Barbara Bush and the End We All Face

Update: About a day after I posted this piece, Barbara Bush passed away. I pray for comfort for those close to her.

It’s truly sad news: former First Lady and longtime Houstonian Barbara Bush, surely one of the quickest wits to ever grace the White House, has decided to forego further medical efforts to cure the illnesses that will end her life. She is 92 years old.

Many of you don’t remember her, given that she last was First Lady 25 years ago. So I’d like to share my own Barbara Bush story.

It takes place in August 1992 at the Republican National Convention in Houston, where I served as a volunteer. Yes, I was a strong Republican in those days, but it was a much, much different party back then. (In fact, 55 percent of all Asian Americans casting ballots in that November’s presidential election voted for Barbara’s husband, incumbent President George H. W. Bush, to win a second term. He was defeated by Arkansas Gov. Bill Clinton, with independent Texas billionaire H. Ross Perot playing the part of spoiler.)

Me minus 25 years.

My morning shift mostly involved checking the passes of politicos, journalists, and vendors maneuvering through the hallways and tunnels leading to the floor of the Astrodome. But at one point, the Secret Service instructed me and a couple of my fellow volunteers to move back a good 100 feet from our post. The reason? Barbara Bush’s motorcade was approaching! I caught just a glimpse of the long black sedan as it pulled up slowly into the stadium.

Shortly afterward, we were allowed to resume our previous positions. Over the course of the morning, noted journalists like Peter Jennings (whose autograph I got) and Cokie Roberts (whose signature I didn’t get because I blanked on her name) passed through our checkpoint, which made for its own bit of excitement. Then the Secret Service informed us we had to move back again because Barbara Bush was about to walk down the main hallway closest to our location.

We volunteers chatted among ourselves about how the famously independent-spirited First Lady might have chafed at the amount of security precautions taken on her behalf. And then, hearing a commotion, we looked into the hallway and saw a golf cart zip by. It was Barbara Bush herself at the wheel, with nary a Secret Service agent in sight.

She wasn’t about to let herself be caged! It was truly delightful to witness.

I will miss seeing her sitting behind home plate at Houston Astros games. I’ll miss hearing her poke wicked fun at her famous sons, former President and Texas Gov. George W. Bush and former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush.

The end of this life comes for us all, regardless of how distinguished or delightful our lives have been.

Now in my mid-forties, I’ve thought a lot about my own mortality over the last several years, realizing I probably have fewer years remaining than I’ve already lived. Recently, when getting together with high school friends I hadn’t seen in nearly three decades, I confessed that it took two or three years just to get over the shock of turning 40.

Creek Mini-Reunion
With dear friends Marnie, Huy, and Lorie in Orlando, where I was speaking at a conference.

One of the resources that has spoken the most helpfully to me in my midlife angst is the British television show Doctor Who. Seriously.

In the U.S., you’re truly a geek if you watch Doctor Who. (It’s fairly popular in the U.K. but still somewhat obscure on our side of the, shall we say, Pond.) It’s a science fiction franchise that first launched in 1963, ceased production in the 1990s, then resumed in 2005. Since its restart, the BBC America channel has made new seasons accessible to audiences here; I’ve been watching the last several on Amazon Prime.

The show is not actually new to me. When I was a teenager, I occasionally watched syndicated episodes that ran on PBS on Saturday afternoons or evenings. But jumping back into it over the last several months, I’ve really been struck by all the good-byes that are part of the story line. Every other season, it seems that one major character dies or otherwise disappears from the narrative.

That’s partly a function of the main character, The Doctor, a time-and-space-traveling alien who fights injustice and oppression throughout the universe. He is practically immortal; whenever he dies, his body “regenerates” into a new one (though the number of times this can happen is finite). A new actor then takes the role of The Doctor, giving the character a completely different look and a significantly different personality. Regeneration episodes usually produce tears from the characters and often from the viewing audience, too.

Dr Who Goodbyes with Quote
Some of Doctor Who‘s tearful good-byes.

The good-byes are also frequent because The Doctor almost always travels with a buddy or two. These are the “companions”; they’re usually human, and always, before long, they become very close friends with The Doctor. But because they accompany The Doctor into new dangers in each episode, they also don’t survive for more than two or three seasons.

When I first began watching the renewed series, I thought, “Why do so many people love this show with all of its tear-jerking farewells? Life is hard enough as it is; I don’t need any fictional sadness to make it harder.” But then I noticed that one of the repeated plot devices is the ability of The Doctor’s race of beings, the Time Lords, to erase selected memories of others. Whenever this happens in the story line, it’s to save someone’s life or to spare someone great suffering. It’s definitely tragic, and viewers get the sense that such a fate may actually be worse than death.

In one dramatic example, The Doctor tells his dear companion Clara, who has been with him on numerous adventures, that he needs to wipe her memories of him, for her own protection. She won’t have it – at all.

The Doctor and Clara. (BBC)

DOCTOR: When you wake up, you will have forgotten me. You’ll have forgotten we ever even met.
CLARA: And why would I want that?
DOCTOR: Because it’s the only way. That stuff in your head, the image of me, they could use it to find you.

(Moments later)

DOCTOR: I’m trying to keep you safe.
CLARA: Why? Nobody’s ever safe. I’ve never asked you for that, ever. These have been the best years of my life, and they are mine. Tomorrow is promised to no one, Doctor, but I insist upon my past. I am entitled to that. It’s mine.

The idea is this: as terrible as it is to lose a loved one, and as painful as it is for people who care about each other to be separated by death, not ever knowing them would be far worse.

This theme appears in the show at other times, when a time traveling character’s actions threaten to change history so that another character is never born. Again, Doctor Who reminds me: losing a loved one is a horrible experience, yet it would be even worse if we’d never known that loved one in the first place.

Believe it or not, this has actually brought comfort to my heart. It helps me to take a small step toward accepting there will be sorrow when I inevitably die, but a greater sorrow would be to fail to live boldly and love extravagantly my wife, my daughters, and everyone else God brings into my world.

Yes, I do believe in heaven and in the reunion of loved ones that awaits there. But I’ll be doing myself and others a disservice if I fail to plunge into life fully because I’m stuck worrying about how much of it remains.

An American beloved by family and nation. (NBC)

Barbara Bush, by all accounts, is facing the conclusion of her earthly life with dignity and courage, having come to terms with the approaching end, choosing to embrace life fully in her last days. I hope that by God’s grace, I’ll do the same for however long I have on this side of eternity, choosing to love and receive love with gusto, treasuring the preciousness of life and milking it for all it’s worth.

In the Name of the Alma Mater

Based on what I’ve heard in conversations, and on what I’ve seen on news sites and social media, the grown-ups of America have been really surprised and super-impressed by the students of Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School. That’s the Parkland, Florida, school that experienced 17 lives lost, dozens of others injured, and countless others traumatized due to one man’s violence on Valentine’s Day. Baby Boomers, Gen Xers (of whom I’m one), and Millennials have all marveled at the courage, eloquence, savvy, and passion demonstrated by the Gen Z teens who, having seen their friends and teachers killed in front of their own eyes, are taking the fight for gun reform to politicians beholden to the National Rifle Association – and even to the gun lobby itself.

A variety of factors have been raised in public discourse to explain the skill and sophistication of these teenagers. But there’s one aspect of these teen leaders’ backgrounds that has mostly gone unnoticed nationally, and that has to do with the namesake of their school: Marjory Stoneman Douglas.

Now, I do not know how well-versed MSD High School students are, as a whole, in the details of Ms. Douglas’ life story. But at least a few of the student leaders know about her. One of them, junior class president Jaclyn Corin, tweeted this quote from Ms. Douglas:

Apparently, Marjory Stoneman Douglas’ name is legendary in conservation and wildlife advocacy circles, particularly for her years of activism in defense of the Everglades. Her contributions were so noteworthy that President Clinton awarded her the Presidential Medal of Freedom a few years before her death at the age of 108; one of her homes was even designated a National Historic Site a few years ago. Before either of those honors, she helped to inspire Lisa Simpson’s Thanksgiving centerpiece (featuring likenesses of Ms. Douglas, Susan B. Anthony, and Georgia O’Keeffe):

Lisa Simpson MSD
From The Simpsons episode “Bart vs. Thanksgiving”

But my first exposure to Ms. Douglas’ story came through one of the many women-in-STEM books that my wife and I have checked out for our daughters from the library. It’s a best-selling book we first brought home several months ago entitled Women in Science: 50 Fearless Pioneers Who Changed the World, beautifully created by Kansas City-based designer and illustrator Rachel Ignotofsky.

Women in Science

The book features profiles of women in STEM fields (that’s Science, Tech, Engineering, and Math) both well known (e.g., Marie Curie, Grace Hopper, Jane Goodall, and Mae Jemison) and obscure, at least to most Americans (e.g., Wang Zhenyi, who lived in the 18th century, Chien-shiung Wu, Valentina Tereshkova, and Christiane Nüsslein-Volhard). Each of the 50 STEM pioneers has her own beautiful full-page illustration, as the one for Marjory Stoneman Douglas demonstrates:

Women in Science - MSD Picture

Opposite each of the 50 large illustrations is a page that tells the story of that particular scientist in considerable detail. These pages feature smaller, sometimes whimsical illustrations; for example, here’s the story page for Ms. Douglas:

Women in Science - MSD Text
My apologies for the out-of-focus photo; it looked okay in-camera! I wasn’t able to retake it, because we had already returned it to the library.

Ms. Douglas, as we might say these days, persisted and resisted through her unceasing advocacy, inspiring both her contemporaries and now a new generation. I highly recommend Rachel Ignotofsky’s book, so Marjory Stoneman Douglas and 49 other trail blazing women can inspire you and the kids in your life, too!

And to keep up with the activism of the MSD High School students and staff, I’ve created a public Twitter list with over 100 of their accounts. They’ve called us to action, in the spirit of Marjory Stoneman Douglas; let’s support their efforts!

Going Back to School with CARE

Hi friends! It’s been way too long since we last met on these pages. I’ve very much been wanting to write, but my regular routine has changed considerably since my last post in early December. The biggest difference between then and now? I’ve gone back to school!

Well, not in the usual sense of going “back to school.” I’m not working on another degree. Rather, I’m working for a school, the University of California, Irvine, to be specific! I’ve been blessed with the opportunity to get back into anti-violence work, something I’ve longed to do ever since I had to step away from my role with Man Up Campaign a couple of years ago. UC Irvine has hired me, on an interim basis, to serve in its Campus Assault Resources and Education (CARE) office as the school’s Violence Prevention Coordinator! That means I’ll be helping to lead the university’s efforts to educate and train members of its community in recognizing and stopping gender-based violence, including dating and domestic violence, rape and sexual assault, sexual harassment and stalking, and other forms of intimate partner violence. I’m excited to have this chance!

CARE Staff (Christmas 2017) - Cropped
My colleagues!

My appointment is a temporary one, as I just mentioned, while UC Irvine looks for a permanent Violence Prevention Coordinator. But I hope I’ll prove worthy of the long-term position, which I’ve already applied for.

As for the work itself, so far, it’s going well. There’s still a lot for me to learn as I get up to speed on policies and procedures, but working alongside my colleagues and connecting with the students has been truly delightful.

And hopefully, as I get settled into my new routine, I’ll be able to get back into the regular rhythm of posting on this site! Take CARE until then!

O Brothers and Sisters, Where Art Thou?

Little Boy with Bible
Back when “King James” had nothing to do with LeBron James.

Beginnings

I still have my very first Bible. I was five years old when it first overwhelmed my small hands – a heavy, black hardcover edition of the King James Version with “Holy Bible” stamped in golden, old English lettering on the front.

I still remember the first verse I ever learned using that Bible. My teacher at the fundamentalist Baptist school I attended underlined it with a red felt pen, as she did for all the students in our first grade class. In what we’d now call an eight point serif font, that verse spoke these words in black and white: “In the beginning God created the heaven and the earth” (Genesis 1.1).

I don’t use that Bible anymore; I haven’t since junior high in the early 1980s. Even during my twelve-plus years as a church minister, I favored modern translations, meaning King James either gathered dust on my office shelf or slumbered with other religious tomes in a storage box.

But I can’t bring myself to just give it away. That Bible represents the first baby waddles of almost my entire lifetime following in the path of Jesus Christ. It also reminds me that the white Southerners who ran my Baptist school, in a working-class part of oil-boom Houston, were the first to teach me what Christians call the gospel. That’s the “good news” about a God who loved us so much that he sent Jesus, the faultless One, to willingly endure enhanced interrogation, skin-shredding torture, and an unjust, grisly execution – all so we wouldn’t have to.

Heavy Baggage

Tragically, I also absorbed from these fundamentalists a plethora of self-righteous and judgmental teachings, massive errors of biblical interpretation which sounded perfectly legit to my young mind and faith at the time. The toxicity consumed me from within as I became a harsh judge not only of others, but also of myself. Emotional and spiritual anguish came to dominate my waking hours, and did so for years.

Boy on a Jungle Gym
My fundamentalist school gave me some good … and a lot of bad.

Over the last decade, deep personal archaeology guided by a skilled and caring therapist, supported by my wife and a small circle of friends to whom I can tell anything, has been vital in my still-ongoing recovery from fundamentalism.

But though my first Bible teachers saddled me with a ton of theological and psychological baggage, I am still thankful that they introduced me to Jesus. That much they got right, these Southern, white evangelical Christians who distrusted government and universities; looked with suspicion upon any scientific theory that measured time in millions of years; abstained from profanity, pop music, drinking, and dancing; and cherished both Robert E. Lee and conspiracy theories about the end of the world.

The Descendants

Though many of those teachers have passed on, I recognize them in today’s Religious Right. That’s the millions of evangelicals, overwhelmingly white, who intensely support very conservative politicians and causes, believing that doing so returns America to its Christian roots. Such a spiritual revival, they say, spares the nation from God’s judgment for its immorality and brings economic blessings and security. Their words and actions make them seem descended from my Baptist school teachers, and not in a good way.

Nothing grieves me more right now. It both shatters my heart and infuriates me that so many politically conservative white evangelicals, who were first to tell me about Jesus, have made his “good news” look, to a watching world, like anything but. Not since the televangelist scandals of the 1980s have I witnessed so many people who aren’t Christians express their shock at the actions of those who profess to be.

Most of this, of course, has come in reaction to white evangelical support for Donald Trump; 81 percent of white evangelicals casting ballots in the last election voted for him. Even now, 66 percent of them still believe he’s been a good president.

Thank You Lord Jesus for President Trump
Without white evangelical enthusiasm, Trump could not have won. (Photo: HuffPost)

Particularly galling have been the defenses of Trump and his policies from some of their most prominent leaders, including Franklin Graham, Jerry Falwell, Jr., Robert Jeffress, and Pat Robertson. (This follows their rape culture-promoting comments on Trump’s behalf after his sexually violent history became a major campaign issue.) Their enthusiasm seems undiminished, notwithstanding the strong public consensus, expressed in historically low approval ratings, that he’s been ineffective, dishonest, reckless, and indifferent to the needs of regular people.

More troubling, their unwavering support seems terribly hypocritical, in view of the numerous ways Trump and his actions as president have opposed basic Christian principles of love and compassion, especially toward people who are already suffering.

Heavy Damage

By supporting him so strongly, these and other evangelical Trump enthusiasts, ranging from those with prominent pulpits to the average Joe and Jane in the pews, have effectively tied many Americans’ perception of Christianity to Trump’s behavior. And again, not in a good way.

Don’t believe me? Check out this small sampling of op-ed titles:

“White Evangelicals Are Why America Can’t Have Nice Things” (HuffPost, June 13, 2017)

“Trump’s Pious and Dangerous Enablers” (The New York Times, July 14, 2017)

“Does God Believe in Trump? White Evangelicals Are Sticking with Their ‘Prince of Lies’” (Newsweek, Oct. 5, 2017)

This is only the tip of the iceberg. I’ve heard so many comments that reflect our current reality – that evangelical Trump enthusiasts have made Christianity look terrible, unrecognizable to many who aren’t Christians, as well as to some of us who are.

And what, then, of the gospel? The gospel, the good news about Jesus that these evangelicals would claim is the most important message in human history, gets completely lost.

White Evangelicals Support Trump, Damage Gospel
I wish it were not so, but it’s so painfully obvious.

To be perfectly clear: I truly believe that white evangelical support for Trump has seriously damaged the cause of the gospel. The Religious Right is alienating far more people – “causing them to stumble,” to use Jesus’ language – than it is attracting, all in pursuit of political goals.

A number of us Christian public commentators said that this would happen if Trump were elected with a high level of white evangelical support. One of the most prominent was Andy Crouch, longtime executive editor of Christianity Today. One month before the election, he wrote:

Enthusiasm for a candidate like Trump gives our neighbors ample reason to doubt that we believe Jesus is Lord. They see that some of us are so self-interested, and so self-protective, that we will ally ourselves with someone who violates all that is sacred to us—in hope, almost certainly a vain hope given his mendacity and record of betrayal, that his rule will save us.

Sadly, Crouch’s words are ringing more true by the day.

Along Came a Senator

And we haven’t even mentioned the harm done to the gospel endeavor by the strong white evangelical support for Senate candidate Roy Moore. That has come despite several credible, carefully vetted accounts of his sexual abuse and harassment of women as young as age 14. 60 percent of likely-to-vote evangelicals in Alabama say they still strongly support him. 67 percent still believe he’s a man of “strong moral character.”

Roy Moore at Church
Moore speaks at Angel Grove Baptist Church in Jacksonville, Alabama. (Photo: The Anniston Star)

Appallingly, Alabama Gov. Kay Ivey, an evangelical Christian, believes that Moore’s accusers are telling the truth – but will still vote for him.

But lest we think it’s just folks in Alabama, the Religious Right’s unofficial national spokesmen have also weighed in. Jerry Falwell, Jr. declared his belief that Moore is the one telling the truth. Longtime Christian radio host and author James Dobson has not withdrawn his endorsement. And then there’s Franklin Graham:

Graham misses the fact that some of the most scathing denunciations of Moore’s candidacy have come from Alabamians. Also, at least 18 prominent Republicans, including House Speaker Paul Ryan, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, Sen. John McCain, Ohio Gov. John Kasich, and even Alabama’s own Sen. Richard Shelby have called on Moore to withdraw from the race. (And I don’t know what Graham thinks about child sexual abuse, but I submit that there’s nothing more evil than that.)

Many strong denunciations have also come from white evangelicals who opposed Trump last year, particularly among evangelical women. I know many such followers of Jesus, and I’m proud of them for continuing to speak out. But that doesn’t keep the Religious Right’s perverse backing of Moore from reinforcing the already grotesque image that many people have of the Christian faith.

To be honest, if I weren’t already a Christian, I would perceive Christianity that way, too.

Power to the (Wrong) People

Standing with Moore also gives a sense of power to sexual predators and child molesters. I highly doubt there are many evangelical Moore enthusiasts who have considered this.

It is a terrible fact of life that there’s no place on Earth where abusers and assaulters won’t go to carry out their evil acts, and that includes houses of worship. I have known a number of abuse survivors who were victimized by people they knew from their churches. I have heard countless other such stories; often, the perpetrators were trusted family friends and even church leaders.

Many a church has a predator in its midst. My friend Boz Tchividjian, a law professor and former prosecutor who heads an organization called Godly Response to Abuse in the Christian Environment (GRACE), says that, for all the problems the Catholic Church has had with abuse, “More children are being abused within Protestant churches than in the Catholic Church.” That says to me that the presence of abusers is truly widespread.

And what are these sexual predators, sitting in churches where Roy Moore is being defended as a godly man, thinking? They’re feeling emboldened, seeing and hearing exactly what they’ll need to say and do to get people to support them, should their own abusive acts ever come to light.

And what are abuse victims, sitting in these same churches, thinking? If they have yet to come forward to talk about what’s happened to them, they are now even more frightened of doing so; it would be an added trauma to tell their story, only to find people believe their victimizer rather than them. Those who have already told others about their assaults will likely feel re-traumatized.

Support Moore, Embolden Predators
Another consequence of supporting Moore’s candidacy.

Further, when students are sexually assaulted at Liberty University, where Jerry Falwell, Jr. is president, what are they to think about coming forward? Between 2007 and 2016, 42 sexual assaults were reported at the school’s main campus. If Liberty’s incidents of collegiate sexual violence are under-reported at the rate of the national average (one out of five), it’s reasonable to assume that over 200 sexual assaults took place at Liberty during that 10-year period. Falwell’s support of Moore, on top of his vocal defense of Trump last year against charges of sexual misconduct by a number of women that grew to 22, can only serve to discourage more victims from coming forward and getting the help they need.

The Religious Right’s strong support for Trump and now Moore are hurting a ton of people.

Man of Constant Sorrow

Yes, I am grateful to politically conservative white evangelicals for introducing me to God and the gospel many years ago. Yet their descendants now weigh my heart down with great sadness for all the damage they are doing. Sometimes, it very much feels to me like I’m reading from a totally different Bible than they are. And their Jesus? Unrecognizable to me. I wish it were not so.

Bible
Last I checked, our Bibles were identical. Why doesn’t it feel like it?

Andy Crouch also wrote last year (emphasis mine):

There is a point at which strategy becomes its own form of idolatry—an attempt to manipulate the levers of history in favor of the causes we support. Strategy becomes idolatry, for ancient Israel and for us today, when we make alliances with those who seem to offer strength—the chariots of Egypt, the vassal kings of Rome—at the expense of our dependence on God who judges all nations, and in defiance of God’s manifest concern for the stranger, the widow, the orphan, and the oppressed. Strategy becomes idolatry when we betray our deepest values in pursuit of earthly influence. And because such strategy requires capitulating to idols and princes and denying the true God, it ultimately always fails.

Dear brothers and sisters in the Religious Right, in love I plead with you to turn away (in biblical language, repent) from depending on men like Trump and Moore. Repentance is the right thing to do, but I ask you to also do it for the sake of sexual abuse and assault survivors, and so that predators are not emboldened in committing their heinous acts. Do it, too, for the sake of the gospel, and so that you don’t continue to cause many to stumble.  

Please.

Friends and Fellow Americans, Lend Me Your Ears

Content Warning: Quotations of very strong, abusive language.

That Escalated Quickly

It began with a single phone call this past June to New York City’s famed Public Theater:

Tell that fucking bitch to get out of my country. I think it’s absolutely disgraceful what you guys are doing. You all are fucked up!

More such calls followed, sporadically at first, then with increasing frequency until they became a raging torrent. Within hours, the Public’s ticket office was completely overwhelmed by thousands of abusive calls, all responses to reports that the company’s Shakespeare in the Park production of Julius Caesar showed Donald Trump being stabbed to death. A small group of ticket operators handled the complaints, daily enduring hours of verbal and emotional abuse in the process.

Now, although box office operators have rarely, if ever, been the protagonists of literary opuses, a brand new one-hour play, Behind the Ides, tells the real-life story of those who worked at the Public during its run of Julius Caesar. A dramatic staged reading of Behind the Ides premieres next weekend (September 29, 30, and October 1) in Los Angeles, and I am incredibly excited for audiences to experience it! I’ve been fortunate to read the script in its entirety, and it’s truly powerful and timely.

Behind the Ides Rehearsal
An early rehearsal for Behind the Ides. (Photo: Joan Marie Hurwit)

Part of the play’s impact comes, I think, from the fact that playwright David Armstrong depicts events that happened to real people. But he also uses numerous word-for-word quotations of actual calls to the Public Theater, making the trauma the operators experience more shocking, and their struggle to cope more moving. The play then confronts audiences with essentially the same question I and many other Americans have been wrestling with lately. I’d put it this way:

How do I engage my fellow citizens whose fundamental values seem very different from mine, especially those who feel threatened by people like me, and who also support policies that threaten me and my loved ones?

Much Ado About Something

At the opening of Behind the Ides’ first act, the Public Theater controversy is just beginning. Perhaps you’ve previously heard about the actual uproar this past summer, which truly exploded when Trump-friendly media corporations Fox News and The Blaze, along with white supremacist website Breitbart, devoted major air time and screen space to the story. Though the Public has for years been one of the nation’s leading theater companies, winning over 50 Tony Awards and premiering highly successful musicals like Hair, A Chorus Line, and Hamilton, corporate sponsors Delta Airlines and Bank of America consequently withdrew their financial support. Even the National Endowment for the Arts distanced itself from the Public.

Unquestionably, the Public’s rendition of Julius Caesar intentionally resembles Trump:

Public Theater's Julius Caesar 1
Photos: Sara Krulwich, New York Times

Public Theater's Julius Caesar 2

Yet I think most folks who’ve been to a Shakespeare play know that it’s customary for characters to wear attire that either pre- or post-dates the era in which the story is actually set. For its Julius Caesar, the Public presented characters from first century B.C. Rome in attire from present-day America. In fact, other theaters around the country have long outfitted their Caesars to look like whomever the president was at the time; Caesar has resembled nearly every president since Ronald Reagan, including President Obama in a 2012 Minneapolis production:

Guthrie Theater Julius Caesar 1
Photos: Heidi Bohnenkamp

Guthrie Theater Julius Caesar 2

Behind the Ides shows how the Public Theater and its ticket operators even took pains to clarify that the assassinated character isn’t Trump, but Caesar, and that its version of Caesar resembles Trump to provoke thought, not promote disrespect or violence toward him. In fact, such is the underlying message of Shakespeare’s tragedy. (SPOILER ALERT IF YOU DON’T KNOW WHAT HAPPENS IN JULIUS CAESAR!) Far from being painted as heroes, Brutus and the other conspirators are condemned for resorting to violence. The fact that they were attempting to keep Rome from slipping into authoritarian rule doesn’t at all justify their murdering Caesar. In short, the ends doesn’t justify the means.

But that’s not how thousands of Trump supporters interpreted it.

Say What?

Perhaps the abusive call in Behind the Ides that disturbs me most is this one, taken verbatim from the Public Theater box office’s voicemail:

You people are sick. You are disgusting. You are glorifying violence. It’s actually really, really sad. Really fucking sad and pathetic. You all think you’re so brave, putting on a show like this, and it’s just some sick, depraved fantasy. And then you hide behind your chickenshit email from the 1980s. Be ashamed. It’s shameful. You are not Christians. You are not good people. You should all burn in Hell for this. I will pray for you, but I don’t think there’s much hope for you, honestly.

As a former minister who pastored evangelical churches for more than a dozen years, I’ve definitely known folks like this. More basically, as someone who still identifies as a Christian after nearly 40 years of faith, I’m embarrassed.

But though I’m embarrassed, I’m glad Behind the Ides includes this voicemail in the script. (Sadly, it’s not the only one that’s piously high and mighty.) It epitomizes for us what not to do when attempting to engage fellow citizens whose values seem quite different from our own. And even though Armstrong’s play portrays just how awful Americans can be to their fellow citizens, it also shows how the box office operators strove to rise above the meanness. The play ends up being a story that is real, yet with hope.

I’m definitely looking forward to seeing the dramatic staged reading, and I hope you can make it, too! It features a highly diverse cast, which is always a win; the eight very talented actors and actresses will voice over 80 parts among them! I’m also excited for the production because I have great confidence in director Joan Marie Hurwit, who’s a friend of mine. We first met through her work with Native Voices at the Autry, and I’ve found her to be very thoughtful, incredibly hard-working, and strongly committed to directing and producing art that truly benefits the communities in which they are staged.

David Armstrong Joan Marie Hurwit
Playwright David Armstrong and director Joan Marie Hurwit have collaborated on projects going back to their days as undergrads at San Diego State. During Spring Break of their senior year in 2008, they and a bunch of friends took Manhattan. (Photo: Joan Marie Hurwit)

I asked Joan what she hopes Behind the Ides accomplishes, and she said (and I’ll quote her):

At this moment in time, art is inherently political, and artists are activists. When we choose to tell stories about the social climate, we have the power to implore our audiences to not only engage in a conversation with us, but also to carry that consciousness back out into our communities to effect positive change.

Since Behind the Ides is a new play, and it’s been very exciting to workshop and shape it as we go, I don’t know that I expect it to accomplish anything in particular. Instead, I hope it provides a foundation for people, especially of differing viewpoints, to have a conversation, to start a conversation. When art brings us together, as this play does, well, I think that’s a beautiful place to start.

And if you, kind reader, are wondering if I’ll take my daughters, who are ages ten and eight years old, to the staged reading, the answer is not yet, because of the raw and abusive language in the script. I hope they’ll be ready to see it in a few years. In the meantime, my wife and I will continue to teach and, hopefully, model well for them how to relate to people with whom they don’t see eye to eye in healthy and productive ways.

See you at the Lounge Theatre next weekend! For tickets and additional info, visit the Behind the Ides website.

Behind the Ides Full Info

We’ll Never Forget. But Have We Learned?

All of us have promised that we won’t forget. But have we learned?

Have we learned that unity among people is fleeting and doesn’t just happen?That it must be sustained intentionally by leaders and each one of us? That divisive demagoguery, both in office and over the air waves, weakens the ties that bind us?

Have we learned that our lives are more meaningful when we commit time and treasure to helping each other rather than just consuming stuff?

Muslims with Muslim Posters

Have we learned to separate Muslims from murderers? That persecuting Muslims is not only un-American, but anti-Christian? That religious freedom for one faith community must extend equally to all, lest it become ineffectual for all?

Have we learned that our safety is much more threatened by white, American-born young men with weapons of mass murder than by brown, foreign-born ones?

Have we learned that though surveillance is necessary to our security, privacy is necessary to our American identity?

Soft Power, Hard Power

Have we learned that force must only be a last resort? That without wise leadership and planning, we cause more destruction than we prevent?

Have we learned that all our daughters and sons who serve in combat and survive do bear the wounds of war, even if unseen?

Have we learned that the security of our people is advanced much more efficiently and effectively by seeking the good of all peoples and not just our own?

martin-luther-king-1953486_1280

Have we learned that each person in our land deserves empathy and compassion, regardless of, well, anything, and that criticism ought only to proceed in humility not self-righteousness?

Have we learned that we Americans have much more in common than we don’t?

Let us never forget. But let us be sure that we also learn.

Obamas and Bushes at WTC
The Obamas and the Bushes at the opening of the National September 11 Memorial and Museum, Sept. 11, 2011. (Photo: ObamaWhiteHouse.archives.gov)