Running with Scissors

I suspect that, like many, I’ve come to see the coronavirus as an indictment of political foolishness.  Electing unqualified officials feels like all fun and games until a crisis emerges and the leadership has no idea what to do.  The Trump administration announced itself as anti-science and began breaking down the carefully built institutions that made our way of life possible.  His fans cheered.  Now they’re huddled in their bunkers with their stockpiled Purelle and toilet paper and Fox News on 24/7.  It’s a good thing that a stable genius is in charge.  He’s trying to get Germany to move production of the most promising vaccine to the land of his anti-vaccers, something Germany’s reluctant to do because 45 has a reputation internationally.  It seems he’s made America infectious again.

As those of us with brain stems try to find some way to comfort those we know and love, we keep coming back to the fact that this kind of pandemic is new in the internet-linked world.  No matter what you try to do right now you have to assess whether it involves meeting other people, potentially infected, and whether it’s worth the risk.  I had to go to a grocery store and Target over the weekend.  I’ve never seen so many empty shelves before.  This is what panic looks like.  The difference is that even W., who will never be considered among the smartest of presidents, recognized that institutions are there for a reason.  America’s greatness grew slowly by building on what’d gone before.  Tearing everything down in a narcissistic tantrum and claiming all we need to do is adore our autocrat, we now see how great this country has become.  Greatly afraid, that is.

Coronavirus closed schools more effectively than Betsy DeVos.  Businesses are reeling as the businessman president fumbles with facts and figures he can’t understand and can’t admit that science is real because, well, global warming and all that.  Internationally people are looking for solid leadership and finding that the autocrats they’ve elected have no idea what to do.  Self-aggrandizement is no basis for leadership.  The Republican senate had their chance just two months ago, but they were banking on their personal bank accounts, it seems.  Even in the face of this crisis Mitch McConnell persists on insisting it’a all a game.  As a child raised in a Republican home I was taught never to run with scissors.  But then, I had all my vaccines.  Mad dictator’s disease hadn’t yet been released upon the world.

Future Warming

It’s a good thing global warming is a myth, but somebody forgot to tell the hyacinths and lilies in my backyard.  February in Pennsylvania is not when you expect to see spring flowers.  Now I’m fully aware that unseasonal warm snaps and cold spells aren’t an indication of the global climate; they’re far too localized.  One thing I’ve learned in my several decades of life is that heat takes time to transfer.  If you’ve ever had to wait for a pan of water to boil when you’re hungry, you know that to be true.  On cold morning’s my coffee’s ice coffee before I finish the mug, but it does take time for that transition to happen as the cup empties.  With something so inconceivably large as the atmosphere, it takes time.  As our hemispheres take turns pointing at the sun and warming up, the air tries to reach equilibrium and so the weather goes.

Scientists are now talking about, once we get the deniers out of the White House, what long-term remediation plans we have to make.  We’ve already set in motion extreme weather events.  We’ve had decades of warning, but those who control the money just can’t bear to let any of it go.  It’s a safer bet to wreck the planet.  You can just cash in your insurance money and buy a new one.  That’s the way it works, isn’t it?  So I’m standing outside in my shirtsleeves in February staring at April flowers who think winter’s over already.  I don’t know what to say to them.

You can’t drive a car without a license, nor can you practice law or medicine.  To be a world leader you don’t even have to be literate.  I often imagine what the future survivors will say.  They’ll likely be there, since people have a way of getting by.  They may wonder if we knew this was coming.  Of course, the internet won’t be up and running then, and who knows what’ll happen to electronic information when there’s no power left to keep the servers going.  In any case, my perhaps futile answer to their imagined question is yes.  We did see this coming.  Some of tried every legitimate tool in the box called “democracy” (you’ll need a dictionary for that one) to introduce sanity into the discussion, but bluster wins over hard thinking every time.  I cup my hands around the tender, if resilient leaves.  They’re only doing as nature directs.  If only our species could pay such attention to what the planet is saying.

Officially Broken

Now that democracy is officially broken, it was with some poignancy that I stumbled upon a piece of ancient history.  Everyone has a box that contains their past life.  It used to be a physical box with papers in it, and in mine (which still has actual papers), I stumbled across a letter yellowed with age, dated 1980 from Conshohocken, Pennsylvania.  In an ill-fated career as a teenage journalist, I reported in the results of the presidential election from one of the polling places in Oil City, Pennsylvania.  The envelope held a serious letter from a state official letting me know how important my duty was.  As I looked at my teenage scrawl two things became clear: the Democrats had won in what is now a deeply red zone, and even when democracy worked it didn’t work well.  

You see, I had a number to call to report the results.  Since toll-free numbers hadn’t proliferated at that time in history, I was to make a collect call.  And since I lived in Rouseville, some three or four miles away, I couldn’t get the results in immediately.  On my way home, before making the collect call, it was announced that Reagan had won.  The ballot results, still tucked away in my envelope, hadn’t been reported, and obviously they weren’t important.  It was the first election in which I voted and I learned then that the system didn’t take all votes into account.  Now that Trump is firing those who managed to testify at his impeachment Republican senators reply, “Yes, that’s good, that’s right.  It’s as it should be.”  Democracy is dead.

These United Orwellian States displayed their predilections long ago.  I’d read 1984 about that time, before the eponymous year of the title.  I’d been deputized to report on an election whose results were declared before every vote was counted, and I lived in the Eastern Time Zone.  I didn’t vote in elections for several years after that.  When politically conscious friends asked why not, I said “what’s the point?”  You see, the reporting assignment was part of a current issues class in high school.  It was to teach us how government worked.  My teacher’s signature still graces the form inside.  As one political party has embodied massive dereliction of duty, we limp along toward November.  I don’t know if my vote will count or not, but I will be at the polls again.  Anyone who believes in democracy will have to be.  And perhaps, just perhaps, all the pre-planned cheating won’t work this time around.  Eric Arthur Blair, it is said, died a paranoid man.

What Remains?

As our government continues to pretend it has an interest in anything but enriching the individuals in Washington, a rather constant refrain of “broken system” has emerged.  It heard that phrase repeatedly in conversations in San Diego, on a variety of topics.  Now, I’m no stranger to buzzwords, but this strikes me as particularly apt to describe what we’re seeing.  A democracy within a republic builds safeguards to prevent the abuse of power, but when abuse of power occurs and one political party insists on enabling such abuse, the system is indeed broken.  Not only that, but there’s no will evident to fix it.  The GOP glories in it, feeling like it’s somehow winning the game as families and individuals suffer as a result of it.  In the past, it seems to me, there was a desire to repair what was an obvious problem.

Self-delusion, it seems, has become very common.  That, and some older politicians may not be aware how frequently they’re shown in their foibles on the internet.  Information that used to take weeks or months to filter out is now known instantaneously, and everybody’s overloaded and confused.  Politicians, instead of trying to show us the way in such a landscape are rather acting like my late stepfather in saying “Do as I say, not as I do.”  A fine bit of hypocrisy, that.  At least he tried to mend his ways, even if not successful in his efforts.  He would’ve known, however, that he had no business being president.  I reflect on this broken system quite a lot and I wonder what is next for us.  When trust in government is completely eroded, where do we turn?

Many have celebrated the decline of religion.  Let’s be more precise here and say organized religion.  Survey after survey reveals that we aren’t necessarily becoming less religious, but we’ve been watching prominent religious leaders throw their unstinting support behind a broken system.    Many of them continue to ignore the truth to support an incumbent who’s demonstrated that he’d just as soon turn on them as help their cause.  And for what?  Simply to prop up a tottering system, to squeeze out the last drops of what can be used to make things better for themselves before it all falls down.  As I was flying essentially coast to coast, it was evident from the air just how diverse a nation we are.  For nearly 250 years we’ve been able to make it work.  Now that it’s clearly broken, it seems the will to make it better has vanished.  And only politics remain.

V November

“Remember, remember the fifth of November,” begins the parable V for Vendetta before opening on a government not unlike our own.  Fascist, built on hatred, an angry white man speaks for the few who worship nothing but power and call it God.  Tomorrow is election day, and V can also stand for Vote.  Two years ago our nation awoke in shock.  Since that day we’ve seen hate crimes transform from illegal to commendable as Neo-Nazis are described as very fine people and those who actually do the labor for the nation have been disenfranchised so the uber-wealthy can have tax cuts.  Violence isn’t the answer, but voting can be.  As soon as the GOP sensed it might lose, it began voter suppression measures.  They have never watched V.

The hope for any democracy rests in the volition to vote.  We have to be willing to inconvenience ourselves to get to the polling station tomorrow for an outcome that will decide the fate of this nation.  We’ve had “fake news” spewn out at every fact that is distasteful.  Open, bald-faced lies backed up by sycophantic adoration of a non-charismatic hater—well, have you watched V for Vendetta?  Graphic novels, it turns out, can indeed be prophetic.  And since there are other nations out there that look to emulate the land of Amerigo Vespucci’s legacy.  We have forgotten what it was like to be a colony.  Instead we prefer following blind leaders—those who can’t understand that hateful words lead to hateful deeds.  Those who can’t understand that a terrorist can be an elected official.

I’m describing V for Vendetta, of course.  The coincidence of the Roman numeral five and the word “Vote,” however, hasn’t been lost on me.  I’ve talked to those displeased with the results of election day two years ago who hadn’t gone to vote.  What we see as V designs his intricate plan is that the will of the people still matters.  But for your will to be known, you must use your voice; you must vote.  Or be victims of our own system.  We’ve had two years to see what damage can be done—a constitution treated as a napkin and due process subverted in order to ensure ill-gotten gain.  Vivid colors have been used to stain this canvas.  We don’t often receive a chance to correct imbalances but there’s a lot at stake this time.  If you doubt me, at least watch V for Vendetta and remember that parables are, by definition, true.

Day of Memorials

I admit that I’m as guilty as the next guy of thinking of holidays primarily as a day off work. A boon from the gods of capitalism so that we can come back to the job rejuvenated and more productive than ever. It doesn’t matter the occasion—I don’t have time for things like haircuts and dentist appointments with the usual round of early to rise, early to work. Holidays become islands of blessed respite in an endless ocean of labor for the man. So I wanted to take a moment to reflect on Memorial Day. Memorial Day is a time to remember those who have died—grandfather, grandmother, America. We take a moment to consider what we have lost. Then it’s back to business as usual.

My father was a veteran. He died many years ago now and I don’t write much about him because I really didn’t know him at all. That doesn’t mean I didn’t want to please him. Any boy wants to make dad proud. I tried the hard work route, and even gave Boy Scouts a try. The things of my youth have been slowly dying. Democracy is merely the latest victim. I shouldn’t be surprised—when it no longer becomes profitable, even the least offensive system of government can be bought and revamped to fit the needs of the greedy. Never mind the will of the masses. They’re the ones who lie under the gravestones for which today stands. No one can be rich without great numbers of poor against which to measure himself. Remember that; it’s Memorial Day.

Since Memorial Day doesn’t lend itself to commodification—let’s face it, outside Halloween death’s a downer—we can make it a day of sales. While you’re earning money without working, why not spend some of it? We seem to have lost the gist of holidays. Those who’ve died in vain believed in a democracy that their heirs have thrown away in scorn. If that for which we say we believe has become moribund, it appropriately becomes the focus of Memorial Day. My grandparents lie buried far from here. They were Evangelicals who wouldn’t recognize their faith reflected in those who still cling to the brand. I remember grandma sending money to Oral Roberts. She didn’t live to see him claim God would take him unless he had even more money. Now we hear the same thing from Pennsylvania Avenue. And tomorrow we all go back to work.

Kakistocracy

While in seminary I had the interesting job of teaching a visually impaired student Greek. This wasn’t an arbitrary choice on the part of my professors since, as an undergraduate I had exhausted the Greek curriculum at Grove City College and my fourth year the professor suggested I teach the course to the second years. This was, however, strictly koiné—I’ve always been from the lower class echelons. Trying to figure out how to explain a dead language to a student who couldn’t see required some creativity. At that point in my life ministry loomed as a career and it was still fairly easy to learn new languages. I was studying Hebrew at the time with the inimitable William Holladay at Andover Newton Theological Seminary, both of which are now gone.

I recently ran across a story in the Washington Post that utilized an unfamiliar word based on Greek: kakistocracy. It seems that the present administration has officials scrambling for new words to describe the depths to which our government is willing to sink. There’s an old saying: “the Greeks have a word for it”—I suspect the ancients would be shocked to see this particular word emerging again after centuries of progress. The translation of kakistocracy is quite logical for those with some Hellenistic training; it means “rule by the worst.” The sad thing is that democracy has come to this. Anyone with a fragment of a brain stem could see that 45 didn’t win the election in any sense but an electoral college one—giving us a new direction to sling the related word “kaka” around. It was the fact that those privileged to vote simply didn’t get around to it. As it was, the “incumbent” lost by three million votes. Nobody, however, is willing to do anything about it. It’s kaka.

If the swamp has been drained, it’s been to become a cesspool. With complete disregard for decency, decorum, and democracy, the directives issuing from the potty mouth on Pennsylvania Avenue demonstrate just how diabolical government can become. The sad thing is, the Greeks already had a word for it. One thing we know about our species is that we like to repeat our worst moments over and over again. Even worse, we seem to be proud of it. So as the kakistocracy grows to include porn stars, genital grabbing, and treasonous relations with foreign nations, the world looks in wonder and concludes people like George Washington and Thomas Jefferson had gotten it wrong after all. At least the student I was tutoring, although she couldn’t see, wanted to learn to read. And that made all the difference.

The Big Chill

It’s cold. It may not be Alaska, or even Wisconsin, but I can’t feel my fingers and the temperature hasn’t risen above freezing all day. New Jersey doesn’t get the incredible chills we used to experience in Wisconsin, but I’ve been outside going on two hours and I really need some warmth. And it’s not just me. At least a couple hundred of us are out here and it’s not for the Super Bowl. It’s for justice. We’re rallying at the beautiful courthouse of Somerset County, in solidarity with our Muslim Americans, protesting the latest actions of our own government. Some of the people here are old enough to remember Hitler. Others are young enough that they have to be held. We are from countries all over the world. We are saying “No!” to the evil that is coming out of Washington.

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Those who voted for Trump out of a sense of fiscal conservatism were sorely misguided. This was a hostile takeover of what used to be a democracy by people who rely daily on alternative facts. Who make up massacres that never happened. Who claim that their personal billions have made them victims. Who believe that men have a God-given right to determine what women can do with their bodies. Who state that men who aren’t attracted to women or women to men are somehow deviant. Who openly mock the disabled. Who resist Black Lives Matter. Who can’t tell you one of the five pillars of Islam but can tell you that they’re all wrong. A government that’s over the people, despite the people, and against the people. Self-serving, self-enriching, and self-satisfied. A government where party has become more important than the welfare of the nation. A government that lost the popular vote by nearly three million, and those were only the ones who bothered to get out to vote. A government that lays its hand on the Bible and lies. That prays for itself, not for the good of its people.

That’s why I’m out here in the cold. I’m standing in a crowd that, like those who gather at airports, courthouses, and city streets, is saying “Enough!” The abuse of power is taking advantage of what you can “legally” claim without regard for the will of those you represent. Representative government fails when it fails to represent the people. We don’t want to be out here freezing our fingers, noses, and toes. We’d rather be comfortable and warm at home. As chilly as it may be in New Jersey tonight, it’s colder in the heart of this country and unless we the people do something, Hell itself is in real danger of freezing over.

On the Ground

Washington, DC has always struck me as an artificial city. The neoclassical architecture is just a bit pompous and rolling into town on a train is kind of like stepping onto a movie set. Or, I’m told, into Los Vegas. Regulations about the heights of buildings make it unlike other large communities, and the Washington Monument has taken on a new phallic significance as of this weekend. I don’t come here seeking salvation. Indeed, I only came to register my dissatisfaction. I’m not alone. “Pussy hats” outnumber red caps by a long shot. It’s time to stand up and be counted. Stepping out of Union Station the first thing we saw was a Black Lives Matter protest. It’s peaceful, but forceful. Those selling Trump merchandise look like it’s a slow day. The inauguration is less than three hours from now.

Washington has some personal resonance with me. My grandmother—herself a second generation American—was born here. She wouldn’t have shared my political views, I’m pretty sure, but I believe in fair treatment for all. Even those who haven’t asked for it. The last time I was here it was for a conference. The atmosphere was more congenial then, but I’m liking the number of protesters I’m seeing here today. Woman carrying signs, wearing pink hats, talking to people they don’t even know. We’re all in this together and it sure feels better to know you’re not alone. We come upon a protest march. Police are herding the crowd away with an impressive array of black. A small crowd gathers to watch. I hear what sound like explosions. Welcome to the land of the need, the home of the rave. I’m not here to make trouble. The electoral college started it.

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What you saw on the news last night isn’t what was taking place here on the ground. The protests here in DC have been going on all day. Even as I was getting ready for bed protesters had blocked the street on the way to Trump’s oversized balls even as the television anchors were spreading a narrative of glitz and glam, ignoring the tempest just outside. Determined to normalize Trump as if the elections of incompetents were everyday business is these states, the smiling anchors didn’t comment on the completely empty stands of the inaugural parade that were so painfully obvious. I’ve never seen so much riot gear in my life. This, they tell me, is democracy. I’m here to march peacefully, in solidarity. Marches in 60 countries and seven continents—the first ever Presidential protest in Antarctica has been announced. To see you only have to open your eyes. I’m in DC and I’m glad to be in the company of others who haven’t yet given up on our country.

Stand Up

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At first glance, we had little in common. In fact, of all the people in the room the only one I knew was my wife. We were gathered together to find ways to defend ourselves against our government. Those who normalize Trump and claim that his nearly 3 million vote loss qualifies as a mandate are blind. Those of us who have been complacent, believing that our government—even with obviously inferior candidates such as the Bush family offerings—was in the process of self-balancing have found the bar of the scales of justice broken. Founded as a democracy, we’ve “elected” our first dictator, who, if unchallenged, has already indicated that our civil and human rights are just chattels to be bargained away around the boardroom table. Once those of us who survive the next four years stagger out, I wonder if it won’t be time to establish a test to be president. A basic competency test.

For my job, I’m evaluated on basic competencies. An editor, for example, has to understand both the language in which the job is undertaken and possess a fair amount of skill in a variety of administrative tasks to perform adequately. Why doesn’t the most powerful job in the nation require a set of basic competencies? Things such as a basic vocabulary test and being able to point to foreign nations on a map? It may sound elitist, but I grew up in a working class family and although I’ve never run for political office, even I knew the value of legitimate education. Watching a politician surrounding himself by fact-deniers in a cabinet of untruth should demonstrate to even those who voted for him that we’ve put an incompetent politician in power. We’ve batted our eyes at a man we don’t know and have asked him to dance.

I’ve made it more than half a century without needing to be political. We now all have to become political. It’s distressing to see others my age saying “what can you do?” with a shrug of the shoulders. We can organize. We can resist. We can insist that the values that 3 million more voters showed in an historic win of the popular vote be represented by our government. This is not status quo ante. This is not just another political snafu. We all face a challenge to basic democracy and a level of untruth unprecedented even by politicians in the past two centuries. Don’t sit still. Get involved. Stand up for human rights, because your government elect has made it clear that it won’t.

Demo-God

Not having access to the news wires, I am generally scooped by CNN’s Belief Blog. Of course, blogs dealing with religion are a pretty cheap commodity these days, especially since, as I’ve mentioned before, everyone’s a self-proclaimed expert on the subject. So it appears appropriate that God’s approval rating was put to the polls. According to Public Policy Polling, God only enjoys a 52 percent approval rating. Only 9 percent of those surveyed dared give God a negative “disapprove,” but that still leaves a large middle ground where— to borrow a phrase—God is in the dock. The scenario where a democratic society expresses its opinion on leadership, both human and divine, makes me recall the movie The Mission. Fr. Gabriel has to remind Fielding at one point, “We [the church] are not a democracy.” Religion is handed down from on high and those who inherit it have no right to question.

Or do they? When I was growing up in the sixties one of the common social references in the media was the teenager (oh, what rebellion!) yelling at his parents, “I didn’t ask to be born!” In the current universe, however, that is where all religious believers find themselves. With the exception of the few who suppose themselves somehow self-generated, we all realize that we are subject to the whims of the creator. That, of course, does not prevent us from sharing our opinion on the issue. Fr. Gabriel is right: this is not a democracy. The stereotypical 1960s teenager is also right: we did not ask for this. No wonder the approval ratings for the divine have plummeted. It seems that the tenets so readily accepted in more submissive times have eroded. Is God about to retire? Step quietly from center stage?

What’s next for the Big Guy? Will he write his memoirs—wait, he’s already done that; what do you think the Bible is? Perhaps an unemployed creator would be interested in making another universe. The problem is that wherever consciousness exists, ideas will soon follow. Some ideas fit comfortably in the system: do as you’re told because I’m stronger than you, for example. When the expression of power as an inappropriate means of governance evolves, however, the voices of democracy will emerge. Maybe it is safer to schedule an apocalypse after all. Let’s just hope that God doesn’t take a page from the politicians’ handbook, otherwise nothing will ever really change.

Devil’s Ethics

It’s that time of year when state employees (even part-timers) are subjected to ethics training. Each year the irony of the situation becomes thicker and more viscous. You see, those of us who have part-time engagements are often on the receiving end of ethical violations, and we know better than to make ripples since we are disposable. I’ll say nothing of the well-known (almost infamous) ethical history of New Jersey, but today’s headlines suggest an even higher power when it comes to unethical actions. An Associated Press story bears the headline “U.S. biological horror stories brought before commission.” The report concerns official United States studies conducted on its own citizens by exposing people to and deliberately infecting them with various diseases. This may come as a shock to many, but already in the 1980s it was documented that America’s guinea pigs were its own citizens.

Leonard Cole’s Clouds of Secrecy: The Army’s Germ Warfare Tests over Populated Areas, published in 1988, exposed many documented incidents of biological agent testing on non-consenting, and unsuspecting citizens. The testing was done in the name of national security (for which you may now be groped by any TSA official whose hands are not otherwise engaged). As this report demonstrates, our own government has viewed those of us not in positions of power as manipulable, expendable, and somehow less valuable than those elected by schemes they devise themselves. Democracy, it seems, is not free.

We are expected to heave a sigh of relief (come on now, everybody, it’s okay) since the history exposed is between 40 and 80 years old. That’s ancient history, right? An industrial-military complex today would never violate the rights of citizens. At least not officially. At least not as long as the Freedom of Information Act ensures that citizens have access to records (several years after the fact), and as long as it is not deemed a matter of national security. The color of your underwear and the shape of what is beneath are government assets. Also, so is your immune system. Otherwise you are free to live your life uninhibited. Unless, that is, you are a state employee with an extensive ethics background. Excuse me, but I’ve got to get back to my ethics training.

I Have a Daydream

I don’t often comment directly on politics because I don’t like to get beaten up. I’m not a poly-sci major who has statistically verified evidence to present, and many of the issues are simply too complex for a guy like me. I’m left scratching my head like a confused ape. Nevertheless, I’ve just finished covering Micah in my Prophets class, and the eighth century prophets have a way of firing up even the most passive of souls on the issue of social justice. Also, newspaper stories continue to demonstrate that most elected officials, living in their world of privilege and power, have lost touch with the average citizen. After reading the prophets and dreaming of a better world, I have a proposal to end oligarchy and institute democracy.

No person who earns more than $100,000 a year should be eligible to run for public office. Now I live in New Jersey where the cost of living is high. I have survived here for over three years with an income far less than half of that figure, so I know it can be done. Observing the abusive tactics of bishops first-hand, I had suggested a similar measure for the church some years ago. To become a bishop an individual should be forced to take a pay-cut, bringing their income below that of those they serve. Politicians are “public servants” who’ve grown fat on the generous salaries they devise for themselves alongside their perks, kick-backs, and expense accounts. The same also applies to politicians in higher education. You want a really excellent university president? Reduce the funding for the post. Only those truly committed to the ideals of education would be willing to take on the job. Posers and playboys would have to step down.

Corporate-style greed has a strangle-hold on democracy. Most people are content to let the wealthy rule as long as they are left alone – freedom in exchange for accepting the demands of the self-indulgent. My daydream is of a world where people can free themselves from the never-ending greed of the corporate climber. And my system would not exclude anyone for seeking office. All the wealthy would have to do is be willing to live on a middle-class or lower salary for a few years. Politicians have forgotten (if they ever even knew) what is like to struggle, worry, and fear that any month, week, or day you might not be able to meet your obligations. They don’t personally watch the prices increasing at the pump or at the grocery store or on the electric bill. Their Olympian existence is beyond human suffering. It is once more time to ask, “what would Micah do?”