Why We Care So Much About The “Why”

What makes a good man turn bad?

That’s an excellent question.

This week, a young white man in Georgia murdered eight people. He was raised in a Baptist church and had professed the Christian faith. His victims worked at massage parlors known to offer sexual services and most of them were of Asian descent.

The internet (and my social media feeds) are full of opinions about how and why this man did such a horrendous thing.

His own immediate confession notes his struggles with sexual addiction and a desire to remove the object of his lust. So, early headlines painted him as either some sort of religious fanatic or a racist terrorist.

Follow-up news stories have illuminated more of his story, noting that–though he’d been raised in a Christian home and had professed to faith years ago–he was a troubled young man who had recently been kicked out of his house, his sexual behavior had ruined a romantic relationship, he’d sought Bible-based behavioral therapy (that didn’t work), he was out of work due to the pandemic, and he’d frequented the types of massage parlors where he committed these acts of violence.

Some of my friends were quick to blame his murderous acts on the Southern Baptist Church, purity culture, and the Christian patriarchy. Some blamed it on the anti-Asian rhetoric of Donald Trump and white supremacy. I’ve seen a lot of hot takes that blend all these environmental factors together to paint the picture of a pressure cooker of a young man who was an anti-Asian, anti-woman, sexually-repressed, gun-toting, Bible-thumping ticking time bomb.

And maybe he was.

Over the past few years, I’ve worked hard to curb the compulsion to offer my own “hot take” on every current event. It’s almost impossible to know the truth of a situation at the start. I don’t want to perpetuate lies by opining on things I honestly know nothing about. What good does it do, after all, to throw fuel on a fire of false assumptions and half-truths?

What I do know, about this particular situation, is that what this man did was absolutely reprehensible and unjustifiable, regardless of his reasons.

But we still want to know “why,” don’t we?
And I think I know why the “way” matters so much.

A few days ago, I said this online:

“The news media of the 1980’s convinced Americans that all young black men were drug-dealing baby-daddy hoodlums. Let’s not now be misled into thinking all white men are women-hating racist terrorists. The world is full of decent men who will never make the news.”

What I meant by “decent,” of course, was not “good” in an ontological sense but decent in the sense that they could live peaceably with other men, that they would still do things like help a stranger change a tire or buy a neighbor’s girl scout cookies. You know, the kind of men who, while they might believe that sex work or infidelity or porn use is sinful, they will never shoot up a massage parlor because of it.

“Not all ideological errors,” I continued, “lead to inhumane behavior.” And I meant it.

When I was growing up, there was an implicit expectation that it was possible to establish a temporary truce, of sorts, among people with ideological differences. This is why my two grandfathers, who disagreed vastly on issues of religion and politics, could gather their families together for Thanksgiving and share a meal and watch a football game and enjoy each other’s company. They may have never become best friends. They would never solve the great problems of the world. But they could find pleasure in sharing space for a few hours on a few days a year without killing each other.

I don’t why this isn’t possible anymore. But it doesn’t feel possible anymore.

Without getting too theological here–because I don’t have the authority or the qualifications to do so–my sense is that there are a few fundamental and foundational Christian beliefs about the nature of man that we no longer believe. The most basic among these is the belief in “original sin.”

It’s the paradigm shift from the Puritan “self is sin” to the postmodern “self is Good.” It’s the shift from “Jesus as savior of the world” to “Jesus as moral example and self-help guru.” It’s what I (not jokingly) refer to as the “Glennon Doyle-ing” of American Christianity. And it’s not just progressive Liberal circles. It happens even among Conservative churches.

In my experience, this is evident anywhere we see secondary theological issues becoming primary issues. The most basic, primary message of the Gospel takes a back seat to the secondary issues of sexual ethics, social justice, racial issues, family structures, liturgical traditions, etc. Then, we subconciously bastardize the daily expressions of our faith from disciplines of simple dependence on Christ to public fidelity to secondary gospels.

We begin to believe that we are not the true Believers unless, for example, we’ve done enough for racial justice or enough to protect the traditional family or to fights for victims of abuse. The hyper-Patriarch, then, is just as obsessed with his own performative, acts-based, self-justification as is the progressive social justice warrior that he sees as his ideological enemy. Both have made the system of his faith his savior, and hold it up as the savior of the world.

When terrible things happen, the reason we become so obsessed with knowing the “why,” is because we believe that the error in men lies in his incorrect or unjust systems, not within the man himself.

We believe the lie that a correct system will create a good people.
And we want to preemptively absolve ourselves and our systems of producing the same evil men.

But we cannot.
The Bible doesn’t let us absolve ourselves in this way.

To be sure–
Believing in the sinful nature of man does not excuse our unrighteous or un-godly systems. And it doesn’t stop us from mourning and lamenting the injustice we see around us.

The Bible does–absolutely, beyond a doubt–demand more just, equitable, Godly systems of church, family, and government. And it also demands justice for the oppressed, protection for the vulnerable, love for neighbor, mercy for the broken, and personal piety.

But these good things only happen, naturally, as the fruit of a people who have already been changed from within.

Righteous systems–whether political or ideological–do not make a man clean from within. They can protect us from harming ourselves. They can protect us from harming each other. They can keep peace between us and make us decent. But only the savior of the world can change us.

This is an uncomfortable position to take in response to the evil of the world. It does not satisfy our desire for a scapegoat–whether it’s the Southern Baptist Church or pornography–and it does not offer the empty promise that “this will never happen again.”

And I’m sorry for that.

Sometimes I wish I could just co-sign with my friends and proclaim that “Yes! If we would just rid the world of White Supremacy, wars and murder and racism would all disappear.” But I know better. I think most of us know better.

We want to know the “why” because we want a guarantee that–if we can design a better political or ideological or religious system– this will never happen again. But, instead, by seeking the savior of the world in a better man-made system, we are doomed to repeat this over and over again.

Unless we are changed from within, our only hope in this life is to try and keep from killing each other. And that’s not much hope at all.

What a Third Party Vote Does (and does not) Accomplish

No one likes a third party voter.
I know this is true because I am one.

Historically speaking, I tend to vote Republican but I’ve never voted a straight GOP ticket. My approach to politics is pretty moderate. I lean fiscally conservative, environmentally conscious, socially conservative-libertarian, and prefer local over state or federal control on issues like social services, education and economic development. I am often willing to vote in favor of the more progressive local initiatives that legitimately address local problems. And, for the past three presidential general elections, I’ve voted for a third party presidential candidate.

But voting for a third party candidate, especially in a battleground state like Ohio, is not a very popular decision.

I’ve heard all the arguments–I’m throwing my vote away. I’m helping “the other guy” win. Or, worse, I’m betraying every person who is directly affected by the election results and abusing my privilege by doing it.

I’d argue that none of these arguments respects the true power of an individual vote, nor the distinctive power of a third party vote. But, the Electoral College being what it is, I also know my candidate will never actually receive my vote.

So why do it?

A few quick things to consider, for those of you who have been told that you absolutely must vote within the “GOP vs DEM” paradigm, even if both options make you queasy or betray your conscience–

First, every vote is counted. That means that your vote actually speaks. It speaks about what you want to happen, about the platform you can get behind, and about the people you want in office making decisions for you. And if you vote for something that you don’t actually want because you’re playing some sort of political poker game, you are communicating something false.

Because the election results do not communicate nuance. The men and women in a conference room in Washington D.C. tracking votes here in Cincinnati, Ohio don’t see the reason you cast your vote for This Guy or That Guy. They can’t possibly know that you only voted for Guy 1 because Guy 2 is a jerk, for example. Or that you don’t really stand behind the platform of Guy 2, but it’s not quite as troublesome as that of Guy 1. (They don’t read your Instagram stories *ahem* and most of us will not be interviewed as we exit the polls and be given a chance to explain our vote.)

The only thing those vote-counters know is that you voted for Guy 1. Because your vote–your actual vote–says, plainly, “I vote for Guy 1.”

So, what does a vote for Guy 3 say?
In a political system where nearly every voter has always voted for a Guy 1 or Guy 2, voting third party says, “I vote for Guy 3 instead.”

And, when your third party vote is a vote that actually reflects what you want instead of Guy 1 or Guy 2, it also tells them why they lost you to Guy 3. Every vote represents wishes and desires because every person running for office has a platform. And you have communicated which platform you support—a third option.

What else does a third party vote accomplish?

It strengthens bipartisanship by challenging the “this or that” narrative of our two-party system. It presents other options as valid options and proves we–voters–are interested in exploring them.

It strengthens the backbone of politicians by proving there are voters and constituents who are interested in issues more than major party affiliation and who will support them when they cross the party line or take more moderate positions.

It strengthens the platform of future third party candidates by showing what voters actually support. And, with every new election that has increased third party voting, we move further away from a two-party trap.

And, call me crazy, but it could actually change the Republican and Democratic party today. If a large number of constituents (speaking through the numbers themselves) leave the party and vote for a third party, it calls the party platforms into question in a way that might actually be addressed.

“Oh! I guess voters really do care about environmental issues.”
“Oh, geez. Americans are way more interested in healthcare issues than we thought!”
“Yikes. I guess this immigration thing really struck a chord with people.”

“If we want to get those voters back,” they may think, “maybe we need to listen.”

Crazy, right?
(Heck, crazier things have happened.)

But–here’s the bad news.
What does a third party vote NOT accomplish?

It doesn’t win the presidency.
At least not in 2020.

To vote third party in good conscience in 2020, you have to have a fairly conservative view of the presidential office. You have to trust the design of our federal government, the separation of powers, and depend on the limits of executive power. (You cannot believe that the winner of the Oval Office takes all.)

You have to do your homework and pay close attention to other candidates, offices, and positions of authority. And you have to take your local vote and community engagement seriously.

You have to trust that the American people–not their government–hold the power to make our country great.

You have to have a sense of the sovereignty of the Creator of the universe over all of us and trust that the fate of the world does not rest on us choosing “the right person.”

And, honestly, here is where the real acts of citizenship and civic duty come into play: to vote this way, you have to commit to not only voting your conscience but also acting in accordance with your conscience, regardless of who ends up in the White House.

Decently loving your neighbor every day is worth 1,000 “virtuous,” anonymous votes on Election Day.

At the end of your life, you will be accountable for your actions, your words, your spending, your service, and your choices.

Our votes are important, but they’re not primary. This is how we change the world: by how we live our lives.

I don’t need your approval for my third party vote.
But, if you think it’s your best option, we welcome yours.

The Stories that Changed My Mind

Telling stories changes us.

Five years ago, I started taking occasional freelance journalism work with the local weekly Soapbox, a digital news publication with a heavy focus on community news. Up until then, I had subcontracted a few stories for journalist friends and was often copywriting for work, but I was mostly writing music and dabbling in blogging for myself.

The Soapbox gig was exciting for me because I’d spent the past ten years involved in community-based nonprofit work, first as an AmeriCorps member and then on staff with Keep Cincinnati Beautiful. I had met many amazing Cincinnati residents during that time and had partnered with people in nearly every city neighborhood, as well as regional communities.

I loved the people of Cincinnati and I was excited to help tell their stories.

Of all the stories I’ve written, my favorite by far are the “people stories.” For these stories, I’ve had the pleasure of sitting face to face with the subjects, sometimes sharing a cup of coffee or a glass of beer, around town or in their homes, hearing about not only the awesome work they’re engaged in today but where they’re from and what motivates and inspires them.

I have met some remarkable people and have heard both heartbreaking and encouraging stories. More than once, I’ve found myself choking back tears in our interviews. More than once, I’ve found myself laughing with them and sharing my own similar experience. Nearly every time, I’ve walked away wondering how I could possibly do justice to their experience.

Many of my stories have been focused on amazing people of color or the issues relevant to, specifically, black residents or neighborhoods in our city–including two separate three-month embedded journalism projects in the Walnut Hills neighborhood. From my brief experience with these people, I have learned how much we have in common and, just as often, how very different our lives have been.

I have learned how very much I still have to learn.

I count myself blessed to help tell their stories and twelve of my favorites are shared below.

Walnut Hills diversity and affordable housing issues with resident Kathryne Gardette and business owner Matt Cuff (2020).

– MORTAR co-founder and entrepreneur Derrick Braziel (2015)

– Avondale resident and community leader Fulton Jefferson (2015).

– Walnut Hills’ Frederick Douglass School’s resource coordinator Sheena Dunn and parent leader Jeanna Martin (2016).

Walnut Hills’ Frederick Douglass School with resident Sowonie Kollie (2020).

– Bush Recreation Center Director Vanessa Henderson and Grand Master Martess Miller of Miller’s Karate Studios (2016).

– Covington, Kentucky’s Lincoln Grant Scholar House and resident Teasa Johnson (2017).

– Ollie’s Trolley’s owner Martin Smith (2018).

– Cincinnati Health Department Commissioner Melba Moore (2019).

– Racial reconciliation group facilitator Lynn Watts (2019).

– Walnut Hills residents and urban professionals Allen and Kyla Woods (2020).

– And, my absolute favorite story to write was about three local centenarians, including Mattie Walker (2017). (One of these beautiful people has since passed.)

Enjoy!

When I Changed My Mind About Abortion

Growing up in the 80’s, we were taught that, in mixed company, a reasonable person never discussed religion or politics.

I didn’t listen.
I still don’t.

In high school, I loved to debate religion and politics, especially with teachers and fellow students who already disagreed with me. I was a devout Evangelical church kid with all the answers and one of my deepest commitments was to the pro-life cause.

One of my favorite t-shirts was from the Rock for Life campaign, which read in big bold block letters, “ABORTION IS MURDER.”

Gosh, I loved that shirt.

But I remember being in a big crowd of strangers one day while wearing that shirt and I was suddenly struck by the thought, “What would my shirt communicate to a young woman who had already had an abortion? Would she feel loved? Would she feel safe? Would someone considering an abortion want to come to me for help?”

This was the first time I changed my mind about abortion.
I stopped wearing the shirt. Even if I still believed its message was true, the shirt just didn’t make sense to me anymore.

Then, in 2000, I entered college.

Like most kids entering the world of academic thought, issues of ethics and morality became much more nuanced and complicated. I began to think more philosophically and less moralistically. I learned parts of history that made me question my fundamental beliefs about my country, my church, and myself. I asked more questions than I knew answers.

At some point, I got more interested in the social implications of my faith. My theology became more robust and holistic. My heart was softened toward the poor. I was sensitized to women and children in crisis. My eyes were opened to a world of struggle that I’d never known, didn’t understand, and felt helpless to address.

This is the second time I changed my mind about abortion.
I decided I felt uncomfortable judging a woman’s decision to terminate a pregnancy when I had no idea what circumstances had led her to make that decision.

I wanted to be fair, I wanted to be generous. I wanted to leave space for outlying circumstances that, but by the grace of God, I could one day face myself.

But then I changed my mind again as my conception of “choice” and personal responsibility shifted.

Being raised in Evangelical culture, sex outside marriage had always been posited as an issue of personal morality and purity. Now, as a young adult pursuing long-term relationships, the rules of personal purity seemed much more nebulous because intimacy just seemed so natural. And, far beyond any questions of “should we be having sex,” I realized there was a lot I simply didn’t know or understand about how our bodies are made.

A friend (who had recently become Catholic) turned me on to some books about fertility and family planning. Unlike the fear-based abstinence training of my youth, these books taught that the natural cause and effect relationship between sex and procreation is a gift, not a liability. I also started to believe that sex, though it had other purposes and benefits, was fundamentally tied to fruitfulness and mutual commitment, not identity or personal enjoyment.

Suddenly the practicality of abstinence outside of a lifelong commitment was evident. As a woman, I realized that this was how I could exercise my fundamental right to choose. While sexual activity can be a source of empowerment, so can abstinence. I should not be having sex with anyone with whom I was not willing to also share a child since pregnancy is an eventual, natural consequence of a sexual relationship.

Sidebar: To some of my peers, the thought of abstaining completely because you aren’t ready for a baby might sound absurd because your beliefs about human sexuality are different than mine or because it’s impossible for you to imagine a life without sex.

But, lean in close and I’ll tell you a secret–

A sexless life will not kill you.

And if you just absolutely cannot bear a sexless life, a box of 10 condoms will set you back a whopping $7.99 and, even without insurance, most women can get birth control pills for less than $20 a month. (For women on Medicaid, it’s free.)

Do you want to exercise your right to choose? Choose one fewer latte a week, buy the pill instead, and you can have all the baby-free sex you want.

(It sounds snarky, but it’s true.)

My mind had been changed. All these “pro-choice” vs “pro-life” arguments seemed silly now once you first establish the fact that babies don’t get made by accident. There were a million ways to not get pregnant, including simply not having sex or being smart about how you did it.

And, before you say it, yes, I did ask myself–“But, what about rape? She didn’t have a choice!”

Well, that’s a great point and I’m going to get to that in a moment so please standby.* The story’s not over.

A few years later, my mind changed again.
This time it was about the issues of late-term abortion and “the life of the mother.”

Though abortions after 21 weeks’ gestation make up only about 1% of abortions, they seem to be used as a rally point for both those for and against all elective abortion. Both sides will tell you that late term abortions are horrifying procedures that no one would undergo unless it was absolutely necessary. But no one seems to agree about what constitutes a “necessity.” And that is where the medical term “abortion” gets manipulated and politicized, emotions get crazy, and it gets hard to see the truth.

So, a few years ago, I starting asking questions.

Who are these women who are having abortions after 20 weeks? Who are these babies? What kinds of scenarios lead them to these desperate measures?

This is what I found:

In some places in the US, an elective termination in later-term pregnancies (in a medical facility) requires approval by an ethics committee to determine whether it’s “medically indicated.” The criteria is pretty strict. 

In some places, doctors are allowed to make termination decisions without hospital approval, especially if it is an emergency situation, especially before viability. (Think: the termination of ectopic pregnancies or cases of severe preeclampsia.)

A lot of this depends on the location, as state abortion laws differ across the country. And the viability of the child, in regards to the age of the pregnancy, is always a determining factor. With neonatal medicine improving and the goalpost of viability moving earlier in pregnancy, we are now talking nearer to 21 weeks than 24 or 25 weeks, which is what we would have used to determine viability twenty years ago.  (Basically, science is now on the side of the 21 week fetus.)

I have found almost zero instances in my (admittedly imperfect) research when it would be medically-indicated, for the sake of saving the mother’s life, for an unborn child to be aborted (i.e. terminated) after viability, rather than delivered through emergency induction or c-section. Earlier in pregnancy, a D&C or D&E procedure may be considered more safe. 

I have found many, many instances like these when second- or third-term unborn children are aborted because they either have a terminal illness that is deemed “incompatible with life” or because the parents have been advised that the child’s medical complications would be so severe that they are, basically, better off dead.

These are absolutely unimaginable scenarios, yet they happen all the time.

In a perfect world, these are decisions a patient makes with their doctor, under medical advisement. In some instances, a doctor or a hospital will advise a patient against termination. In those cases, the patient can seek services elsewhere either with a different doctor, at a different facility, or in a different state, just like they would with any other “therapeutive” (elective) medical procedure.  

Planned Parenthood and abortion clinics differ from other medical practices in that they offer elective abortion services within the bounds of local and state laws, apart from questions of medical ethics and viability. Yes, I’m sure there are some clinics where the practitioners are more ethically-minded than others, but their entire industry is built on securing elective abortion, regardless of circumstances. 

All elective procedures aside, it seems to me that the laws that exist to allow the termination of a pregnancy “to save the life of a mother” might (rightly) exist to protect doctors and patients in an urgent, emergency situation where their patient (the mother) is in crisis and hard decisions have to be made about where to turn their attention. (Imagine a doctor telling the husband, “She’s losing blood! We need to do something!” and the husband yelling, “Doctor, just please save my wife!”)

This late-term crisis scenario has always existed–because childbirth can be dangerous–but no one in their right mind would consider this scenario anything akin to an “elective abortion.” In these cases, it’s more an issue of legal protection than medical ethics or politics.

Yet, pro-abortion advocates continue to refer to emergency scenarios and medically-necessary terminations as just one more type of “abortion”–the clinical term for fetal demise–just to manipulate the political issue. And to manipulate the legislation.

And to manipulate you.

So, rather than going into the ethical dilemma, in particular, of when it might or might not be okay to terminate a late term pregnancy, let’s ask a different question for a second.

What makes some people decide to pursue a late-term abortion–which is difficult to secure and extremely expensive–and makes others, despite popular wisdom, carry their child to full-term and deliver a baby destined for difficulty or (sometimes immediate) death?

It might seem simplistic to call this out, but my experience tells me that religious faith has a lot to do with it.

Religious people believe in a Creator. They believe that life has purpose. They believe that the creator God ordains life and death. There is a moral imperative to let God be the one to determine the number of a child’s days.

And on a deeper level, people of faith have a philosophical and spiritual framework that provides comfort for their pain. And they bear the burden of infant loss, chronic illness, and special needs children differently because of it. Moreover, they have a community of faith to help bear the burden alongside them.

Now, there are certainly religious people who have terminated pregnancies, but there’s also a reason that most of the news stories we see about people electing to not terminate a difficult pregnancy are about people of faith. It’s a real thing. Radical faith makes you do seemingly “foolish” things.

But, wait. The “religious card” can be used the other way, right?

Aren’t religious people supposed to exercise mercy and kindness? If so, then why do so many religious people refuse to budge about abortion in circumstances like *rape? Or in situations where the mother is all alone? Or when she was pressured into a sexual relationship? Or when she already has children who she struggles to provide for?

These are reasonable questions, and ones that I’ve felt challenged by many times. After all, it seems very judicious to just say, as many of my peers do, “Well, I could certainly never do it, but I’m not willing to stop someone else from doing it.”

But this reasoning works if–and only if–you don’t believe that there is another life hanging in the balance.

Which is why I eventually changed my mind about the pro-life position.
I decided pro-lifers are not crazy. And I decided I might actually be one of them after all.

See, “to each his own” just doesn’t fly if you believe an unborn child is, in fact, a child–a child, regardless of their health; regardless of their future quality of life; regardless of the circumstances of their conception or their birth.

Yet, when it comes to an unborn child, we don’t often let ourselves simply acknowledge it as a “life.” That would make it too simple and we’d be forced to reckon with our responsibility to protect it.

Instead, we want to categorize the unborn as “potential life” which becomes a “real life” and then becomes a “viable life” with a certain “quality of life.”

We do this because it helps us negotiate our own complicated feelings and fears about the fragility of life. It puts something inherently un-tidy into tidy categories so we can feel better about it. In addition to unnecessarily complicating our positions about the unborn, it helps us dismiss the heartbreak of infertility, the pain of miscarriage, the trauma of stillbirth, and the burden of chronic illness by compartmentalizing them in “not quite living” things.

But the most staunch anti-abortion activists don’t do this with an unborn child. They believe that life is life. Life comes from God. And God does not discriminate or compartmentalize, so neither can we.

And this seems like a far more honorable position than the flippant “to each his own,” doesn’t it?

My experience also tells me that, far from being the woman-hating judgmental prigs that I’d been warned about associating with, many people who lean anti-abortion are actually pretty awesome. Many of them are healthcare providers. They are school teachers and social workers. Many of them actively serve the poor. Many of them volunteer in crisis pregnancy centers, at after-school programs for low-income kids, and donate many, many dollars to social service agencies that provide a safety net for vulnerable families.

And it turns out very few pro-lifers prescribe to a strict no-birth control policy. They aren’t anti-sex and they aren’t anti-sex education. (Many pro-lifers are supportive of comprehensive education about issues related to family planning and fertility.)

They are also super pro-adoption and many have adopted vulnerable children themselves, especially profoundly special-needs children.

I’ve seen my environmentalist friends speak with passion and disgust about using plastic garbage bags, about the evils of large game hunting in Africa, or starving polar bears in Alaska but, when faced with the possibility that abortion actually ends a human life, mum’s the word. It’s all “personal freedom” and “don’t tell me what to do with my body.”

But, if the numbers are true, even the conservative numbers, then we’re not talking about a couple thousands polar bears in Alaska, we’re talking about something like 900,000 abortions a year. (And close to 90% of them occur in the first 12 weeks, which means most of these pregnancies are not being terminated for the safety of the mother or the health of the child.)

That’s over 46,000,000 babies since 1970.

That’s 46 million children. Actual human children.

That’s a big deal. A really big deal. Which makes street protesters seem a little less crazy to me.

But where does that leave me?
It is time for me to pull out that “ABORTION IS MURDER” shirt and wear it to next week’s Planned Parenthood protest?

Probably not.
Because I believe that communication is just as much about the medium as the message and I’m not convinced the sidewalk protest is an effective medium.

So does this mean I vote for only pro-life candidates?

Not always.
Because it turns out that most “pro-life” politics in the year 2020 does not reflect a consistently pro-life position, nor the people who hold it. Not comprehensively, at least.

A consistently pro-life position honors the sanctity of life, the modern science of fertility and fetal development (which increasingly supports a pro-life position), and considers helping mothers navigate the realities of poverty, single-parenthood, healthcare woes, and adoption trauma (for mother and child).

When was the last time you saw a politician run on that kind of pro-life position?

Even within anti-abortion circles, people disagree about how to handle things like pregnancy from rape or incest, availability of birth control (and emergency contraception), or fatal health diagnoses. And, even in pro-abortion circles, most people still take serious issue with second- and third-term abortions and some would rather outlaw abortion entirely except in extreme cases. (Seriously, look at the statistics. We are not nearly as divided on these extreme cases as you might think.)

Popular media likes to place us all in dualistic categories of “anti-” or “pro-” abortion. And our politicians manipulate our fear of the uncomfortable nuance of the issue by forcing us to choose a camp. But this strict dualism doesn’t always exist in real life. Most of us know we don’t fit neatly into either political camp, but we also feel like we don’t have many options. We must either “side with the babies” and vote for pro-life candidates or “side with the women” and vote for pro-choice candidates.

So, does this mean I consider it all a loss and ignore abortion politics entirely because it’s such a cesspool?

Absolutely not. 
Because, deep down inside, I am still that 16 year-old evangelical, pro-life kid with the offensive t-shirt. It just took me twenty-some years to get back around to acknowledging it.

And elective abortions, while shrinking slightly in number, are still extremely prevalent. (Remember, 900,000 a year.) And we hear messages from celebrities and politicians all the time that any reasonable person would certainly believe abortion, for any reason, is somehow a basic human right and, ultimately, good for women.

And that’s a lie.

As a Christian, I believe that it’s necessary for us to obey the simplest of God’s commandments–including “Thou shalt not murder.” But I also have to obey the spirit of the Law of God, which demands I protect the vulnerable mother and child, as well.

Since neither political party, nor any one political candidate, corners the market on this consistent pro-life ethic, no one party or candidate has my loyalty these days. At least not in a comprehensive sense.

I allow myself the freedom to exercise discernment in who and what I support both as it relates to abortion, specifically, and women and children and families, in general.

Because a life worth saving doesn’t begin a birth.
But it doesn’t end there, either.

**Why does this matter? Is the abortion debate really worth engagement?

I know publishing this means opening myself up to all sorts of criticism and negative feedback. I have many friends and acquaintances that disagree with me on the issue, some very deeply. And I do not look forward to the backlash from strangers, much less from people I love and respect. (Ideological conflict gets more and more stressful for me as I get older.)

But I also think that any issue with this much political import is worth honest and deliberate engagement, both independently and collectively. And since the issue is being debated in our current election cycle, I thought it might be helpful for some folks to know that it’s okay to reconsider your position. It’s good and healthy to walk through the discernment process and even, sometimes, change your mind about an issue. Sometimes you’ll end up on the other side.

Sometimes, like me, you’ll find you are right back where you started.

For further reading, a few resources I’ve found helpful:

Abortion by R. C. Sproul- Not an easy read, but it’s short and a great primer for a reformed Christian perspective on the issue.

Beyond the Abortion Wars: A Way Forward For a New Generation by Charles Camosy- A pastor and friend recommended this to me last week when I said I was writing this post. I’m only about 1/3 through but I can already tell it’s pretty representative of where I stand.

Taking Charge of Your Fertility by Toni Weschler- A comprehensive guide to women’s reproductive health. This should be required reading for every young woman.

The Art of Natural Family Planning by Kippley- I am not Catholic and I don’t use NFP, but I found the Catholic paradigm of fruitfulness mind-blowing after the very shallow theology of the body and sex I was given in Evangelical purity culture.

The Talk: 7 Lessons to Introduce Your Child to Biblical Sexuality by Luke Gilkerson- This is how I taught my kids “where babies come from.” It does not address abortion, but it sets a strong foundation for the relationships between marriage, sex, and procreation.

Abortion statistics from the Guttmacher Institute.

Abortion statistics interpreted through a pro-life lens from the nonprofit Abort 73.

Democrats for Life– the pro-life wing of the Democratic Party. I’m not a Democrat, but these folks have been super helpful for understanding the issue from a liberal perspective. They also publish and share some great legislative information and suggestions.

Feminists for Life– a progressive voice in the pro-life camp. I’m not a feminist, but I’ve found this perspective helpful. (Historically speaking, feminists advocating for abortion is a fairly new phenomenon.)

Field Notes From A Gentrifier, Part III: “Affordability” and The $400 Pool Pass

This is Part III of an ill-advised series of “field notes” from my experience as an unintentional gentrifier in Over-the-Rhine, Cincinnati, Ohio. Consider it the purging of my current thoughts on/observations about gentrification, urban economics, class, race, and $3.50 tacos. Three related posts are planned so far. There may be more to come. Or not.

Read Part I here.
Read Part II here.

 

I’m going to tell you a story about The McEwan Family Summer of 2018 that’s not really about the Summer of 2018. It’s really about gentrification.

I hope it illustrates the dynamic between the idea of “affordability” and the reality of affordability and what it means for the average resident of a changing neighborhood.

(The story is going to seem really all-about-me so read quickly until you get to the point.)

The story basically goes like this:

Last summer was amazing.

Last summer was amazing because the kids and I spent two or three glorious mornings a week at the neighborhood pool a few blocks away.

The pool is new and fun and convenient. We brought picnic lunches and ate $.50 popsicles. We made friends and my girls learned to swim (and I got more tanned than I’ve ever been in my life).

My kids still proudly wear their Rhinos swim team shirts on the regular. They display their race ribbons on their bedroom wall. And I’m told my daughter still makes frequent appearances in their promo video on Fountain Square.

The McEwan Family Summer of 2018 was, basically, The Summer Of Our Lives.

But, you see, going to the pool costs money.

We didn’t buy a pool pass the first year the pool opened and then we almost didn’t buy a pool pass last summer because it was too expensive. I just couldn’t justify spending so much money on a luxury like a pool pass.

But then, on a whim, I did something crazy. I emailed someone at 3CDC, who manages the pool, about the cost.

In my email, I gave a pretty detailed diatribe about how, basically, their income-based discounts were using faulty data.

I wrote about the rising (and inflated) cost of living in our zip code, the Average Median Income for a family in our area, The Economic Policy Institute’s cost of living estimates, and provided links to plenty of online data sets and information.

I told her that, all these things considered, they should change their scale and they should give me a discount.
So they gave me a discount.
Mostly (probably) to shut me up.

(Never go in against an INTJ on something like this. Trust me on that.)

So, thanks to 3CDC and my mother in-law (who ended up buying us the pass), we had an amazing summer.

Fast forward to 2019.

I was anxious to see how 3CDC would handle pool pass fees this year. Would they diversify the sliding scale to accommodate more income situations? Would they instate a resident discount for those living in the immediate area surrounding the pool?

Well, it turns out they did change one thing: they made it more expensive for larger families.

The market rate pool pass that was $310 last year (if I remember correctly) is now $395.

Okay, I get it.
I understand that my family of 6 takes up more space at the pool than a family of 3. And I understand that it’s expensive to operate such an awesome pool. But my critique from last year still stands–whatever numbers they are using to measure “affordability” are inaccurate and totally out of touch.

Basically: it’s ridiculous to put a family of 6 living off of $60k a year in the same income bracket as a single person living off of $60k and offer them the same percentage discount. No real income based scales work this way.

Here’s the thing about a $400 summer pool pass: most moderate income people don’t really have a $100 “fun budget” every month to spend at the pool and most certainly don’t have $400 just sitting in the bank to spend on a luxury item like a pool pass. In a working class family, every penny is budgeted and any extra income goes to things like a birthday present, socks and underwear for the growing 7 year-old, or a new pair of glasses for Mom.

These are what I call Average People.

They are people living somewhere between 50-100% of Average Median Income. They may have a few of the cultural markers of the middle-class like a college education or owning their own home, but they are closer to what we usually consider “working-class” than “middle-class” in their economic stability and flexible budget.

(For reference: in 2018, the AMI for the Cincinnati metro area was $78,300 for a family of four. And I found this article helpful in articulating the difference between what we usually call “middle-class” and “working-class.”)

The last statistic I found online estimated that 35-55% of the population falls loosely into this working-class income bracket. These are teachers, administrative professionals, lower- and mid-level professionals. They are also the people who own our favorite restaurants, repair our windows, tune up our vehicles, pastor our churches, and fix our favorite pair of boots when the heel is busted.

Personally speaking, I feel like I don’t really have a lot of room to complain. (In fact, you’re probably thinking: stop complaining.) I know we’ve made decisions as a family that have plopped us in this Average People income bracket–working in the nonprofit sector, living off of one primary income, etc. (Though I could argue that our decisions are good decisions that actually benefit the world, but whatever…)

I know that even having the option of living with less income is a huge privilege.

So then why do I even mention it? What does this have to do with gentrification?

At the risk of sounding like an entitled yuppie, I bring up the $400 pool pass because it illustrates one of the effects of gentrification that doesn’t get a lot of air play–the “missing middle.”

As an urban community gentrifies, this is the demographic lost in the shuffle.

This is how I’ve witnessed it happen:

Big money (or government money or both) rolls in and starts to develop a community at the whims of (future) high-income residents. The conversation turns to “affordability.” In the conversation about affordability, developers pay huge lip service to protecting the affordability of the community for its most vulnerable residents–i.e. those who are low-income and/or living in government subsidized housing. The community is developed as planned, with pockets of lovely, new, high-cost housing and just enough low-income housing intact to keep people from complaining too much. But Average People are priced out of both housing and amenities. Their cost of living is not subsidized, yet they cannot afford market rate.

This “missing middle” isn’t a new thing. It was set into motion back in the middle 1900’s when “urban renewal” campaigns demolished entire city blocks of workforce housing in the name of revitalization.

The houses they destroyed by the dozens (hundreds?) were the kinds of homes where (if they still existed) people like me would be living today. At the time, it didn’t seem to matter; many upwardly-mobile people didn’t want to live in the city anyway. The American Dream was pulling (mostly white) middle-class people away from dense, urban areas to the promise of clean comfort and stability (and a garage to store your new lawnmower!) in new residential neighborhoods.

Now that people are (again) interested in the convenience and charm of traditional urban design, many would rather trade the ticky-tacky suburbs for older neighborhoods. But, not only has the economy changed and it’s hard to find a truly affordable place to live in a desirable neighborhood, it’s hard to afford the cost of living once you’re here.

Case in point: the $400 pool pass.

(I’ve written before about the plight of lower-middle class families and affordable housing in OTR. Check it out here.)

As for me, the higher cost of living in the city is something I’ve reconciled. There are things about our neighborhood–like a parking pass or a pool pass or a $35 entree–that are harder on our budget and that’s okay. There are trade-offs to urban living that save us money in other ways like lower transportation and yard maintenance costs (plus I’m a stay-at-home mom so I have minimal childcare costs).

But I do wish things were different not only for me, but for every other middle-income family who wants to live here now or in the future. And I wish moving out of the neighborhood wasn’t my only option for moving someday.

I wish that someone somewhere who holds the multi-million dollar development contracts was looking out for the Average Person, making sure they don’t get lost in the shuffle, forced to live where the proverbial neighborhood pool doesn’t costs as much.

Because ours is a pretty sweet pool.

So where does that leave me? Well, when the time comes to make our plans for the summer, I’ll try to find a way to pay for the dang pool pass because my kids had the Summer Of Their Lives in 2018 and 2019 must not disappoint.

And, 3CDC, if you’re reading this, I love your pool.
I’m so very thankful you built it for us.

But you need to hire a better statistician.

 

 

 

(Possibly) later in the Field Notes series:

How to Solve the Affordable Housing Crisis
My $13 Box of Macarons

 

Stay tuned!

 

On School Shootings, 9/11, and a Generation Born Into Mortality

What child, while summer is happening, bothers to think much that summer will end? What child, when snow is on the ground, stops to remember that not long ago the ground was snowless? It is by its content rather than its duration that a child knows time, by its quality rather than its quantity—happy times and sad times, the time the rabbit bit your finger, the time you had your first taste of bananas and cream, the time you were crying yourself to sleep when somebody came and lay down beside you in the dark for comfort. Childhood’s time is Adam and Eve’s time before they left the garden for good and from that time on divided everything into before and after. It is the time before God told them that the day would come when they would surely die with the result that from that point on they made clocks and calendars for counting their time out like money and never again lived through a day of their lives without being haunted somewhere in the depths of them by the knowledge that each day brought them closer to the end of their lives.

– Originally published in The Sacred Journey, by Frederick Buechner

I was in high school when the Columbine shooting happened.
I was in college on 9/11.

But I had my first significant brush with death when I was about 13 and a childhood friend was hit by a car and killed. So while both September 11th and Columbine were sufficiently traumatic for most of us, by the time I was introduced to the world of mass casualties I was at least already aware of my mortality.

Did you know that children today (as in, everyone under the age of 18), have never known an America that wasn’t at war?

Think about that for a moment and then think about your own childhood. There are a lot of things about my childhood that I don’t remember. But I do remember my fears. They were normal childhood fears like house fires and not being invited to a popular girl’s birthday party.

Because I was born in 1982, I belong to that tiny little micro-generation of kids who graduated from high school before cell phones, email, and social media had really infiltrated our daily lives. The nightly news was on tv and in the daily paper, for sure, but not on a newsfeed updated every thirty seconds and fed to an electronic device that was always turned on in my pocket. Big news was communicated slowly, person to person.

When that friend died, my grandfather broke the news to me while I stood at a payphone in the school lobby. Someone had called the house to tell me and he’d taken the call. If the same thing happened today, I’d probably see it pop up in a mutual friend’s Facebook feed before I ever heard the news from another real person.

Even though I’m only a few short years removed from being an official “Millennial,” the Millennial Generation feels foreign to me. And it’s partially because they were raised with a digital dimension to their world and relationships that I did not have as a child. With all of its other issues, part of what came with the infiltration of this digital dimension is the omnipresent weight of mortality that it brings. They are surrounded by a constant newsfeed that reminds them of a world a war, a shooting across the country, and every potential danger in their own neighborhood. (In addition to the social pressures created by social media.)

“Kids these days” get a lot of crap for being the way they are. But I wonder how this ever-present reminder of their mortality has affected them. I wonder if what we’re seeing is an effect similar to what we already see manifested in kids raised in vulnerable situations, in violent families, or in poverty. I wonder if the kind of hope-killing trauma that used to be reserved for “those people” is now present in even the most privileged American childhoods.

One of the promises of “the American Dream” born after WWII was a certain national impenetrability and the promise that hard work, financial security, and dutiful community service would provide a sense of security for us and our progeny. But young people today look at their parents and grandparents and feel that this promise of stability and security was a lie. They have swam their entire lives in a sea of national and personal vulnerability.

It’s no wonder younger generations don’t feel the same sense of duty or loyalty to their country. The social contract of mutual protection has failed them.

I would argue that, whether conscious of it or not, young people today (and I will include myself in this) are in fact more aware of their mortality. Because of that, they are less willing to spend their lives fulfilling obligations to others, attending to social constructs, and delaying gratification etc. It’s like a child who has been told he has a terminal illness. He either clings to the familiar and never leaves the house or he sells everything, moves to California, and starts skydiving.

In addition to their general distaste for previous generations’ social norms, the post-9/11 generation is less tolerant of violence and offense in daily interactions, even in the way they communicate with each other. They have a stronger self-defense mechanism and have really spearheaded the “ally” movement that seeks to protect the vulnerable among them. They literally create Safe Spaces for themselves where they believe they can escape the danger lurking around every corner.

My parents raised me in the age of “stranger danger,” which produced a few generational quirks (like a fear of unmarked white vans). But parents who sent their kids off to high school after the Columbine shooting were afraid on a different level entirely. Parenting in this new, scary world meant keeping a close watch, keeping a tight leash, and applying lots of pressure toward the kinds of professional and personal achievements that could provide future security. But although helicopter parenting kept these kids alive, it produced the anxious and dependent young adults that are now creeping toward their 30’s and are struggling to build healthy, long-lasting marriages, afraid to commit to parenting, and cannot find (or do not want) consistent employment.

Those young people who do settle into parenthood today are parenting very differently than their parents or grandparents did. In addition to their shirking of any harsh discipline, they are highly protective of their children’s egos and independence. And in trying to raise children who will not injure others, they steer clear of ideological commitments that lend themselves to hard and fast rules. Rather than pressure their children to conform to their desires, young parents are letting their young children forge their own paths in the hope that a generation unrestrained can finally build a better world.

It should also be said that, in this “better world,” attraction to Old Time Religion has waned because Old Time Religion did not make good on its promise to keep us from killing each other.

It’s no wonder that fertility rates are declining. Often listed among reasons why people don’t want to have kids: the world is too scary. The generation raised after 9/11 has been taught that an attack–whether by a foreign terrorist or a fellow high school student–is not just possible, but imminent. Why would you bring a child into a world like that?

Yes, young people today get a lot of crap for the way they are. But I think we all–collectively, as a society–have some important questions to ask regarding the world our children live in today and how it got this way. And I don’t mean policy questions about guns and airport security and whether or not our preteens should be allowed at home alone. Those questions should be asked because reasonable laws can keep danger at bay, but they cannot truly make us “safe.” We need to also ask questions about our mental/spiritual health and our relationships, about the hopelessness and insecurity our children feel in places that used be produce stability and and peace: our homes, our schools, churches, etc.

Have things really changed in the past 30 years?
Are we really less safe or more vulnerable than we were before, either as a country or personally?

Maybe; maybe not.

In some ways, I’d say that the perception of constant danger, which is perpetuated by fast, digital news media and social media, is mostly “fake news.” We are all far more “safe” than we’ve ever been in some regards. But any statistics that measure our security can only tell part of the story. More now than ever, we are aware of the dangers that do exist and feel more vulnerable because of it. And, the nature of the dangers have changed so, with them, our ability to reconcile with and prepare for those dangers has changed, as well.

We are less likely to die in a plane crash, of pneumonia, or of a random act of violence than we’ve ever been; we are more likely to die of a premeditated terror attack or of cancer.

Has the post-9/11 generation responded to their mortality differently than their predecessors?

This is not the first time that American citizens have, collectively, had a sense of imminent danger lurking nearby. My parents may not have rehearsed for active shooter scenarios, but they probably had regular bomb drills. And I’m sure every wartime since the dawn of time has reinforced a sense of mortality among both young and old. Heck, there are kids in our country’s most dangerous neighborhoods who have never known a “safe” day in their lives.

What can we learn from the wisdom and experience of those who survive and thrive through dangerous times?

Another important question is: how is the American reaction to mortality different than the reaction elsewhere?

One of the benefits of our digital age is a new awareness of what goes on around the county and around the world. We know that the presence of danger and the nearness of violence and war may be new to American children, but not to children elsewhere. How are those children coping? What are their parents doing to help them cope?

What makes some children more resilient to trauma than others?

I worry that, though American children today are more sensitive and more empathetic toward each other and the evils of the world, they may be less resilient to that evil. And that leaves a generation that is not only frightened, but also helpless and hopeless.

I often think of the entire generation of European children whose parents sent them off during WWII to live with strangers or distant relatives in places they had never been. They did not know how long they would be gone, how long the war would last. They did not know if they’d ever see their parents again.

I think about entire nations of refugee children fleeing war-torn nations today, right now, with nothing more than the clothes on their backs and memories of shell-shocked homes and dead neighbors.

Could American children survive that trauma?
Could mine?

It’s easy to poke fun at “snowflake” Millennials, to call them weak and to roll our eyes at their ambivalence about all the things they’re “supposed to” care about. But then I think about what it must be like to grow up believing that someone is always standing on the other side of the door, ready to shoot. Or that every airplane is destined to end up lodged in the side of a building.

I can remember, as a young child, lying awake at night convinced my house was going to burn down. But I never worried that I would be blown up in a mall or shot by a classmate in the lunchroom.

Kids today are growing up in a scary world and they are afraid. They are afraid so they are grasping for security. And because they can’t find security, they are surviving with new axioms that many of us simply don’t understand. Among them: sometimes the easiest thing to do at the end of the world is to throw caution to the wind and try and enjoy your life until the bomb falls.

Instead of bemoaning the ways they’ve learned to cope, what are we doing to help?