A Boomer History, Confession, and Apology

“Okay Boomer” is already passé, but there’s still this feeling that we Boomers owe the world (and especially our kids) an apology. It’s hard to apologize for your own life, but I’ve given it a lot of thought, and I think I’m onto something.

 First some history, to set the context.

From the 60’s to today, as fast as I can.

I lived through it, read a lot about it (so have you), watched the Ken Burns 60’s series way back when it first came out (have you seen it?) but I still don’t get how we got from V-J Day to Haight Asbury. Something to do with the Commies and Joseph McCarthy… also Elvis, James Dean, and ’56 Chevvies. Also “I Like Ike” buttons (I remember asking my dad who “Ike” was).

Mostly I wasn’t there. I started to be there around JFK and Khrushchev and fallout shelter signs on buildings and articles in the paper telling you how to build a backyard bomb shelter. But instead of nuclear holocaust we had the British Invasion, Dylan, Berkeley, Timothy Leery, Abbie Hoffman, Zeppelin, and 1968. And pot — don’t forget pot. And Woodstock. Pot and Woodstock. And the Establishment, and movements to overthrow it – civil rights, anti-war, women’s rights. LBJ on TV telling us how many more dead in Vietnam. Neil Armstrong moonwalking live on TV.

How long were the 60’s?

Not as long as the 70’s, which a cynical and insightful friend summed up as, “What was that decade about?!” Yeah, pretty much. It blasted out with two bestsellers – The Late Great Planet Earth, about how the Christian Apocalypse would go down, and Future Shock, about how technological innovation was scrambling the world’s collective brains.

It was the decade of iconic helicopter photos:  the Saigon rooftop embassy scramble and the famous helicopter that was later donated to Broadway; Nixon’s helicopter taking one last nostalgic swing by the Capitol that almost made him seem human; and the three crashed helicopters on the failed Iranian Hostage rescue attempt.

Nixon ended the draft, which saved my butt since I had a low number. I was also the first-ever conscientious objector in my small rural town. Gerry Ford and Jimmy Carter took over for Nixon — nice guys but inept. Carter was the first President I voted for. I remember his campaign speeches– how he would flash that smile and it never seemed to be related to anything he was saying — like a facial tic. Creepy, but not Nixon creepy. I also remember that he turned “impact” into a verb, which to an English major was fingernails on a chalkboard. And let’s not forget beer-drinking barbecue brother Billy Carter (how do some people become media darlings?). Plus Jimmy was a God-fearing, Bible-knowing man, and that becomes important later.

The 70’s also gave us Roe vs. Wade and the scandalous idea that pregnancy was biological and it wasn’t a soul in there. Also the OPEC oil embargo — our first serious wake up call from the environment, but we didn’t think of it that way, we just thought those Arab guys who dressed like Lawrence of Arabia had gotten too greedy. Lines around the block at the gas pump and keeping the thermostat at 68 in winter were obvious signs that Late Great was right about how Middle East oil would ignite the Second Coming. Plus, speaking of petroleum, don’t forget polyester leisure suits. And bell bottoms. But how about we all agree to forget 70’s mustaches?

We made it to the 80’s, when we all turned 30 and couldn’t be trusted anymore. If we had all resigned like we should have, we wouldn’t be having this conversation. But we didn’t, and instead tried to grow up, have careers, start families – you know, the usual, except that we invented “participant” ribbons so our kids would know that they were all special. We didn’t do participant trophies in my household. Probably explains a lot.

Ronald Reagan swept in with great speeches – the first we’d heard since JFK and MLK. Besides his Gipper act, he ended Smiling Jimmy’s double-digit inflation, freed the hostages, fired the air traffic controllers, and appointed Milton Friedman and the Chicago School of Economics as a substitute Treasury Dept. As for rock and roll, it was “Springsteen, Madonna, way before Nirvana/There was U2 and Blondie/And music still on MTV.” (Bowling for Soup – go ahead — sing along). (I missed all that great music – even ABBA. I was too busy trying to grow up.) Then Gorbachev and Chernobyl and Berlin brought over four decades of the Constant Commies to an end for good, which proved that capitalism is obviously superior.

When the Clintons and Gores got elected we had our very own President, complete with jamming a sax on SNL. Tipper gave us lyric warning labels on CD’s while Bill was busy taking the 60’s sexual revolution a bit too far. He and Tony Blair on the other side made up for it by cleansing the world of welfare queens, and by the time they were done, the Treasury Dept.’s vision of the privatizing and monetizing everything was well on the way to becoming the new normal – an expression that hadn’t been created yet.

The 90’s started with the 2000 Millennium Bug no-show, and by now the pace of growing up had slowed enough that I could finally discover all that great 80’s rock n roll I missed. “Cool” made a resurgence as “kewl,” which you could put together with “like” and “dude” to make a complete sentence. Like, kewl dude. The dot.com bubble made geeks into millionaires, then flabbered out like a whoopee cushion. “Okay” made a resurgence, along with making declarative statements with a rising intonation, so they sounded like questions? Kind of kewl, but maybe a hint that things weren’t really all that okay. “The kids are  alright,” The Who assured us in the 60’s. Not anymore. Now we had a new kind of crime — school shootings — that would become an American mainstay. 

Somewhere in the decadal seams there were PC’s, cell phones, and internet dial-up connections. Lots of Future Shock. We’d been warned. It didn’t help. Then something came with no warning and changed things forever:

The twin towers fell.

One of the most spectacular crimes ever committed. Nothing like the legalized crime of two world wars, Korea, Vietnam, nothing like the Holocaust or Hiroshima. But we weren’t there for those. Now we had people hating us just for existing, and they had broken into our house.

My kids’ ages were still in single digits when they held a memorial service in our living room. Post-9-11 is the only world they’ve ever known – security lines, Homeland Security, the Patriot Act and the surveillance state….

All of us remember where we were and what we were doing when we heard about it – like we do with JFK’s assassination (as Dylan reminded us a couple years ago. Dylan! 17 minutes of Dylan! In the midst of a pandemic!)

9-11 gave W a chance to launch his righteous war that we will never, ever get out of. We kicked ass in Desert Storm – which unlike the Vietnam War was fun to watch on TV (remember the Scud Stud?). Then came the phantom WMD’s and the advent of “truthiness” (Colbert) and some White House staff guy (everybody thinks it was Karl Rove but he denies it) who said, “guys like me were in what we call the ‘reality-based community’ – [people who] believe that solutions emerge from your judicious study of discernible reality… That’s not the way the world really works anymore. We’re an empire now, and when we act, we create our own reality.”

Truthiness and “we create our own reality” were the serious beginning of the end. Mark that on your calendar. It wasn’t the Late Great Apocalypse, not yet anyway, but it was unquestionably the end, and the main reason why we Boomers owe everybody (especially you) an apology. I’ll clarify that in a moment, but first — and I’ll speed it up now – I need to mention that hope made its last public appearance when we danced in the streets at Obama’s election. But too soon the party turned into The Civics Lesson They Never Taught Us – that one man in Congress who shall not be named (oh, that reminds me, I forgot to mention Harry Potter back in the 90’s) can block an entire Presidential agenda.

One man.

Remind you of anybody?

By now, the new Millennium was turning into the new Disillusionment – a trend  emphatically reinforced when the economic bottom fell out with the “Great Recession” which wasn’t so great unless you worked on Wall Street, in which case your firm got a huge bailout because you were too big to fail and you and all the other account exec’s got humungous bonuses.

You gotta love capitalism.

Yes, somehow we got affordable healthcare legislation, which we needed because Clinton and Blair had privatized the world so that consumers had to fend for themselves, which the Friedman Chicago Treasury Dept. had been telling us was a good thing because the top 1% can’t get rich enough fast enough if the government has to pay for stuff. The Republicans are still pissed that Obamacare snuck past them, so it’s been on the chopping block ever since — along with Obama’s birth certificate.

And after that there was Occupy (a.k.a “The Millennials Last Stand”) and in the aftermath came Trump and Covid and… and… and I guess I just don’t feel like completing the list, okay? We all know it by heart anyway.

Which brings us up to “okay Boomer” and our kids’ generation (you) demanding an apology.

You deserve it. Not that it will do anybody any good. We’re way too far lost in the land of Trump-Republican-Libertarian-Fascist-End-of-Democracy-QAnon-Insurrection-Anti-Vaxxers-Climate-Change-Deniers-And-All-The-Rest for it to do any good. But I’ll try anyway.

Here’s the worst thing I think we did that screwed everything up:

We believed.

Really. That was our biggest, most enduring sin. We believed so much that we gave the world belief metastasized – something I call “beliefism” — my version of “truthiness” and “we create our own reality.”

  • Belief creates worldview, worldview creates reality, and reality is whatever belief makes it.
  • Belief is biological. Our brains are wired to believe.
  • Belief doesn’t distinguish fact from fiction, truth from truthiness, clarity from delusion. As far as belief is concerned, all reality is alternate reality.
  • Belief is powered by hormones, chemicals, and electrical charges. Those things make us feel good.
  • The more we believe, the more belief we can tolerate. The more we tolerate, the more we believe. That’s called “addiction.”
  • Belief is both individual and communal. We share perspective with each other, we create shared reality.
  • Belief takes on substance. We build things together to support and perpetuate the reality we create together — institutions, architecture, art, economics, law, government, religion, norms and customs, rituals and practices, metaphors and icons.
  • Belief provides purpose and meaning and mission, lays out incentives and rewards, hypes us into feeling inspired and enthusiastic and fired up to do great things.
  • Belief should come with a warning — “Handle With Care.” But it doesn’t, and we just go along believing things like it’s no big deal.
  • We believe things, then our brains get busy proving that what we believe is the way things really are. Hence the silos we live in.
  • All of that is a set up for beliefism.
  • Belief’s enemy is doubt, which is caused by thinking.
  • Belief always takes its war against doubt to the extreme – pushes its own agenda to the exclusion of alternatives, silences reasoned discourse to the point that we lose the power to think for ourselves.
  • At that point, belief metastasizes into beliefism.
  • Beliefism is self-referential, therefore unaccountable and unethical. It runs on a repeating loop of self-reinforcing “logic” that polarizes and builds silos.
  • Beliefism radicalizes belief into fundamentalism, extremism, cultism.
  • Beliefism runs on neurological and social conformity – for the sake of personal identity and survival, for group cohesiveness. Cults, nations, corporations, religions, academic disciplines, societal institutions — anything believed into existence — is built on mind control.
  • Beliefism runs in stealth mode. We don’t notice or examine what beliefism is doing to our perspective, worldview, reality. We don’t see it because we can’t.
  • Beliefism removes belief from reason, examination, and critical thinking until unmoored belief bloats into delusion. We become a danger to ourselves and others. Our risk/return matrix warps. We drink the Kool-Aid, storm the Capitol, flock to super-spreader events.
  • Beliefism makes fantasy and foolishness logical.
  • Beliefism corrupts and is corrupted. It equivocates, luxuriates in hypocrisy. It takes bribes, is enticed, falls for the temptation. It justifies, exempts itself. It isolates, withdraws, banishes, protects, secures, seizes the greater share while denying the lesser. It harvests where it has not sown, builds where it does not own. It taunts, bullies, lies, cheats, steals, curries to the strong, the rich and the powerful while chastising, blaming, and afflicting the weak, hungry, homeless, and despairing.
  • And more. So much more.

Confessions of a believer.

We really thought we were on the brink of the Age of Aquarius, that Peace Love Prunes and Woodstock could last forever. Jesus Freaks like me repurposed all that as the Kingdom of God. We started believing with Jimmy and kept believing right through Reagan and the Berlin Wall and Bill and Tony. I personally started dropping out at W and the Not-so-Great Recession bailouts and bonuses, but by then the Truthiness Train already had too much momentum.

Back in the day, I was the most advanced form of believer — a Christian. Nothing happens in Christianity without belief. Nothing. Not even God. I cheered for the Christian Right (not called that yet), prayed for them, believed in them.  I never knew. My generation never knew. We had no clue that beliefism, truthiness, and “we create own reality” would morph into fake truth and Christian Nationalism and believe-whatever-conspiracy-theories-you-want-and-the-more-bizarre-the-better. We didn’t see that a greedy, selfish, delusional mindset would take over the American mind, turn us to self-absorption and stupidity and the loss of community and the common good – and even more privatization and monetization in an economy so skewed that the world’s billionaires could see their net worths rise by over 60% — with estimates as high as $4.0 TRILLION – during a frickin’ pandemic.

Future Shock didn’t warn us about this, but we could have known — this kind of crap has happened before, and hasn’t ended well – but we were too full of ourselves ,too busy asserting our “self-efficacy” and “agency” to think history had anything to teach us.

Yes, we were children of our own times. Yes, we were at the beck and call of Future Shock and Late Great and movements and megatrends that swallowed us up. Yes we were victims, the tools of Fate. None of that is any excuse. We were also the perpetrators, the “free” moral agents (who weren’t free at all) making bad choices, full of the kind of hubris that guarantees a tragic end. Looking back, our arrogance and ignorance were stunning. We were blind and unaware of history and of ourselves, and in that state we created the reality in which we and you now live.

We did this. Our belief was corrupted, we squandered our inheritance and sold what was left to the highest bidder. And now opportunity and fairness are a thing of our parents’ past. And you? We left you with the side hustle. Good luck. Hope you can survive.

And now you want an apology.

Okay. You and I both know it’s not worth the digital 00’s and 01’s it’s written with, but I assure you it’s heartfelt.

I’m truly sick about the mess we created.

We made this mess. We did this – by our belief and in the name of God.

If there were a God, I would petition him for mercy.

If there were a God, and if he had any decency and ethics and self-respect, he would petition us to forgive him for allowing it to happen.

But I’ve lost all my old faith that there’s a God to forgive me, and God has never gone on record to ask our forgiveness.

We did this – we Boomers all, and especially those of us who did it in the name of God.

Guilt, shame, grief, regret… Yes, I’ve experienced all of that. But it’s not enough. All I have left to offer are two totally inadequate words:

I’m sorry.

Beliefism [5]: The “Do the Impossible” Gospel

Reality. Illusion. Delusion. Possible. Impossible. How do you know which is which?

Did that really happen?!

In 1983 David Copperfield made the Statue of Liberty disappear in front of a live television audience.

Except he didn’t. The statue was still there, it just looked like it wasn’t.

A magician manipulates our attention – we follow the decoy and miss the trick. An illusionist manipulates our perception – we look right at it but don’t see it. David Copperfield was performing as an illusionist – he didn’t change reality, he changed the audience’s perception of it. They only thought he did something impossible.  

Impossible can’t happen, by definition. The odds against it are infinite. If something impossible happens, the realm of possibility expands to take it in. The thing we declared was impossible wasn’t impossible after all – we only thought it was.

Christianity and self-help share the same “do the impossible” gospel. Can they actually pull it off? Let’s look at the self-help version first.

Self-Help Does the Impossible

Roger Bannister breaking the “impossible” four-minute mile barrier has become a self-help gospel trope. You can find a version of the following just about anywhere — I found it on a job website:

“Bannister broke the psychological barrier that had held back the greatest runners for over a century. Other runners now believed wholeheartedly that it was possible. It is no surprise then that within a few years, several other runners broke the four-minute mile too.

“For the majority of us who will never attempt to break a running record, the four-minute mile represents the limiting beliefs of what we think is possible to achieve in our lives.

“We tend to limit our goals in business, relationships, finance, health and profession within the realm of what society says is possible or impossible. But throughout history, there are a handful of people like Bannister, who break the limits of what’s possible and leave a lasting legacy.

“What makes them different isn’t their talent, skills or resources, but their belief system. They’d rather take the lead, step outside their comfort zone and risk failure, than wait in their comfort zone for permission from others to achieve the impossible.

“Followers wait for leaders to show them what’s possible. Leaders break the barriers of what’s possible.

“Which one will you choose?”

Talk about rewriting history to match your sales pitch….

Raise your hand if you think limiting beliefs and comfort zones and the rest of the self-help mumbo-jumbo was going through anybody’s minds at the time.

Me neither.

Now raise your head if you think all the other runners suddenly “believed wholeheartedly” that they could do it, too.

Me neither.

That was 1954. Roger Bannister was a competitive runner – of course he “would rather take the lead.” Duh. But now, we’ve got the four-minute mile self-help gospel memorized. Want something that feels impossible? The problem is your limiting beliefs. Believe you can have it, then go for it — break out of your comfort zone, take a risk. Ta da! – you did the impossible!

Don’t you wish.

Christianity Does the Impossible

Self-help has deep roots in Christianity – the original believe-the-impossible-into-existence religion. Here’s what Jesus said:

“All things are possible for one who believes.” Mark 9:23 ESV

“Truly, I say to you, whoever says to this mountain, ‘Be taken up and thrown into the sea,’ and does not doubt in his heart, but believes that what he says will come to pass, it will be done for him.” Mark 11:23 ESV

“All things.” Nothing left out. Carte Blanche . Believe what you want, don’t doubt, and it’s yours. You can move mountainsNothing will be impossible for you.

Raise your hand if you’ve done the impossible that way, or seen it done that way — live and in person, in real space and time.

Me neither. But that didn’t stop me from trying for over two decades.

Reality. Illusion. Delusion.

The idea of doing the impossible plays with our notions of how much “reality” is objective — the thing is really there, whether we think so or not – vs. subjective – the thing is only there because we think it is. If we only think it’s there, we can think it somewhere else. But if it’s really there, well now that’s a different story.

Current neuroscience says it’s both and neither. There’s external (on the other side of our skin) stimuli coming at us, but we don’t have any way to actually find out what’s “out there” because our experience of it is entirely shaped inside the hot, wet biology of our bodies and brains (inside our skin). So people like celebrity neuroscientist Beau Lotto think there’s no such thing as delusion, because everything is an illusion – reality isn’t out there, it’s in here, it’swhat we make up inside ourselves. (Yes, there is such a thing as a celebrity neuroscientist, and yes, that’s what Beau Lotto is. For lots more, check out and his book, TED talks, and Lab of Misfits.)

I get that… I think… sort of… at least the part about internally processing external stimuli. But I still think there’s such a thing as delusion – especially if the topic is doing the impossible – mostly because I’m quite sure I was delusional about it for all those years.

“Then I’ll get on my knees and pray/ we don’t get fooled again!”

I became a Christian as the 1960’s rolled into the 1970’s. It was the dawning of the Age of Aquarius, and the Jesus Freaks fit right in. Their Jesus served up counter-cultural radical ideas like turning the other cheek (“all we are saying/ is give peace a chance”) and loving your neighbor (“c’mon people now/smile on your brother/everybody get together/try to love one another right now”). Their Jesus tossed out predatory capitalism and invited us into charity and community and trusting our “Heavenly Father” for food, clothing, and shelter. Their Jesus upended our assumptions about what was true and how the world worked, and taught us to believe the impossible into existence. Their Jesus was always sticking it to the Man and liked to hang out and party with the losers (freaks) of his day. I was 19 and ripe for a way to be a Hippie without being stoned all the time. Of course I joined up.

Eventually I cut my hair and got a real job, but stayed committed to proving that Jesus’s counter-cultural, new truth, do-the-impossible vibe worked in primetime adult life. I wore a suit and tie (!) to work, but still pushed the Jesus Freak agenda to the max, and might still be doing that if I hadn’t gotten lucky and got myself kicked out of the “church renewal movement” I was part of for doing exactly what I’d been taught. (A story I’ve told elsewhere and won’t repeat here.)

On the way out of Christianity, I stumbled into self-help. It lacked Christian ecclesiology, iconography, doctrine, vocabulary, and historical trappings, so for awhile I thought it was some kind of new psychology-based way to successful living – which is precisely what the self-helpers want us to think. But after awhile, it was all too familiar. “God” was often still “God” but more often “the Universe.” The Bible was misquoted in pseudo-Biblical sound bytes. Jesus was mentioned now and then – usually with the lame “good teacher” title —  and sometimes was completely reinvented — like when The Secret declared that he was a millionaire. And on it went. Before long it was clear that self-help was a wannabe substitute religion for Christianity. Its belief dynamics were identical. Like Christianity, it declared that doing the impossible could become the new normal if we just believed. Both religions claimed they could show you how believe effectively enough to get the impossible things you wanted.

As far as I can tell, Plato was the first one to write, “wisdom is what works.” I pushed the “do the impossible” gospel to the point where it finally failed the “wisdom is what works” test so completely I couldn’t make excuses for it anymore.

If that’s not delusion, it’ll do till the real thing comes along.

Now I’m in recovery. I’m done with doing the impossible. That shit is toxic to me now. I can’t go anywhere near it.

Next time, we’ll look at the beliefism source code for both religions.

The Religion of the Damned

You are damned. That’s the first premise.

You can be un-damned. That’s the second.

But it’s going to cost you. Third.

What it’s going it cost you is you have to live like you’re still damned.

Got that?

I’ll get to it in a minute, But first…

Welcome to the Black Parade – the congregation of “the broken, the beaten, and the damned.”[1]

How does New Jersey produce so many great bands? My Chemical Romance rode the seam between Gen X and the Millennials. Their Black Parade album and tour spanned 2006-2007. It was genius – it finally gave the Goths a place to belong. A friend of mine went to a concert. She was like, “All I could think was, where are their parents? Did they totally give up?”

It’s good to belong. Things are better when you belong. People rally, help each other out. Better to be a damned Goth and belong than to be a damned Goth and not.

“Now, come one, come all to this tragic affair
Wipe off that makeup, what’s in is despair
So throw on the black dress, mix in with the lot
You might wake up and notice you’re someone you’re not

“If you look in the mirror and don’t like what you see
You can find out first hand what it’s like to be me.”

Genius Lyrics — “The End” My Chemical Romance.

Brilliant. Tour the world, and all the kids in black sing every word with you. Which is saying a lot, because there are a lot of words, staccato fast.

Now back to the Religion of the Damned. That’s where I started, following the “Jesus Rock” signs around campus to a guy named Larry Norman doing a solo show[2]. He had blond hair down to his waist, and sang songs with lyrics like,

“Sipping whiskey from a paper cup
You drown your sorrows till you can’t stand up
Take a look at what you’ve done to yourself
Why don’t you put the bottle back on the shelf
Yellow fingers from your cigarettes
Your hands are shaking while your body sweats

“Why don’t you look into Jesus?
He’s got the answer

“Gonorrhea on Valentines Day
And you’re still looking for the perfect lay
You think rock and roll will set you free
You’ll be deaf before your thirty three
Shooting junk till your half insane
Broken needle in your purple vein

“Why don’t you look into Jesus?
He got the answer.”

Larry Norman – Why Don’t You Look Into Jesus? – [Janis Joplin Version] – 1972 – YouTube

Cool. Our version of The Black Parade. Religion for the damned.

Life was not going well. I wasted my way through freshman year, dropped out, played in the worst rock band to ever hit Denver’s church-basement-roller-rink-office-Christmas-party circuit…  Low-budget rock star debauchery wasn’t cutting it. I needed to not keep screwing up my life. I needed to get undamned.

I met my bandmates in a church basement, and in one of those you’re-making-that-up-right? moments, found myself teaching 7th grade Sunday school about Paul and Moses. I wanted to be like them. I gave our drummer some of my gear to sell and send my me the money (he didn’t), loaded up the rest and drove back to small town Minnesota. Some fellow sojourners pulled up next to me on the freeway and passed over a joint. We connected. We belonged. I didn’t think I wanted to belong anymore, so I pitched it once they were past.

Things weren’t going so well for my parents about then either, but they had found Jesus. I hung out with them and their new Jesus friends. They were Pentecostals – they got filled with Holy Spirit and spoke in tongues. Before long we became Charismatics instead – same deal, same people, but Pentecostals and Charismatics were downtown vs. uptown. Pentecostals lived in trailers. Charismatics went to college. Pentecostals had revival meetings. Charismatics had conferences in the Twin Cities. Technically everybody was equally damned, but most Charismatics were damned more respectably than in a Larry Norman kind of way.

College had Jesus Freaks by then. I went back and joined them  — 100 Christian students at war with everybody else. One day a religion prof brought up this Bible verse:

“Blessed shall he be who takes your little ones and dashes them against the rock!”

Psalm 137:9

That’s in the Bible, he said, what did we think? I still remember what I thought – basically, I didn’t. The verse just wouldn’t compute – it had to be there for a reason, it couldn’t possibly say what it said, the professor was just making trouble. That’s the way it was on campus – we were persecuted – proof that we were righteous. A few weeks later I wrote a paper that said Nietzsche got syphilis, went crazy, and died because he said God was dead. The Prof was disgusted. It went on like that for three more years. – no more partying, but totally blowing a shot at what a first class college experience might have been – although to be fair, it wasn’t all the Christans’ fault — I think I was just too downtown to handle it..

Christians at war with “the world” followed me into my career. I was smart and worked hard, people hired me, liked me, but I could never quite join in. I was too busy with “come apart from them and be separate.” (2 Corinthians 6:16-18) My disgusted religious prof morphed into perplexed bosses and colleagues. I was white collar and credentialed but my place was not with the damned so much as the trying-to-get-undamned, and sooner or later I’d quit and go off on my next living by faith adventure until I ran out of money and came back for another entry in my patchwork quilt resume.

Rewind, repeat.

Thus my career degenerated into a trail of regrets and disappointments – all for the sake of a religion where you start out damned but then you get saved, but you’re still damned, only sort of conditionally saved until a big finale coming one day soon that will set everything to right and then you get to be undamned forever while everyone else gets damned for good, but if you die before that happens you get to take a shortcut to being undamned, and some people think even if you’re alive when the End Times really get rolling you’ll get a free pass out so that you get to go to Heaven early while everyone else has to live through hell on earth until the final Hell with a capital H finally opens up and gorges on everybody except maybe a few who figured out how to get undamned before everybody else gets damned for good.

Got all that?

That’s the “good news.”

In the meantime you find out that your highest and best calling is to be damned if you do and damned if you don’t. And the crazy thing is, the Bible comes right out and tells you that’s the way it’s going to be if you sign up. Here’s how it describes the highest and best of what it means to be a God Follower:

 “Some were tortured, refusing to accept release, so that they might rise again to a better life. Others suffered mocking and flogging, and even chains and imprisonment. They were stoned, they were sawn in two, they were killed with the sword. They went about in skins of sheep and goats, destitute, afflicted, mistreated—of whom the world was not worthy—wandering about in deserts and mountains, and in dens and caves of the earth.

“And all these, though commended through their faith, did not receive what was promised,”[7]

Hebrews 11: 35-39.

It’s like the religion prof’s Bible verse. The Bible can’t really say that, there must be something else going on. The best you can do is suffer, and not get what you were promised?

Well now, isn’t that a hell of a deal!

We could have seen it coming if we’d thought for more than a nanosecond about our religion’s symbol:  the most horrible, cruel, depraved, savage, barbaric, sadistic, blood-lusty instrument of torture the very worst of human depravity has ever devised. You see it everywhere – molded in gold and silver and bejeweled. Earrings. Necklaces. Bumper stickers. All over the place. Often a human is included — twisting and writhing as he’s being tortured to death.

Oh, and a father did that to his child. Because he so loved the world.

Which means we’re supposed to feel good about the torture symbol. take comfort in it, welcome it, worship it, revere it as the best thing that ever happened, make art out of it, make elaborate paintings of it on the ceilings and in stained glass windows of massive centuries-old buildings all over Europe that were constructed in its shape and filled with statutes and sculptures of it. There have been countless millions (billions?) of those death by torture symbols made and displayed all around the world for a couple thousand years now, evidence of an international colonization of a death by torture cult, one that reveres the bloody sacrifice of animals and humans, has done so since antiquity and still does today -– billions of people for millennia treating that death by torture symbol as holy, something that can be desecrated — as if it’s not desecrated enough already, not already beyond despicable, not already horrible beyond any vestige of human decency.

That’s the Religion of the Damned. That’s the one I joined. That’s the one I’m no longer part of. (You might have guessed.)

Can we talk?

All this being damned and suffering and death by torture is not just a religion, it’s a worldview. A way of looking at life that’s been dominant in western culture for thousands of years. You’re lost, and it’s your fault. You were born that way, and then you proved how screwed up you were by screwing up some more.  You missed the mark from the get-go. No wonder you look in the mirror and don’t like what you see.

And on it goes. I’m so sick of it, I can’t write about it anymore.

What if we’re not that? What if we’re not a bunch of born losers, what if we’re just humans… just kind of… well, living…?

Is there any way that could be good enough?

The final Black Parade concert pronounced that it was over. (Click the photo to watch the show.) Let’s hope not. What needs to be over is the Religion of the Damned. What needs to be over is the dogma that we’re not okay, we never were okay, we never will be okay, that the only way to be okay is be the wretched and poor, beaten and damned, sat upon, spat upon, ratted on[8]… in the name of God. There’s enough Hell already, enough torture. We don’t need any more.

All those Goths, everybody who looks like their parents gave up on them, they’re all better off than that guy whose father tortured him to death. How about we all join the Black Parade, learn the lyrics, sing them together, look out for each other?

How about we all belong?


[1] YouTube — My Chemical Romance – The Black Parade Is Dead! (Full Concert Film)

[2] Larry Norman – Wikipedia

[8] Simon and Garfunkel, Blessed.

Reparations [1]: Economics and a Whole Lot More

The current civil rights movement has reopened the discussion about reparations for American slavery[1]:

“As protests continue to convulse cities across America, many wonder where we go from here. It’s impossible to know the future. But if efforts do not include meaningful reparations for African Americans, the omnipresent injustices we face will not be resolved.

“For a long time, the word ‘reparations’ was a non-starter, but it is finally losing its taboo. The movement to provide financial redress to African Americans for centuries of subjugation and racial terror was already growing last year. HR 40, a bill that would establish a commission to study the legacy of slavery and develop reparations proposals to Congress, is enjoying a surge in support. Groundbreaking reparations legislation has been approved in Evanston, Ill. And a bill has been introduced in the California Assembly that would create a task force to study the impact of slavery and offer proposals for reparations for African-Americans in the state.

“The outpouring of anger in every corner of this country in recent days — more than 400 years after the first enslaved Africans arrived in America — could finally put reparative justice within reach.”

The day after the above appeared in the Los Angeles Times, Oprah Whitney ran a special that contained a segment on reparations. The day after that, the following appeared in the Washington Examiner[2]:

“It was only a matter of time before ‘Justice for George Floyd’ became ‘And while we’re at it, here are a few other things we’d like you to take care of with no questions asked.’

“That’s invariably what happens when the media, Hollywood, and the Democratic Party get involved.

“What started out as an issue over excessive force used by police against minorities has quickly devolved into a jackpot for the social justice people who see oppression, grievance, and victimhood in every aspect of their lives.

“[Bringing up the topic of reparations for slavery] lost the attention of nearly every white person who might have been watching.”

Thus the issue was reframed as a political blasting cap.

We can do better.

In the past couple weeks, I’ve accumulated a research file on reparations of over two dozen pages of resources and citations that make the topic much larger than who’s for it and who’s against it, who would get paid how much and when and how, how the government would finance it, etc. Instead, my research pulls back to a wide shot that starts with economics and law but then encompasses everything from individual and institutional belief systems, religious and secular notions of morality and ethics, national and cultural identity and worldview, and a whole lot more. I found all of that in the 400 years of American history I never knew, including the history made in my own time. I suggest we start with the latter as a first step toward moving ourselves past polarization paralysis.

Coming of Age in the 1960’s Civil Rights Movement

My hometown was a rural community in the western plains of Minnesota, populated with Scandinavian Lutherans living on Homestead Act farms in family groups where the grandparents still spoke Norwegian. There were also enough German Catholics to support a parish with a K-8 school staffed by nuns. The rest of us – the minorities — were identified mostly by reference to the small Protestant churches where our parents took us on Sundays.

None of us had any reason to be racist, but we were, although we would have been surprised and insulted if somebody had pointed that out, which of course nobody did. Racial slurs were part of the vocabulary: my childhood friends tossed around the N-word as casually as they traded baseball cards, and talked about “putting them on the boat and shipping them back.”[3] Nothing personal, that kind of talk was just… normal. I always felt ashamed to hear it. I didn’t know why. And you didn’t talk that way in my house. The N-word we used was “negro” – blacks weren’t called blacks yet.

In 1954, the year after I was born, the US Supreme Court ruled in Brown v. Board of Education that “separate but equal” violated the Constitution. A few years later – I was four, maybe — I saw a black man for the first time.

Our home was up the hill from the railroad tracks, and the “bums” who rode the rails sometimes camped in a ravine between the tracks and our house, and would come begging. I came downstairs to breakfast one morning to see my mother talking through the back screen door to a black man standing in the middle of our backyard, well away from the house. He wore a wrinkled white shirt and baggy gray trousers held up with suspenders, and was holding his hat with both hands at this chest, head slightly bowed. “I would be so very much obliged, ma’am,” he was saying. Mom turned away from the door and started frying eggs, making toast, and pouring coffee. Her face had that hard, determined look you didn’t cross. I asked who he was, and what he wanted. “He’s a bum,” she said, “and he’s hungry.” My own breakfast was going to wait, so I went up to my room to play. When I came back he was gone.

My dad had the International Harvester farm implements franchise, and now and then he won a sales contest that earned him a trip to a company function. One of those was in the South, with a stop to visit his dad, who had retired to Sarasota. Our family didn’t talk much at meals — mostly sat, ate, and left — but at “supper” (not “dinner” like the city people on TV) on his first night back home he sat looking stunned all the way through pie and ice cream and coffee as he described what he’d seen: a “No Colored” sign over a water fountain, a “Colored” entrance at a restaurant…. We were all stunned with him, that such things existed. We had no idea.

A few years later, LBJ’s Great Society[4] brought Lady Bird Johnson to town for a ribbon-cutting commemoration of a renovation to Main Street. It’s only now that I wonder if a few benches, flower planters, and garish turquoise mushroom-shaped fiberglass shelters were what LBJ and the Congress had in mind when they passed a law promoting urban renewal. Schools closed for the parade, there were speeches and reporters from the Minneapolis Star and Tribune, and we made the 6:00 o’clock news from the NBC affiliate we picked up with an antenna on the roof.

About then I started drawing pictures of black athletes on my tablet during recess — Lew Alcindor, Cassius Clay, Dr. J…. Kids would gather around to watch. One day one of them snorted, “Nigra,” and walked away. I liked the sound of the word. It wasn’t the usual N-word, and it seemed defiant somehow. I drew another picture of a Black Everyman with an afro, and wrote “Nigra” underneath it. I’ll bet I could still draw it today.

Middle school summers at the lake (you took refuge from the baking humidity at a “cottage at the lake”) were played out to a soundtrack liberally laced with Motown, and two weeks at Boy Scout camp brought letters from home with news of riots. Detroit was burning. L.A. was burning. “Ghetto” entered the national lexicon, and even Boy Scouts in the north woods knew where Watts was.

In high school, my girlfriend went with her Lutheran Youth Group to a civil rights event in the Twin Cities that included a speech from a local Black Panther leader. In those days you didn’t say the F-word even if you were telling a story about somebody who used it, but somehow she communicated that the speaker had used that word a whole lot. I wondered why.

In 1968, USA runners Tommie Smith and John Carlos raised their fists on the medal podium, joined by silver medalist Peter Norman, a white Australian runner.

“As the American athletes raised their fists, the stadium hushed, then burst into racist sneers and angry insults. Smith and Carlos were rushed from the stadium, suspended by the U.S. team, and kicked out of the Olympic Village for turning their medal ceremony into a political statement. They went home to the United States, only to face serious backlash, including death threats.

“However, Carlos and Smith were both gradually re-accepted into the Olympic fold, and went on to careers in professional football before retiring. Norman, meanwhile, was punished severely by the Australian sports establishment. Though he qualified for the Olympic team over and over again, posting the fastest times by far in Australia, he was snubbed by the team in 1972. Rather than allow Norman to compete, the Australians did not send a sprinter at all.”[5]

In 1971, six months before I graduated from high school, Sports Illustrated ran its “Black is Best” article.[6]

“It is clear that the black community in the U.S. is not just contributing more than its share of participants to sport. It is contributing immensely more than its share of stars. Black athletes accounted for all eight Olympic records set by U.S. runners at Mexico City in 1968, which led a European coach to observe: ‘If not for the blacks, the U.S. team would finish somewhere behind Ecuador.’”

I was an athlete. Those events and stories meant a lot to me.

Off at college, my R.A. was black (no longer a negro), and two other black guys shared a room two doors down from mine. With them in my life, I felt like I had arrived. Kelly had a springy, athletic way of moving, a short afro and a ready smile. Miles was tall and stooped, had a giant afro, always seemed mad, and never spoke. I wondered why.

I became a Jesus Freak during a gap year, and a Lutheran youth pastor (he had long hair, wore a big wooden cross, and drank beer at Kenny’s Tavern) struck a blow for ecumenicism and invited me along as a counselor on a trip with his youth group to a conference in Houston. Our first day at the convention center, a procession of blacks in bright blue robes marched two-by-two through the crowd, dipping and bobbing, two steps forward one step back, singing and -chanting, “Y-E-S, oh yes, Y-E-S, oh yes….” We followed them to the Y.E.S. Soul Choir’s gospel music concert. That night’s general session featured Andre Crouch and the Disciples rocking the house. I had one of their records back home. My new life as a Jesus Freak didn’t get any better than this.

Back at school, I heard about the annual welcome picnic for black students and decided to go. I was the only white guy there, didn’t know anybody and couldn’t think of what to do, so I volunteered for the serving line. A black guy and girl from Houston joined the campus Christian fellowship that fall, and the three of us started a Bible study with their friends in Black House. That winter a movie came out about Corrie ten Boom – the Nazis sent her and her family to concentration camps for aiding Jews — and fifteen black urban kids and one white town kid piled into a couple college vans and drove to a nearby town for pizza and the movie. The silences that met our arrivals were… thunderous. Not hostile, not threatening, mostly just… pointed. We were something you didn’t see every day. We were the new normal, and it was taking some getting used to.

That spring, we brought my co-leader’s pastor up from her church in Houston. For three days I followed him around, sat next to him at meals and in small groups, watched him — tall, erect, muscular in tailored three-piece suits and gleaming white shirts with cufflinks — as he parted the waters of shabby tie-dyed holey-jeaned flower children, laying down the gospel in a voice that rumbled.

The more I go on, the more I could go on — the memories pour in, scenes from a decade far more turbulent than the worst flight you’ve ever been on; racing across my mind’s theater screen in a blurry fast forward, leaving behind the indelible feel of those times. Incredibly, the Civil Rights Movement wasn’t the only one bringing radical cultural change, just one of many in a Revolution that was everywhere. The times were as thick and pungent with change as the marijuana haze that filled the quad, filled the dorms. The world was changing, and we were changing it. No, we had changed it. One night I attended a guest lecture where a visiting astrophysicist described a new cosmological theory called the Big Bang — the entire universe blasted into existence from an inconceivably compressed pre-temporal mass. It made sense. We could relate. We were living our own Big Bang.

Deep Ignorance and Long Memories

Then it was the 1970’s, and the Revolution staggered along, still tripping but starting to come out of it, Soon every commercial had at least one black person in it, like that was normal. Okay, so maybe it was tokenism, but we didn’t care, it would be normal soon enough. With that attitude, we were making the same mistake every generation seems to make: we assumed we were the enlightened ones, we’d gotten it right in ways our parents hadn’t, and they would have to deal with life on our new terms, and our terms were that “prejudice” (it wasn’t called “racism” yet) was over. The Beast was dead. The stain of slavery had been expunged. Equality was fixed in place, a given, a reality solidly grounded.

Or so we thought.

The first Black History month was observed in 1970 at an iconic location – the Kent State campus, ground zero of our opposition to the Vietnam War. I heard about it, as I’ve heard about it annually for the past fifty years, but I’ve never participated, never attended because… well, why would I? There was no point in it: the new normal was that the races were now equal. We wouldn’t have a White History Month, so why would we have a Black one?

Or so I thought.

I managed to hold those beliefs, that judgment of history, all the way into this century, even as the justice system carried out its policies of mass incarceration, even as the news increasingly included body cam and cell phone videos of the police beating and murdering black people.

The new Civil Rights Movement has finally awakened me to just how shockingly wrong and blind I was and have been. And not just me, but how wrong and blind many in my generation were and have been. We never grew up, remained children full of ourselves. We made false assumptions, stopped learning from the times that came after ours, and never bothered to learn from the times that came before our own. That level of misjudgment generated the deepest kind of ignorance – not merely a personal failure to know, but the shared ignorance of an entire generation, a massive communal failure to know that history is not a dead letter but an active force still alive in us, still powering us in hidden, subconscious ways, still shaping our attitudes, initiatives, and responses in ways we would vehemently deny if confronted with them, just as my hometown would have denied its racism back in the day. We soak up our history from our surroundings, breathe it in, are immersed in it… and we don’t even know it. That kind of ignorance and arrogance has enabled the systemic racism that today’s protests are now broadcasting to the world.

It seems fitting, then that my personal reckoning should begin with a century-old cultural memory that, until my research on this article, was part of my massive, hidden Black History file of stupefying ignorance. The 1921 Greenwood Massacre is a particularly pertinent place to begin writing about reparations: it was undeniably a major economic event, but it was also much, much more, and the long-suppressed memory of it has now found its way out, and into the streets.

The Greenwood Massacre

Greenwood massacre

Photo:  Tulsa Historical Society

We heard earlier from Damario Solomon Simmons, a civil rights attorney and adjunct professor of African and African American studies at the University of Oklahoma. He wrote this in his L.A. Times article cited earlier:

“The aversion to making amends for systemic racism is perhaps most evident in my hometown of Tulsa, Okla., which last week commemorated the 99th anniversary of the Greenwood massacre.

“On May 31, 1921, thousands of white Tulsans, 2,000 of whom were deputized by the police, stormed the Greenwood neighborhood, a community known as ‘Black Wall Street.’ In one day and night, the nation’s most prosperous black community was reduced to rubble. Hundreds were killed, and more than 10,000 black Tulsans were left injured, homeless and destitute.

“For decades, Greenwood managed to flourish despite racist Jim Crow laws in Oklahoma. In a matter of hours, millions of dollars in hard-fought wealth — property, homes, businesses, investments — burned to ashes. About 35 square blocks, including 1,200 homes and scores of businesses, were destroyed. Tulsa has not been the same since.”[7]

Ta-Nehisi Coates, a national correspondent for The Atlantic, wrote in 2014 what remains as the definitive piece on slavery reparations.[8] There, he wrote this about the Greenwood Massacre:

“Something more than moral pressure calls America to reparations. We cannot escape our history. All of our solutions to the great problems of health care, education, housing, and economic inequality are troubled by what must go unspoken. ‘The reason black people are so far behind now is not because of now,’ Clyde Ross told me. ‘It’s because of then.’ In the early 2000s, Charles Ogletree went to Tulsa, Oklahoma, to meet with the survivors of the 1921 race riot that had devastated ‘Black Wall Street.’ The past was not the past to them. ‘It was amazing seeing these black women and men who were crippled, blind, in wheelchairs,’ Ogletree told me. ‘I had no idea who they were and why they wanted to see me. They said, We want you to represent us in this lawsuit.’ ”

“A commission authorized by the Oklahoma legislature produced a report affirming that the riot, the knowledge of which had been suppressed for years, had happened. But the lawsuit ultimately failed, in 2004. Similar suits pushed against corporations such as Aetna (which insured slaves) and Lehman Brothers (whose co-founding partner owned them) also have thus far failed. These results are dispiriting, but the crime with which reparations activists charge the country implicates more than just a few towns or corporations. The crime indicts the American people themselves, at every level, and in nearly every configuration. A crime that implicates the entire American people deserves its hearing in the legislative body that represents them.

“John Conyers’s HR 40 is the vehicle for that hearing. No one can know what would come out of such a debate. Perhaps no number can fully capture the multi-century plunder of black people in America. Perhaps the number is so large that it can’t be imagined, let alone calculated and dispensed. But I believe that wrestling publicly with these questions matters as much as—if not more than—the specific answers that might be produced. An America that asks what it owes its most vulnerable citizens is improved and humane. An America that looks away is ignoring not just the sins of the past but the sins of the present and the certain sins of the future. More important than any single check cut to any African American, the payment of reparations would represent America’s maturation out of the childhood myth of its innocence into a wisdom worthy of its founders.”

Bottom line: today’s Civil Rights movement is asking me, asking us, to grow up to our own history.

More next time.

[1] Simmons, Damario Solomon, Reparations Are The Answer To Protesters’ Demands For Racial Justice, Los Angeles Times (June 8, 2020).

[2] Scarry, Eddie, George Floyd Protests Hijacked For Reparations And Other Pet Projects,, Washington Examiner (June 10, 2020).

[3] See A History of Hate Rock From Johnny Rebel to Dylann Roof, The Nation, June 23, 2015.

[4] See the story in History,com.

[5] See the story in History.com.

[6] Sports Illustrated, January 18, 1971.

[7] Simmons, op cit.

[8] Coates, Ta-Nehisi, The Case for Reparations, The Atlantic (June 2014).