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Someday at Christmas

This essay first appeared on January 1, 2017 in the Herald-Sun.pb-110128-egypt-unrest-kiss-ps_photoblog900

WRAL radio began playing Christmas songs around Thanksgiving. I have been singing favorites and learning new ones. One song from 1966 had never fully registered in my brain until this year. It was beautifully written by Ron Miller and made breathtaking by Stevie Wonder. A person named Lacey Sawyer created a YouTube montage for the song. Her tableau combines with the words in my mind. “Someday at Christmas there’ll be no wars, when we have learned what Christmas is for” overlays images of American soldiers climbing over rubble and making peace signs with what appear to be children in Iraq or Afghanistan. The video includes men in loud lamentation at a protest, perhaps from the Arab Spring (2011). Sawyer has pulled together photos that evoke Middle America and the Middle East, as people in Marine uniforms hand out “Toys for Tots” and two women grasp hold of a man in uniform, perhaps returning from the Middle East. Miller’s lyrics and Wonder’s voice together were originally a prayer for a world without war, where “all men are equal and no man has fear.” This prayer from 1966 intertwined voices crying out against war in Vietnam and voices calling for Civil Rights.

I have been layering this prayer with another song, from 1989, called “Fight the Power.” At the beginning of their song, Public Enemy includes these words from a 1967 speech by Civil Rights leader Thomas N. Todd: “Yet our best trained, best educated, best equipped, best prepared troops refuse to fight. Matter of fact, it’s safe to say that they would rather switch than fight.”  The hope that Mr. Todd spoke of in 1967, the same year Stevie Wonder’s album debuted, was that people told to kill would refuse to do so. Playing off a cigarette ad, Todd paraphrased a prophecy from the prophet Isaiah. Todd evoked a world where troops would refuse to fight – a world where swords were switched into plowshares – and this hip-hop group brought his words to bear again in 1989. Someday at Christmas, there’ll be no wars; our best will refuse to fight.

In 2011, during the “Arab Spring,” I heard a story about mothers and grandmothers in Egypt who had been teaching their sons for decades to refuse to shoot at civilians if ordered to do so. A journalist named Scott Horton spoke at a 2011 conference here in Durham about the geopolitical ramifications of U.S. sponsored torture, and he suggested that, possibly, one unpredictable result of coverage of U.S. sponsored torture of Muslim prisoners was that people in predominantly Muslim countries were galvanized to protest in the thousands against dictators who were torturing their own people – dictators like Hosni Mubarak. And, at least for a time, troops refused to fight. In a February 1, 2011 article for The National Hugh Naylor reported:

Egypt’s powerful military said yesterday it would not open fire on protesters as a coalition of Egyptian opposition groups called for a million people to take to Cairo’s streets today. ‘To the great people of Egypt, your armed forces, acknowledging the legitimate rights of the people … have not and will not use force against the Egyptian people,’ an army statement said. The concerted opposition action signaled the emergence of a unified leadership for the protests demanding the removal of the president, Hosni Mubarak.

A powerful image from Lefteris Pitarakis of the AP shows an Egyptian woman kissing an officer who could be her grandson. The NBC news ran these words: “An Egyptian anti-government activist kisses a riot police officer following clashes in Cairo, Egypt, Friday, Jan. 28, 2011.” Something akin happened in Wisconsin that same winter, as police officers joined hands with protestors against Governor Scott Walker.

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Here is some news you may not have seen widely shared. Joshua Berlinger of CNN reported in July, 2016: “Many of the protests against police violence have been peaceful. In Dallas – before a gunman killed five police officers at a Black Lives Matter rally . . . officers were even posing for photos with demonstrators.” Which brings me to an image that could beautifully accompany Stevie Wonder’s voice. Ieshia Evans was protesting police violence – specifically the Baton Rouge police department, when a photographer named Jonathan Bachman caught her lamentation. She walks forward, hands out, as police officers in full riot gear appear to back away. The image has gone viral, as a visual prayer for otherwise. It is an image of disarming, non-violent courage, remarkable to people in part because she is a visually beautiful woman and the police officers look as if they would prefer to switch, rather than fight. It is not the only image of hope. There are others. I pray we see more. “Maybe not in time for you and me, but someday at Christmastime.”

Brokeback Mountain and Moonlight, with Love

moonlightThis essay was published in the Durham Herald-Sun on Sunday, December 4, 2016.

 

When my older daughter was at Riverside High, the theater program performed “The Laramie Project,” a collaboration of author Moises Kaufman, people in Laramie, Wyoming, and members of the Tectonic Theater Project. It was performed first in 2000 and uses multiple voices to tell a real story, the 1998 murder of Matthew Shepard.  The event that precipitates the production, every time, is the brutal death of a young man murdered because he is gay.  The story begins with a tragedy.

Annie Proulx set her 1997 short story “Brokeback Mountain” in Wyoming. She opens with these words:

They were raised on small, poor ranches in opposite corners of the state, Jack Twist in Lightning Flat, up on the Montana border, Ennis del Mar from around Sage, near the Utah line, both high-school drop-out country boys with no prospects, brought up to hard work and privation, both rough-mannered, rough-spoken, inured to the stoic life.

This love story ends as Jack is murdered with a tire-iron after attempting, finally, to stop living a lie. Ennis offers to help Jack’s parents take his ashes to Brokeback Mountain. Jack’s mother, who Proulx implies has a clue and a heart, offers for Ennis to visit Jack’s boyhood bedroom.  Proulx describes what Ennis finds:

The shirt seemed heavy until he saw there was another shirt inside it, the sleeves carefully worked down inside Jack’s sleeves. It was his own plaid shirt, lost, he’d thought, long ago in some damn laundry, his dirty shirt, the pocket ripped, buttons missing, stolen by Jack and hidden here inside Jack’s own shirt, the pair like two skins, one inside the other, two in one.

Proulx’s prose and characters are so familiar I can visualize their gait, hear the cadence of their voices. I grew up loving men who are “inured to the stoic life.”  Texan Larry McMurtry co-wrote the screenplay with Diana Lynn Ossana for the 2005 film.  I have not seen the movie.  I knew too many boys and girls suffocated by a setting where they could not live the truth of daylight.  The only suicides I knew growing up were of people who others whispered about, often with a tsk tsking that implied death was better than living gay.  As one friend wrote, a town like my hometown is a place “you dearly love but never feel relaxed in.”

People have, in my hearing, used the words “Brokeback Mountain” as a derision, drawn from a visceral fear of men who are gay in secret. This is absurd, given these same people do not want anyone to be gay not in secret.  Fear of the undetected gay coupling is a nonsense that acknowledges God makes some of God’s beloved children gay, linked to a refusal to bless love between two gay people.  This nonsense is written into movies attended by congregations as a fellowship outing – where men marked as “effeminate” are mocked, used as comic relief in supposed morality plays or to accelerate comedy in self-loathing slapsticks about “family life.”

[Let those with ears to hear, please hear.  You know what I am talking about.]

I am grateful for the 2016 film Moonlight.  I am grateful the Carolina Theatre brought this to Durham.  The film is based on a play by Tarrell Alvin McCraney, and the screenplay was written and directed by Barry Jenkins.  McCraney and Jenkins offer a blessing that does not mock or evade hatred.  McCraney and Jenkins have also offered a story that shows a man coming out in a way not linked to death.  They wrote neither a comedy nor a tragedy.  They wrote a life.

In his November 4, 2016 essay “The Sad, Surreal Experience of Seeing an Audience Laugh at Moonlight,” E. Alex Jung writes:

It was a Friday night . . . and the screening was completely sold out. Early on, though, one scene made me realize I might have picked a bad audience: It’s in the first third of the movie, where our young hero Chiron is sitting at the dining table with his surrogate parents, Juan and Teresa (Mahershala Ali and Janelle Monáe). He asks them, point-blank, “What’s a faggot?” It’s a moment that feels like a gut punch. When I first saw it, I held my breath, waiting to hear what Juan would say. He explained that it was a negative word used to describe men who liked other men. Then came the next question, “Am I a faggot?” A group of women behind me started giggling at the first question and were full-on laughing by the second — so much so that they drowned out Juan’s response. I was perplexed: Were we watching the same movie?

I pray people will see the film. I pray people will hear and, eventually, not laugh.  And I fervently pray that children from Texas to Wyoming to Durham, North Carolina will see on screen the possibility of their own beautiful truth.

The National Anthem Protest Matters

This essay originally appeared in the Durham Herald-Sun on Sunday, November 6, 2016

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I listen to sports radio while running errands. This helps me follow what fans are being told to care about and what they are inculcated to talk about with one another.  This is how I recently came across Colin Cowherd.  Cowherd, the host of a Fox Radio show, was explaining Monday Night Football’s apparently suboptimal ratings.  By Cowherd’s reckoning, the NFL is punishing ESPN for periodically featuring journalism.  The NFL is delivering bad match-ups on Monday nights to try to bring ESPN to heel, Cowherd explained.  Cowherd was clear ESPN should know their place, and keep “promoting the brand” of the National Football League.  ESPN, by Cowherd’s analysis, had made a reckless decision by covering stories critical of the NFL.  Just before this analysis, Cowherd had told listeners that most people in the U.S. dislike an athlete named Colin Kaepernick.

Here is one story that ESPN risked to cover journalistically. On May 24, 2016, ESPN reported: “At least a half-dozen top NFL health officials waged an improper, behind-the-scenes campaign last year to influence a major U.S. government research study on football and brain disease, congressional investigators have concluded in a new report . . . the NFL pressured the National Institutes of Health” to defund a $16 million study, because the study “would be detrimental to the league’s image.”  ESPN concluded: “Taxpayers ended up bearing the cost instead.”  How dare ESPN cover a Congressional Report on the NFL, especially when Congress is supposed to be in gridlock?  (That was irony and a bad pun.)  Two Republican U.S. Senators from Arizona collaborated on another report, in 2015, on the NFL and the Department of Defense.  As ESPN reported: “the NFL received $7 million over three years from contracts.” Senator McCain “said he was ‘shocked and disappointed to learn that several NFL teams weren’t sponsoring these activities out of the goodness of their own hearts but were doing so to make an extra buck.’” Senator McCain noted that “the military faces cuts in spending” and that there is no reason to think (or studies to show) that displays of patriotism on the field will help recruiting.

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A friend told me I will “need a bigger paddle to stir this pot.” I do not have a big paddle, so I will now come at the National Anthem controversy by way of a Southern classic from 1974.  The first time I heard Kid Rock’s execrable cover of “Sweet Home Alabama” I threw up my hands, asking what this world is coming to. It seemed to me that Mr. Rock had trashed a good ballad.  Then I saw a documentary that interviews and features African-American women who served as back-up singers coterminous with the Southern Rock Era – women like Merry Clayton.  The film is called “20 Feet from Stardom.”  Merry Clayton there explains how she and Clydie King came to sing back-up on “Sweet Home Alabama.”  Clayton told Dorian Lynskey in a 2014 Guardian article:  “I said we’re going to sing the crap out of this song. They have the nerve to sing Sweet Home Alabama! That’s the white interpretation of Alabama. It’s not sweet home to black people! It’s not sweet home at all. We’re going to sing it like a protest song.” Clayton explained in 2013 to journalist Sam Adams for “A.V. Club” that hearing Neil Young’s 1970 song had hit a nerve with her, “I read the lyrics and it was during those terrible racial times . . . Dr. King had just been killed . . . it was a highly racial time, not just for black people, but for everybody in the world. We had the Vietnam War going on at the time; our boys were going to war and being killed.”  Clayton’s words helped me truly to hear lyrics I had allowed to wash over me.

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There is a reason why NFL players across the league are not standing up during the National Anthem. The rule stating that players will be on the field during the Anthem is new.  As Tom E. Curran of Comcast Sportsnet New England explained on ESPN, this requirement was started in 2009.  It is part of the very same military recruitment scheme that Senator McCain rebuked.  Men standing 2000 feet from stardom are being asked to stand and pretend like their friends are not concussive and their fathers and cousins have not been killed and traumatized over a lie about weapons of mass destruction.  Some people are so devoted to the idea that this country has lived only in valour and equality that we cannot move forward in truth.  I love football, and I love democracy.  Real journalism matters for both.  If you have been fuming over one young man’s courage to name that this country we love has problems, please ask more complicated questions about our history and about our present.

 

 

Holy Pride

This essay first appeared in the October 2, 2016 issue of the Durham Herald-Sun. http://www.heraldsun.com/opinion/columnists/amy_laura_hall/

Years ago, I was at a concert downtown to hear a vaguely Christian folk singer. He sang something that, at the time, I thought was profound: “With all the beauty this world has worth knowing, pride won’t get us where we’re going.”  I liked this so much I made these words the signature on my email account.  I now shake my head at my younger self.  Some friends could have written one simple question back at me: “What about the Gay Pride Parade?”

Last week, I participated in two different acts of pride. On Thursday, a group of Duke Divinity students led about a hundred people on a singing vigil through the new cafeteria on West Campus.  The women leading the procession carried candles, summoning us to continue one avowal: “We who believe in freedom cannot rest until it comes.”  This act was an act of lamentation.  We were lamenting racist terror in the U.S., most recently the killing of Keith Scott and Terence Crutcher.  We were singing to and with one another, committing to resist the pretense that racist terror is normal.  To my mind, African-American women are too infrequently encouraged at Duke to speak loudly and tell other people what to do, where to go, and what to sing.  So, this liturgy felt also like an act of courage.  Their words, their leadership, looked to me like holy pride – precisely the kind of pride that Duke needs more of if we are going to find beauty in this world and get where we need to be going.  Judging by the looks on many faces of people who were working in the new cafeteria, other people were grateful too.

Then, on Saturday, my daughter and I walked with thousands of people through Durham for North Carolina’s 32nd Annual Gay, Lesbian, Bisexual and Transgender Festival Parade, otherwise known as the “Gay Pride Parade.”  Noting the convergence of tragedy the same week, some participants carried signs of solidarity against racist terror.  Some people started up conversations with members of the Durham Police Department, perhaps in an attempt to understand another human being’s perspective face-to-face.  I was struck again by how diverse the group gathered was.  I know that sounds cliché.  But, truly, the Pride Parade is every bit as diverse as the North Carolina State Fair.  There were people in biker gear, people in cowboy boots, teenagers and people who can remember the first parade over three decades ago.  There were Christian groups and Jewish groups and at least one proudly affirming atheist (they were carrying a sign proclaiming this).  Even within the group from Duke, we were students and friends and faculty – some of us walking in solidarity, others walking out and proud for the first time.  Many, many people from across this beautiful state took the day to risk an unabashed celebration of our beloved selves, recognizing that, for that one day, everyone was on the same page on this one single, basic affirmation:  We are proud.

I have quoted thirteenth-century theologian Thomas Aquinas in this column before. He wrote many volumes on Christian doctrine and Christian virtue.  He did not affirm the holy beauty of people who are Gay, Lesbian, Bisexual, or Transgender.  But he did write some very helpful things about a vice usually translated as “Sloth.”  For most people, the word “sloth” connotes sitting around on a couch watching bad television and eating take-out pizza for a week.  (Which might not actually be a disaster.)  But for Thomas Aquinas, sloth is a very particular, moral malady.  He suggests sloth is often connected to despair, and that despair often leads to an inability to go about the basic things in life that help us to flourish.  Not only does despair indicate a separation from hope in God, but that separation can lead people not to feel like eating, or walking around, or sewing, or dancing, or many of the other practices that are gifts of daily life.  Sloth is a kind of “sorrow,” he writes, because we deem “evil and worthless” the goods God has given us.  Thomas Aquinas even calls sloth a “mortal sin,” in that sloth involves our being fundamentally separated from the affirmation that God loves us and is with us.  Again, “when this state of mind dominates [someone’s] affections,” it can seem as if we will “never be able to rise to any good.”

By my reading of these two events, we were engaging in two different acts of holy pride, reminding one another that our lives are neither “evil” nor “worthless.” On both Thursday and Saturday, people resisted sloth, risking the appearance pridefulness for the sake of a virtue called pride.  In some Christian circles, these words will sound like nonsense.  I’m willing to risk that.

Is Fear Your God?

AP680826625536 (1)This opinion essay first appeared on Sunday, June 4, 2016, in the Durham Herald-Sun. Please consider subscribing to your local paper.  Local journalism needs our support. 

My daughter said something recently that made me stop, wipe my dish-watery hands off, and ask her permission to quote her. She said that CNN Student News, which she is told to watch every morning at school, is “all about war, and disease; and people are scared.”  She is a brave kid, not naturally prone to anxiety, but this barrage of “current events” has had her wondering whether the world is a mostly dangerous place.  She is noting how this ritual of sitting down to watch, over and over again, about death—destruction—plague, is shaping the imaginations of her peers.

I was a teenager during the Reagan era, and teens who were aware during that time were clear the adults in charge of the world were insane. We did not expect to live past thirty.  A wily political scientist may even today explain “Mutually Assured Destruction” sufficient to convince people around her of MAD’s wisdom, but teenagers who lived through it, and who were not susceptible to rhetorical manipulation, were clear this was a ludicrous way for human beings to exist.  We envisioned our lives under an umbrella of doom, one buffoon away from apocalypse.  I remember watching a videotape of the 1964 movie “Dr. Strangelove or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb” and thinking, “um, this is not helping.”  I did not laugh.  It was too real.

During this time, the horrors of Apartheid South Africa were finally making news in mainstream media, and so aware kids were supposed to find hope sufficient to fight for divestment, remaining aware that our own government was funding death squads in Central America and threatening our entire earth with death by nuclear apocalypse. I was fourteen when Prince’s “1999” came out, and he summed up perfectly the mood of many young people at that time.  We would be lucky to live seventeen more years to see thirty.  By high-school graduation, we had a whole new reason to be afraid, as HIV/AIDS made headlines daily, usually scapegoating our gay friends or making all of us afraid to kiss anyone.

So, I can sympathize with my daughter when she wonders whether the best way to be informed about the world is to be told over and over that people are being drowned, beheaded, poisoned and infected. And, by the way, all the polar bears are going to die and your grandchildren will know a world without frogs.  Apocalyptic thinking can effectively debilitate people.  It can lead to a kind of fear-induced despondency.  As Zack de la Rocha and Tom Morello of Rage Against the Machine named in their 1997 song “Vietnow,” “Shock around the clock, from noon ’til noon” can lead you to a place where “FEAR is your only god.”  The songwriters graciously suggest it may be better to turn off your radio (or CNN), rather than walking around in the world with a zombifying sense of terror.

Novelist and poet Margaret Atwood has written a riveting triptych of what she terms “speculative fiction,” describing life in and around an apocalypse. One of her heroines describes a feeling that I recognize in myself and others around me:

We’re using up the Earth. It’s almost gone. You can’t live with such fears and keep on whistling.  The waiting builds up in you like a tide.  You start wanting it to be done with.  You find yourself saying to the sky, Just do it. Do your worst. Get it over with.  She could feel the coming tremor of it running through her spine, asleep or awake.

Stop reading my words now, please, if you have not read Atwood’s novels and you do not want to know a central theme. The first of the three books ends asking whether human beings are more worth saving than killing.  The second of the three books ends with an annual feast of “Saint Julian and All Souls,” drawing on the visions of fourteenth-century writer Julian of Norwich, and Atwood there repeats the question.  I cannot spoil the final picture in Atwood’s triptych, because I have not finished it.  I am already missing the characters too much to turn pages quickly.

Atwood’s use of Mother Julian has me trying to stop implicitly weighing the evidence of hope against the data of despair. Forget neuroscience or phrenology or whatever else someone is telling you authoritatively about humanity.  There is no evidence people are more or less prone to incinerate ourselves in a climate apocalypse or a race war.  As Atwood writes, “What is our Cosmos but a snowflake? What is it but a piece of lace?”  To find that beauty, I must release my hold on what I usually think of as truth, and see the world askew.

* According to the AP Images site, from which I pulled this image, “In this Jan. 12, 1963 file photo, demonstrator Michael Kirby, 25, of Milton, Mass., carrying a peace sign, is taken into custody by police in Groton, Conn., outside the launching site of the Polaris nuclear missile submarine USS Nathan Hale. Kirby, a former nuclear weapons specialist in the Navy, was one of two pacifists arrested at the site.  Under the shadow of the Cold War’s threat of ‘mutually assured destruction,’ 1963 was the year of dawning arms control between the U.S. and the Soviet Union; they signed a Nuclear Test Ban Treaty.”

 

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