Words Create Worlds

The Austin American-Statesman published the following as an op-ed on Sunday, August 18, 2019.

In the four years since declaring for the presidency, Donald Trump’s tongue and fingers (on Twitter) have spewed divisive and sometimes hateful words to a worldwide audience. It has helped him amass a fervent base of supporters, even though his approval ratings are the lowest for any president of recent memory.

The hyper-partisan political divide in this country pre-dates the Trump presidency, yet the 45th president intentionally stokes the fires of division while striving for a second term. He treads upon the same path as did previous American politicians who leveraged this nation’s original sin of racism to gain and maintain a grip on power: Andrew Jackson, Ben Tillman, George Wallace, Jesse Helms, Strom Thurmond.

Mass shootings in America also pre-date the current presidency. But Trump’s words to describe immigrants and immigration – invasion, criminals, infestation – helped create the environment where a disgruntled twenty-one-year-old from the Dallas area drove to El Paso and opened fire at a local Walmart, killing twenty-two persons – mostly Latinx. In an online rant posted just prior to the massacre, the white male shooter parroted the president’s language, writing: “This attack is in response to a Hispanic invasion of Texas.”

El Paso – on today’s site of its sister city, Juarez – was founded in 1659, more than a century and a half before Stephen F. Austin came to establish an English-speaking and slave-holding settlement in what was then the northeastern part of Mexico. Spanish, alongside indigenous languages, was spoken in this territory – now called Texas – long before English ever was. I wonder if the El Paso shooter knows these historical facts. I imagine the president doesn’t and would label them, if he encountered them, “fake news” as they run contrary to his invasion narrative.

The renown Jewish theologian Abraham Joshua Heschel spoke these three words – “words create worlds” – to his students and to his own daughter, raised in the post-Nazi world. The wise rabbi based his teaching on the first chapter of Genesis wherein God’s words create the world of light, seas, land, and sky.

Heschel was born in Poland in 1907. The Nazis would eventually kill his mother and three of his sisters. The Gestapo deported him from Frankfurt, Germany in 1938, where he instructed adults in the Jewish faith. His escape from the Nazis to America was facilitated by his giftedness in writing and teaching.

He eventually settled in New York City, where he instructed seminarians – future rabbis – to be public actors burdened with the responsibility to speak out against social injustice. The Holocaust, he knew, was originally created with words – words of hate, blame, and propaganda seeking political power and advantage. Only after these words inflamed public sentiment, did the Nazis construct their crematoria and concentration camps. Words create worlds, for better and for worse.

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(Left to right) Abraham Joshua Heschel, Martin Luther King, Ralph Abernathy

In 1963, Heschel shared the keynote speaker stage at an ecumenical religious conference on religion and race in Chicago with Martin Luther King Jr. They mutually recognized a prophetic connection and became confidants. Two years later, Heschel walked arm-in-arm with King as they led thousands on a civil rights’ march from Selma to Montgomery. This historic march marshaled the political will President Johnson needed to sign the Voting Rights Act of 1965. Heschel later said, “When I marched with Martin Luther King in Selma, I felt my legs were praying.”

King was an African American and Protestant minister, and Heschel was a European immigrant and Jewish rabbi. Different, yes, but they shared a common calling to bring justice to the oppressed by opposing those who create, cause, and maintain injustice. Their words – conversations, prayers, sermons, speeches, and writings – have an edifying effect yet today, helping to uplift liberty and promote justice for all, building on the egalitarian structures created by the words of great Americans who came before: Frederick Douglas, Abraham Lincoln, Louis Brandeis, Susan B. Anthony.

It was hoped that the current president, when assuming office, would become more “presidential” by scaling back his volatile and divisive rhetoric. He’s not done it, and as both supporters and resisters can see, he’ll not change his ways – or his words – anytime soon.

Words create worlds. After four years of invective words from Trump, it’s time for those of us who oppose him to work as hard as we legally can – whether for impeachment or reelection defeat in 2020 – to change the narrative for the better, and with it, the world we now live in.

 


T. Carlos Anderson is a Protestant minister and the author of There is a Balm in Huntsville: A True Story of Tragedy and Restoration from the Heart of the Texas Prison System.

Visit http://www.tcarlosanderson.com for more information.

In the Presence of Wounded Healers

A “wounded healer” leverages their own experiences of pain and tragedy to help others heal from theirs. Originally coined by psychologist Carl Jung, the term was further popularized by theologian Henri Nouwen in his 1972 book of the same name.

I’m fortunate to have spent the better part of the last two years, while working on a book project, in the presence of wounded healers who are active in the field of restorative justice. These seasoned wounded healers – whether crime victims or, unexpectedly, perpetrators – showed me ways of healing with which I was unfamiliar. Like a bluebonnet that grows and produces its blooms from a crack in the pavement, healing can spring forth from unanticipated sources.

While doing the initial research for the book project, I interviewed an Austinite named Ellen Halbert. This wounded healer told me, “Every time I share my story, I heal a little bit more.” I immediately sensed that her words would guide my subsequent research and writing.

Revenge, at its most basic level, is a strategy for human survival. When a tragic event or hurtful person has caused us pain, the option to strike back lurks. Revenge says, “Don’t ever do that to me again.” Revenge-themed movies like “Carrie” and “Rambo” strike chords that are deeply anchored in the human psyche. But, quite often, there is a heavy price to pay for choosing revenge – such an act can transform a crime victim into a perpetrator, and vengeance can beget more violence.

The biblical counsel “‘Vengeance is mine,’ says the Lord,” urges adherents to choose options other than revenge. Religious systems do some of their best work when they mitigate the primal urge for vengeance in situations of wrongdoing, and encourage the victimized to seek alternatives.

Our legal or retributive justice system – laws, cops, courts, jails and prisons – is a necessary part of our social contract, and the first option in situations of serious wrongdoing.

The legal system, however, does not primarily concern itself with healing. “Repairing the harm done by crime – beyond what happens in the courtroom” is a good working definition of restorative justice. The practices of restorative justice, many have discovered, offer the best options for healing in the aftermath of wrongdoing.

Typically, restorative practices utilize face-to-face encounters between adversaries in safe settings in the presence of support personnel. It’s not a “mediation” – some type of compromise understanding about the wrongdoing – but an opportunity for the perpetrator, after hearing out the victimized person, to be accountable for what they’ve done. Oftentimes, when a wronged person sees that the one who caused their pain has taken responsibility for what they’ve done, healing emerges. Restorative practices do not necessarily involve forgiveness and reconciliation, but can if desired by the participant who was originally victimized.

In 1986, Ellen Halbert was brutally attacked by a drifter who left her for dead. She was fortunate to physically survive the ordeal. Years later, she experienced emotional healing – she wasn’t able to meet with her imprisoned attacker because he was unrepentant – by sharing her story publicly at crime victims’ rights events. “It was all I had,” she told me. “When I told my story, a sense of power and control [about her crime victimization] came over me like never before.”

She was consequently the first crime victim appointed (by Governor Ann Richards) to the Texas Board of Criminal Justice and she helped introduce restorative justice programs to the massive Texas criminal justice system. Later, she worked for former Travis County DA Ronnie Earle as the office’s Victim Services liaison, directing victim-offender dialogues prior to sentencing, one of the early efforts in the nation of a public prosecutor’s office using restorative principles.

Ellen Halbert is now retired, but her work and the telling of her story have brought healing to thousands.

Many wounded healers, like Ellen Halbert, are advocates for restorative justice principles which help repair the harm produced by wrongdoing, and have the power to pacify the ingrained human tendency toward revenge.

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Ellen Halbert and T. Carlos – May 2019

 

T. Carlos Anderson is a Protestant minister and the author of There is a Balm in Huntsville: A True Story of Tragedy and Restoration from the Heart of the Texas Prison System.

Visit http://www.tcarlosanderson.com for more information.

 

Striking Out at the Texas Book Festival

I punched in my computer’s access code, and my homepage gave way to my email inbox. A new boldface email from my publisher, as if a black hole, sucked in all my attention. I saw the subject line, “Texas Book Festival,” and spied that the first line of his message included the word “Sorry.” Instinctively, I knew it was bad news. I opened it – the TBF submission committee had rejected my book. The submission deadline wasn’t even two weeks fresh. Through the brain fog that shock creates, it occurred to me that my book didn’t even make it out of the first round of cuts. I was stunned.

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The 2019 TBF will feature upwards of 300 writers and their books. The festival was established in 1995 by Texas First Lady Laura Bush, a librarian and life-long reading advocate, to support libraries and reading programs throughout the state. On its website, the Texas Book Festival thanks individual and corporate supporters “who believe in the power of reading to change lives.” As the festival nears its 25th anniversary, it has gained in prominence and prestige. Now a national event, the competition to gain entry, for most any writer, is cut-throat.

Fool that I am, I thought my book had a great chance for acceptance. There is a Balm in Huntsville tells the fascinating story of the development of a life-changing restorative justice program that started in Texas. Have you ever heard of “Victim-Offender Dialogue”? It’s a high level restorative justice practice by which a crime victim can meet face to face with the incarcerated perpetrator who victimized them. Today, more than twenty-five other states, through their criminal justice systems, offer a replica of the Texas model. (And for those who wonder why some crime victims desire such encounters, my book answers that question definitively.)

Forgive the redundancy: Victim-Offender Dialogue started in Texas. The Texas criminal justice system still leads the way, having conducted more than 2,000 Victim-Offender Dialogues since the program’s inception more than twenty-five years ago. This is a vitally important story of which few Texans are aware.

Balm also focuses on the transformation of one Texas inmate through the VOD program by which he meets with the parents of the seventeen-year-old girl he killed in a drunk-driving wreck. My nonfiction narrative shows the human side of a prisoner who boldly tries to make amends for the wrongs he committed. The book is a well-written page-turner that has moved readers to tears as it shares the heartening stories of crime victims who have reclaimed hope and light after the deep darkness of crime overwhelmed them. The thought, care, and sensitivity that went into telling this story – from both sides of the dialogue table – has been noted by reviewers.

And if all this wasn’t enough, Balm tells the stories of three incredible Texans – Cathy Phillips, Ellen Halbert, and John Sage – pioneers in both the crime victim rights movement and restorative justice. All Texans should have the opportunity to read their inspiring and life-affirming stories of how they wrested good from catastrophic situations.

But, alas, I’m biased. As is my publisher who says, “Balm is a book that will save the lives of some, and change the lives of others.” As are many readers who have raved about the book and describe it: “gripping,” “compelling,” “eye-opening,” “unflinching,” “hard to put down,” “beautifully written.” As are reviewers who have 5-starred Balm on Amazon and Goodreads.

But even though Balm is touted by some as a life-changing read, it’s a book written by a little-known author (who has no agent) published by a small press. Might this have had anything to do with Balm‘s almost immediate rejection from the TBF submission committee? I get it: The publishing industry itself works as a de facto vetting system for the festival. With so many submissions, a book not from a large publisher or UT Press has to be really good (and never use descriptions like “really good”) to achieve entry status.

Even so, I have to ask: Was Balm judged for the content between its covers, or by the little-known names of author and publishing company on its spine? (For the record, Balm‘s publisher Merle Good has produced more restorative justice titles than anyone else in his long career.)

And, I’m compelled to ask another question: Are excellent, timely, and poignant books written by little-known authors published by small presses that tell influential stories of Texas and Texans welcome at the TBF?

And, a final question: Double-fool that I am, how did I not know that my publisher’s inability to print the first run of my book as a hardcover would help merit its almost immediate rejection from the TBF? Damn.

So, there you have it. A little-known author published by a small press has struck out at the Texas Book Festival, now bigger than Texas itself. I guess I’ll try to find an agent.

Not.


More info about There is a Balm in Huntsville is at http://www.tcarlosanderson.com. Share of this post will be appreciated, especially when done by Texans.

 

 

 

 

Vacations Are For Slackers

It’s summertime – have you taken a vacation yet? A recent national survey claims that 42 per cent of working Americans didn’t take any vacation days in 2014. Wow – keep that stat in mind the next time you have an interchange with a grumpy employee. Maybe he’s having a bad day in part because he hasn’t had time off from the job for a significant stretch. The United States is the only developed nation in the world that doesn’t lawfully mandate paid vacation days for workers.

Some Americans are workaholics and others actually like their jobs so much they don’t take any vacation days. Workaholics and job-lovers together, however, we assume to be a minority. Other Americans in low-paying jobs are unable or afraid to take time off (lest they lose their jobs), and other Americans are uncomfortable getting away from the office or workplace lest necessary tasks be forgotten or mismanaged by others. Other Americans, because of our broken health care coverage system, end up using vacation days as sick or family leave days.

Most Americans – whether vacation-takers or not – live in obeisance to the dominant religion of the day: the troika of materialism, commerce, and consumerism. On the surface, it’s a good religion that feeds, shelters, clothes, and employs us. But when the religion goes overboard – too many hours worked is but one example – it breaks bad and damages societal common good.

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The Caddy Man

By the numbers, the three people groups most devoted to working are South Koreans, Americans, and Australians. Only South Koreans take fewer vacation days and holidays than American workers; only Australians work more weeks per year on average than Americans. The Caddy Man, actor Neal McDonough, perfectly describes (albeit unintended) the dominant religion in America. Speaking incredulously of those woosified Europeans: “They take August off – off!”

Once upon a time (in the 1950s), many commentators, confident of increased gains in productivity and innovation, foresaw a shorter workweek and increased leisure time for Americans by the last few decades of the century. Those predictions fell completely flat. Americans worked, on the average, 160 hours more a year in 2000 than in 1970. America, historically associated with the opportunity to work, now seems to be associated with the domination of work. Consumerism, of course, has brought about work’s ability to rule.

According to Adam Sacks of Oxford Economics – an organization that serves the travel industry – the average working American leaves five vacation days unused per year. Sacks calls it a culture of work martyrdom: those who don’t use all their vacation are more virtuous than those who do take all their vacation days. Vacations are for slackers.

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The star-forming region NGC 3603 - seen here in the latest Hubble Space Telescope image - contains one of the most impressive massive young star clusters in the Milky Way. Bathed in gas and dust the cluster formed in a huge rush of star formation thought to have occurred around a million years ago. The hot blue stars at the core are responsible for carving out a huge cavity in the gas seen to the right of the star cluster in NGC 3603's centre.
Hubble Space Telescope pic

Vacations are also for those seeking renewal and rejuvenation. One of the first stories in Hebrew scriptures tells of the Creator God taking a day off at the conclusion of an extended work project. The moral of the story: creativity and rest go hand-in-hand. We are capable of creating and doing good work on little sleep; but, over the long haul, you and I need rest and downtime in order to be effective in relationships and in work environments.

When will we see a change in the way working America operates? The typical reward for good work is increased pay. While many appreciate (and need) an increase in pay, when will we see a culture shift that rewards employees’ good work with more time off?


Though this blog was originally posted in 2015, it still applies.

See my other website – http://www.tcarlosanderson.com – for details on my new book, There is a Balm in Huntsville, and blog posts on restorative justice.

Life After Death in the Garden

The winter gardening season – in Texas, at least – has come to a close.

Almost thirty years ago, I planted my first winter garden in Texas. Having grown up in Chicago, I was unaccustomed to winter gardening. That first year in Houston, I planted some cilantro seeds (coriander), as instructed on the package for Zone 9, the middle of October. As the temps subsequently cooled off into November, the tender green shoots emerged. Wow – plant growth in the winter made me feel like I was somehow cheating. The shoots soon turned into baby cilantro plants, their little leaves exhibiting the defining crags and jags of the mature version.

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A first of the year harvest of cilantro

One post-Christmas December morning, however, I woke to see my beautiful garden covered in frost. My baby cilantro plants were drooped over, weighted down by ice crystals. My heart sank. All my work for naught – the future harvest ruined. So much for winter gardening.

But then the sun came out, and the temp warmed. To my complete shock, my baby cilantro plants revived as they soaked in the winter sun. AWESOME! The coating of ice melted, my garden glistened once again. My confidence in Texas winter gardening restored, I anticipated plenty of fresh pico de gallo fortified with our homegrown cilantro for months to come.

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March Madness – the flowering and seeding out process of my cilantro garden

For two months, the harvest met those expectations. An unexpected thing happened in March, however, right in the middle of Lent. My cilantro plants put on white flowers, beginning the deathly process of seeding out. I had a plan, though. I’d simply cut off the flower shoots, thus extending the life of my plants. What a plan! To my further surprise, my plan to stave off the death of my plants only hastened their death. Where I had cut the shoots, new ones came up only faster. There was no other option – my plants wanted to die, and timed their demise to coincide with Holy Week. As a pastor, I realized my garden was reflecting the cycle I taught and preached about during Lent: unless a seed falls to the ground and dies . . .

There are natural limits to the creation and how it works. Try and do all you can, but most of these limits are unassailable. Sometimes the spirit of “just a little bit more” needs to accommodate itself to the spirit of “enough is enough.” Creation, if we pay attention, teaches this invaluable lesson in many and various ways. My cilantro garden followed its given script. It thrived and produced during the cooler months of the year and then produced something else when spring warmth returned – hundreds upon hundreds of seeds. October would come again, and with it, the glorious cycle of rebirth.

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Cilantro pesto

Since this first described excursion, I’ve been growing cilantro every winter in Texas. The last few years, I’ve discovered a more effective way than chopping the shoots to extend the harvest: cilantro pesto. I’ve been making basil pesto for years (from the summer garden), and use an adapted blender recipe: harvested cilantro leaves, walnuts (or pecans), extra virgin olive oil, a few slices of fresh sweet onion, and a touch of salt. It keeps in the freezer for as long as needed and goes really well with grilled fish and Viognier. Provecho. 

Oftentimes gazing upon my cilantro garden, I am reminded of the cycle of death and resurrection. Death, many times, is undesirable and cruel. Yet, my garden testifies: death is not the end. More is to come.


balm.cover.2Tim/T. Carlos Anderson – I’m a Protestant minister and Director of Community Development for Austin City Lutherans (ACL), an organization of fourteen ELCA (Evangelical Lutheran Church in America) congregations in Austin. I’m the author of  There is a Balm in Huntsville: A True Story of Tragedy and Restoration from the Heart of the Texas Prison System (Walnut Street Books, April 2019).

 

Check out my author website: www.tcarlosanderson.com.

The Completion of a Great Idea

Inside a fellowship hall of a church in Austin, Texas, twenty-five people sit upon folding chairs arranged in a horseshoe pattern around a wooden podium. One at a time, they introduce themselves to the rest of the group. The open-circle gathering consists of educators, a licensed counselor, lawyers, prison ministry advocates, pastors, a cop, and criminal justice employees. The release of a new book, There is a Balm in Huntsville, has brought them together. All of them either had a part in its story or a hand in the book’s production.

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The book tells the tale of a tragic drunk-driving wreck and its adverse consequences for the families of two teenagers who perished in the wreck and for the perpetrator who pleaded guilty at his trial and received a prison sentence of forty years. But there’s much more to the story than destruction and pain. Through two prison programs—one institutionally created, and the other a prison ministry—hope and healing emerged for the perpetrator and for some of those affected by the wreck, from the places of the story’s deepest darkness.

It was my idea as the author of the book to gather the group and to host this private event. But it wasn’t my idea originally to write or produce the book. That idea was hatched, eighteen years ago, by the perpetrator of the drunk-driving wreck and one of his crime victims when they met face to face in the chapel of the Walls Unit prison in Huntsville, Texas.

Yes, a face-to-face meeting between an offender and his crime victim—in the prison.

Andrew Papke, the perpetrator, and Martha Early (now Moffett), the mother of Bethany Early who died in the wreck, met face to face in a program instituted by the Texas criminal justice system called “Victim-Offender Dialogue.” During their meeting, supervised by a Texas criminal justice system employee of its Victim Services Division, the two adversaries came up with their book idea. To understand how I came to write the book—eighteen years later—you’ll have to read through the story and continue to the book’s Epilogue section.

Among the twenty-five persons at the gathering in the Austin church are Andrew Papke and Martha Moffett—face to face again after their last encounter in a prison fifteen years ago.

After the introductions, I stand at the podium and thank Andrew and Martha for their idea to write a book of God’s ability to reach down into a horrible situation and produce some good from it. My primary hope for the book, I tell them and the group, is for its readers to know about the healing possibilities of restorative justice.

Andrew Papke addresses the group. He speaks of his regret, still fresh more than two decades later, for what he did. But he also acknowledges, moments later, the healing power that came to him through the process of the Victim-Offender Dialogue program and his participation in a prison ministry called Bridges To Life. He calls out the people in the horseshoe circle who work or worked in those programs and helped bring about his healing: David Doerfler, Raven Kazen, and John Sage. He also acknowledges Lisa Looger, a formidable criminal justice system employee, who passed away in 2004. Andrew shares with the group that he decided to give me the go-ahead to work on this book project toward the end of 2016 because, if Lisa Looger was still around, she’d have told Andrew to go forward with it.

After Andrew finishes his remarks, I return to the podium only for a moment to tell the group that the floor is theirs—open-mic style.

David Doerfler, who developed the Victim-Offender Dialogue program for the Texas Department of Criminal Justice, addresses the group. Doerfler is now retired, but the fire in his soul that guided him to create the face-to-face dialogue program, the first of its kind in the nation, still burns.

“This dialogue program didn’t come from me. It came from victims who struggled to stay alive, who, somehow, were able to keep going in the midst of their pain.”

“Healing,” he says, “is about holding opposites together—about facing the pain. Sometimes solutions are found within the problem.” He looks at Andrew and invokes the memories of the two teenagers who lost their lives from his horrible mistake the summer 1996.

“I believe, Andy, that they are urging you on to continue to tell your story.”

Raven Kazen, a woman with a vibrant spirit and a generously commanding tone, addresses the group after Doerfler. Even though she retired from directing the Victim Services Division in 2008, she, like Doerfler, still has a burning heart for crime victims and offenders who, like Papke, choose to take responsibility for their actions.

“The first time I met Andrew, I knew that he was sincere in his sorrow for what he had caused, and for his heartfelt desire to do something to make things right.” Kazen gives the group a bit of a history lesson and thanks crime victim extraordinaire and early-on Texas Board of Criminal Justice representative, Ellen Halbert, for all she did to help build up the Victim Services Division of Texas’s criminal justice system.

Kazen concludes her remarks by looking at Martha Moffett and thanks her for being a participant in the Victim-Offender Dialogue program. There’s nothing more Christ-like, Kazen says, than to forgive. “Martha, thank you for your extreme grace.”

John Sage, who founded the prison ministry Bridges To Life in response to the brutal murder of his sister, looks out at the group from the podium and tells them that none of them ever though they’d be part of what’s brought them all together this night. He explains that Bridges To Life brings offenders and surrogate crime victims together in the search of healing for crime victims, and of accountability for prisoners.

Sage looks at Raven Kazen and smiles: “She was the force that helped establish our prison ministry program.” He then looks at David Doerfler and calls him “the teacher” who taught Sage about “the inner spirit of what we were tying to do.” Doerfler’s guidance, Sage says, helped Bridges To Life attain its crystal-clear vision and mission.

Paul Diaz, a licensed family therapist and pastor, addresses the group from behind the podium and explains that he and Andy were good friends in high school. He turns to Andrew and says, “We were going down parallel paths of destruction in high school. One year after your wreck, I woke up after a rough night. My car was halfway in the grass, halfway in the street—I don’t even remember how I got home.

“That morning, I do remember having the distinct thought that the only difference in the beds that we’re sleeping in . . .” His voice trails off. He looks at his friend and says, “In you, I saw myself. I saw that I was fragile, and not bulletproof.”

Andrew’s experience, Diaz says, was more than a cautionary tale. It compelled him, after that rough night, to look for paths other than the one of destruction he had been favoring.

He continues to say that the great Jewish theologian, Abraham Heschel, is one of his heroes. “Heschel says that ‘words create worlds.’”

Before the fires burned at Auschwitz, Paul Diaz says, there were hateful words that helped create the death camps. Heschel teaches us, he says, that we can, by the grace of God, use our words to create better places. “We’re not done creating. I love that you, Andy and Tim, are helping to create, with this book, a much better place—something different, a place of grace—with your words.”

He looks at both Andrew and Martha as he concludes his remarks.

“My life, in a large part, was impacted by your story twenty-two years ago when it happened. It hasn’t been for naught. I’m one, but there many more people who will be touched by your intersecting story.”

The two old high school friends embrace. Those in the group smile and clap.

A few months earlier, Andrew told me that Paul Diaz was the only friend from high school who kept in touch with him after his entry into prison.

The last speaker to take advantage of the open-mic is a woman named Kim Thonhoff. She and her young son were the two lone eye-witnesses to the wreck on South Brodie Lane that summer night in 1996. She tells the group that she’s been nervous for weeks about the gathering, and that she asked her regular Bible study partners for support and prayer in preparation of this event.

She tells the group of a dream that she had two days prior to this event. The number of nightmares she’s had the past twenty-plus years after the wreck have always centered upon moms—like Martha—having to deal with the devastating pain of losing a child.

This most recent dream, she offers, is perhaps an answer to the prayers of her friends.

She explains that she’s at the same wreck event once again. As she walks out of her van to approach the wreck scene, she’s surrounded by harmless glass falling all around her in slow motion, with the light of a full moon glistening in the glass. The glass then becomes incredibly bright—it takes on a radiance she can’t describe. It’s as if a blanket is coming down and there’s no sadness, nothing shattered, no one dead. The other-worldly bright blanket of healing, she says, covers everything.

She pauses in her retelling, smiles and wipes away a tear.

She then says that she woke up with the most profound peace and energy, and most importantly, she felt good about coming here tonight. She says that she wants the rest of us to have this same indescribable peace and undeniable hope that she’s experienced.

The room is silent. The silence isn’t an uncomfortable one, but a concluding one. We’ve been together for more than two hours.

After a few more silent moments, I approach the podium one last time. I invite all to stand and join together in the Serenity Prayer.

God, give me grace to accept with serenity
the things that cannot be changed,
Courage to change the things
which should be changed,
and the Wisdom to distinguish
the one from the other.

Living one day at a time,
Enjoying one moment at a time,
Accepting hardship as a pathway to peace,
Taking, as Jesus did,
This sinful world as it is,
Not as I would have it,
Trusting that You will make all things right,
If I surrender to Your will,
So that I may be reasonably happy in this life,
And supremely happy with You forever in the next.

Amen.


balm.cover.2Tim/T. Carlos Anderson – I’m a Protestant minister and Director of Community Development for Austin City Lutherans (ACL), an organization of fourteen ELCA (Evangelical Lutheran Church in America) congregations in Austin. I’m the author of  There is a Balm in Huntsville: A True Story of Tragedy and Restoration from the Heart of the Texas Prison System (Walnut Street Books, April 2019).

 

Check out my author website: www.tcarlosanderson.com.

The Biblical Roots of Restorative Justice

Thanks to the Austin American-Statesman for publishing this article on February 16, 2019.

Under a nearly full moon shining through stray clouds, a nineteen-year-old drunk driver killed two teenagers one summer night years ago in Austin. He was arrested, pleaded guilty at his trial, and was sentenced to forty years in the state penitentiary system. When the incarcerating bullet-proof steel door slammed shut behind him, was that the end of the story?

Retributive justice is an important component of our social contract, aptly described by the phrase “You do the crime, you do the time.” The state, represented by legislators, cops, lawyers and judges, courts, jails, and state and federal prison systems, takes responsibility for assessing guilt and punishment when its laws are violated. Crime, therefore, is understood principally as an offense against the state.

Have you heard of the term “restorative justice”? In contrast, restorative justice theory holds that the person violated by a criminal act, not the state, is the principal victim. Restitution, consequently, is a relational transaction between an offender and their victim.

Some crime victims want no further involvement with an offender beyond the court’s decision rendered by the state-sponsored retributive justice process. Other crime victims, however, have a need for more. “The opportunity for a crime victim to find hope and resolution by repairing the harm done by crime – beyond what happens in the courtroom” is a good working definition of restorative justice.

Jesus instructs his disciples in Matthew 18 to deal with conflict face to face. If a sin or some type of violation splinters a relationship between two people, if at all possible, these are to seek resolution of the issue face to face. If necessary, other community members can help the two move toward rapprochement.

And where did Jesus, who was Jewish, learn this type of practice? From his own tradition that seeks to maintain an offender’s status of inclusion in the community, and commands offenders to offer restitution to their crime victims (Leviticus 6 and Numbers 5 are clear examples) to help preserve the well-being of the community.

The ninth of the 12 Steps of Alcoholics Anonymous distills these biblical principles: “Make direct amends to people you have harmed wherever possible, except when to do so would injure them or others.”

From the guts of a Texas prison five years after that summer night drunk-driving wreck, the offender met face to face with the mother and father of one of the teenagers he killed. The program that facilitated this meeting is called Victim-Offender Dialogue, and the Texas criminal justice system was the first in the nation to offer such a program institutionally to victims of violent crime. Importantly, only crime victims can initiate the implementation of this program (which includes guided preparation), and a participating offender must admit complete fault and guilt in their crime, with no expectation of favor from the Texas parole board. This program is administered by the Victim Services Division of the Texas criminal justice system, which seeks to serve the needs of crime victims first and foremost.

The Victim-Offender Dialogue program is an example of high-level restorative justice practice. Other restorative practices are becoming more common, including “circle conferences” at middle schools that attempt to mitigate bullying and other offenses by bringing adversaries face to face in guided mediation.

There’s much more to the story of this Austin drunk-driving wreck and participation in the Victim-Offender Dialogue program by the offender and the parents of one of his victims. The development of the program – an incredible story in and of itself – and what the program did specifically for these three participants is the focus of my new book There is a Balm in Huntsville.

We live in an age of hyper-partisan divide where the demonization of others is accepted behavior and mistrust is rampant. Can purposeful encounters between adversaries bear fruit for peace and understanding? Many who have experienced the healing ways of restorative justice practices answer the question with a resounding “Yes.”


balm.cover.2Tim/T. Carlos Anderson – I’m a Protestant minister and Director of Community Development for Austin City Lutherans (ACL), an organization of fourteen ELCA (Evangelical Lutheran Church in America) congregations in Austin. I’m the author of  There is a Balm in Huntsville: A True Story of Tragedy and Restoration from the Heart of the Texas Prison System (Walnut Street Books, April 2019).

 

Check out my author website: www.tcarlosanderson.com.

Sapolsky’s Behave, Part 2 – Or, Understanding Your Political Opposites (If You’re Interested in That . . . )

This is the second of two posts reviewing Robert Sapolsky’s Behave – the first post is linked here.

Neuroscientist Robert Sapolsky’s Behave (Penguin, 2017) is a long but rewarding read. The first half of the book – 300 pages – delves into the particulars of brain regions and their development, cerebral enzymes, and genetics. Rewards come to the reader who continues to the last half of the book. Sapolsky is insightful, and his colloquial writing style humors, entertains, and instructs.

Sapolsky’s purpose is to explain human behavior – why, how, and what.

jalbm.behave.1As promised in my previous post, this post focuses on a juicy topic: the biology of political loyalties and tendencies. I love Sapolsky’s sub-heading (hardcover, p. 444) in Chapter 12 – “Hierarchy, Obedience, and Resistance” – that introduces the juicy section: “OH, WHY NOT TAKE THIS ONE ON? POLITICS AND POLITICAL ORIENTATIONS.”

Here We Go . . .

Sapolsky asks if there are “psychological, affective, cognitive, and visceral ways” in which left-leaners and right-leaners tend to differ. He answers by saying there are “fascinating findings” which he summarizes under the categories of intelligence, intellectual style, moral cognition, and psychological differences.

Even so, he posits an important disclaimer: rather than categories of stereotypes or essentialisms, what stands out in each group of partisans are internal consistencies which, he claims, are evident in both political and apolitical realms and have bits of biology undergirding them.

In the category of intelligence, he references a well-known study from the 1950s – one, however, not always verified by other similar studies – that suggested a link between lower intelligence and conservative ideology. (I told you this would be juicy.) Better supported, Sapolsky writes, is a link between lower intelligence and a specific sub-type of conservatism: right-wing authoritarianism. This link is a concern today just as much as it was in post-WW II Europe, when researchers and political scientists sifted through the wreckage caused by so many submitting to Hitler’s authoritarian ways. Right-wing authoritarianism, Sapolsky says, offers simple answers (to complex societal problems), ideal for people with poor abstract reasoning skills.

As for intellectual style, Sapolsky brings us to the dancefloor to help explain psychological studies that illustrate differences between conservatives and liberals. See the guy tripping over his feet while trying to dance? Partisans, asked to give a snap judgment of the lousy dancer, agree that the guy’s clumsy. But given more time to ponder the situation . . . liberals more readily entertain possible reasons for his lousy dancing (perhaps a physical ailment, or a father who disdained dancing) whereas conservatives tend to stick with their first instinct. Sapolsky says that “conservatives start gut and stay gut; liberals go from gut to head.”

Sapolsky hastens to say that right-leaners sticking with their gut doesn’t mean that they are incapable of going deep intellectually. Far from it: both liberals and conservatives are equally capable of presenting the other’s perspective, showing intellectual dexterity. Liberals, though, show greater comparative motivation toward entertaining situational explanations – the descriptor “bleeding heart” fits. Many conservatives, during the George W. Bush presidency, became comfortable with the term “compassionate conservatism” – in part, an attempt to address the criticism of cold-heartedness.

An interesting aside: Donald Trump, before becoming president, spoke often of going with his “gut feel.” He’s continued to speak in similar fashion as president. By this marker, Trump is a card-carrying conservative.

Differences between partisans in the category of moral cognition are revealed by their typical response to this question: Is it permissible to disobey a law? Conservatives, with their affinity for law and order, answer “No” because disobedience undermines cherished authority. Liberals, on the other hand, answer “Yes, if it’s a bad law” – authority subsumed to their affinity for fairness for all. Another question: Should NFL players be allowed to kneel during the national anthem? Conservatives, with their affinity for sacredness – “Never.” Liberals will allow for it, if they can be convinced that the reasons and circumstances undergirding the action merit it.

As for the category of psychological affect, Sapolsky says that liberals tend to be more comfortable with ambiguity than are conservatives, who tend to be more comfortable with structure and hierarchy. Are our best days ahead of or behind us? Generally more comfortable with novelty, liberals anticipate, with needed reforms, a brighter future ahead. Conservatives, generally more comfortable with that which is familiar, speak of the good old days that should be returned to – “Make America Great Again.”

What is the role of government? Liberals: to provide social services and education for its people. Conservatives: to protect its people, with a strong military leading the way. Apropos, Sapolsky sites a study that reports Republicans having three times more dreams involving loss of personal power than do Democrats. Conservatives, especially those with authoritarian sympathies, are more prone to “threat perception” – fears and anxieties about potential dangers – than are their political counterparts. Of the two, which group reports being happier? Despite their hopes for a better future, liberals, who are more discomfited by inequality, report increasing unhappiness as inequality rises. Conservatives, for their part, self-report no decline in happiness in the midst of increasing inequality.

This is All Quite Interesting . . . But, Is There Any Biology Behind These Differences?? 

In the first part of the book, Sapolsky details the workings of the insula cortex, a subpart of the amygdala. An important player in the brain’s “fight or flight” response mechanism, the insula detects threats and alerts the rest of the body. As an example, the insula (in most of us) activates when we see a cockroach. It also activates when someone from a rival tribe – a “Them,” not an “Us” – is detected in our field of vision or thought.

“Social conservatives,” Sapolsky writes, “tend toward lower thresholds for disgust than liberals.” Images depicting gay marriage and abortion, for example, activate the insulas of conservatives. But show images depicting petulant plutocrats and arrant aristocrats to liberals, and their insula-triggered disgust factor goes off the chart. “Political orientation about social issues,” Sapolsky comments, “reflects sensitivity to visceral disgust and strategies for coping with such disgust.” Biologically, liberals and conservatives (more so) rely upon disgust as a metric for determining moral behavior. Disgust, however, as Sapolsky warns, shifts generationally.

Sapolsky finishes up this section on political orientations and biology with a pithy summary: “If it makes you puke, you must rebuke.”

So, Where Does This Leave Us?

Sapolsky gives hyper-partisans reasons to step back, take a deep breath, and re-learn one of the main lessons that evolution teaches: diversity makes us stronger and helps us survive. Behavioral differences – including those displayed in political preferences – harken back at least to some biological wiring.

Nobody wants to have to sit at the Thanksgiving table while the prototypical crazy uncle goes on a political rant. Have Sapolsky’s Behave at the ready and ask that he give it a look-over before he comes back to the next family dinner.


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Tim/T. Carlos Anderson – I’m a Protestant minister and Director of Community Development for Austin City Lutherans (ACL), an organization of fourteen ELCA (Evangelical Lutheran Church in America) congregations in Austin. I’m also the author of There is a Balm in Huntsville: A True Story of Tragedy and Restoration from the Heart of the Texas Prison System (Walnut Street Books, April 2019).

 

Check out my new author website: http://www.tcarlosanderson.com.

Sapolsky’s Behave, Part 1

This is the first of two posts reviewing Robert Sapolsky’s Behave – the second post is linked here.

Why Zebras Don’t Get Ulcers is one of my all-time favorite book titles – to boot, the book rocks. Robert Sapolsky, the esteemed American neuroscientist, writes that acute stress is a life-saver: a zebra sees a lion and runs like the wind. We humans are equipped with the same fight-or-flight response mechanism, and though we can’t run like zebras, we benefit similarly. Zebras and other animals have less brain capacity than we do, consequently they’re no good at worrying. We are capable of prolonged worrying which elevates our stress levels to chronic status, which in turn gives us ulcers, hypertension, and other life-threatening maladies. Whereas acute or momentary stress can be a life-saver, chronic stress is a slow killer.

The long-time Stanford professor originally published his book in 1994. It soon became a classic and I read its third edition in the summer of 2006, recommended from the book list of a leadership class I was taking. In the years that have since passed, I’ve referenced the book multiple times. I opine that there’s a connection between the increasing rates of pet ownership and social anxiety in the US. Most dog breeds are good with acute stress – it’s their job to bark when a stranger comes to the door – but, like zebras, they’re no good at achieving chronic stress levels. What a remedy for us to come home after a long day to a tail-wagger who’s happy to see us and whose beating heart warms and calms our own.
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In 2017,  Sapolsky published Behave: The Biology of Humans at our Best and Worst. This big book of 675 pages (not including notes) touches on some of the same territory as Zebras, but Sapolsky enlarges his scope to include discussions on inequality and egalitarianism, the effects of poverty on health, the dichotomies of “Us versus Them,” the development of empathy and compassion within the determining powers of genetic code and environment, and – it doesn’t get much better than this – the biology of political orientations and loyalties.

Let’s take a look at each of these themes. The “last best” theme will be covered in the second post in this review.

Stratified, or non-egalitarian, societies are better suited at conquering and survival when times get tough. This helps explain their ubiquity in the history of civilization. Because of their stratification, mortality is sequestered to the lower classes. Essentially, the unequal distribution of wealth and access to resources translates to the unequal distribution of death.

Modern democracies – and the advances associated with industrialization – have balanced things out (somewhat) concerning life expectancy rates between the higher and lower classes, but rampant inequalities still threaten various markers of 21st century life in many societies: weakening social capital, exacerbating poor health, increasing crime and violence. Sapolsky points out, most tellingly, that “inequality means more secession of the wealthy from contributing to the pubic good.” Inequality, without the mitigating effects of egalitarianism, is self-perpetuating.

Which brings us to the dichotomization of Us versus Them. Evolution has equipped us with the life-saving ability to differentiate between friend and foe, and we all derive much happiness and joy from being part of “Us” groups – whether golf buddies, sorority sisters, or mates in a military service platoon.

But when not held in proper check, this same ability can produce, as Sapolsky says, “oceans of pain” – with white supremacy groups at the top of the “For example” list.

Sapolsky advises his readers to distrust essentialism – the idea, like stereotyping, that people groups are always defined by a fixed set of characteristics and traits. He warns that what we think to be rationality is often just rationalization. Because of our “automatic tendency to favor in-groups over out-groups,” our seemingly rational explanations about the behaviors of others are sometimes better described as evidences of tribalism.

The recent rise of authoritarianism – Trump, Duterte in the Philippines, Bolsonaro in Brazil, Morales in Guatemala, along with the long arc of rule by Trump’s buddy Putin in Russia – is a troubling trend for many of us. Sapolsky shows that this rise benefits from the deep roots that conformity and obedience have in the human family. It fits hand in glove with another tendency or conditioned response in humans: our natural like of hierarchies. Sapolsky: “Hierarchies establish a status quo by ritualizing inequalities.” (Hierarchies, from ant colonies to corporate employee structures, are capable of unparalleled performance and production. My purpose here, as is Sapolsky’s in Behave, is to focus on inequality.)

Unlike the chimpanzees and baboons that Sapolsky has studied for much of his life, we humans in democratic societies actually choose our (political) leaders. He sites studies showing that we elect leaders with more masculine traits – high forehead, prominent jaw lines – during times of war and younger, more feminine faces during times of peace. Another study he sites had children looking at pictured pairs of faces where they were asked to choose their preference between the two for a hypothetical boat trip. The paired photos were actually competing candidates from obscure political races, and the children were asked which one would be most competent as captain for the boat trip. Their skippers, 71 percent of the time, were the actual winners of the elections.

We have entrenched biases and preferences. We have the option today (exercised by many) to consume the media output most aligned with our positions . . . and, like we often see partisans do on TV, we end up yelling at and past each other. Rationality or rationalizing? Sapolsky, again, says the latter: “Our conscious cognitions play catch-up to make our decisions seem careful and wise.”

If we’re only watching Rachel Maddow or only Sean Hannity – we’re not doing much more than stoking our own fire. Rational deliberation comes not from “doubling down” but from consideration of different points of view.

As promised, we’ll go deeper with Sapolsky into the biology of our political loyalties and preferences in the next post. Stay tuned!


balm.cover.2Tim/T. Carlos Anderson – I’m a Protestant minister and Director of Community Development for Austin City Lutherans (ACL), an organization of fourteen ELCA (Evangelical Lutheran Church in America) congregations in Austin. I’m also the author of There is a Balm in Huntsville: A True Story of Tragedy and Restoration from the Heart of the Texas Prison System (Walnut Street Books, April 2019).

 

Check out my new author website: http://www.tcarlosanderson.com.

 

 

 

 

Turning the Page to 2019

As this blog enters its sixth year, it’s time for a new look and a new name. As always, I’ll promote egalitarianism as a way to build up common good in the midst of increasing inequalities. A new addition to this blog will be a heightened emphasis on restorative justice based on the work I’ve done the past two years to write There is a Balm in Huntsville.

Restorative justice is defined as “repairing the harm done by crime beyond what happens in the courtroom” and also as “the opportunity for a crime victim to find hope and resolution.” Restorative justice practices – whether middle school students circling their chairs in a resolution conference, prisoners in a ministry program listening to crime victims tell their stories, or victim-offender mediation – share this important factor: the consequential act of face-to-face encounters between adversaries.

As the current age of hyper-partisanship shows no signs of restraining itself, restorative practices offer a way forward from the morass. Stay tuned.

Five years has produced more than twenty blog posts on books that I’ve read and reviewed. Consequently, I’ve added a new header page to the blog: “The T. Carlos Book Review List.” Check it out. Jane Mayer’s Dark Money, Thomas Piketty’s Capital, and Robert Gordon’s The Rise and Fall of American Growth are but a few of the important books reviewed according to the themes of egalitarianism and inequality.

Additionally, this blog is now linked to my new author website, www.tcarlosanderson.com, in anticipation of Balm’s release date of April 1, 2019. Check it out for updates, reviews, and events related to my new book which weaves a double narrative: the long-term reformation of a drunk-driving teenager who killed two people; and, the development of the Texas criminal justice system’s victim-offender dialogue program, the first of its kind in the nation.

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Expect new posts – or updated ones – at least once a month. Special thanks to my friends Brittany and Sae Cho who took the headshots utilized on my new website. They also took the pic featured above. I do have something to say (the microphone) based upon the social justice convictions of the Christian tradition (the cross) with the goal of positively impacting our shared life.

I appreciate your interest and your support. Please help spread the word as you are able: Egalitarianism – opportunity and access for rich and poor alike, blind to the advantages typically derived from social status, pedigree, and wealth – is a great biblical and American virtue worth fighting for. As long as we continue to effectively advocate for it, we’ll help minimize rampant inequalities and their ugly side-effects in these days and in those that follow.


Tim/T. Carlos Anderson – I’m a Protestant minister and Director of Community Development for Austin City Lutherans (ACL), an organization of fifteen ELCA (Evangelical Lutheran Church in America) congregations in Austin. I’m also the author of Just a Little Bit More: The Culture of Excess and the Fate of the Common Good (Blue Ocotillo/ACTA, 2014) and There is a Balm in Huntsville: A True Story of Tragedy and Restoration from the Heart of the Texas Prison System (Walnut Street Books, April 2019).