Monday, June 27, 2016

Are All Crimes Hate Crimes?

In light of many horrific tragedies our world is facing, especially the shooting in Orlando, there is talk of applying hate crime law in the United States. Every time the phrase "hate crime" is used, people get up in arms about how inappropriate it is, as virtually all crimes are committed out of hate.

Murder, rape, theft, etc. all violate other people's rights, which theoretically requires some level of disregard for the other, if not full blown hate. I wouldn't disagree with this argument. In fact, I've thought it myself.

However, I've come to realize hate crime law isn't just trying to capture the presence of hate during a crime. It's really more focused on the additional element that someone (or a group of people) is targeted just because of a part of their identity (e.g., religion, race/ethnicity, gender, sexual orientation, nationality, etc.). This extra legal charge can be applied to add penalty for committing a crime, at least in part, because of the victim's identity.

This doesn't dismiss or minimize the disregard for rights someone committing a crime often must have, and it doesn't mean there wasn't a specific motivator to commit the offense. What it does do is recognize the problems caused by hateful discrimination that increases crime.

While many crimes are driven by hate of some kind, there's a difference between hating someone who did something that injured you and hating someone because of an element of their identity. A crime driven out of either is problematic, but as a society, we generally can understand the former more. However, the latter is more systemically problematic and without any reasonable justification. Hence, our agreed upon system of justice penalizes that even more.

The real question is not whether all crimes are hate crimes, but whether there should be an extra penalty for a crime committed in part because of the victim's identity.

Tuesday, June 21, 2016

Safety is an Illusion

Maslow rates safety and security as fundamental needs, just above basic physiological needs of water, air, food, sleep, etc. This makes sense. If we don't feel safe, it's very difficult to function.

However, there's a reality of risk we take in everything we do. And there's almost a bit of a delusional state we need to live in to get by. If I thought about all the ways and chances we could get in accidents on the freeway, I might never put my kids in a car. But that just won't work. Sure, there's good, reasonable safety precautions, like car seats, seat belts, car maintenance, and safe driving. But bad things happen despite all of those things. And they happen every day.

In the aftermath of shootings in San Bernardino and Orlando and gorilla and alligator encounters with children, there are a variety of outcries focused on how somebody did something wrong that could have prevented these tragedies.

We need good, honest, critical thinking evaluations of what can truly prevent bad things from happening when possible.

However, I think a lot of the debate is not that. I think much of it is an attempt to self-soothe by saying, "It would never happen to me" because of the many things I would do differently. I had that reaction with the kids situations, putting myself in that position and telling myself it would never happen to me. But then I realized my "logic" was really just a reaction of fear, not wanting to acknowledge the horror of the situation and not wanting to consider that it could happen to me.

In order to do that good, honest, critical thinking evaluation of safety, we need to be able to face tragedy and horror in its face, recognizing that it's not that far away and not somewhere else. Many arguments about safety I've heard over the past months won't actually improve safety; they'll improve people's feeling of safety. Those are very different things. Feeling safe is fine. Again, I think we need a bit of a delusional quality of life (this is actually reinforced by research indicating that the negative view of the world in depression is actually far more accurate than non-depressed "normal" states). However, we need to consider the consequences and recognize the illusory quality of some things that we do.

When it comes to guns, for instance, do they actually make us safer societally, or do they make individuals who carry them feel safer? Since we can't systematically study them well in this country, that's a difficult question to objectively answer--what I hear are mostly single anecdotes on either side of the debate, but you can always find an exception to any evidence.

And then when we determine something makes us safer, we have to conduct a cost-benefit analysis. We don't want to acknowledge this, either, but we do it all the time. We turn down a variety of safety measures, including air bags, seat belts, helmets, home alarms, distractionless driving, etc. Most of these just impact us individually, but we also need to consider the safety impact of decisions on others.

Just because something makes us safer individually, does it make other less safe? Driving in a car full of spikes could be a good example of this.

When we think of safety, we need to move beyond the feeling of safety into evidence of actual safety, and not just for us individually, but as a society.

And sometimes bad things happen no matter what anyone does.

Sunday, June 12, 2016

Let Love Triumph Again

Just about six months ago, in the memorial for county staff related to the San Bernardino shootings that occurred a couple blocks from my office, Rudy Giuliani gave the sobering prediction that it was not if, but when, another attack would happen, and it would be our duty to help our neighbors. I doubt anyone thought it would happen so soon and so horrifically.

What I would encourage all to do is remember that for those who survived, their journey is just starting. The attack itself was a horrible trauma, but the psychological and spiritual journeys will be lifelong.

While evil abounds, love can repudiate everything it stands for, especially when we talk of hate and terror. I would use my sermon from just a few weeks ago to illustrate beautiful examples of how community and relationships can begin the healing process through love.

I'll end with my benediction from that day‭‭:
Carry each other’s burdens and so you will fulfill the law of Christ. Let’s not get tired of doing good, because in time we’ll have a harvest if we don’t give up. So then, let’s work for the good of all whenever we have an opportunity, and especially for those in the household of faith. Galatians‬ ‭6:2, 9-10‬ ‭(CEB‬‬)

Monday, June 6, 2016

Review: The Sanctity of the Mundane

This review first appeared on the Englewood Review of Books.

Rob Bell, in his latest book, How to Be Here, explores how to create a life worth living through being present in the here and now. It addresses ideas that are becoming quite popular, likely because of their relevance for our modern culture and way of living. Bell continues with his strong, engaging writing style and story telling, so fans of his approach will likely appreciate this text, as well. His style should open up ideas to new audiences. At the same time, the book could be better organized to make his point clearer and send the message “home” more effectively.

As noted, Bell provides his usual writing that is engaging, accessible, and engrossing. His passion comes through clearly, and the personal anecdotes enliven abstract ideas. The short sections make the text easily digestible while allowing for pauses in reading, when needed. He is an incredibly effective story teller, and his success in many areas reflects this skill. It is once again displayed very well in How to Be Here.

The biggest challenge in this particular book is that, in many ways, it feels like a collection of short essays that are loosely connected, but could really stand on their own. I frequently found myself asking, “What is his point? Where is he going?” I struggled to find an overall thesis and direction. The book is subtitled A Guide to Creating a Life Worth Living, although interestingly, that subtitle doesn’t appear on the cover to provide some clarity. In hindsight, the title does summarize the thesis and purpose of the book, mentioned above: Create a life worth living through being present in the here and now. However, there are several sections that dive into other sub-theses and concepts, like ikigai, a Japanese word for what gets you out of bed in the morning, motivated to take on the day. There are great ideas and discussions he presents, but they don’t feel fully realized over the course of the entire book. This is what contributes to that essay anthology feeling.

A short introduction providing a direction/thesis and tying all the parts together would have done wonders for the coherency of the narrative across the entire text. On the other hand, Bell's style traditionally tends to be conversational, and his ultimate point isn't often known until his work is done. This works well for his short Nooma videos or even longer sermons. A book is a different experience, though, and making a clear direction, even if the conclusion is still a surprise, is really critical for reader engagement and comprehension. He also doesn't go back and clearly connect all the dots on the backend, which would at least have provided retrospective coherency.

All that aside, the points he was trying to make were strong. In many ways, the text reminded me of a modern version of Brother Lawrence's Practice of the Presence of God. Bell illustrates this very well, in his unique, engaging style, emphasizing examples of and the power of being present in the moment, seeing the sanctity of the mundane, helps us experience life more fully and find meaning.

Indeed, there are many faith and cultural traditions, within and without Christianity, that have taught these lessons. The behavioral sciences have picked up on these principles in the past decade, generally describing them under the umbrella of mindfulness, and plenty of research has reinforced the truth of these claims. From that perspective, there isn't much new in Bell's text, although he doesn't necessarily claim that he is coming up with a new idea. In many ways, he is a story teller to illustrate and convey principles in new ways. And Bell has always been excellent at this. This story telling to bring abstract principles to life is what How to Be Here does best. 

At the same time, the book full title: How to Be Here: A Guide to Creating a Life Worth Living is misleading, as it isn’t really a guide, at least not in a traditional sense. There are no steps, no real recommendations; just stories. A reader could easily walk away from the book wondering what they can really do to be here. Bell’s stories have examples, but they’re highly contextualized and therefore not necessarily generalizable. There are plenty of more concrete guides to mindfulness and presence that lay out example activities, prayers, exercises, etc. that can help us be more mindful and present in the moment. A potential downside of these materials is that they can be viewed prescriptively and formulaically, which is definitely a problem.

Perhaps this is why Bell takes a different approach. In reflection, an implicit part of his message seems to be that there is a journey, a story, to being able to be effectively present and create a life worth living. His initial and most enduring metaphor is in writing a story of our lives, starting with the blinking line on an electronic page. There is great truth to this approach, and frankly, I think it is truer than any activity, exercise, or form of prayer, as it is frequently in the doing of things that we lose our presence and sense of meaning. Yet many people need some examples of things to do to practice this sort of thing. Bell’s book can be complementary to these other, more traditional guides, with them providing practices, while he helps build motivation and weightiness to value of such practices.

In the end, How to Be Here is a book with meaning and value, but it doesn’t sit on its own well. Additional structure to orient the reader what the purpose of the book is, and ensuring all points are clearly connected would have strengthened it significantly. As it is literally advertised as a “how to” book and a “guide,” reference to other resources would have helped, as well. Even explicitly discussing the power of narrative and journey over practices, as I noted above, would have helped improve Bell's thesis and purpose.

This text is probably best for people who don’t necessarily need suggestions on what to do different (many of us know what to do), but need reminders of priorities and that mindfulness and presence is really quite worthwhile.

Disclosure of Material Connection: I received this book free from the publisher. I was not required to write a positive review. The opinions I have expressed are my own. I am disclosing this in accordance with the Federal Trade Commission’s 16 CFR, Part 255: “Guides Concerning the Use of Endorsements and Testimonials in Advertising.” 

Monday, May 30, 2016

Review: Should we ask Presidential candidates about their faith?

As a psychologist with a bachelor's degree in Religious Studies who works in the public sector and did an internship in the California State Assembly during college, I have a particular interest in the role of faith as a motivator and driver of behavior and decision-making, especially during election season. The 2016 election season has already had some interesting intersections with faith and candidates' appearances of commitment (or lack thereof) to traditions.

Stephen Mansfield argues that the populace should ask every candidate, especially Presidential candidates, detailed questions about their faith in his latest book, Ask the Question: Why We Must Demand Religious Clarity From Our Presidential Candidates. I was initially concerned that this text would ultimately argue asking these questions in order to have a religious litmus test for the Oval Office. While I'm sure Mansfield has strong personal faith (which can be guessed by how some things are framed) and political convictions, he stays largely objective, providing a descriptive assessment of both the history of faith and politics in the United States as well as the role of faith in the lives of many Presidents and candidates.

Mansfield observes the religious political history of the United States, noting the ways religion and politics have intersected differently over the decades. He knows his religious and political history well and will probably shock some readers in detailing the more agnostic faith of many of most respected historical leaders. I particularly appreciate that he does not present these facts with any judgment, as might be expected from texts published by Christian companies, rather acknowledges reality, including the historical motivators and benefits of restrained faith.

In exploring the faith of Presidents and Presidential candidates, both historical and current, Mansfield describes the honest depth of people across the political spectrum. He has written religious biographies on several political celebrities of both parties. Sadly, he explained how he received death threats after writing his text on Obama, acknowledging the President's deep Christian faith. But Mansfield drives on, continuing to raise descriptive, objective awareness of how politicians' faith histories impact their current public policy. This is truly a gift.

There are a few times when Mansfield's personal opinions appear to subtly show up. He occasionally makes evaluative comments about some leaders' faiths, stating that their faith hasn't imbued them fully since they still take a particular stance on some topic. With his religious history background and knowledge, he should be well aware that people can honestly come to vastly different conclusions of biblical and theological application. This doesn't mean their faith isn't driving them; it just drives them and has transformed their lives differently than for others. Despite this, Mansfield's descriptions of the role of faith in the lives of many Presidents and candidates left me with a deeper respect and appreciation of these people.

Ultimately, I'm not sure I 100% agree with Mansfield argument that we must ask explicit questions for religious clarity. Mansfield's thesis for asking these questions relates to the fact that religious labels mean less and less over time and individual's unique theological framework needs to be addressed. I agree with the fact that worldview and values clearly drive behavior, decisions, and policy making, although this piece could have been clearer in the book. However, increasingly, worldview and values are not necessarily framed in clearly religious terms even though academically, I would argue that all worldview is religious in a broad sense. Emphasizing religious clarity may actually restrict these conversations, as many people (candidates included) may not be getting the underlying question. We need to ask questions about candidates' values, moral frameworks, worldviews, and the like. Religious language will arise out of that naturally, where applicable for the candidate.

This is one of the most engaging nonfiction books I have read/listened to in quite some time. Granted, I am a nerd when it comes to religious history, but this is a book I'd be quite tempted to listen to a second time. Bob Souer's narration is clear and engaging. However, especially when reading Presidential speeches, there's nothing that could compare to the original intonation, expression, etc.

I highly recommend this book as a thoughtful exploration of the role of faith/religion in the American Presidency. Hopefully it helps reduce assumptions across ideological lines, helping us recognizing the ability of many people to improve our public policy and the honest, if different, faith some people come to public service through.

Disclosure of Material Connection: I received this book free from the publisher. I was not required to write a positive review. The opinions I have expressed are my own. I am disclosing this in accordance with the Federal Trade Commission’s 16 CFR, Part 255: “Guides Concerning the Use of Endorsements and Testimonials in Advertising.”

Monday, May 2, 2016

Clarifying Gender Identity

So, probably like a lot of you, my Facebook feed has been filled with various perspectives on bathrooms. Unfortunately, there is a lot of misinformation about various statuses related to what transgender really is. Much of it seems to be related to our sex-obsessed culture that seems to see sex in everything.

Gender identity simply has to do with whether someone identifies as male, female, both, or neither. When one's gender identity doesn't match their biological sex, that is when the term "transgender" starts to be used (although it's more complicated than that, as well, such as genderqueer, but we'll keep it simple here). Also, know that there are not necessarily just two genders--other cultures around the world have more than one gender that does not necessarily correlate to biological sex (Samoan culture is one good example).

To be clear, transgender has nothing to do with sexual orientation. People make this mistake a lot, likely in part because "T" is part of "LGBTQ," although it's one of the most misunderstood of the letters. Sexual orientation/sexuality has to do with who you are sexually attracted to.

People who identify as transgender can be considered heterosexual, homosexual, bisexual, etc. The orientation is defined by their gender identity rather than their biological sex. And again, don't assume sexuality has anything to do with gender identity.

Transgenderism also is not the same thing as masculinity or femininity. These latter two concepts are related to cultural-specific expressions of gender. Masculine women and feminine men are not transgender. Again, biological females who have a masculine tendencies who still identify as women are still women. They're not transgender. And they're not necessarily lesbians. I've seen posts going around confusing masculinity/femininity with gender identity. They're not at all the same thing. Boys who play with dolls are not necessarily either gay or consider themselves to female. They're just expressing behaviors that our society labels as more feminine.

Transgenderism is not the same thing as transvestite or cross-dressing. Some people, for a variety of reasons, like to dress as the opposite gender at times. Despite the appearance, this has nothing to do with gender identity. It's closer to the masculinity/femininity discussion above. Cross-dressing also does not necessarily mean anything about sexual orientation. Biological men who are heterosexual sometimes dress as women. They never actually identify as a woman nor as gay.

It's interesting to pay attention to research on transgenderism. Discrepancy with one's gender usually starts very early and causes significant distress. More masculine or feminine expression doesn't solve it because it's not as much about expression as it is identity--being able to considered male or female. Transitioning to the other gender relieves that distress, which I think conveys something significant about how real it is. (Of course, we cannot understate that transitioning also adds a whole lot more due to societal non-acceptance. Transgender populations have one of the absolutely highest suicide rates because of this.)

I find it quite interesting that people of many faiths are increasingly able to accept non-heterosexual orientations, but are quick to reject transgenderism, which has to do with identity more than behavior. Morality is fundamentally about behavior rather than identity. Identify informs behavior, and when we have identity conflicts, bad things happen.

The only argument I've heard against transgenderism is that God creates everyone and doesn't make mistakes, so therefore transgenderism isn't "real." One only needs to scratch the surface of birth defects to undermine that argument, which is also extremely poor theology.

So if you're going to make arguments for or against policies and laws related to transgenderism, please be informed with fully accurate information. It's also important to listen to real people's stories and stop sexualizing everything. Accurate knowledge allows us to have adult conversations rather than promote ignorant fear mongering.

Monday, April 25, 2016

Defeat Evil with Good

The sermon I gave at the First Baptist Church of Redlands on Sunday is now available online. I explore the Scripture below (the underlined portions being the responsive reading) with examples and application from our community's response to the December 2 San Bernardino shootings.

‭‭Romans‬ ‭12:9-21‬ ‭(CEB‬‬):

Love should be shown without pretending. Hate evil, and hold on to what is good. Love each other like the members of your family. Be the best at showing honor to each other. Don’t hesitate to be enthusiastic—be on fire in the Spirit as you serve the Lord! Be happy in your hope, stand your ground when you’re in trouble, and devote yourselves to prayer. Contribute to the needs of God’s people, and welcome strangers into your home. Bless people who harass you—bless and don’t curse them. Be happy with those who are happy, and cry with those who are crying. Consider everyone as equal, and don’t think that you’re better than anyone else. Instead, associate with people who have no status. Don’t think that you’re so smart. Don’t pay back anyone for their evil actions with evil actions, but show respect for what everyone else believes is good. If possible, to the best of your ability, live at peace with all people. Don’t try to get revenge for yourselves, my dear friends, but leave room for God’s wrath. It is written, Revenge belongs to me; I will pay it back, says the Lord. Instead, If your enemy is hungry, feed him; if he is thirsty, give him a drink. By doing this, you will pile burning coals of fire upon his head. Don’t be defeated by evil, but defeat evil with good.

An additional Scripture was ‭‭Matthew‬ ‭5:13-16‬ ‭(CEB‬‬):
You are the salt of the earth. But if salt loses its saltiness, how will it become salty again? It’s good for nothing except to be thrown away and trampled under people’s feet. You are the light of the world. A city on top of a hill can’t be hidden. Neither do people light a lamp and put it under a basket. Instead, they put it on top of a lampstand, and it shines on all who are in the house. In the same way, let your light shine before people, so they can see the good things you do and praise your Father who is in heaven.
The benediction was‭‭ Galatians‬ ‭6:2, 9-10‬ ‭(CEB‬‬):
Carry each other’s burdens and so you will fulfill the law of Christ. Let’s not get tired of doing good, because in time we’ll have a harvest if we don’t give up. So then, let’s work for the good of all whenever we have an opportunity, and especially for those in the household of faith.


Got a question, struggle, or doubt you'd like to see addressed here? Contact me, and I'll try to discuss it (and may even help you get an answer).