Friday, February 15, 2019

Sexualizing children must stop

Wyoming’s legislative session made the national news last week when an LGBT activist group sent an informal letter of complaint to Senate leaders about Lynn Hutchings (R-Cheyenne).

High school students from Cheyenne Central’s Gay Straight Alliance (GSA) club visited the state capitol on February 1. They had come to lobby for a law granting special protections on the basis of “sexual orientation and gender identity” (SOGI). In that capacity, they called Hutchings off the senate floor to argue in favor of the law.

The entire discussion has not been released. So, we don’t know what the kids said that prompted Hutchings’ words. Nor do we know the whole of her reasoning. Only a couple of sentences were sent to the senate leadership wherein she was using a reductio ad absurdam argument to show that SOGI language is not well defined and so, unworkable in law.

The certainty with which they reproduce her words suggest that a recording was made of the exchange. If so, it should be released so that the public can learn the entire context.

According to their complaint, Hutchings “compared [the students] to acts of ****tiality and ****philia.” Aside from the grammatical impossibility of comparing people to activities, there was nothing in the quote which the group provided that supported their accusation. Hutchings made no such comparisons—a fact which she stated in her response.

You will note that I am not republishing the pull-quote here. Nor am I spelling out the words that the group used to characterize it. There are some subjects which should not be openly discussed where children are present. That is the reason why I’m writing about this today.

Both the quote which the activist group attributed to Hutchings and the words which they used in their complaint are cringeworthy and should not be uttered in decent company. Yet we live in a world where these words are constantly in our ears and in our faces.

Families that want to shield their children from such mature subject matters don’t stand a chance. The very fact that 14- and 15-year-olds are talking about these matters in a school club is disturbing. Do their parents know what they are talking about?

Sen. Lynn Hutchings
The GSA Network regularly lobbies against any laws or policies that can inform parents of what their children are saying and doing at school. Their website is filled with subject matter which is inappropriate for minors. In fact, the Q&A section discusses sexually explicit material in answers openly aimed at 13- and 15-year-olds.

Hutching’s words were inappropriate. Not because she was making false comparisons, but because adults have no business talking about such matters with minors whose parents are not present.

As a pastor, when I teach children the commandment, “You shall not commit adultery,” I make it a point to have the parents present in class. I do so out of respect for the innocence of children and in recognition of the authority of parents to protect their own kids.

It is regrettable that Senator Hutchings forgot this unspoken rule, but it is, unfortunately, understandable. Our culture has become so saturated with inappropriate subject matter that we have forgotten how to blush. I include myself in this indictment. Dining room table discussions regularly transgress age-appropriate subject matter.

As modesty standards have fallen in dress codes, they have also fallen in modes of speech, and we haven't even noticed. As a result, our children are sexualized at ever younger ages.

I was outraged to hear that an Evanston middle-schooler was explicitly asked by her teacher whether “same-sex marriage” would be allowed in the constitution of the nation she was supposed to build. How dare an adult male engage an 11-year old girl with such a question? That was every bit as inappropriate as Hutching’s remarks, but nobody even seemed to notice.

As we adults raise our voices in objection to this evil, we find that our own voices contribute to the problem. It’s a catch-22. Our older kids come home from school and raise topics at the dinner table that need to be answered with grace and truth. But the fact remains that neither they nor their younger siblings should have to be dealing with such subjects at all.

I can remember how shocked I was the first time our family drove through Las Vegas. My minivan full of kids was seeing inappropriate sexuality on display everywhere they turned. There was no way that we parents could shield them from it.

What was even more shocking, however, was when I spoke with people who lived in Las Vegas. They had stopped being shocked. If fact, they had even stopped noticing.

While we are so busy arguing both sides of a new morality, we have forgotten entirely that there are children in the room who shouldn’t have to listen in. Wyoming law prohibits “mental injury” to children. It is listed as a form of prosecutable child abuse. Mental injury happens when children are made to experience false or inappropriate materials.

Our entire culture is engaged in a form of child-endangerment that needs to stop. Public decency laws can help. School boards should also re-examine their policies about what subjects are appropriate for teachers to speak about. We should also have robust and reasonable parental notification and opt-out policies.

But in the end, there is no amount of legislation that will solve the problem. The problem is simply too pervasive. Each and every adult must reclaim a sense of modesty in public speech. We need to remember that not every subject and not every word is appropriate for publication in newspapers, or discussion in classrooms.

If the recent dust-up in Cheyenne can contribute to a heightened awareness of this need, some good can come of an unfortunate situation.

Now that the GSA is concerned with the tender ears of 14- and 15-year-olds, it would be a good time for it to take the inappropriate language off its own website. Let’s work together to protect all minors from the constant assault of sexual language. In so doing we can make a better Wyoming and a better world.

Tuesday, February 12, 2019

Humanizing Language Humanizes Us

Gov. Ralph Northam, Pediatric Neurologist
We now live in a world where the cold-blooded murder of a newborn baby is publicly defended. Over the past two weeks we have seen not one, not two, but dozens of America’s elected leaders defend the indefensible.

It started with Governor Ralph Northam of Virginia giving his opinion of what should happen in the labor/delivery room if a child was born with abnormalities. He said, “I can tell you exactly what would happen. The infant would be delivered. The infant would be kept comfortable. The infant would be resuscitated, if that’s what the mother and the family desired, and then a discussion would ensue between the physicians and the mother. And so, I think this is really blown out of proportion. But again, we want the government not to be involved in these types of decisions.”

In Northam’s delivery room a newborn child is being swaddled by nurses while the mother and the physician decide whether, or not, to kill her. He asserts that the government should have nothing to say about that decision.

In 2002 the U.S. Congress passed by unanimous consent the Born-Alive Infant Protection Act which explicitly states that the child in Northam’s delivery room, or in an abortionist’s clinic, is recognized by the federal government as a “person,” a “human being,” a “child” and an “individual.” Now, he is publicly asserting that government should have nothing to say in defense of that person’s life.

This is the bright red line that was crossed last week. Once an elected official claims that certain persons, individuals or human beings are outside the protection of law, he has called into question whether the government will protect any person, individual or human being.

How did we get here? The answer lies in words. Words do not only communicate ideas, they shape our thinking. Actually, it goes even deeper than that. The words we use affect our psyche, our soul, the deepest places in our hearts.

When you consistently and systematically deny humanity or personhood to any human being, it shapes the way that you think about him. It is not possible just to flip the switch and think differently from one minute to the next.

In this case, we are talking about an ideology that strictly forbids referring to the unborn in human or relational terms. We can call it a fetus or an embryo, but we dare not refer to it as a child or a person. We can refer to a pregnant woman, but we dare not call her a mother.

This sterile and passionless language is necessary if we wish to maintain that Roe v. Wade is right and just. The difficulty we are experiencing as a society is how and when to start calling an inhuman and unrelated thing by the humanizing and relational language of mother and child.

Whether we propose to flip that switch at “viability” or “birth” or “after the mother and physician have had a discussion,” it is an arbitrary decision.

Worse, it is impossible for the human psyche to turn on a dime. Once we have talked about somebody in dehumanizing language, hearts are conditioned to think and feel less than humanely about him.
Sen. Lynn Hutchings

That, essentially, is Gov. Northam’s problem. Once he has thought of the baby he is delivering as inhuman until the moment of birth, he finds it impossible to treat her humanely only five minutes after birth. It’s not just his problem. It’s ours, as well.

While Northam was claiming that the government has no place in protecting the born-alive child, Wyoming’s Senate was debating the government’s place in protecting the unborn child. Once again, the issue came down to language.

Senator Lynn Hutchings (R-Cheyenne) sponsored SF 128 Unborn victims of violence act. It would have made it possible to charge a person with murder who killed an unborn child, except in the act of an abortion.

It seems like an obvious compromise. Women who chose abortion are not affected, while women who chose life have that choice recognized in Wyoming Statute. The problem was that it used the term “unborn child.” When the Senate Judiciary Committee heard the bill, Tara Nethercott (R-Cheyenne), chair of the committee, offered a three-page amendment to the bill. It did two main things to the wording.

First, it deleted every reference to “an unborn child” and replaced it with “a fetus.” Hutchings’ bill had defined “unborn child” as “the offspring of human beings from conception to birth.” But the amendment left “fetus” undefined. Perhaps this was an oversight. Or, perhaps a clear definition of “fetus” would have required the word “human” -- precisely what “fetus” is meant to avoid.

Since Webster’s Dictionary defines fetus as “an unborn or unhatched vertebrate,” one could envision an animal rights activist using this lack of specificity to prosecute the killing of an unborn vertebrate. More to the point, this is precisely the kind of dehumanizing term that led to Northam’s infanticidal remarks.

Nethercott’s amendment also deleted every occurrence of the phrase “mother of the unborn child” and replaced it with “a pregnant woman.” Mother and child are relational terms. “Pregnant woman” is deliberately non-relational.
Sen. Tara Nethercott

One cannot admit the existence of a relationship before birth if one will not admit the existence of a person before birth. The two go hand-in-hand. Wyoming women who do recognize and cherish the relationship with their unborn children, are still denied any recognition of that relationship in Wyoming law.

One curious consequence of replacing “mother” with “pregnant woman” is what it did to the “Exclusions” section. Hutchings’ bill said, “nothing in this act shall apply to any act committed by the mother of an unborn child.” The amendment made it, “nothing in this act shall apply to any act committed by a pregnant woman.”

By not specifying the relationship of mother and child, it would have allowed any pregnant woman at all, to kill the fetus of another pregnant woman without prosecution. Don’t think that is far-fetched. Any competent defense attorney would see it in a heartbeat.

Certainly, that was an unintended loophole. But how do you close it without recognizing that a pregnant woman has a relationship with the specific child in her womb that no other pregnant woman has with that child? What do you call that relationship, if not motherhood?

Nethercott’s amendment was adopted. But the following Monday the full Senate deleted it. Then the Senate defeated the entire bill (11-18). Many said that they were confused. I don’t think the bill’s language was all that confusing. The confusion, rather, rests upon our entire culture.

Attitudes toward persons under law have been changed through a long and sustained campaign of deleting words that recognize the humanity of the unborn and the natural relationship that exists long before birth. Now we are having difficulty as a nation, recognizing those same realities after birth and beyond.

That confusion has given us a government that is not sure whether it has a duty to protect every person, individual and human being. What can we do to regain the certainty that has been lost?

The first thing to do is to stop lying to ourselves. One cannot dehumanize something for months on end without affecting the deepest places of our own humanity. Words not only mean things. They do things to us. They can elevate us as we elevate others. Or they can debase us as we debase others.

It’s time that our national conversation reflect this truth. We should start by using humanizing language in Wyoming law.

Tuesday, February 5, 2019

Government Power and Family Formation

The 2019 Wyoming legislative session is nearly half over. Our elected representatives and senators are in the process of grinding through 499 bills. Some of these have already lost in committee, others lost on the floor. Many will die without ever receiving a hearing, some without even being assigned to a committee.

During all this flurry of activity, it is easy to lose sight of the forest on account of so many trees. Especially, bills that deal with highly personal matters and divisive topics can be argued heatedly with talking points intended to over-simplify and focus on one aspect of a problem while ignoring other relevant aspects.

For instance, HB 60, Underage marriage-exceptions repeal, would have raised Wyoming’s legal age of marriage from 16 years old, under current law, to 18. But that’s not all. It also proposed to prevent any possibility of parents, minors or judges from taking special circumstances into account. That is the reason it was titled “exceptions repeal.”

Current Wyoming law sets the minimum marriage age at 16 but gives a mechanism for those younger than that to apply for an exception. If the parents consent and a judge approves it, they can obtain a marriage license.

The problem is that there are some truly horrifying stories about minors forced into marriages against their will. That is a form of child abuse that can have lifelong consequences. It is the duty of the state to protect the rights of every citizen, no matter how old, to give informed and free consent to marriage. That contributed to the House Judiciary Committee’s recommendation of the bill on an 8-1 vote.

In the face of horrific injustices, we instinctively protect people with the strongest exercise of power we can muster. But over the following weekend, legislators began to see more clearly that the abusive acts of some parents are not best handled by unilaterally stripping all parents and adolescent children of the authority to consent to a marriage younger than the norm.

At the end of the day, the only reason the state has an interest in marriage is because the state has a duty to make sure that children are cared for in the best way possible. Marriage does that better than any other institution.

So why would the state deny marriage to a young couple that wants its child to be born into a stable marriage? How is it better to give the state arbitrary authority over the lives of minors when the original problem was parents who exercised arbitrary authority over the lives of their minor children?

So, the House amended the original bill raising the age to 18, but reinserting the exceptions. It held that judges are capable of discerning when a minor is free enough from parental control and knowledgeable enough to give meaningful consent. The following day the bill failed after it was amended again, once more stripping young couples of the ability to apply for exceptions.

This interesting saga stands in contrast to another bill that intends to address the coercion of women to consent to another irreversible action. HB 140, Abortion-48 hour waiting period, recognizes that abortion, like marriage, has life-long consequences.

Just as there are horror stories of people being coerced into marriage, there are also plenty of stories of women being coerced into abortions. It is the duty of the state to protect the human rights of all women not to be coerced into an abortion.

Coercion happens when there is a power differential that is exploited. People in positions of power over a woman, like parents, boyfriends, husbands and abortion providers all have ways to pressure the woman into making the decision that they want, rather than what she wants.

The Elliot Institute is one of the leading advocates for women who have been forced to abort. In a 2012 report they found that 64% of women feel pressured to abort; 79% were denied information about available alternatives; 67% felt rushed or uncertain; and 84% were not sufficiently informed before an abortion.

The 48-hour waiting period recognizes the duty of the state to protect women from being coerced into a life-changing decision that she does not want for herself. Unlike HB 60 which flat-out denied some women a choice to marry, the waiting period does not use the power of the state to keep her from making a decision. Rather, it uses the power of the state to make it harder for others to pressure her one way or the other.

We need to pass common sense laws that give women access to information about alternatives. We need to make sure that women have full access to sufficient information about abortion. In a similar vein, HB 140 addresses the 60% of women who experienced time pressure. It takes away the ability of abortion providers and authority figures to manipulate her decision using travel distance and time considerations as leverage.

Because pressure to abort is more commonly experienced by young women, it shares in the power dynamic of forced marriages. Proponents of both bills recognized that the state of Wyoming has a duty to protect people in vulnerable positions from pressures placed upon them by those with more power.

These two bills are related also in the sense that marriage and abortion both have to do with the transition from childhood to adulthood. Ultimately the attainment of adulthood has less to do with an arbitrary age—be it 16, 18 or 21—and more to do with the maturation of our reproductive systems and the ability to form a family of our own.

Seen through this lens, debate on HB 60, Underage marriage-exceptions repeal and HB 140, Abortion-48 hour waiting period, shines a spotlight on two very different exercises of state power.

One would use the power of government to forbid formation of a family even when a family has already been formed by the conception of a child. The other would use government’s power to shield a vulnerable young woman from more powerful persons who may want her to choose an abortion even while she wants to choose life.

Life, marriage and family are all pre-political realities. They have been happening long before any laws were ever enacted and will continue to happen long after America is a footnote in world history.

For this reason, any legislating of these matters should use as light a touch as possible. These mysteries should not be manhandled. They should be respected and upheld as the first duty of government.

Tuesday, January 29, 2019

What we learned at the Lincoln Memorial

Me and my son at the Lincoln Memorial, January 18, 2019
Last Saturday, my teenage son and I went to participate in the 46th annual March for Life. On the way to the March we decided to get off the Metro a few stops early and take in some of the most iconic monuments on the Washington Mall. The Lincoln Memorial was our first stop.

Thirty six marble columns, representing the 36 states reunited after the civil war, guard the entry into a temple-like inner sanctum. Inside is a 175-ton marble statue of Abraham Lincoln. His left hand is clenched in a fist to symbolize his strength and determination to see the war through. His right hand is relaxed and open, symbolizing his compassionate reaching out to grieving Americans from both sides of the Civil War.

The meaning of his hands is further emphasized by his words. On the right hand wall is the Gettysburg Address. On Lincoln’s left is his Second Inaugural Address. He spoke these words on March 4, 1865, while the war was still ongoing and 41 days before his assassination.

Amid all the moving symbolism of the Memorial, these are the words that caused my voice to crack and my eyes to tear as I read them aloud. Even before the war was over in which 620,000 American fathers, sons and brothers killed each other, Lincoln’s strength and determination to make war was turning to an equal strength and determination to make peace.

It’s a brief speech that concludes, “With malice toward none, with charity for all, with firmness in the right as God gives us to see the right, let us strive on to finish the work we are in, to bind up the nation's wounds, to care for him who shall have borne the battle and for his widow and his orphan, to do all which may achieve and cherish a just and lasting peace among ourselves and with all nations.”

As we were approaching the Memorial, we heard a bullhorn and saw protesters off to our left. After our visit, we made our way through them toward the Viet Nam Wall. On the way we spotted a news crew interviewing some of their leaders. I can’t remember if one of them was Nathan Phillips.

I only remarked to my son that even though there were a half-million people only a few blocks away, this gathering of fewer than 100 would likely get more press coverage than the March for Life. Even then I couldn’t imagine what that would look like.

The first March for Life was organized in 1974 in observance of Roe v. Wade. It has been held every year since. Attendance can exceed 650,000. It has also earned the reputation among the Capitol Police with whom we spoke as the cleanest and most well-behaved March in Washington.

Not everybody is polite. One man, lugging around the biggest bullhorn I have ever seen and a ten-foot sign, wandered around in the crowd insulting the participants and generally making himself obnoxious. There was another like him farther down the route.

But considering that the crowd was roughly the size of Wyoming’s entire population, two bad eggs cannot dilute the overwhelming good nature of the participants.

Busloads of people come from all over. Many wear a distinctive hat or pullover. The 300 Lutherans wore neon-green beanies and carried pictures of people with life-affirming stories (

Hundreds of Roman Catholic school groups can often be heard singing their distinctive school chants back and forth in friendly rivalries. That is why the article posted on Buzzfeed the following afternoon just didn’t ring true.

It linked a 60-second video clip from Twitter but told a story that didn’t match the video at all. Supposedly, a mob of Catholic teenagers surrounded a peaceful native American to taunt him. But the video showed only confused kids wondering why this man was beating a drum and staring down one of their friends.

Almost two hours of additional video shows a fuller story. A group of students were waiting for their bus when five men from the D.C. area began an hour-long barrage of racial, religious and sexual insults. 

The student’s chaperones were keeping them together and reminding them to stay calm. Then an hour and twelve minutes into the video Nathan Phillips, a professional activist, led a group of protesters directly into their ranks.

Imagine how you would react. After an hour of insults, a total stranger beating a drum walks out of his way to put his face within inches of yours. What would you do? What expression would you have on your face? Nicholas Sandmann first tried a poker-face. Then he tried to break eye-contact. Next, he tried a smile.

It was the smile that condemned him. Someone decided that it was the wrong sort of smile. His crime was not anything that he said or did, but his appearance.

There were two or three people with cameras. All of them knew the truth told by the video footage. But one of them edited the footage in a way calculated to misrepresent the event. Not only did that lie hurt Sandmann and his entire community, it was meant to.

That is “malice aforethought.” America should know the name of this liar as well as we know the name, Covington. He or she should be brought to justice. There are no laws against a forced smile while you are trying to make the best of an uncomfortable situation. But there are laws against publishing the picture and the identity of a minor with malicious intent.

It was not only the videographer who lied. So did an anonymous Twitter activist who posed as a California school teacher using the picture of a Brazilian blogger. He or she condemned Sandmann to 40,000 followers and amplified it through another 40 fake accounts. This was a professional hit.

Then the press got involved. Buzzfeed violated every standard of editorial diligence and decency by repeating a story in national press that had already been debunked. They knew what they were doing. So did the New York Times and their followers.
Nathan Phillips, activist

Sandmann neither approached Phillips, nor touched him, or spoke to him. But he found himself in scores of newspapers and had his full name and picture vilified on 300 million TV screens and cell phones across America. That is not dispassionate reporting. That is participation in a mob.

America has jumped the shark. It’s time to take a deep breath and count to ten.

Sandmann is not a MAGA hat-wearer. He is not a Catholic. He is not a pro-lifer. He is not a European. He is a human being. He is a son. If Phillips had decided to pull his stunt a few hours earlier, it could very well have been my own son. That’s a sobering thought.

Do we care? Do you care enough about a kid from Kentucky to watch the whole video and decide for yourself? Do you care enough to defend his good name when the mob might turn on you? Do you care enough about the damage done to him to cancel newspaper subscriptions and turn off news-channels that have lied to you and defamed an unsuspecting kid?

Do newspaper publishers and reporters care enough to verify facts before publishing whatever sells copy or advances their bias? Do celebrities and politicians care enough to apologize to the real person they have unjustly accused?

We need the strength and determination of Lincoln’s clinched fist to stand against this war on decency. And we need the compassion of his open hand to reach out to every fellow-citizen, not only the favored tribe du jour.

Lincoln’s words still beckon: “With malice toward none, with charity for all, with firmness in the right as God gives us to see the right, let us strive on to finish the work we are in, to bind up the nation's wounds.”

There is much work to be done.

Tuesday, January 15, 2019

Miracle on the Hudson, ten years on

Today marks the tenth anniversary of the “Miracle on the Hudson.” Pilot Chesley Sullenberger (“Sully”) and co-pilot, Jeff Skiles safely landed a commercial jet on the Hudson River without the loss of a single life.

Where does one begin to tell a story like that? The natural place to begin is at the inception of the action. Exactly 80 seconds after U.S. Airways flight 1549’s wheels left the runway of LaGuardia International Airport, it ran into a flock of Canadian geese. Passengers and crew heard the birds strike the Airbus A320 and watched flames trail from both engines. Then there was silence.

Years later, the sound of that silence still haunts Sully. It announced a crisis that no pilot had ever faced: the complete loss of thrust at the very moment in the flight profile that required the greatest thrust. Less than five miles from takeoff, they had climbed only 2,818 feet before becoming the world’s largest glider.

But the story doesn’t really begin with the geese. When their flight path intersected that of the passenger jet headed for Charlotte, North Carolina, it became a convergence of many stories. More than beginning any one story, the bird strike drew together captain, crew, passengers, and people on the ground,  into a new story—one that endures to this day.
Captain Chesley Sullenberger

For his part, Sully’s story began in Denison, Texas where he was born in 1951. Interested in aviation from a very early age, he learned to fly at a local airstrip when he was 16. After graduating high school he entered the United States Air Force Academy in Colorado Springs. As a freshman in the class of 1973, he was hand-selected for the Cadet Glider Program. That was a part of his story that would be useful 40 years later.

After finishing his study at the academy, he took a graduate degree from Purdue University and earned his wings in 1975. He spent his time in the Air Force flying the F-4D Phantom, the first airframe to achieve the speed of sound in level flight. Following his retirement from military service, he became a commercial pilot in 1980 and flew for the same airline until his retirement thirty years later.

Sully with Jeffrey Skiles

Sully is adamant that the miracle was no solo performance, but a team effort. His co-pilot, Jeff Skiles, has more than 22,000 hours of experience himself and was indispensable to the successful landing. His story, too, was tailor-made to be part of a greater story.

Nor was landing the plane the only miracle of that day. As the downed aircraft was rapidly sinking in the frigid water, 14 New York Waterway ferries, together with U.S. Coastguard and NYFD boats, plucked 150 passengers and five crew members from the freezing water. Ferry captains like Manny Liba and Vincent Lombardi drew on decades of training and experience to pull off the most successful marine rescue in aviation history.
Ferries from New York Waterway

Each of these individual people has a history that uniquely contributes to his part in the “Miracle on the Hudson.” That’s how life works. Our lives and well-being are constantly affected by the lives of thousands of strangers who surround us. These people, in turn, all have histories of aptitudes, interests, training and personal choices that uniquely place them into our own story.

Every career decision, every moment spent learning, studying and training and every character enhancement or character flaw suddenly became a vital factor in whether real people lived or died. The “Miracle on the Hudson” brought this reality into focus, but it’s a reality that carries on in your life, as well.

Whatever you are doing today, good and bad, has real-world consequences for everybody around you. Sometimes your actions have immediate consequences. Other times they are deposits of knowledge, character and practice that you make toward some unknown future.

The point to notice here is that these actions do not only affect individual lives, they affect everybody else’s as well. That’s why communities rise and fall together. As each person in the community grows more competent and selfless, the community as a whole is better for it.

This is an important lesson to reclaim in a culture that values individual choice and individual satisfaction as the supreme good. They are not the supreme good! Autonomous choice divorced from care for the specific neighbors surrounding us can only tear down. It cannot build. Our choices, even private choices, are not made in isolation. Every thing we do has a direct bearing on the rest of the community.

On January 15, 2009, the entire community of Flight 1549 was lifted up by a thousand untold stories of sacrifice, training, self-denial and dedication. The skills, the character traits, the training and the fitness that saved the passengers on flight 1549 were all being put into place during months, years and decades leading up to that moment of truth.

Captain Sully reflected on this years later. “For 40 years I had been making deposits in my ability to take-off, fly and land aircraft,” he said. “On that fateful day I made a huge withdrawal. And if I hadn’t made all those deposits over all those years, I wouldn’t have been able to make that withdrawal, and save those people’s lives.”
Patrick Harten

In the seconds that passed after hitting the birds, Sully and Skiles were not idle. The captain assumed control of the aircraft so that his co-pilot could begin executing the checklist required. Twenty-two seconds later, Sully radioed air traffic controller, Patrick Harten, “This is Cactus 1539, hit birds. We’ve lost thrust in both engines. We’re turning back toward LaGuardia.”

Harten immediately cleared runway 13 for landing. But Sully replied with a single word, “unable… We are gonna be in the Hudson.” They were over one of the most densely populated cities in the world—and three minutes from impact. There were 155 souls aboard and many times that on the ground below. But Sully and his co-pilot remained focused on the task at hand: to land safely.

Such occasions don’t come with a book. There is no time to “Google” the answer. Even if there were, the answer did not yet exist. The answer lay in Sully’s understanding of the physical world. Airspeed, wind direction, altitude, weight, lift and position all combined to form the canvass on which Sully would paint his masterpiece.

There was no opportunity for practice or a do-over. It’s like our life every day. Every word we speak, every move we make, is life lived out against the canvass of the real world. The outcome depends entirely upon how well we understand that world, and how skillfully we navigate it.

That’s what makes Sully’s story so uplifting. He understood. He acted on that understanding with competence and skill. In so doing, he guided 155 souls to safety.

Such a story encourages us to strive. Let us understand our world accurately. Let us discipline ourselves to shape character, mind and body. Let us pray for the grace to live our lives according to the truth. In so doing, each of us has the opportunity to be Sully in our own family, in our school, in our community.

It’s not just about us. Everyone benefits.

Tuesday, January 8, 2019

Jury trials signal America’s commitment to the natural law

The Jury, (oil on canvass) by John Morgan 1861
Jury trials are such a common fixture of American life that few people give them a second thought. Article III, Section 3 of the United States Constitution, requiring that “The trial of all crimes…shall be by jury,” seems wholly normal. But it is not.

In other countries and in other times, jury trial has been reserved only for a few special circumstances. Civil cases, where citizens take one another to court for monetary damages, and criminal cases, where the government accuses a citizen of a public crime, are most generally decided by a single judge. Most of the world’s population will never be allowed to ask twelve fellow citizens for justice.
Bench trial overseas

Contrast this to the Sixth Amendment in our Bill of Rights, which guarantees that “In all criminal prosecutions, the accused shall enjoy the right to a speedy and public trial, by an impartial jury.” The Seventh Amendment even extends this right to civil cases where the damages sought are greater than 20 dollars (about $525, adjusted for inflation).

These constitutional requirements make the American judicial system unique. We are out of step with the rest of the world, not because we are behind the times, but because even after 230 years the world has yet to catch up.

American insistence on trial by jury is the cornerstone of justice because it roots American justice in the common sense of the common citizen and stands opposed to every arbitrary and nonsensical law.

By definition, a jury has no training in legal theory and no vested interest in protecting bureaucratic powers. There is only one thing that a random selection of jurors can bring to a criminal or a civil trial. It brings its common sense. Each person, rich and poor, high school dropout and rocket scientist, is born with an internal sense of right and wrong.

The very fact that jury trials are ensconced in American law stands as a testimony that all laws are intended to be nothing more and nothing less than a written expression of that law written on every person’s heart. It is called the natural law.

Natural law is not created by societies, governments, or churches. It is not created at all, but discovered in the heart of humankind. It is the law that governs every quarrel from a toddler’s dispute over a toy to multi-billion-dollar corporate litigation.

The telltale sign of natural law is that both sides appeal to “fairness.” It has nothing to do with written laws, but with the sense of justice behind the written law. If the laws had been written in the opposite way, the sense of fairness would remain unchanged.

The opposite of natural law is positive law. Positive law posits the idea that justice is whatever the lawmakers say it is. Instead of seeking to discover the timeless principles of justice, positive law attempts to create justice by fiat.

Positive law is much more efficient at handling disputes, but it doesn’t much care about anybody’s sense of justice. When two toddlers are quarrelling over a toy, positive law is like the parent who storms into the room and takes it away from one and gives it to the other.

The decision is made. The quarrel is forcibly ended. One side is happy and the other is not. But nobody believes that the decision was either just or unjust. It was just a decision.

Positive law is the tool of tyranny. It imposes order by power. It does not seek peace by justice. Trial by jury is America’s way of seeking peace, not just order. We want to be ruled by justice, not power.

All of this means that we are asking juries to let their internal sense of justice be the deciding factor—even if it runs contrary to the written, positive law. Legal scholars call this “jury nullification.” When a jury decides that a person has broken the written law, but that the written law is unjust, it has the right to nullify the written law in order to grant justice.

Legal scholars, together with two centuries of legal precedents, all agree that jurors have the power to do this. But this is the best kept secret of our modern judicial system. Jury nullification remains a highly controversial concept and defense lawyers are prohibited from telling jurors that they have this right.

People who deny any transcendent natural law--positive law theorists—will admit that juries have this power but assert that it is a mistake in the constitution that we need to fix. They assert that juries only have the right to decide matters of fact, but that they are forbidden from judging the law.

While this argument rages among scholars of the U.S. Constitution, Wyoming’s Constitution leaves no room for argument. It plainly states that jurors have the duty to judge both the facts and the law itself. Section 20 of Wyoming’s Declaration of Rights spells this out.

It says, “in all trials for libel, both civil and criminal, the truth, when published with good intent and [for] justifiable ends, shall be a sufficient defense, the jury having the right to determine the facts and the law, under direction of the court.”

Notice those broad, sweeping qualifiers. Not only when the government charges a citizen (criminal cases) but also when citizens take each other to court (civil cases), a jury—and not just a single judge—has the “right to determine the facts and the law.” Common, untrained citizens are charged by the Wyoming Constitution to decide not only if a person has violated the law, but also whether the law itself it just. That’s jury nullification.

Especially in matters of free speech, Wyoming is constituted to protect its citizens from arbitrary dictates of government power. Just because some governmental entity makes a law forbidding this or that speech does not make it just. Positive law that does not match up with natural law should not be followed.
It is as if Wyoming’s founders could foresee our day. We live in a cultural climate where statements of common sense are increasingly subject to fines, censure and other penalties. Businesses are fined hundreds of thousands of dollars. Charity organizations are shut down. Public employees are fired.

Judge Ruth Neely
Lyle Williams

It’s not only First-Amendment rights that are being trampled, but other rights plainly recognized by the Bill of Rights as well. Time after time we see strange verdicts handed down by judges ruling from the bench and commissars appointed by partisan governors. They are only concerned with whether John Q. Citizen broke the law as written. They do not ask whether the law itself is just.

Justice is discovered, not created. If the law written in books is not true to the law written on the heart, it is unjust. Juries are given a prominent place in American justice because American justice rests upon natural law, not man-made laws.

Because we value a peaceful society and not just an orderly one, our judicial system must aim for justice and not merely lawfulness. The sooner we recognize and appreciate the power and wisdom of trial by jury, the sooner justice and peace will replace mere law and order.

Monday, December 24, 2018

Silent Night, Holy Night

Joseph Mohr in the Silent Night Chapel in Oberndorf, Austria
Christmas is a time of singing. Almost as soon as Jesus started growing in the womb of the Virgin Mary she burst forth in song: “My soul doth magnify the Lord, and my spirit hath rejoiced in God my Savior” (Luke 1:46-47 KJV). Then, on the night of Jesus’ birth, angel hosts picked up the chorus. “Glory to God in the highest and on earth peace, good will toward men” (Luke 2:14 KJV). The music has never stopped.

Other seasons of the year have plenty of hymns to sing, but Christmas alone has the custom of caroling from house to house. Christmas songs dominate the radio and shopping malls from Thanksgiving to Christmas. Of all the songs written for specific days, the number of Christmas songs dwarfs any other day of the year. Yet even among such a vast selection, one hymn stands head and shoulders above the rest.

It’s a good bet that you could walk into any random church service tonight, in any denomination, throughout the world and hear the congregation singing “Silent Night, Holy Night.” It has been translated into at least 300 languages. Is there a single church in all of Wyoming that does not have it in the line-up?
Gruber window

As the uniform liturgies of Christendom have become fragmented and unrecognizable, this song is probably the last shared liturgy among all who consider themselves Christian. And today, December 24, 2018, is its 200th birthday!

You may have heard quaint tales about its origins. One story is that the hymn was hastily written after the pastor discovered church mice had nibbled holes in the organ bellows. Scholars have debunked this story, but it is not terribly far from the truth.

Franz Joseph Mohr was a young assistant pastor of St. Nicholas Church in Oberndorf, Austria. Situated on the Salzach river, it was prone to flooding. Indeed, as Christmas Eve approached in the year 1818, the organ was damaged by one such flood. But the new pastor had an idea.

Two years earlier Mohr had penned a six-verse Christmas poem. He had also received a strong musical education and was an accomplished musician on the newly invented six-string guitar. But he was not a composer.

On the morning of Christmas Eve, 1818, poem in hand, Mohr walked two miles to the neighboring town of Arnsdorf. There, above the school lived his friend Franz Xaver Gruber, who was both a teacher and musician. He asked Gruber to compose music for the poem that they could perform that evening at the midnight Mass.

So it was that a tune was born, dubbed “Stille Nacht.” At its debut performance a few hours later, Mohr played guitar and sang a duet with Gruber, while a four-part choir repeated the last line of each verse. Did anyone present have any idea that it would become a song for the world?

We still have the guitar. When Mohr was transferred from parish to parish, he kept his beloved guitar with him. Upon his death 20 years later, it was auctioned off with the rest of his meager estate. A young assistant teacher, Josef Felser, acquired it and carried it with him throughout his career until he retired in the town of Kuchl.

There it wound up hanging on a tavern wall where it remained for years after Felser’s death. Finally, in 1911, friends of Felix Gruber, the composer’s grandson, bought it and presented it him as a wedding present. In 1938 he, in turn, gave it to the town of Hallein as a part of the Gruber estate. There it sat in storage until 1952 when it was first displayed to the public. It can still be seen there today.

As for the song, both Mohr and Gruber carried it with them as their careers led them to other places, but its main promoter was a master organ builder, Karl Mauracher. When he was asked to come and repair the organ in Oberndorf, he found the song and took a copy of it home to the Ziller Valley.

There two travelling families of singers worked the song into their repertoire. During the 1830s it was performed in numerous places around Germany until it made its American debut at Trinity Church, New York City in 1839.
Franz Xaver Gruber

By the 1840s, the song was becoming famous throughout Europe, but its original author, Joseph Mohr, was dead and the organ builder who popularized it never knew the name of its composer, Gruber. Most assumed it was written by one of the big-name composers of the day: Hayden, Mozart or Beethoven. Gruber wrote to authorities in Berlin claiming himself as the composer.

Many disregarded his claims until 1994 when historians authenticated a copy of the song in Mohr’s own handwriting that said, “Melodie von Fr. Xav. Gruber.”  This copy also shows that our modern melody has been slightly altered from the original.

The words have also been pared down. Modern English versions of the hymn have three stanzas that were translated by John Young in 1863. 

“Silent night, holy night! All is calm, all is bright Round yon Virgin mother and child. Holy Infant so tender and mild, Sleep in heavenly peace, Sleep in heavenly peace!”
Oldest surviving copy in Mohr's handwriting

This translation differs somewhat from Mohr’s original focus on the “faithful holy pair,” and “lovely Boy with curly hair.” But the picture of light and calmness surrounding the Virgin mother has become as much a part of the hymn as anything.

The next English stanza is actually the sixth in the original. “Silent night, holy night! Shepherds quake at the sight; Glories stream from heaven afar, Heavenly hosts sing, ‘Alleluia, Christ the Savior is born! Christ the Savior is born!’"

Our final stanza goes, “Silent night, holy night! Son of God, love’s pure light. Radiance beams from Thy holy face With the dawn of redeeming grace, Jesus, Lord, at Thy birth, Jesus, Lord, at Thy birth!”

The original hymn by Joseph Mohr had an additional three stanzas. An English translation of these verses is as follows:

“Silent night! Holy night! Brought the world peace tonight, From the heavens' golden height Shows the grace of His holy might Jesus, as man on this earth! Jesus, as man on this earth!

“Silent night! Holy night! Where today all the might Of His fatherly love us graced And then Jesus, as brother embraced. All the peoples on earth! All the peoples on earth!
Joseph Mohr
“Silent night! Holy night! Long we hoped that He might, As our Lord, free us of wrath, Since times of our fathers He hath Promised to spare all mankind! Promised to spare all mankind!”

The English translation of these verses comes from an article by Bill Egan on Soundscapes.

This song was composed to by two obscure men who were brought together for two brief years in a small Austrian village. For a few hours 200 years ago, they collaborated on one song and never again produced any other musical compositions. Yet, this beloved song has become the world’s Christmas carol, above anything written by the most prolific or famous composers.

Tonight, the world celebrates how the universe was changed by a tiny Person born in obscurity. What better way to proclaim this news than to sing “Silent Night, Holy Night.”