Wednesday, July 20, 2016

The Stones Cry Out

Bishop Karen Oliveto, the first openly gay bishop in The United Methodist Church, kneels during the consecration service held on July 16, 2016, at Paradise Valley United Methodist Church in Scottsdale, Arizona. Photo by Patrick Scriven, Pacific-Northwest Conference
Bishop Karen Oliveto kneels during her consecration at the Western Jurisdictional Conference of the United Methodist Church.

And some of the Pharisees in the multitude said to [Jesus], “Teacher, rebuke your disciples.” He answered, “I tell you, if these were silent, the very stones would cry out.” (Luke 16:39-40)

Who knew the last straw would be a study commission?

The United Methodist Church has been struggling with sexual diversity in the ministry since 1972. In that year, the General Conference (the quadrennial meeting that decides all matters of polity for the denomination) first amended the Discipline (the denominational rule book) to forbid ordination of "self-avowed, practicing homosexuals." Since then, generations of gay and lesbian candidates for ministry have been forced to remain closeted for their entire careers; to lie to to their congregations, superintendents, and bishops; to carefully avoid using certain terminology with church officials who are sympathetic, but adhering to the letter of the law; to openly disobey the Discipline, and face the consequences; or, with the cooperation of church officials who are, themselves, defying the Discipline, to openly live and work under the shadow of eventual prosecution by colleagues zealously defending the rule of church law. They've done this as their advocates have fought, conference after conference, to remove or alter the language that singles them out for special persecution, to no avail, for the conservative regions of the denomination simply have more votes.

I've been arguing for years--since long before I left the ministry in 2000, in fact--that sticking with the process and waiting for the church to evolve an open mind was never going to work. Even as American secular culture has experienced a great awakening to the acceptance and affirmation of sexual diversity, United Methodism has been solidifying its opposition to this trend, while simultaneously embracing the ironic slogan "Open Minds, Open Hearts, Open Doors." In the mid-2000s, I wrote a novel about the struggle, in which my characters (and through them, me) came to the conclusion that it would take widespread acts of ecclesial disobedience, and very likely eventual schism, to bring about the change that has to happen if Methodism is going to survive the 21st century.

This is the dilemma the whole church faced two months ago, as the General Conference convened right here in Portland, Oregon. The opposing forces were gearing up for a showdown that could have led to a mass walkout. Instead, the conference punted, delegating the question to the Council of Bishops, calling on them to set up yet another study commission on how to deal with the perennial question of "What shall we do with the gays?" I say "yet another" because the UMC has been using studies to pacify its left and right wings at least since the 1980s, referring the matter to local churches for discussion, hoping the extremists will either cool their tempers or drift away to churches that better suit them with their more or less inclusive polities and theology. The denomination has been able to get away with this because Methodists are, by and large, centrists, good, well-meaning people who can go on loving their more extreme fellow believers just so long as they don't make too big a stink.

The center has held, but it won't for much longer. Throughout the Obama administration, sexual diversity has made leaps and bounds in its acceptance by mainstream Americans. As much as the church may be growing in more conservative Africa, it is still an American denomination, and because of that, there can be no denying that minds and hearts and, yes, doors are opening across great swathes of the church. Setting up another study was never going to appease the United Methodists of the Western and Northeastern Jurisdictions who have been ignoring the Discipline's bans on both ordination and marriage of same-gender oriented persons at least since the last General Conference. Last week, as Jurisdictional Conferences met to elect and appoint Bishops, three self-avowed, practicing, and very much out of the closet gay clergy ran for the church's highest office. One of them, the Rev. Karen Oliveto of San Francisco's Glide Memorial UMC, was elected.

I've heard Rev. Oliveto preach. She's powerful in the pulpit, a gifted church leader with a prophetic voice. She's also a married lesbian. She'll be a fine administrator in her new assignment as Bishop of the Rocky Mountain and Yellowstone Annual Conferences, and a great asset to the Council of Bishops--at least until the South Central Jurisdiction succeeds in its bid to have her consecration overturned by the Judicial Council.

Because that's what they're trying. As has always been the case in these matters, it's not the congregation of the gay pastor or the pastor performing a lesbian wedding who presses the issue, but some external meddler seeking to protect the greater church from the sin of progressivism. The South Central Jurisdiction filed its request for a declaratory decision with the Judicial Council (the denomination's supreme court) within days of Bishop Oliveto's consecration. At the same time, the conservative Confessing Movement called on the Council of Bishops to oppose Oliveto's consecration, to expedite implementation of the study commission, and to set a date for a special session of the General Conference to either again reject sexually diverse ministry or to finally draw up a plan for schism.

I don't see any way for the denomination to avoid the latter option. Gay pastors and gay couples have grown old, retired, and died waiting for the church to open its heart to their humanity and witness. The conferences that have been ordaining them and celebrating their weddings are not going back. At the same time, the conservative Methodists of the Midwest, Southeast, and Africa are nowhere near ready to accept such a change. When the special conference meets, the two sides will duke it out. They may try to pray it out, but there's really no compromise to be had.

American Methodism took on the name "United" in 1966, when it merged with the Evangelical United Brethren, though the ideal of unity went back to 1939 and the reunion of the northern and southern Methodist denominations. Since 1972, the price of unity has been the silence, under penalty of defrocking, of a significant minority of clergypersons. Once schism comes, the smaller denominations that affirm non-normative sexual identity will finally enjoy the unity of diversity--as opposed to the unity of dogmatic adherence to church law.

Whatever those new churches look like, I hope none of them cling to the name "United." If anything, I expect it will leave a bad taste in everyone's mouth, as it has in mine for a good long time.

Friday, July 15, 2016

Lives That Matter

Richmond, California, Police Chief Chris Magnus attending a rally in 2014.

It's a philosophical controversy at the heart of the American experiment, running back to the foundations of Christian theology and, before that, Jewish identity. Christian theologians have called it the Scandal of Particularity; liberation theologians call it the Preferential Option. I can put it in a non-religious frame of reference by calling it Focus. What it comes down to is simply this: In the grand scheme of things, does one life matter?

Do I?

How about you?

How about your partner, your parent, your child?

Black Lives Matter is a movement founded in the need to translate generalisms into particulars. White American people have been callously killing Black men for centuries. Until the 1960s, hardly any of these murders were prosecuted. The reason: Black lives didn't matter. Collectively, persons of color were given little or no value by the dominant culture. That began to change with the Civil Rights Era, but as recently as 2014, the ongoing frequency of Black deaths from police encounters was met by politicians with shrugs and, at most, hand-wringing. Even in the most questionable of these incidents, police were rarely disciplined, let alone prosecuted. Each death was just another grain of sand in the centuries-wide beach of racial injustice.

It took a technological revolution, growing out of superficial self-satisfaction, to change all that. When every phone is also a video camera, connected to a global social network, anyone can be a crime reporter. Police shootings are now routinely recorded and broadcast by multiple bystanders, and there can be no question but that young Black men are being treated by police far more harshly, and at far greater risk to their well-being and even lives, than their white counterparts. Seizing on this growing awareness, Black Lives Matter has been publicizing individual tragedies, protesting in communities with a history of police abuse.

This makes many white people uncomfortable. It's unpleasant to be reminded of the crimes of our ancestors, some of whom are still alive and present at Thanksgiving dinners. It's even more unpleasant to realize that the feelings and attitudes that give birth to such atrocities still linger within our own privileged psyches. 

How to assuage or, better still, dismiss the guilt? How to avoid self-identification as an oppressor, a racist, a genocide apologist? There's no better balm to the pain of particularity than generalization. Conservatives are quick to respond to "Black lives matter" with "All lives matter," as if pointing out generations of abuse is offensive. It's not unusual for Black Lives Matter demonstrations to face counter-demonstrators waving "All Lives Matter" signs.

Another balm to the guilt is dilution, taking the worthwhile concerns raised by Black Lives Matter protesters and insisting they be applied to other causes:
As a liberal, I have a lot of sympathy for this approach. Marginalized Americans abound, and the one thing they all have in common is the source of their oppression: people who look like me. The more of these causes I bring into my wheelhouse, the less chagrined I feel about my cohort's responsibility for any one of them. I can just put it all down to general white straight Protestant male guilt, resolve to be excellent to everyone, and leave it at that. It's the liberal version of "thoughts and prayers."

In fact, it's the particularity of Black Lives Matter that makes the movement relevant, and gives me hope that it can start to turn things around. It's impolite, it's dissonant, it's even rude and in my face, it's tired of being ignored, and it's not going to shut up until I do something about it. Most of all, it's particular in ways that no previous movement for social change could be. Recording abuses and broadcasting them to the world personalize every incident, giving faces and names and stories to the persecuted, giving the rest of us a sense of how many of them there are, how big a problem this really is, and how frustrating it must be that it's still happening fifty years after the Civil Rights Acts of the 1960s.

Particulars matter. Individuals matter. Black lives matter to America because they built this nation, and did so in chains. For hundreds of years, Black lives were private property. 150 years after the abolition of that system, those Black lives continue to face obstacles unique to them, and their story is intricately woven into the identity of every American. Who I am, what I am, what I am able to do, all of it I have thanks to the involuntary sacrifice of countless Black slaves. That they continue to pay for the misdeeds of my ancestors is an abomination. That white Americans begrudge them their anger over this inequity is obscene. That any of us would try to subsume their suffering into a blanket platitude like "all lives matter" is execrable.

Our national conscience will not be eased until we have heard these very particular cries for justice and answered them. Our guilt will not be assuaged until every one of us is acting, every day, as if every life truly matters, starting with those who most need it. Black lives need a particular kind of justice, a justice that atones for the sins of our forebears, that makes reparations to the descendants of the enslaved who are still suffering for those sins, a justice that affirmatively corrects hundreds of years of imbalance with favored treatment in all the institutions that once banned them from participation, and which continue to treat them unfairly.

You may be wondering if there will ever come a time when we can say that all lives matter without offending the people whose life experience contradicted that sentiment. You won't get an answer from me. I rather think it's up to the oppressed to tell us when they finally feel like the scales have been balanced, that we as a nation are genuinely living the ideal voiced at our founding, that all of us are created equal and are endowed with inalienable rights to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. I know we're not there yet, and so I'm not going to pretend we are. Surrendering that conscience-soothing sentiment is the very least I can do to start tipping the scales.

Wednesday, July 13, 2016

Midlife Malediction

It's not all sweetness and light.

Middle age is wonderful!

Except when it's not.

But first the good stuff. When I started this blog in May, 2013, I was 52 years old, finishing my second (and, I hope, final) year as a high school music teacher with no clear path to returning to elementary general music, a year away from being married to Amy, and looking forward to the most active summer of my life. By the end of that summer, we had backpacked in the Olympics and the Tetons, I had blogged more than once a day (that's an average, of course: I didn't blog while backpacking in the wilderness). I wrote about many things: music, education, theology, Biblical criticism, those backpacking expeditions, gun control, politics. Implicit in all these topics, and sometimes very much on the surface, was my transition from prime adulthood to middle age.

By and large, I've found middle age to be immensely satisfying. Most of the relationally driven anxieties of my youth have fallen away, though I do from time to time revisit younger traumas, mostly employment-related. Even then, the emotions driving my interactions with the world are far cooler than those of even just a decade ago. Time and experience help put all such things in perspective, enabling me to address each crisis with essential truths: It's not that big a thing. It will get better. There will be another. You'll find another way.

Along with perspective, experience has made me more capable of taking on projects that I would've found overwhelming in that not-so-distant past. Last year, I wrote about the "Age of Knowing" (and yes, I'm aware it was a Viagra ad that brought that concept into the general parlance), and how I'd managed to install both a garbage disposal and a ceiling fan with a minimum of cursing.

Middle age also has made it far easier to deal with younger people who are, themselves, in the midst of crisis. I can empathize with them, knowing how terrifying it is to pass through such things for the first time; keep my own sympathetic anxiety in check, knowing such things are survivable, even transcendable; and restrict my words of advice to assurance that this, too, will pass, knowing (again from experience) that much more than that will be received poorly.

In these ways, middle age is literally cooler than youth. More times than I can count, I've looked on the misadventures of teenagers and young adults and been profoundly grateful that I don't have to go through that again.

Of course, it's not all good.

There are reasons, I'm realizing, why so many older people spend so much time complaining.

Let's start with the body. My body has been letting me down lately, constantly reminding me that I'm not young anymore. For years now, I've been suffering the middle-aged male curse of the sensitive prostate: always a light sleeper, I find myself waking up multiple times each night, unable to go back to sleep until I've visited the bathroom. Add to this the loss of vitality in my internal repair systems: it takes me longer to come back from injury or illness than when I was younger.

Another case in point: June 3, I had a few hours to kill between the end of school and a busy evening of meetings and performing. Eager to jump-start my summer exercise, I took a run through Portland's inner east side, passing through some of my favorite neighborhoods. It was a hot afternoon. In my desire to keep to the shade, I allowed myself to forget a hard-earned lesson, and ran on a sidewalk instead of in the street. As had happened to me so many times when I was learning to run three decades ago, one of my feet caught on the edge of a slightly elevated concrete slab. I struggled to catch myself, couldn't, and forgot to roll as I landed, hard, on both knees.

That was six weeks ago. I've only been running once since then, haven't been on my bicycle at all. Monday, I had an MRI on my right knee which, according to an x-ray I had last week, is experiencing arthritis. 

Now there's a word I didn't want to hear.

It's been a month since school got out, and my active summer hasn't started yet. I may have to have surgery on that knee. The only remotely aerobic exercise I can handle is walking, and that leaves me stiff and achy in ways it never used to. I have to think carefully about getting up from a sitting or lying position, and especially carefully about getting into and out of the car. Stairs are no fun.

And those projects: I completely bungled a toilet repair last week, thanks in part to how painful it was to kneel while I worked. A leak that could've been fixed with a $4 gasket turned into a $365 new toilet. Knowing my body wasn't in the right place for strenuous projects, I also coughed up the extra money to have our new garage door opener installed, rather than tackling it myself.

Hand-in-hand with the loss of activity comes growth in my waist line. I'm still eating like an athlete because I still have an athlete's appetite, but I'm just not burning as many of the calories I'm taking in. My clothes are feeling tight, my feet hurt more when I walk, and I'm just not happy with how I look in a mirror.

All of that puts me in a crankier place than I'd like to be. I'm less patient, less charitable, more irritable.

Finally, there's the inertia: it's hard to summon the motivation to get up and do things. Yes, some of that is a mindset that comes from the knee pain induced by standing up; but it's more than that: at times, going out is a chore. I'd just rather stay at home.

Pardon me for a moment while I make some generic old person grumbling sounds.

There. That's better. I'm ready to end on a positive note.

All my life, I've had a bucket list. The items on it have changed over time, as some have been checked off and others lost their importance to me. There was a time when Disney theme parks mattered to me; now I don't feel the need to ever set foot in one again. The same goes, to a lesser extent, for cathedrals: if I'm visiting a city that has a church of historic and/or artistic importance, I'll stop in, but I'm not building itineraries around them.

Much more important to me in the last couple of decades has been places of great natural beauty, especially those set aside to be national parks and monuments. I'm not through with these places, not by a long shot. I fully expect to continue building vacations around them as long as I'm able.

But two days ago, I had an epiphany. I was out on a long walk that was (blush) built around playing Pokemon Go. (Yes, in some ways, I'm still just a big, balding, wrinkly kid.) Toward the end of the walk, I was heading down a paved trail when I noticed a patch of tall grass moving gently in the breeze, backlit by the sun, the foothills of the Coast Range in the distance. I was captivated by how much beauty there was in this mundane sight. And as I was, I had a dayenu moment: if this was the last thing I ever saw, it would be enough. So what if I never laid eyes on the Matterhorn, never snorkeled on a tropic reef, never hiked across the Continental Divide, never beheld any of the other wonders of the world on the bucket list? Right now I was experiencing a moment of transcendent beauty, seeing how even in its smallest details this world is a masterpiece. It was enough.

I believe I glimpsed in that moment the serenity that lies ahead of me, the acceptance that comes with entering life's final stages. When I reach that place where my body is no longer able to do any of the things that have enriched my life, when all I have left is the peace that comes from beholding beauty, it will be enough for me if I can have an open window onto a field of grass, a rose garden, or, if I'm very lucky, a view of distant mountains. I'll lie in my bed and watch as light comes and goes, as the colors brighten and fade with clouds and rain, as the seasons alter the shape and hue of the vegetation. And rather than be frustrated that my hiking days are over, disappointed that I didn't check off all the items on the list, I'll know I'm blessed simply to have my senses filled with what's outside that window.

I'm not there yet. I'm grumbling a lot right now about the limitations my body is putting on me. But there is something reassuring about discovering that, at 55, I can still be a novice at something, and know that some things never stop getting better.

Friday, July 8, 2016

This Is Not a War. It's Worse.

Pieta, Michelangelo

It's one of the most affecting images in Christian iconography: a seated woman holding the body of a nearly-naked man in her lap. The woman is Mary, the man is her son Jesus. He has just been brought down from the cross. It takes another iconic image--Mary holding her infant son--and alters the scale in a way that might seem absurd, if it were not so poignant, so archetypal in ways that go far beyond its theological foundations. Centuries before the first Christians told the story of Mary standing at the foot of the cross, watching her son die, the prophet Jeremiah wrote of this same fundamental experience with these words: "A voice is heard in Ramah, lamentation and bitter weeping. Rachel is weeping for her children; she refuses to be comforted...because they are no more." (Jeremiah 31:15)

You don't have to be a Christian to feel the anguish in Michelangelo's Pieta, or a Jew to ache for the grief in Jeremiah's description. Is there any sorrow like to the sorrow of a grieving parent?

It's images like these I find myself turning to as I consider the events of the last 48 hours. On Wednesday, in incidents separated by more than a thousand miles, two African-American men were shot to death by police without provocation. Across the United States, people responded in outrage and grief, and last night, demonstrations against police violence were held in several cities. In Portland, a man was taken into custody after threatening demonstrators with a handgun. In and of itself, that causes me to fear for the future of my country. But what happened in Dallas takes our centuries-long struggle to a new level. There police were working traffic control for a lawful, peaceful demonstration, and found themselves the targets of sniper fire. Five were killed, six wounded. Three suspects were taken into custody. One 25-year-old man had to be taken out with a robot-placed bomb.

As terrible as this shooting was--the most police deaths in one incident since September 11, 2001--what followed ratcheted the tragedy up even higher. A former Congressman declared war on the Black Lives Matter movement; A prominent conservative web page put up the headline "Black Lives Kill"; and the New York Post led with "Civil War." 

It's not surprising that conservatives are so quick to cast the current Age of Arms (a term I just encountered in the Isaac Chotiner article cited in the previous paragraph) as a race war: it lets gun enthusiasts off the hook, dismisses the white guilt so many liberals are expressing, and gives them an excuse to blame the violence on criminals (conservative code for persons of color). If, as the NRA so frequently claims, the only thing that stops a bad guy with a gun is a good guy with a gun, and now there are bad guys targeting police officers, then we need more armed good guys to defeat the bad guys. Translation: the solution to gun violence is more guns in the hands of "responsible" shooters.

Of course, this ignores the fact that the vast majority of shooting victims in America are "good guys" killed, not by criminals, but by their own family members--or by themselves--due to irresponsibility, absent-mindedness, or suicide; or that the ratio of victims of police shootings to police shot in the line of duty in 2015 was 21:1.

It's been that lop-sided, or worse, for hundreds of years. Perhaps it was only a matter of time until some individual or group of individuals channeled their outrage into an assault on police officers. But there's no question in my mind that ever-easier access to firearms played into last night's sniper attack on what is, by all accounts, one of the most progressive, community-minded police departments in the United States.

This is not a war, not yet, probably not ever. Wars have rules. There are no rules to what's happening in this Age of Arms: persons of color dying in police custody as individual cops go too far, violating department policy, firing deadly weapons with minimal provocation, and suffer minimal consequences for their actions; and as private individuals, frustrated at the inability of peaceful demonstrations to affect policy in any meaningful way, finally take advantage of the availability of assault weapons and turn them on the police. 

My fear is that, in the wake of this shooting, police officers, already concerned for their own safety by the prevalence of privately-owned guns, will become even more quick on the draw, better lethal than sorry; and that as more innocent people become victims of police shootings, more angry gun owners will take revenge in their own hands, until this country descends into a conflagration of revenge killings.

That fear is grounded in the prevalence of firearms. We've turned this country into a minefield, and rather than defusing the mines that already exist, we're just continuing to lay more of them. With so many weapons out there, and with what restrictions have survived falling to NRA lobbying (Texas, for instance, has now lifted all restrictions on carrying concealed weapons on campus), the United States could all too easily tip into becoming a fire zone.

There are already far too many Rachels, weeping for their lost children, inconsolable because they are gone forever. And there are far too many stony-faced conservatives, refusing to be moved by the tears of bereaved parents, insisting that no amount of innocent victims is too high a price to pay for their right to bear arms, blaming the victims for the violence inflicted on them.

Thursday, July 7, 2016


I get nervous enough when this happens to white, middle-aged me. What must it be like for a black or brown driver?

Sometimes professionals make things worse.

In January 1997, a month into my second marriage, I had a panic attack that lasted all night. My heart was racing, I was unable to sleep, and I had pain in one arm. I finally asked my new wife to take me to the emergency room in McMinnville. What followed was a 36-hour cascade of unintended consequences as doctors treated symptoms with drugs that caused other symptoms that had to be treated with more drugs until, finally, I had to be admitted for the night--something that had never happened to me before, nor since. In the end, I was fine physically; and in retrospect, I came to pin the incident on a growing awareness that this hurried rebound marriage had been a horrible mistake.

And the whole thing could've been avoided if one of those doctors had taken a few minutes to interview me about my emotional state. The mind and the body are far more intimately connected than doctors of the 1990s realized.

I was lucky. All I had to show for my adventure was a hospital bill and a lost weekend, but it could've been much worse. I've read and heard stories of people who went into hospitals for routine or minor procedures and wound up seriously impaired, or even dead, from surgical errors and unforeseen complications.

Here's a second story of me being lucky: five years ago (give or take), I was hurrying to get from a band rehearsal on the far side of Vancouver to the ComedySportz arena in northwest Portland. Traffic was heavy, but moving well, and it looked like I'd make it to the arena in time for the last hour of workshop. Just before I reached the I-405 exit, I saw a motorcycle cop who, having just finished writing a ticket, was signaling to get back into traffic from the shoulder. I had just seconds to decide what to do. I couldn't get into the left lane, so I tapped my brakes, slowly slightly as I passed.

Moments later, I saw lights flashing in my rearview mirror, and pulled over on the shoulder. I turned off the stereo, pulled out my license and registration, and sat nervously, waiting for the cop to come to my window, then was startled when he rapped loudly with a metal object (Flashlight? Nightstick? Keys?) on the passenger window. I rolled it down, and sat meekly, taking my medicine, as he lambasted me for not slowing down enough to let him into traffic ahead of me. I apologized vociferously, and once his tirade was completed, he let me go.

I was lucky. All I had to show for this adventure was embarrassment and the post-traumatic stress I feel whenever anyone lets me have it verbally. It could've been much worse, of course, but I had a huge thing in my favor: I'm a middle-aged white man.

The internet is aflame today with reactions to another incident of police killing an African-American man who posed no immediate threat to them. Alton Sterling had been selling CDs outside a convenience store in Baton Rouge, Louisiana, when police approached him. At some point, they became aware he was carrying a concealed gun, and even though they had him pinned to the ground, shot him to death. Watching the disturbing cell phone video of the incident, it seems clear that this was a routine incident that rapidly escalated into a shooting. Later in the day, in St. Paul, Minnesota, Philando Castile, an African-American driver who had been pulled over for a broken tail light, was shot to death when he reached for his driver's license.

Alton Sterling and Philando Castile were just the latest in a centuries-long procession of persons of color dying in the custody of police. For most of the history of such incidents, most of them were state-sanctioned, race-based terrorism: persons in position of authority keeping marginalized people in their place with violence. In the decades since the 1960s, law enforcement agencies have increasingly come under scrutiny from both civil rights organizations and the federal government, and the consensus has finally begun to take hold that racism should be a disqualifying trait in any candidate for a police force. And yet the litany continues: black and brown persons continue to be pulled over far more often, to be challenged on the street far more often, to be restrained and beaten and shot far more often, than white persons.

I'm going to surprise you now: while I do think color is a factor, I don't think it's the only one. As I noted in the story of my hospital experience, unintended consequences can escalate a minor incident into something far worse. I've seen this as, for the last three years, I've taught music to children who live in poverty. While most of my students were children of color, that was not, in and of itself, a predictor of how they behaved in class. Some of my most cooperative children were black and brown; some of my most difficult were white. What almost all of the tough kids had in common was not race or ethnicity, but poverty, and the trauma that often comes with it.

In a stressful situation, children who've grown up with trauma will often retreat from the stress, closing in on themselves, attempting to hide. They may try to distract themselves by ignoring the stimulus, perhaps drowning it out in conversation with others. This can lead the instigator of the stress--whether it's a teacher, a shopkeeper, or a police officer--to turn up the intensity, leading to a cascade of reactions, counter-reactions, over-reactions, and finally violence. With experience, teachers learn when to back away, when to redirect the fight-or-flight energy, and, when necessary, to respond to a confrontation in ways that are both firm and gentle. In a word, we learn to de-escalate.

Ideally, our "peace officers" would be doing the same thing, and I'm sure there are many of them who do. I have to wonder, though, in our heavily armed country, if maybe it's having the guns in the first place that causes so many routine stops to turn into shootings. Alton Taylor was carrying a gun because he was afraid of being mugged; just the perception that he had the gun led the cops to shoot him. Philando Castile didn't even have a gun, but the perception that he was reaching for one led to his own death. In a culture that arms so many criminals to the teeth, it's not surprising that so many cops go into confrontations assuming the suspect is packing, and respond accordingly.

There is no easy answer to this dilemma, but there are some hard answers, answers that will years, perhaps generations, to accomplish:

Our culture must move past the shock-and-outrage phase on both gun violence and police shootings. As long as we're in a reactive mode, repeatedly expressing our anger and grief, we're not going to get anywhere. Yes, we have to acknowledge the mind-numbing stupidity of our gun culture, and horrifying injustice of so many black and brown people being treated so differently from white people, and let that feed our desire to make the changes necessary. Unfortunately, most of what I see after these incidents is outrage (well, that and the usual rush to "thoughts and prayers" from legislators who aren't going to do a damn thing to fix the problems). We managed to build a national consensus around marriage equality. It's time we channeled our frustration over these issues into a movement against gun violence.

We need to back away from the insane libertarian gun lust that puts lethal weapons in the hands of irresponsible and untrained people. Beyond that, we need to move past the myth that guns make anyone safer. Five days ago in Sarasota, Florida, a veteran gun enthusiast, steeped in gun safety, had a momentary lapse in judgment that killed his 14-year-old son. He blamed himself, not the gun; and of course, there are tragic accidents that happen with many pastimes (including my own beloved hiking, cycling, and running); but I can't think of any pastime as potentially lethal to participants as owning and using firearms. Reducing the number of guns in circulation can't happen overnight: there are a hundred million of them out there, many of them owned by people who believe it is there absolute right to have them, and are fiercely opposed to giving them up; and the gun lobby is far more visible, organized, and powerful than the anti-gun movement. That's why I think it will take years, possibly generations. But it's something we have to do. No constitutional right is worth this many unnecessary deaths.

Our police need to take the euphemism "peace officer" seriously. In many jurisdictions, police forces are called "departments of public safety." In recent years, many cities have moved toward community policing, trying to make cops active participants in the lives of their own neighborhoods, and that's certainly a move in the right direction. But shifting police culture from confrontation to de-escalation will take considerably more than reinstituting the beat system. Gun violence cuts both ways: nationwide, 42 police officers were killed in the line of duty in 2015. That's a reduction over previous years, but it's still far too high a number--though nowhere near the 1186 people killed by police that year. Still, when pulling a vehicle over for a traffic violation could be the last thing a cop does, there are going to be some who react at the first hint of a suspect reaching for a gun--even if there's no gun to be reached for. De-escalating this national crisis will take more than sensitivity training: police need to feel safer. That means, again, cutting back on the number of firearms in circulation.

At the deepest level, though, it means building relationships across historic divides. So many of us still live in segregated neighborhoods, attend segregated churches, send our children to segregated schools. It's not 1950, and none of these places is institutionally segregated; but humans prefer to affiliate with those with whom they have something in common. This is the growing edge at which our nation has always been, and always will be, a work in progress. In many ways, it's getting better: we finally had our first black President, and it seems very likely he'll be succeeded by our first woman President; our Supreme Court is as diverse as it's ever been, and likely to become even moreso under President Clinton; and LGBT people are being accepted and affirmed in more places all the time. At the same time, though, there's been a terrifying re-entrenchment by older white Americans, and it will take all our best efforts to keep the Trump phenomenon from becoming a setback for us as a people.

All these cultural shifts will take time. While we're working toward them, innocent people will continue to die. Getting the guns out of our homes, getting our cops to be safer and less reactive, getting people of every ethnicity to see each other as neighbors rather than threats, is work on a scale that makes a mission to Mars look like kids' stuff.

And now that I've mentioned kids' stuff, I'll finish this essay with that which gives me hope. Changes like these I'm proposing are incredibly hard for older Americans like myself to make. For children, though, it's as simple as putting them in a room together. For the last three years, I've seen children ignoring all the boundaries of race, culture, language, religion, and socio-economic status. They just don't care about these things. Their friends are whichever other children they enjoy playing with. It's a beautiful thing, and I'm going to miss it as I go now to teach in a mostly white suburban school. What it tells me, though, is that all the fears and prejudices that hold us back from being a safer, more accepting nation are learned things. Our violent culture has been teaching us to escalate. If we can learn that, then perhaps we can unlearn it, as well. It may be as simple as refraining from teaching it to the next generation of children so that those of them who become cops--and those of them who find themselves confronted by cops--can keep their cool and deal with each other as fellow human beings solving a problem.