Tuesday, January 27, 2015

Don't Let "Deflategate" Let the Air Out of Our Super Bowl FUN!!

“If it isn’t any fun, why bother?”        --Ben Howell Davis

I don't know about you but when it comes to the Super Bowl, I just want to have fun.  That's it. Nothing more. Nothing less.

When Super Bowl XLIX kicks off this Sunday night at 6:30 pm and the New England Patriots play the Seattle Seahawks, I'm only hoping to experience one vital and grace-filled and oh so necessary human emotion: happiness. Along with that, laughter and smiles and excitement and joy and community. 

It all comes down to the fun.

To gather together with family and friends on a cold and dark winter evening. To sit by a fire and get caught up in the excitement of the game, a game.  A play filled competition which really, finally, has absolutely nothing at stake. Nothing important or profound or earth shaking or life changing will occur because of who wins and who loses come February 1st.  The Super Bowl is kind of "super", but not so super that the outcome will shift the course of history or cure a deadly disease or mend a broken heart or help the powerless or increase the faith of millions.  No.

Instead, in preparation for Sunday, this is what I'm doing. I'm stripping away all the hype associated with the Super Bowl, "Deflategate" especially. ENOUGH ALREADY! Dismissing as so much hot air all the drama, the media noise, the excess, the money, and the chatter. Then I'll remember that the best of professional sports always comes down to just one goal for me, as a lifelong sports fan.

To have fun. FUN!

Enjoy the entertainment of watching human beings push their physical skills to the limit, doing stuff with their bodies you and I can only watch in awe. Find a bit of escape and for one evening put aside work worries and life worries and world worries and then lose myself in an all American extravaganza, so over the top and so completely excessive that it is fun and funny at the same time. Indulge in eating way too much bad food.  Return to the reason I first enjoyed watching pro sports. Remember why I first fell in love with being a fan. 

It was and is about fun!  

So this coming Sunday I am totally psyched to watch the game and as I take in that three hours of competition, I'll recall sweet memories of the times when sports have lifted my heart a bit and just made me happy.  Given me fun. The afternoon I spent with my little sister Claire in the right field grandstand of Fenway Park, on a hot August Saturday, for a doubleheader. Who won? Who knows? But there was cold beer and lots of laughs and fun. Or the summer night in 1971 when Dad surprised me and my big brother Ed with a once in a lifetime trip to Schaefer Stadium, to watch the very first Boston Patriots game ever played in Foxboro. I will never forget that magical evening. It was beyond fun! Listening to games on the radio as I take a road trip. Turning to the newspaper sports section to check the scores. Jumping up off the couch and high fiving my Godson when there's a "SCORE!" and then watching as he learns how fun it is to be a fan.


Funny. The difference between "fan" and "fun" is just one letter.  Not a very far distance to cover.  "Deflategate"? Not interested. I’m done with that.  I'll let other fans, other pundits, other folks worry about that stuff.

I'm just in it for the fun. GO PATS!


Monday, January 19, 2015

The Free Speech Right to Offend Others: Is This Right Always Right?

“Killing in the name of God is an aberration…Provoking and insulting other people’s faiths is not right.” –Pope Francis

"At the end of the day, in a free society people have to be free to offend each other.”
--British Deputy Prime Minister Nick Clegg

Just because as a journalist and a citizen, I have the right to offend, should I offend?

I’ve been wrestling with this question since the murder of twelve cartoonists and journalists at the offices of the French satirical magazine Charlie Hebdo, by radical Islamist terrorists two weeks ago. The gunmen carried out the attack in retaliation for insulting cartoons of the Prophet Mohammed. To be clear: I completely reject as evil the notion that anyone is justified in killing another human being for expressing an idea, whether “offensive” or not.

I’m a radical first amendment advocate. Other than speech which seeks to provoke hatred or violence, or is a direct threat to others, humans must have the right to free speech, especially unpopular speech. In the words of the French philosopher Voltaire, “I disapprove of what you say, but I will defend to the death your right to say it.”

Yet as a newspaper columnist who has written a weekly opinion piece for almost twenty years, I’m ever aware of the power of the pen; that when I express an idea in a newspaper or a blog, in public, it always has the potential to cause harm. To hurt another person. To malign an idea. To tear down an individual. To spread a lie or rumor.  To mock a belief which another holds as sacred. To rhetorically “Yell ‘FIRE!’ in a crowded theater” just to see what kind of response is evoked.      

With free speech comes great responsibility. Many weeks I’ve thrown out the first draft of a column because in reviewing it, I see it does not add to the common good or constructive discussion about an idea. Or I reread my first pass at an opinion and recognize it’s more about my selfish need to be angry, or self-righteous, or even insulting. So I always edit. I self-censor. I delete. Then I write again, and hope that what I opine is thoughtful and then I send my words out into the public marketplace of ideas.

I hope that what I write, in a very small way, makes the world better. Moves the debate forward. Brings a cause to light. Changes someone’s mind. Inspires discussion and action. Educates and enlightens. Some weeks I succeed. Others I fail.  But I’d like to like to think I try my best to use my words to build up and not just tear down.      

This is why I love free speech.  It gets us talking, wondering, and debating.  It challenges us to be in peaceful dialogue with other people, especially those with whom we disagree.  It reminds us that the best society is one in which a free press empowers a free people to think.  Free speech gives an outlet for human expression. It allows humanity to use the language of ideas and not violence, to build the world.       

So yes in free speech, I also have the right to offend a person, a faith, a politician, a sacred cow, a race, a class of people, anything, any one.  But: should I then do so?

I’ve seen the Charlie Hebdo cartoons which have stirred up so much controversy. As a person of faith, I can report these images equally mock Jews, Christians and Muslims. The cartoons take sacred symbols and icons—like the cross, Jesus, a Star of David, the Prophet Mohammed, God—and depict them in intentionally shocking ways, at least to my sensibilities. They are not high art, not elegant or nuanced in their use of satire. They are kind of like Mad Magazine gone radical: sophomoric, crude, visual sledge hammers swung down hard to make a point.  I’ll not be subscribing anytime soon.  Give me The Onion instead, the closest comparable satirical magazine in our country.

Back to France.  One week after the killings, Charlie Hebdo published a new edition and there, right on the cover, was another cartoon of the Prophet Mohammed.  The magazine was a huge, immediate hit, selling out across that country. The French stood in line in the pre-dawn light for hours, all in hopes of securing a copy.  The publishers, who normally sell 60,000 copies per issue, are now running seven million copies for worldwide distribution, a record for France. 

And free speech advocates cheer every where.  And some people of faith are insulted, and hurt, and angry, again, every where. And our world does not feel more peaceful or more hopeful or more understanding or more enlightened, after all which has happened.

Yes. I will still defend to the death the right of free people to offend others in word and in speech.  We can all be offensive.  But…must we? Will we?








Tuesday, January 13, 2015

After the Paris Attacks: Will We Choose a God of Hate or a God of Love?

“Religion can be a passion -- the same passion that motivates religious people to do great things is the same one that [on 9/11] brought all that destruction…. there [is] no greater and more destructive force on the surface of this earth than the religious passion.”    --from “Faith and Doubt at Ground Zero”, Monsignor Lorenzo Albacete

If we choose God, when we choose God, which God will it be? A God of love? A God of hate?  

That is the question which has haunted me since the terror attacks in France last week, which left seventeen innocent people dead, a city traumatized, a nation terrorized, and a world once again reminded of the terrible price paid when religion goes evil. When religion inspires violence. When religion gets so twisted and warped, that “religious” people hate, murder, and even dare to proclaim that they do so in “the name of God”.

It’s tempting to imagine that this is a modern problem, one born in the ashes of 9/11, when religious fundamentalism moved a group of extremists to attack thousands of innocents.  But the question of what kind of God humans worship, know and proclaim is as old as faith itself.  Life itself. From the moment tens of thousands of years ago when our ancient ancestors stared up into a night sky at the stars and imagined, hoped, that a power greater than themselves was somehow behind all of existence, religion has been used for good and evil in the world. Religion has inspired humankind’s greatest acts of kindness, mercy and compassion and humanity’s absolute worst acts of depravity and hatred too.

As a person of faith and a clergyman, one who has staked his whole life in the service of religion and all the good it can and does do, it is heart breaking for me to name this truth. The reality that religious faith can evoke the noblest of human behavior and the most heinous as well. I’m embarrassed, ashamed and angry that any of my fellow faith adherents—Muslims, Jews, Christians, whomever—would use the cloak of faith in God to justify hatred and bloodshed.  Would have the arrogance to cry out “God is great!” while shooting a police officer, killing a cartoonist, gunning down a shopper in a neighborhood deli, all of which happened in Paris.

Some hope is emerging from these events.  More than 1.5 million French rallied in Paris to proclaim “WE ARE NOT AFRAID!” in the largest such demonstration in that nation since 1944.  They were joined by many political leaders, including the Prime Minister of Israel and the President of the Palestinian Authority, representing two peoples locked in a titanic struggle often fueled by religious intolerance. There’s the story of the Muslim deli employee, Lassana Bathily, who led his customers to safety, as the terrorists took hostages.  On social media and in the press, moderate Muslims are speaking out and up and against the terrorists and their supporters, and they are doing so more forcefully and publicly than perhaps ever before.

This is where the real reformation and transformation of all religion has to start, has to continue. From the believers themselves. From the ones within a given religious faith who refuse to allow their particular faith in God to be hijacked by fellow adherents, those who through fundamentalism, extremism, fear and even bloodshed, pretend to love and honor “their” God.  The brave, the religious dissenters: they and they alone, must finally have the courage and the tenacity to take back their religions. And not just in Islam, but in any religion which uses the power of faith in God for naked human power, and all to oppress, to hate, to hurt, to control, to dismiss. 

Until this happens, I’m sad to say that I think nothing will change.  God wants things to change, of this I am absolutely convinced.  Yet finally it is God’s followers who must choose just what kind of God they believe in.    

The world is a very religious place: 84 percent of its population claims a place in a specific religious tradition.  We do not need more religion. We need better religion, belief systems and practices which make our fragile and beautiful big blue marble, our God created home, a better place. A safer place. A more loving place.  A tolerant place. A hopeful place where all—people all faiths, people of no faith—can live together in peace.  It’s that simple. It’s that difficult.

A God of love. A God of hate.  For the religious, this is the choice.

Tuesday, January 6, 2015

Marathon Bombing Trial: An Eye For An Eye Makes the Whole World Blind

"An eye for an eye leaves the whole world blind.” --Mahatma Gandhi

It was 631 days ago this week. Boston Marathon Monday. Patriots Day. April 15, 2013. Seems like a lifetime has passed since then.  Seems like yesterday too. 

It was a bright and clear and sunny early spring Monday in Massachusetts, crisp air, sharp blue skies, the kind of day we love in these parts, when life seems to bloom again after a long and hard winter. It was our day here in the Bay State, in the leafy suburbs of eastern Massachusetts, on the raucous crowd lined streets of Boston.

It was an awful day, the worst day ever for so many.  At 2:49 pm the first of two bombs exploded near the marathon finish line.  More than 260 people were injured.  Seventeen people lost limbs. Three died and a fourth victim was gunned down days later.  Then a region wide manhunt and a “stay in place” order for thousands of us, a shoot out on a side street in Watertown, one bomber suspect killed, another captured.

It was a miraculous day of amazing heroism, courage and selflessness, the best of Boston, Boston strong.  Police rushing towards the explosions to save, to comfort, to rescue.  Civilians caring for the wounded. Leaders rallying a populace.  And then after, a compassionate and generous outpouring of prayers and support and money, hundreds of millions of dollars for those who suffered and still suffer.

One year, eight months and 22 days later.  Monday, January 5th, 2015.  

The trial of Dzhokhar Tsarnaev starts here in Boston, just a few miles from the scene of his “alleged” crimes. Journalism rules require I refer to Tsarnaev as a “suspect” but I’m sure he is guilty of his crimes, acts of terror so cruel, hateful, and sociopathic. I believe he deserves to take full responsibility for what he and his brother did, in their warped and twisted ideology of religion and anger. Justice demands that he answer for his actions.

But not with his life.  Not this day. Not any day. 

That’s what’s really being decided at the trial: if Tsarnaev is convicted, will the United States federal government put him to death and take away his life. Even though Massachusetts has not had a death penalty since 1982, has not put anyone to death since 1947, Tsarnaev is being tried in federal court, and prosecutors have indicated they will seek capital punishment.

There are many legitimate reasons to for death. The level of mass destruction and carnage the bombings wrought. The ongoing suffering of folks who lost a loved one or lost a limb, had their lives changed forever in an instant.  Deterrence for those who might imagine carrying out a similar act.  Equality of punishment: take a life you give up your right to live. 

I get these arguments.

There are also many legitimate reasons to argue that he should instead be locked up for life, no hope of parole, imprisoned until the day he leaves this earth. The fact that the Bay State has no death penalty. That a post bombing poll indicates a clear majority of Bostonians (57 percent) favor a life sentence for Tsarnaev, with 33 percent supporting his execution.  In interviews with the bombing victims and families of the deceased, their opinions are mixed, no clear consensus.  Worldwide and nationwide the use of the death penalty by governments is in a steep decline.

I get these arguments too.

Yet finally I oppose Tsarnaev’s execution, for by putting him to death, we as a society respond to violence with more violence.  We allow the desire for revenge to rule our hearts and souls. We imagine his death as one ultimate act of closure but the truth is that none will ever be found.  And most sad, by calling for his execution, we as a people will not add one iota of love, or mercy, or compassion or peace to this fragile world that we call home.  The God I love compels me to oppose the death penalty in any and all circumstances, because if we are to rid this world of fear, anger and bloodshed, it has to start with us. Who we are as human beings, one to another. How we live with and treat those among us, even the ones like Tsarnaev.  An eye for an eye? It does finally make the whole world blind.

It was an April day long ago. Now we come to these profound days, to make the choice as a community between life or death, peace or violence. I pray that we’ll choose life. I pray that we’ll choose peace.









Monday, December 29, 2014

Back to the Future: How Would You Re-Do 2014?

"Wait a minute, Doc. Are you telling me that you built a time machine... out of a DeLorean?"          
 --Marty McFly, from "Back to the Future"

So here's my New Year's 2015 fantasy: I want to travel back in time to exactly one year ago, to the close of 2014, and talk to my past self. Give "me" some advice. I want to pull a Marty McFly and jump back into time. If God or the universe or fate gave me a 2014 "do-over" I readily confess I'd do things differently. I think most of us would too. In reviewing the last 365 days, we all remember moments when we wish we'd made another choice. Taken an alternate route on life's journey, a left rather than a right. Answered "no" rather than "yes" or "yes" when "no" was the right response.  Had the chance again to say "I love you" because we didn't have the guts or the smarts or the courage to do so.   

Woulda, coulda, shoulda.

The season of New Year's is a rare time in life when humans can intentionally look back and look ahead. Resolve to change our lives going forward. Face how we lived the past 52 weeks. So if you had the gift of being strapped into a time traveling Delorean, and visiting your past self for a spiritual pep talk, what might you say? How would you re-do 2014?

Me? I'd absolutely tell myself to worry a less. A LOT LESS! To instead trust that God and life so much of the time works out, that most human anxiety is a complete waste of time, an empty exercise in creating overwhelmingly negative outcomes that rarely if ever come true. That so often when we worry, it is about people and situations over which we have little or no control. I so regret how much precious time I wasted in 2014, mired in my worry. Fearing what others were thinking. Brooding about this possible scenario, that doomsday event! Sleepless nights. Distracted days. And guess what?  Almost always, whatever I was angsting about did not happen.  And all those hours I spent in worry: all gone, never to return. 

Memo to self: next year, worry less and trust God more.

I'd also tell my past self to spend less time online in the cyber world, and more time off line, in the real world.  In 2014, too often I was guilty of mindlessly looking at my phone or surfing the net or watching YouTube videos or scrolling through Facebook or waiting for a text. When I was bored, or waiting or unable to just "be", I inevitably reached for my techno-addiction.  Found myself in a crowd or at a gathering or in a public space surrounded by like minded cyber zombies. Heads tilted down. Fingers swiping across a screen. Eyes intently focused upon the "latest" on Twitter or Snapchat or Instagram. Meanwhile, real life connections-- face to face and heart to heart and voice to voice--seem rarer and rarer. How many thousands of minutes did I lose last year to life in the virtual world? Days, weeks perhaps.

Memo to self: next year, live more in the real world, live less in the cyber world.

Lastly, I'd tell my past self to talk less and listen more. To pontificate and judge others less, and instead be more curious in life, especially about folks and ideas and lifestyles I may see as "different" than me.  It's been a tumultuous 2014, filled with so many conflicts, fears and anger, grounded in a "them" versus "us" narrative.  Humanity split wide open. Wars in the Ukraine and Israel/Palestine and throughout the Middle East. Cruel, so-called "religious" people using their ideas of God to condemn, to oppress, to kill, even the innocent. Racial divisions and mistrust. 

Too often I've waded into these complicated affairs with my opinion which I also insist on sharing with anyone who will listen. My prayer for me and the rest of humankind in the year to come is that we'd open our mouths less and open our ears more. That we'd have the wisdom to think before we speak. That not every single opinion needs to be posted or blogged or proffered. That God-inspired humility, not hubris, is what our world really needs.

Memo to self: talk less and listen more.  Practice curiosity and humility.

We may not be able to time travel and give our past selves advice about how to live a better life, repeat 2014. But this week we've been given the gift of 365 new days, a whole new year, another God given chance to try again. 

Memo to self: how will you live in 2015? What did 2014 teach you? You don't need a Delorean to answer those questions.

Happy New Year.      

Thursday, December 25, 2014

December Quiet: May We All Find Some At Years' End

 "But after the tempest. . . .There came a day as still as heaven"   --Alfred Lord Tennyson

Have you found your “December quiet” yet?

From the 25th on it is amazing just how much of our world and the folks therein completely shut down during the days in between the 25th and the 1st.  It is so quiet, so still, so slow.  Stores are finally closed, or at least back to sane hours. No more sales. No more stuff.  The roads are empty. God willing we’ve all gotten to where we need to be.  Most of us have precious time off from work and school.  If we are wise the cell phone is set aside, silenced.  Maybe even the computer screen is blank, reminding us of life outside of the cyber world. Normal day to day schedules are suspended. This week is for family visits and faith and present giving and holiday celebrating, sleeping in, eating a lot, chilling out.  The quality and the nature of this time are different, even sacred.


Can you “hear” it, just for a little while, even one day? The hush of a house of worship after the final hymn has been sung and all is illuminated in candlelight.  The world after a snowfall, with the muffled crunch of footfalls on the snow, the muted cracks of branches bowing down under the weight of all that white stuff.  The snap and pop of a log in the fire.  The sound of a page being turned in that new book you received as a gift.  The silence of children finally falling asleep after a crazy day of holiday over stimulation.

Silent night.

We always need this glimpse of heaven on earth, no matter what the time of year, or what has come before, what lies ahead.  Our annual societal pause could not come at a better time. So many of us rush through the 12th month of the year, from stores to parties to work to celebrations to concerts to games and then finally, blessedly, to the end of another 365 days.  I know I need a rest.  To just stop moving.  To sit. Think. Laugh. Breathe.  Visit. Love.  Pause.


The earth knows this. On the 21st in our northern hemisphere the light waned to its dimmest of the year. It is dark and cold.  Makes me just want to shut it all off for a time, to turn it down, to tone it down, to just be quiet and still.  At its best this what faith in God offers.  Holy days, Sabbath, set aside time to just be, to open our hearts to the safe place and sanctuary that the gentle creator of the universe offers.  Our ancient ancestors certainly understood this truth.  In his book, “To Dance with God”, Gertrud Mueller Nelson writes of these final days of the year: “….[ancient] peoples who lived far north and who suffered the archetypal loss of life and light with the disappearance of the sun had a way of wooing back life and hope….as the days grew shorter and colder and the sun threatened to abandon the earth….Their solution was to bring all ordinary action and daily routine to a halt. They gave in to the nature of winter, came away from their fields and put away their tools. They removed the wheels from their carts and wagons, festooned them with greens and lights and brought them indoors to hang in their halls…. a sign of a different time, a time to stop and turn inward.”

Can we learn from our ancestral example?  Put our work away.  Switch off our brains. Leave the briefcase in the car. Stash the schoolbooks in the backpack.  Tear up the "to-do" lists.  Forget housework and homework.  Nature has stopped.  We should too.


These final days of 2014 are ours’ for the taking if and when we realize that this week is the time to be still and to be silent. For much too soon we will crank it all up again.  But for now, may God grant all of us a little space to just be at peace. As the poet Max Erhman wrote in his poem “Desiderata”, "Go placidly amid the noise and haste and remember what peace there may be in silence....And whatever your labors and aspirations, in the noisy confusion of life, keep peace in your soul."

That’s my prayer for all of us as this year finally draws to a close.      

Tuesday, December 16, 2014

Torture: Never, EVER Justified and Not Who We Are as a Nation

Torture (noun) 1. the act of inflicting excruciating pain, as punishment or revenge, as a means of getting a confession or information, or for sheer cruelty.                --Random House Dictionary

Last week the United States Senate Select Committee on Intelligence released to the press, the public and the world, a report describing our nation’s use of torture in the war on terror.  The 6,000 page tome describes in excruciating, often stomach turning detail, how American citizens, working on behalf of and with the blessing of the American government, used torture in an effort to gain intelligence from terror suspects. 

The methods were gruesome: water boarding (detainees subjected to near drowning), sleep deprivation, ice water baths, threatening the lives of prisoners and their families, forced feeding, mock executions, and the shackling of prisoners in subhuman conditions. The torture happened in so-called “black prisons”, top secret Central Intelligence Agency run facilities in places like Poland, Lithuania, Romania and Afghanistan.  One hundred and nineteen detainees were held under the program.  Twenty-six of those detainees were later found to be wrongly accused.

The reports’ release set off a firestorm of response. Current and former CIA employees and many in Congress claim these so-called “enhanced interrogation techniques” saved Americans lives, even though the report denies that assertion. Some who supported the release of the report (including President Obama) hedged their bets to cover themselves politically, saying that although the torture was wrong, those who undertook it did so with patriotic motives.

As an American, I’m not sure who disappoints and angers me more: those who tortured and must have done so knowing that what they did was just wrong, immoral, and inhuman. Or those who excuse torture as “understandable” in the extraordinary time called post 9/11.  They argue that because America was fighting an enemy unlike any other foe before, because America was attacked on its own soil, because the safety of Americans took precedent over any other ideal, well…things were just done that were “necessary”. 

Thank God that in the midst of this nationwide debate, one person stood up and spoke the truth with courage and moral conviction: Senator John McCain, Republican of Arizona.  Himself the victim of torture as a prisoner of war for six year in Vietnam, it is McCain, more than any self serving politician or blowhard pundit, who has the right to speak about torture. Why in the final analysis torture almost never elicits good intelligence, nor does it make for a safer world. And most important, why torture is not what America does.  Torture is not who America is.

On the floor of the Senate, McCain declared: “I have often said, and will always maintain, that this question isn’t about our enemies; it’s about us. It’s about who we were, who we are and who we aspire to be. It’s about how we represent ourselves to the world.  We have made our way in this often dangerous and cruel world, not by just strictly pursuing our geopolitical interests, but by exemplifying our political values, and influencing other nations to embrace them. When we fight to defend our security we fight also for an idea, not for a tribe or a twisted interpretation of an ancient religion or for a king, but for an idea that all men are endowed by the Creator with inalienable rights. How much safer the world would be if all nations believed the same. How much more dangerous it can become when we forget it ourselves even momentarily."

It amazes and frightens me what America has been willing to do to “defend” itself since the dark days right after the September 11th attacks. The suspension of many basic civil liberties. Eavesdropping by the government on billions of phone calls and emails and all manner of communication.  Secret courts.  And torture.

Though I was not personally touched by 9/11, I vividly remember how scared all of us were then; how we wondered when the next attack was coming; how just for a little while it felt like we came together as a nation and community. But the problem with fear is that it often makes folks and countries do things that they could never imagine. Act in ways that contradict the most idealistic and basic of political principles. 

Like that America just does not torture those it fights against.  That instead America treats even its enemies, with dignity and humanity, and always under the rule of international and domestic law, and in the sunlight of public knowledge and authority.

I still believe, like McCain, that this American commitment to being humane, to practicing higher ideals than much of the rest of the world: this is what sets the United States apart as a nation. We may not always live up to our self professed and historic values, but try we must. And when we fall short, how wonderful it is that some among us insist that we admit our mistakes to the citizenry and the whole world. 

Torture. Never justifiable. Not what we do. Not who we are. America has to be better than that. So Senator McCain: thanks for reminding us of this truth.