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.