"The central doctrine of Christianity, then, is not that God is a bastard. It is, in the words of the late Dominican theologian Herbert McCabe, that if you don’t love you’re dead, and if you do, they’ll kill you."--Terry Eagleton

"It is impossible for me to say in my book one word about all that music has meant in my life. How then can I hope to be understood?--Ludwig Wittgenstein

“The opposite of poverty is not wealth; the opposite of poverty is justice."--Bryan Stevenson

Friday, November 21, 2014

The art (and necessity) of cross-examination

I was involved in a kangaroo court once.

Does my telling you that make it true?

I was involved as a lawyer, not as a party.

Even if I include enough details to make the story convincing, does that prove it happened?

I've told stories about conference ministers I've known in the UCC; the kangaroo court I'm speaking of is part of one of those stories.

Are those stories true?  I could tell you stories of very strange behavior, vicious animosity directed toward me, other pastors investigated for various allegations of sexual impropriety (it is the most volatile claim you can make against a pastor, to allege improper sexual relations.  One of the strongest memories of my ministry is how many times I was warned by concerned pastors to never be alone with a woman, a church member or a perfect stranger, and to never close my office door, even if I did so to preserve confidentiality with a church member.)

Is any of this true?  How do you know?  Because you trust me?

But what if I'm making all of this up?  How would you know?

I've actually had experience with people making up stories about me.  It happened to me in seminary, in a very minor way.   It happened when I was a pastor, with effect that was more important.  One story was so divergent from what actually happened, what I would actually ever do, it was like an evil opposite version of me, the kind of thing you get from bad TV shows.  I won't bother with the details, but trust me, it's true.

Then again, how would you know?

There is a way to verify allegations of criminal behavior:  it's cross examination in a court of law.  Most of the women named as "Jane Doe" in the lawsuit against Bill Cosby in 2006 have now come forward; probably the rest of them will.  Probably they are the witnesses in that suit (but how do we verify that?).  Assume they were.  Their stories go back to 1967 now.   Almost 50 years ago.  What evidence were they going to present in 2006, except their own testimony?  Are they credible? Do their stories hold up to scrutiny, to even casual inquiry? Can Mr. Cosby be placed with them, or in the same hotel, city, state, on the date of the event?  Is there anything to back their claims, other than their willingness to be interviewed now?

What do they gain from speaking now?  Satisfaction, probably.  Who knows? I had church members decide their goal in life was to destroy my career.  Why?  What did I do to deserve that?  Rape someone?  Argue with them?  Gossip about them?  Denounce them to the assembled congregation?  Spit on the ground every time their name was mentioned?

I did none of those things.  It didn't matter.  I'm not sure what did.  I've had to fall back on Bruce Springsteen:  "Well sir I guess there's just a meanness in this world."

I guess there is.

I no longer expect people to behave like the people I grew up with.  I've learned people can be strange, cruel, vicious, vindictive, and nasty; and none of it for any reason you'll ever understand.  I haven't learned why they act this way, not in all cases; but I have learned never to underestimate the desire to destroy someone, especially when the blood is in the water.  I'm told chickens will viciously attack a bird with a spot of blood on it; that the whole flock will attack until there is little left of the victim.

I've seen people act like chickens; more than once. I still can't explain why.

I was involved in a kangaroo court once.  The people running it were quite sure they were good people, and they were doing the right thing, and that all my legal training and desire for some semblance of order and even to be able to question witnesses on behalf of my client, were not only unnecessary but actually counterproductive to the purpose of getting at the truth.  Which truth they had pretty much settled on before the process began.

They didn't want me involved because they didn't want me to slow down the execution.  A professional, not a physical, execution; but all they wanted was a record to justify their decision.

So I've seen this movie.  I know how it comes out.  The only difference now is, it is aided and abetted by this brave new world we have created on-line.  Those people running that kangaroo court were as certain of their moral righteousness as all the commenters and writers are now.  Just as certain, and just as wrong, because they can't be bothered with justice; they already know what justice is.  Their moral righteousness tells them so.

That is not a good thing.  This is not the improvement in society we've been looking for.

On the President's Remarks Regarding Immigration

When an alien resides with you in your land, you must not oppress him. He is to be treated as a native born among you. Love him as yourself, because you were aliens from Egypt. I am the Lord your God.

Leviticus 19:33 (REB)

After you come into the land which the Lord your God is giving you to occupy as your holding and settle in it, you are to take some of the firstfruits of all the produce of the soil, which you harvest from the land the Lord your God is giving you, and, having put them in a basket, go to the place which the Lord your God will choose as a dwelling for his name. When you come to the priest, whoever he is at the time, say to him, "I acknowledge this day to the Lord your God that I have entered the land which the Lord swore to our forefathers to give us." The priest will receive the basket from your hand and set it down before the altar of the Lord your God. Then you must solemnly recite before the Lord your God: "My father was a homeless Aramean who went down to Egypt and lived there with a small band of people, but there it became a great, powerful and large nation. The Egyptians treated us harshly and humiliated us; they imposed cruel slavery on us.  We cried out to the Lord the God of our fathers for help, and he listened to us, and when he saw our misery and hardship and oppression, the Lord led us out of Egypt with a strong hand and outstretched arm, with terrifying deeds and signs and portents.  He brought us to this place and gave us this land, a land flowing with milk and honey.  Now I have brought here the first fruits of the soil which you, Lord, have given me."  You are then to set the basket before the Lord your God and bow in worship before him.  You are to rejoice, you and the Levites and the aliens living among you, in all the good things which the Lord your God has bestowed on you and your household.

 Deuteronomy 26:1-11 (REB)

Wednesday, November 19, 2014

The Public, Hating

I've spent more time than was good for me reading about the controversy now swirling around Bill Cosby, almost all at Salon.  The stories there reached their nadir with the revelation that in 1969 one of his albums included a story about looking for "Spanish Fly" in Spain, with Robert Culp.  The outrage was that he joked about putting drugs in women's drinks; the story was about how naive he and Culp were, looking for a mythical aphrodisiac.  But somehow it proved Cosby was a serial rapist.

My problem with the Salon stories was not that I believe Bill Cosby is incapable of the acts alleged against him; it is that the allegations go back to events allegedly occurring as much as 45 years ago, and there is no proof of them except the stories of a few women (the number, like almost everything else in this tempest in a teapot, is in dispute.).  It could be the stories are all similar because they reflect the pattern of a rapist; it could be the stories are all so similar because each story-teller is familiar with the other stories.

How can we tell?

This is the best timeline on the controversy I know of.  Most of the details are of the allegations by Andrea Constand, the only woman to have ever sued Cosby for alleged assault.  This suit is the source of the "14 women" number, women who have allegedly made similar charges.  13 are listed in court papers as Jane Doe witnesses.  One woman, Beth Ferrier, claims to be Jane Doe 5, and tells her story in a news interview.  Barbara Bowman is another witness; she also tells her story to the press.  I mention this because these are named witnesses, not anonymous ones.  Much has been made of the fact so many women tell the same story, but the stories of Green and Bowman are two attached to names, and with details behind them.  I haven't found anything about the other witnesses, but the commonly accepted "fact" is that they all tell the same story.  As far as I can tell, those women never told their stories at all.

The Constand case was filed in 2005, settled in 2006.  None of the Jane Doe witnesses testified; at least not in court.  I can't tell whether Green and Bowman were ever deposed, which would qualify as testimony.  All information about their stories comes from news accounts, not from deposition transcripts.

That ends it until 2014.  Joan Tarshis accuses Cosby of rape in November, a rape she says occurred in 1969.  Janice Dickinson accuses him of rape a few days later.  She says her rape occurred in 1982.

So four women have made accusations; one sued.  11 more allegedly made accusations, but we don't know the content of their stories, or what their names are.  It seems pretty ugly; it also seems pretty amorphous.  And today, like Bill O'Reilly screeching about "Merry Christmas!" v. "Happy Holidays," the pack of hounds got its prize:  Bill Cosby won't develop a new sitcom for NBC.

The Republic is saved.  Justice is done.  We can all sleep better tonight.  A major entertainment corporation, like major retailers last December, has proven to have knees of jelly.  They don't want to displease people with their choice of star for a sitcom, or displease Fox News viewers with the greeting they offer customers after Thanksgiving.

And then, of course, there is the controversy over the shirt.

I read a story once, long ago, by Steve Allen.  It was called "The Public Hating."  I think I still have half the paperback book it was reprinted in, the half with the story in it.  I found it tonight on-line, here.  It's an interesting story, and while Allen never imagined modern communications or the internet, he did imagine a world much like the one we seem determined to make on-line.

At least in some corner of it.

Monday, November 17, 2014

All others pay cash

The details of the argument aren't worth worrying about.  But since I saw it at Salon, and it prompts the need to respond, I'll respond here, but only to the titles, not to the idiotic content:

"1. Religion promotes tribalism. Infidel, heathen, heretic."

Unlike nationalism, politics, or the internet.  Do you really need examples?

2. Religion anchors believers to the Iron Age.

Apparently all religion is Christianity or Judaism?  And what is this obsession with the "Iron Age"?  On-line atheists love that line, like it's the one irrefutable argument against "religion" (which, again, is apparently always Christianity and Judaism.  Although somehow these critiques are not anti-Semitic.  Criticizing Israel's foreign policy is anti-Semitic; declaring the foundational beliefs of Judaism a relic of the Iron Age is not.  Go figure.)

First, I want to hear these atheists decry the basic insights of Aristotle and Plato, not to mention the other foundational ideas of ancient Greece.

Yeah, that's what I thought.

One another note, one thing I learned in seminary is how similar life today is to the nomadic life of the time of Abraham.  The concerns of Moses are the concerns of anyone taking responsibility for a community today.  The tears of the prophets are my tears.  Despite huge cultural and technological differences, people across time and space remain much the same.  That is an insight of wisdom and history, not a dead weight keeping me trapped in the "Iron Age."

Well, no more than Western culture, which is still largely a footnote to Plato, is anyway.

3. Religion makes a virtue out of faith.

I assume by "faith" she means "Believing what you know ain't true."  If so:  hogwash.  Faith is not about believing despite your experience, but believing because of it.  As for "belief," it is only trust (i.e., faith) that makes me take seriously the claims of quantum mechanics, claims based more on mathematics than observation, more on ideas than experiences.  I can barely understand the terms of the theory of relativity, but I accept it as valid.  I cannot begin to prove true any of it's claims, and even the experiments I am told prove it true I have to accept as valid.  I have to trust the reports of them, in other words.  If I don't, does my computer stop working?  If I do, does my computer work any better than it does now?  I've been told quantum mechanics is involved in computer design.  Is this true?  How will I ever know, unless I trust the source of that information?

As Shakespeare understood in "Othello," everything we do is a matter of trust:  whether we trust each other (even Iago, whom we shouldn't), or trust the scientists.  I see some examples of their claims (my computer, for example), but they make far more claims than I can ever see the proof of.  Just as we just trust each other (and to erode that trust, as the story of Othello proves, is to destroy society entirely), we must trust some of what we are told.

Religion doesn't make a virtue of faith.  Faith is a virtue without which our societies cannot function.

Of course, to quote her at length just this once, this is just generalized bullsgeschicte (as we used to say in seminary):

Trust and obey for there’s no other way to be happy in Jesus. So sing children in Sunday schools across America. The Lord works in mysterious ways, pastors tell believers who have been shaken by horrors like brain cancer or a tsunami. Faith is a virtue. As science eats away at territory once held by religion, traditional religious beliefs require greater and greater mental defenses against threatening information. To stay strong, religion trains believers to practice self-deception, shut out contradictory evidence, and trust authorities rather than their own capacity to think. This approach seeps into other parts of life. Government, in particular, becomes a fight between competing ideologies rather than a quest to figure out practical, evidence-based solutions that promote wellbeing.
So now the normal functioning of democracy has gone awry because of something that existed at the time of the American revolution, and was in fact a reason for the founding of some of the colonies?

Good to know.

 4. Religion diverts generous impulses and good intentions.

I don't know where to start with this one.  Apparently churches suck up money that would better go to the United Way or the Red Cross or some charity that doesn't "work... tax free [and] gobble up financial and human capital."  At this point she's just ranting, really.

5. Religion teaches helplessness.

Or, as Jacques Derrida observed:  "Religion is responsibility, or it is nothing at all."  At this point I'm tired of even arguing with the titles.  Res ipsa loquitor; the thing speaks for itself.

6. Religions seek power.

Again, unlike nations, or groups on the internet, or people interested in or involved in politics.   This assertion, in fact, is downright laughable:

In fact, unbeknown to religious practitioners, harming society may actually be part of religion’s survival strategy. In the words of sociologist Phil Zuckerman and researcher Gregory Paul, “Not a single advanced democracy that enjoys benign, progressive socio-economic conditions retains a high level of popular religiosity.” When people feel prosperous and secure the hold of religion weakens.
The usual critique of the church is that it is too wed to the society of which it is a part.  Now we find it is actually parasitic, and destructive of that society!  Damned if you do, or if you don't!  And it explains why Jews are successful in the world!  Because they aren't religious!

Or something.  Yes, I know that kind of joke borders on libel and racist, but Tarico's observation falls over the edge of the absurd.  The charges she makes against "religion" (by which she seems to mean Christianity and/or Islam, in this context) are the arguments used against Jews in Europe for centuries:  their very survival rests on destroying society as we know it.  I don't want to invoke Godwin's Law, but still....

The observation of a sociologist and a researched does not a firm conclusion make; unless, of course, you take their assertions on faith.  As for that last line, it's quite true:  unless you're talking about promoters of the "gospel of wealth" like Joel Osteen and Rick Warren; or the many Pentecostal variants in Central and South America, which are proving more popular than the Roman church at the moment.*

Of course, just what Zuckerman means by "popular religiosity" might also need to come under some scrutiny.  My guess is, it isn't what Ms. Tarico thinks it means.

But "religion" is only in America, isn't it?  And it only refers to Christianity in America; and then only to the caricature that Valerie Tarico is able to imagine, and regard as "real."

*This is the article Ms. Tarico is quoting.   It has found its conclusion, and races to find material to support it (rather than consider alternatives).  Mostly it documents a decline in religious affiliation, which is undeniable, and connects that decline to a rise in atheism (because everything is either/or.  Right?)   It's not a very well-grounded argument and it isn't interested in nuance, only in acceptable conclusions.  It uses the term "popular religiosity" without definition or explanation, except as a club to batter its point across.  And the fact the article is not published in an academic journal tells me a great deal about how carefully the subject is handled.  It is, in other words, worth the paper it is printed on.

Friday, November 14, 2014

We are smart! The internet told us so!

The internet is killing religion with nollij!  It's true!  I read it on the Internet!

In recent months, this sense that the Internet is the key for atheist outreach has started to move from “hunch” to actual, evidence-based theory. Earlier this year, Allen Downey of the Olin College of Engineering in Massachusetts examined the spike in people declaring they had no religion that started in the ’90s and found that while there are many factors contributing to it–dropping familial pressure, increased levels of college education–increased Internet usage was likely a huge part of it, accounting for up to 25 percent of the decline in religious belief. While cautioning that correlation does not mean causation, Downey did go on to point out that since so many other factors were controlled for, it’s a safe bet to conclude that the access to varied thought and debate the Internet provides is persuading people to drop their religions.

That quote skips my favorite line from the piece:  "Above all else, it’s private. An online search on atheism is much easier to hide than, say, a copy of The God Delusion on your nightstand."

Because nothing says "nollij" like that steaming pile of crap!  Unless it's that quote, which literally makes a leap of faith, or certainly of logic, from "cautioning that correlation does not mean causation" to "conclude that the access to varied thought and debate the Internet provides is persuading people to drop their religions."  Because why let matters of causal analysis stand in the way of a good conclusion?  Amirite?

The irony here is that, in the name of information and "varied thought" and "debate," this article presents none of those things.  The information is woefully wrong and baseless; the thought is the same Johnny One-Note that religious people don't think and atheists alone have the power of ratiocination; and that comments and posts on the internet constitute "debate."  Consider this comment, from the article:

I know! In 1718, Pope Gregory XV established a committee of cardinals to handle missionary work (and we all know how important missionary work is to the church of the LAtter Day Saints, do we not?). It was called a "congregation for propagating the faith", or in the original Latin, Congregatio de Propaganda Fide, later shortened to the third word. Just a single word one can use in place of over a dozen!

What? You don't like it? But it's perfect! Why should such a catchy word not be used?

Which prompted this enlightened (and, as far as I can tell, thoroughly un-ironic) response:

Thanks for the history lesson!! I never knew that's where "Propaganda" came from!

We are smart!  We make  things go!

Adding:  for those interested, this article links to the study mentioned in the quote above, and also gives good reason not to put nearly as much stock in it as Marcotte does.  But, again, even in the "reality-based community," reasoning is hard; ranting is easy.

Thursday, November 13, 2014

"Winter is icummen in"

The low tonight is predicted to be 28F.

The record low for this area for this date is:  28F

Lhude sing goddam!

The War on Christmas started early this year....

The Montgomery County school board voted Tuesday to eliminate all references to religious holidays on school calendars, beginning in the 2015-16 school year. That includes Christmas and Easter, as well as Jewish holidays like Yom Kippur and Rosh Hashanah.

The vote came after a recommendation by schools Superintendent Joshua Starr that the board consider removing the names of religious holidays from the calendar in response to a request from Muslim community leaders to give equal billing to their holy day of Eid al-Adha. Starr told MyFoxDC that the county's public schools would still be closed on Christian and Jewish holidays due to the significant number of staff and student absences on those days, but technically not due to any religious observance.


 Future school calendars will now list the students' Christmas vacation as "winter break", the Easter vacation as "spring break." Days like Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur would simply be marked "no school for students and teachers."

Well, after all, it only stands to reason.  I mean, the next step would have been Sharia law...

What is "religion"?

I ask the question because atheists from Richard Dawkins to the commenters at Salon are quite sure they know the answer; so sure, they never bother to raise the question.  And if you do raise the question, it will be dismissed with a glib rejoinder, or a simplistic definition, a stereotype that usually involves Christianity, right-wing politics, and outright fiction.  Then you scrape down to the handful who dismiss all such examinations of thought as "mental masturbation."  Of the latter the less said, the better.

One attack on Christianity that was quite popular for awhile was the complaint that Christianity was what people said and did, not what other people said Christianity was supposed to be.  So Christianity is the ravings of Pat Robertson, or the bourgeois morality of Rick Warren, or the snake-oil of Joel Osteen.  How could  it not be?  Theory is grand, but lived reality is determinative.

So what is religion?  What people aspire to?  Or what they actually achieve?

What if we classified religion, at least for public policy purposes, as "official religion,"  "governed religion," and "lived religion"?  I don't know precisely what those categories include, but Elizabeth Shakman Hurd has a good idea.  I can venture a reasonable guess from the labels themselves.  "Official religion" is one recognized by government:  that can be the state church (as in Germany and England); or simply churches acknowledged to be eleemosynary institutions by the federal government of the United States:  the "mainline" denominations of Christianity; Islamic mosques; Jewish synagogues; Buddhist temples; etc.  "Governed religion" is, I suspect, the much maligned "organized religion," despised for a multitude of sins by people who, without organized religion, would have no religious feelings at all.  "Governed religion" is either the organizing principle that keeps religious beliefs active, or the dead hand of authority that all but destroys true religious belief; or something in the middle of those two extremes.  It's a good designation, because it's a useful one, even I misuse Ms. Hurd's original intent.

"Lived religion" is the most interesting.  That covers everything from the devout churchgoer who strives to implement the teachings of her/his religion in daily life, to the occasional attendee who is little moved by exhortations from the "governed religion" yet still considers themselves a follower, however faithful or faithless, of that governed belief system (assuming arguendo that religion is a belief system).   "Lived religion" can be the person who quietly but stubbornly insists on how the sanctuary is decorated at Christmas and Easter, to the person who insists the Bible needn't be read so often in worship (I've met that person) to the person who is practically a "religious" in the Catholic sense of the word (i.e., a monk, a nun, an oblate).

Which of these is "religion"?

And how do they apply to the question of government and religion.  Ms. Hurd's article focusses on the question of religious freedom, a freedom presumably allowed by governments, or which should be allowed (the Jeffersonian debate on that point is another matter; already we seem largely to allow that our freedom comes from our military power, not our military power from our freedom.  It's a short step from there to religious freedom being allowed by government, rather than government allowed around religious freedom.  That's yet another philosophical issue.).  But the question of religious freedom is, as she points out, bound up with the definition of "religion," and the rather recent (really since the 1960's Supreme Court decisions on the "wall of separation") argument that religion and politics (i.e., conduct in the polis) must never overlap.

It's a concept of religion that is not only unexamined, but unwarranted; and probably unsustainable.

But that conclusion depends on what you mean by "religion."

Wednesday, November 12, 2014

"Yet for the powerful to pretend to interpret God's will qualifies as presumptuous."

At the root of Niebuhr's thinking lies an appreciation of original sin, which he views as indelible and omnipresent. In a fallen world, power is necessary, otherwise we lie open to the assaults of the predatory. Yet since we too number among the fallen, our own professions of innocence and altruism are necessarily suspect. Power, wrote Niebuhr, "cannot be wielded without guilt, since it is never transcendent over interest." Therefore, any nation wielding great power but lacking self-awareness - never an American strong suit - poses an imminent risk not only to others but to itself. Here lies the statesman's dilemma: You're damned if you do and damned if you don't. To refrain from resisting evil for fear of violating God's laws is irresponsible. Yet for the powerful to pretend to interpret God's will qualifies as presumptuous. To avert evil, action is imperative; so too is self-restraint. Even worthy causes pursued blindly yield morally problematic results.

--Andrew Bacevich

The Brits do this better than we do.  Niebuhr was thoroughly American, and thoroughly Midwestern, but American literature doesn't do moral ambiguity and the problems of power and guilt and self-awareness of the national character nearly as well as the British do.

Maybe it's that legacy of Shakespeare; sometimes I seriously think it is.  That and the legacy of power, stretching back to the Tudors and through Cromwell and the Restoration and the rise and fall of the largest empire the world has ever seen.  We embrace Roman thinking without realizing our historical debt at all; the British still understand they are an Anglo-Saxon society shaped, down to their Piccadilly Circus and their legal system, by being a far-flung outpost of Rome.

John LeCarre got at this first; the moral ambiguity of spies telling lies in order to serve a greater good.  Reality eventually outran LeCarre's moral imagination.  The Constant Gardener imagined a scandal among multi-national corporations that would erupt if it was revealed how they were treating the sick in Africa, a scandal so worrisome they would kill to keep it quiet; when in reality the truth of such malfeasance was plain for all to see; but the world simply didn't care.

Consider that we are coming up on the 34th anniversary of the deaths of Ita Ford, Dorothy Kazel, Jean Donovan, and Maura Clark. (Corrected per a comment below; I should have had that right the first time!)  I mention it because I heard a promo for a story about it on NPR.  Now that we are nearly 35 years away from the foul deed, it is safe to probe it and consider the outrage of it; safe because nothing can be done about it, no one prosecuted for it, no public figure called to account over it.  Not that anyone has been called to account for it in nearly 35 years, anyway.  A sign of American innocence and wielding power without guilt or self-awareness?  Or just another indication that what happens can always be overlooked, ignored, disregarded, if it suits us to do so?  Especially since, as Marlowe observed, "that was in a foreign country and, besides, the wench is dead."

We don't do moral imagination in our literature, or our TV shows.  The quintessential response to 9/11 was "24," the show that made torture not only palatable but necessary to our security.  The quintessential response of the British, a show that ran for 10 seasons (take that, "24"!), was "MI-5."

I've been binge-watching it on Netflix, running through all 10 seasons, roughly 100 episodes.  The plots are often better than Daniel Craig's "Casino Royale" (still the best Bond movie ever made, for my money), and make you wish the writers of "Skyfall" had instead hired the writers from "MI-5," at least as consultants.  "Casino Royale" made Bond deal with the human cost of being a professional spy/assassin ("licensed to kill"); "MI-5" made its characters deal with the moral cost of telling lies for a living, and manipulating people with lies.  When the wife of a villain has been killed in Bond's hotel room in "Casino," he is entirely indifferent to her fate, even though his use of her led both to Bond finding the villain, and her death.  In "MI-5" agents struggle with their willingness to use innocents as resources, and more often than not the people they "handle" wind up dead, or losing a great deal, while the spies retire to their world of government protection of their identities and government sanction of their lies and manipulations.  They do not go gentle into that good night, however.  The strain of the job makes them neurotic; or they quit; or they are forcibly retired.  The human costs are a constant theme of the show.  Indeed, in the final two season, two of the major characters are revealed to have lead mirror lives of lies and indiscretions, one set far worse than the other so that the latter is just an echo of the former.  Still, in a profession of lies and manipulation, the spies on the same side manipulate each other because sometimes three can only keep a secret if two of them are dead; or never knew there was a secret.

It's a British show, so not surprisingly the British come off better than any other nationality.  The Americans, though, come in for special condemnation.  The series started in 2001, so the CIA represents America as cowboys astride the planet backed by money and arrogance, and getting what they want through torture and extraordinary rendition (illegal and immoral acts, in other words).  More than once the operational head of MI-5 has to remind a CIA agent that the latter is on British soil, and subject to British law, that working for the American government does not make one a law unto oneself.  But the agents run contrary to their own government, a government of politicians willing to make deals or shirk promises made to "assets" (the innocents I mentioned above) as it suits them, or as they (more often than note) feel the need, like all politicians, to be liked and to avoid conflict (conflict, as in any action show, often being the best way to resolve a situation).  But the strongest theme in the show is the question of morality, of the ethics of spying and lying and manipulation for Queen and Country.

The last season is the best encapsulation:  the head of MI-5 was, in the past, in Berlin before the wall came down.  He "turned" a Russian, a woman he loved, and with whom he fathered a child.  The plot for the season, the running plot for the entire season, is convoluted and complicated, but in the end our British hero who has blamed himself for what he has done, who has sacrificed almost everything, including his own morality, for the sake of national security, finally unravels the truth.  And the truth is, the woman he loved in Germany, the Russian, was herself a spy, not for him, but for the KGB.  Her husband is a former KGB agent, her son is an FSB (successor to the KGB) agent, who has killed to protect her without knowing she was a triple agent.  It turns out she's working, not for Moscow but for a consortium of former KGB agents.  She has lied to her husband about her status (he thinks she was recruited by MI-5 as a spy; it turns out she was a KGB spy before that, pretending to spy for MI-5, but he never knew).  It is a long untangling of skeins regarding who lies to whom, for what reason, and at what cost.  Ultimately, of course, the British agent is exonerated for his decisions; but his decisions have a cost, not unlike the cost to Bond at the end of "Casino Royale."  But for Bond those costs reflect decisions and actions taken during the course of the movie; for "MI-5," the costs echo down through three decades.

"Make one mistake, you pay for it the rest of your life."  Not in terms of eternal cosmic punishment; but in terms of responsibility; of guilt; of regrets.  No character on "MI-5" wields power:  by lying to manipulate someone; or to protect them; or even using a gun to do either of those, even the power is wielded in the interests of national security or anti-terrorism or simply arresting criminals; without paying a price for that power.  "Power, wrote Niebuhr, 'cannot be wielded without guilt, since it is never transcendent over interest.' "  The British, at least, understand that.  It doesn't make them superior, or wiser, or more authorized to wield power; but it does make them more self-aware.

It's a trait singularly lacking in the CIA agents portrayed in the series.

Tuesday, November 11, 2014

"It's about commemoration and it's about the beauty of human life and the fragility of human life."

"The ceremony of innocence is drowned...."

"The blood swept lands and seas of red...."

Kurt Vonnegut, b. November 11, 1922, d. April 11, 2007.

I will come to a time in my backwards trip when November eleventh, accidentally my birthday, was a sacred day called Armistice Day. When I was a boy, and when Dwayne Hoover was a boy, all the people of all the nations which had fought in the First World War were silent during the eleventh minute of the eleventh hour of Armistice Day, which was the eleventh day of the eleventh month.

It was during that minute in nineteen hundred and eighteen, that millions upon millions of human beings stopped butchering one another. I have talked to old men who were on battlefields during that minute. They have told me in one way or another that the sudden silence was the Voice of God. So we still have among us some men who can remember when God spoke clearly to mankind.

"The sudden silence was the Voice of God."

 Precisely so.

On the coming 10th anniversary: A Common Place Reader; selections from past Novembers

"The Lord has plucked up proud men by their roots, and planted the lowly peoples." "He hath put down the mighty." - from the daily office in May, 1965.

If I were more fully attentive to the word of God I would be much less troubled and disturbed by the events of our time; not that I would be indifferent or passive, but I could gain strength of union with the deepest currents of history, the sacred currents, which run opposite to those on the surface a great deal of the time!

--Thomas Merton

The Roman Empire was based on the common principle of peace through victory, or, more fully, on a faith in the sequence of piety, war, victory, and peace. Paul was a Jewish visionary following in Jesus' footsteps, and they both claimed that the Kingdom of God was already present and operative in this world. He opposed the mantras of Roman normalcy with a vision of peace through justice, or, more fully, with a faith in the sequence of covenant, nonviolence, justice, and peace. 

In Search of Paul, John Dominic Crossan and Jonathan L. Reed, (New York: HarperCollins 2004), xi. 

World War I ended at the 11th hour of the 11th day of the 11th month of 1918, yet an irresistible current of nihilism had been set loose. Fought in the name of democracy, that war was in fact a triumph of militarism and imperialism - on all sides. It led to the punitive imposition of artificial borders in Europe, which were the immediate cause of World War II; in the Middle East, the remote cause of today's most dangerous conflicts; and in Africa, where consequent genocide has found its niche. Perhaps most damaging was the 1914 legitimizing of mass violence, with the trenches anticipating both gas chambers and the unleashed atom. Hitler and Stalin were empowered by the so-called Great War, which is why both World War II and the Cold War should always be considered in its context. To regard all three conflicts as a single War of the 20th Century obliterates any notion that categories of "just war" apply.

What are we to make of these three anniversaries? First, while honoring the memory of veterans tomorrow, we should also acknowledge that the Great War was a mistake. America should never have joined. Second, in properly recalling the demonic Hitler's antisemitism, we can also reckon with the complicity of a larger culture. What crimes make us bystanders today? And third, trumping the horrors of the 20th century, its most important event was the nonviolent resolution of the nuclear-armed Cold War. "Power to the people" proved true, and what they used their power for was peace. Three anniversaries, with emphasis given to hope.
--James Carroll
At the root of Niebuhr's thinking lies an appreciation of original sin, which he views as indelible and omnipresent. In a fallen world, power is necessary, otherwise we lie open to the assaults of the predatory. Yet since we too number among the fallen, our own professions of innocence and altruism are necessarily suspect. Power, wrote Niebuhr, "cannot be wielded without guilt, since it is never transcendent over interest." Therefore, any nation wielding great power but lacking self-awareness - never an American strong suit - poses an imminent risk not only to others but to itself. Here lies the statesman's dilemma: You're damned if you do and damned if you don't. To refrain from resisting evil for fear of violating God's laws is irresponsible. Yet for the powerful to pretend to interpret God's will qualifies as presumptuous. To avert evil, action is imperative; so too is self-restraint. Even worthy causes pursued blindly yield morally problematic results.

--Andrew Bacevich

Give ear, O Shepherd of Israel, you who lead Joseph like a flock! You who are enthroned upon the cherubim, shine forth

before Ephraim and Benjamin and Manasseh. Stir up your might, and come to save us!

Restore us, O God; let your face shine, that we may be saved.

O LORD God of hosts, how long will you be angry with your people's prayers?

You have fed them with the bread of tears, and given them tears to drink in full measure.

You make us the scorn of our neighbors; our enemies laugh among themselves.

Restore us, O God of hosts; let your face shine, that we may be saved.

But let your hand be upon the one at your right hand, the one whom you made strong for yourself.

Then we will never turn back from you; give us life, and we will call on your name.

Restore us, O LORD God of hosts; let your face shine, that we may be saved.