Concerning Life as It Is Supposed to Be

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Aimee Byrd and the Evangelical ‘F’ Word

It is among the virtues of evangelical thinking to frame one’s life and practice according to Biblical standards. At the heart of evangelical discussions will always be the core question: are we reading our Bibles correctly? This is the question that Aimee Byrd raises in her recently published Recovering from Biblical Manhood and Womanhood: How the Church Needs to Rediscover Her Purpose. Byrd offers this book as a contribution to the discussions in the evangelical world about how men and women are to relate to one another in the church and in the world. To ask whether we are reading our Bibles correctly with regard to men and women is a question worthy of consideration and discussion.

In her book, Byrd challenges many of the premises and conclusions of the evangelical Council on Biblical Manhood and Womanhood (CBMW), an organization that has shaped for many evangelicals what it means to be a Christian man or woman. The impact of the CBMW has been broad and deep and, to Byrd, problematic.

While clearly embracing her church’s traditional and confessional understanding of office and gender, Byrd challenges many of the assumptions and formulations of the CBMW. She questions the theology lying behind their primary assertions and challenges their use of Scripture. Positively she makes a Biblical case to see women as equal participants and contributors to the life of the church and society. Men and women, she argues, equally bear the image of God and have gifts and ministry to share with one another.

Even when critical of others, she is respectful. Her exegesis is compelling. Her insights are properly provocative. Her call to return discipleship to the local church is refreshing. She writes well and with temperate language, and she invites others into a conversation on the matters she raises.

Readers may assume that I am compelled to speak favorably regarding Byrd’s book because she endorsed my book Something Worth Living For. Grateful though I am for that, I speak positively because this is a worthy book raising necessary questions. Her arguments invite engagement.

The responses she has received, however, at least by the loudest voices, have been completely other. Some warn that she is leading the church onto a dangerous and slippery slope (always a weak and tenuous argument). She has been mocked mercilessly. She has had speaking engagements sabotaged by slander. Instead of interaction on substance, she has received misogynistic slams against her looks, against her husband, and against women in general. Such behavior is inexcusable and repugnant. Apparently while battling for the Bible some evangelicals lost sight of the Christian virtues of charity and gentleness.

This book, and others like it, are met with such a response because, at root, evangelicals are a fearful bunch. Fear is evangelicalism’s ‘F’ word. It is not often spoken or faced. And it reveals that try as we might, evangelicals really have not moved away from their fundamentalist roots.

Evangelicals today laugh at the stereotype of the fundamentalist. Evangelicals dance and drink and smoke cigars and pipes, and even make occasional judicious use of the other, less socially acceptable, ‘F’ word. And yet, they, too, are moved by the same fear that led to the prohibitions they now consider foolish.

It’s worth imagining for a moment why drinking and dancing and card playing were forbidden in the first place.

If there is a dangerous pit on one’s property, judicious landowners build a fence around it. Fearful ones build the fence a mile away. Such fear led to the prohibitions evangelicals mock. Dancing could become erotic and the erotically roused may not be able to resist sleeping together. Better build the fence further out. Fear of sin, sexual immorality, led to the forbidding of otherwise non-sinful behavior, dancing. Fear led our fundamentalist forebears to forbid that which was permitted in order to guard against that which was forbidden.

Similarly, to prevent sinful drunkenness drinking itself was redefined as sin. Gambling can be a violation of the eighth commandment so, to be safe, card playing was forbidden. Fear of the thing forbidden led to forbidding a thing permitted.

Evangelicals now dance and drink and play cards having learned that while it is sinful to permit a forbidden thing, so too it is wrong, even sinful, to forbid a permitted thing.

But one may ask how much have we really learned. We might still be in the habit of forbidding what is permitted out of fear that we would permit what is forbidden. In many churches, women are not to receive the church offering. They are allowed to teach boys, but teaching adult men is forbidden. They are not to lead a mixed small group Bible study. They are not to be present when church elders debate matters affecting the entire church. They certainly should not write books addressing matters of theology or church practice.

The issues, whatever they are, whether it is enjoying a lager or allowing a woman to pray in public, should be discussed. But fear shuts down the discussion. The camel’s nose cannot be allowed under the tent. Slippery slopes must be avoided. Prohibitions become entrenched, and fear does not allow them to be questioned. If a woman is allowed to participate in the offering she’ll soon be presenting herself as a pastoral candidate.

I wonder how much abuse was heaped on the first evangelical pastor to offer his elders a beer? Someone along the way had the courage to ask, “Are we reading our Bibles correctly?” We should never be afraid to ask that question. Aimee Byrd is asking that very question and the response has been swift and severe and motivated undeniably not by reason but by fear.

One of Aimee Byrd’s more respected critics, Southern Baptist Seminary professor Denny Burk, suggests that her questions be given the treatment that Gamaliel, the rabbi and mentor of Saul of Tarsus, recommended be given to Peter and the other apostles in the first century. He suggests she be ignored, marginalized, and dismissed. Any who want to remain safely distant from the slippery slope should just ignore her. Plus, if ignored, she will go away. He says, “. . . bad arguments, even when brilliantly presented and popular in their moment, don’t last. Where are Rob Bell and Donald Miller today? And their arguments? The world has moved on . . .”

Such advice dovetails so nicely with Gamaliel’s in Acts 5:35-38 that I can’t resist a mashup:

And Dr. Burk said to them, “Take care what you are about to do with this woman. For before these days Donald Miller rose up, claiming to be somebody, and a number of people joined him. He was ignored and all who followed him were dispersed and came to nothing. After him Rob Bell the Universalist rose up and drew away some of the people after him. He too faded off the evangelical scene, and all who followed him were scattered. So in the present case I tell you, keep away from this woman and let her alone, for if this plan or this undertaking is of man, it will fail.”

It is clearly mistaken and unfair to put Byrd in the same company as Donald Miller and Rob Bell (guilt by association is as easy as “slippery-slopism”). Byrd’s commitment to the church and her confessional heritage is deep and should be unquestioned. There is really no legitimate comparison here.

Dr. Burk is mistaken in another way. The questions Byrd raises are not going away and should not be written off so cavalierly. Her basic question is evangelical to the core: are we reading our Bibles correctly?

One who asks such a question well is a gift, not a threat, to the church. Byrd has framed the questions that many in the church are asking but can’t. She has done so clearly and respectfully and to engage her is to accept the gift.

But many won’t. Perhaps they are afraid.

Perhaps they fear she may be right.

Where to Get The Book

My wise friend Lee asked on Twitter the following question:

“Can we order from somewhere other than the monopoly responsible for killing 90% of local bookstores?”

Lee, who was asking about my book Something Worth Living For, is opinionated as well as wise, as that tweet suggests. On this we are in agreement. I have gone on record (you can follow the argument beginning here) that I am engaged in a one person boycott of Amazon. Partly this is to preserve the existence and prosperity of local bookshops. And partly this is due to Amazon’s cavalier policy toward counterfeiting. I have not bought a book from Amazon for a year, other than to use gift cards given to me specifically for that purpose, and will never do so again if I can help it.

And yet as a writer, one whose own book will soon sit upon a virtual Amazon shelf, I’m aware of the power of that monopoly to sell books. Most who buy my book will buy it from Amazon. I direct people to Amazon because that will be the easiest source for most people. But for those willing to take a little bit more effort, I would be pleased if you would buy it elsewhere. (In fact, I think you should buy a copy from every source!) For example, other large, online retailers like Barnes and Noble and Books-a-Million are currently offering it for pre-order.

They are options. But there are others.

1) Ask for it at your local bookseller. If I’m not mistaken, the book will be available through normal channels of distribution and any local book seller should be able to get it. I love to encourage people to patronize their local bookshops and this is an opportunity to do so. This could have the benefit of drawing attention to the book and encouraging that store to stock it. And this will bring it to the attention of a wider public.

2) When I was researching online book buying options, I loved my experience with Hearts and Minds Bookstore, a Pennsylvania Christian bookseller with a vibrant online presence. If I were to order online, this would be among my first choices. Their catalog is selective and they do not currently carry it (something I will soon work to change). If others were to ask for it, the attention there would be appreciated. I bet they could get it and be persuaded to carry it.

3) If you want to pre-order and still support local bookstores, I encourage you to pre-order it from Not only does this online site return a percentage of sales income back to local bookshops, it is the only place online currently offering Something Worth Living For at a discount. This is a great source for books for those who do not have access to a local bookshop.

4) Currently one cannot pre-order from the Christian Focus web site, but when the book is released that will be possible, and CFP will be offering significant discounts on quantity purchases.

I am sure there are others.

So, yes, please, order the book, buy the book, purchase multiple copies of the book, from your local bookshop if you can, but elsewhere if that is what you do. As for Amazon, we cannot kill the Beast, but we can defund it a bit. And yet, I understand that Amazon is an option and for most, the easiest (which is why my wife has not joined me on my boycot).

At the end of the day, a book sold on Amazon is a book sold.

And while you are placing an order for Something Worth Living For, consider checking out A Living Hope: A Study of 1 Peter, written by Lee’s wife Sarah. He’d probably be happy even if you bought it from Amazon.

The Fruit of Freedom

Poor or destructive relationships persevere by one partner or the other closing their eyes to the other’s faults. In this case, I cannot any longer close my eyes to what I have seen. So I count the cost of separation and move on.

The cost cannot be overlooked. Since I’ve begun this process of separation, I’ve heard concerns about Amazon’s intrusion into the publishing side of the book business and fears that Amazon would disrupt the distribution of certain Christian books. Both concerns should lead us to rethink our addiction to that “Buy Now” button. The latter post says that we should “be willing to pay a small premium” to buy from independent booksellers. I agree in principle, but disagree that the premium is small. It is in reality over 40%, to which my ever practical wife says, “This means we can’t buy as many books for our grandkids.” So, yes. The cost of freedom is, in reality, hefty.

In return I can reasonably guarantee that the books I buy and give are the genuine article. I can be certain that the authors who work long lonely hours pursuing their dream get financial credit for that pursuit. I may re-learn something about the discipline of self-control and the joy of delayed as opposed to instantaneous gratification. And I can take joy in shaking a lonely, rebellious fist in the face of this enticing Goliath. And this is not nothing. My grandchildren may get fewer books but perhaps I can leave them, as well, a small legacy of resistance to the relentless commodification of life.

But it’s the personal gain that is the sweetest.

One Saturday afternoon I invited my wife on a journey. We made the 30 minute drive to WritersBlock bookstore. We browsed the nooks and crannies of its tight book-packed space. We chatted with the clerk who smilingly welcomed us, and we bumped up against, literally, other book lovers. I spoke to one person about poetry. I discovered in the children’s section that Kate DiCamillo had released a new book. I picked up a David Brooks book I’d wanted to read and Barb grabbed a thriller autographed by the authors, James Patterson and Bill Clinton. We pointed things out to each other, and felt in the end like we were a small part of a non-digital human community. For $60, it was a good date, and one that Amazon could never supply.

Years ago Charlie Mora, a good friend and mentor, passed away. When he died I made a visit to Demetrios, the Bradenton, Florida pizza house that he frequented. I knew they would want to know that they would not be seeing Charlie any more. I knew they would care, not about lost business but about a lost relationship. They were glad I had come by. They would miss him.

We may or may not ever develop that kind of relationship with local bookshops. But I wonder if there might not be great joy in the effort. Amazon will never care if any of us dies. But maybe we can again begin to live so that those around us in our neighborhoods and communities will know that we exist, will be encouraged by our presence, and miss us when we are gone. Some fear it “may be too late.” I say that does not matter.

The Courtship

It is great in theory to say that one will leave Amazon for other bookselling relationships, but there is a cost to be counted. I was unaware how deeply the grip of Amazon’s price and convenience had on me. To give these things up requires a determination that I’m not sure many of us will be able to muster. How attractive, I wondered, would the alternatives be?

One repeated recommended bookseller was Hearts & Minds Books in Dallastown, Pennsylvania. Tish Harrison Warren in her initial online comments about the counterfeiting of her book recommended this store. It met all my criteria but the local one. We also considered two local independent stores. One was Brightlight Books (which specializes in used books, and whose new selection tends toward the Christian/theological side of the book world) and the other was Writer’s Block Bookstore (specializing in the more general publishing side of things). All three assured me that protocols were in place to offer secure books.

Hearts & Minds lived up to its positive hype. I visited their site, browsed a bit, and signed up for their promotional mailings. Very soon I saw advertised a book that I had wanted to read listed at 20% off, so I ordered it. Their ordering process seems primitive in an Amazonian age. I emailed them the name of the book I wanted. They gave me the choice of paying for it in a variety of ways including their sending the book with an invoice. (What? They would trust me? Inconceivable!) For a non-local seller the process was oddly personal. There were a series of email exchanges and in 4 days from placing the order I had the book. Of course, having advertised the book, I knew they had it in stock. I have not tested their speed when the book is one they have to order. Nevertheless, their turnaround was quite impressive and the feel very personal.

Brightlight has been for years my used book source in Orlando. Having a storefront two miles from my house also makes it terribly convenient. For this test I only bought a new book that they had in stock – so the convenience and turnaround was solid. The owner tells me that if I want to order any new book I can do so by sending him a personal email. I’ve not had a chance to test that process, so I’m not sure how quickly I would get a book by that method, but it would be personal and close.

To shop at Writers Block Bookstore requires more of an effort on my part. Though it is a lovely and quaint physical space with, I am finding, delightful and helpful personnel, it is a thirty minute drive from my home and only indirectly on my way to anywhere. It has the charm that I associate with a local bookstore that makes me want to go, hang out, wander around. Unlike browsing on a web site, I can pick up books, feel them, flip through their pages. And, unlike an online store, I bump into other customers. Literally. There is a human engagement that feels right.

However, my tastes are rarely going to be found on the shelves of such a store. I ordered three books using their web site ordering system, two books I knew they did not have in stock and one that I knew they did. The process was not very efficient. The book in stock was available for pick up two days after the order was placed, though it was five more before I could get to the store to get it. The other two took about two weeks before they were ready for pick up.

So, same-day delivery is not going to happen. But rarely do I need a book immediately. I’ll give that up. But what premium was I willing to pay? What would it cost me in dollars? Quite a bit, it seems. The eight books I have purchased in this test run cost me 43% more than what I would have paid had I purchased them from Amazon. And that is where Amazon has its tightest grip on someone like me. My $500 worth of yearly new book purchases leaps to $715 if I abandon the Amazon ship. And for most of us, that matters.

Amazon is a cheaper and sexier date, by far. Still, I would rather pay the premium for someone whom I can trust, and who will carry on a conversation over dinner.

How to Leave Your Lover

Paul Simon tells us there must be fifty ways to leave our lovers. It’s a pretty cold prospect. In my case, I was not worried about hurting Amazon. “She” would get over it. My departure would cause no emotional upheaval. I doubted she would even miss me. Which, in a sense, is part of the problem that our increasing online existence creates. The need for any human interaction disappears. The world becomes one large, impersonal vending machine accessed by my laptop or tablet or phone. I have no need of speaking with any real person. This cannot be good for us.

And so I needed to leave. But how?

In searching for a new book-buying relationship, I had four criteria.

1. Secure – I wanted a source that had a clear chain of possession that would guarantee that authors would get their money. Amazon sold counterfeits. Did others? I wanted to make sure, as much as possible, that they did not.

2. Independent – I could simply shift my business from Amazon to Barnes and Noble. There is one nearby. And yet, all large chains, from booksellers to hair-cutters to coffee sellers, encourage a homogenization that strips personality, and the personal, from the experience. In some cases this can encourage comfort – miles from home I can be certain of what I’ll find in a Starbucks. But a chain cannot imprint its own personality upon a business in ways that an independent vendor can. If you have seen You’ve Got Mail, you know that Fox Books can work, but not in the way The Shop Around the Corner does.

3. Local – Independent booksellers locally operated not only meet the first two goals, but in order to survive have to know their communities. They are parts of their community and that is reflected in the character of the store. If they do it well, we who frequent their stores understand that we are supporting those we know and in a small but not insignificant way sustaining our local economy more than that of Seattle or New York City.

4. Complete – I am looking for a source that can pretty much take care of all my diverse reading habits, from theology to kid’s books, from history to science fiction. I am willing to consider two sources if need be – one specializing in Christian publishers and one in the more general publishing world. However, I’d prefer a single source.

Twitter friends at this point generated several recommendations that met the first two requirements. Of these, I eliminated seminary bookstores as being too specialized. Some recommended ordering from publishers – but my interests span so many different publishers that I eliminated this as being too unwieldy to be a solution. Christian Book Distributors (Now was suggested, but this source has the impersonal feel that I attribute to the large chains (and I have a history of resenting their unsolicited mailings).

There may be fifty ways to leave, but I only had time to court a few new booksellers. Three seemed attractive enough to pursue. And so the courtship began.

The Habits of Dependence

Amazon, how have I loved you? Let me count the ways.

Coming home after a day away, one might look forward to a spouse’s kiss or a child’s embrace or a dog’s leap. For some coming home has meant the joy and anticipation of seeing a package from Amazon on the front stoop. That thing we wanted and had to have which we might at this point have forgotten even though we just ordered it yesterday is there sitting, waiting, greeting us with a quick fix of acquisition. How did it get there?

There was a time when the thing I wanted, whatever it was, required that I find a store, climb in my car, trundle off to that store, pick the item, pay for it, and trundle back home. If I were truly efficient, I would bundle several such items together stopping at several stores and call it “running errands.” It was so truly labor intensive that one only did it when the objects required were really needed. Like toilet paper or the newest release from your favorite musician. Things not truly needed would evaporate from my mind and never be given a second thought, and never missed.

Books were a particular challenge. In college I could buy textbooks at one of the local college bookstores. For books that would feed my growing Christian curiosity, I browsed the Logos Bookstore in East Lansing, a small but richly stocked place for good books and engaging conversation. Back then Christian bookstores made their money from selling books not what Os Guinness later came to call “Jesus Junk”—plaques and posters and pens and the like. When living in Bradenton, Florida, books still required a trip to a bookstore – Walden Books in the mall or eventually the then intoxicating Books-a-Million – with occasional forays to Haslams the palatial used book store in St. Petersburg. For my Christian books I depended on the Cumberland Valley Bible Book Service in Pennsylvania. I phoned in an order which would be mailed to me, and I’d pay by check. All quite quaint.

Amazon changed all of that and I embraced it wholly. No more trips to bookstores. No more phone calls. No more real people. Amazon trumped all that with price, convenience, and speed. Even if Amazon’s prices were not ridiculously low, we would shop there for the convenience and speed alone. Now, within 60 seconds of deciding to buy a book I can order it and pay for it and before nightfall (or within a day or two at most) have it in my hands. If my taste is for Kindle, I can have it immediately.

Occasionally such speed has met a real practical need. But not normally. The fact is that such immediacy is intoxicating more than it is needed. Children demand immediate satisfaction of their wants. It is a part of growing up that we learn the wisdom of delayed gratification. Amazon removes that need to grow up. We can have what we want when we want it as soon as we decide we want it. Amazon has positioned itself to tap into our baser instincts and we have happily played along. We have grown so dependent upon this relationship that going back seems impossible.

But perhaps it is possible after all.

Breaking Up Is Hard to Do – Ending My Love Affair with Amazon

I can’t remember when Amazon and I first met, but it was love at first sight, and our relationship went deep fast. We’ve been together for a long time now, but the time to end it has come. I’ve lost that loving feeling, and now it’s gone, gone, gone.

Relationships often begin to deteriorate long before the parties are willing to admit the fact. I noticed some time ago creepiness lurking below the surface, but I ignored it. I would search for something on Amazon and the next day an advertisement for that very think would show up in an unrelated place. “Coincidence!” I insisted. My lover’s exclusive demands on me cut me off from other human interactions. “That’s the cost of love,” I reasoned. Like any desperate lover I overlooked a lot in exchange for benefits, in this case 40% discounts and same day delivery.

I was willing to suppress my suspicions of villainy. I can’t, though, ignore recent evidence of clear unfaithfulness.

In late June of this year, Christianity Today broke the story that Tish Harrison Warren’s wonderful little book, Liturgy of the Ordinary, had been counterfeited. Nearly a quarter million dollars worth of sales lost. Warren spoke wistfully of this on her blog. This was not simply a glitch in the business practices of a large corporation. This theft had drained significant income from the author and her family. And from all indications, as the New York Times had recently reported, Amazon took no action, and takes no action, to prevent such things from happening.

After this news broke I spoke with a friend who works in the sales department of InterVarsity Press (IVP), the publisher of Warren’s book. When IVP became aware of the existence of counterfeit copies traced to Amazon, they tried to contact the company but it took many calls and countless hours to find a person at Amazon with authority who would talk to them about their concerns. I had to put that in perspective. Amazon is so big and so impersonal that a publisher who does millions of dollars worth of business with Amazon is treated as a small player. Where does that put me or any other customer?

My friend told me that counterfeiting was common and that Amazon was not policing it. A separate New York Times report on the issue confirmed his take. In the absence of an aggressive response from Amazon the responsibility for insuring that only authentic editions of their books are sold has fallen on the publishers. I picture someone coming into my local grocery, replacing the boxes of Frosted Flakes with their own product made to look like Frosted Flakes, and the store management saying they can do nothing about it.

This is not a mere corporate skirmish. Those hurt by this are the authors, the Tish Harrison Warrens who labor hard and pour flesh and blood and heart and soul into the words on a page. To steal this, or to stand by and do nothing while it is stolen, is to treat too lightly the labor and humanity that is at the bottom of this publishing food chain.

It’s taken this to see what is wrong in our relationship, though we’ve been together for years. My love is not being reciprocated and I certainly don’t want to have to snoop around to make sure no hanky panky is going on. I live in Orlando where a little company called Disney wants all the tourism money. Amazon wants all my book money. But, I realize, I don’t have to give it.

I need to break it off. I need to take a stand. We need to end it, this thing we have, even if breaking up is hard to do.

Five Books Every Pastor Should Read

Of the four practices of pastoral self-care I recommended recently, the final one encouraged pastors to read good books. Of the naming of books, there may be no end, but here are five that I believe every pastor should read. I commend these with absolute seriousness. To practice ministry without the company of these books, to me, is to walk a tightrope without a net. It’s possible, but oh so risky.

1. The Contemplative Pastor by Eugene Peterson.

Everything about pastoral ministry drives the pastor to do more and to push harder. The culture of American efficiency is not shed upon ordination, and many pastors land in churches where leaders ask increasingly more of them. Peterson deftly subverts that uncompromising culture inviting pastors rather to a more biblical and bearable ministry of the Word and of prayer. It is one of the few books I’ve read more than twice because its lessons I too easily forget. I recently asked other pastors to weigh in on what books they believed should be read by every pastor. Nearly all mentioned this book. For good reason.

2. The Imperfect Pastor by Zach Eswine

Breathing a spirit similar to that of Peterson, Eswine challenges pastors to see the beauty, power, and value of the ordinary place and the ordinary people among whom they are privileged to serve. Wrong notions of who the pastor is, what his role is, and where his power lies poisons pastoral ministry beyond bearing for many. Eswine gently administers a welcome and Christ-centered antidote.

3. Surviving Ministry by Michael E. Osborne

The first two books shape pastors’ attitudes toward their calling. This (short!) book, expressing the same heart as these, zeroes in on the challenges of ministry when ministry grows hard, as it is prone to do. Mike, a personal friend, is a good pastor who cares deeply for pastors. There is power in his honesty. Born from his humble and gracious mining of the lessons of his own struggles and failure, he offers guidance to the unwary.

4. The Cross of Christ by John R. W. Stott

John Stott pastored an Anglican church in London for many years. One cannot measure the impact of that legacy or that of his worldwide speaking ministry. But perhaps his greatest gift to the church is this book on the central work of redemption. Pastors are called to preach “Christ and him crucified,” a calling from which we too easily are distracted. Our congregations have no greater need than to hear a clear and consistent preaching of the hope of the gospel which is rooted in Calvary. Too often we send people out with burdens of what they must do without a reminder of what God has done for them. Perhaps the reason for this is that we ourselves have lost sight of this great truth. Stott’s is a deep and stirring call to make what is most important, most important.

5. The Matares Circle by Robert Ludlum

This, like Ludlum’s better known The Bourne Identity, is a spy thriller. So what is it doing on a list of books geared toward pastoral health? Well, first, it’s here because it is really good. But primarily it is here as a placeholder into which pastors may pour all the books that they may want to read for fun, for relaxation, and for escape. Read for these reasons. It’s not just okay. It’s necessary. A pastor recently sent me a screen shot of his Kindle library which was full of mysteries and thrillers like this. The subject line of his email was “Pathetic, huh?” No, not pathetic. Wise. Those who have seen the movie The Shining are aware that all work and no play did not end well for Jack Nicholson. It rarely ends well for pastors either.

They Are People

Recently, tear gas canisters were launched at people near the U.S. border with Mexico. The targets were those fleeing Central American instability to seek asylum in the United States. They were and are people.

And some of them were children.

No decent person wants to gas children, of course. But I wonder to what degree the language of our arguments, to the degree that it dehumanizes others, allows some to take such action which leaves children in the crossfire. That is, ‘migrants’ or ‘refugees’ might be met with a degree of sympathy and compassion. ‘Criminals,’ ‘threats,’ ‘rapists,’ and ‘terrorists’ (all terms at one point used to reference those heading for the border), on the other hand, are more readily cannon (or tear gas) fodder. The more successfully our language moves a group from the category of ‘human’, the easier it becomes to justify violence against them.

To counter this tendency, we need to read more books.

Edwidge Danticat

At the 2018 Festival of Faith and Writing my wife discovered the books of Haitian writer Edwidge Danticat. With her encouragement I eventually read two of them, both set in Danicat’s native Haiti. I’ve never been to Haiti and I benefited from her rich and unsentimental portrait of a people shaped by their land and history to be so different from me and yet, by our shared humanity, to be so similar. Months later, the flavor of that land, its richness and earthiness, and of that people, their luminescence, joy, and sadness, is still with me.

The urge to leave such a place for greater opportunity or safety is developed in Danticat’s moving memoir of her father and uncle, Brother, I’m Dying. When Danticat was a child of two her father immigrated to the US, followed shortly thereafter by her mother, leaving Edwidge to be raised by her aunt and uncle. Such was the family-separating immigration policy of the time.

When at age twelve her parents were able to bring Edwidge to the U.S. to be with them, she was forced to leave the only land she had known and the uncle who, through disability and poverty, had cared for her. It was painful, as such things always are for people. People, and these are people, after all, like us, never make such decisions lightly.

In time, her uncle, then an old man suffering from a debilitating but treatable disease, fell under the disfavor of a violent gang. He was forced to flee Haiti seeking safety and asylum in the U.S. Danticat’s well-researched and well-documented account of her uncle’s experience with U.S. immigration authorities is agonizing to read and illustrative of a system that is and has long been broken and in need of repair.

It is a system that dehumanizes and eventually lofts tear gas across border walls.

Will reading Danticat, or authors like her, shape or change, a reader’s convictions regarding immigration policy? I can’t say. What I can say is that our convictions will be better formed when we form them around the fact that the subjects of these convictions are people. Not problems, not enemies, not threats, but people.

They are all people. And that matters.

Goodness and Greatness

When Ulysses S. Grant died in 1885 Mark Twain, had this to say:

“He was a very great man and superlatively good.” (Grant, page 954)

Twain was a cynic unimpressed with power and pretense. He skewered those presuming greatness and mocked those pretending to be good. In Grant Twain saw the greatness others saw, but he saw it rooted in a fundamental goodness of character. Grant was, as Twain noted and his biographer (Ron Chernow) reveals, a fundamentally decent, honest, and principled man. He was human and not perfect, but nevertheless he was superlatively good.

Few will find greatness thrust upon them like Grant. Fewer still will rise to the challenge. But decency is within reach of us all if we but honored it and sought it.

And in the long run, such goodness will be of much greater consequence.

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