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Saturday, January 10, 2015

The Bishop and the Cyclist, Part II: Anti-social Social Media

The charges have finally been made.

The Rt. Rev'd Heather Cook, 58 year old Bishop Suffragan of The Episcopal Diocese of Maryland, has been charged with manslaughter for allegedly driving drunk and sending text messages when she struck and killed cyclist Thomas Palermo last month.

She faces numerous other charges, including leaving the scene of the fatal accident in North Roland Park and driving under the influence. Both the manslaughter and leaving the scene charges carry a maximum sentence of 10 years.

Baltimore State's Attorney Marilyn J. Mosby said that Cook's breath alcohol level was 0.22 percent, nearly triple the legal limit in Maryland, and that she was text-messaging at the time of the collision.

Bishop Cook's booking picture
She was taken into custody on Friday afternoon, her bail set at $2.5 million and she was to spend the weekend at the Baltimore City Jail, women's division.

I can tell you from personal experience visiting people there that the place, BCJ, is something akin to the second circle of Dante's Inferno, where those "souls are blown back and forth by the terrible winds of a violent storm, without rest".

It has to be one of the noisiest places in the universe, a constant howl and growl of women's wailing and cursing and cussing, to the steady beat of banging and clanging. It sounds like that no matter what hour of the day or night I've happened to be there.

Social media has been lit up like New York City during the holidays with constant chatter about what "should" happen now. What she "should" say. What she "should" do. IMMEDIATELY.

Even how she "should" pray and what she "should" pray for.

And, here I thought it was bad when the news first broke, before she was charged.

Indeed, the amount of "shoulding" has been fairly amazing, and from otherwise fairly intelligent and well educated sources who seem oblivious to the fact that "shoulding" on someone only makes the person who is "shoulding" seem worse than the person who is the object of the "should".

As my grandmother used to say, "Whenever you try to make someone else look bad, you never make yourself look good. " And, she was absolutely right.

Predictably, the drum beat which started even before the facts were known and the charges were made, which call for accountability - and change - of the "vetting process" that allowed her to be elected has also increased at various sites on the internet.

As if that might have prevented this - or any other future - tragedy.

Maybe it could have. Maybe not.

There is no "crystal ball". Addiction recovery is not an exact science. And "forgiveness" and "unconditional love" alone do not cure it. They are part of recovery, certainly. But, not the cure.

Which, I hasten to add, ought not exclude alcoholics in recovery from ordination to the diaconate or priesthood or consecration to the episcopacy. We might want to get a little smarter and turn to Addiction Recovery experts regarding some advice on time lines and - I hate to use the word - 'profile' of what someone in "good recovery" looks like.

At any rate, focusing in on the "diocesan vetting process" is a fairly convenient - and, in fact, pretty transparent - place to hang all the raw emotion - the shock, anger, sense of betrayal, embarrassment - which this incident has surfaced.

It's a safe, even respectable, place to be, a place where you can even shout, "THE BISHOP IS FORGIVEN" and then attack her by attacking the process by which we elect leaders in the church. And then attack the people who say privately, "Psssst! Do you see what you're doing?"

Another place is social media: Facebook, Twitter, the comment section on blogs, etc. It has become what I call, "The Wild, Wild West." There's a shoot-em-up-bang-bang every time you turn around - especially on one site called, "Episcopalians On FaceBook. (EOFB)"

And, that's when there isn't a controversial incident.

Some of those folks can get worked up into a white hot lather about the most mundane things - like whether or not we should kneel or stand at the communion rail. We're not "catholic" someone will huff - they STAND for communion. And, off it goes until one of the six beleaguered, blessed "administrators" steps in and tries to calm everyone down, sometimes having to remove the entire thread before the pitch forks and torches come out and a lynching mob begins to form.

Seriously. There have been some good discussions over there, but it is not for the faint of heart.

The former bishop of NY was quoted in the NY Times and has been roundly condemned for asking of his critics, "Who are these people?" I can't even begin to tell you the number of times I have read something on EOFB, scratched my head, and asked the same question.

Yes, yes, and yes: Social Media can be used as a force for good. As a vehicle of social change. I agree. I'm limiting my remarks in this post to the bad stuff that can happen there, too. Which, I hope, will be a vehicle for some social changes for the good.

On my blog post, "The Bishop and the Cyclist", there have been over 35,000 visits to date since I first posted it on 12/31. And, there have been almost 130 comments left. I've deleted over 20 of them. I had to. They were surpassing mean and hateful - about the bishop. Oh, and moi.

See? I am obviously using the baptismal covenant to try to "suppress the truth" - or at least stop conversation which would lead to The Truth" - and "circle the wagons" to "protect Mother Church" and "cover the church's ass" of any culpability in this horrible tragedy.

As if.

These folks wave around the banners of "The Truth" and "Honesty" in much the same way some of the members of the Tea Party use the First Amendment.

Except they can spell.

As one dear friend once said to me, "You have the absolute right to wave your arms around as wildly as you wish, but that right stops at the end of my nose."

Sure, you have the right to vent your spleen and say whatever you wish to say about whatever topic you wish to spew . . . er, comment.  However, if I say, "Not here. Not on my FB page. Not in my blog comment section," then that's the end of that, folks.

Continue and I either hit "delete" or "spam" and, if you persist, "block".

I admit to laughing out loud, full throat, when a few folk commented to complain that I didn't post their comment which was filled with hateful stuff toward the bishop and/or me.  I mean, after all, they took time out of their day that they will never get back just to tell me how wrong/stupid/hateful I am and how I'm telling everyone not to judge except, see? you're judging me, you hypocrite! 

Sweet Baby Jesus and all the angels that rock Him to sleep at night!  Doesn't that just make you laugh right out loud and slap your thigh while you're doing it? I mean, there's no mistaking the indignation. You won't print my nasty-ass comment?! How dare you?! Ha!

Somebody's mama raised them much better than that, I'm sure. And, they've had a fairly decent education. They've just lost their minds in all of the emotion and/or drama of the moment, is what.

A while back, I tried to explain to a group of Episcopalians that, when we are hurting or in emotional pain, we often react vs. respond. Scientists call this "reptilian brain".

It's the part of the brain that instinctively reacts to protect and survive. Because it is an automatic response, we don’t even need to think before we act to protect our self when we feel threatened or injured. We "snap". We "bite".

I was trying to suggest to folks that a lot of what we were seeing was "reptilian brain" activity and that we all needed to take a breath, step back, reassess and move our responses up to the neocortex where actual thinking takes place.

Well!!! Some of them are still spewing over that! Good Christian folks, dragging information from one FB site to another like a piece of raw meat to where it's "safe" to have others ridicule it and laugh and take their own bite out of it.

Is this a good thing? I mean, having places on the internet to spew and vent and snap and bite?

I suppose it has its place and function.

I understand Starbucks has an online board where employees can say whatever they want about Starbucks policies without fear of retribution.

Right. Okay.

You'll forgive me, but I'm just not buying it. I think it is only the fool who believes that whatever she or he prints on Social Media will not come back one day to bite them in the arse. Even on so-called "closed sites" where it is supposedly "safe".

People, people, people: Listen up.  Safety - especially on the internet - is an illusion.

There is no "safe space" - not in too many places but especially on the internet.

There are only the limits you put on yourself and others in terms of what you will tolerate.

Or, as Frederick Douglass once said, "The limits of tyrants are prescribed by the endurance of those whom they oppress."

And, don't even get me started when privileged, well educated, affluent, straight white folk start talking about how they feel "oppressed" because they are being called into account and being asked to get a grip and watch what they say and how they say it. Please!

So, The Episcopal Women's Caucus FaceBook Page is trying a little experiment. We have developed a "Comment Code of Conduct"which has been adapted from the Sojourner Community.

I think it's pretty good, actually. It's based in scripture and is not a demand but rather a suggested way to think before one formulates a response (vs. a reaction).  It's pinned on the FB page so it's the first thing you see. Here it is:
I will express myself with civility, courtesy, and respect for every member of this online community, especially toward those with whom I disagree—even if I feel disrespected by them. (Romans 12:17-21)

I will express my disagreements with other community members' ideas without insulting, mocking, or slandering them personally. (Matthew 5:22)

I will not exaggerate others' beliefs nor make unfounded prejudicial assumptions based on labels, categories, or stereotypes. I will always extend the benefit of the doubt. (Ephesians 4:29)

I will not engage in spreading unfounded information/rumors by commenting about anyone who is in involved in alleged legal matters until such time as as all the facts are in and all the involved parties have spoken on the record." (James 3:1-18)

I understand that comments reported as abusive are reviewed by the Administrators and are subject to removal. Repeat offenders will be blocked from making further comments. (Proverbs 18:7)
So, there's an expressed expectation of certain behaviors which folks are asked to consider and consequences if there are serious, repeated abuses.

The downside is, if you're not a practicing Christian or a person of faith, this has very little meaning. In fact, those folk feel that they can absolutely ignore it. Then again, so can some practicing Christians. Le sigh.

It's very much a work in process and it will be amended as we progress. I've had this Code on the Comment Section of my Blog for awhile now. Truth be told, it usually only helps after the fact. I simply remind people of the Code and don't think twice when I send their repeated abusive comments to the spam bin and block them from further comments.

My sense is, we've got to start somewhere, with some expectations for behavior and decorum.  I mean, we are Anglicans, after all.

Right now, The Episcopal Church has suffered a terrible body blow, which has come, as body blows often do, at time when we're feeling most vulnerable and, in fact, embarrassed.

Just a few months ago, the Archbishop of Canterbury was widely quoted as saying that "There is a possibility that the Anglican Communion will not hold together." Meanwhile, Pope Francis is running around the globe spreading sunshine, lollipops and roses and Roman Catholics (who admittedly deserve a bit of a break) are slapping themselves on the back and even some Episcopalians are saying what we need in a new PB is a Francis. (Male, of course. More "catholic", no doubt. Who cares if he doesn't actually change anything? Just make us feel good about ourselves again.)

Then, there's the whole implosion going on at two of our Episcopal Seminaries and, perhaps, others that are going on more quietly. The seemingly hamfisted administration and bumbling faculty at General Theological Seminary has become nothing less than a huge international embarrassment.

And now, this. THIS! This is a journalistic trifecta: (1) An Episcopal woman bishop. (2) Drinking and texting and leaving the scene of the accident (A WOMAN BISHOP, for God's sake). And, (3) The vehicular manslaughter of a young father of small children.

No wonder our heads are exploding.

So, here I am. Back again. Biretta in hand. Asking us all to reconsider our Five Baptismal Promises.  As the days and weeks roll on and the headlines trickle in as this tragedy continues to unfold - "Bishop released on bail."  "Bishop resigns." "Bishop defrocked". "Anniversary Memorial Run for Slain Cyclist". "Trial date set for Bishop in Cyclist Hit and Run". "Former Bishop Sentenced" - it will be even more important to remember what we promised at Baptism:
Celebrant     Will you continue in the apostles’ teaching and 
                    fellowship, in the breaking of bread, and in the 
People         I will, with God’s help.
Celebrant    Will you persevere in resisting evil, and, whenever 
                    you fall into sin, repent and return to the Lord?
People         I will, with God’s help.
Celebrant   Will you proclaim by word and example the Good
                   News of God in Christ?
People        I will, with God’s help.
Celebrant  Will you seek and serve Christ in all persons, loving
                  your neighbor as yourself?
People       I will, with God’s help.
Celebrant   Will you strive for justice and peace among all 
                  people, and respect the dignity of every human 
People       I will, with God’s help.
It's important to remember that these are pretty difficult, very serious promises.

Which is why it's even more important to remember that we can only do them with God's help.

If you can't remember all that, please try to remember this:
Be kind. And, if you can't be kind, please be quiet.


Tom Kiefaber said...

It's your blog, so run it as you see fit, and censor away, as is your predilection. Whatever happened though, to the 1st commandment of imparting wisdom, thou shall not bore... ?

Clark Hendley said...

Well said! And, thank you.

Maureen said...

I say those baptismal promises every time someone, infant or adult, is baptized in my church. And I mean them, yesterday, today and tomorrow.

Malcolm+ said...

Well said, my friend.

It may be worth noting how effectively the Diocese of Maryland has managed to maintain transparency of communications in all this, while still being respectful of everyone involved. I'm thinking to propose to some friends in PR education that this may be a good case study in effective and ethical crisis communications.

I think the questions about getting are reasonable in the abstract, but the current context distorts the necessary discussion in unhelpful ways. My wife the lawyer likes to quote the aphorism that "hard cases make bad law." By the same token, crises often lead to bad policy."

Elizabeth Kaeton said...

I don't know, Tom. Last time I checked, the first commandment was still there. No one has taken it away or taken away its power.

Don't bother trying to explain. I'm sure I will not be edified by your explanation.

Thanks for stopping by.

Elizabeth Kaeton said...

Thanks, Clark

Elizabeth Kaeton said...

Malcolm - It is indeed worth nothing. Bishop Sutton has provided stellar leadership under pressure.


Elizabeth Kaeton said...

And . . . . the haters gotta hate, I guess, but they won't get any light on this blog.

That's a promise.

JCF said...

The more I read about this topic, the less I have to say. Even those who "should know better", don't---and that probably includes me, too.

So signing off (w/ prayers).

Christopher Hart said...

Elizabeth, As always you bring gentle, but penetrating light to the subject. Thank you for sharing your wisdom.

Kirkepiscatoid said...

I've been quietly following the comments on this post and the previous one, as well as in several other places on social media, and I keep having this thought--

"I wonder how many of the really hateful comments are coming from adult children of alcoholics?"

I know in my own case, it was a long time--a LONG time--before I stopped knee-jerking my own desires "to have all those people punished and make them go through the same kind of hell that my alcoholic put me through."

As it turned out, though, God was irascibly clever and put some long-in-recovery alcoholics in my path who didn't have a problem telling me I needed to work on MY stuff before pointing fingers at everyone else. That plus a few "there but for the grace of God go I" experiences led me to believe there was a better way and no need for me to be judge and jury. When I finally got around to believing God had all this covered, it freed me from being a judgmental little demigod for the most part.

I had another of those experiences just the other night. I barely missed two people walking down the road in dark non-reflective clothing because I was alert. The first thing I thought to myself was, "OMG, what if I'd been fiddling with the radio? Or been distracted by the dogs being in the car? Or, God forbid, been drinking?" It was a reminder that two seconds is all the difference between safety and death sometimes.

This is all just a reminder for me of our collective brokenness--it should be a reminder for each of us to reflect upon our own brokenness first and then ask how we as the church, can collectively change the culture. I think this is a difficult one. We Episcopalians pride ourselves at times in using alcohol as the thing that separates us from our more evangelistic bretheren--"See, it's ok, you can have a drink!"--but with that choice comes a different set of challenges to live up to our Baptismal Covenant.

Marthe said...

Of all the points made, it seems that the so called social media is really functioning as the venue for the public stoning of a woman they perceive to have betrayed her role as a last bastion of decency & propriety. It seems to be some sort of primal howl of mourning for a culture that "prizes" personal freedom at the expense of any individual responsibility to act with consideration for the effect of those actions on others. "The Church", whatever the denomination, is supposed to be the one place where a comforting narrow sense of 'right' is still valued, important ... of course, that is an unreasonable, sentimental and largely incorrect view, but it is the wishful thinking that is now so outraged by an actual person "failing" them made so much worse by the fact that it is a woman, a mother figure revealed as merely human ... the them shouting so loudly and resisting the dull, unspectacular, considerate parts of the whole conversation cannot bear to be ignored or to have their own cognitive dissonance exposed for review. It's all just sad.

Anne Welch said...

I like the formulation of your code of conduct.

With due respect, I don't understand why you bring Pope Francis into a discussion about the Episcopalian church. I understand that as a Catholic I am not the intended audience of this blog, and I can believe that you intended it as a joke. I hope you will understand why I feel it is disrespectful (and gratuitous)..

Scoop (Leslie Scoopmire) said...

Here's the deal: a terrible thing happened, and happened as a result of choices that were made. A family is hurting because their husband and father is gone in a senseless act. It would be nice if we could support them, pray for them, and keep them in the forefront of our thoughts. They are beloved children of God. They have suffered a terrible loss.

The person whose choices resulted in this tragedy is also a child of God first, before being a bishop, or a woman, or a person with an alcohol problem. Yes, there will be consequences for her. Doesn't mean she still is not a beloved child of God and a person. That's all that needs to be said. All the "shoulds" in the world won't change that "is." Instead of focusing so much upon spewing vitriol on someone who is probably in her own private hell right now, we can be constructive and try to embrace all the people who are hurting right now.

Elizabeth Kaeton said...

Thank you J C F. We would all be so much better if we thought a bit before responding and not respond if we don't have anything constructive to say.

Elizabeth Kaeton said...

Thanks Christopher. Always glad to have you visit

Elizabeth Kaeton said...

Kirke - as one whose maternal and paternal grandfathers, father and husband were alcoholics, I have had to sort through all my own stuff which this case brings to the fore. It really is so important to understand Gods presence in the midst of it all. It's key, I think, to a healthy, balanced soul.

Elizabeth Kaeton said...

Marthe- thank you for that really spectacular cultural and psychological analysis of the situation. It makes so much sense. Thank you.

Elizabeth Kaeton said...

Anne - im sorry if you took offense. I was trying to illustrate how raw we Eposcopalians are feeling right now that even on Episcopal priest published a blog on a major religious site which said we needed Pope Francis as our next Presiding Bishop. I think Francis is probably the best thing to happen to the RCC in decades, but that Episcopalian was taking such a backhand to the woman who is our present PBS I chose to see it as part of the state of high anxiety our church is now in.

It's not funny. It's no joke. I'm sorry if my lack of clarity led you to feel disrespected. The intended audience of Episcopalians would have gotten it

Elizabeth Kaeton said...

Scoop - I couldn't agree with you more. It is the intent of this blog to use all the negativity on social media right now to raise awareness and use it for a force for change for the good. I still hope that's possible.

JimB said...

Very well written Rev. E.

"Should" is a word used by those who seek to impose a moral obligation on someone else. I think your post makes the point brilliantly.

It is true that sometimes reasoned rational conversation does require a referIee. For blogs. that referee is necessarily the author. I think you do it very well.


Elizabeth Kaeton said...

Thanks, Jim. It's not an easy job but someone's gotta do it. Might as well be the blog owner, right?

Matthew said...

Thank you Elizabeth for both of these posts. Social media seems to embody extremes -- extreme good and bad. I have seen activism on social media save lives and bring about the love of God for those desperately needing it (which is why I still am involved in various aspects of it). I have also seen it used as extreme bullying that has driven some to suicide. The lack of kindness and empathy towards Bishop Cook is deeply distressing. All of this "shoulding" seems to me to be a form of gathering stones. I was reminded of a speech given years ago by Angela Davis where she asked each member of the audience to think of the crimes they had committed -- an attempt to avoid categorizing some as "the other."

Elizabeth Kaeton said...

Everyone stands in need of prayer, but right now, none more than the Palermo family as they continue to grieve as well as Bishop Heather and her family as they continues to struggle with the disastrous and tragic effects of her addiction.

If we can't be kind, what's the point? Social media doesn't give us a pass for bad behavior.

8thday said...

My best friend's 4 year daughter and 5 year nephew were killed by a drunk driver (his 4th offence) and a few years ago one of my closest friends was killed while jogging by a man with 2 prior arrests.

I just read an astounding statistic that between 25 and 40% of hospital beds (excluding maternity) are taken by people with alcohol related problems.

I understand people's anger generated by this tragedy (I have a lot of my own) but boy, do we need to find a better way of dealing with this problem because we are obviously failing people afflicted with addictions and mostly importantly those innocents who are then paying the final, irrevocable price of those behaviors.

Elizabeth Kaeton said...

I absolutely understand the anger. I feel it, too. Not just at Bishop Heather but at the naivete and ignorance of the system that placed an addict in early recovery in this sort of position.

That said, it does NOT excuse the horrible behavior demonstrated by some "Christians".

MarkBrunson said...

It is terrible. She has let us down. So what? We let each other down every day.

The only ones with any real say in forgiveness or not are God and the Palermo family. Punishment or not is in the hands of the legal system - such of it as we still have in Republimerica - and not ours as passive observers.

I'm not a particularly forgiving person - it's my besetting sin. I'm an alcoholic, off the sauce 9 years and more, but not the bishop involved, and without the stresses and expectations of a bishop. I'm also not a lawyer, not a priest, not a bishop, and not a victim. Is hit-and-run despicable? Yes. Is the one who did it despicable? Not necessarily. Was it lack of concern, human fear, impaired judgment? To me this isn't even about forgiveness - it's not mine to give or withhold, under the circumstances - but about recognizing that this is a human being in a situation I did not directly experience and have little basis for personal comparison. Her diocese is responsible for ecclesial discipline, our courts and jails for secular discipline, private litigation for personal redress. That's me out of it. It hurts. I'm angry and upset - and, you know what, that's my problem, not hers or the Palermos'.

Elizabeth Kaeton said...

Mark - Thank you for this comment. I have had to delete three hateful comments for every one I get like yours.

Here's my favorite post, left on my FB page:

As far as I am concerned the focus on anti-gay sentiment (or Hansen's "codependency" or not having done an intervention or whether or not the sacraments performed by the Bishop are valid) is no less an addiction than alcoholism among Christians and it is equally dangerous. As the Pope suggested: "Asking those present how a Christian is able to fall into this attitude, the Pope reflected that “The faith passes, so to speak, through a distiller and becomes ideology. And ideology does not beckon (people).”

Noting that it is a “lack of Christian witness does this,” he stressed that “when this Christian is a priest, a bishop or a Pope it is worse.”

“When a Christian becomes a disciple of ideology,” urged the Pope, “he has lost the faith: he is no longer a disciple of Jesus, he is a disciple of this attitude of thought,” and “the knowledge of Jesus is transformed into an ideological and also moralistic knowledge.”

“Ideology frightens, ideology chases away the people,” he stressed, stating that it is because of this that many are distanced from the Church.

“It is a serious illness, this Christian ideology. It is an illness, but it is not new,” he said, recalling how the Apostle John alludes to this mentality in his first letter.

Pope Francis then emphasized that the attitude of those who lose their faith in preference of personal ideologies is “rigid, moralistic, ethical, but without kindness.”