Tuesday, July 26, 2016

The Least Likely, Most Horrific Thing

I’m a stats guy, a data guy. You show me the data…from a reputable source…and I’ll believe you. Even if it’s not what I believed in the first place, if you can show me the data…once again, from a reputable source…you’ll sway me. Grudgingly, but you’ll convince me….or at least make me carefully re-examine my position.

But as much as I like to try to emulate Spock from Star Trek, and be logical all the time; unlike Spock, I’m fully human. And that means that sometimes my emotions get the better of me…despite what the statistics say.

Take for example flying. I joke that my favorite airline is Amtrak, and tell people that I’ve successfully avoided flying since 1987. I know what the statistics say; I know that flying is the safest way to travel. I know that, depending on who you ask, the odds of being in a plane crash are about 1 in 1.2 million, with the odds of dying in one being “only” 1 in 11 million. But I also know that my odds of walking away from an accident on the ground are pretty good. As a result, Amtrak gets my business because emotionally I’m swayed by the possibility of something horrific…but incredibly unlikely…happening.

And we’re all like this. Statisticians say that humans are terrible at assessing risk. We focus, as do I with flying, on the horrific, yet incredibly unlikely.

Which brings me to a group of people who are feared and have their own set of fears…police. A quick “back of the envelope” calculation says that with roughly one million police officers in the country, only about 333,000 of which are on duty at any particular point in time, and 24 hours in the day, there are a possible 8 million possible police interactions daily. Look at that over the course of the year and you get almost 3 billion possible interactions. And out of those 3 billion possible interactions about 500 go horribly wrong, resulting in the death of an unarmed civilian.

500 out of 3 billion. That works out to a 1 in 6 million chance of being shot by the police…whether your life is black, white, or purple. And let me be clear here, more unarmed whites are shot by police than unarmed blacks, but that’s a statistic for another day.

1 in 6 million. This tells us that the chances of being shot by a nervous police officer are five times less than being in a plane crash…and most of you have no problem with getting on a plane. This tells us that most police interactions with people go off without a hitch. But that ones that go wrong go so horrifically wrong that they grab our emotions and our attention, and take it away from the 2,999,999,500 times where everything went smoothly.

It’s the least likely, most horrific thing.

To be sure, even one death in a plane crash, and even one death of an unarmed person by a police officer is too many. But let’s not overstate the danger. Let’s not overstate the magnitude of the problem.

Let’s be logical, and not emotional, about this.

Even though you still won’t willingly get me on a plane.

Tuesday, July 19, 2016

We Are the Church

In the church camp song We Are the Church, there’s a line that goes “The church is not a building…” And every time I hear that line I want to scream, “It is too! It is too a building!”

Now…I know what they’re trying to say. They’re trying to say that the church is more than just a building. But I feel that they’re being a little disingenuous…or at least overly narrow…in their thinking. You show anyone with even the barest amount of architectural knowledge different buildings, and I’m betting that they’ll identify the churches upwards of 90% of the time. Heck, “Click on the churches” could be used as a photographic captcha.

And even when a church isn’t being used as a church anymore, it’s still a church. It’s still referred to as a former church. I know of at least two restaurants that are in former churches. I know of a community center that’s in a former church. And Alice, of Alice’s Restaurant famously lived in an old church.

So a church, whether or not it’s currently being used for worship, is a building.


And therein lies my issue for this week…an overly narrow definition of what the church is…or should be.

Religion journalist and Episcopal priest Tom Ehrich often writes about the future of the institutional church, and like many others, he says that it’s doomed unless it changes its ways. That it has to stop being a group of people tied to a building, and start being a group of people tied to a task…a mission. A group of people tied to making a presence in the community.

I disagree.

I don’t disagree that the things he says are good ideas for some. I disagree that his definition of the church is the only one.

Just as I disagree with the line in the song that says that the church is not a building.

The church is many things. And one of the many things it is is “the worshipping community at…” More precisely, “the worshipping community of a certain theology and style at…”

It may be a large worshipping community or it may be a small worshipping community. But as long as it’s “the worshipping community at…”, then it’s the church. In fact, aside from the architectural definition of a church building, I believe that this is the minimum definition, no matter what else they do, of a church.

The worshipping community at…

And many worshipping communities at different places don’t care what writers like Ehrich say, because they’re not concerned with growth at all. They’re concerned with being “the worshipping community at…”, or “the worshipping community for this language”, or “the worshipping community for this culture.” And while they may not make their presence known in the greater community as that worshipping community, as individual members, they do.

The little church we visit when we’re in Pittsburgh has probably seen better days, with more people in the pews, but they’re still the Episcopalian worshipping community at Squirrel Hill. The little onion-domed church near us probably isn’t bursting at the seams, but it’s Russian Orthodox worshipping community at DeWitt. And the tiny little church we visited up in the Adirondacks almost 20 years ago could probably hold its services in my living room, but they’re the worshiping community at Long Lake for people of that particular theology.

And that's OK. They don’t have to be big. They don’t have to make a big obvious splash in the surrounding community. They don’t have to have people know that this good deed is brought to your courtesy of the good people at Church of the Redeemer. If the small worshipping communities at Squirrel Hill, DeWitt, and Long Lake are leavening the rest of the world with the individual good deeds of their members, if they’re motivating their members to, as our Jewish friends would say, “repair the world”, then that’s enough. Some people might not find those models economically viable, and that’s a different question for a different day.

But the worshipping community at whatever place, no matter how small…well…they are the church.


Tuesday, July 12, 2016

The Protocol

The protocol, as I learned from Jack Webb on Dragnet, was that an officer never fires unless fired upon first. You can see the suspect with a gun in his hand, you can see the suspect waving the gun at you. But unless he fires first, you do not fire.

The protocol also stated that whenever an officer discharged his gun, a Board of Inquiry was immediately set up to investigate whether or not it was justified, and if it was found that the officer fired without due cause, his career was over.

I remember this from the episode The Shooting Board, in which Sgt Friday claimed to have shot and killed a suspect in self-defense, but the BOI couldn’t find the assailant’s spent bullet anywhere at the scene of the crime.

But somehow, in the past 50 years, the protocol has changed from “Don’t shoot unless fired upon first” to “Shoot if you even think they might be reaching for a weapon.”

That ain’t right, and it's causing a lot of needless deaths.

Yes. I get that being a police officer is a very dangerous job. Yes, I get that there are people out there with weapons who might want to kill you. But I also know that most of us out there don’t have weapons and don’t want to kill you.

I also know how real this fear among police officers is, after having read one officer’s description on an incident he was involved in where someone was reaching into his pocket for something, and he thought, “This is it. I didn’t get my gun fast enough. I’m gonna die.”

But he didn’t. Because there was no gun.

Where did this new fear that every interaction, that any sudden move by a nervous suspect means that a gun is on its way out come from? Is it from officers who’ve been on military duty in places where “they” really are out to get you?

Does it come from too many young men playing too many “first person shooter” games, where everyone is packing, and after you; and where you have to shoot first in order to stay in the game? Can overexposure to these games be having a bad effect on the people who are our police officers, making them overly jumpy and trigger happy?

The simple fact of the matter is that according to some figures that I briefly glanced at, last year roughly 50 police officers were shot and killed in the line of duty. At the same time over 500 unarmed civilians were shot and killed by police officers.

500 unarmed civilians killed by police officers vs 50 officers shot and killed in the line of duty. That’s a 10 to 1 ratio.

500 unarmed civilians killed by officers who thought that they had to shoot first in order to save their own lives.

This tells me something important. It says that while being a police officer is a dangerous job, the person you pull over, or who you see acting suspiciously is more than likely not reaching for a weapon.

It also tells me that we need to go back to the protocol I learned from Dragnet. I admit that it might result in a few more police deaths each year.

But it would also result in a lot fewer deaths among innocent civilians.

Tuesday, July 5, 2016

Putting Ourselves Out of Business

“The Church is dying! The Church is dying!”

Or so Chicken Little cries.

And Chicken Little gives plenty of evidence to “prove” that point. Decreased attendance, a large number of church closings, and a lack of interest in religion, combined with the increase of the “Nones.” These are all signs that the church is dying.

But is it really? And even if it is, is that such a bad thing?

Yes…I just said that. And I’ll explain why shortly. But first, let’s take a look at a few things.

I heard, a few years ago, that the post WWII church was built on an unsustainable model. Record numbers of people were going to church in the aftermath of the horrors of that war, and so record numbers of churches were built for them. And rather than sit down and do the math for the demographics for years to come, “we” foolishly assumed (or “had faith in the fact”) that church growth would continue at the same rate forever.

It didn’t. It leveled out, and then went back to its previous levels. And when it did, rather than seeing it as a natural demographic occurrence…or a correction back to church attendance patterns of the past, we cried out that the church was dying.

Another thing to consider is the massive conformity of the 50s and 60s. Many people went to church not necessarily because they seriously believed, but because it was something you were supposed to do. Social pressure said that everyone went to church, and so you did. With that social pressure gone, people who didn’t want to go to church in the first place were now free to stay home on Sunday mornings.

But there’s another very important reason that the church seems to be dying…and it’s actually a good reason. Maybe the church seems to be dying because we won.

Yes…we won. The ideals that had previously only been those of the church, had been spread out into the greater culture, and we won. The result was that you no longer needed to be a Christian or a churchgoer to heal the sick, feed the poor, and visit those who were in prison. You could be a mensch, you can give money to or do work with Doctors without Borders, your local food bank, or Amnesty International without having to be a Christian.

And if you could be a mensch without having to be a Christian, then why go to church in the first place? Why belong to an organization that you think is silly at best, and dangerous at worst?

There are those who would argue that without religion…and Christianity in particular…people can’t have a moral compass. They simplistically assume that those who have no religion and no belief in any sort of god, have no morals. Not only could nothing be farther from the truth, but we all know that some of the most heinous acts have been committed by people who claimed to be very religious.

So is the church dying? Maybe, maybe not. The institution is definitely changing, but it’s been changing ever since the first scared Christians first met in their homes after the first Good Friday. The forms will change, but the church will remain.

And we’ll continue to win…by making ourselves unnecessary.

So rather than bemoaning the fact that there are fewer people in our churches, perhaps we should celebrate that there are more people out there doing the good work that we’ve been called to do.

And by the way…I’m not the only one to think this. As I was writing this, I was surprised to hear much the same thing said in Part 2 of the CBC series The Myth of the Secular, which you can download as a podcast.

I’ll be back in a few weeks to talk more about the church as an institution.

Tuesday, June 28, 2016

The G Word

Last week my daughter graduated from 8th grade. Oh wait, I’m sorry…that “overuse” of the word offends some people, so let me try again.

Last week we went to the Moving Up ceremony to celebrate my daughter’s finishing 8th grade at one school and moving on to high school at another. That’s what the sign said…”8th Grade Moving Up Ceremony.”

But let me let you in on a little secret…as far as I’m concerned, she graduated.

So…to paraphrase the late Clara Peller, “What’s the beef?” Why so much controversy over whether or not Sofie graduated or simply moved up?

Well, part of it comes from people who think that an overabundance of graduations cheapens “the real thing.” They maintain that if you have graduations from pre-school, then who’s gonna care when the big ones of high school and college come along?

I beg to differ. And I differ on the grounds of venue.

In 1970 I graduated from Ashland School, in East Orange, NJ.

Or did I?

I didn’t see any reason to save the programs from back then, so I don’t know. Maybe we didn’t call it graduation at all. Maybe we called it that weird word I didn’t understand back then: commencement. Or maybe we called it a “moving up ceremony.” But we all knew, as did our parents, that we were graduating.

I said that I differ with the people who say that we overuse and cheapen the term and the ceremonies by overuse on the grounds of venue. Let me explain.

When I finished my nine years at Ashland, I was finishing the longest amount of time I’d spend in one institution as a student. That’s nothing to sneeze at. Furthermore, because of the odd placement of the school right smack on the line dividing East Orange between its two high schools, when I finished 8th grade, there were many friends that I wouldn’t see or hear from again until the advent of Facebook. Leaving Ashland was leaving a set of buildings, a set of teachers, and half of my friends. That’s quite the milestone.

On the other hand, for 19 years I taught at a school that spanned the grades of Pre-K to 12 on one campus. And when the move from 8th grade, at the end of Middle School to 9th grade at the beginning of Upper School is simply a shift in your homeroom and advisor, but keeping many of the same subject teachers and classrooms; I can see why we had moving up ceremonies between divisions. No one was going anywhere new. No one was leaving anyone behind. You’d be traveling in the same buildings and seeing the same teachers in 9th grade that you did in 8th. You’d only graduate when you finished at that institution entirely at the end of 12th grade.

Do we overdo it when we have “graduations” from pre-school? I don’t think so. I’m a big fan of marking passages, and noting when things are going to change. When my oldest daughter was leaving daycare to start Pre-K, it just didn’t seem right to me that she and her cohort would be there one day and gone the next, without anyone saying anything about it. And so I suggested that they have a ceremony for all the kids who were leaving to start school in September. Now…truth be told…19 years later, I can’t remember whether they called this graduation or moving up, but I don’t really think it matters. Did this “cheapen” her later graduations from high school and college for us? Not by a long shot. Each of those represented a major transition in her life.

So really…graduation, moving up…does it really matter what we call it?

This is one debate I wish we could all just graduate from needing to have.

Tuesday, June 21, 2016

60 is the New...60

I turned 60 on Sunday. In the days leading up to it, I said that on my birthday I’d be officially “old.” On my birthday I said that I was now officially “old.” And now that it’s past, I still say that I’m now officially “old.”

Many of my friends, however, are in denial…serious denial. They keep telling me that 60 isn’t old. Some of them have given me the line that “60 is the new 50”…which I guess supposes that 50 was the new 40. Of course, all these friends who tell me that 60 isn’t old have either already crossed the threshold themselves or are coming up right behind me.

But really people, there comes a point where you have to admit that you’re not young anymore, and 60 seems about it.

At 30, 60 definitely seems a long way away…and old. Let’s face it…it’s grandparent age, and by definition, grandparents are old. At 60, 30 seems like it was just yesterday…and young. In fact, I was joking to one of my co-workers that at 59, a 45-year-old woman seemed like “some young thing” to me.

Let’s face it, and face it honestly…people under 20 are kids, 20-29 are emerging adults [a term I got from Aziz Ansari’s book, Modern Romance], 30-39 are adults, 40-59 is middle aged, and from 60 on up is old. You gotta draw the line in the sand somewhere. When you look at colors, there may be some debate as to whether a certain color is blue, green, or aqua; but there’s no confusing any shade of blue with any shade of yellow. That’s a line in the sand that everyone agrees with.

Now let’s be clear about something…old is not necessarily the same as decrepit. There’s an AARP video where “young people” are asked what age they think “old” is, and then to demonstrate how an “old person” would do certain things. It was sort of amusing to hear one of them say that 40 was old (remember that “young thing” I mentioned earlier?), and their perceptions of what “old people” in the 50 to 65 range were told me that they probably hadn’t spent a lot of time around their parents…who were probably in that age range. And yet…while many people are physically and mentally active up into their 90s, I have to admit that I work with a lot of people my age and older who do fit the stereotype of the frail, decrepit, not quite with it, old person. For every person who’s taking weekly East Coast Swing lessons and blogging about it, there’s another one using a walker who has a hard time understanding how to make simple phone calls on their cell phone.

So in case I wasn’t clear about it, my saying that now I’m officially old isn’t about saying that I’m falling apart (although I have to admit that parts of my body remind me daily that I ain’t no spring chicken). Rather, it’s recognizing that I’ve reached a significant milestone, a milestone that says that statistically, with luck, I’ve got about 20 years left.

And there’s nothing wrong with being realistic about it.

Next stop…70!

Tuesday, June 14, 2016

Good Advice vs "Blaming the Victim"

I get soooo tired whenever what would generally be considered useful advice on how to keep yourself safe gets tagged as “victim blaming.”

After Trayvon Martin was killed, I reflected on how my parents taught me that if you think someone’s following you, you shouldn’t turn around and confront them, and you shouldn’t run; but quickly walk to the nearest safe place and get help (see also call the police). I suggested that had Trayvon done any of those things...or used his cell phone to call 911 instead of his friend...he might still be alive.

The response from people? I was blaming the victim. Eff no. I still blame Zimmerman. But by being a little smarter about how to handle the situation, things might not have escalated to the point where Trayvon’s dead and a lot of us would like to see Zimmerman follow him.

Similarly, I learned early on that if I didn’t want to be jumped and robbed that I didn’t walk through certain neighborhoods at certain times of day, alone...and definitely not with a lot of money on me. If I got jumped and robbed...IT WAS STILL THE FAULT OF THE ROBBERS, but there were things I could do to keep myself relatively safe.

The simple fact of the matter is that THERE BE PREDATORS OUT THERE. I should be able to walk through any part of town at 11.00 at night with $100 bills pinned to my clothes, without anyone coming up to me and trying to take some. A woman should be able to walk through any neighborhood at any time of day, butt naked, without someone going up to her and trying to sexually assault her. These are all shoulds. But the fact of the matter is, as I’ve already said, THERE BE PREDATORS OUT THERE.

And it’s not enough to say that predators shouldn’t prey. One needs to be cognizant of the fact that these people are out there and learn how to keep yourself from falling victim to them. You can't just say “Well, I shouldn’t have to do this; they should just learn how to behave.”

That. Doesn’t. Work. Denial of the reality doesn’t work.

And giving advice on how to avoid the next person one of those predators preys upon isn’t “blaming the victim.”

It's trying to prevent one more person from becoming a victim.

I’ve heard this chorus of “blaming the victim” so many times that I’m beginning to wonder if it’s an unconscious way of trying to avoid any sense of personal responsibility for one’s own well-being, and of saying “I’ll do what I want. You’re not the boss over me.” But let me ask you this question: is it “blaming the victim” when we suggest that wearing seatbelts might prevent people from being thrown from the vehicle to their deaths in auto accidents…even those accidents caused by someone else?

Is it “blaming the victim” when we suggest that not being falling down drunk is a good way to avoid being jumped and robbed…or raped…or dying in a house fire that you’re too incapacitated to escape from?

Is it “blaming the victim” any time we suggest some simple ways that people might keep themselves safe.

To be sure, there are situations where people do seem to blame the victim. But let’s not confuse true victim blaming with good common sense advice.

I now await the hordes coming to uncritically accuse me of “blaming the victim.”


And your opinion on whether or not there should be isn't going to change that.