I Am Watching This Movie…

scales of justice

I am watching this movie about a mob boss who is on trial for really serious crimes, but somehow he figures out a way to get a bunch of his accomplices in the crimes on the jury for the trial – can you believe that?! And get this, the foreman of the jury has a wife who actually works in a really high level and high paying job for the mob boss! She literally owes her job to the mob boss, and the court still allowed this guy to be on the jury! I know right!

The evidence against the mob boss is overwhelming. There are even tapes of him saying and doing things that he and his defense lawyers claim he never said and did. In one of the tapes he is caught telling some of his associates (criminally indicted associates whom the mob boss denies even knowing – never even talked to them he says) to get rid of a woman who is getting in the way of his criminal schemes. He tells them to “take her out.” Later he tells another person that “she’s going to go through some things.” This movie reminds me so much of The Godfather, really.

Through his corrupt power over key persons in the justice system who are compromised and complicit in the crimes of the mob boss, he ends up having control over people who are related to the trial who could force him to turn over incriminating documents, but they won’t turn on the mob boss. They are probably afraid that if he goes down, so will they.

All the mob boss’ lawyers can do in his defense is attack and try to intimidate the prosecutors, but it doesn’t really matter because in the end the mob boss’ lawyers know that they have enough of the mob boss’ accomplices on the jury.

There A LOT of witnesses to the crimes, and the mob boss would do almost anything to keep these witnesses off the stand. The mob boss has told the witnesses that they should not testify, and the witnesses who had the courage to testify in the pre-trial hearings were intimidated by the mob boss, believe it or not, WHILE they were on the stand! To make matters even worse, the jury in the trial has said they won’t even listen to any witnesses or listen to any of the tapes, and the judge seems okay with it!

I am having trouble watching the movie to the end because it seems so crazy and unrealistic, but I have watched so much already, I guess I will have to see how it ends. I just hope no one ends up sleeping with the fishes.

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A Tribute to My Friend and Colleague John Starkey

I had the deep privilege of giving the tribute for my believed friend and colleague John Starkey on the occasion of his Memorial Service, January 19, 2020 in the Chapel at Oklahoma City University.

(Following the reading of John’s obituary)

Like all of you I so deeply cherish the personal connection I had with John Starkey, and I know that he deeply cherished the personal connection that he had with all of you. I have been so fortunate to know John since the fall of 1992 when we were both graduate students at Boston University. John was 13 years my senior and already had many years of high school teaching experience during and after his years with the Jesuits. Unlike so many graduate students, John already knew how to teach, and this experience along with his many years under spiritual direction in which he engaged in deep spiritual discernment made him a natural mentor for many of the younger graduate students like myself, though he never made any of us feel as if we were not his equal. That being said, it only takes a little time reading his doctoral exam papers or his eloquently written dissertation to quickly realize that very few persons could match his academic prowess or the depth of his theological engagement, much less the immense skill of his teaching. Like so many of his students for years to come, John’s graduate student colleagues were in awe of his gifts and filled with gratitude to be in community with him.

When I came to teach full time at Oklahoma City University in the philosophy department in 1996, I certainly had the hope of staying engaged with John and at least seeing him from time to time at annual American Academy of Religion meetings or at other conferences. But as very good fortune would have it, two years later after John had completed his 800 page doctoral dissertation (yes, 800 pages) on the resurrection of Jesus, I received a call from John asking me about the theology teaching position opening in the Wimberly School of Religion, and in fall of 1998, John, Dr. Starkey, returned to the state of Oklahoma where he had lived a number of years as a boy when his father was stationed at Fort Sill, and began his new career as one of the most beloved college professors on the planet.

John was a former Jesuit who became a Quaker who lived much of his last 21 and half years in service to Methodists both at OCU and through teaching in United Methodist camps and churches. John practiced and taught the best of what he experienced in these spiritual communities, and he loved and sought deeper understanding of his siblings from many other faiths and from those who oriented themselves in different ways to religion.

John loved the classroom and his books, but he was equally at home and happy enjoying the beauty of nature as could be seen when he would take his St. Francis like walks on campus finding beauty in the trees, flowers, and the native plants. He also spent many days hiking in the Green and White mountain ranges of New England with his dear friends. John found joy in nature. One of his students noted that “the way Starkey looked at trees is the way we looked at Starkey.”

As some of Dr. Starkey’s students reflected on their memories of him, here are some of the things they said about John:

“He would listen to everyone and engage them as they are.”

They said Dr. Starkey told them “I give everyone an opportunity to say what they believe.”

“Dr. Starkey loved the arts, loved to sing, supported all of his students by going to their plays, recitals, and performances, and he cherished the artwork that students created for his classes.”

The first question he would ask students at their religion scholarship interview was (religion majors say it together with me) “What do you like to read?” And throughout students’ time at OCU, he would continue to ask them “What are you reading?” And he would expect a good answer.

Dr. Starkey was a master teacher. As one of his students recollected, “He could always find the best way to explain something for everyone in the room. He explained things three ways: advanced, commonsense, and funny (not necessarily in that order)” Many students referred to Dr. Starkey as their Yoda, not the baby Yoda, but rather the fully matured Jedi Master Yoda. John was our wise spiritual guide and sage, connecting heart and mind in the example of his own life.

When commenting on his students’ papers, Dr. Starkey used green ink to avoid what he jokingly referred to as the violence of the red pen and the appearance of bleeding on the page. I have to say that I corrected my errors in this tribute in green pen, and I felt much better about the mistakes I made. In addition to the many insightful theological papers and presentations Dr. Starkey wrote and gave at regional and national conferences and the scores upon scores of wonderful Sunday School lessons he left with us, John probably wrote volumes of theological works on his students’ papers with his now famous green pen and in his many notes of encouragement to current and former students.

I have thought more than once that If Mr. Rogers had chosen to become a college theology professor instead of a Presbyterian minister and children’s show creator, he would have been a lot like John Starkey. Both of these gentle men would say “I am proud of you” in a way that made a permanent imprint on your soul. Both of them found creative ways to let people know that you are loved and accepted “just the way you are.” Both of them gave the people around them deep encouragement to face the world, even in the most difficult and challenging of times. I cannot imagine a better neighbor to have in this journey of life than John.

John loved God deeply and lived the way of Jesus’ love and justice with integrity and authenticity. He gave all he could for others as long as he could, and when he did not have the energy or the health to give of himself as much as he wished; his family, friends, students, and colleagues carried him through his last days in their arms of care and love, and he felt deeply loved by the outpouring of care he received. In his life, in his death, and now as we come to together to mourn but also to celebrate John’s life, he continues to remind us that we are meant to live together in beloved community.

John once wrote a student these words, and they summarize beautifully his way of being in the world in a way perhaps only John himself could do. He wrote: “I cherish my premodern heart, which is where the feelings live. I cherish my modern mind, which is where the thoughts live. I cherish my postmodern skin, which is where I am open to all the input of all the world, including all the cultures with all their religions, and all the arts with all their insights, and all the sciences with all their stringent criteria. It is not easy to live this way. But I wouldn’t want to live any other way either.”

John went on to write, “one of my favorite scriptures is Luke 7:35 – Wisdom is proven right by all who are her children.” All of us who knew and loved John have no doubt that he was a child of wisdom and that his life has proven wisdom right. And now that John has found rest in his eternal skin in the loving arms of God, his wisdom will continue to teach us all, even though it may no longer be through the temporal green pen.

As we grieve together the loss of our beloved John, our beloved Dr. Starkey, perhaps we might find some comfort and courage in the words of Elizabeth Kübler-Ross who once wrote, “The reality is that you will grieve forever. You will not ‘get over’ the loss of a loved one; you will learn to live with it. You will heal and you will rebuild yourself around the loss you have suffered. You will be whole again but you will never be the same. Nor should you be the same nor would you want to.” Amen

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$2 Trillion

Let’s take Trump at his tweeting word that, as he claims, the United States has just spent $2 Trillion on military equipment that he will not hesitate to use as he threatens to attack 52 sites in Iran, including some of its cultural sites (a war crime by the way).

When you are drowning in medical debt, struggling to pay your student loans, can’t afford your prescriptions, and deciding which utilities you can do without for a few days so your family can eat; remember we just spent $2 Trillion on military equipment.

The $2 Trillion that Trump says we just spent on military equipment would pay for 25 years of eliminating tuition at all public colleges and universities.

For just $81 billion, we could eliminate all current medical debt in the United States.

The $2 Trillion Trump said we just spent on military equipment is a little less than half of the total amount of money experts say is needed to convert to a 100% renewable energy economy by 2030.

With the $2 Trillion Trump said we just spent on military equipment, we could fully fund the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) for 29.4 years.

Imagine how much we could shore up programs like Social Security, Medicaid, and Medicare if we infused $2 Trillion into them as fast as we spend money on weapons of war.

One is reminded of the words of Tupac – “They got money for wars but can’t feed the poor.” And as President Eisenhower said shortly after the death of Joseph Stalin, “Every gun that is made, every warship launched, every rocket fired signifies, in the final sense, a theft from those who hunger and are not fed, those who are cold and are not clothed. This world in arms is not spending money alone. It is spending the sweat of its laborers, the genius of its scientists, the hopes of its children.”

At the end of his presidency, Eisenhower warned us all of the dangerous and ever growing power of the military industrial complex. He understood all too well the economics and politics of war.

When you spend $2 Trillion on military equipment, you have to use it. How else can you justify spending the next $2 Trillion?

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Perpetrators of Genocide, not Pioneers

I just completed reading a book written in 1866 that I would never otherwise read if it were not written by my triple great grandfather, Thomas Clay McCreery, who later became a U.S. Senator from Kentucky from 1868 to 1871 and from 1873 to 1879.

The book is a biography about William Smothers, aka William Smeathers, who was one of the first white persons to go to what is now known as Kentucky and forcibly take away land and life from the indigenous people who had lived there for millennia. He later went to Texas to do the same.

The book is as disgusting as the person about whom it is written. It casually and approvingly recounts how Smothers hunted and murdered indigenous persons like they were animals – hunting animals one day and humans the next.

Smothers is portrayed as being relieved that he never killed an indigenous woman, but after a conversation with a friend, he is convinced that even had he done so, he actually would not have killed a “woman” but rather just a “female.”

The biography was disgusting, but it was important for me to read first and second hand accounts about what white people of that time and place believed and did, and what they believed was despicably racist and what they did was murderous and genocidal.

Two years after writing this biography, my triple great grandfather, Thomas Clay McCreery, was chosen to be a U.S. Senator from Kentucky. He owned human persons before the Civil War, was openly racist, and helped lead the effort to keep the first black man from serving in the U.S. Senate. My guess is that like so many before and after him, McCreery was chosen because of his racist views and actions rather than in spite of them.

To my triple great grandfather, shame on you for writing approvingly about the murderous Bill Smothers, for owning human beings, and for working to keep the first duly elected black man from serving in the U.S. Senate. Your desire for the approval of your racist friends to gain and maintain power for racist ends has led to your name forever being remembered in infamy.

We must never be fooled by the histories written by white men who speak of these persons as pioneers and heroes. They were murderers and perpetrators of genocide who justified their actions on the despicably racist belief that only white people, and more specifically white men, were fully human.

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The Climate Crisis and Nationalism

Australia fire

Climate change and the ecological and economic damage it inflicts creates a vicious cycle that if left unchecked will spiral humanity into climate chaos, endless wars, and the demise of human civilization as we know it.

As humanity experiences the ever-growing negative effects of climate change; some communities and some regions are affected more detrimentally than others; creating a lack of access to food, water, other vital necessities, and in some cases even the loss of habitable land. This inevitably creates conflicts among nations and within nations. It is not surprising that these conflicts often break out along racial, religious, and national divisions where tensions have often existed for years, decades, and in some cases centuries.

As access to vital necessities and viable livelihoods diminish, people tend to group themselves along traditional lines of race, religion, or nation to deal with the perceived threat of the other in the competition for a viable existence. It is no wonder that in such a climate we would see a resurgence of race-based and religiously-based nationalism. In the United States we see this resurgence in the widespread rejection of refugees, the building of walls, anti-Islamic and anti-Semitic attitudes and actions, America First rhetoric and policies, and the dismantling of agreements for international cooperation. This rise in nationalism is not only happening here; it is a global phenomenon.

We find ourselves in a time in which international cooperation to address our social and ecological challenges is needed more than ever before, yet the networks and channels for such cooperation are breaking down under nationalistic pressures and tensions. In such a context, short term economic advantage trumps concerns for long term ecological sustainability, the commodification of nature is accelerated, and oligarchal greed for profit and power runs rampant in the midst of a vacuum left by a lack of cooperative global economic and political structures and regulations.

What we are seeing is that the climate crisis and race-based and religiously-based nationalism are mutually reinforcing phenomena. Both must be overcome simultaneously for humanity to have a chance at survival.

The second decade of the 21st Century will be remembered primarily for two things: 1) pathetic inaction to address the climate crisis and 2) the resurgence of race-based and religiously-based forms of nationalism around the world. Both phenomena pose an existential threat for people and the planet. The third decade of the 21st Century must address and overcome these two threats if humanity is to have hope for preserving a livable climate for human civilization and creating a just future for all persons in a pluralistic society.

The past decade was the warmest decade on record, approaching a full degree Celsius above pre-industrial global temperatures. Democracy is waning globally and more and more countries are being led by authoritarians, many with nationalist leanings. Climate scientists are warning that we have ten years within which to take the action required to avoid catastrophic climate change. This is the decade, we are the people. We will either be remembered as the greatest generation or the one that let it all burn down.

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The Moral Failure of Militarizing Space

Logo_of_the_United_States_Space_Force

The recent creation of a Space Force by the United States is further evidence that we humans take violence and militarism with us wherever we go. We have been an utter failure in creating peace on earth, and now with the creation of a Space Force we embark officially on the journey of a new moral failure of not creating and maintaining peace in space. We have been militarizing space secretly for years, but now we are openly promoting and celebrating it, which means we will likely prioritize it and fund it at even higher levels than before.

Given that the United States has now created a “Space Force” and plans to officially and publicly militarize space, I am reminded of the position of my religious tradition, the United Methodist Church, on the issue. The United Methodist Social Principles explicitly reject the militarization of space.

The current 2016 version of the Social Principles states the following:

Space

The universe, known and unknown, is the creation of God and is due the respect we are called to give the earth. We therefore reject any nation’s efforts to weaponize space and urge that all nations pursue the peaceful and collaborative development of space technologies and of outer space itself.

“The Community of All Creation” section of the Social Principles of the United Methodist Church that is being presented for approval at the 2020 General Conference (the section for which I served as convener of the writing team) states the following about protecting space:

Protecting Space

God’s creation encompasses not only the earth but the entire cosmos, including space. Our charge to be responsible stewards thus extends well beyond humankind’s immediate environs and encompasses not only our own solar system but also other galaxies. Hence, we reject the exploitation, commodification and militarization of space. We express our hope that the exploration and settlement of space, including the moon and other planetary bodies, take place peacefully and cooperatively, and in such fashion that the benefits and resources of any further exploration and development accrue to all humanity.

With the creation of a Space Force, the United States is creating a space arms race, and the only persons who will truly benefit are the capitalists in the military industrial complex. We are blowing the opportunity to make the final frontier one of peaceful cooperation rather than violent corporate profiteering. There are much more pressing challenges that require our attention and investment than the militarization of space.

Humanity has not yet shown itself morally ready to venture into space in the search of new worlds that will more than likely lead to us to exploiting, commodifying, and militarizing them. Our history and our current state of affairs have sadly proven that is better for us not “to boldly go where no one has gone before.” We will likely ruin wherever we go like we are currently ruining earth. Unless we figure out ways to live together in our current world house with love, hope, social and environmental justice, and peace; why would we want to take our propensity for hate, fear, injustice, environmental destruction, and violence to other worlds? They would be better off without us.

Some space enthusiasts like the billionaire Elon Musk (whose company SpaceX will likely make significant sums of money from the militarization of space) have spoken out in favor of a Space Force, saying that it is inevitable that we will need defense forces to protect our activity and exploration of space. Musk even excitedly proclaimed that this past week’s creation of the Space Force was de facto the beginning of StarFleet envisioned in Star Trek. I love Star Trek and Star Wars as science fiction. Both provide amazing truth and mythic drama about the human condition and our connection with each other and the cosmos, but space exploration is not going to play out remotely like either one of these epic stories, and we do not need a StarFleet or an Interstellar Alliance to Restore the Republic, and we definitely do not need a Death Star.

The militarization of space that is found in both Star Trek and Star Wars need not be our future in space. We have an opportunity as a species to explore space peacefully together as a joint venture of all humanity, unless we simply choose not to owing to greed for profit and power. The establishment of a United States Space Force is not an accomplishment to celebrate but rather a development to lament and from which to repent.

*For a more peaceful vision of international cooperation in space, see the most recent United Nations draft resolution on International cooperation in the peaceful uses of outer space

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The Epistemological Divide in United Methodism

Religious groups are communities of practice based upon a shared theory of reality and a shared tradition of enquiry. As our shared experience challenges our theory of reality and we face epistemological crises (crises of how and what we know), our tradition of enquiry is challenged to ask new questions and to ask old questions in different ways, all of which leads to changes in our community practices that conform more appropriately to the new answers and new understandings of reality that come from our shared experience. Religious traditions, practices, and theories of reality are not static or absolute, nor are they simply changed without deep community engagement with our shared experiences and values.

Much of the current division in the United Methodist Church is related to members of our churches responding differently to the epistemological crisis brought on by the rise of the scientific method and the Enlightenment. Those who have addressed this epistemological crisis and recognize that revelation does not mean unchanging or absolute truth but rather the best understanding of a faithful community in a particular historical, social, and historical context are able to revise their theories of reality, traditions of enquiry, and community practices in ways that are congruent with new understandings and experiences of our LGBTQIA+ siblings.

Persons and communities who have not worked through or who have denied this epistemological crisis are continuing to avoid the fact there is a crisis by clinging to a view of revelation and its interpretation that is absolute and unchanging. When pressed to include and affirm persons who are LGBTQIA+, they are reminded of the broader epistemological crisis, which they have simply denied is a crisis by holding on to a pre-Enlightenment worldview of faith. From their perspective, to be open and affirming of persons who are LGBTQIA+ becomes a threat to their whole way of seeing the world.

The United Methodist Church will not be able fo bridge the divide over this epistemological crisis before General Conference in May of 2020, and with those who have not worked through the epistemological crisis attempting to force those who have worked through it to comply with a pre-Enlightenment worldview with all the sexism, patriarchy, and anti-LGBTQIA+ attitudes and practices that it entails; it is no longer tenable for United Methodism to exist in its present form. The centrist solution of straddling the fence of this epistemological divide in order to preserve the religious institution cannot hold us together as one denomination any longer.

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