Thursday, August 21, 2014

What trustworthy authority looks like.

Having a themed blog is a weird thing.

It probably looks like the only thing I care about is how polyamorous families are treated by American Protestant churches, since this blog is my current public face. (Except that most readers are coming from my Facebook feed according to the traffic stats, so, hi, guys!).  At the same time, I feel a certain amount of internal pressure to stay "on topic," and since I have a self-imposed posting cycle of a-week-give-or-take, I feel some guilt when my attention is consumed by something that seems incompatible with writing a post consistent with the blog's theme.

It's getting close to two weeks now that the police shooting and response to community uproar in Ferguson, MO has been that something consuming my attention. It is the defiantly corrupted authority on display that pushes me from grief to outrage. As one Los Angeles police officer conveniently says out loud for all of us to hear: "I'm a cop. If you don't want to get hurt, don't challenge me." Set aside for the moment that this advice works about as well as the advice for women to dress modestly if they want to avoid harassment by men (i.e., it doesn't). Set aside, too, that the white men speaking loudest for unconditional deference to the police overlap significantly with the white men who talk about "Second Amendment solutions" (i.e., their rhetoric jumps straight to resistance in the face of government action they perceive as intrusive). Focus on the narrow question of whether anyone claiming this kind of authority can be trusted with it. The answer: No. They can't.

For almost the entirety of my adult working life, I've held positions where I've been entrusted with authority. (I have written about the experience from time to time.) I've had the opportunity to watch colleagues and peers navigate their own relationships with personal authority. My five years in municipal government were especially illuminating in this respect. Here is what I've learned about trustworthy authority.

It is transparent. Whenever possible, the process and rationale for decisions is shared freely. When not possible, the reasons given for non-disclosure are clear and consistent. Almost always, the only acceptable reasons are "it would be illegal" or "it would go against generally accepted professional ethics" or "we're not sure ourselves." And you cite your sources.

It takes responsibility. When you have authority and bad things happen on your watch, it may not always be your fault, but it's always your responsibility. It is literally your job to make things right to the best of your ability. If there is never any progress, and the same bad things seem to keep happening over and over? It's your fault.

Its goal is stewardship, not dominion. Every exercise of authority must be directly justifiable by the benefit it brings to the people subject to it. Sometimes it takes time for that benefit to establish itself and bear fruit. But if it never comes? You're not authoritative. You're authoritarian.

It accepts condemnation. I won't lie. It sucks to be heckled, mistrusted, misinterpreted, accused, even hated. But there will always be people who think you're doing it wrong, or who find it expedient to act like they do. You have to keep doing your job right anyway. And you know what? Sometimes your critics are right. If you don't let them speak freely, you'll never learn when they are.

Everything about the situation in Ferguson shows the local police failing each of these conditions, miserably. And unfortunately, Ferguson is just one of many, many jurisdictions where the police are betraying the communities they serve. (In my opinion, Portland, where I live, is one of those.)

Do American police always screw up? Hardly. But authority is not an area of life where it is acceptable to look at aggregate results and dismiss a minority of abuses as a statistical cost of doing business. These aren't errors by sports players or a till that doesn't balance out at the end of the day or a student who gets a C in one class. These are people's lives and livelihoods harmed or completely destroyed. No trustworthy authority is okay with that or tries to deflect attention from its responsibility.

I could tie this all back to church authority and polyamorous families. Oppression is, after all, rather dull in the predictability of how it plays out. But it would trivialize the impact that police brutality and lack of accountability has on people's lives, especially Black people. Sometimes the only respectful thing to do is to go off-topic.

Wednesday, August 13, 2014

Robin Williams, depression and me.

I've been uncharitably irritated with pretty much all the different responses to Robin Williams' death this week. I agree that it is very sad, that people should be more educated about and understanding of mental illness, that everyone should appreciate the love and respect they have from people near to them, and that having suicide hotline information at one's fingertips is a sensible and sometimes life-saving precaution.

And yet. I'm irritated.

I first showed symptoms of clinical depression in high school. They intensified in my young adulthood; I was hospitalized for observation for about a day when I was 19, and for about a week when I was 23. When I was 29, I took a month-long leave of absence from work to deal with a particularly nasty depressive episode. And throughout the first half of my 30's, I became pretty convinced that I wasn't going to live into old age. I have a stubborn and more-or-less all-encompassing sense of personal responsibility, so I figured I would most likely see my son (my one child at the time) into adulthood, arrange my affairs so the people depending on me would be taken care of, and then help establish and enter the equivalent of hospice care for the suicidally depressed.

Which brings me to irritation #1: suicide hotline information. The thing about suicide hotlines is, they work. I can speak from personal experience. But after enough depressive episodes, I learned that survival doesn't actually solve anything. The suffering is still waiting to return. Even today, at 41, when I can easily be described as "happy" by any objective standard--plus my own personal subjective one--it is a very rare day that I don't have at least a few minutes of existentially threatening despair. If anyone ever doubts the nature of mental illness as an actual disease, sit down with me for an hour or so, and I'll tell you all about the effect that varying my meds dosage or departing too much from my daily routine has on me. I am whole, but I'm never going to be healthy, barring some unexpected scientific breakthrough.

Which brings me to irritation #2: "Think of how many people love you and would be devastated to lose you!" I can't speak for every depressed person's experience of depression, only my own. And my experience is that a depressive episode is physical and mental torment. I can only compare it to the experience of bitterly fighting with someone you love dearly, wanting to stop and make up but neither of you able to, but the person you are fighting with is yourself. You can't go to a movie or hang out with friends or take a hike in the woods in order to recover and restore some perspective. There is no escape. And that is tiring. With other diseases, there is some acceptance of the idea that sometimes, enough is enough. The person with cancer decides not to undergo another round of chemotherapy. The person with heart disease decides not to go back for open-heart surgery again. Do they believe themselves to be unloved? Will their loved ones not grieve their loss? No. They're just ready to stop suffering. The analogy is all kinds of incomplete--treatments for depression aren't generally invasive with debilitating side effects, and I have no idea what "informed consent" could actually look like for someone in the grips of a depressive episode--but the principle remains that medical choices belong to the person who's actually sick.

Which brings me to irritation #3: the idea that Williams' death is an ideal opportunity for conversation and education. People have been killing themselves forever. Famous people have been killing themselves forever. The conversational opportunities are always there, and the imperative to be informed has always been there. It feels indecent to me to appropriate a man's death and turn it into enlightenment theater, where some of us talk and some of us listen and In The End, We've All Learned Something.

Which brings me to irritation #4: the shock and surprise at Williams' death. It's unclear whether he was ever diagnosed with a condition that carried a significant risk of suicide along with it, but anyone who ever watched an interview with him knew the man had struggled at many points over the years. In any case, according to the CDC, there are tens of thousands of suicides in the United States every year--and dozens of suicide attempts for every one that ends in death. (Apologies for my unrigorous reliance on a single report from 2012, but I doubt the statistics vary enough year by year to make my vague description of them wrong.) It's not common, but it's not exactly rare, either. Depression is a disease that sometimes leads to people trying to kill themselves, and some of those efforts are fatal. It's heartbreaking, but altogether believable.

Maybe my irritation is just part of my own sadness. I don't know. I do know that church--not simply Christian faith, but the ritual and practice and community of church--is what sustained me and gave me both the motivation and the strength to find the place of wholeness I'm in today. There is a non-trivial chance I would have died without it, and it is not optional for keeping me grounded now. So if one wishes to tie this post in to the blog's topic of polyamorous families in the church, there's the connection. You never know what the cost of excluding someone may turn out to be.

Tuesday, August 5, 2014

What really matters.

Alanna Gallagher was six years old when she died, murdered by one of her neighbors.

Her funeral was held in the church her family had attended for years, where she ordinarily "would be singing on top of her lungs with her hymnal upside down...because before she could read she had the hymn memorized." Her mother, stepfather and biological father shared happy memories and said goodbye to their baby girl.

And, totally beside the point, her grieving parents are a polyamorous family.

I remember when it happened. There was a lot of fear that her home life would be sensationalized, that cruel busybodies would make her family's burden even heavier, that some might even blame her death on her parents' "lifestyle." And, sure, you never want to read the comments on an online news article. But for the most part, what her family got was support. Support from the police, support from their community, and support from strangers on the Internet.

Because when a little girl dies, it doesn't matter who is having sex with whom. It doesn't matter who sleeps where. It doesn't matter whose model of Biblical marriage is more persuasive. It doesn't matter how sturdy Western Civilization is, or isn't.

What matters is that the moral fabric of the universe is torn and stained. Even when death comes for a child from natural causes, it's wrong. And for that child's family, it is world-shattering.

For Christians, church is where we generally go when our world has been shattered. We know the people there, who love us. We know the stories we will hear, which sustain us. We light candles and sing songs and keep breathing, one minute at a time.

Calvary Lutheran Church was the church for Alanna and her parents. They were out to their friends, their brothers and sisters. Because they had done hymns and potlucks and Sunday School together, they could do death together too. Because that's how it works. Nobody wants to come out at a funeral. Nobody should have to. God forbid that anyone has to be in the closet at their own child's funeral. Can you imagine?

I can. I can imagine having to choose between sticking together as a family and collapsing into the arms of my faith community. I couldn't choose. I would simply break, and never be whole.

I was so grateful for the pastor, staff and members of Calvary Lutheran Church. I thought about writing them at the time. But I didn't, because this tragedy wasn't about me. It was their little hymn-belter torn away from them, their sister and brothers crushed. They deserved their privacy.

But now, all you mainline churches worried about your image, your respectability, your own fear and revulsion--whatever it is that keeps you from welcoming and embracing polyamorous families--think for a moment about Alanna's parents left alone in the worst days of their lives. Think about Alanna herself, living her short life without hymns and Sunday School and the love of her community. How can you think about such things, remain unwelcoming, and still call yourself the Body of Christ?

I'll leave the last word to Calvary Lutheran's pastor, Phil Heinze:

I’m not saying “come and see” all the things at Calvary, like worship that is well done, consistent Gospel preaching, emphasis on education, multiple opportunities to be together, the cafĂ©, Bible studies, social ministry that makes a difference and changes our world one person at a time, dynamic youth and children ministry, etc. etc.. No, what I am saying is “come and see” the people of Calvary, people committed to following Christ, willing to take risks, open to others, people who listen and learn and love.

Thank you, Rev. Heinze. And thank you, Calvary Lutheran.


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