I think a lot about current events, racial reconciliation, music, theology, and technology. I make a living by writing and helping people manage software. I make a life with my wife, family, friends, and occasional musical instruments in Atlanta.
Bobo not coming back he mississippi mud covered he in money and he broke
Bobo not coming back we not gonna play no more cards we not dancing cool, fire hydrant fresh we not gonna race to the store for more candy
Bobo not coming back y’all not gonna put nobody in jail? y’all got to shoot up his sign like that? y’all gonna let sleeping lies dog? y’all call this great again?
Bobo not coming back i’ma tell the truth and shame the devil i’ma carry Bobo inside me i’ma eat candy on the corner and remember him i’ma ride my bike and feel the wind on my face i’ma get to know free
“We educate individuals and the wider ethos about the overdue sleep and rest debt that Black and Indigenous people have been forced to accumulate.”
I also think of Toni Morrison’s quote:
“The function, the very serious function of racism is distraction. It keeps you from doing your work. It keeps you explaining, over and over again, your reason for being. Somebody says you have no language and you spend twenty years proving that you do. Somebody says your head isn’t shaped properly so you have scientists working on the fact that it is. Somebody says you have no art, so you dredge that up. Somebody says you have no kingdoms, so you dredge that up. None of this is necessary. There will always be one more thing.”
The lines echoed in my mind when I first heard them. Forced to accumulate. We have been abused and brutalized, generation after generation. The ones of us who were fortunate enough to be born into slightly better days have been gaslighted. There was never a problem. Comply and you won’t get hurt. Keep your eyes down. What did you say to me, boy? You made me do this.
We have had our rest, our peace of mind taken from us. And then we were told that it was our fault.
Well, I’m tired of being tired. I’ll work as hard as I am able that day, each day, at my job. I will support justice fighters. I will seek truth in conversations, the way that I know how. I will build what bridges I can and walk away when I must.
Then I will rest. I will enjoy what there is to be grateful for. And I will not apologize or be ashamed.
We lovingly say to our elder heroes when they die, “Take your rest.” Well, I say it as a revolutionary call as loud as “Black Lives Matter”.
“Take Your Rest!”
Take it! You have earned it by reaching the end of this day. You have earned the right to rest by being a human being. And we will fight until we have a society that recognizes the humanity of all of us enough to allow us that healthy, human cycle of unblocked work and uninterrupted rest.
I will not wait to die to take my rest. I’m going to listen to the Black women that have held this thing together for us and for the rest of y’all. That delightfully unbothered woman smoking a cigarette in front of a brutal racist cop. That face that is short on wrinkles and stress. That’s not just confidence or melanin. That’s a concerted and deliberate decision. That’s understanding how to carry only a weight that belongs to you, not one put on your back by someone else. That’s a damn way of life.
And I know it is far, far from easy. Don’t misread me. The work required and too often the suffering required to learn that is not a just thing, not something to be celebrated or perversely admired. But from having had more on my plate than I could possibly handle for decades, I understand something about what it is to do what you can, and surrender the rest to God. And in that surrender lies our rest.
The Spirit of the Lord is on me, because he has anointed me to proclaim good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim freedom for the prisoners and recovery of sight for the blind, to set the oppressed free, to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.
This pitting Critical Race Theory against the Gospel is just tiring to me. I do not specifically subscribe to CRT as a coherent belief system, but some of the base ideas underpinning it around how power is constructed and used have helped me name issues in and make sense of this world. At the same time, the Gospel gives me hope in a universal love that is powerful enough to overcome what seems to be impossible odds.
The Jesus I see in the Gospels is a critical Jesus. He is critical of the order of the day, how the poor are disregarded and the sick uncared for, how people are incarcerated and not rehabilitated, how people groan under the yoke of oppression. I doubt Jesus would subscribe to CRT either, but don’t let binary thinking cause you to believe he would be simply against it. He’d probably have some parable that seemed to have nothing to do with it as a response, but would completely answer the question for those who had ears to hear.
Speaking of which, when you sit with the parables of Jesus without a dualistic mind, you come out with neither the Supply-Side Jesus preferred by American Evangelicalism nor a Social Justice Jesus that liberal American Christians like to imagine. Read The Parable of the Wedding Banquet (Matthew 22:1-14). Why would people not come to a great banquet put on by the king? Why would they abuse and harm his messengers? Why would the king say “screw it, invite whoever you find on the street”? And why would the guest at the end get thrown out for not being dressed for the wedding?
Supply-Side Jesus followers see “many are invited, but few are chosen” and think the sinners and critical race theorists are getting thrown into the outer darkness. Social Justice Jesus followers see a banquet full of people gathered from the highways and byways, good and bad, and think that the smiting and exclusion of the powerful is just. Neither have answers for why the “bad” people were let in in the first place though, though I’m sure there’s disagreement about who the bad people were. While I do think Jesus was particularly concerned about the vulnerable, as evidenced by many of the passages where he was speaking plainly, that is not the entire extent of the scope of the Kingdom of God.
I think Jesus is inviting us to contemplate something more mysterious. I’m not even particularly deeply studied, so I won’t posit what that is. But I do think that whatever Jesus is trying to tell us, it’s not as simple as “The Gospel negates the need to be concerned about the world or to act for justice in the world.” This is something that is perfectly well understood by people who say this when it seems that “Christian values” are under threat around LGBTQ+ issues or abortion. It’s less well understood by them when the eye of the society is on the vulnerable, then “God is in control” and we shouldn’t do anything about it as a society.
If it’s not directly tied to the two great commandments (love the Lord with all your heart, soul, mind and strength, and love your neighbor as yourself), I tend to be suspicious of any “obvious” Gospel answers anywhere on the political continuum.
Its unremarkability should be the portion of most concern.
My wife had an unexpected surgery in April. She woke up feeling fine one Wednesday morning, but by late morning was experiencing severe abdominal pain, and by the afternoon was in the ER. It turns out she had a benign tumor that we already knew about, but that had died and in the process put her into sepsis. We were blessed with an excellent surgeon, and by Friday, the problem was removed. She made it home the following Tuesday and recovered as well and quickly as one could expect.
We live in the state of Georgia in the United States of America. Georgia, like most Southern states, is pretty weak on consumer or labor protection. We have great insurance by American standards through United Healthcare (UHC) that I pay for through a small business group plan. (I’ve been in the “open” “healthcare” “market” for 18 years, so I saw the positive changes ACA brought without being insulated by my employer’s choices.) For just around $12,000-$14000 a year (and climbing annually), we get to pay negotiated rates for health care and get to have very expensive things covered.
That’s good news for us, because the base hospital bill was about $125,000. That didn’t include the ER visit, the follow-up ER visit for pleurisy, the separate charges for the surgeon’s services, pathology, or the lab work. Each of those showed up as separate claims on separate bills. In the classic American fashion, we just ignored the first bills and waited for the insurance company to work everything out.
Eventually, we got some bills that had numbers that looked right. A few hundred here, a couple thousand there. By then, the businesses who wished to be paid were becoming impatient and were sending “Past Due” and “Final Notice” alerts. We paid some of them and were about to pay another one tonight when I said to myself, “wait a minute”.
I noticed that one final notice bill in particular seemed off, the one for the original ER visit that got her admitted. It was full price, yet I know that something should have been covered. I went to UHC’s web site and tracked down the claim. Sure enough, United had never paid. I decided to get on the phone and give the billing department a piece of my mind.
When I called, they connected me with a “billing advocate”, who appeared to be someone who worked to explain the billing labyrinth of our particular system to the consumer. What I found out made me more convinced that we’re being ripped off at a trillion dollar scale by a system that has all the bureaucracy, twists, and turns that Republicans promise you government will provide, while at the same time providing none of the efficiencies that private businesses should have.
I took the 2 inch high stack of bills and picked the ones I needed the most guidance on. The billing advocate helpfully explained to me each claim I had questions about. I learned that there were four distinct patterns of payment happening:
You visit an in-network provider. If you’ve met your deductible, then just about everything is covered, though you may be responsible for the euphemistically-named “coinsurance” up to your out-of-pocket maximum. These bills work the way that insurance promises. They negotiate a steep discount to the rack rate, they send a check for part of it straight to the provider, you get a bill for whatever’s left, you pay it.
You visit an out-of-network provider, like a physical therapist or specialist you like that doesn’t take your insurance. The insurance company recommends an amount they think the service is worth and counts that toward your out-of-network deductible, tallied separately from your in-network one. In states with consumer protection, the provider must charge this amount to you. In states without it, providers can do what’s called “balance billing” and charge the rack rate. If you’ve met your deductible, some really nice plans pay about 70% above that with no out-of-pocket maxium. That deductible for me is $10,000, but for others could be as high as $45,000.
You visit an in-network provider, but the insurance company needs documentation to prove the claim. The provider is supposed to hold the bill until the case is closed and the documentation they are contractually obligated to provide is sent, but they may choose to bill you anyway. If you don’t pay, it can get sent to collections and mar your credit score.
You visit an in-network provider, and the insurance company pays, but the A/R and A/P departments don’t talk to each other properly. The provider bills you for the full amount. Just as in scenario #3, your choices are pay or get your credit damaged.
Most of the bills I received were scenario #1. We paid small or medium balances, and sometimes, after we met our deductible, everything was covered.
One bill we paid, for pathology, was scenario #2. Here’s the catch, though: patients don’t choose their pathologist. The surgeon does. And if you’ve ever asked a surgeon, you’ve found that are focused on how to do their job and heal people and have no idea how any of the billing processes work. The choice of internal medical providers at a hospital is affected by our patchwork insurance coverage system, so it’s tantamount to trying to pick a business based on who’s related to your spouse’s cousin without asking your spouse or your spouse’s cousin. If you get it wrong, you don’t get the discount. So we ended up paying over $1,400 because the pathologist that happened to receive my wife’s specimens wasn’t contracted with UHC.
The bill I was suspicious about was scenario #3. They did not provide the documents to the insurer, and they were not supposed to bill us, but they did anyway. Like any reasonably fiscally sound household, nothing puts us on notice like a Final Notice. I was prepared to pay the entire amount, over $1,200, just to get them off of my backs. It turns out we don’t owe them a penny, at least not yet.
The bill was for the surgeons was scenario #4. The surgeons were in-network, and that bill was a little over $9,000 before discounts and insurance payments. There was a mixup with the documentation, and so there was a delay in payment. UHC eventually settled with them for a little over $5,000, which was intended to cover the entire amount owed for that particular bill. Despite this, the physicians group charged us a little over $2,000, with about 15% off for paying all at once. So now we have to call them and figure out how to get our money back.
There are people who have lost their credit, their homes, or been driven to self-destruction over health care in our country. So why does this particular story matter, where a person with the means to absorb a couple of four-figure shocks to their bottom line is deeply inconvenienced, but not severely damaged?
It matters because my story is completely unremarkable. I’m just a regular, middle-class person earning a decent income in technology, and I pay five figures a year after taxes just to keep my health insurance discount plan. When a crisis like this happens, the resulting bill resolution is harder than doing my taxes, and I have two LLCs to report for. We are at the mercy of organizations that have no financial incentive to help us or to fix the arms race of service pricing that leads to a six-day hospital visit costing over $100,000.
What I didn’t talk about is how we wait in the ER with people we love, not for a medical provider with reassurance that your loved one will be healed, but for a billing coordinator who tries to see if they can get some money out of you that day, while your loved one is still writhing in pain, before they know if they can help. I didn’t talk about the food that was not only poor tasting and built off of what seemed to be a 1940s food pyramid, but also the opposite of what someone needs to heal. Fried pork chops for back surgery patients with a history of high blood pressure, like my father. Creamy dairy-based soups and low-quality ice cream for abdominal surgery patients, like my wife. I also didn’t talk about how I send my wife into hospitals in my Princeton University paraphernalia so that they will look twice and not dismiss her in her Blackness or in her womanhood, or how I’m sure to call all the drugs by their technical names when I’m talking with the doctors. These tricks are derided by people who think it’s about trying to achieve respectability. No, it’s about reminding medical professionals that we are people and not stereotypes, that we feel pain to the same degree as them, that we matter. It’s about survival.
None of this has to do with the thousands upon thousands of dedicated nurses, doctors, medical professionals, and support staff that genuinely do their best to do no harm and to help where they can. They did not set up the Byzantine billing systems or the complex rate tables. They did not pass the policies that leave your quality of care up to your ability to find a generous company or to create a company with multiple employees. They are not the ones that watch the rest of the industrialized world produce better health outcomes and longer lifespans on half of the budget we spend, even with public and private systems existing in tandem, and don’t lift a finger or a Congressional bill to do anything about it.
It’s beyond the scope of this post to unpack the reasons why we in the US are so satisfied with a system that produces objectively worse outcomes in many areas at a much higher cost. But with the generosity of employers wearing thin and laws in many states providing less and less protection to workers and patients, we’ve got to do something about this. Whatever your politics are, if you are of ordinary means and satisfied with the costs and processes of our health care system as it is, I can assure you it’s because you’ve never properly exercised it.
My official theological position on most things sexual in the church is “uncertain”. I’ve not read enough or sat with the base text enough to assert a strong stance on non-marital sex of any kind or spiritual covenants not involving one man and one woman. As such, I don’t really get into whether I think a particular behavior between two or more consenting people is a sin. At some future date I might make those determinations, but it is very low on my list of priorities. What is high on my list of priorities is affirming real love when I see it and supporting the flourishing of the people around me. I’m sure if I miss a judgment, God will have it covered, and if I’ve failed to call something out that I should have, I’m prepared for God to deal with me.
I was raised in the modern Black Baptist church, which wasn’t “purity ring” level, but did frown on pre-marital sex and was pretty hush-hush about LGBTQ+. I attended a church for many years that took a modern Evangelical stance, though to their credit, they didn’t seem quite as obsessive about it in the way I’ve seen some churches be. (I am of course describing my experience as a cis-, straight man there, so apply appropriate grains of salt.)
The problem many churches are facing today is how they live purity culture out. Adolescents with raging hormones are not taught how to cope with them and that their feelings are healthy and natural, but that it is their flesh overcoming their spirit. Only through asceticism and staunch devotional work might they be able to turn the tide and once again live a life pleasing to Jesus. Men who fail to meet this standard are reprimanded and shepherded, but women who fail to meet this standard are more often publicly shamed, divested of responsibility, and humiliated.
In either case, the demands of this asceticism drive many from the church. Some reject conservative teaching, while others entirely reject a faith that they associate with shame, self-hatred, and an endless pressure to perform. For those who stay, there’s a pressure to “marry rather than burn with passion,” as Paul said. Two people who are raised thinking sex is bad (not all conservative churches teach this, but most teach it badly) get together and unsurprisingly have bad sex. Each may turn to less healthy outlets, and in a patriarchal context where women’s value is in pleasing and serving men, the women feel more shame about and disconnection from their physical bodies.
Brittney Cooper, in an excerpt from her book Eloquent Rage, tackles this subject in “Grown Woman Theology“, exploring Christian sexuality through conversation with her grandmother. Her grandmother’s theology seems to indicate a non-dual holding of the life of the body and life of the spirit that was known in her time but that we have lost as we have bought in to generation after generation of facades rather than absorbing a whole story. I’m not certain how much sex we “should” be having and with whom prior to marriage. But I can say:
I am suspicious of any teaching that does not allow women the full range of human responsibilities. Men and women are different, but if a woman has the capacity to lead a company, she has the capacity to lead a church. Don’t pick this apart and assume I’m saying that no spiritual gifting is required. What I’m saying is that there is no spiritual gifting that is only given to men because they are men. Whatever our differences are, they do not extend to women having less than a full measure of the image of God.
We have to teach both in and outside of church an integrative model of sexuality that helps people understand and accept their desires as healthy. We also need to provide better tooling so that people can assess what they’re ready for and make wise decisions for themselves, always with appropriate physical and psychological safety precautions. There might be an 18 year old who is ready to get out there, and a 23 year old who still needs more time.
As I’ve learned from my women friends in various conversations, we will have to address and dismantle the patriarchal and social constructs that produce much of the needless shame and confusion. As an example: imagine a man having 4 encounters with 4 women in a month. No tricks, lies, or strings attached, just fun. Now, imagine a woman having 4 encounters with 4 men in a month, same rules. You may think both are permissible or neither is permissible, but any difference between those in your mind in terms of how you view the man versus the woman is the societal construct that we need to address. And of course if you think one is permissible and the other isn’t, you’ve got some substantial work to do.
For churches that continue on a conservative path, they will need to take a hard look at where they have failed to serve women, support women, or allow them to develop into the fullness of their gifts, either by stifling their leadership potential and gift expression or by placing them under pressure to meet an uneven standard that men are not held to.
For men in general, we are also going to have to evaluate how we view women’s existence and relevance to us. Are they autonomous and equal beings, with their own desires, visions, and plans just like our male friends? Or are they only defined in terms of our needs, including but not limited to sexual ones?
When I originally posted this to social media, a friend commented:
“Freedom for women requires men give up [the idea of] woman as a fulfillment of man’s need.”
Just as women have to shake free of these ideas of their value being in their wifely and motherly work, men will have to shake free of some ideas as well. If we are not here to gain possession of a “good woman” and provide for a family, what are we as cishet men in the church doing? How can single men live a healthy existence in the church where they are at peace and not always on the prowl or being matched by concerned couples? And how do men in relationships navigate those with respect for their partner and allowance for their partner to bring their full self to the relationship rather than a truncated, traditionalized version? This requires that men engage in our own process of seeking an identity that is not dependent on control or dominance of women or even other men, but stands alone in one’s vocational purpose and leaves room for their partners to walk in theirs.
“Do you want to vote for the person that killed your mom, or do you want to vote for the person that beat your dad within an inch of his life?
Go on, choose. If you’re having trouble deciding, then you have a problem.”
Mathematically, I’m a binary choice voter. Essentially, all votes that will produce electors this election will fall into one of two buckets. Setting aside the unnecessary complexity of the electors for a moment, the bucket that has more votes in it will win. “More votes” is based on a difference in votes between the buckets. Removing a vote from one bucket increases the difference, even if I cast the vote on the ground rather than placing it in the other bucket, or place it into a third bucket.
I very much want the incumbent President to be unseated, so I’ve been lobbying pretty hard for a Presidential candidate I’m not particularly enthusiastic about and a Vice-Presidential candidate that I don’t know much about other than the historic nature of her appointment. However, I read a tweet thread from Kaitlyn Greenidge (@surlybassey on Twitter) that changed my mind about how I’ve been approaching discussions on this. In the thread, rather than rolling her eyes at the browbeating binary choice voters out there or listing Biden and Harris’s foibles, she asks some questions.
“Am I listening to what the other person is saying?”
“Am I really sitting with the inequities / contradictions / sadness / grief / rage / impatience that they are expressing?”
“Am I able to recognize that the offices of the president and vice president of the US have perpetuated real violence in this country and abroad, that is even more hurtful and insidious because we never discuss it as a nation?”
“Am I willing to devote the same level of scrutiny I did to Mueller’s every breath and Trump’s every spelling mistake to the policies coming out of the next admin around policing, education, debt relief, drug policy and mass incarceration?”
Her questions shook me in a way a hundred “crimes” and failures of candidates could not. I realized that my response is mathematically accurate but completely lacking in empathy. I’m asking people to choose a new roommate, with the choices being the person that killed their mother and the one that maimed their father. Worse, I’m annoyed with them for agonizing over the choice and taking so long to make it.
To my progressive friends, to my trans friends, my Native friends, to others who have seen the system fail, willfully neglect, or actively harm them, and who have reached a point where they can no longer hold their noses, I apologize. In my zeal to end the specificity of the nightmare of the current regime, I have not sat with the contradictions, sadness, grief, rage, or impatience you have expressed. As a cis-, straight, tall, able-bodied, probably neurotypical, middle-class Black man who is a US citizen, I have my Blackness to deal with in our nation, which is not a small thing. But most of the other axes of power and privilege broke my way. I have not sat with your pain and with my contradictions because I have not been substantially or obviously harmed by their policies. This is the exact thing that we challenge white people to get right in matters of race — to start with empathy rather than cold reason, to weep with those who weep rather than tell them to dry their eyes because things are not so bad. I missed the mark.
I continue to believe that actively voting for Biden/Harris will create a larger platform from which to move progressive values forward, even if neither of them prove to be particularly progressively inclined. Women wiser and more progressive than me share this belief, such as Angela Davis, without defending the problematic choices these candidates have made in the past. We are fighting a game of inches, and the inches matter. As my friend Christina Springer says, rather than focusing on the highest levels, we should “look down, lift up”. We have local and state level candidates who express an inclination toward the radically humane and progressive values many of us are seeking. We can focus on those candidates, who will have more impact on our daily lives anyway, while at the same time working with the pieces available to create a better platform.
But if you just can’t do it anymore, I understand. I just ask that you don’t descend into apathetic despair or nihilistic attacks on the whole process. Find someone and something local to believe in and work on. If it’s not a political campaign, it can be a community organization, or a local school. The world is broken and corrupted in many ways, but at the one on one level, or the 100 person level, or 1000 person level, there is much good that can still be done. If we are all working on something we can genuinely feel good about, things will get better, even if the candidates at the highest levels are problematic on all sides.
It’s still stinky water vs. sulfuric acid to me. But for someone else, maybe all the choices burn and destroy, and I need to respect that truth.
“Woe to those who call evil good, and good evil; Who put darkness for light, and light for darkness; Who put bitter for sweet, and sweet for bitter!”
Right now, people of faith are wrestling with a simple question. Is God happy with our institutions and personal practices around human equality and justice or not?
I think the hold the church has taken of Critical Race Theory and Marxism as cudgels with which to beat such a simple idea is the most disheartening thing I’ve seen in a while coming from that institution, and it might be why I’ve been a little sterner with the church than usual lately.
A basic understanding of American history shows that every time over the last century people have advocated for greater inclusion and integration, it’s been derided as Marxism, socialism, communism. Go ahead, look up who has historically leveled the accusations at civil rights rallies and LGBT+ protests and women’s suffrage events and see if you want to be counted among that number. Critical Race Theory is just a handy way to dismiss justice as an idea sprouted from the eggheads of academic elites with a desire to destroy the church. There’s an increasingly popular notion that academic knowledge is useless, and it’s faith that tells us the real practical truth. As important as faith is, that’s not how faith works.
Faith is inherently impractical. It’s “the substance of things hoped for, the evidence of things not seen.” Faith grounds us and connects us with the incomprehensible infinite. But faith is not a golden umbilical cord going from our navel to the heavens that we are meant to gaze at raptly for all our days instead of looking around us. Faith is meant to give us eyes to look at a broken, fallen world and see what is possible, to see the spark of the Divine in the profane, and clear away that which obscures it. Faith is meant to help us see our neighbor as God sees them. When you look through those lenses, justice is an inevitable byproduct.
If you would love to see Black people, or LGBTQ+ people, or women treated better, but you just can’t get with all this Marxist, socialist claptrap, ask yourself this. Why does the idea of radical love for your neighbor feel evil to you? Why do you follow a God-man who walked primarily with the outsiders and who loved radically and with reckless disregard for appearances, but who was despised by the institutions of power, and yet find your comfort and peace in the descendants of those same institutions of power that protect you and destroy others? How do you profess to believe in the exceptional power of the American engine, and never bother to look under its wheels to see who is being ground up and slowing its progress?
Why is it easy to believe that the Founding Fathers’ positive values held from nearly 250 years ago, unshaken in the face of laws and customs that made a mockery of them, and yet the values of inequality and hatred that we just reluctantly shed over the past 50 dissipated immediately?
Authoritarian socialism, which is only one kind, but one we have great familiarity with through our years with the Soviet Union, is a response to extreme, unfettered inequality. Like a pendulum swing, the backlash is only as extreme as the initial state. The remedy is not to gaze harder at your golden umbilicus or tug it in hopes that a few stray blessings trickle down to the people around you. The remedy is to create a culture of compassion for our neighbors and to cultivate a distaste for the injustice and evil required to give us so much prosperity and comfort.
These are big sweeping proclamations that are hard to act on, so what do we do? Pick a thing that increases justice in the world and that moves you, and work on that. And I don’t mean “thing that makes people more Christian” so we get justice by osmosis. I mean daily bread level justice. Volunteering or contributing to food banks. Getting involved with local housing policy. Helping one particular neighbor (with their consent and interest).
And for us Christians in particular, here’s the catch. Do it for nothing. You can and should always be honest about your “why” if it comes up. But this isn’t about you having a chance to add a point to your “Share the Gospel” scoreboard. This isn’t about making a disciple. This is about giving of yourself to make someone else’s way a bit easier, because God told us to love our neighbor as ourselves second only to loving God Godself.
These small, incremental gifts of ourselves, multiplied by the millions of us that there are, are the way back to the Christians being known as a peculiar people, marked by their radical love, as opposed to a domineering and callous people, full of themselves.
Humans are thinking beings. We need purpose, absolutely. We need something to occupy our days that we feel makes meaning of our lives and the world. That purpose does not necessarily come, though, from just any job. It’s not bound up in the holy sacrament of the W-2 or on the parchment a check is written on.
When humanity was young and lived in small villages, some villagers would hunt, and others would gather food. If you didn’t hunt or gather, maybe you helped take care of children. Maybe you told stories by the fire. Maybe you watched the weather and the movements of animals to predict problems.
Everyone had a purpose, but that’s not the same as having a job. Running the buffalo down’s purpose was to eat, not to define yourself as a person worthy of being fed. “If you don’t work, you don’t eat” is an individualist construct. If you had a broken arm, would you threaten your arm with cutting off its blood supply unless it started healing and got about the business of making itself useful? Would that even be a reasonable ask if you were unwilling to put it in a cast or sling and give it the nutrients it needed to rest and heal?
I’m sure there were lazy people in those early days, too. There were men or women who didn’t want to do much of anything. Their fate was likely loneliness, as people would share food but little else with them. They were not hungry, but they lacked purpose, which is a private hell that needs no external reinforcement.
Today, though, we tell people that work gives us purpose. It’s better to work a difficult job for low pay and currently high risk of illness than to collect a larger check at home. We ask “why should we pay people a living wage to sit at home?”
Let’s accept the premise that $600 a week in unemployment is too much money for a moment, and instead assert that minimum wage is enough for anybody. (Let’s please not do the “minimum wage is meant to motivate you” thing, I don’t really have time to deal with that particular bit of brainwashing in this post.) If minimum wage is enough, then why did Congress pick a number that happens to precisely match the living wage people are asking for? Why did they not just pay minimum wage?
What if everyone was expected to contribute, but everyone wasn’t expected to produce? I have a notion (which may already exist elsewhere) of intrinsic value and systemic value of labor. Intrinsic value of a custodial job is low; it doesn’t really produce any direct money to have someone clean a bathroom. But the systemic value is high; no one wants to imagine the world where janitors don’t exist. On the other hand, intrinsic value for a job like investment banker is high — a lot of money gets produced by what they do. Depending on how they work, though, the systemic value may actually be negative: a rapacious bank that’s buying companies and putting people out of work to maximize profit could be taking more value out of the system than it is converting to cash.
We recognize intrinsic value but not systemic value. This is why jobs like custodian, customer support representative, and even teacher are low paying. We let someone, usually the business owner who put up the capital and took the initial risk, pocket the intrinsic value and don’t include systemic value in our calculus at all. Then we finger-wag at people for not finding sufficient dignity in work that we do not treat as dignified or important.
I’m less interested in policing how people spend 600 a week and whether they get it and more interested in understanding what we can do to mitigate the distortions produced by people amassing measurable percentages of our GDP as personal wealth, and by allowing companies that produce that kind of wealth to accrete it entirely to the owners of capital in perpetuity and not distribute it among the producers of the intrinsic and systemic value that holds it together, with an emphasis on the people making the least.
The famous story of Gravity Payments is a primary example of what recognizing the systemic value of your team looks like. The owner, Dan Price, was a millionaire, but not fabulously wealthy. His employees worked hard, but when he talked with them, they were making difficult choices to survive on the incomes they had, while he was pocketing hundreds of thousands of additional profit as the owner of the capital, the risk taker, and the creator. He decided that the minimum wage at his company would be 70,000. For everyone. He took a massive pay cut, rented out his fancy house on AirBnB, and lived more modestly, even driving an older car for a bit.
So what happened? Employees got healthier because they could move closer to work and had more time to exercise, and they could buy better food. They had more babies because they could afford children. Productivity went up, so the business made more money, and Price was returned after a time to much more comfortable profit levels. His employees even teamed up to buy him a Tesla out of their own funds as a gesture of thanks for the consistent support.
One beautiful epilogue: during the pandemic, he asked everyone what could be done. He cut his pay to zero and his employees agreed on their own to a large pay cut (the more you made, the larger the cut) so that no one need be fired. They got through the worst of it and he reinstated pay with back pay when things got a little better.
I’m a business owner, and I get the kinds of risks you take to do it. You should be compensated. But there’s a point where there are diminishing returns in most businesses. If you’re making 20 million a year for yourself and you have employees making 25,000 or 30,000, distributing 5 million among a thousand people would make no real difference in your life but could make a massive difference in the lives of the thousand. It would have an incredible systemic value, as distributing a few million did for the employees of Gravity Payments.
I’ve worked hard to get to where I am, which is a place of reasonably comfortable income, though more debt than I’d like. I’m working the angles to become wealthy. I participate in the system I live in, and I don’t find that to be hypocritical. A vegetarian who only has meat sources to eat is not a hypocrite for surviving. A vegetarian who finds soil should plant a garden though, if they can find seeds to sow.
Let us find dignity in how we treat each other, the meaning we make through our creativity, in our faith and in our process of living. Let us approach our work with professionalism and the desire to do our best, but not because failure or error will render us less human or less worthy of whatever it is we think people who work deserve beyond the profit of their labor. And let us find a way to decouple survival from each of us having to run the buffalo down ourselves.
Secoreia Turner, a little Black girl, is dead, and I don’t know what to do.
I was going to write some thinkpiece thing, but it’s not important what I think. I also don’t have nearly enough understanding of what the balance is between community activism and warlording is down at that Wendy’s about 20 miles from my house.
I just know a Black girl is dead, and Black people killed her. And I don’t know what to do about that.
I’m not about the myth of Black-on-Black crime. Looking at intraracial crime in a mostly segregated society is meaningless, especially if we refuse to include ongoing pressures from systems or economic injustice.
But I’m upset and enraged at the careless and unfocused show of force in the zone around the Wendy’s. I know people feel hopeless, and they feel like they haven’t had control over anything in their lives. I know having guns and fists, the latter of which were used against my Black friend who was trying to do what independent journalists do and learn more about what was happening at the source, make them feel powerful. I know Rayshard Brooks grabbed that taser and ran (and probably went and got drunk in the first place) because he felt like he was trapped in a corner and there was no way out. I know the killers probably feel the same.
The entire point of Black Lives Matter, though, is to be far more radical than Black supremacy, or even mere Black power. It’s to imagine a world that is not perfect, but greets struggle with mutuality and joy. It’s to imagine a radically inclusive world that creates space for people to find and be their truest selves. It’s imagining a world where the old systems of dominance are not necessary, because we center family, blood or bound, and protect children.
The people in the zone didn’t protect Secoreia Turner. And now we all reap the whirlwind, and blow away another piece of the dream.
Secoreia Turner is dead, and I don’t know what to do.
It’s Father’s Day, and I’m thinking today about men who are fathers but do not have their children with them. Not just the fathers of the women and men we’ve lost to police violence and injustice in this country, but the men who were supposed to be fathers, but. . . something happened.
We’ve almost normalized talking about this for mothers, but not for fathers. But men who have suffered through miscarriages with their partners, I see you.
I am you.
It wasn’t our body that went through it, we think. It’s not the same for us, we try to convince ourselves. Many men are stunted in our expressions of grief and sadness. We are supposed to be strong, and with the exception of a few stoic, “manly” tears that manage to escape the prison of our bodies, there should be no sign of weakness or vulnerability, nothing to be exploited by an adversary.
But we are sad. And we can’t shake the occasional imagery that comes with the years. He would have ridden a tricycle today. She would have done her first recognizable drawing. We would be playing in the yard on a day like today. She would have graduated school today.
We think about who they would have been, and who we would have been because of them.
For my fellow Christian men, I want to express an extra portion of my love and support to you, not because of our shared faith, but because the community that should lighten your burdens often takes no notice of them at all. The community that pledges such vociferous support for the unborn (at least since about 1980) often has precious little to say when the unborn die of natural causes. A culture that expects traditional and sometimes patriarchal roles for men and women treats this loss as a women’s matter. But women who feel that infertility or loss is a curse or a punishment make poor consolers, and men who have no language of lament cannot cry with you.
My same Christian faith though gives me comfort. The souls that were going to experience life as those children are resting comfortably in the bosom of God. They know that you did your best for them. You were a good father to them and did your best to prepare a home for them. It’s not your fault that things did not work out that way. We can’t know the purposes of it all and may never, but it’s not your fault. And if no one has ever said that to you, I’m sorry, but I am telling you now.
It’s not your fault.
So brothers of all colors who have suffered this loss. I see you. I’ve been there.