Speeches from the Land

In July of 1987, an old English lady drove me around the Oxford countryside. While we curved through the greenest hills I’d ever seen, she told me stories about the region, spinning the elegant sentences that come from a lifetime of hearing Shakespeare. I was 16 and serving on a team at her thriving church in Didcot. She slowed between hedgerows and bumped across a stone bridge over a creek, interrupting her story to say, “That was the Thames.”

She enjoyed my shocked expression. She knew that the Thames in my mind was the mighty river flowing by Parliament in London, not the brook we’d just crossed.

Landscape talks to us—sometimes even making jokes.

I asked her about World War II, when she had been a child in this valley. Though London was more than fifty miles away, she said that the German bombs pounding the city at night rattled the window panes of her bedroom. Imagine falling asleep to the vibrations of bombs. Her own home would have spoken about violence ever after with each rattle of glass.

The English landscape has reminders of the war everywhere. I stood in the ruin of Coventry Cathedral later that summer, preserved in its shattered state as a memorial to the German air raids. Tall shards of stone with grass growing in their midst are all that remain of a house of worship. It is a new holy place, where a crowd of people will not make any noise. Dealey Plaza in Dallas, TX, where John Kennedy was shot, is another place shrouded in silence, even though life goes on around it.

Paradise, CA, devastated by the Camp Fire on November 8th, is often compared to a war zone. When my wife and I finally drove through it a month ago, the abandoned, burned out cars had been removed, the power lines repaired, and litter from the flight of 20,000 people replaced with signs saying, “Paradise Strong.” But the impact remained searing.

“Camp Fire Aftermath” (December 18, 2018). CC by  Cal OES -NC 2.0.

“Camp Fire Aftermath” (December 18, 2018). CC by Cal OES-NC 2.0.

The buildings were carved open, their insides lying in tangled heaps. Metal pipes, awnings, and gutters were twisted like broken limbs. Surprising views across the hills had been blasted through walls and trees. Those trees had created the town’s feeling of shelter as if covering the inhabitants with hands, but the place now feels exposed. Off the streets where our friends had been trapped amid flames by traffic, there were neat rows of flattened mobile homes, looking like beds in a ward.

The very dirt speaks as it rides away from town in hundreds of trucks every day. Six inches of topsoil will be scraped off the ridge because it is contaminated by burned pollutants. There are deeper problems too. The entire town was on septic systems. I recently heard about a septic tank made of plastic that melted underground, its toxic contents seeping out. The business that owns it still stands, and might be open if it weren’t for the contamination. There are questions about reservoirs and aquifers. What do they say about this fire?

The land of America’s west has always talked about possibilities. It has never been like the land in Europe, or even the eastern U.S., which holds ruins and battlefields and graves to tell us about tragedies that overwhelmed human achievements. In our part of California, the land is teaching us a moral reality that is older than climate change, and more pertinent. All that we attain in this world is temporary.

But there is another message from the land. Grass appeared when much-needed rain came after the fire—in doses somewhat too large. Driving south only weeks after the hills were charred, I was amazed to see them green. In Paradise itself, the grass covers the burn scar, as if holding a balm on the soil, the pipes, and the blackened bricks. Life grows inside the ruin, and overflows beyond it.

The land will preach to us for many years that the world is fallen, groaning with expectation for a permanent life. And so the land will also preach hope.

Facebook and Human Nature

After dark revelations about how we use Facebook and how it uses us, we want someone held accountable. We have shared lies packaged as news. The lies came from shadowy groups seeking power. Facebook sold our information to some of these groups, like Cambridge Analytica, that enable other groups to microtarget their lies. Facebook and these groups, we think, have harmed our institutions and civility.

The story provokes three theological observations about human nature.

First, we look away from the obvious. The facts we “learned” about Facebook after 2016 are only “revelations” in the sense that we finally looked at what we already knew. We knew that information on Facebook was sketchy. We knew that Facebook was using our private data. But after 2016, we decided to be shocked—shocked—at what we had been doing all those years.

Second, we shift blame away from ourselves. The bad guys in Russia did evil. I can’t be blamed for my own online behavior. I can’t help feeling passionate about my causes. So when I troll people, heaping abusive names on them like “crisis actor” or “bigot,” I’m just telling “the truth.” The truth is that I joined a mob, and it’s my own fault.

Third, we imagine that technology will fix us. The Facebook and Google founders surveyed the world from under their hoodies, sincerely believing that they were making a global community where human goodness could finally blossom. Instead, they created a smarter delivery system for toxicity, and were surprised when the system worked. Telling ourselves not to be evil is not enough.

What makes these observations theological? The issue of accountability.

Suppose a pure, neutral observer were watching all of us online. That observer would only need a few minutes to form a judgment. We are all guilty of self-deception about our actions. We all invent ways to reject accountability for ourselves and demand it for others.

The observer exists, and has been watching us a lot longer than a few minutes.

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Who Are the Needy in California?

What some people are experiencing in Chico.

A few months ago, I talked with a single mother who heard gunshots in the street and dove to her apartment floor with her children. A retired woman who lives alone also hid in her apartment across the driveway.

These are some of the people our community depends on. Single mothers work hard—often at more than one job—to provide safe homes for their children, supervise their education, and create some fun amid escalating costs of living. Grandmothers support their adult sons and daughters and their grandkids, and are often the first responders in family emergencies.

I recently heard about an elderly woman who cannot do her shopping, even in daylight hours. She gets around with a scooter and is surrounded by people seeking handouts the instant she shows up at the shopping center. How much has this lady served the community throughout her life, only now to be unable to run errands safely?

Student representatives from Chico State recently made a presentation to the city council asking for more lighting on the streets around campus, where they walk to and from jobs and classes. They were not asking to “feel” safer. They were saying that the streets are not safe—a claim that is demonstrably true.

When we use the word “needy,” we usually refer to the homeless. We have responsibilities to help with that level of need. But having a home does not meet all your needs. If you have to hit the deck because of gunfire, or if you can’t leave your home, or if you fear for your safety coming and going from your home, your needs are profound.

The tool a community uses to start meeting the needs of housed and homeless alike, unemployed and the working poor alike, old and young alike, is called the law. Enforcing public safety is a matter of compassion for all citizens. For the sake of our most vulnerable people, it is time for us to criminalize crime.