Neither Pandemic nor Panic Supersede the First Amendment

Rodney Howard-Browne, pastor of The River church in Tampa, Florida, strongly believes that God wants his church to continue holding live services for hundreds of parishioners even in the middle of the COVID-19 pandemic.

Hillsborough County sheriff Chad Chronister and state attorney Andrew Warren strongly believe that they’re entitled to threaten Howard-Browne with arrest for holding those services, then follow through on that threat.

Howard-Browne is obviously willing to go to jail for his belief. Are Chronister and Warren willing to go to prison for theirs?

Whether Howard-Browne is correct in his assessment of God’s commands isn’t something I’ll pretend to know. But Chronister and Warren are, beyond a shadow of a doubt, incorrect in their claims of authority.

The First Amendment to the Constitution protects both the “free exercise of” religion and the right “peaceably to assemble.” While that amendment initially bound only Congress, the 14th Amendment has generally been construed to extend its strictures to the state and local levels of government.

And then there’s 18 United States Code, Sections 241 and 242.

Section 241 provides for up to ten years of imprisonment if “two or more persons [for example, Chad Chronister and Andrew Warren] conspire to injure, oppress, threaten, or intimidate any person in any State, Territory, Commonwealth, Possession, or District in the free exercise or enjoyment of any right or privilege secured to him by the Constitution or laws of the United States, or because of his having so exercised the same.”

Section 242 adds another potential year of imprisonment for doing the above “under color of any law, statute, ordinance, regulation, or custom,” including “stay-at-home” or “lockdown” orders issued by local and state political officials.

I double-checked, just to make sure. Neither the First Amendment nor either of those US Code provisions include an “unless someone jumps up and down and screeches that there’s an emergency” exception.

Rodney Howard-Browne may not be the sharpest knife in the drawer (many churches are holding services online and I haven’t heard of any divine smite-downs over it), but he’s within his rights.

Chronister and Warren may be genuinely concerned about the spread of COVID-19, but they’re also lawless hooligans operating well beyond any reasonable claim of legitimate authority.

Sadly, they’re far from unique. Once the immediate danger is past, we should proceed immediately to Nuremberg-type tribunals to deal with them and the hundreds or even thousands of temporarily over-empowered scofflaws like them.

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What’s the Worst Thing?

I don’t think it’s death.

Death sucks, and the drive for life is good. But inability to make peace with the utter inevitability of death can lead a person to things worse than death.

I’ve written on this theme before (here most recently) as it’s cropped up in my life with increased frequency. Panic and denial over death can lead humans to do ugly, shameful things. The goal of a human life ought not to be death denial (though pursuits of life extension are awesome) but dignity from start to finish, including a dignified death.

Dignified death has more to do with the frame of mind of the dying than physical circumstances. There’s a reason the peaceful martyr moves us (and sometimes causes a massive social movement). Seeing someone approach death without fear, but with courage, resolve, peace, and dignity reflects the highest human spirit and inspires those of us still living.

The fight for life is noble. Until it’s not. We’ve seen enough epochs of history and fictional portrayals to know the depths of depravity humans can reach when they fall into a zero-sum trap and maniacally compete with their fellow humans for any last gasp of life. We’ve seen what a fever of fear can do to a mob beyond reason.

Each of us has an individual duty to live well. And living well includes dying well. We can’t control the external circumstances of our deaths, but we can control our mentality and example as we face it.

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Ransacked American Grocery Stores Are Still Pretty Amazing

The other night I made my first post-lockdown grocery store run. And I’ll admit it was a bit unsettling.

It was strange seeing a security guard. It was strange wearing a mask. It was strange feeling a sort of fear of my fellow shoppers. And it was really strange and disturbing to see shelves stripped of goods. The whole experience of going grocery shopping became a bit nerve-wracking.

But still: in the midst of a panic, I could look around and see dozens of varieties of ice cream. There were produce bins full of fresh fruit from all over the world. There were turkeys and smoothies and fresh bread and milk and eggs.

The abundance is staggering. Yet the fact that my mind focused on the (relatively few) empty shelves is a testament to how much wealth of variety we have to enjoy even in troubled times.

What’s my point?

I guess it’s worth being grateful for the wealth generally available to all Americans in the form of shopping choice and resilient availability of life’s necessaries (and not-so-necessaries). Even in an economic slump, which seems likely, much of that choice will still continue to be available. In the grand scheme of history, that’s pretty crazy.

I will look forward to a day when a grocery run is the same calm, peaceful, unrushed, and unafraid affair it was only a few weeks ago. But until then I won’t believe that I am living in great hardship, at least where food is concerned.

Originally published at JamesWalpole.com.

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4 Mindfulness Practices That We Need Right Now

In the middle of the chaos of the world right now, what can we do to take care of ourselves?

Let’s talk about a handful of simple mindfulness practices that can be helpful.

  1. Breathe deeply into the belly. This is one to start with, no matter where you are or what you’re doing. We get caught up in our heads, stuck in a cycle of thoughts that are rarely very helpful. So to get out of our heads and into our bodies, we can do deep breathes, into the deepest part of our bellies. Do several breaths like this, maybe for 30-60 seconds if you have time. This not only calms you down, but helps you to be more present with your body and surroundings.
  2. Check on your feelings, give yourself compassion. Turn your attention to the sensations in your body, and notice how uncertainty and fear/anxiety might feel for you right now, as a bodily experience. This, again, helps get you out of your thoughts, but also it’s important to notice how you’re feeling. Practice giving these feelings some space, letting them be (it’s OK to feel anxiety!). Then see if you can give them some compassion, to take care of yourself when you’re feeling uncertainty or frustration.
  3. Find calm in the middle of a storm. When the world is full of chaos, can we find calm? Find your breath. Let the swirl of thoughts calm down. Notice the light around you, notice sound. Notice the beauty of the moment. Widen your awareness beyond yourself, and feel the peace of a moment of stillness. You can still take action, but from a place of calmness.
  4. Send compassion out to others. Once you’ve practiced compassion for your own uncertainty and fears … once you’ve found a moment of calm and centeredness … you can open your heart to others right now. They’re afraid, they’re feeling anxious. Open your awareness beyond your home, to the others in your neighborhood and city, to others around the world, to your loved ones and strangers. Feel the worry they’re feeling. Send them compassion, from the deepest place in your heart. Let it flow out as a healing salve to everyone. Notice how this feels. Notice how it might change how you interact with others.

Let these practices help you through this troubled time, my friends.

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Yes, Trump Should Talk With The Taliban

On March 3, US president Donald Trump spoke (via telephone) with Mullah Abdul Ghani Baradar, chief of the Taliban’s Doha diplomatic office and signer, on behalf of his organization, of the recently concluded Afghanistan “peace deal.”

“The direct contact between an American president and a top Taliban leader would once have been unthinkable,” writes Michael Crowley at the New York Times.

Why? Crowley doesn’t elaborate, but in my opinion the claim of unthinkability goes a long way toward explaining why the US government spent nearly two decades unsuccessfully attempting to wrest control of Afghanistan from the Taliban before coming to its senses — in the person of Donald Trump — and seeking to bring the folly begun by George W. Bush and continued by Barack Obama to an end.

It was, in a word, “unthinkable,” for the longest time, that a bunch of Central Asian hillbillies might successfully resist the will of Washington for five times as long as Robert E. Lee and the Army of Northern Virginia did.

It was “unthinkable” that US forces better armed, better trained, and more lavishly funded than those who landed at Normandy or took Okinawa could possibly be brought low by light infantry with no air force, no artillery, and no safe logistical haven, wielding weapons scavenged from a war which ended 30 years ago.

But that’s what happened.

When a war ends, it’s reasonable to expect that the losing regime’s head of state will talk to and treat with whomever the winning team designates as its representative, if that’s what the winning team demands.

The word isn’t being openly used by either side, but let’s call it what it is: Surrender.

The US government has surrendered in Afghanistan.

No, not unconditionally. But it has surrendered nonetheless.

And that’s a good thing.

The war became obviously doomed to go down as a fiasco within weeks of the US invasion, when the Bush administration stopped pretending the US presence was about liquidating al Qaeda and started in with a bunch of “nation-building” nonsense.

Eighteen years — not to mention several thousand American and more than 100,000 Afghan deaths — later, the Taliban controls more of the country than it did those few weeks after the invasion.

The US was never going to win the war.

The only question was how long the US would spend losing the war before admitting it had lost the war.

That question has now been answered: Eighteen years, four months, and 25 days.

If part of the price of extricating the US armed forces from the Afghan quagmire is a phone call between the losing side’s president and the winning side’s chosen representative, that’s not just “thinkable,” it’s a price we should all applaud Trump for paying.

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Trump’s First Offer was a Better Deal for Palestine — and Israel

In early 2016, then-candidate Donald Trump pronounced himself “neutral” in the conflict between Israel and the Palestinians. He also expressed pessimism that a deal between the two sides was even possible: “I have friends of mine that are tremendous businesspeople, that are really great negotiators, [and] they say it’s not doable.”

It didn’t take Trump long to reverse himself — when it was explained to him that $100 million in campaign assistance from casino magnate Sheldon Adelson depended on such a reversal, he re-booted as “the most pro-Israel presidential candidate in history,” which in Adelsonese means “the most pro-Likud/pro-Netanyahu/anti-Palestinian candidate in the election.”

Nearly four years later — after numerous sops to Likud and favors to save Netanyahu’s premiership amidst his indictment on corruption charges, including moving the US embassy to Israel from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem — Trump unveiled his “deal of the century.” 

The deal, in summary: The Israeli regime gets everything it wants; Palestine’s Arabs get to keep some, but not all, of what they already have while giving up quite a bit.

They supposedly get a “state,” but that’s neither Trump’s nor Israel’s to give: The State of Palestine already exists and is already recognized by most other countries.

They get a “capital” in a sliver of East Jerusalem, but Israel will  annex even more Palestinian land.

The new, fake, quasi-state of Palestine will be required to “demilitarize” and trust Israel to defend it, and Israel will exercise veto power over both its foreign policy and its internal security policy.

Trump’s offer is quite a shift from his former “neutrality.” As Lando Calrissian said in The Empire Strikes Back, “this deal is getting worse all the time.” Worse for the Palestinians, obviously, but worse for Israel as well.

US aid and military support have turned Israel into a spoiled child among states. It does what it wants and gets what it wants, not because it deserves to or because it’s able to itself, but because it has a generous and muscular big brother doling out money to it and threatening to beat up anyone who questions its entitlement.

At some point, that relationship will end as all relationships do. The longer that relationship continues, the weaker, more vulnerable, and more over-extended Israel becomes.

If Israel’s regime was interested in peace, or even in its country’s survival, it would unilaterally withdraw to its 1967 borders, begin negotiating administration of Palestinians’ “right of return” to their stolen land, and recognize the existing State of Palestine.

And if Trump was really “pro-Israel,” he’d return to his position of “neutrality” in the matter. Even if it meant refunding Sheldon Adelson’s bribe, eating a little crow, and explaining another change of heart to his confused evangelical supporters.

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