Sunday, August 31, 2008

Helaman 13-16: Free to choose

My reading for this week was the prophecies of Samuel the Lamanite. It's tempting to liken Samuel to myself as I try to speak out against injustice here in my apartment complex—in fact, you know what, let me do that for just a moment. My reluctance to do it is due to my knowing how self-serving the comparison is: Look at me, I'm raising a prophetic voice, God is on my side. But the fact is, I do believe that I'm speaking up for what's just; I believe that God stands with those who stand against injustice (which isn't quite the same as saying God is "on our side"); I believe that speaking against injustice is a prophetic act, i.e., an act of witnessing for truth. And while "self-serving" is the negatively spun way to put it, I do find encouragement and strength in latching onto the image of Samuel standing on the wall as an icon for the work I and others are trying to accomplish here. And I thank God for that encouragement and strength; I thank God that the Spirit lifts me through the scriptures in that way.

Enough said about that. Here's what I want to talk about today: In Helaman 14:30-31, we get one of the classic statements of what we used to call the doctrine of free agency (until Boyd K. Packer convinced Correlation that talking about freedom gave people the wrong idea). My modernized rendering:
You are free; you are permitted to act for yourselves; for God has given you a knowledge and has made you free. He has given to you that you might know good from evil, and he has given you that you might choose life or death; and you can do good and be restored to that which is good, or have that which is good restored to you; or you can do evil and have that which is evil restored to you.
There's a powerful message here, and there's a powerful potential for abuse.

Analogy: You're walking alone in a dark place. Suddenly you're seized from behind, and someone says, "Do what I tell you, or I'll kill you."

Are you, in that moment, free? Are you free to choose what you will do? In a philosophical sense—absolutely. You've been presented with a choice: life or death, options and consequences. Whether you live or die is up to you. But no one (except the most audacious, impenitent intellectual jock/lawyer type who sees where I'm going with this and wants to preempt my going there) would deny that this is clearly a case of coercion.

Certain understandings of freedom of choice (or moral agency, or whatever Correlation wants us to call it these days) that I've encountered among Latter-day Saints try to pass coercion off as freedom. For example, whenever the Church gets negative press for disciplining a dissident member, apologists rush to insist that members are free, that Church leaders don't coerce anyone: but choices bear consequences, and members who take certain actions must expect the consequences to follow.

That sounds perfectly reasonable, as it's intended to. But how is the threat, "Do what we tell you, or we'll excommunicate you," any different in kind from the threat, "Do what I tell you, or I'll kill you"? Obviously there's a difference of degree in terms of the level of violence being threatened (loss of life versus loss of membership). But it seems perfectly obvious to me that both are attempts at coercion.

I should clarify here that I've read enough Foucault, and I've read him in such a way, that I'm not necessarily opposed to coercive uses of power. Forms of coercion are inevitable and can be salutary: coercive power is necessary for societies or organizations to enforce the norms necessary to ensure their survival and the well-being, including the rights, of their members. But I also believe that the use of coercive power is very, very risky—here plug in D&C 121:39—and I think it's very, very, very dangerous to package coercion as freedom. It blinds the eyes and keeps you from recognizing when you're being led carefully down into captivity.

To bring this back to a more theological level: Although his wording speaks truths beyond what I suspect he intends (more on that in a few moments), Samuel's conception of freedom of choice seems largely coercive. In Samuel's depiction, God is a stern Puritan father who says, "Do what I tell you, or I'll take a rod to your backside." (By the way, I have a hunch that whether or not you approve of corporal punishment for children says a lot about your conception of God and God's justice.) Actually, Samuel's God threatens to do worse than just take a rod to your backside. Samuel's God threatens to destroy you (15:17). Samuel's God hates people who don't do what he wants—not just what they do, but the people themselves. That's what Samuel says; look it up if you don't believe me (15:4). And of course Samuel isn't unique in any of this: he's echoing claims you'll find in the Hebrew prophets—and the Christian Bible, too (so no smugness, please, about the so-called "loving God of the New Testament"). As depicted here, and as in many, many other places in the texts we use as scripture, God is the assailant who says, "Do what I tell you, or I'll kill you."

But while it's clear from things he says elsewhere that Samuel imagines God himself as the agent of destruction, his words in 14:30-31 point us toward a different way of understanding choice and consequence, one that gets elaborated in parts of the D&C as well (especially D&C 88). This understanding works something more like the concept of karma. Choices have natural consequences: actions produce natural results, results that can be beneficial or hurtful. Good produces good; evil produces evil, not because of divine fiat but simply because of the natural order of things.

If you follow through on this vision, then God ceases to be the stern Puritan father threatening corporal punishment or, worse, the assailant threatening to kill you. Instead, "judgment" becomes a matter of consequences unfolding from choices according to natural laws to which even God is subject; and God becomes, not a ruler threatening to lock you up, or flagellate you, or execute you for breaking his laws, but a counselor, someone who foresees the consequences of our choices and tries to guide us to make choices that will be beneficial for us and others. God becomes himself a kind of prophet, I suppose: someone pleading with us to do the right things in order to avoid negative consequences—not because he himself is threatening to rain down negative consequences but simply because he knows negative consequences are inevitable if we pursue a certain path.

This vision makes the most sense to me as a way of reconciling, on the one hand, what the scriptures and my own experience tell me about God's love with, on the other hand, the need for justice and the reality of living in a world where people's choices can hurt them. I would even go so far as to say that this vision is probably operative in the minds of most Latter-day Saints when they sit down and really think about how divine judgment works. But the rhetoric of God-as-punisher is alive and well in LDS discourse as well. And it's that rhetoric, I suspect, that facilitates the self-deception of calling coercion "freedom."

Saturday, August 30, 2008

More Abbey Court stress

Last night as I was walking the dog, I passed a confrontation between the complex manager, backed up by a security guard, and a family sitting out on the lawn in front of their apartment, who were leaders in the protests against the towing policy. Returning later, I saw that the cops had been called in. After the cops and the manager left, I walked over to find out what had happened. One of the women and I stood in the parking lot talking. The upshot is that the management is clamping down on a "no loitering" regulation written into people's leases. The manager's position is that residents need to stay inside their apartments while we're on the complex property; we can't hang out in the common areas—lawns, sidewalks, stairwells, parking lots, etc. Some residents allege that the manager has even said she doesn't want children playing outside.

I can vouch myself for the accuracy of this (except the allegations about not wanting children to play outside) because I've heard a tape-recording of the conversation between the family and the manager: each party was recording the conversation with the other's knowledge, which tells you something about the degree to which the relationship between management and residents has broken down. I've expressed my concerns about this new crackdown at I can certainly understand why management would want to crackdown on noise and drinking outside. But as with the towing policy (which also had an understandable basis), it's being taken to a draconian, adversarial extreme. And it continues to reinforce the impression that the management wants to transform this complex into upscale condominiums, which means pressuring low-income people to leave—or at least to stay out of sight so they won't scare off more "desirable" renters.

Anyway, as the woman and I were talking, the manager saw us from the other end of the parking lot and sent two security guards to tell me (not the woman I was talking to, interestingly) that I was violating the "no loitering" rule and needed "to leave now." I had this immediate fight-or-flight response. One of the guards was the same one who demanded to know what media Hugo represented on the night of what's now being remembered as the "near riot" (though I wouldn't call it that) on July 24. He stood there looking at me, all smirky and swaggery and in love with his power. It was such blatant intimidation by the management. I'm still furious thinking about it—I've been stewing about it all day. It got me thinking about what it must be like to be someone who frequently encounters that kind of intimidation: a Palestinian under Israeli rule, for example, or even an African-American male here in the U.S.

I hate this situation. I hate how hostile it is, although I have no illusions about the way that I've helped contribute to an adversarial state of affairs. The liberal Christian idealist in me wonders, "What if I tried to talk to the manager? What if I tried to meet with the owner?" I suspect it's far too late for that, though. The situation was adversarial from the moment management started denying parking permits; and the fact that management has been unwilling to respond even to appeals from the town government indicates that we're dealing with intransigent people who are determined to do what they want, the rest of us be damned. What do you do with that? What's the Christlike response to that? Turn the other cheek? "Wo to you, whited sepulchres"? Drive the moneychangers from the temple? Pray for your enemies? Go silent to the cross?

Today I pushed for to add an appeal for residents to observe recently posted rules about what you can throw in the dumpsters. I thought it would be a way to mitigate the adversarial relationship a little, to acknowledge the ways management is trying to make the complex better and the need for resident responsibility, even as we continue to voice objections to heavy-handed, inhumane policies. At this point, it's the best I can think to do.

Sunday, August 24, 2008

Helaman 6-12: On evil government

Helaman strikes me as probably the most political portion of the Book of Mormon narrative, meaning the part of the book that reflects most overtly on what makes for good and bad government. Nephite society is in turmoil through most of this book—civil strife, violent religious schism, wars with the Lamanites resulting in dramatic shifts in territorial control, and, of course, the conspiracies and outlaw governments of the Gadianton robbers. This is also a period of massive "pioneer" migration into the north and accompanying mercantile expansion, which is to say that there are high economic stakes fueling the various political struggles and machinations.

So what does the Book of Helaman have to say about good government versus evil government? Good government, we're told, means ruling with "justice and equity" (3:20). Evil rulers "trample under their feet and smite and rend and turn their backs upon the poor" (6:39); elsewhere the book denounces "oppression to the poor," which consists of "withholding their foot from the hungry. withholding their clothing from the naked" (4:12). Nephite government reaches a crisis point of corruption ("they were in an awful state, and ripening for an everlasting destruction") when the Gadianton robbers "obtain the sole management of the government"—not by force, it should be pointed out (despite the recurring conspiracies to assassinate judges), but by virtue of having "overspread all the land of the Nephites, and [having] seduced the more part of the righteous until they had come down to believe in their works and partake of their spoils" (6:38-40). Despite the text's horror at the Gadianton robbers' secret ceremonies and signs and passwords, the reason the robbers pose such a danger isn't that they're a small, secret conspiratorial faction: rather, they're a danger because they're so widespread and because their (literally) cutthroat pursuit of wealth and privilege and power is so openly embraced by large segments of society. The Gadianton robbers aren't a conspiracy theory—they're not a Nephite Illuminati. They're an ideology that legitimates the pursuit of power and gain through corruption: bribes, perverting justice in the courts for the benefit of the wealthy, sexual conquest, theft/graft, violence (7:4-5).

You don't need to look to Masons, or the Mafia, or revolutionary guerillas for analogues to the Gadianton robbers. The United States government will do just fine. So will Wall Street. In fairness, I suppose I do have to give my country's power elites credit for refraining from routinely orchestrating the assassination of judges or senators or rival CEOs. They generally save that kind of effort for eliminating leaders of foreign nations who have ceased to serve American interests or for helping foreign governments that do serve our interests to suppress dissenters: that's what the secret combination called the CIA is for. Here at home, power elites can usually tromp their rivals in less bloody ways: the back-stabbing stays more metaphorical. And like the Gadianton robbers, they're able to exercise so much power because they've persuaded the country at large to buy into their ideology. Getting gain is the American way—we call it things like "empowering consumers" or "improving your family's quality of life." As every reality TV competition reminds us, success means doing what you have to to be the last one standing at the end. And every politician who wants to get anywhere these days—Republican or Democratic—has to commit to a preferential option for the middle class: the poor and their problems have no significant place in our political discourse.

When Nephi raises a prophetic voice denouncing this ideology, the pundits and opinion-makers of the day accuse him of hating America: "Why seest thou this man, and hearest him revile against this people and against our law?" (8:2). They're outraged: Who does this Nephi character think he is, with his inflammatory "God damn America" rhetoric? The rulers vaunt their country's military might and trust it—rely on it—to keep their power secure (8:5-6). As they soon discover, though, they're helpless in the face of environmental disaster (ch. 11).

So what does the Book of Helaman offer as a model for countering this kind of "get-gain-and-get-it-by-whatever-means-necessary-and-the-poor-and-other-collateral-damage-be-damned" ideology? Nephi responds the way revivalists always respond: he preaches repentance. Now, I have mixed feelings about that. On the one hand: yes, this is a question of values; this is a question of changing hearts and personal priorities; this is a question of warning people off a path that is carrying us all to destruction. In that sense, yes, I agree that a call for repentance is required. Nephi's way of going about that doesn't strike me as particularly helpful, though. A sermon that begins by denouncing corruption in government and society (ch. 7) but ends with a string of prooftexts to show that the scriptures prophesy of Christ (ch. 8) suggests a severe lack of rhetorical adaptability. And in fact, no conversions, no personal and societal transformations for good, come out of Nephi's preaching, despite the fact that he is effective at polarizing listeners for and against him (ch. 10).

So this narrative doesn't inspire me to put much stock in the revivalists' strategy. But what's the alternative? The author of the Book of Helaman can't seem to imagine an alternative except to lament that human nature is such that people don't repent until famine, war, or other disasters compel them to (ch. 12). "May God grant, in his great fulness, that men might be brought unto repentance and good works," the author prays in 12:24. I can say "Amen" to that prayer. But the author doesn't seem to be praying that prayer with much faith. Or perhaps more accurately, he doesn't see any way for that prayer to be fulfilled except for God to "chasten his people with many afflictions, . . . with death and with terror, and with famine and with all manner of pestilence." That's the only way, this author says: otherwise, "they will not remember him" (12:3).

That outlook goes a long way, I suppose, to explaining Mormon apocalypticism. As I've expressed elsewhere, I worry that the apocalypticists may be on to something. But I'm also too much of an Enlightenment-era liberal to be reconciled to that vision. I have to believe it's possible to bear a more productive kind of witness against social evils—that it's possible to bring about a positive shift in social values. That it's possible to be an effective instrument to inspire repentance and make life more abundant.

Wednesday, August 20, 2008

Beginning a new semester

The fall semester started yesterday. The class on religion and HIV/AIDS that I'm team-teaching with another religious studies grad student and two grad students from health sciences met for the first time yesterday morning. I was very impressed with the students (it's a first-year honors seminar). We had a great initial discussion, very engaged.

Back when I taught at the University of Utah, I used to go around to all my classrooms a couple days before classes began, when the campus was basically empty so I could be alone, to say a prayer of consecration in each room as spiritual preparation for the semester. I had to discontinue the practice because the university began tightening up security and doing a better job of keeping classrooms locked when they weren't in use. But I'd like to take a few moments now to do something similar in this online space.


God of light and knowledge—

You have taught your children to seek learning by study.
You desire to enlighten our understandings and teach us wisdom.
You have promised to pour down knowledge on our heads.

You have taught me to serve you with all of my mind.
You have taught me to consecrate my talents, my energies, and all I do to your service.
You have taught me that I serve you by serving my fellow beings.

I ask you to consecrate my teaching this semester for the benefit of my students.

Help me and my fellow teachers to create an engaging classroom environment.
Inspire us with ideas for faciliating effective, active learning as we prepare for each class session.
Help us create an environment where students feel confident to speak up, to explore and wrestle with difficult or challenging ideas.
Guide us to be fair, encouraging, and helpful as we evaluate students' work.

Bless the students to learn.
Guide them as they develop their intellectual capacities and their thinking about the particular issues we'll be examining this semester.
Our class deals with a pressing social issue. Let this class be, in some small way, an instrument for making a difference.

In Christ's name, amen.

Sunday, August 17, 2008

Helaman 5: Together in God

The war chapters in Alma have come and gone, and I haven't posted any reflections about them. I guess that will have to wait until another Book of Mormon cycle. Today I want to reflect on the "pentecostal outpouring" story in Helaman 5.

Let's recap the story: Nephi and Lehi are preaching to the Lamanites (who have recently conquered the land of Zarahemla). They are thrown into prison for "many days" until finally their captors—Lamanites and Nephite dissenters—decide to execute them. At that moment, God intervenes, encircling Nephi and Lehi with pillars of fire. At this, we're told, Nephi and Lehi "take courage," which I like because it implies that they had been frightened before that, i.e., they're human, not heroically fearless, stalwart figures. Nephi and Lehi tell the crowd (there's about 300 people, we're told in v. 49) not to be afraid—but they are anyway, because of the dark cloud and the prison walls shaking. Meanwhile, God speaks to them in what we are told is not a "voice of thunder" or "tumltuous noise" but a "still voice of perfect mildness, as if it had been a whisper" which pierces them to the core—but which also causes the earth and the building to shake.

Now I want to pause for a moment and try to really get that picture in my head. So we have this chaotic scene—pillars of fire, earthquake. If this were a Hollywood movie, we'd have lots of noise in the background: a blowtorch-kind of sound coming from the pillar of fire, that rumbling noise they use for earthquakes, creaking timbers, and so on. But it's not entirely clear to me if that's what we're supposed to be imagining here. Maybe, maybe not. The walls aren't actually falling after all, so you're not going to have the sound of timbers breaking and stones falling to the ground; and I confess I don't really know the physics of fire, but if this substance that looks like fire isn't actually burning anything, then it wouldn't be making noise, would it, since it isn't using up oxygen? So should we be imagining this tumultous scene unfolding, counterintuitively, in near silence?

I don't know. My point is: Whether we're supposed to imagine a lot of "background noise" or not, the central event that's taking place here—God communicating with the crowd—isn't noisy at all. That is nearly silent. There's no rumbling bass when God speaks, just a whisper. It's a whisper that appears to have the power to make the earth shake. But it's still a whisper. When you encounter God, this story's saying, you encounter an awe-ful, disruptive, even terrifying power; but at the heart of all that, you encounter stillness, mildness, and an injunction not to be afraid.

But this crowd is afraid, which means they're not yet responding to God the way God desires them to. Cut to the chase: Aminadab, the Nephite dissenter, tells the crowd that they need to "cry to the voice, even until you shall have faith in Christ." Note the counterintuitive cause-and-effect there: prayer leads to faith, not the other way around. So everyone in the crowd begins to pray; the dark cloud is dispersed; and they become aware that every one of them is encircled in a pillar of fire just like Nephi and Lehi. The Holy Ghost falls on them so that they "speak forth marvelous words"; they are filled with joy; a voice whispers peace. Like Nephi and Lehi, they look up and converse with angels.

Reading the story this time around, I was struck by the image of an entire crowd encircled in fire. That is to say, the entire crowd is brought together into God—into a common experience of joy and peace and personal revelation. And this happens through prayer. By talking with God, they are brought into relationship with God—the God of stillness and perfect mildness. This is not a relationship based on fear of God; on the contrary, the point is to dispel their fear. They are afraid of God only so long as they are not in relationship with God: they are afraid of God only until they get to know God.

This entering into relationship with God occurs individually. But by entering into relationship with God, individuals come to form part of a community, the community of all those who are likewise in relationship with God. To shift to a Christian vernacular less familiar to Mormons but which ought to have special resonance for Mormons: this is the communion of saints. Helaman 5 thus gives us an image, or icon, of the church. The church, the body of the Saints, is a community of individuals who have entered into personal relationship with God. It is a community of Spirit-filled individuals, each of whom is inspired to "speak forth marvelous words" and each of whom is engaged in his or her own personal correspondence with heavenly beings. Note that this is not a hierarchical vision of the church community. It's not that Nephi and Lehi are communicating with angels and then passing their words on to the crowd, who gather around waiting for the appointed mouthpieces to speak. Everyone is a mouthpiece; everyone is conversing with angels; everyone is receiving their own revelation. Note, too, incidentally, that Nephi and Lehi (and, I presume, the rest of the crowd) aren't just listening to what the angels have to say: they're in conversation with them.

I really like this image. I like the egalitarianism of it. I like the individualism of it. I like the way it emphasizes personal revelation and personal relationship with God. The Mormon tradition tends to be preoccupied with images of hierarchical authority, and it's refreshing to have an alternative.

Tuesday, August 12, 2008

More Christlike scholarship

I've been out of town at the Sunstone Symposium, with limited computer access, which is why I didn't post Sunday. While I was at the symposium, someone mentioned to me that there'd been some discussion on one of the Mormon blogs of a paper I read last year. (At the risk of seeming coy or convoluted, I'm not going to mention names in what follows. That's because I'm trying to offer a generalizable reflection, rather than commenting on individual personalities.)

This was the second time someone's mentioned this to me, so this morning I got online and located the thread. The comments hurt a little. One person critiqued the paper for making assertions that I'd argue I didn't actually make. But that didn't smart as much as the person who chimed in with, "Just tell Duffy not to say stupid things."

I know I should have a thicker skin, especially if I'm going to write on topics (LDS apologetics, faithful scholarship, temple ritual) that invite responses from people with a history of aggressively criticizing opponents.

At the same time, as I was sitting there smarting, I thought, "Well, it's not like I haven't made hurtful criticisms of other people's work." In fact, just a few days ago, during the Q&A at one of my Sunstone presentations, I made a quick impromptu dig at one of the very people whose online comments made me smart. (It got an appreciative laugh from the audience, but still, even at the time, I thought, "Duffy, you're letting your mouth run faster than your brain.") At the same symposium, I sat on an "Author Meets Critics" panel where I gave a rather strong criticism of the book in question. I made an early gesture of "I sympathize with the author about X," but my main point was that the book was "fundamentally flawed," and I spent most of my time hammering that point home, prompting an understandably defensive response from the author. One of the other panelists was much more careful about reiterating over and over that he was offering his critiques as a friend—which I couldn't have done since I didn't really feel all that friendly toward the author.

I need to be more mindful of the fact that scholarship is a social activity. It isn't just about the exploration of ideas or the production of knowledge. Scholarship is conversation within a community, and my conversation needs to be more Christlike—more kind, more considerate, more sensitive of people's feelings. More charitable.

Sunday, August 3, 2008

Some final (?) Abbey Court reflections

So where do things stand now? I feel like the sense of crisis—of things happening—has passed. We've reached the end of our news cycle. The management is being somewhat more relaxed about issuing parking permits—our upstairs neighbor got one for instance, the one I talk about in the essay you see in the post below this one. There are still a lot of resident cars in visitor parking slots, mostly unregistered vehicles, I suspect, or vehicles of people who are living with friends or family members here but who aren't on the leases. The volume of towing seems to have declined. I haven't witnessed any since the new ordinance went into effect, though I've heard of one case since then elsewhere in the complex. We're settling into life under the new regime, I guess.

If I can indulge in some Puritan-style introspection: As I've been thinking about my own anger in reaction to the parking controversy, it's occurred to me that this is hardly a significant injustice compared to, oh, let's say genocide in Darfur, which does not trigger me in the same way, though obviously it ought to. It's a question of proximity, I guess. This injustice, relatively small though it is, hit close to home. It didn't touch me, exactly, but it touched people around me.

Which brings me to another thought that came to me this week. As I was writing my essay (see the post below this one), I found myself frequently using the word "neighbor," which of course has scriptural resonances: "Love your neighbor as yourself." "Lord, who is my neighbor?" The thought that came to me is that the command to love our neighbor is more specific than just "Love others." It's "love those who are around you"—random though that proximity may be. I did not choose my neighbors here at Abbey Court. But once they are my neighbors, I am commanded to make their concerns my own, regardless of who they are. Because whoever they are, they are children of God and therefore my sisters and brothers. This isn't an original thought: Eugene England's written about this in the context of life in a Mormon ward—the spiritual family formed by the accidental proximity of living in the same geographical boundaries. But it's a realization that really hit home to me this week.

Another thought: I was very busy this past week, dealing with the Abbey Court situation in addition to other work I had to do. I spent a lot of time trying to do things about the situation. I was—yes, I have to say it—"anxiously engaged." But I also felt very powerless, which was not a pleasant experience. I console myself that experiencing powerlessness is a way of being brought to experience Christlikeness: the cross is very much about powerlessness. But that really isn't all that consoling, come to think of it. It's more like terrifying. The gospel is, in a very real way, a call to be powerless—to share the powerlessness of the poor, the suffering, the marginalized, the oppressed, the abused—even as the gospel is also an invitation to be endowed with power from on high. I generally prefer to emphasize the latter. But I was more conscious of the former this past week and a half.

I've been keeping up with the Book of Mormon reading—the war chapters—but I'll defer comments til next week. I look forward to taking the sacrament today. As ritual nourishment, that rite means the most to me at times when I feel spiritually hungry or worn out, which is how I'm feeling today.

Abbey Court: What's going on here?

This is an essay I wrote earlier this week and sent to one of the local papers on the chance they might be interested in it as an op-ed piece (though it's really a bit too long for that). It's outdated as of Thursday night: I'd need now to add a couple sentences explaining what the new towing ordinance does and does not mean for our situation. But I want to put the essay "out there" because it represents a more temperate, "come let us reason together" kind of reflection on the Abbey Court situation, by contrast to the "fire in the bones" you see when I'm writing in the flush of watching a tow truck pull away with a neighbor's vehicle.



I've lived in Abbey Court for four years, ever since I moved to North Carolina to begin a doctoral program at UNC. Abbey Court has been an appealing place to live because it’s comparatively inexpensive and is located on a bus route offering very easy access to campus.

At the same time, I knew from the beginning that our apartment complex has problems. Crime’s the biggest. The murder-suicide that took place in Abbey Court two summers ago occurred in my parking lot. I heard the gunshots; I saw the bodies. I never carry my wallet when I walk the dog at night. Abbey Court is the kind of place where you not infrequently have drivers idling in the parking lot at 2:00 a.m., using their woofers to make your windows shake, or where you have to call the police to break up a drunken screaming match on another floor.

I appreciate the steps management has taken to increase residents’ safety: hiring night security, fencing off the property. When I was first informed about the new parking stickers, it struck me as a bit of a nuisance, but I could sympathize with management’s wanting to run the complex a little more tightly.

I didn’t have any problems getting my parking sticker. But when I noticed that my parking lot was nearly empty at night, because most of my neighbors were crowding into the newly designated visitor parking spaces to avoid being towed; and when I began to hear stories about my neighbors being denied parking stickers because management didn’t approve of their vehicles’ physical appearance, and then having their cars towed because they didn’t possess the parking stickers that management had refused to give them—I began to wonder: What’s going on here?

That question came to mind again when I read a statement made by Bart White, an attorney speaking for our homeowners’ association, in the July 19 News & Observer. “Anybody that disagrees with the community standard can and should live somewhere else,” White was quoted as saying.

I find that statement misleading and even a bit menacing. Let’s be clear: Management likes to advertise Abbey Court apartments as “condominiums.” But we are not an upscale covenant community. Ours is a largely working-class neighborhood. And residents have no voice in the “community standard” which management invented last month as the rationale for withholding parking stickers. This is not a case of “You knew the rules when you moved in.” The rules have been changed. In effect, new requirements have been created for living in Abbey Court; and current residents, long-time residents, who can’t meet those requirements are being penalized by having their cars towed—even as management continues to take their rent checks and hold them to their leases.

“Anybody that disagrees with the community standard can and should live somewhere else.” What’s going on in that statement? Should I understand Mr. White’s comment to mean that the new parking policy is an attempt by management to pressure “undesirable” residents to move out of Abbey Court? Where does Mr. White think that my low-income neighbors “can and should” live instead? Durham, perhaps? Or is the intent of his comment more along the lines of “Go back to the country you came from”?

On Tuesday, Ken Lucas, the man who owns most of the apartments in Abbey Court and is the chief architect of our new “community standard,” issued a press release announcing that the restrictions on vehicle appearance would be relaxed. People who had been denied parking stickers, he said, should reapply. “That seems like a good sign,” I thought.

But less than 24 hours later, at 5:00 a.m., Wednesday morning, I was awakened by the sound of a tow truck in my parking lot, hauling away yet another car—hauling it away fast, before a crowd could gather. The car belonged to one of my upstairs neighbors. She’s lived in Abbey Court for five years with her boyfriend and their young children. Management wouldn’t give her a sticker for her car because her name’s not on the lease. They told her she could apply to be accepted as a resident—for a fee—but there’s no guarantee they’ll accept her, and she’s dubious they would because her credit’s bad, which is why she didn’t put her name on the rental application in the first place. Now, with the loss of her car, this working-class family’s already complicated life is that much more complicated. It will cost them $180 minimum to recover the car. Oh, and it’s the end of the month, so they also owe a rent check to the same company that had their car towed.

I ask myself: What’s going on here?