Saturday, March 10, 2018

Eulogy for a father-in-law

The very first time I met the man who would in time become my father-in-law, my then-girlfriend and I had just gotten off the train from Chicago to Portland, and she had pointed out her father to me. I was naturally a bit nervous about meeting the father of the girl I loved, the woman I was already thinking I would marry. He introduced himself thusly, after shaking hands and exchanging names:

“So, you just got off the train, huh? You know why the rails of the tracks are that particular width apart? It’s because the wagon wheel ruts from the Conestoga wagons on the old Oregon Trail were that far apart, and it was simplest to just put the rails on the established path. And the reason those wagon wheels were that far apart, was that the wheels on a two-horse carriage were that far apart, because that’s how wide it had to be to comfortably accommodate two horses side-by-side… and it just made sense to use the same factory specs for the axles they were putting on the covered wagons.

So: You just rode two thousand miles on the width of two horse’s asses.

Anyway, need help with your luggage?”

And that… was actually a very apt introduction to Tom Wolf.

I knew right away that I would fit in with this family, based on that introduction. I knew I could count on truly terrible jokes, preferably at the most inappropriate time possible. I knew I wouldn’t have to pretend to be anything I wasn’t, or pretend to feel anything I didn’t. I knew that I would LIKE this quirky, nerdy, snarky guy.

I didn’t yet know what I would learn later, as a member of the family: Tom was a great guy at all times, but he especially shone in a crisis.

You know, it’s true what they say – You never do tell people everything you should while they’re still alive to hear it. You always think they’ll be around longer, you’ll have some warning before they’re gone, you’ll have time to say it when the time is right for them to hear it… and then, they’re gone and you never said it, so you have to say it to their friends and family instead.

Tom died unexpectedly in his sleep Thursday morning. And as we dealt with the crisis, I couldn’t help thinking about how Tom always dealt with a crisis.

The FIRST thing he did was to listen carefully. No one knew how to shut up and listen like Tom. He was never one to interrupt someone else’s anger, fear, or grief with offering advice – he held his peace until you had poured out everything you needed to say.

The second thing he did… was to quietly, calmly, do anything that was in his power to help. He didn’t waste time on telling you how sorry he was for what you were going through – he would drive you to the hospital, or write a check to make the unexpected expense go away, or fix the leak, or tell you gently but firmly that you should do (the exact thing that you already knew damn well you needed to do, but needed someone to nudge you to do it) and offer to go with you while you did it.

The third thing he would do, was to crack some absolutely AWFUL joke. I have no doubt in my mind that, if Tom could somehow be alive to attend his own funeral, he would be the first to gesture towards his own coffin and deadpan “The shell is here, but the nut… is gone.” He would always look for the grim humor that would make the unbearable a little more bearable, to make the heavy burden feel a little less heavy and burdensome.

And finally, AFTER he had done all that, he would ask if it was okay to pray for you.
Now, I grew up in a church where, most of the time, “I’ll pray for you” was code for “I’ll pray for you INSTEAD OF DOING SOMETHING for you.” It was an excuse for inaction, a way for people to feel like they’d helped without having to bother with actually helping. It was telling people “Be warm and well fed” without actually warming or feeding them. Often, when I hear the phrase “I’ll pray for you”, I don’t feel cared about – I feel dismissed. And I often feel like telling the speaker to do something biologically impossible.

But I never felt that way with Tom. Because when he said it, he meant “I’ve done everything I can think to do to help, and I’m sorry I can’t do more. I believe I know a guy who CAN do more – is it okay with you if I ask him?”

It didn’t feel like a cop-out or a social nicety when Tom said it.

When Tom said it, it felt like love.

Ironically, Tom (an old-school man’s man in many ways, who wasn’t generally comfortable with talking about feelings, or with hugging, a man who would have been the LAST to describe himself as a nurturing person) was better at nurturing people in crisis than I am, despite the fact that nurturing people in crisis is literally what I do for a living. He knew that you have to start with the hard part – shutting up and hearing the other person. Then you have to meet the immediate need. Then you have to try and help the person laugh a bit, because laughter makes things look smaller and therefore more manageable. And THEN you offer thoughts and prayers and well-wishes. I had to work for decades to learn how to do what Tom did as naturally as breathing. And now that he’s not breathing anymore, I wish he was here to help us through crisis one last time.

In his quiet, awkward, unassuming, gentle way, Thomas J. Wolf was a giant among men, a pillar of strength where mere power would have been useless; and the world is poorer for losing him. May he rest in peace, and may the rest of us learn how to do, in some measure, what he did for those he loved.

Tom, I’ll miss you. And now I can say the words that would have made you feel awkward if I’d said them to you in person: I love you.

-        Your son-in-law,


Wednesday, January 31, 2018

Chain migration

“Chain migration” is exactly how my family ended up in this country. And I’ll lay odds it’s how your family got here too. Our great-grandparents came over to join their cousins, then they brought over their siblings, then THEY brought over their parents, till the whole family was here.

And yes, our families DID come legally. But that’s only because back then, the laws were much looser (or, before the Civil War, non-existent). Immigration law when my ancestors arrived was basically “Get off the boat, sign this paper. I can’t spell your name right so this is how your name is spelled now. Oh, you see your Uncle Pietro here? Good, go to him and get outta here, there’s a line behind you. NEXT!” There was no “merit-based”. Your ancestors and mine weren’t doctors and lawyers in the old country. If they’d had the skills and “merit” to be well-off in the old country, they wouldn’t have had to leave for a better life here.

And then, as now, the people who were already here - whose own families had immigrated here just a few generations back - resented the newcomers for “taking our jobs”, threw ethnic slurs at them, said they didn’t want people from these shithole countries, pushed for laws to try and keep them out. My family were welcomed to the States with signs saying “No Irish need apply”, with people calling them Wops and Polacks and Micks and Krauts, sometimes getting violent, and telling them to go back to their own country.

But they couldn’t. Because THIS was now their own country.

So they stayed, and they worked their asses off doing shitty menial jobs for shitty pay or starting small businesses, and they made a life for themselves and their families, and they brought their extended family over to join them.

Years later, their kids and grandkids fought for our country in two World Wars. Grandpa Risi even exchanged gunfire with Italian troops whose ranks included his first and second cousins. His loyalty was solidly with America, even before his own family.

And you know what? America didn’t stop being American because the new people weren’t “real Americans”.[i] The people whose ancestors came over on the Mayflower didn’t stop speaking English. But they did start eating pizza and bagels. They didn’t stop singing their favorite hymns. But they did start listening to jazz and rock (the offspring of blending African, Latin, and Jewish musical ideas). And I promise you, no one will have to stop watching the Super Bowl[ii], or baking apple pies[iii], or drinking Budweiser[iv], or setting off fireworks[v] on the Fourth of July, or going to the church of their choice[vi], because of today’s immigrants. But I bet we will start eating more pupusas, listening to more Ethiopian music, encountering lots of cool new cultural ideas and weaving them into our own lives and putting our own unique spin on them.

And a generation from now, those new things will be a treasured part of American culture. Which, no doubt, people will want to defend from the pernicious ways of whatever group is trying to enter the country next. And those people will be wrong too.

Because immigrants and their families aren’t what stand in the way of making America great. 

They – we – ARE what make America great.

© John M. Munzer

[i] Strangely, the people who use that phrase never seem to be referring to the Sioux.
[ii] The climactic game of a sport based on British rugby – which is a game based on the original football, which only Americans insist on calling “soccer” – which in turn is a game that was first played 2,000 years ago in China.
[iii] An idea we got from the Dutch.
[iv] A recipe for beer from the Czech town of Budweis.
[v] Invented in China.
[vi] To listen to the teachings of a brown-skinned Middle Eastern Jewish rabbi, who spent the first few years of his life as a refugee in Egypt, and is famous for being brutally killed by Italian soldiers.

Tuesday, April 18, 2017


As I walked, angry and afraid, brooding on the past and the future, I looked.

I saw the cherry blossoms, and the magnolias, and the lilacs, and the grass, and the sun.

I listened.

I heard birdsong.

I sniffed.

I smelled the sweetness of the air.

I felt.

I felt the gentle breeze on my face, the roughness of bark on my hand.

I tasted.

I tasted the air's sharp, crisp hexanol tang from freshly-mown grass.

I thought.

I thought: Here I am, surrounded by beauty and light, and I am blind to it, stalking through a dark valley that I bring with me.

I thought: I am here, and it is now.

I thought: I can let go of the darkness. I can breathe in light, life, joy and peace.

I am here.

It is now.

I am me.

But the past! The future!...

There is no past.

There is no future.

There is only now.

I am here. It is now. Here and now I can find beauty.

Here and now, it is enough.

© John M. Munzer

Thursday, March 23, 2017

Am I my brother's keeper?

Christians on both sides of the political spectrum are now, more than ever, having the debate that boils down to this:

Jesus commanded His followers to take care of those in need.

We currently have government programs that attempt to take care of those in need.

So: Should followers of Jesus defend those programs and ensure they don’t get cut? Or should we give the money to churches or directly to people in need?

I believe the answer is:


First, to reiterate what all Christians should agree upon:

There are hundreds of verses in which God demands that His people take care of the poor, the sick, the elderly, the young, the disabled, the aliens within our borders. And God does not only demand this of private individuals – He also repeatedly demands it of nations and their leaders. (Read the prophets – they hammer a LOT on the judgement that awaits nations and rulers that do not help the poor and oppressed). So it’s beyond question that Christians are to help those who are in need. All that’s really in question is how much we should do that by paying our taxes and demanding our government meet its responsibilities, and how much we should be doing it in person or through private donations to charity.

My own experience, having grown up in a rich conservative Evangelical church, and now attending a poor liberal Episcopal church, has been that the people attending both places really do want to follow Jesus, and really do try to offer help to those who need it; but neither is really able to effectively meet all the needs out there. Churches are great at meeting certain vital needs: people’s needs for a sense of purpose, a sense of belonging and community; but not great at meeting people’s needs for survival and safety. That has to come from elsewhere.

And my own experience working for an agency that helps people has been that the government doesn’t do a terrific job funding us, but they’re still pretty much the only people who will fund us at all.

Rich conservative Evangelical church:

Lots of money coming in. Over a thousand people attending every Sunday; many of them doctors, lawyers, big business owners. The guy who owned half the McDonald’s franchises in the county went there. The guy who invented MRI went there. And they were good people, they really were. They’d give money to the church, offer their vacation homes for the youth group to use on retreats, fund mission trips to the Appalachians to repair poor people’s homes, or to Mexico to reach out to people living in the city dump. And I myself, being from one of the poorer families at the church, benefited from their generosity. The only times I’ve ever had an opportunity to leave the country were through youth group trips that were heavily subsidized by those rich people. There were times my family used the church’s little food pantry. There were Christmases when well-off church members brought us toys because they knew our parents couldn’t afford much that year. Honest to God, they were good people trying to do good things, and I’m grateful for that.

But: The way to stay a rich conservative church is to keep your big tithers happy. That means that far more of the money gathered each week went towards “church growth” priorities than towards helping the poor. They were spending lots of money making bigger, better buildings; buying bigger, better sound systems; paying a staff of several pastors, each in charge of “ministries” to people who frankly didn’t need a whole lot of ministry. A bunch of affluent young suburbanites gathering at the “TNT (Twenties and Thirties)” group to find like-minded people to date – that’s not a ministry, that’s a hook-up scene for people who’ve sworn to abstain from sex till marriage and therefore want to get married as soon as possible. The youth group’s week-long “mission trips” where we’d do skits in the park in hopes of converting people – wonderful experiences, I’m very thankful to have had those journeys, but a bunch of teenagers trying to get adults to join the church and become tithers was not what I think Jesus had in mind when He said to go forth and make disciples. The “outreach ministries” to get more doctors and lawyers and businessmen to join the church… sure, those people also need God, but this is hardly charity work happening here.

And the big tithers were Republicans. That meant that the church had to push the idea that being a good Christian meant voting Republican. If you voted any other way, then you were helping those godless liberals kill babies, and those gay perverts have their sin normalized. There were far more sermons preached on the evils of abortion and homosexuality (which Jesus never mentioned), than about the parable of the sheep and the goats, or the Beatitudes, or the parable of the Good Samaritan (which Jesus most emphatically DID hammer on). And anytime Scriptures such as “It is easier for a camel to get through the eye of a needle than for a rich man to get into heaven” DID get mentioned, these people who normally took the Bible at face value and preached that it was meant to be taken literally… they suddenly got REAL into “Well, some things were figurative… and you have to consider cultural context… When Jesus said that, here’s what He REALLY meant…” Because, after all, you can’t make your big tithers uncomfortable.

And when people had real, devastating needs that couldn’t be fixed with a prayer or a one-time act of giving – when people experienced mental illness, addiction, disability – they were no longer welcome at the church. After all, if they had enough faith, and worked hard enough, those problems would go away. So if the problem didn’t go away… well, those people must not be real Christians. Might even be demon-possessed.

So all told, very little actual charity work was happening there. Mostly, it was a community that existed for a bunch of fairly comfortable suburban white people to remind each other they were loved, by God and by fellow members of the church. Not a bad thing … but not a good argument for the camp that says “Get rid of government charities, the churches will take up the slack”.

Poor liberal Episcopal church:

Never had much money or lots of members – at its peak, maybe 100 people, all working-class – blue-collar workers, or social service workers. Currently down to just a handful of people, mostly Latino immigrants who have even LESS money than I do with my almost-pays-the-bills-if-I-also-do-consulting-on-the-side social services salary.

And yet: Every week we feed 50-plus homeless people, with help from other small local churches. Some of them sleep on our lawn. (Full disclosure: We ask them not to. We get tired of cleaning up their poop and their used needles. But we don't actually call the cops to MAKE them leave, unless they're currently doing something violent or threatening.) Every week we give food and condoms to the prostitutes working the street right outside our door. Every week, we help people to be warm, safe, and well-fed who do not get those things anyplace else. Every week, we do our best to help our own members with their physical and mental health challenges, and we let them know it’s okay to admit having those challenges, that their welcome here is still assured.

But we don’t have the money to do much. There’s far more homeless people in our neighborhood than we can feed; and we haven’t got the means to help them stop being homeless. We can’t pay medical bills for our ailing members. We, also, are not a good argument for the idea that the church will do it if the government doesn’t.

In my experience, poor churches can’t do the job, and rich churches won’t do it.

Maybe other people have had a different experience. If so, great! But I suspect my experience is the norm.

Social service agency:

I work for a non-profit. It started out, a century ago, as a privately funded charity founded by a rich businessman; but the need quickly outstripped the resources that one rich dude was willing to donate. The agency serves children and adults who have developmental disabilities.  Many are without families; many struggle with chronic physical or mental illness; all have significant enough impairments that they need assistance from trained staff 24-7. This is exactly who Christians ought to help and reach out to, if we're serious about obeying Jesus. And yet: Over 95% of our funding comes from the government. That means that only about 5% comes from people giving voluntarily to charity. And most agencies like mine see similar numbers. In a nation where the vast majority of people are Christians, who have read the parable of the sheep and the goats, there’s not enough voluntary giving to make a dent in the budget of agencies that serve the hungry, the sick, the fatherless, the people who are often as isolated as prisoners.

Why not start with Christians on both sides of the political spectrum demonstrating that we mean what we say about loving our neighbor? Why not start with both liberal and conservative Christians giving of our time, talent, and treasure to agencies that are doing this kind of difficult work? Why leave society’s most vulnerable people to depend entirely on the increasingly slender mercy of the state?

But also: Why aren't more Christians demanding that their government, which they elect and pay for, should use its resources and power to help people that the church cannot? A church can feed homeless people once a week and let them know they’re not invisible while they’re here; but a government can give them shelter, job training, rehab, mental health services. A church can give a prostitute some coffee and fresh condoms, and most of all assurance that God and the community still love her; but a government can jail the pimps and the johns, help the girls train for another trade to support themselves and their kids, provide addiction counseling if they’re doing it for drug money. A church can make sure that immigrants are safe and welcome for an hour a week; a government can make sure they’re safe and welcome all the time, by changing our policies about immigration. A church can be a safe and welcoming place for people with disabilities; a government can provide them with a group home, medication, adaptive equipment, staff to assist them, training and oversight to ensure their staff know how to effectively meet their medical and behavioral support needs. A church can ensure that elderly people have a community that checks in on them and keeps them connected; a government can ensure that they have food, shelter, and medication.
We need to be doing BOTH things.

We ARE our brother’s keepers. And we must use all the tools available, both secular and religious, to keep them.

© John M. Munzer

Monday, November 14, 2016

Congratulations, Evangelicals: You lost.

Preface: I lean Left on most issues, and I lean Left BECAUSE of, not in spite of, my Christian faith. I lean Left because of the Parable of the Sheep and the Goats; because of the Parable of the Good Samaritan; because of the prophetic injunction to do justly and love mercy; because of the example of a God who became homeless and powerless, and hung out with the homeless and powerless.

BUT: I know that the people who lean Right are, for the most part, decent human beings who are trying to do the right thing, for what they believe are the right reasons. I grew up with conservative Evangelical Christians who voted Republican because they believed it was what God wanted them to do. I know you, Evangelicals, and I know you’re good people. I know that the majority of you are not hateful, not bigots, do not hate women or Muslims or gay people. You give to charity (often more than you can afford), you help each other and your neighbors during hard times (even people you don't like), you do your best to be the love of Jesus to the world.

I think you wanted to send the message that you oppose abortion, you want to affirm your beliefs about the sanctity of marriage, you want America’s values to be more closely aligned with the Christian values you hold. You also wanted to send the message that the economy isn’t working for the middle class, that your taxes are too high and your wages too low, that you think the government is interfering with things it has no business interfering in. And no doubt you wanted to send other messages that the rest of the country hasn't been hearing for the past 8 years.

But that’s not the message your vote sent to many people I know and love.

You could have chosen another candidate to represent you and send the messages you wanted to send.

But you chose Trump.

The message that sent to people I care for, was NOT the message that I think you wanted to send.

The message you sent was that the body of Christ is okay with these things:

·         I know SIX-YEAR-OLDS who are afraid of their families being attacked or deported now. In the name of the “family values” party, and IN THE NAME OF JESUS CHRIST. (“He who offends against one of these little ones, it were better for him that a millstone be tied around his neck, and he be cast into the sea”.)

·         I know gay couples who are afraid of losing health insurance if their marriages are declared illegal. Because Jesus loves them, as long as they just stop being gay. (“Now this was the sin of your sister Sodom: She and her daughters were arrogant, overfed and unconcerned; they did not help the poor and needy. They were haughty and did detestable things before me. Therefore I did away with them as you have seen.”)

·         I work with people who have developmental disabilities, and I’m afraid of what will happen to them in a country whose leader openly mocks and belittles them, and says he wants to cut the Social Security programs that keep them alive. (“Whatever you did not do unto the least of these, my bretheren, you did not do unto Me”).

·         I know elderly people who are afraid of what will happen to them if Social Security is gutted. (“You shall stand up before the gray head and honor the face of an old man, and you shall fear your God: I am the Lord.”)

·         I know families who will have no health insurance options, if ACA is repealed without being replaced by something better. (“For I was sick, and you decided I didn’t deserve health care because I didn’t have a job that offered insurance.” #ThingsJesusNeverSaid )

·         There are many refugees who are afraid of being sent back to countries whose governments will kill them. (“Do not mistreat or oppress a foreigner, for you were foreigners in Egypt.”)

·         I know many women who’ve been sexually assaulted and are afraid that sexual predators will now feel emboldened to continue without fear of consequences – after all, if the President sees no problem with grabbing women sexually and just assuming “they’ll let you”, why should anyone else? (The Bible, despite some troubling passages that seem to allow rape under certain circumstances, also has several clear examples of God condoning the killing of men, or even entire tribes, that had participated in rape. It’s a crime God takes so seriously that He has at times allowed wholesale slaughter as a way to avenge it. It is NOT something the Almighty laughs off as “locker-room talk”.)

I know that the above outcomes are not the outcomes that most of you were aiming for when you voted for Trump. I know many of you don’t even like him, and held your noses as you voted for what you felt was the lesser evil. I know many conservatives even voted third-party, believing that might cost the conservatives the election, because you could NOT in good conscience vote for Trump, and I respect you highly for that. I know that most conservatives do not want the outcomes I just described.

But I do hope you’ll try to understand that those who opposed Trump have legitimate reasons to feel angry and afraid, because we know and love people who will DIE if Trump actually keeps his campaign promises.

(Though, to be fair, if he keeps his campaign promises like he keeps his business promises, we probably have nothing to worry about.)

I personally am also angry, as a Christian, that so many Christians sent the message that these things are the things that God WANTS His people to bring about. Again, I know you’re good people trying to do the right thing for the right reason, because I grew up with you. But the rest of America now equates “Christian” with “Person who’s in favor of all the hateful things Trump says (and is cool with unabashed racists on the Cabinet).” The rest of America didn’t get the message that Christians are concerned about protecting unborn children; they got the message that Christians would be perfectly happy to elect the Devil himself, as long as he ran as a Republican.

Do you think the church will be winning any converts now among minorities, LGBTQ people, people with disabilities, Muslims, women who’ve been sexually assaulted, or any of the other people Trump (and, people will infer, Trump’s supporters) holds in such contempt? We ought to be concerned with winning people to the love of Christ, not with winning earthly power. Jesus Himself was crucified for DEFYING the conservative religious politicians of His day – the Pharisees and Sadducees, the Sanhedrin and High Priest. But the solid Evangelical support for Trump has convinced millions upon millions that their long-held suspicions are correct – Christians are merely a political faction hostile to them, not the incarnate love of Christ. I already know many people who are saying as of Tuesday that they will never again darken the door of a church. What does it profit Evangelicals, to gain the world but lose those souls?

And I’m afraid of what will happen to Christians when the pendulum swings the other way – AND IT WILL - in 4-8 years when people realize that a trust fund billionaire who overcame four bankruptcies by gaming the system is not in fact interested in changing the system so people like him can pay more taxes, or higher wages to their workers. They’ll see that Trump didn’t help the working class any more than Obama did, and they’ll vote in a bunch of Democrats just to send the message that they want SOME kind of change. Or the change could happen even sooner. Trump’s already made it clear that, like any other sociopath, he will dump people as soon as he’s finished using them (ask Chris Christie, or Trump’s first two wives) - and he’s already gotten everything he needed from Evangelicals. All the people who are now convinced that Christians are no more than pawns of the Republican Party… do you think they will be kind to us when they DO regain control? Do you think they’ll be willing to listen to the concerns of Christians? They will laugh in your faces, when you say you’re concerned about the moral direction of the country, after you voted for someone so utterly amoral. They will laugh in your faces when you call yourselves pro-life, after voting for someone who made it clear he doesn’t care about the lives of the “least of these”. They will laugh in your faces when you speak of family values, after you voted for someone who is fine with sexual assault and adultery. They will laugh in your faces when you claim to follow the Christ who told His followers to turn the other cheek, after voting for someone who can’t remember any Scripture except the phrase “An eye for an eye” (or remember that Jesus was saying NOT to do that). When the pendulum swings Left again, if Evangelicals have not been EXTREMELY vocal in denouncing the evils that the more extreme Trump supporters are gleefully perpetrating, the country will have only one thing to say to Christians: “If the last four years were what your God stands for, then fuck your God and fuck you.”

You won the election, but you lost any remote chance that people who aren’t currently Christians will “know we are Christians by our love” and be drawn to join us. Not for the next four years; not for the next forty years; not EVER, will the people your candidate spat upon forget the choice you made this week.

So, congratulations on carrying the election. But do you remember what our Lord chose, when the Devil offered Him power over all the kingdoms of the world, if only He would bow and submit to evil?

You have made the bargain that our Lord rejected. You made a deal with the Devil to gain earthly power.

I want you to remember this every day for the next four years:

The Devil is a liar, and will not keep his end of the deal.

But he WILL make sure that you pay.


© John M. Munzer

Monday, June 20, 2016

Gun control - why the debate isn't getting us anywhere

Well, here we are again.

And you know something? As soon as we'd heard there was a shooting... even before we began scrolling down our Facebook pages, even before Senators began to talk, we all knew EXACTLY what would be said, and what would be done.

Here’s what we knew would be said by both sides:

(insert inflammatory rhetoric here)

And here’s what we knew would be done:


And here, I think, is why nothing is done:

The inflammatory rhetoric.

It’s natural for us to feel strongly about this issue. It strikes at our sense of safety, makes us afraid and angry. And that activates the limbic system - the part of the brain that’s in charge of safety and survival. Thing is, that also DE-activates the cortex – the part of the brain that’s in charge of empathy and rational thought. The limbic system takes over, and the limbic system only knows three tricks: Fight, flight, and freeze.

And when we know that flight or freeze won’t keep us safe, we’re down to one option.

And we can’t fight the killer who shot (insert large number here) innocent people, since he (invariably a “he”, have you noticed? But the subject of toxic cultural expectations of masculinity would require a separate post all to itself…) has already either killed himself or been killed/captured by law enforcement.

But the limbic system is screaming that we NEED to fight to protect ourselves.

So we fight each other about what needs to be done to make future recurrence less likely.

And because the limbic system has shut off the part of our brain that might have empathy for whoever we fight, and might be able to appeal logically to common ground, the fights get REAL ugly, REAL fast.

And here’s the thing:

When we begin a discussion by making the other person feel attacked, we are NOT going to end it by convincing them to agree with us, or compromise with us, or even listen to what we have to say.


I wish to God that both sides of the gun control debate would be silent for a week after the shooting, take the time to mourn and to de-escalate, and THEN begin discussing the issue. And I wish both sides would begin the discussion by at least admitting these things:

1.     Neither side are stupid. Both sides certainly have stupid people and trolls, and those tend to be the loudest and to post online the most… but the average gun owner, and the average gun control advocate, are intelligent people, with valid and logical reasons for believing as they do.

2.     Neither side are evil. Again, truly horrible people exist on both sides. And I’m convinced that the politicians involved (on both sides) are simply doing what they know will get their constituents to re-elect them, just like they do on every issue. But most of the voters supporting the politicians – most of the ordinary people on both sides of the debate - are decent human beings, genuinely horrified by each shooting, genuinely wanting to ensure things like this stop happening, genuinely afraid that things like this will NEVER stop happening if the other side gets their way.

3.     Neither side wants people to be hurt or killed. For God’s sake, we’re not Facebook friends with sociopaths, right? And our Facebook friends must have reasonably good taste in friends, since they’re friends with us, right? So our Facebook friends aren’t friends with sociopaths either… right? All the people we’re debating… They’re human beings with families and friends that they love and want to protect, and they are terrified that their families and friends might be the victims of the next shooter. Just like us.

4.     Both sides are passionate about their view because both sides are concerned about safety. Gun owners are convinced that the only way for them to be safe from a shooter is to have the means to shoot first. Gun control advocates are convinced that the only way for them to be safe from a shooter is to make it as difficult as possible for someone to acquire something to shoot with. The common theme is that we feel our safety is threatened, and that we can NOT tolerate a threat to our safety.

5.     Both sides are coming at the issue based on their own valid needs and experiences.

A lot of the people who most want gun control live in cities or suburbs – places where the only possible reason to own a gun would be to shoot a person. We don’t have deer roaming my neighborhood waiting to be turned into venison. We don’t have cougars roaming my neighborhood waiting to get our chickens – or our children. The only threatening creatures we have are human beings; and if they have a gun that they intend to use, they intend to use it on a person. So of course we don’t want the damn things in other people’s hands. Of course we feel unsafe knowing that out of the thousands of people we encounter every day, any one of them might have a deadly weapon and a grudge. And the mass shootings happen in cities – because you can’t commit a mass shooting unless you go someplace where there are masses to shoot.

And a lot of the people who are most opposed to gun control live in rural areas – places where they might need a gun to hunt for food because that’s a cheaper and fresher option than the grocery store; places where they might need it to kill foxes that are stealing chickens, or wolves that are stealing sheep, or bears that would happily eat humans. So of course they feel unsafe without a gun, and are worried that it could be a slippery slope from banning assault rifles to banning all rifles. And they don’t get mass shootings in the country – the mass shooter wants high body counts and lots of media coverage, so they go to the city where they can get those things. Mass shootings just aren’t a danger they face in the country. But cougars are.


Then, too, there’s the home defense angle – it looks different in a city than in a rural area. If I look out my window and see a prowler, my best bet is to get away from the windows and call 911. A SWAT team can be there in 5 minutes. Even if I had an assault rifle and was 100% accurate with it, why would I increase the danger by getting in the line of fire when I can call in several well-trained, heavily armed and armored people who will do a much better job of neutralizing the threat? In the country, on the other hand, there might not even be a police department in town. The nearest cop might be over an hour away on the other side of the county. So there, the best bet is to take cover and shoot through the windows. With the biggest gun you can get.


See, there’s a cultural divide between these groups of people:

To the average gun control advocate, a man with a gun is a bad guy. He’s a mass shooting about to happen. That’s been our only experience with guns. That’s why we can’t imagine ever wanting them around.

To the average gun rights advocate, a man with a gun is a good guy. He’s going hunting or defending himself from predators (human or otherwise). That’s been their only experience with guns. That’s why they can’t imagine ever being without them.


I’m in favor of tight gun control. At the very least, banning the kind of guns that are designed for the sole purpose of killing lots of people. And I feel that way because in my world, the only possible scenario in which I might conceivably need an assault rifle would be a scenario in which someone else is already firing one into a crowd. And by the time I was able to get the thing ready to fire, the shooter would have seen me and shot me, so the gun would DECREASE my safety.


Let’s take the Orlando shooting for an example of why “good guys with guns” is not an argument that convinces the anti-gun crowd, particularly those of us who live in heavily populated cities or suburbs. Let’s say I take the advice of my pro-gun friends and I get a 9 mm, I get a concealed carry permit, I practice and practice until I’m deadly accurate with the gun, and I keep it on me everywhere I go. Let’s say that all good guys do this.

So I’m in a club now, and someone opens fire. I’m a good guy with a gun… but right now, the room is dark, noisy, chaotic, and full of people. If I draw now, I’m not gonna have a clear shot at the killer, but the killer will see the glint of metal and aim for me. My gun won’t help me yet.

So I take cover. (Right, I’ve also gotten some training in tactical maneuvering… I’ve never been a cop or a soldier, but let’s say the hundreds of hours I spent playing Contra as a kid have somehow prepared me for this moment, and I somehow know what I’m doing here.) Now I’m in a position where I’m hard to hit, and trying to find the bad guy so I can gun him down.

But … all the other good guys with guns have done the same thing. The room is now full of angry, panicking people who have drawn weapons. How do any of us know which ones are good guys with guns, and which ones are bad guys with guns?

All we know is which guys have guns.

And if they’re firing, I don’t know if they’re firing at the shooter or at victims.

And I still don’t have a clear shot, because they’re behind cover and there’s still panicking people running around trying to find the exits.

So … do I hesitate, holding a gun, until all the other good guys with guns start firing at me because they can’t tell by looking at me that I’m a good guy? Or do I start firing at whoever seems to be firing?

And then, let’s say the police arrive. Now the first officer comes in and bellows “POLICE! EVERYONE DROP YOUR WEAPONS!” But… will we hear him, through the sound of gunfire and screams and dance music? Will we see, through the fog of adrenaline, in a dark room with strobe lights, that this new figure entering the room is a cop? Or will I see someone in body armor holding a big-ass rifle … and remember that the Colorado movie theater shooter was dressed like that… and realize that I have a clear shot at an apparent threat who’s standing outlined in the doorway?

And will the cop be able to look at me and see “good guy with gun, probably couldn’t hear me”? Or will he see “White male suspect, holding firearm in a threatening manner, did not comply with order to drop weapon”?

In the city, “good guys with guns” wouldn’t stop a bloodbath. They’d turn a bloodbath into an even bigger bloodbath.


BUT: If I lived in the world of the person who lives an hour or more from the nearest police station… if I knew the time might come when the only thing I could do to protect myself and my loved ones would be to shoot a bear, or shoot a 300-lb felon… I would NEED a gun. I really would.

And I wouldn’t want to be using a little handgun, or a shotgun that would take time to reload if I missed the first shot (or one shot wasn’t enough to kill). I’d want something that would reduce the threat to a red mist on the first hit. And I’d want it to hold enough bullets in the magazine, and fire rapidly enough, to guarantee a hit. And I’d want it to have enough range to hit the felon before he got close enough to return fire.

Does that mean I should be allowed to have an assault rifle? Hell no.
But it does mean I can imagine why a sane, decent human being might want one. If I can’t offer empathy for that guy’s need, and offer him something to assure him that he can still keep himself and his loved ones safe, then I’m just not gonna convince him to help me get the laws changed. And if I can’t get that guy to work with me on getting the laws changed, then I’ll be SOL at keeping myself and my loved ones safe.

6.     Both sides are attacking each other because both sides are tired of feeling attacked by each other. We’re tired of being painted as clueless hippies or dumb hicks, tired of being told we’re stupid or evil or everything that’s wrong with America. We’re tired of the straw-man arguments and the memes and the inflammatory rhetoric. We’re tired of people telling us we’re the bad guy. We feel attacked, so we counter-attack, because that’s the only way the limbic system knows how to deal with an attack.

If everyone would at least give each other that much basic respect and decency, and see that the common ground is "We’re concerned about our safety", we MIGHT manage to begin a productive conversation about how we can all BE safer. We MIGHT stop seeing the other side as enemies and start working jointly on solutions. No solution will be perfect, no solution will eliminate all shootings, and no solution will make everyone happy. Chances are, no solution will fully satisfy anyone. But there MUST be a solution that everyone can live with, and that will at least improve our odds of living out our expected threescore and ten. We will NOT find that solution if we keep shouting at each other. We MIGHT find it if we listen respectfully to each other. We will NOT find that solution if we keep posting memes that set up straw-man arguments. We MIGHT find that solution if we all decide to stop being manipulated into stalemate by politicians who profit on polarization, and we all start demanding that they knock off the posturing and start doing real, bipartisan work on laws that make sense for both sides.

Until then, it's gonna keep going exactly as it has been going. Lots of the same old rhetoric on both sides, and lots more mass shootings.


© John M. Munzer

Saturday, June 11, 2016

What should happen to rapists in prison

TRIGGER WARNING: This post is about rape, and about the things that are wrong with our society that perpetuate rape.

“So the witnesses say they saw you thrusting inside a woman who was unconscious. And you say she gave consent” repeated Officer Jones in a flat voice.

The young man nodded.

“Anything else to add to your statement?”

“Not without an attorney present.”

“I see. Well, you’ve made your phone call, but since your attorney didn’t pick up, I don’t expect to see him tonight, so I’m afraid you’ll be staying with us. I’ll bring you to your cell now and introduce you to your cellmates. They could teach you a few things about rape.”

For the first time, the young man’s confident fa├žade cracked, and he broke out into a cold sweat. “What? You can’t put me in a cell with violent offenders! I haven’t done anything wrong!”

“You. Haven’t. Done. Anything. Wrong. She was unconscious. She was disoriented when we did wake her up and ask her if she knew what had happened. She was bleeding from places that shouldn’t be bleeding after consensual sex. She was bruised in places no man should ever bruise a woman. She was shocked to discover that her panties were missing. She began sobbing uncontrollably once we finally could make her understand that witnesses found her lying half naked with a man on top of her, thrusting inside her while she was unconscious. And you haven’t done anything wrong. Tell your cellmates that. They all tell me they haven’t done anything wrong either.”

“A friend of mine attends that school, you know. It could have easily been her at that party tonight” added the officer, almost as an aside.


“Your cell is this way. You can walk on your own feet or you can be... escorted there. Which do you prefer?”

The officer’s face, voice, and body language never changed, perfectly level and calm throughout. But the base of the young man’s spine was ringing frantic alarm bells, screaming that underneath that icy calm was a man who was a breath away from committing a calm, passionless, and above all prolonged and methodical murder.

“I’ll walk.”

“Good choice. First one you’ve made tonight, it would seem.”

As they walked down the corridor, the officer continued, in the tone of someone discussing the weather or offering a neighbor advice on how to grow roses, “I suggest you try not to upset Bubba. You’ll know which one he is. Bubba tends to… stand out. It’s just that I have to process the paperwork for your intake in my office, and I can’t hear anything that happens in your cell on the other end of the hall. So try not to upset him, because it’ll be a while before I get a chance to check on you.”

“No! You can’t put me in there. Put me in solitary! I wanna go into solitary!” gasped the young man frantically.

“Oh, solitary is for people who are too dangerous to be in a cell with other inmates. And you’re not a danger to anyone, right? You’ve done nothing wrong, right? That’s what you said”, deadpanned Officer Jones as he unlocked the cell door. Raising his voice, Officer Jones nodded at one of the bigger men in the cell. “Hey, Bubba, this young man appears to be confused about the difference between sex and rape. Perhaps you gentlemen could teach him something about it while I’m gone.”

“Glad to, Officer Jones” leered the giant.

Officer Jones then locked the young man in the cell, turned his back, and strode unhurriedly back down the long, long hallway.

Bubba was everything that fear, and rumor, and T.V., had led the young man to expect in a prison cell. Easily 6 foot 6 and 300 pounds, burly, hairy, sweaty, shaved head and giant arms covered in tattoos. There were other, even bigger inmates in the cell; but even they were visibly giving Bubba as much space as the cell allowed. Bubba turned upon the young man the unblinking stare of a man who would kill, and kill, and kill again, and never stop to think about the consequences.

“Boy”, drawled Bubba, “I’mma fuck you so far up your ass you’re gon’ feel my dick in your mouth. An’ we’re all gon’ take turns, ain’t we, boys? Fair’s fair, gotta share. Would you like that, boy?”

The boy was now pale, shaking, and could feel an unpleasant trickle down his legs.

“I SAID, would you like that, boy?” Bubba’s voice sharpened as he took a step closer.

Frozen with fear, the young man neither spoke nor moved as Bubba took another step, and another.

“Ain’t you got nothin’ to say, boy? A smart college boy like you?” growled Bubba, as he brought his face inches from the young man’s.

“Woo-ee, he’s a purty thing, ain’t he, Bubba? Looks to me like someone who likes it rough!” catcalled one of the other inmates.

“What’sa matter, boy? Too drunk to say anythin’?” continued Bubba. “Or maybe… (here the voice dropped to a whisper as Bubba grinned unpleasantly) maybe too scared to say anythin’?”

Still no move, no sound, came from the young man who was screaming inside.

“Well, then, I guess we’d better not do it. After all, we don’t have your permission to touch you that way”, said Bubba in an entirely different voice, with no menace in it. “If you haven’t explicitly said yes, then the answer is no, and I have no right to put my hands – or indeed, any other body part – on you. Ain’t that right, boys?” Bubba called to his cellmates as he finally broke eye contact and took a step back.

“That’s right, Bubba” chorused the other inmates. “Just cuz he didn’t say no, don’t mean it’s okay”, added one man with a flaming skull tattooed on his face. “An’ just cuz we could force him or scare him into it, that don’t make it right either”, chimed in another with biceps big enough to have their own ZIP code. “And shit, if he’s still drunk, even if he DID say yes, I wouldn’t consider that true consent, not till he’d sobered up enough to make rational decisions”, continued a man with a beard big enough to hide a colony of badgers. “Mind you, he’s a pretty little thing and I’d sure like to ride him. But it ain’t right, not if he don’t say he wants it too”, intoned the biggest man in the room.

Suddenly Bubba was an inch from the young man again.

“THAT’S the difference, boy” hissed Bubba in the boy’s ear, each word snapping like a whip lash. “THAT’S the difference between sex and rape.”

Bubba then stepped back a few paces and sat on his bunk. Gesturing toward another bunk, he quietly said “Sit down, son. There’s obviously some things you need to learn, and you’re going to learn them now if it takes all night” continued Bubba’s new voice - the tone of a teacher patiently spelling out a basic concept to a pupil who should already have understood by now.

“If she didn’t say no, that don’t mean the answer is yes.

If she was too drunk to say no, that don’t mean the answer is yes.

If she was too scared to say no, that don’t mean the answer is yes.

If she was too young to say no, that don’t mean the answer is yes.
If she said yes earlier then said she ain’t sure about it now, that don’t mean the answer is yes.

If she’s got a physical or mental disability that makes her unable to say no, that don’t mean the answer is yes.

If you pushed her into it, or tricked her into it, that don’t mean the answer is yes.

If for any reason she can’t say no, that don’t mean the answer is yes.

If she said yes last night, that don’t mean the answer is yes tonight.

If you’re married to her, that don’t mean the answer is yes.

You know what means yes?

If she says yes.

Yes is yes. Anythin’ else is no.

And son, if you kept goin’ when there wasn’t a clear yes, then the answer was no, and you committed rape.

And if you committed rape, son, then you forfeited your humanity.

The moment you decided she wasn’t human like you, with rights and needs like you, someone who deserves a choice just like you… the moment you treated her like a thing to be used, and her body like something you could take just because you wanted it, you denied her humanity. And by denyin’ someone else’s humanity, you forfeit your own.

Son, if she didn’t clearly say yes, then you lost your soul tonight.

I don’t care if you believe in a soul, or sin, or God, or hell, or any of that… if you pushed your 'yes' on her and ignored her 'no', then you lost the part of you that’s really you. And there’s only one way you can get it back.

Confess your guilt. Don’t put the girl through hell tryin’ to prove beyond reasonable doubt to a bunch of strangers what you and she both already know damn well is true. Admit what you did.

Admit that what you did wasn’t a mere mistake, and it wasn’t something that can be blamed on alcohol, or the girl’s short skirt, or your bros eggin’ you on, or anything or anyone but you. What you did was a crime, the one unforgivable sin: treatin’ people like things. Worse in a way than murder - though murder ain’t right either. But at least with murder, the victim’s suffering ends when the crime does. With rape, THE VICTIM’S SUFFERING WILL NEVER END. And you can’t never fix it. But you have a responsibility to do all you can to make it as right as you can.

Beg her, NOT for forgiveness. You have no right to ask her to give you anything, not after what you took from her. But beg her not to allow your crime to define her. Beg her not to stop seeing herself as human just because you failed to see her as human. Beg her never to forget that she deserves to have her rights and boundaries respected. Beg her to get all the help she can to heal from the trauma you inflicted on her. Ask her, if she will accept it, to allow you to pay for any therapy she needs in order to feel some peace an’ safety again. If she won’t accept it from you, then you must NOT push her to take anything from you. Not again. Instead you must pay by donating to a charity that helps women to recover from rape. And that still will not even the score. Nothin’ ever will. But you will spend the rest of your life doing all you can to make things as right as they can be made, because you owe her that.

You owe it to every other woman out there, and every other man out there, to do all you can to teach young men not to do what you did tonight.

Then, only then, will you be human again.

Only then will you have bought back your soul.”


There was silence for a full five minutes.


Then footsteps echoed down the hall, and Officer Jones returned.

“Young man, it seems another cell just opened up without anyone else in it. I’ll transfer you to that cell. Hope you boys had a nice chat” he finished, with a nod to Bubba.

As they walked to the new cell, the young man finally found his voice, and out of the many questions thronging his brain the topmost one came out of his mouth. “Were all those guys in for rape?”

“Nope. Murder, every one of ‘em. Bubba killed three men with his bare hands, all in the same night.

They’d raped his little girl, you see.

When he first came here, he swore he’d keep on killing every rapist till the place was empty. But once he’d had some time to think, he decided that killing wasn’t right either, and killing didn’t even the score. He decided that just made the score ‘Inhumanity: 2; Humanity: Zero’. And he wanted to make sure no one else went through what his little girl did. He decided there was a better way to teach people not to commit rape.

Now I’ve brought you to this here cell because I can’t bring a pen into the other cell, due to some things those men used to do with sharps before they turned things around. And I thought you might want some time alone to think, and maybe write some things down. No pressure, you don’t have to write if you don’t want to, and you don’t have to go back to Bubba’s cell. Though honest, you’d be as safe there as you will here alone. You’d be safer there asleep in a bunk with Bubba in the next bunk, than most women are walking down the street with their keys and pepper spray in their hands. You would have been safe, even if I’d given Bubba the pen.

I’ve left you a clean pair of pants on the bunk, by the way. People often need one, after meeting Bubba.”

As he was leaving, Officer Jones turned back to say,

“While you’re in here, I want you to consider one question:

Do you have anything you’d like to add to your original statement?”

© John M. Munzer