News with Nuance: Sept. 30, 2022
Your Friday dose of News with Nuance: the week's biggest stories, unpacked + more ..
Welcome to News with Nuance. My plan for this post is, every Friday, I will break down some of the week’s top news stories and put them into context, with special attention to the impact of these stories where I live: Middle America; and also an analysis of these stories with historical, political, and spiritual context. This is the kind of work that breaking news journalists often simply don’t have time to do — and I’m hoping it supplies the needed nuance and context that’s often missing from our news cycle, humanizing the people and places behind the headlines.
The Headline: Hurricane Ian smashes into Southwest Florida on Wednesday, a day after knocking the entire island of Cuba offline and without electricity
The Context: This time of year, while watching hurricane coverage from thousands of miles away from the nearest ocean coastline, a single image burnishes itself into my mind.
I see a computerized swirl, constantly rotating, making its way imperviously across a map, sowing destruction wherever it goes.
I had that sensation this week while reading the news, the sense that our world was constantly swirling and accelerating, and there was nothing we could do to stop it.
Anyone who works in or consistently consumes media can imagine the news cycle itself as a swirling hurricane, never slowing down, consuming everything in its path, including those who would write or read about it. Maybe that will be a theme of this entry of News with Nuance.
The swirling force of Hurricane Ian is not, of course, the first hurricane to wreak major destruction this season. Less than two weeks ago, Hurricane Fiona battered an already wounded Puerto Rico, and as Hurricane Ian struck Cuba and Florida, 20 percent of Puerto Rico was still without power.
Cuba, too, was mired in darkness on Wednesday night, as we debated on Twitter whether a video of a shark swimming through Fort Myers’ streets was real or not.
It’s only natural that natural disasters closer to home, to which we might have a personal connection, would move us more than those that seem further away, like Typhoon Noru, which killed five rescue workers in the Philippines this past week before moving on to Vietnam and Southeast Asia.
The images of Hurricane Ian in Southwest Florida hit me especially hard, then, this week. I lived in Lee County’s Bonita Springs, located south of Fort Myers and north of Naples, from April 2007 - August 2009, working as a sports reporter for the Naples Daily News.
Aerial photo of Hurricane Ian’s damage to Fort Myers, photo by Wilfredo Lee, Associated Press
In Southwest Florida I learned the concept of “season,” the times when traffic snarls and lines grow long with the arrival of retired “snowbirds.” I also learned the intensity and surprise of daily summer torrential downpours, and once I evacuated my inland townhome, including my roommate’s scared cat, under threat of wildfires.
I learned that native Floridians are a tough, salty bunch; eager to prepare and rebuild and ride out the storm as needed. I learned how quickly paradise can turn into cataclysm. And I learned the truth that, rather than upending our social order, more often storms and extreme weather, hastened by human-influenced climate change, exacerbate and entrench social inequalities.
The worst weather event we suffered when I lived in Bonita was some flooding after a late-summer storm. In the event of hurricanes and tropical storms, you’ll often see images of damaged coastline, but in truth, most of those properties are either well-protected or well-insured. Often, they’re owned by wealthy people who aren’t present at the time of the storm. Those who are most deeply damaged, instead, often live far from the coastline in mobile home parks, like the one about a mile up the road from the newly built townhome in Bonita where I lived with a roommate, on the eastern side of I-75.
While the floodwaters receded quickly in most wealthy areas of Lee and Collier Counties, this mobile home park across from Publix was decimated. The water, likely due to poor planning and not-ideal land, was swampy and stagnant. It seemed to just sit in the mobile home park, without dissipating, for weeks.
The people who lived there, many of whom had come to Lee County without documentation in order to serve as farmworkers, had no insurance and little options. Many children lived with them in the mobile home park. Many of them now had nowhere to go.
A storm that for most of us, even those of us who lived just a mile away, was nothing more than a momentary interruption and an interesting news story, was for them a life-changing upheaval of catastrophic measure.
This same story repeats itself over and over again, swirling faster and faster. In Ukraine the poorest people cannot escape and so they become refugees, or worse, the walking wounded and civilian dead. In the Midwest, where we pretend that everyone is equal and middle-class, you see coverage of tornadoes and blizzards and it’s always the same scenes of destruction: the mobile home parks, and the people without homes entering the hospital with frostbit fingers and toes, or worse, found frozen in the back of a parking lot.
The worst part about the swirl, of hurricanes and of the news cycle of disasters, is how fast it moves. Try as hard as you might, you can never keep up. Contemplate it for more than a few minutes and you need to decompress and relax. Switch on an animal video, online shop, stress-eat a peanut butter cup.
Part of my motivation for starting this segment of the newsletter was to help me move from overwhelmed stress responses to news events and tragedies that only compound the suffering of the world’s most vulnerable people, into some sort of productive communication and response. I’m not sure I’ve found the answer yet, but I’m encouraged that nearly 1,000 of you want to read about News with Nuance, and my hope is that by taking a deeper, more comprehensive look at a few of the week’s biggest stories, we’ll be able to get a more detailed handle on them, and maybe find societal compassion and solutions.
The last thing I will say is that you really do have to choose where to spend your limited resources of time, energy, and money. You can’t do it all. So find places where you have personal and local connections, even if a national news story is far from home. My oldest son told me this week that their school has a student from Ukraine. What might this family in particular need to adjust to life in America, after the devastation of war? And what might this family have to share with our community, that we don’t know about because we simply aren’t asking the questions?
Two years ago, my little rural church was the recipient of payment protection loans/grants issued during the pandemic. At first, our leadership was hesitant to apply. We figured we could muddle through ourselves. But as COVID took further hold in the Midwest, we decided to apply, after promising that if we did survive financially, we would tithe (10 percent) of the loan to those in need locally, nationally, and internationally. With approval of the congregation, that effort took place in mid-2022. We donated to our local county resource center for adults with disabilities; a member of our congregation took a road trip to a church and community affected by tornadoes in Kentucky, where she met members of the congregation, and shared funds to help them rebuild, for those who remained without homes. We also sent funding to a local congregation in Ethiopia of the Ethiopian Evangelical Church Mekane Yesus, an affiliate of the global Lutheran fellowship.
Did our funds change the swirling mass of destruction and the never-ending swirling fatalism of the news cycle? Probably not. But, they helped us see beyond the swirl into the hearts of our siblings all around the world, and reminded us of the inextricability of our connectedness. They also helped me see beyond the swirl, into the equally powerful force of love.
The Quote: The Naples Daily News is running live updates on the aftermath of the storm here. Even when it’s not a paper where I once worked, I think it’s good to read local news coverage of natural disasters whenever possible.
Here’s a snippet of that live blog that captures some of what I wrote about above, and hope for what it takes to recover …
The owner of the 7-11, Ranjit Joseph, closed the store at 2 p.m. Wednesday and opened early Thursday because he knows his customers count on him. He did the same during Hurricane Irma in 2017. His store clerks let people in a few at time.
The Headline: Japan holds a (bitterly contested) state funeral for former prime minister Shinzo Abe
The Context: With a kindly, slightly craggy face; and a record as Japan’s longest-ever serving Prime Minister, Shinzo Abe was seen by most Americans as a genteel and relatively harmless ally. Under his leadership, Japan closely allied with the United States over and against China, and saw general economic growth and prosperity.
In a foreign policy environment that too often operates only by the maxim the enemy of my enemy is my friend, that was really all most Americans cared to know about Abe, if they knew anything at all.
When news first broke of his assassination in July, then, generally here in the U.S. people reacted with grief and sympathy, and a sort of general lament about the violence of the world.
But we did not see all there was to know about Abe, who, like most long-serving leaders, had his share of misdeeds and crimes against his people.
It turned out that Abe’s assassin was protesting Abe and the Japanese government’s close alliance with a cult-like group, the Unification Church, to which his mother had given most of her money, causing family suffering. In coverage of this story, the Washington Post found several accounts of families who had lost money and assets to the church, through a shady practice called “spiritual sales,” in which goods or services were claimed to have supernatural power, and sold at exorbitant prices to church members, reminiscent of the Catholic Church medieval selling of “indulgences,” which helped spark the Protestant Reformation.
Japan’s ruling Liberal Democratic Party has many close ties to the church, leading current Prime Minister Fumio Kushida to change his cabinet and publicly apologize. But the church retains great power and influence in the country, particularly among its political elite. Founded in 1968 initially as a counterweight against communism, the church amassed organizations and ministries tied to the government. Despite its name (Liberal Democrat Party), the political party tied to the Unification Church gave its support to right-wing social movements regarding responses to gender equality or sex education. Japanese women have long faced pressure not to work outside the home after having children, and they face immense social pressures if they try to enter professional fields, especially as mothers.
While the Unification Church considers itself Christian, its teachings are based on the Rev. Dr. Sun Myung Moon’s book, The Divine Principle, which teaches that Jesus is not fully God, and disputes the theological underpinnings of orthodox Christianity, including the Trinity. The Unification Church is also known for practicing mass weddings.
The more you read about the Unification Church, the more troubling all of this is. Imagine if the Church of Scientology because entrenched in one of our country’s major political parties, such that multiple leading politicians were members and beholden financially to the church. Imagine the financial destruction wrought to millions of Japanese from the “spiritual sales” of the church, which are its main financial backbone. Then, imagine that a state funeral is held for one of the members of this church, a former Prime Minister. And imagine that global advocates for human rights and women’s rights, like Vice President Kamala Harris, attended this funeral.
How might you feel?
In order to be a proponent of democracy and human rights globally, the U.S. needs to tell more truths about the corruption and deception wielded even by friendly world leaders, and the damage they’ve done to people of their country, especially women and minorities.
The Quote: “Over those decades, Japan became the key profit center for the Unification Church and its offshoots, largely through door-to-door “spiritual sales” that often targeted grieving elderly people, according to several academic studies, government investigators and historians. …
That video message may have provoked the suspected gunman, according to police sources quoted in Japanese media. Yamagami’s uncle told the Yomiuri Shimbun newspaper that Yamagami had attempted suicide because of his family’s financial difficulties, and that the suspect’s mother was traumatized after her husband killed himself. …
His story is not unique, said Hiroshi Yamaguchi, a lawyer with the National Network of Lawyers Against Spiritual Sales, a Tokyo-based advocacy group. From 1987 to 2021, there were nearly 35,000 cases brought by defendants claiming about $863 million in damages from the Unification Church, according to the advocacy group’s website.
Yamaguchi wants to see greater regulation of spiritual sales or excessive donations, and proper care of children of parents who are members of “new religion” groups who may be donating heavily to such organizations.
“I really felt that it was a matter of time before something like this happened,” Yamaguchi said. “I have seen countless tragedies and difficulties faced by children of parents who are part of the Unification Church … I can easily imagine that Yamagami must have suffered in a similar manner.”
This Week in Christian Nationalism and Religious Extremism
While this newsletter won’t focus overall on Christian Nationalism, each Friday I will include a brief update from that week, as it’s both a continuing focus of my work and also, I think, a critical threat to both American democracy and the faithful witness of Jesus’ Gospel, which exists independently of the United States!
In one sentence: Christian Nationalism is a version of the idolatrous Theology of Glory, which replaces the genuine worship of God with worship of a particular vision of America, often rooted in a revisionist history of white people in the 1950s, before the Civil Rights movement or the women’s movement. Christian Nationalism supports a violent takeover of government and the imposition of fundamentalist Christian beliefs on all people. Christian nationalism relies on a theological argument that equates American military sacrifice with Jesus’ sacrifice on the Cross. It suggests that Christians are entitled to wealth and power, in contrast to Jesus’ theology of the cross, which reminds Christians that they too have to carry their cross, just as our crucified savior did.
This Week: I’ve hesitated to write or comment on this story, because it feels personal and possibly mean-spirited, but at the same time, I think it’s important to point out where self-proclaimed Christian Nationalist politicians veer from biblical faithfulness into hypocrisy, exposing their lack of interest in actually following anything Jesus actually prescribed.
Greene, who was baptized at Pastor Andy Stanley’s North Point Georgia megachurch (I attended North Point-organized conferences as a pastor in 2012 and 2016), stakes much of her claim to leadership on her supposedly devout Christian faith. She talks a lot about being a “wife” and a “mother,” while she rails against transgender Americans, “feminists,” and Black Lives Matter protesters. Greene is a supporter of QAnon conspiracy theories, which she claims are protecting Americans against predominant pedophilia in the Democratic Party (a totally unfounded and ridiculous claim with no basis in reality). She introduced legislation to ban Black Lives Matter and Pride flags, in her ongoing harassment of racial justice groups and LGBTQ people. She suggested that COVID was a scam and discouraged people from becoming vaccinated.
I don’t suggest going down the rabbit hole of all the heinous remarks Taylor Greene has made in pursuit of making hatred mainstream. But I don’t think it needs to be said that none of this has anything to do with Jesus. While Jesus never spoke directly about abortion, transgender people, or gay marriage - he did spend his life’s ministry healing and caring for the marginalized and the oppressed, and single women were among his closest friends and students. It was the women, after all, who were the first preachers of the resurrection, and Jesus’ love for women was not limited to their role as “wives” and “mothers,” or the particulars of their biology.
Furthermore, while my faith leads me to support the need for divorce in some marriages, especially in cases of abuse or infidelity, Jesus was pretty clear that in his view, divorce was undesirable, and marriage was meant to be for life.
It’s just interesting to me that so many right-wing, conservative Christians have so much to say about things Jesus never talked about, and yet they have so little to say on the topic of divorce, about which Jesus said in Matthew 19:
“So they are no longer two, but one flesh. Therefore what God has joined together, let no one separate.” 7 They said to him, “Why then did Moses command us to give a certificate of dismissal and to divorce her?” 8 He said to them, “It was because you were so hard-hearted that Moses allowed you to divorce your wives, but from the beginning it was not so. 9 And I say to you, whoever divorces his wife, except for unchastity, and marries another commits adultery.”
His disciples said to him, “If such is the case of a man with his wife, it is better not to marry.” 11 But he said to them, “Not everyone can accept this teaching, but only those to whom it is given. 12 For there are eunuchs who have been so from birth, and there are eunuchs who have been made eunuchs by others, and there are eunuchs who have made themselves eunuchs for the sake of the kingdom of heaven. Let anyone accept this who can.”
Lots to parse here. But note that for Jesus, like Paul, perhaps the actual preferred state was not marriage but that of celibacy (paging the Catholic Church?) And note too the outright condemnation of those who would take marriage lightly, and throw it away for the sake of an easy divorce so that one could marry another lover.
Paging Donald Trump?
Conservative Christians’ hypocrisy and selective hearing when it comes to Jesus’ actual witness is pretty well-documented. But you have to ask why. Why are conservative Christians so much more concerned about transpeople or LGBTQ people than they are about infidelity in marriage and divorce? Is it (possibly) because infidelity in marriage and frequent divorce is often a practice of their most-prized constituency, both in Evangelical churches and conservative politics, wealthy white men? And how about Marjorie Taylor Greene? I don’t see much lament or confession in her statements regarding her divorce. She’s not apologetic or regretful but almost jubilant: