s post-conviction appeal hearing, we know much, much more. There is no easy or quick way to summarize it all, but here is a pass at some of the key points. Once again, if you are familiar with the case and the podcast, this will make a lot more sense to you.
Number 1: The Nisha Call & Leakin Park Pings
There are two things that Sarah Koenig really could not reconcile at the end of the first season of Serial. One was why there is a call to a girl named Nisha on Adnan’s call record for 3:32pm on January 13, 1999 that lasted 2 minutes and 22 seconds. According to Adnan, he was at track at that time and Jay still had his cell phone. Jay says that Adnan had already killed Hae, been picked up by Jay, and that they were riding around in the car together at this time. Jay did not know Nisha and would have no reason to call her. According to Jay, he and Adnan both talked to Nisha during the call.
So this looks bad for Adnan, but it is entirely possible that the Nisha call was a butt-dial that was never answered. Nisha testified that she did not have voicemail, so the call would have continued to ring if she was not available to pick it up. She also did not recall talking to Adnan and Jay during the day, but she did remember talking to both Jay and Adnan once on a call that came in the evening when Jay was at work. It’s easy to date the call Nisha remembers because Jay was at work at an adult video store, a detail Nisha remembers about the call – a job he did not have in January of 1999. But back to the 3:32 call on January 13th – because of the duration of the call, if it did ring for over 2 minutes, it is entirely plausible that AT&T billed Adnan for the call – the Undisclosed team was able to learn that similar AT&T subscriber contracts
from that time show that AT&T had a policy of billing subscribers for calls over a minute whether they were answered or not.
The Serial team also could not explain the Leakin Park Pings. According to Jay, he and Adnan buried the body in Leakin Park sometime after 7pm on January 13th. There are two incoming calls to Adnan’s phone – one at 7:09pm and the other at 7:16pm – that “ping” a cell phone tower near Leakin Park, suggesting that, if nothing else, the cellphone is located nearby.
There’s only one problem with this line of thinking: when the prosecutors requested Adnan’s phone records from AT&T, the phone company provided those records along with a fax cover sheet that clearly stated that incoming calls are not reliable location indicators. In other words, in 1999 AT&T itself declared that incoming calls could not reliably indicate location. For example, in Adnan’s recent appeal hearing, Adnan’s attorney Justin Brown pointed to 2 calls on the log: 1 pinged a tower in DuPont Circle in Washington DC, and the other pinged a tower in Baltimore less than a half an hour later. Anyone who lives in this area will tell you that the laws of physics don’t even allow you to get out of DuPont Circle in 30 minutes, let alone get to Baltimore. This is the perfect illustration of unreliable. There are complicated reasons for this that are explained in detail by Susan Simpson in episode 8 of Undisclosed. The reason the defense never brought this up at trial was that Adnan’s attorney, Christina Gutierrez, never received that information from the prosecutor even though the prosecutor, Kevin Urick, received it from AT&T. The failure to disclose this information is what is called a “Brady Violation” – it means that the prosecution withheld exculpatory evidence from the defense. That alone should have been enough to grant Adnan a new trial. In fact, the prosecution’s cellphone expert witness, Abraham Waranowitz, was not shown the cover sheet either before he testified for the state. He now says that if he had known that, he would not have testified as he did. So, yeah, that was kind of an important detail. So these 2 things that stumped the Serial team, the Nisha Call and the Leakin Park Pings, are not really rock-solid evidence. They are shockingly explainable given the information we have now.
Number 2: Where Was Hae Going That Day?
The popular narrative for Hae’s day is that she needed to rush out of school to pick up her cousin and then had to go to a wrestling match – she was the team manager. But Undisclosed was able to look through school records to show that there was no wrestling match that day – which means that many people who were interviewed about where Hae was headed that day were remembering the wrong day. In fact, Hae was supposed to work that evening at LensCrafters in Owings Mills, and then she was supposed to have a date with her new boyfriend, Don. She never made it to pick up her cousin, or to work, or to her date.
One person has a clear memory of talking to Hae at the end of the day: a friend of hers named Debbie. Debbie was interviewed by police and said that Hae told her she was in a hurry to leave school on January 13th, 1999 because she was going to see Don. Because several other witnesses mentioned the wrestling match, Debbie’s recollection seemed like the outlier, but given that the wrestling match everyone else remembers was not on that day, it is more likely the truth. If that is the truth, it’s an important detail to examine.
Number 3: Jay’s Stories
Jay Wilds is perhaps the biggest enigma in this case. Given all of the new evidence, it is more than likely that he knew nothing at all about what happened to Hae but rather made up a story to please the police. Why would someone do that? Many rumors have abounded – such as the one where Jay was jealous of Adnan’s friendship with his girlfriend, Stephanie. The two were close and in the magnate program together at Woodlawn High School. One is that Jay was afraid of the police because he was dealing pot and didn’t want to get locked up for that. Jay himself has cited this as the reason he decided to talk to the police.
Two other ideas have emerged from the work of the Undisclosed team and Bob Ruff at Truth and Justice. The first is that Jay did it for money. In Episode 10 of Undisclosed, we learn that Metro Crime Stoppers paid about $3K to an informant in this case. Per the rules for paying out these rewards, the informant can only get the money if the information leads to arrest and conviction. There is only one witness for the prosecution that gave that kind of information: Jay. And, the police would have to authorize the payment. The second idea is that the police threatened Jay – told him that he would be charged in this crime and that they would seek the death penalty against him. So to get off the hook, Jay agreed to help them tap-tap-tap together a narrative against Adnan – that is who the police really wanted to charge anyway.
One thing is for certain – years after this and the multiple versions of events that Jay related to the police in interviews and at trial, Jay’s story continues to change. In an interview Jay gave to The Intercept in December of 2014, he told yet another version of the story. Where Jay is concerned, there is no truth.
Number 4: Asia McClain
We have all wondered why Asia never testified in Adnan’s trial. She claims to have seen him in the library at the same time the state says he was strangling Hae in the parking lot of Best Buy. Why didn’t Gutierrez call Asia to the stand? There are 2 possible explanations for this. The first is that the Undisclosed team discovered that Asia’s name was misprinted in Gutierrez’s records as Aisha, not Asia, in a critical place that included notes about the alibi. Aisha is a real person – Hae’s best friend. Gutierrez may well have dismissed it based on this. The second is that Gutierrez just forgot to follow up on it. She seemed to have a lot going on at the time, and as we now know, her health was really deteriorating, and she was not able to perform her job at a high level. Things got missed.
The prosecution also said that Asia recanted her affidavit, but this is not true. When Asia testified at Adnan’s appeal hearing in February, she maintained the same version of events that she told in 1999. She also testified that the prosecutor, Kevin Urick, misrepresented their conversation and even discouraged her from testifying in the first appeal, saying that they had overwhelming evidence against Adnan. Asia’s testimony would force the state to come up with a totally new timeline for the murder – one they probably could not put together successfully or coherently given the giant holes in Jay’s stories. From an evidence standpoint, it’s the whole ballgame.
Number 5: Don
If you had a date with your girlfriend or boyfriend and she/he failed to show up, would you call her/him? Would you want to know why you were stood up? Apparently, Hae’s boyfried Don was not concerned when A) his girlfriend didn’t show up for her shift at the place where they both worked, B) stood him up for a date, and C) seemed to disappear altogether with no phone call, no email, no anything.
In addition, Bob Ruff was able to learn that Don falsified his timesheet and created a (false) alibi immediately when Hae disappeared – even thought he reportedly told police that he thought she must have run off to California. Why would he need a false alibi then? Don’s mother, the general manager of LensCrafters, doctored a time sheet to attempt to place him at work the day Hae vanished. That’s not shady at all. For some reason, the police never aggressively investigated Don or his alibi, even when they could not locate/talk to him until 1am the day/evening of her abduction. This does not mean that Don killed Hae, but Don was never subjected to the level of scrutiny or investigation that Adnan was, and he really should have been. But once the police decided to pursue Adnan as a suspect, they let go of every other thread in the case. They stopped pulling.
These facts give us a more complete picture than we had when Serial ended. Adnan was given a chance to appeal in a post-conviction hearing in February of this year. The case is currently in the hands of Judge Welch, who previously ruled against Adnan in an earlier appeal. But the evidence appears overwhelming: Adnan should get a chance at a new trial.
Why is this story so compelling? I’ve wondered that. I don’t even really like crime shows. Maybe it’s because I’m from the Baltimore area, so to me, the places in the story are not abstract – I used to drive past the infamous Best Buy all the time when I worked in that area. Maybe it’s because I work with honors students and I can’t imagine any of them in this scenario. But I think it’s also because, as someone who teaches and studies Ethics, I am troubled by the idea that the police might seek convictions and not truth. We also see this in the popular Netflix documentary Making a Murderer. (That’s a whole other topic for another time.) One of the pillars of our social contract is that our police and prosecutors should seek justice, not simply seek to win cases. The truth matters – the truth is what compelled Asia to come forward after all this time. What troubles me about Adnan’s case is that, if it could happen to him, it could happen to anyone. It could happen to you. Like Adnan, you might never see it coming.
Of course, this is the time of year when everyone makes resolutions to make changes in their lives. Most of the time, these changes fall along the lines of losing weight, saving money, getting fit, quitting smoking, etc. However, as we well know, most of us do not keep those resolutions – why not? Maybe we think changes are impossible. Maybe we just aren’t ready for change. I know it’s a cliche, but the only constant in life is change – so I want to think more about how to embrace it.
Dr. Art Markman, professor of Psychology at the University of Texas at Austin, says we don’t keep our resolutions because many of us who make resolutions fail to make a realistic plan to achieve our goals. Perhaps we believe too much in the magical power of January 1st, as if putting up a new calendar on the wall wipes the slate totally clean.
Prepare before New Year’s Eve. Oops – too late for us on that one because the new year is already here. But perhaps the point is to make a decision to start something and not worry about what the calendar says. As the saying goes, “You don’t have to be great to start, but you have to start to be great.”
The only way to really change is to change our habits. Our lives are governed by routine. If you want to jumpstart your career, you can’t just binge on Netflix every day – you have to change some behaviors. You won’t get healthy by ordering pizza every week – you’re going to have to shop and cook.
Focus first on positive goals rather than negative goals – a positive goal is something you want to do whereas a negative goal is something you want to stop. This is perhaps my favorite bit of Dr. Markman’s advice. It is much easier to gain some momentum toward things you want to do – such as taking more walks. I love the idea of creating some success that will give me confidence in tackling some of the more difficult behaviors to change.
Be specific about your plans. This is also important. It’s why we have schedules and calendars. If you want to read more, choose a night that is the night you plan to read and schedule it. This is how something becomes a routine.
Change your environment to accommodate new habits. The idea is to make it easy to do desirable things and hard to do undesirable things. So if your goal is to eat better, don’t buy junk snacks for the house – instead buy, say, apples and carrots. That way, when you want a snack, the desirable behavior will be easy.
Finally, Dr. Markman advises that you should not be too hard on yourself. Change is difficult for everyone, so odds are even if you plan well you won’t end up keeping all of those resolutions. But maybe you achieve one or two of them. It’s best to celebrate the ways in which we are successful rather than beat ourselves up for the times we fall short.
The fact is, whether we resolve it or not, change is going to come in some form to all of us in the coming year. Some of it will be good and some won’t be. In looking back over the past year, there were some definite high points and some definite low points, but life is definitely not the same as it was one year ago today. I was not always ready for change to happen, but we can’t always control things in our lives – change happens whether we like it or not. All we can control is how we react. And when circumstances do change in ways we don’t like, we have the power to decide what we are willing to accept and what we won’t stand for.
I normally don’t really make New Year’s Resolutions because I think they are destined to fail, but this year I do have some changes I’d like to make. I’d like to return to health. This time last year I was training for a half-marathon and running up to six miles at a time. After the half-marathon
in March, I backed off running to give myself some recovery time, and then I had a freak encounter with a stair that left me with a torn meniscus in my knee. I have not been able to exercise for months and I don’t feel terribly healthy. So I’d like to be able to exercise again. I never thought I’d miss running, but I really do. I don’t think I’ll ever run a half-marathon again, but I would love to do some more 5ks this year, and I’ve always wanted to do the Warrior Dash. If I can keep recovering from the knee injury, I would love to do that this year. I think the Maryland Warrior Dash is in May. That’s a specific goal I can challenge myself with. To get there, I have to focus on things other than running for the immediate future so I can start to regain some strength. Nothing is going to happen overnight, but I have to have some specific plans in order for anything to happen at all.
The other change I want to make this year is to be open to change. A lot of us have had that feeling in life of being in a rut or staying in a pattern because it’s easy or comfortable. I don’t want to do that this year. I want to be more Zen about what has been and let go of regrets and things that disappoint me. This year, I want to be open to the possibility of new things, even if the new things seem scary. Everything changes eventually: jobs, people, locations, dreams. As Hamlet said, “the readiness is all.” This year, I want to be ready.
In Shakespeare’s play The Tempest, the shipwrecked sailor Trinculo looks upon the mysterious island creature Caliban and says “Misery acquaints a man with strange bedfellows.” From this, we also get the idiom “Politics makes for strange bedfellows.” Both of these expressions flashed to the forefront of my mind when I read the headline “The Pope Just Handed Kim Davis a Huge Win.” The Obstinate Clerk and The Bishop of Rome. Strange bedfellows indeed. So strange as not to be believed.
At the tail end of his much hyped visit, The Pontiff inadvertently waded directly into the cesspool of American culture wars. Of course, it is implied that the Pope was talking about embattled Kentucky government employee Kim Davis – he never actually mentioned Davis directly – when he said that government officials have a “human right” to refuse to discharge a duty if they feel it violates their conscience. The story that was given out was that the Pope’s people arranged a clandestine meeting with Davis inside the Vatican embassy where Davis’s attorney alleges that the Pope told her to “stay strong” in her ongoing fight to deny other people their Constitutional rights.
In one of my classes, we just finished reading Seamus Heaney’s translation of the Antigone play called The Burial at Thebes. For those of you who may not remember, Antigone is the tale of Oedipus’s daughter who is sentenced by her uncle, Creon, to death for burying the body of a traitor. The traitor happened to be her brother, Polynices, who brought an army against Antigone’s home city of Thebes, igniting a civil war that led to the death of Polynices and his brother Eteocles as well. As Greek plays often are, it is a hot mess for everyone involved. And it doesn’t end well for anyone.
Antigone’s dilemma is that she feels compelled to bury her brother because it is what she believed the gods wanted. She knew it was against the law of Thebes, but she just felt that it was the right thing for her to do. On the other hand, Creon created a law for the city to restore the unity of Thebes. He wanted to send a message that it was important for citizens to obey the law because law is a social contract that ensures the protection and safety of everyone. Antigone is aware that citizens have a duty to the law – citizenship was extremely important to the Greeks. But for Antigone it is a deep matter of faith to ignore this particular law. But here’s the rub: Antigone knew there were legal consequences to her actions even though she felt she had a moral duty that was higher than any mortal duty that might exist. Her deontological worldview commanded her to obey that moral law even though the consequences would be bad for her. In fact, she viewed the consequences as beyond her control and even as part of the bargain for standing up for her choice, and there is honor in that choice. My students could not help but note the similarities between Antigone and Davis; however, these same students also believe it would be wrong to equate the two women. As we discussed this play in this contemporary context, the students pointed out that Antigone’s actions impacted her whereas Kim Davis’s actions impact others. In their opinion, that’s where things go over the line. Kim Davis denies the rights of others in choosing to ignore the law. In ignoring the law, Davis is free to obey what she feels is a moral duty, but she must face the consequences.
But wait, there’s more to the story. Contrary to how it was initially reported, it seems that the meeting didn’t go as Davis claims it did. The Vatican is pumping the brakes and saying that, while Davis was in the room with Pope Francis, she was hardly alone and was part of a group of people arranged in a receiving line that the Pope spoke to briefly. His Holiness had no desire to comment on how we ought to conduct our business, and that is a good thing, because religion and politics are a toxic mix. It is a bedrock belief that in the United States of America, people may live free of the restrictions of religion – see the Pilgrims – but they may not live free of the requirements of the law. The law is part of our social contract. In the First Amendment, it states that “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion.” In simplest terms, this means that we may not impose a particular religious worldview on others. We are free to believe what we want. Others are free to believe what they want. Both perspectives are protected under the law and law is independent of religion. This is in fact what the Pope was speaking of – freedom of religion as a human right.
I sympathize with Davis – it’s a tough spot. I don’t doubt her religious conviction, green as it is, but this is an outright lie to make more of this meeting with the Pope than there actually was. It feels particularly wrong to manipulate him in this way, and sadly, this is not the first time her supporters have tried to pull something like this. Still, my sympathy for her comes from the way she is being exploited by her deranged lawyer and presidential pretender Mike Huckabee. She is the one who has to face actual repercussions for these choices while these politically religious opportunists scramble to take photos with her as “Eye of the Tiger” blares in the background. There is really only one way to get through this with any honor now: she should embrace God’s love and God’s word as a reason to do her job. She should embrace some actual scriptures such as the ones where we turn the other cheek or Matthew 7:12 that exhorts us to treat others as we want to be treated – in other words, equality.
This argument does not need to be won on religious grounds because ultimately it is not and must not be a religious argument. But if you insist that it must be a religious argument, then fine. James 2:8 & Galatians 5:14 both invoke Jesus’s words that we should “Love [our] neighbor as [our]self” which implies that we should extend love and courtesy and respect to one another. But the last word on this really comes from Romans 13:10 – “Love does no harm to a neighbor. Therefore love is the fulfillment of the law.” Loving others is the fulfillment of the law. The law is changing as we change culturally, and this is a good thing. It means we are more tolerant, more inclusive, more like Jesus wishes us to be. Welcome to the brave new world.
This month: from the archive, a story about tagging along behind my brother. Some philosophers believe that identity comes from sameness, as the Latin root identitas implies. More complicated are the questions about how we change and therefore how our identities change over time as we continually seek that sameness in others. That quest began early for me as I looked for and found an identity I admired in my older brother, Bryan.
“Awrgh – my balls!”
I was not immediately aware that there was anything strange about me saying that. As I clutched my crotch in feigned pain, I slowly looked around at the ring of startled faces. My skateboard clattered away, but it was suddenly the only audible sound in the world. All of the boys in the gang were at a complete loss for words…except Gabe, of course. “Your balls?” he asked. Then he looked at my brother Bryan for an explanation. I took a deep breath and held it.
This had all started so innocently. Gabe said it first. He fell off his skateboard, hit the rail, and said: “My balls hurt. That’s the last time I do that.”
Gabe was our coolest friend at school. Well, he was the only reason we had any friends at all really. He was a skateboarder and the leader of a whole gang of skateboarding guys. My older brother Bryan and I hung out with Gabe because, well, he would hang out with us, and that was just short of amazing. Breaking into a middle-school clique is the most traumatizing experience that a kid has to go through. The new kid is never really welcome and always has to have some sort of trick to get in. With nothing but our rich southern drawls to distinguish us, my brother and I were agonizing over our outsider status together. We were grateful that someone would talk to us. We met Gabe and his gang on our first day at Lakeside Middle School – which was about two months after the first day of school for everyone else. It was the end of the day, and Bryan and I sought each other out in the last period of the day – a sort of middle school recess called “free period.” It had not been a great first day. Like the first days at the other 3 schools we had been to in the past year, no one had bothered to befriend either of us. Little did we know that our fate was about to change. Gabe saw Bryan and me hanging out alone at the fringe of the playground and walked right up to us, his cool looking crowd of skateboarding friends trailing along behind him – all long hair, baggy shorts, and Vans shoes. Bryan had brought his skateboard to school and was riding up and off the curb while I threw rocks aimlessly at my own feet. Gabe looked at us, nodded at each of us, and said “Bring your skateboard tomorrow.” He was talking to Bryan of course, but there was just no way I was getting left behind.
Making friends was easier for Bryan than it was for me because he was a guy. Among guys the bonds of friendship are forged through action – with girls it takes months of conversation and spending quality time together to gain acceptance. Bryan could ride a skateboard and play baseball and jump BMX bikes and tell gross jokes and spit really far. I learned that I could do those things too – I just had to eliminate the girly things in life. For me, dolls were easy to give up in favor of baseball cards because it meant that I was able to be with my brother and his friends. I’d left all my friends behind in Tennessee, and since we first moved from our hometown a year earlier, our stepfather’s enlistment in the Navy had jerked us all over the southern portion of the United States. Bryan became my best friend because having a best friend is a form of survival for a kid. So I learned to appreciate all of his activities. The problem was that none of his activities were very couth for a little ten-year-old girl – not that it mattered at all to me. I think at first it horrified my mother, but eventually she made peace with the fact that I was going to be a raging tomboy. At least she still had my little sister who loved dolls and dresses and makeup.
Bryan really didn’t have to, but he always figured out a way to make me a part of whatever he was doing. Right before we moved to Lakeside, we lived in an apartment complex full of kids called Spring Creek. He convinced the boys there that I should be allowed to hang out with them because I was fearless enough to steal garden hoses – and then he made me go and steal them. Garden hoses were valuable items because they could be used as ropes. Tied to the branches of trees, they allowed us to swing over the creek like Tarzan’s children, and that was good for hours of fun on Florida summer days. The complex security guards cut them down all the time, so obtaining a new rope was usually a high priority. Getting them was a sure “in.” Bryan always insisted that I get the first swing since I had stuck my neck out for it. That was even riskier than stealing the hoses.
If the first step of anything is the hardest step, the first jump can feel downright suicidal. I couldn’t help but notice the rocks leering at me from the creek bed 20 feet below. But this was no time to be turning back into a girl. “Well, what are you waiting for?” Bryan asked. “Just jump.” That was my trick to get in, and it made me cool in the eyes of all the guys and saved me from watching television alone or worse: being relegated to playing Barbie or tea party.
At Lakeside, it was no different. For some reason, Gabe and his gang accepted that when Bryan joined their tribe, it meant that I had joined as well. I was the only girl in the group, but since I never acted like a girl, they didn’t seem to mind having me around. In that gang, Gabe was the only one who ever talked anyway. Gabe was tall and strong – and outrageously confident for an 11-year-old kid. He was the king of the skateboard slackers, and we did whatever he told us to do. Everyday in the free period at the end of school, we gathered with Gabe and his gang at the edge of the parking lot by the playground to practice our skateboarding prowess. Despite my late start, I was not half-bad at skating, and it seemed the guys expected me to be at least half-bad at it anyway.
There is only so much you can do without going airborne, and Gabe decided we should learn to ride down and jump off of rails. Gabe went first and hurt his balls trying to skate down the handrail of the steps that led out of the cafeteria and out into the parking lot. He fell off and straddled the rail. It didn’t appear to be very traumatic for him; he seemed to be okay. All of his gang had to give it a try as well. One by one, they tried to complete the stunt, and one by one each of them proclaimed their balls injured.
I didn’t want to do the trick well. I just wanted to share in the agony with the rest of the gang. I hopped up on the rail and fell off on purpose. I didn’t even hit my crotch; I landed on my feet beside the rail, but I said that my balls hurt – which was exactly what the rest of them said when they fell off. I didn’t have a clue what balls were or that I wasn’t supposed to have any. That did become apparent to me rather quickly from the looks of shock, horror, confusion, and I’m not sure what else on the faces of Gabe’s gang.
What did I know about the differences between boys and girls? For me, I was more like my brother than I was like my sister, more like my dad than my mom. I liked being covered in mud and playing with the guys, but I knew I was a girl. But in this seminal playground moment, a realization began to creep over me. I had a flashback to this day when I must have been about five. I was in day-care, and there was a chubby little boy in there. He was lying on the mat next to me at naptime. He secretively pulled the front of his pants down to reveal himself and then jerked them back up and rolled to the other side of his mat where I heard the little girl on the other side of him squeal with fright. It wasn’t until now, wilting under the stares of Gabe and his guys that I understood, really, what I had seen. A hot, sick feeling started to flood through me – starting from the place of my phantom balls and spreading rapidly to my glowing cheeks.
The faces of Gabe, Bryan, and the rest of the gang came into sharper focus. I looked at each of them one by one and could see that they were taking the measure of me as I stood there clutching my crotch. They were pretty sure I was a girl, but what if I did have balls? After all, they were only eleven. What did they really know about it anyway? Gabe opened his mouth to say something else, but before he could, my brother laughed.
Bryan’s laugh pierced the bubble of tension around us. “You’re funny,” he said, “your balls!” Gabe and the gang fell over
themselves laughing, and I finally exhaled. I wonder if big brothers remember all of the times they have to come to the rescue for their little sisters? Little sisters never forget all of the times they have been saved.
This I Believe: To Believe in God is to Believe in People
When we study literature, especially poetry, I always teach my students about denotation and connotation. The denotation of the word is what it actually means-if you look it up in the dictionary, you will find a precise definition of the word along with where it came from and other uses. The connotation of a word is what it actually means to us. The connotation of the word evolves and is defined over time through usage and through cultural applications of the word. Normally, the connotation of a word allows for a lot more possibility than the original definition. For example, “gay” used to just mean happy – now it has a different meaning for most people, one that encompasses a lot more. For me, “Christian” is a word that has evolved quite a bit.
I grew up with very religious (Southern Baptist) grandparents, and my first understanding of what it meant to be a Christian came from them. My mom was not too strict about taking us to church, but whenever we stayed with my mom’s parents, we did the whole thing: Sunday School, morning worship, Sunday evening services, and Wednesday night prayer services. Mostly being a good Christian meant being still and quiet in church so my grandmother didn’t get upset. My grandfather sang in the choir, so he didn’t really sit with us. If we were good, we could have gum. I never really considered church that much when I wasn’t with my grandparents – until high school. When I was in 8th grade, my stepfather got assigned to Andrews Air Force Base in Camp Springs, Maryland. After learning that the schools in Prince George’s County weren’t too highly regarded, our parents decided to put us in private school, a religious school. Having gone to public school all my life, it was quite an adjustment.
Since I was a small child when I went to church with my grandparents, I really learned what Christianity was about in high school. Through a consistent Bible-tinted filter, we were taught basic subjects and how we were supposed to view the world. We attended chapel sermons a few times a week. We had an active youth group, and we were strongly encouraged to attend church every Sunday. I did go to church – first at my school and then at another church down the road. Initially, I was drawn to the compassionate message of Christianity: that God is love, that he made the world for us, that he died for us – and that we should spread that message to others. I loved coming together to worship. But we were also inundated with the messages that hell awaits us with fire and suffering. There is no such thing as a good person, only sinners who need redemption. Nothing you can do in this life is good enough to save your soul. And weirdly, it is a sin to vote for the wrong person. The longer I was involved, the more I began to notice that in church people judged other people based on their clothes and other superficial things. I learned that it was important to have the right costume, say the right things – as if being a good Christian was like acting a part in a play. I was totally immersed, and it gave me a somewhat hard view of the world – so much of the dialogue in church was “us against them” and what base creatures we humans are and what judgment awaits the world. But I was a full participant. I passed out literature to strangers in shopping malls inviting them to “Consider Eternity” and things like that. I shared my testimony with others, implored them to accept Jesus, and I even told people that I believed they would go to hell if they didn’t.
When I first went to a secular college and got out of the Bible Bubble I had lived in during my high school years, it was a culture shock to learn that other people didn’t see the world exactly as I did. I mean, what could they be thinking?? But it helped me to start to consider the things I had been taught and to consider what Christianity looks like from the outside.
Sometimes people ask me if I consider myself a Christian anymore. This is a hard question because of the connotation the word Christian has acquired and how my belief in God has evolved. I still believe in God, but I don’t believe what I grew up believing. My faith has gotten bigger than that. I think God is bigger than that. We are the ones who limit him because we are limited by language. When we can name something we understand it. We want so much to understand.
When it used to thunderstorm outside when I was a kid, my great grandmother said it was God moving furniture in heaven. She could have said that it was the sound made by the electrostatic charge of lightning, but she didn’t have that vocabulary. Instead, it was God moving furniture. It reminds me of Greek Mythology. The Greeks made up myths because myth is what we tell ourselves about our world so that our lives make sense. Rough seas mean Poseidon is restless. Thunder means Zeus is angry, etc. We do that too – we have given God a human face: a large, old white man with a beard. We do that so we can understand him. He’s a father. He cares for us. The Bible itself is full of metaphor – the King James Version of the Bible was transcribed by poets commissioned by King James I of England in 1611. It has come a long way from its original language. It’s fair to think that some things have been lost in those translations. Have you ever played the game of telephone? Whisper a phrase into one person’s ear in a group of people, and by the time it gets whispered around the room, even in a room of people who all speak the same language, it will be a different phrase, maybe even unrecognizable. How can we expect the Bible to remain the same through hundreds and hundreds of years, many different languages, and several translations? How can we cling to every word of it literally when we know poetry isn’t meant to be literal?
Today we have reduced Christianity to a set of political views on what we should be allowed to do with our bodies and our guns. I don’t see those things I was first drawn to: compassion and love. This is what I mean when I say that God is bigger than we have described him. We ourselves have created rules in God’s name, but we ignore some of the logical inconsistencies of those rules. Jesus said help the poor, but many people who claim to be Christians look at the poor as “moochers” who don’t deserve compassion. In the book of Matthew Chapter 7, Jesus said that we should not judge others – we are not worthy to do that, but there is a lot of judgment going around. We have created a framework that we are comfortable in, we use it to hide behind and condemn things (and people) we don’t understand or are afraid of. We have taken the poetry of men and made it our absolute North Star.
The word “Christian” has a decidedly un-poetic connotation now. Too often in today’s society, to be a Christian means to deny, to reject, and even to hate. It means being a part of a narrow political group or being proud of the things we don’t do, what we resist, and who we exclude – that is not something I want to be associated with.The sad thing is, the negativity is the result of the loud mouths of 1% of people who call themselves Christians. There are many Christians who aspire to live a life of love, peace, and tolerance. I know some wonderful Christians who don’t resemble the Mike Huckabee/Pat Robertson/Duggar Family mainstream connotation of that word at all. But their message is not the one that gets played and replayed. I want to be associated with a way of believing that measures goodness by what we embrace, what we create, and who we include.
These days, I guess I prefer to think of myself as a spiritual person. Our faith matters because what we believe is a fundamental part of our identity and self-concept. Our religion is a public profession, a badge of courage that announces what we value and what we live for. I don’t belong to any particular denomination and I accept that there are more possibilities than I was originally taught. To be a spiritual person is to let things into my world, not leave things out. I do believe in God, but this is what I believe: to believe in God is to believe in good. To believe in God is to believe in people, to choose to believe that people have the capacity to do and be good, not believe that people are inherently bad or that those who are different should be feared and shunned. To believe in God is to believe in what is possible. In that way, maybe there is some poetry in the idea if we can, as Emily Dickinson wrote, learn to “dwell in possibility / a fairer house than prose.”
The title of this month’s blog is inspired by the NPR Podcast Series “This I Believe.” If you have never listened to it, I highly recommend you check it out.
This I Believe: Civil Rights are Equal Rights
This month, the Supreme Court will rule on marriage equality. In the court of public opinion, the issue has already reached the tipping point. In 1996, the first time Gallup polled on the issue, only 27% of the public thought that same-sex couples deserved marriage equality, but in 2014, the poll showed that 55% of the public now believes that civil marriage is a civil right for all people. (A separate poll by the Wall Street Journal has 58% in support of marriage equality.) That’s an amazing shift, and I can only really attribute it to one thing: people have realized that gay people are not trying to destroy them! That’s right: gay people are just people trying to live their lives. They do not want to wreck your life or your marriage. I am in a same-sex marriage (Thank you, Maryland!), and I can attest that there is nothing about my relationship that adversely impacts the heterosexuals around me.
I believe the experience of actually knowing a gay person is what changes minds and hearts. I did not meet an openly gay person until I went to college, and since I went to college pretty late in life, that was when I was almost 30 years old. It caused quite a bit of cognitive dissonance for me. On the one hand, I grew up in an environment that told me that homosexuals were abhorrent – that God hated them. On the other hand, I knew this nice, funny, creative, and warm man who would become one of my lifelong friends. How could he be abhorrent? Worst of all, he knew I was “religious,” and the idea that he might think I hated him for who he was sickened me. Most of all, knowing him got me to think about what I had always heard and been taught. I always say, if you want your faith to mean anything, it has to be your own – not merely an uncritical repetition of what has come before. I ought to know why I believe what I believe.
There are some who argue that the Bible defines marriage as the union between one man and one woman. Actually, this is not consistently true. In various places in the Bible, marriage is defined as the union between a man and “at least” one woman. Men with multiple wives are described as “highly blessed” in their marriages. Abram cheated on his wife, and the servant woman that he took as a second wife bore him a son. That’s not exactly what traditionalists think of as a traditional marriage.
In fact, there were a variety of marriages that were permissible in the disparate cultures that produced the Bible. Titus 1:6 describes a monogamous relationship. But Deuteronomy 22:28-29 has a less romantic view of marriage wherein rape victims are given by their fathers to marry the man who raped them – after, of course, the rapist pays the girl’s father 50 pieces of silver. In another passage of Deuteronomy (25:5-10), a man is commanded to marry his brother’s widow – even if he himself is already married. This is also mandated in Genesis and Ruth. These are just a few examples of how marriage was practiced in these distinct moments. But we might also argue that as members of a pluralistic society, it doesn’t matter what the authors of the Bible thought. We are a society of many religions and many beliefs – the beliefs of one religious group should not define the rights for all people, especially for an institution that has long been more secular than religious.
I think the key to understanding this is acknowledging that the definition of marriage has always been produced by culture, and culture changes. Now, our culture does not look favorably on polygamy. We do not think a rapist should be able to buy his victim or that having sex before marriage makes a woman unworthy of marriage (and thus more inclined to marry the man who raped her). We don’t think a man should be compelled to marry his brother’s widow. We do believe in marital monogamy. And as we have seen, we are now culturally ready to believe that loving same-sex couples deserve a chance at happiness.
It’s about more than just happiness though. It’s about rights and dignity. When opponents of same-sex marriage argue for civil unions instead of marriage, they perhaps don’t realize that what they are asking for is a version of the “Separate but Equal” fallacy that suppressed African-Americans for so long in this country. They are right about this: our culture views marriage as a sacred right. This is precisely why same-sex couples should share it. We don’t get to pick and choose who gets rights and who doesn’t – in our society, we demand equal rights.
You might not know that much of our country’s philosophy was influenced by the English philosopher John Locke. Locke advocated for natural rights – the basic rights of all human beings to be treated with dignity and respect by virtue of their very humanity. Locke wrote that all human beings are equal in the sense that they are born with certain “inalienable” natural rights. That is, rights that are inherent to every individual and can never be taken away. Locke also argued that individuals should be free to make choices about how to conduct their own lives as long as they do not interfere with the liberty of others. Thomas Jefferson thought these were pretty good ideas – so much so that he put them into the Declaration of Independence.
Marriage is not the only right we are talking about. For example, free speech is a civil right we are all entitled to. What’s hard is that we have to honor free speech even when we don’t agree with what is being said. The Westboro Baptist Church’s message is abhorrent, but we have to respect their right to be abhorrent. We have to respect them because we also respect the rights of union workers and Million Mom Marchers to picket, assemble, and protest. Everyone gets the same rights or else they are not sacred. And we believe that our rights ought to be sacred – that is the society we want to belong to.
In his book, A Theory Of Justice, philosopher John Rawls asks us to imagine that we belong to a group of people who are gathered to plan our own future society, a just and fair society that operates under a Social Contract. Rawls calls this scenario the “Original Position.” In the Original Position, we don’t know who we will be in society, what status we will have. So, we must design our society behind what Rawls calls the Veil Of Ignorance:
“No one knows his place in society, his class position or social status; nor does he know his fortune in the distribution of natural assets and abilities, his intelligence and strength, and the like.”
The goal, then, is to create a society in which you are guaranteed to be treated fairly. You might be gay, straight, black, white, rich, poor, Christian, Muslim, Jewish, male, female, transgendered, fit, or physically limited, but it will not matter. If you have created a truly just and fair society, everyone will have the same opportunities, the same challenges, and the same freedoms.
You might be thinking: but the people who wrote the Bible never imagined that people of the same sex might want to get married. For the most part, I think you’re right: they couldn’t imagine it. Just like there was a time when we in America could not imagine people from different races getting married. We could not imagine that African Americans could be more than slaves. We could not imagine that women ought to be allowed to vote. We could not imagine these things – until we did. Culture evolves because people change. In every instance, we lean into inclusion. I believe we have crossed the Rubicon now with marriage equality and other gay rights, but there are still many important issues for us to consider on our way to a fair and just society. For example, Bruce Jenner’s recent interview and transition to Caitlyn Jenner has pushed transgender issues, finally, into the national conversation. It’s a dialogue that is long overdue and will be difficult. But I have faith that as long as we consistently do the human thing, that as long as we consistently value the natural rights of individuals, we will find our way. As Dr. King so wonderfully said, “The arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice.”
Next month on Friday Nite Writes: This I Believe – Part Two