Archive for July, 2009

The HAC Basketball Diaries, Volume 1

July 29, 2009 2 comments

My old high school JV basketball coach just showed up on facebook. Boy does that bring back memories! For those of you that didn’t know me in high school, you might be thinking to yourself: Phil played basketball? Yes, indeed, I did play basketball. Despite being 5 ft 4, and despite being, at the time, somewhat “hefty,” I indeed played on the junior varsity basketball team.

How is this possible, you might ask? Simple: my tiny private school required that you play a sport. There were also no cuts in any of the sports whatsoever, so I was guaranteed to make the team. As a result of this policy, the JV team (which actually combined players from two different school, Harley and Allendale Columbia) had, I think, close to 25 players. This was a pretty ridiculous spectacle, especially at away games. They would always have to bring out extra chairs for us. We played in the absolute worst division, division “double D” or something like that. We’d have to drive hours to get to some of our games–those teams were usually in some small town where the local high school sports were actually a big deal. All of the teams we played absolutely hated us: we were the “rich kids” (never mind that I wasn’t rich) from the private school out of town, and we certainly didn’t take things seriously enough. We were an undignified squadron, with our bloated 25 man roster and our bad attitudes. Our team didn’t even have cheerleaders; at home games, the other team would bring their cheerleaders to our court, along with half of the town, so it was basically like a home game for them.

I should mention something which should come as no surprise at this point: we were absolutely terrible at basketball. We had some talented players, but we were basically hopeless…no one expected us to ever win. We’d go into games and literally get blown out by 50 points. Sometimes our score was in the single digits well into the second half. This, by the way, generated considerable playing time for myself. Though I was, by nature, a career bench warmer, often the game was effectively over before the second half even started. The second and third tier players would get their time in the third quarter, and sometimes I’d get to play for nearly the entire fourth quarter.

My career statistics included 0 points, several rebounds, 1 assist (I remember this one because I threw the ball to a guy who was wide open, and got complimented by his father for it afterwords), several fouls, and 1 delay of game warning. Near the end of my “career,” I took on a sort of mascot status, and it became a great hope among both the JV and varsity players that I would score before my time was up. To this end, whenever I found myself in a game (which was becoming a less and less frequent occurrence), there would be a huge push to get me the ball. Whenever I had the ball, I would be expected to shoot. The varsity coach was not pleased with this whole ordeal. In what might have been my last game, I took one particularly ill-advised heave from near half court, which, if I remember correctly, glanced off the side of the backboard. In the locker room afterwords, I remember him confronting me: “Do you think you’re funny, Phil Williams?” I suppose he thought my stunts were making a mockery of the game–this was true, I admit. In my defense, however, I’d like to point out that my very presence on the team had been making a mockery of the game for the last two years, and no one had really complained about it until quite recently.

I remember that there were only a couple of teams in the league that we actually felt we had a shot of beating. One was this tiny Christian school–their team only had five players, and so they played the same five players entire game. In spite of this, we managed to lose to them. There was another game where the team we were playing seemed to be missing just as many shots as us. I think the game was basically tied going into half-time. At that point it began to dawn on me that we were matched up with a team that was nearly as bad as ourselves. Our coach, coach Stevens, then had a simple half-time message for us: “They suck. They suck! We can beat them.” This was true–nevertheless, we lost that game as well. Coach Stevens certainly did have some great locker room speeches in some of those games. After one particularly pathetic performance, he opened with the lines, “Lackadaisical is one way to describe that effort. Piss poor is another.”

The closest we ever came to a win in any of the games that I was actually present at was a home game. I’m not sure what the team that we were playing was…it might have been that school that only played five players. Anyway, we managed to play a close game the whole way through, and found ourselves up by 2 points, with almost no time left. The other team had the ball. We were due for a win, provided we simply let them inbound the ball, and nothing miraculous happened. That’s basically what happened–the ball was passed in, and time quickly expired without them managing to score. I remember the feeling of shock and excitement that came over me–we actually won a game! I didn’t think this was possible. The whole team rushed off the bench, and we were yelling and cheering at mid-court.

It was then that the news was broken to us: the game isn’t over. What? Why not? There was a foul, before the inbounds pass. The refs called a foul on our best player, a late call regarding something that supposedly took place before the ball was even on the court. I certainly didn’t see a foul; the guy they called it on (whom, by the way, I’ve just been texting about this game), has always insisted that there was no foul. Nevertheless, the refs called it. This gave the other team two free throws, which they (to their credit) managed to make, sending the game into overtime. We lost in overtime.

In my two years of basketball, the team went 0 and 20 the first year, and 2 and 18 the second year. And I managed to miss the only two games that we actually won! Looking back on it, perhaps I was something of a curse on that team; or, more charitably, perhaps I was simply the embodied image of our hopelessness. In spite of this sad status, I have many fond memories of my basketball years.

Categories: Uncategorized

Costly Love

July 23, 2009 4 comments

While I was recently visiting my hometown of Rochester, I was looking for a church that I might go to on Sunday, and I found myself reading a bit of a sermon on the website of an Episcopal church. The pastor talked about Jesus’ resurrection and ascension, and how the disciples had expected him to return soon, but were puzzled as the years went on and he had not. She then talked about how Jesus promised to be with the disciples through till the end of the age. She then gave examples of events in her own life that pointed, she believed, to that continued presence. I’m having trouble remembering exactly what they were. They all seemed to involve some sort of generous act. In one, people helped re-fill an empty parking meter for her. Another had to do with people helping out at a church event of some sort. The overall message was that Christ is still with us, building his kingdom in all these little moments of our lives.

Reading that sermon, I got the sort of feeling I’ve had before with “watered down” Christianity. I have the sense that something essential is missing from the whole presentation they give, but it’s not quite being said what. In fact, it seems that they are almost going out of their way to give the impression that the faith they are proclaiming is still intact. They try to mention some of the key elements of it, to assure the audience that the truth has not yet been abandoned. And yet somehow it seems to all be drained of its real essence and power; somehow I am left feeling as if the pastor herself did not really believe what she was saying. I hesitate to write this, because for all I know, I have seriously misjudged her. Only God knows the state of her faith. But this was the impression I was left with: a Christian faith drained of its essence and power, being proclaimed by a person who perhaps didn’t really even believe what she was saying. And that impression is troubling to me. It makes the Christian faith itself seem so unreal. I start to wonder what it is that I really believe myself.

Later in the week, different circumstances brought about a similar unease. My Aunt, who is a Unitarian, was explaining to me one of the basic problems she had with the Catholicism she was raised in. She wants to be a good person, to do good. She obviously cares deeply about doing this. Moreover, she doesn’t want this to be motivated by a desire for reward, or a fear of punishment. She, like most people, would prefer that people did good for its own sake. She understands the basic moral truth that something is taken away from good actions when such self-interest is the only motivation. And this is the message she got, at least, from her Catholic upbringing–they told you that if you did good, you’d go to heaven, and if you did bad things, you’d go to hell.

I wanted to explain how the Christianity I believe in teaches something quite different: that you can’t work your way into heaven, that salvation is a gift of God, purely of grace, through simple faith to anyone who believes. I said some things, but I don’t know how well I got that point across. This basic message of grace, that I’ve heard hundreds of times, that I’ve saturated my life with, can seem so foreign when faced with the simple task of speaking it to one who does not believe it. I find myself wondering how it is that something that has seemed so powerful and real to me does not hit others with the same force, and can suddenly feel hollow or artificial when I try to explain it to someone who doesn’t share my conviction. And that causes me again to begin to wonder about the reality of what I am saying.

These sort of thoughts were floating around in my head as I went for a jog on my last day in Rochester. As I ran down the street, I wondered again what it was that was missing from this whole approach to Christianity I encountered in that sermon I had read. The sermon had indeed mentioned the death of Christ, and his resurrection, and talked about his continued presence in the world, all things I gladly affirm and consider at the heart of Christianity. And yet I felt something central was missing. I just didn’t have the words yet to describe exactly what it was.

As I jogged, I was listening to the Welcome to the Welcome Wagon CD on my ipod, and they were singing an old hymn:

Hail to the Lord’s Anointed,
Great David’s greater Son!
Hail, in the time appointed,
His reign on earth begun!
He comes to break oppression,
To set the captive free,
To take away transgression,
And rule in equity.

As I listened to these lyrics, it suddenly dawned on me what was missing from the sermon I had read: what was missing from it was any perception of the costliness of love. “Costliness of love” was the phrase that occurred to me–I’m thinking that this probably came unconsciously to me from my memory of Bonhoffer’s phrase “costly grace.” I decided that the costliness of love was what was missing–the costliness of God’s love and, consequently, the costliness of all love. Their was no acknowledgement of the reality of pain or sacrifice, especially that of love given but not returned. This is what was lacking in all the illustrations the pastor had made of Christ’s continued presence in the world. They were all examples of people being generous, cooperative, compassionate, thoughtful–certainly all good things. At their best, they approached the great command “do unto others as you would have them do to you.” Good advice, indeed–in fact Jesus himself gives it. But Jesus doesn’t stop with that command, because he knows we can’t follow it, and he knows our world needs something more than advice. He came to do something greater than give us commands: he, as the song says, came to “take away transgression”–not simply tell us how to avoid it, but to break it down, to permanently break it’s power, to set us, the captives, free.

The song continued:

He comes with succor speedy
To those who suffer wrong;
To help the poor and needy
And bid the weak be strong;
To give them songs for sighing,
Their darkness turn to light,
Whose souls, condemned and dying,
Were precious in His sight.

Jesus comes to help the poor, but not just as an example to us. For we discover that we are all poor, and need his help, need what only he can give. We discover that our souls are condemned and dying, but are nevertheless precious in his sight. Missing from the sermon I read was the costly love of Jesus, the love of the Son of God dying for his enemies, to reconcile them to himself. Missing was God breaking into the world and putting it to rights himself. The costly love of Jesus is a redeeming love, a love that turns darkness into light.

But do we really need this sort of thing? Isn’t this too pessimistic; isn’t this brand of Christianity too grim–so much focus on our evil and sin, and on Christ’s death? I worry about this sometimes, and I do think it is a genuine temptation and danger to take “depravity” too far, to wallow in it and be so dramatic about it that the “light which lighteth every man” is obscured. But yes, we do need it. Just look around you, and inside of  you, and you’ll see that its true. It is even more dangerous is to forget about the darkness and brokenness in our own souls and in our world, to pretend that to fix things all we really need to do is start being nicer to each other. I find it very telling that, when the costliness of Christ’s love is forgotten, the supposed coming of the Kingdom of God, of God’s true reign in the world, reduces to this sort of thing. There did not seem to be any real hope in that sermon I read, and I think that this results from it having no real radical vision of God’s action in the world. This all stems from not really believing that God is active in the world, or even that he needs to be, but still trying to come up with examples of his activity anyway.

The song continued:

He shall come down like showers
Upon the fruitful earth,
And joy and hope, like flowers,
Spring in His path to birth.
Before Him on the mountains
Shall peace, the herald, go
And righteousness, like fountains,
From hill to valley flow.

“…righteousness, like fountains, from hill to valley flow.” How could claims like these be at all justified in a world with suicide and child prostitution? In a world where so many people lead depressed and despairing lives, where joy and peace seem so fleeting? I think they only can be justified if it is actually true that the life, death, and resurrection of Christ really do change everything, eternally. That through them God has made suffering both meaningful and redemptive, and has broken the reign of death. If this is true, we who believe it may have faith that this grand story is all still being woven together, that God has first come in weakness, but will come again in power, bringing justice and healing.

That is, besides the fact that he will come again in power, now in this age of weakness, we can really believe that the seeds of eternity are being sown. For the kingdom of God is like a mustard seed, which seems at first to be the smallest of all seeds, but grows into the largest plant. But we have to really believe that God himself is doing something, and that his plan is working, that the apparent smallest of the kingdom of God now is not unexpected, is not out of line with his plan. And even when or where we don’t think we see God at work, he is there–even in the midst of great wickedness, something is happening. Even in the slums and the crack houses, he is there. He is–probably more there than in our mansions, or country clubs, or wine and cheese receptions…but he is in those places also. The cross itself shows us that God’s manner of work in the world is not what we would first expect–no one expected the Messiah to be crucified. We see that our perception of size itself is skewed, and the things that matter most to God’s plan, we may easily miss.

The song finished:

To Him shall prayer unceasing and daily vows ascend;
His kingdom still increasing, a kingdom without end:
The tide of time shall never His covenant remove;
His Name shall stand forever, His Name alone is Love.

What I love about these words–and, in fact, and the words of the entire hymn–is how plainly declarative they are. No advice, no claims even about what we should be doing. Just simple and beautiful statements about what God has done and is doing, his costly love and the redemption it brings. This is a Christianity I can believe in, because I know it doesn’t depend on me and I know I could never have invented it. It is God’s work.

Categories: Uncategorized

Creation and Evolution, Part 1: introduction and definitions

July 15, 2009 Leave a comment

For some time now, I’ve been wanting to embark on an ambitious reading and writing project regarding the whole “creation and evolution debate.” So, now that I’m writing this blog, I figured I’d begin doing this with a series of posts on the subject. My idea, as of now, is to start off by framing the issue as I see it. From there, I’d like to then specifically begin reading and reviewing books from the various different viewpoints on this debate. I’m hoping that it will be fruitful to look at these books from the framework that I set up initially. I have a lot of general philosophical thoughts on this issue, but I have not delved very deeply into the specifics.

The first thing to do, I think, is to define some of the language that I’ll be using. Since this terminology will be important, I’ll be linking back to this first post in future posts, and I encourage readers to refer back to it if they need to remember what I mean by something. I may even modify this post, if I feel something needs to be added. I would also like readers to tell me if I what I am saying makes sense; I want to make everything clear, but I don’t always know if the philosophical manner of writing I am inclined to fall into is readable to everyone, and I want this series to be something that everyone can read. Also feel free to tell me if you find my overt attempts to “dumb things down” patronizing :).

By reality I mean all that exists.

By a worldview, I mean a dynamic and interactive collection of basic ideas about what reality is like. These include assumptions about what sorts of things exist, and how we should classify them. It also includes assumptions about how we learn, obtain knowledge, and discover truth. It also includes moral assumptions, and assumptions about what is of ultimate value.

By epistemology, I mean the study of the knowledge and knowing. More precisely, epistemology studies the nature, extent, and justification of human knowledge (I think one of my philosophy professors wrote that definition on the chalkboard at some point–I feel like I’m stealing it from somewhere). It deals with questions of what it means to know things, and how or if we can come to know things, and what sorts of things we can come to know. When I talk about the epistemology that a person subscribes to, or say that a particular person has a certain epistemology, I am referring to the beliefs that they hold about knowledge and knowing, regardless of whether they are actually conscious of those beliefs.  A person’s epistemology is is heavily tied into that person’s person’s worldview–I think it is best to think of it as an integral part of their worldview. It is the part of a person’s worldview that determines what they consider to be fruitful sources for knowledge, and also how to go about using those sources.

We can, at the risk of some generalization (since every individual is different), talk about the epistemologies of wider belief systems. For example, a Christian epistemology considers the bible to be a fundamental and extremely reliable source of many different types of knowledge; a Jewish epistemology does this as well, but with a different collection of books, omitting the New Testament. One could even talk about Catholic epistemologies and Protestant epistemologies. A Muslim epistemology considers the Quaran to fill a similar role to the bible in Christianity, and gives a lesser weight to the bible itself. An Atheist epistemology, on the other hand, would not give any more weight to these documents than it would to any other historical texts, and may give them considerably less weight, given their bias. So people with differing epistemologies differ on what they will consider to be valid sources of knowledge. They also may agree on something as a source of knowledge, but differ on how to use it as source of knowledge, or on what sort of knowledge can be obtained from it.

But things obviously go deeper than this, and can become much more complicated, when one considers all that is at play. Epistemology is a complicated subject! Obviously I can’t get into all of the complications. For our purposes it is enough to know that people don’t simply different on what they believe, but also on how they think of the nature of belief itself, of and of truth itself. I think it is good to be aware of this, and aware of the tendency we all have to caricature the epistemology of those we disagree with. I think this happens a lot in the creation vs. evolution debate, and I’ll be saying more about this later. For now, let’s get back to our definitions.

A supernatural agent is a personal, intelligent being with a will, consciousness, and some ability to affect reality with that will. For those who believe in them, the basic examples of supernatural agents are God, angels, and human beings. Supernaturalism is then the worldview that supernatural agents exist as part of reality. They are, by definition, other than “nature,” though they interact with it and may even depend on it (as is the case with human beings). It is important to understand that, for the supernaturalist, supernatural agents are, in a fundamental sense, real–however much they interact with and even depend on the material realm, there is something about them that is prior to impersonal reality, something that cannot be reduced to natural or material causation.

, on the other hand, is the worldview that the physical universe is the only reality, that all occurring phenomena can ultimately be reduced to material causes. Closely related to materialism is naturalism, which one might say is the belief that nature is all that exists. For all practical purposes, I consider these two to be the same, but I know there are philosophers who would insist on a distinction, so I will try to make it. Very roughly, the difference I perceive is that naturalism is more specifically a philosophy about how to explain phenomena, and in seeking to explain the phenomena, is less committed to the idea of matter. About matter it takes no strong stance, but naturalism believes that we can always find a “natural” explanation for things.

Naturalism can be understood perhaps more clearly as the denial of supernaturalism, as the belief that there are no supernatural agents. All of the things that people have ever thought of as being caused by supernatural agents are, in actuality, either imaginary or somehow explainable as resulting from purely natural causes. Thus, in its fundamental reality, the universe is impersonal. And thus, in explaining why something has occurred, it is a mistake to ever invoke the actions of a supernatural agent such as God, gods, or angels; it is a mistake, in fact, to believe that such things have any influence over reality whatsoever, since they simply do not exist in any fundamental sense. They may, like human beings, exist in a “derived sense,” in that they are identifiable consequences of the physical universe. But, for the naturalist, the basic and only thing that ultimately exists is an impersonal reality.

It is, in my view, extremely important to understand how fundamentally different these worldviews are–I have already said what the difference is, but let me stress it again. For the naturalist, a basic goal of obtaining knowledge is to discover explanations that do not invoke “agency.” The attempt to remove supernatural agents from the picture, to not take recourse to them, is fundamental to his epistemology. Supernatural agents, in the mind of the naturalist, are a “cop out.” In constructing explanations, he is to eliminate all reference to them. The supernaturalist, on the other hand, takes for granted the existence of such agents, and their action. When he looks at reality, he must always consider the possibility that they are at work. If he does not consider this, then he cannot properly be considered a supernaturalist. Of course, a great many different worldviews could be considered supernaturalist: Christians, Muslims, Jews, and Hindus, for example, all have a supernaturalist worldview of some sort.

By science I mean the application of reason, mathematics, and experimentation towards the construction of theories that describe observed patterns in the natural world.

By evolution, I mean first and foremost the broad naturalistic theory for the origin of all life on earth subscribed to by the majority of biologists today. This is, of course, very general. To get more specific is part of the aim of this series. I would, however, like to point out that there are more restricted uses of the word than the one I have just given. Sometimes evolution refers simply to the local process by which organisms change. Sometimes it deliberately excludes the origin of single celled organisms, and focuses on the history of macroscopic organisms. Sometimes it is used interchangeably with the idea of Darwinian natural selection. Sometimes it is used in vague and imprecise ways. Much confusion has resulted from this.

Finally, by creation, I mean the deliberate act of the will of the supernatural being God to bring into being, either out of nothingness or out of pre-existing substance, life forms (including man) or their environment.

In my next post, I’ll be looking at what I consider to be a fundamental error that is often made in regards to the relationship between science and materialism (or naturalism).

Categories: Uncategorized


July 9, 2009 Leave a comment

Commander Data, the pale faced android of Star Trek: The Next Generation (STTNG), played by Brent Spiner, is one of my favorite television characters of all time. For those of you who don’t know, STTNG is the first of the many spin offs of the original Star Trek series; it ran for seven years during the eighties and nineties. I think it is by far the best of the Star Trek series, and Data is probably my favorite character (captain Jean Luc Picard, played by Patrick Stewart, is also one of my favorites). Data is a highly sophisticated and advanced artificial life form whose unattainable aspiration in life is to become fully human. However, a basic fact about Data, which makes his goal impossible, is that his programming does not endow him with the ability to feel emotions. Though Data is different from human beings in other ways (for example, he possesses superior strength, and calculation abilities), this seems to be the central thing that distinguishes him from people, at least in his own estimation of himself: he can never “feel.”

Now, one of the most intriguing aspects of Data’s character is that it turns out to be not so simple exactly what this means for him. Thus Data’s character becomes, in some ways, an exploration of the question: what do you get when you take a human being, and extract from him only the ability to feel emotion? What are emotions, exactly, and how are they distinguished from other mental events? In the original Star Trek, emotionlessness was explored through the Spock character, a “Vulcan.” The difference between Data and Vulcans, however, is that Vulcans merely suppress their emotions, whereas the Data, though a self-aware individual, positively lacks them. I find this to be a much more interesting idea. Vulcans are always illogically pointing out that emotions are “not logical” (and you get the impression that they themselves aren’t really convinced). Data, however, conveys the paradoxical sense that he wants to feel but, almost painfully (if he could feel pain!), cannot.

Throughout the series, as Data’s character develops, we learn how much of a complete person Data is able to be without emotions, and thus what it does not mean from him to lack them. For one, it does not mean that he lacks morality. Indeed, his programming includes strict ethical obligations, and on numerous occasions, Data applies these with an extreme and nuanced philosophical rigor. I’ve always been impressed by how the writers of the show often used this aspect of his personality to implicitly discredit the dangerous and false idea (believed, for example, by “the Borg,” another cybernetic species of the Star Trek universe) that human morality is grounded centrally in sentiment and emotion, and the dangerous opposite notion that evil primarily results from a lack of these things. Certainly this is a part of why people do evil, but it is not the whole of it, or the heart of it. Likewise, doing good is not simply a matter of being swayed by positive emotions–Data shows us that being good is more basically grounded in things like a real perception of justice and truth, and in the valuing of and respect for life and personhood. Really goodness is metaphysically prior to emotion. That is, we will experience these emotions more and more as we align our will with goodness, or less and less if we decide towards evil–I think that both of these processes are at work in us as individuals and collectively as a society. We don’t have to wait for our emotions to confirm what we know is right: our conscience tells us this. Data has a conscience, but no emotions, and so is still able to do what is right. As a person that often finds it difficult to feel the empathy towards others that I know my sense of fairness and justice demands of me, I find Data’s ability to continue to do good, even without this, comforting.

Besides his ethical nature, Data is apparently able to experience many of the other things that we are often inclined to associate with our “emotional side.” He exhibits creativity, curiosity, and even wonder. He is able to form deep friendships, and exhibits loyalty and faithfulness to his friends. You might even say that Data loves, in that he constantly wills the good of others. Yet it is also clear that Data is sadly incomplete, that he does miss out on much of the human experience, and he knows it. He rarely gets a joke; when he does, the best he can do is point out that he understands it was intended as humor. He has constant trouble reading the complex and unpredictable emotions of his crew-mates. Often he hurts someone’s feelings without intending it, or without even understanding the nature of the offense he’s committed.  Or he finds himself the brunt of some an awkward misunderstanding. I find myself identifying with this aspect of Data’s character as well. Here is an example of such behavior (though from a later episode, it takes place early on in Data’s career–Picard is involved in some sort of time traveling incident, and finds himself re-experiencing his ship’s first mission):

Here are some other good Data moments. This one is Picard defending Data’s right to live:

Here Data with some insight on death:

Finally, this one demonstrates some of Data’s greatest weaknesses and strengths:

Categories: Uncategorized

And who is my neighbor?

July 2, 2009 Leave a comment

On my way to breakfast with my roommate Jon, I realized that I might have left my window open. I immediately became distracted by this, and from that moment on, I had difficulty concentrating on our conversation. I thought about someone climbing my fire escape, about coming home to find the window wide open, my apartment ransacked, my prized possessions gone. When I returned home, it turned out that I had, in fact, left my window open. No one, however, had decided to take advantage of this momentous opportunity to steal my Macbook.

I’m moving soon, and I don’t really like the neighborhood I’m living in now, I’m sorry to say. It’s far away from the city, from the places I frequent, and I don’t feel safe here. Every night when I walk down the long ominous block from the subway, I imagine myself being mugged. I think about the possible scenarios, and plan in my head how I would handle them. I look at the shadowy figures in the distance, and try to gauge whether or not they pose a threat. I always feel like something of an alien here, as I walk past people on the street. I imagine that people wonder what this little white guy is doing in this neighborhood that hasn’t really become gentrified yet.

At home, as I sat in my room planning my next move for the day, getting ready to leave, I noticed that there was something going on outside, on the street below my window. In front of my building, it looked like someone was moving out, or in. I didn’t like this. I wasn’t looking forward to awkward conversation, either with a neighbor that I didn’t know, whom I hadn’t bothered to get to know, whom was now leaving, or a potential new neighbor, whom I’d now never really get the chance to know anyway.

As I made my way down the stairs, I discovered that the door to the building had be propped open. This meant that there was only one line of defense between my apartment and the cruel outside world, which I’ve come to imagine is eager for an opportunity to invade my apartment and take my things. I didn’t like this either, but there wasn’t really anything I could do about it (I’m not one to put up a fuss), so I continued on my way.

Outside, there were two woman standing around an accumulation of various items–lamps and tables and such. I was carrying a bag of trash with me, and as I deposited it in the trash can, I made eye contact with one of them, an older black woman.

“Someone moving in?” I asked.
“No, out.” She answered. “My daughter is moving out. Her sister and I came up here from South Carolina to help her move.”

The woman had a friendly manner about her. I liked her immediately. She chatted to me a bit about their plans, something about the daughter moving to upstate New York. I mentioned that that’s where I’m from, and how I’m also moving soon, but to a different part of Brooklyn. She told me how much she likes this neighborhood, how she feels safe whenever she comes here. She told me she loves the landlord, how he has always been trustworthy and helpful. She told me her daughter wanted to keep living here, but couldn’t afford the rent after her roommate moved out. We chatted for a bit more; eventually the younger woman came wandering over.

“Are we taking this lamp?” She asked.
“No, we aren’t taking the lamp. What do you want that lamp for?”

I took this interruption as my cue to be on my way, told the woman that it was nice meeting her, shook hands and asked her her name.

“I’m Elaine. It was nice meeting you too. I’ll be praying for you.”
“Oh…thanks.” I replied. “Take care.”

As I walked down the street, I wondered about why she had said that she’d be praying for me. People don’t usually just say that sort of thing out of the blue, at least not in my experience. Was there something about me that suggested I needed to be prayed for? Or maybe it’s just something she says to everyone, perhaps a southern sort of thing. Whatever the case, I began to realize that this woman specifically is someone whose prayers I might particularly benefit from. I even thought about going back and telling her specifically what to pray about, but I didn’t have the courage.

That woman’s perception of the neighborhood was so very different from mine. It bothers me how I’ve come to fear my neighborhood, that I constantly worry about being robbed. Whatever the reality of the danger here is, the truth is that most people here are not criminals, and are just living their ordinary lives, and it’s not right for me to mistrust them. In the year I’ve spent here, I regret keeping to myself so much, not bothering to get to know many of my neighbors. More than that, since I’ve lived in this neighborhood of mine, I’ve come to realize something about myself that was, at the bare minimum, less clear than before I lived here.

I’m about to become a bit confessional here. Perhaps it’s too early in the history of this blog for me to do this, but I’d like to tell you about an internal struggle of mine that I am not proud of. It’s my tendency towards racism, towards judging other people based on their race. I see a stranger who is black, I am naturally mistrustful of him. I don’t want to be, but I am…my mind is often inclined to think that he is up to no good, more inclined than it is to think the same thing about a White person, or an Asian person, or a Latino person. I despise racism, as an idea, but I’m way more racist that I will usually admit. I hope those of you that are my friends, who are black, will forgive me for this. I want you to know that it certainly doesn’t mean that I don’t trust you, care about you, or love you. I do.

In today’s political climate, one gets the impression that to be a racist is to subscribe to a belief system, a theory about the nature of society: being a racist is perhaps thought to be similar to being something like a communist–that is, “racism” is thought to be like viewpoint that enlightened people have simply realized is a bad way of looking at the world. But really racism does not start with general theories, with systematic sweeping beliefs about entire classes of people. It might end there, for some, but that is not where it starts. It starts in our everyday interactions, and in our own thoughts and imagination. It starts in the human heart.

And he said,  “What comes out of a person is what defiles him. For from within, out of the heart of man, come evil thoughts, sexual immorality, theft, murder, adultery, coveting, wickedness, deceit, sensuality, envy, slander, pride, foolishness. All these evil things come from within, and they defile a person.” (Mark 7.20-23)

Racism starts with how we evaluate others, the subtle judgments we form, the evil expectations we create for ourselves about a person based on how they look, how they appear to us. These associations are not completely groundless. The can often be based on real events in our lives, on real evil that was done to us, or that we simply observed. Thus because I was robbed once by a black teenager was dressed a certain way, every black teenager who is dressed similarly becomes to me a “thug” who wants to rob me. But I notice how less inclined I am to form generalizations about the goodness of people, based solely on their appearance, even though those generalizations have just as much of a basis in my experience. I forget about the times that such and such a person has held the elevator for me, or given me directions, or had a friendly conversation with me. I forget, even, friends who might look like “them.”

I think that our fallen minds are inclined to take the sum of our experience with others and twist it, to interpret it all in a negative light, in a way that constantly emphasizes the evil in others, rather than the good. We are inclined to associate that which is neutral in a person with that which is wrong in others who have the same neutral characteristics. We must, by God’s grace, resist this. We must try to not judge at all. For out of our repeated judgments of others, which we are so inclined to form, our fallen minds attempt to discern a pattern, and this is how our wicked generalizations are born.

Racism is, in fact, only one manifestation of this. Thus in our day to day lives we must refrain from judging people in any way. Even when direct evil is committed against us, we must not judge. We must, instead, forgive. If we don’t, we will become blinded by resentment and cynical expectations. We must forgive those who do wrong, and those who have wronged us, because if we don’t, we will become unable to see clearly, and eventually we will come to hate even those who have not wronged us, or done any wrong. We must love even those who hate us, because if we don’t, we will become unable to love even those who love us. And to do any and all of this, we must first look to the One who loved us, and gave himself for us all.

Categories: Uncategorized