Adventus

"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

Saturday, October 25, 2014

"We shall not cease from exploration...."

"and the end of all our exploring..."

The pastors I met in my active parish ministry were, for the most part, good people trying hard to do an almost impossible job.

Some, of course, were the man in the grey flannel suit:  simply trying to get to the end of the day and earn a paycheck the best way they knew how.  Older pastors, retiring as I came on, seemed especially comfortable in their role:  they had served congregations which had served them well in return, and as that generation (which as not really defined by a calendar, or by their numbers in society) was coming to and end, their ministries were, too.  By and large they knew that, they accepted that, they went gracefully and gratefully into retirement, often nursing some notion of what congregations should be based on what they had learned as young men.  But we all learn lessons in youth that form our outlook ever after.

The worst pastors I met were the ones too zealous in their protection of "their" church.  There was the Conference Minister who told me he voted against my ordination, because he didn't think I was fit for ministry.  A few months after I left that Conference to pastor a church in another, he was forced to resign after exposing himself to his neighbors.  He stood naked in his back door in front of a teenage girl next door.

That was preceded by the Conference Minister who was forced out of his position by the Conference I had left to go to seminary.  He came to my seminary to finish out his career so he could reach retirement age with as much in his pension as possible.  On his way out, as he finally retired, he told my teachers I was unfit for ministry.  It was because I had tried to represent my pastor as his lawyer in a church investigation that almost led to his being stricken from ministry (the details of the UCC ordination and standing would take too long to explain).  It was a kangaroo court.  The Conference, through its lawyer, presented me with a document purporting to show the UCC allowed Conferences to exclude lawyers from the actual hearing.  I later learned that language had been rejected by the National Conference in favor of language encouraging a pastor to have representation in such circumstances.

And then there was the Conference Minister who cost me my pulpit; who came, without telling me ahead of time, to a Church Council meeting and denounced me in no uncertain terms.  He left for a conference on the west coast almost immediately after that, and retired within a year.  We had had, I had thought, a good relationship prior to that night.  He wouldn't speak to me that night, and I never spoke to him again.

I won't go into the church officials I dealt with trying to transfer my standing to another denomination, all of which, on paper, are quite open to such movement.  Suffice to say I have reasons to despise the institutional Church; far better reasons than Chris Hedges sums up in his article on the occasion of his ordination.

Ordination is a tricky thing.  It is determined by each denomination, based on its own determination of what validates an ordination.  I understand that in some Baptist denominations, for example, the congregation can ordain those they deem fit, and the deed is done.  The UCC is supposed to require a seminary education, but that's not the rigid requirement you might expect it to be.  I don't know what standards other denominations impose, but the idea is to determine that you have a calling to ministry and a reason to be set aside as a pastor or priest.  It is not automatic, granted upon your graduation from the right school, or based on your winning personality.  Most churches require some call to ministry; not just the mysterious "inner" call, but an actual offer of employment in what the denomination recognizes as a ministry.  A call to pastor a church is the obvious choice (it was how I was ordained; I couldn't even ask for ordination until a church wanted me to be their pastor), but there can be other calls.  There is always a lot of discernment involved, and a lot of consideration as to whether the candidate can simply handle the job of being a priest or pastor.

It ain't no golden staircase.

It can be, for the right kind of pastor.  I've known them, envied them their ease in ministry.  I couldn't emulate it.  I've known pastors, too, just trying to shepherd their flock; but their flock was more wolves than sheep (and I'm not hiding my story in this example.  I'd use the metaphor of snakes if I was doing that.)  Pastoring is a hard task, and the idea that the church and congregation should be "called" to the "Cost of Discipleship" is an engaging one for some members of the laity, but it is an absolute nightmare for members of the clergy.

Hedges cites Orwell, an atheist, and James Baldwin, the son of a pastor, for support in his analysis of the community of believers as a community of hypocrites.  Orwell despises institutions that become corrupted into the mirror opposite of what they were meant to be; Baldwin condemns the church for not being, as we learned to say in seminary, "prophetic."  The church seldom speaks truth to power because, too often, the church is the power; or wants to stay close to the power, at least.  It puts me in mind of several stories, not the least of which is Kierkegaard's description of his famous "Knight of Faith".

The moment I set eyes on him I instantly push him from me, I myself leap backwards, I clasp my hands and say half aloud, "Good Lord, is this the man?  Is it really he?  Why, he looks like a tax collector!"  However, it is the man after all.  I draw closer to him, watching his least movements to see whether there might not be visible a little heterogeneous fractional telegraphic message from the infinite, a glance, a look, a gesture, a note of sadness, a smile, which betrayed the infinite in its heterogeneity with the finite.  No!  I examine his figure from tip to toe to see if there might not be a cranny through which the infinite was peeping.  No!  He is solid through and through.  His tread?  It is vigorous, belonging entirely to finiteness; no smartly dressed townsman who walks out to Freberg on a Sunday afternoon treads the ground more firmly, he belongs entirely to the world, no Philistine more so.  One can discover nothing of that aloof and superior nature whereby one recognizes the knight of the infinite.  He takes delight in everything, and whenever one sees him taking part in a particular pleasure, he does it with the persistence which is the mark of the earthly man whose soul is absorbed in such things. He tends to his work.  So when one looks at him one might suppose that he was a clerk who had lost his soul in an intricate system of book-keeping, so precise is he.  He takes a holiday on Sunday.  He goes to church.  No heavenly glance or any other token of the incommensurable betrays him; of one did not know him, it would be impossible distinguish him from the rest of the congregation, for his healthy and vigorous hymn-singing proves at the most that he has a good chest....And yet he is no genius, for in vain have I sought in him the incommensurability of genius.....And yet, and yet--actually I could become furious over it, for envy if for no other reason--this man has made and every instant is making the movements of infinity.

Johannes de Silentio, Fear and Trembling, tr. Walter Lowrie.  Princeton:  Princeton University Press, 1973, pp. 50-51.

What truth would you speak to which power to effect the result of Kierkegaard's description?

de Silentio's insistence on the absolute normality of the character of the Knight of Faith is instructive, but it is little commented on.  Most people know this book at all for its title (which inspired Hunter Thompson's "Fear and Loathing" in both Las Vegas and on the 1968 presidential campaign trail) and the concept of the "leap of faith."  Almost everyone gets both ideas wrong.  It was Paul who advised his churches to "work out your own salvation with fear and trembling," because they were dealing with the living God in their perfectly ordinary lives (when Paul wrote the priest was still going into the Holy of Holies one day a year with a rope tied to his ankle so his lifeless body could be dragged out if the Creator of the Universe cast a glance in the unfortunate mortal's direction).  And the "leap of faith" is not a leap across reason into fantasy; it is absolute trust in the Absolute (de Silentio's term), producing, as Eliot would later say, "a condition of complete simplicity, costing not less than everything."  But the price paid is one's life gained; else there is nothing to Christianity but endless sacrifice.

And what fresh hell is that?

I'm a bit non-plussed, having read Hedges' essay, why he wanted to be ordained.  So he could purify the church?  So he could prove himself holier than them?  So he could finally get what he had wanted so long ago, no matter how bitter he is now?

It's not that I directly disagree with this quote from Baldwin:

Life is tragic simply because the earth turns, and the sun inexorably rises and sets, and one day, for each of us, the sun will go down for the last, last time. Perhaps the whole root of our trouble, the human trouble, is that we will sacrifice all the beauty of our lives, will imprison ourselves in totems, taboos, crosses, blood sacrifices, steeples, mosques, races, armies, flags, nations, in order to deny the fact of death, which is the only fact we have. It seems to me that one ought to rejoice in the fact of death—ought to decide, indeed, to earn one’s death by confronting with passion the conundrum of life.
I mean, you could make a fine sermon from Ecclesiastes on that.  But you can't preach the gospel, the "good news," from it.  You can't preach on a weekly basis against "the self-love in American society," at least not without first examining your own self-love that convinces you you have the voice and position of the prophet, with none of the disabilities appurtenant thereto.  The prophets who most vehemently denounce Israel also argue with God about the truth they are called to testify to, and the price they pay is high:  Jeremiah wails, Ezekiel suffers from hallucinations and has himself bound and rolled in ashes, Hosea marries a prostitute, Amos objects that he is just a dresser of sycamore trees.  Few of the prophets enjoy privilege and comfort and the pleasure of telling everyone they are wrong.  The prophets speak to the community and speak from the community, and like Jeremiah, whose head should be a fountain so it could produce all the tears he wants to shed for Israel, they suffer for the community.  They don't get to stand apart from it.  Baldwin and Orwell may have felt compelled to lead their lives; but it is the community that pronounces their proclamations valid or invalid.  No prophet gets to self-verify their truth.

We call those people mad; not prophets.

Hedges chooses a ministry that puts him on the edge of society, among people perhaps more willing to give up their "totems, taboos, crosses, blood sacrifices, steeples, mosques, races, armies, flags, nations" because those things have been taken from them already.  It is a valid ministry; I am glad he has found it.  But it isn't the only ministry; and the irony of denouncing the institution even as it ordains you, even as it publicly approves of your ministry and formally recognizes it as a ministry, as something set apart, as something valued by the community, is not to be ignored.

It is easy to snipe at the community of believers; to call it a community of hypocrites and lukewarm believers, to condemn it as the problem rather than the solution.  It is even easier to think your convictions alone are valid, and are validated the more they are not commonly accepted and widely enacted.  That is the Romantic illusion; the notion that every man and woman is her or his own Byronic hero.  de Silentio's Knight of Faith is neither Byronic nor a hero; he is presented, in fact, as the exact opposite of the Romantic ideal.  He is bourgeois to his toes, the better to humble himself and be servant of all, if not truly last of all.  But then again, playing the 19th century Danish version of the man in the grey flannel suit, perhaps the K of F is last of all, after all.  Certainly he has achieved what the prophets could not (well, what some of them could not; every person's path is different, isn't it?).  Kierkegaard himself would denounce "Christendom," but he still had planned to take a country parish in Denmark, and live a quite, non-public life.

I've struggled myself with the legitimacy of the church.  I finally realized any legitimacy in this world must lie outside of me, otherwise it is mere solipsism.  I cannot claim myself validated against the opinion of the world, no matter how enticing that stance may be for those of a Romantic turn.  Even in my defiance I choose for humankind;  Sartre was right.  Defiance is not liberating; it is a burden.  If I see all church members as hypocrites, then hypocrites they are, and I lose the memories of the good people I've known in churches throughout my lifetime, some of them family members, some of them long-lost friends.  No, I will not condemn.  I will seek to avoid the reflex that makes me right and those who disagree with me, wrong.  I am not holy; you do not need to stand apart from me.  If I abandon the church it is not because the church is not good enough for me; it is because I am too vain to allow myself to enter into the life of the church.  Or it is because I am not ready, again; it is because my journey takes me on a path that crosses and recrosses the path of the church, but doesn't let me settle there.

It is because I am who I am, and I don't know how to change that fundamental.

But that fundamental doesn't make me right or wrong; it makes me difficult.  Perhaps Chris Hedges is not as angry as he seems to be.  Perhaps Chris Hedges has finally found his calling and is serving the Living God and the Risen Lord in the best way he can.  Perhaps.  In fact, I'm sure of it; who am I to sit in judgment?  Neither of us can sit in judgment on the church, either.  It is what it is, as we are who we are.

The marvel is that God works through us all, in spite of everything.  Thanks be to God.

Tuesday, October 21, 2014

That's right, you're not from Texas....

If you were from here, you'd understand....

So a guest on the Diane Rehm show tells me Wendy Davis has been a "disastrous" candidate because she's so "out of step" with the Texas electorate.  Her failure means not one Democrat will win statewide office this November, he says.

Bollocks.

If there are any Democrats left in state wide offices in Texas, it's a fluke.  And that isn't because Democrats haven't fielded a better gubernatorial candidate than Wendy Davis.  In fact, Wendy Davis may be the best gubernatorial candidate the Democrats have fielded since Ann Richards, and Richards only won because she was fortunate in her opponent.  I remember the gubernatorial candidates before Texas became a "red" state; they were nondescript to the point of non-existent.

If Wendy Davis hasn't shown the ability to win the race, it's because, as the guest put it, she's ideologically out of step with the majority of voters; it isn't because she can't campaign.  And her loss will not lead to the loss of other Democrats.  No Democratic candidate in this state has any coattails, not even the POTUS.  Republican candidates don't even have coattails; they only have the right party designation.

Texas is still deeply conservative politically, a persistence with perplexes me if only because the population of Texas has exploded in my lifetime, and most of that growth comes from newcomers, non-natives, if you will.  And by "non-native" I mean non-native Texan.  I have a coffee mug from the 80's, when the first big influx of "immigrants" came to the state from elsewhere in the country.  It reads "Native Texan," and more than one person who saw me with it when it was new said "Yeah, not too many of those around."  But that huge shift in population didn't mark any kind of shift in politics; and it still hasn't.  Voter turnout is still low, and adherence to the "right" party is still so strong a Democrat in a state-wide race doesn't get a fair hearing and is called "out of step" with the voters simply because of party label.

Which is the way it was when I was a kid, and Texas was a solidly Democratic state.

Is Texas going to turn blue anytime soon?  Nah.  The proles are not going to rise up and shake Big Brother off their back, and poor whites and Hispanics, who should both vote and know better when they bother to vote, aren't going to re-light the fires of Texas populism (whose enduring legacy is the wreck of a state Constitution we are burdened with) anytime soon.

But we can't blame our failures on our candidates:  we can't simultaneously expect them to be Tweedledum to the GOP's Tweedledee, and at the same time be different enough to inspire younger votes and minority voters to actually vote for a government that responds to them.*

If Davis wins, it will be because she motivated people to vote on a personal level, through an effective GOTV effort.  If she doesn't, she's still mounted a more effective effort to reach voters personally than I've ever seen in Texas Democratic party politics.  If that effort doesn't force a sea change in Texas in one election, that's not reason enough to abandon it now and forever.  After all, Democrats aren't going to win races in Texas by being more conservative than the GOP.  Gotta give all those non-voters a better reason to vote than that.

*and if the current Texas voter ID law, which prevents hundreds of thousands of Texans from voting, but allows voting by mail, a GOP preference, to occur with no ID check at all, is "in-step" with the majority of Texas voters, I'd prefer a candidate who stays out of step, thank you.  It's not like the Governor can repeal that law, after all.

Sunday, October 19, 2014

This is where I came in.....

In 2005, Hurricane Katrina hit New Orleans obliquely, but the levees that were supposed to protect the city, gave way and drowned the city.*  The result made people as near as Houston think the apocalypse was upon us, because when Hurricane Rita threatened Houston, everybody from Galveston to Houston fled to Dallas, creating a traffic jam some 250 miles long.

As I said at the time, this led to the deaths of several elderly people when the nursing home van they were in caught fire after idling for several hours. Local officials made matters worse by telling everyone in the path of the storm to evacuate.  Tout le Houston thought of themselves as "in the path of the storm," and evacuate they did.  I live well inland from even the Houston Ship Channel, but people well to my west (away from the coast) were jumping in their cars and heading for the exits.  They didn't get very far; even the roads to Austin, almost due west of here, were clogged beyond capacity.  Had the storm actually struck Houston, the damage would have been nearly incalculable, as some people rode out the night of the storm on the freeways in and around the city.

In the end, Rita struck Beaumont and Lake Charles, well to the east of Houston.  As I said at the time (again!), this is pretty much the damage Houston got directly from Rita.



So now comes ebola to the U.S. via Texas (actually via Belgium and one of the airports in D.C., but why split hairs), and I'm seeing the same panic again.  When Rita threatened Houston, not only did the fourth largest city in the country turn into a ghost town (city streets were empty around me; it was like the Rapture), but I saw a man in my neighborhood board up his house and paint the wood with the legend "Looters will be shot!"

When Ike took out power in the city for three weeks a few years later, nobody panicked or boarded up their house and waited for the rapacious looters.  In fact, no chaos befell the city at all, and nobody was afraid.

In this scenario, ebola is Rita; the crisis in west Africa is Katrina.  And Rick Perry is the hapless administrator in Houston (one of several) telling us panic is our best option just now; when he isn't blaming the Federal government for not keeping Texas safe.  Yes, the same Federal government which shouldn't tell Texas how to pollute its air, water, and soil, should have protected Texas from one terminal case of ebola, and two people who are symptomatic but being treated.

In other states, because we don't have the wherewithal, even with the Texas Medical Center and UTMB-Galveston, to handle it.  Apparently.

The panic, though, is familiar.  It is media induced.  Nobody who came to Houston from Katrina to find shelter in the Astrodome was blind with fear.  No fear swept through Houston at their presence.  Local people helped out, even if Tom DeLay made a fool of himself down there.  We were calm.

Until the threat of a storm came.  We didn't panic when Ike was coming, either; or after it tore up the city and wrecked our power system and scattered trees like they were Tinker-toys.

But now, the country has turned into Houston, and panic is the word of the day.  It's almost funny, talking about a "travel ban" from "west Africa," when no one is calling for a travel ban on Texas, which is where the virus is in this country.  Well, now we've taken it to two other states, so I suppose we should quarantine those states, too.

Just a long winded way of saying I've seen this movie, and shame on us all for not knowing how it ends, and for replacing native American xenophobia for native American common sense.  Houston embarrassed itself in the Rita debacle, and people died who should have been safely home.

How far are we going to follow the analogy this time?

*yes, you can even use that neglect by the Federal government as part of the analogy, if you want to.

Friday, October 17, 2014

Will someone please pour the tea?


The comments, for once, are better than the commentary over at Esquire's Politics Blog:

But what is at issue here are not criminal acts, but the discovery process in a civil suit, and a discovery process aimed at pure speech -- namely, what the pastors said to their congregations during a religious service -- and that process should end at the church's door as well. If that isn't protected speech under the First Amendment's guarantee of freedom of religion, then it's protected speech under the First Amendment's guarantee of freedom of political speech. And if you want to make the argument that the latter consideration should be enough to revoke the tax-exempt status of the churches in question, I'm right there with you. But that's not what the city of Houston is up to here, either. It is going on a fishing expedition into what the pastors thought and what the pastors said. If the city wants to prove that the pastors encouraged their flocks to finagle the signature process, it simply has to find another way to do it. If it wants other documents to that effect, it should draw its subpoenas more narrowly.

First, let's get the facts narrowly right:  the City of Houston didn't draft these subpoenas; their pro bono non-city-employee lawyers drafted them.  A narrow point, but not an insignificant one, that leads us to Point the Second:

This lawsuit was not brought by the City, and these subpoenas are not an attempt by the City to use legal process to quell speech, even religious speech.  The City is a defendant in a lawsuit, and as such entitled to wide-ranging discovery into any information that might aid its defense of that lawsuit, even if the information obtained is not ultimately admissible under the rules of evidence.

And point the Third:  sermons are public speeches.  Many pastors put them on the church's website, advertise them on church signs, maybe even distribute copies available to anyone who walks into the sanctuary (which is generally open to anyone who can get in).  No church I know of closes to doors to non-members when it comes time for worship, or shoos out non-members for the sermon (the eucharist may be closed, but the sermon?)  There's nothing private or special about them, and there is no reason for the city not to ask to see them.

Because the purpose of these subpoenas to parties not parties to the lawsuit, is to find out what was being said about the petition process that tried to get signatures from church members and others, in order to force the HERO (Houston Equal Rights Ordinance) to be decided by referendum.  The City declared a number of signatures invalid, denied the petitions. and refused to hold the referenda election.  That's what the suit is about.

So, the City wants to know, did the plaintiffs know they had problems with their petitions and their signatures?  That kind of information may be found in the correspondence (which the City is still seeking) of the subpoenaed entities, and in their speeches (which the City is also still seeking) and public presentations, and even in sermons.

Which are not protected by the First Amendment because they are made in churches.  If a pastor, in time of war, gives aid and comfort to the enemy in a sermon, that's treason, despite the First Amendment.  If a pastor calls for the assassination of a President from the pulpit, that's still a crime.  You don't get a "King's X" because you claim what you said was a "sermon."  It simply doesn't work that way, and it shouldn't work that way.  Eugene Volokh's examples all come from criminal law (grand juries aren't part of civil lawsuits), so his conclusion that this subpoena even may be overly broad is inapplicable here.  Subpoenas in civil cases are always "overly broad" when compared with criminal cases.  If this one is truly too broad, the court which issued should retract it or modify it.

As I type the local NPR station is running its daily local news discussion program, and three people are discussing this very issue.  But they are interpreting it as an investigation of political speech from the pulpit.  The point of this discovery is not to catch the pastors out or turn them over to the IRS; it is to find out what was said about the petition process, and finding that out from sermons is as legitimate as finding it out from statements made in Fellowship Hall, or in e-mails, or in church newsletters.

What I really resent is how easily even people like Charlie Pierce are persuaded to agree with Sean Hannity.  The fact that you think Hannity could be right about anything should be enough to make you realize you need more information on the issue.  After all, if Mr. Pierce or Mr. Hannity were defendants in a civil suit, and they thought the sermons of local churches might provide them useful information for their trial, they'd make quite a different argument about this subject.

"...a sign of both His anger and of His grace...."


Continuing with the continuing story of just what the synod in Rome is doing and saying, AP reports (I won't quote them, it would be too extensive) that the language we read in English from the "working document" was true to the original Italian, and that's the problem.

So a translation in English (because apparently the conservative Bishops speak the language of Christ, which we all know is English) has been made, changing the "welcoming these people [you know who]" to "capable of providing for these people," which isn't hospitality at all.

JCF, in comments below, picked up on the other change, from providing "precious support" to providing "valuable support."  Maybe because in America we only like things that are valuable, because our standard of measure for all things is money.

The drafting committees will fight this out (conservatives demanded changes, the Pope appointed "progressives" to draft the final statement), but the final statement has to be approved by a 2/3rds vote.

And there is still some confusion on the point.  The Catholic News Agency provides the original Italian of a portion of the statement, but argues that "valutando" should be translated as "evaluate" in English, not "value."  But is that the same passage that has been translated as providing "valuable support"?  It's impossible to tell without the full statement in Italian, and an analysis of the English translation by an expert in both languages.

What this language, whatever it is, clearly doesn't do is radically shift the teachings of the Church on homosexuality, teachings which, from a pastoral point of view, are a bit of a nightmare.  First, there's a sort of "love the sinner, hate the sin," except that homosexuality isn't a sin; it's more an "objective disorder:"

Although the particular inclination of the homosexual person is not a sin, it is a more or less strong tendency ordered toward an intrinsic moral evil; and thus the inclination itself must be seen as an objective disorder.
Which pretty much means, be careful how you welcome them:

no authentic pastoral programme will include organizations in which homosexual persons associate with each other without clearly stating that homosexual activity is immoral. A truly pastoral approach will appreciate the need for homosexual persons to avoid the near occasions of sin.

If you combine that with the insistence "that departure from the Church's teaching, or silence about it, in an effort to provide pastoral care is neither caring nor pastoral and that:

An authentic pastoral programme will assist homosexual persons at all levels of the spiritual life: through the sacraments, and in particular through the frequent and sincere use of the sacrament of Reconciliation, through prayer, witness, counsel and individual care. In such a way, the entire Christian community can come to recognize its own call to assist its brothers and sisters, without deluding them or isolating them.
What I hear is something very much like an act of the medieval church as described by Michel Foucault:

"My friend," says the ritual of the Church of Vienne, "it pleaseth Our Lord that thou shouldst be infected with this malady, and thou hast great grace at the hands of Our Lord that he desireth to punish thee for thy iniquities in this world."  And at the very moment when the priest and his assistants drag him out of the church with backward step, the leper is assured that he still bears witness for God:  "And howsoever thou mayest be apart from the Church and the company of the Sound, yet art thou not apart from the grace of God."  Brueghel's lepers attend at a distance, but forever, the climb to Calvary on which the entire people accompanies Christ.  Hieratic witnesses of evil, they accomplish their salvation in and by their very exclusion; in a strange reversibility that is the opposite of good works and prayer, they are saved by the hand that is not stretched out.  The sinner who abandons the leper at his door opens his way to heaven.  "For which have patience in thy malady; for Our Lord hateth thee not because of it, keepeth thee not from his company; but if thou hast patience thou wilt be saved, as was the leper who died before the gates of the rich man and was carried straight to paradise."  Abandonment is his salvation; his exclusion offers him another form of communion.

Michel Foucault, Madness and Civilization, tr. Richard Howard (New York:  Vintage, 1965), pp. 6-7.

No, the Church does not now drag homosexuals from the sanctuary and deny them any communion with the company of saints and believers.  The exclusion has stopped being external and physical, but continues to be internal and social, if not spiritual.  They must avoid "near occasions of sin" by not being who they are, a condition for which they are as blameless as the lepers.  The blame is on them only when they try to socialize their condition by sharing it with even one other.

If that will ever change is anyone's guess.*

*adding:  this is going to get more confusing before it gets clearer.

Thursday, October 16, 2014

So much depends upon a red wheelbarrow


Or upon what the meaning of "is" is:

"Contrary to perception, death is not a specific moment but a potentially reversible process that occurs after any severe illness or accident causes the heart, lungs and brain to cease functioning. If attempts are made to reverse this process, it is referred to as 'cardiac arrest'; however, if these attempts do not succeed it is called 'death'. In this study we wanted to go beyond the emotionally charged yet poorly defined term of NDEs to explore objectively what happens when we die."
I'm not interested in shoehorning all human experience into an empirical or positivistic frame, the better to explain that "love ain't nothin' but sex misspelled" or even that love is nothing more than neurochemistry.  The above, however, is a statement about that study of death I mentioned earlier, and the statement there is so full of ideas it needs to be unpacked slowly.

First, the real result of this study is to redefine our definition of death.  This isn't really new; we've been at that definition since the 19th century, at least.  Poe leaves us the most accessible legacy of the condition we now call "comatose," in his stories about premature burial (a key plot point in "The Fall of the House of Usher" and "The Black Cat") and, of course, his story "The Premature Burial."  People declared dead were not, after all, dead; and there was something of a cottage industry in supplying burial places the interred could escape from, should they wake up in their coffins.  We've been struggling pretty much since then to decide when someone is really, truly dead, and when they are just non-responsive.

But we've always assumed death was a moment.  Tolstoy subtly challenged that reasoning in "The Death of Ivan Ilyich," but the events of Ilyich's death point more to "death in life" as Ilyich descends into misery and despair, only to find just before the moment of death that he is at peace, and reconciled (though they may never know it) with the family he neglected long before his slow slide to oblivion.  The story ends with Ilyich embracing his fate, and leaving little doubt the last moment of the story, is Ilyich's last moment of life.  Death-in-life may be the product of Ilyich's fears and anxieties, but death itself is still that instant between the last breath, and never drawing breath again.

Now, this study tells us, we may need to reconsider our definition of death as an irreversible instant.  As Dr. Parnia says:

If attempts are made to reverse this process, it is referred to as 'cardiac arrest'; however, if these attempts do not succeed it is called 'death'.
Death is announced when attempts at resuscitation are said to have failed; but when did death occur? Before the efforts?  When they were abandoned?  Somewhere during?  We aren't really left with the question "What is death?"  Death is the cessation of life, or animation, of breath (pneuma, spirit, breath, geist).  No, the question now is:  "When is death?"  And the answer may be not a moment:  but a series of moments.  Ilyich's death begins the moment he injures his hip; his agony is self-inflicted and terrifying, until his last moments when he ceases to struggle and accepts the end of life.  In those moments he is at peace, and more, he suddenly understands his family as people he loves, wholly and unconditionally.  These last moments, his spiritual struggle turned to spiritual revelation, Tolstoy implies, are the moments of his death.

Perhaps Tolstoy got it right after all.

This study, conducted over 4 years, in 15 hospitals, in many countries, is an examination of what happens in death; but not at the moment of death.  Near death experiences present empirical evidence of life after death, or of hallucinations in the extremis of death which are only recovered by the "miracle" of modern science, only if death itself is an instant, a boundary line, truly that bourne from which no traveler returns and which to step over is to make an irrevocable step.  But if death is understood more carefully, it is a process of existence, truly a matter of time; and of time in its fullness.

Which may challenge our notions of euthanasia, of death-in-life, of suffering and prolonging life.  The argument for euthanasia presumes death is a simple cessation of life.  But what it if is not so simple after all?

I have to add, having put in that link to the Salon article, that end of life decisions are not as simple as we imagine they will be.  You may tell everyone you love exactly how you want to die; but you leave them with the burden of acting on your wishes, and that burden isn't a real one until the time comes.

I stood in the basement of a hospital with a woman whose husband had just been brought in by ambulance, the victim of a stroke that took his life a few hours later.  As I spoke to her (as her pastor), the doctor came in to ask he she wanted to keep her husband on life support, as that was all that was keeping him breathing.  She looked at me in panic and asked:  "What do I do?"

What would you tell her?

She clearly didn't want to consider herself responsible for her husband's death, even if he was all but dead already.  When is death?  It can be when you decide it is, and she wasn't ready to take that responsibility.  We imagine our loved ones will act for us as we would act, but do we really understand what that means to them, when they face the decision?  (To end the story, she denied the request and her husband went upstairs, where he died a few hours later.)  We want to be responsible for our deaths, but in the end, we can't be.  And maybe that's another lesson:  despite appearances, (and Tolstoy's story supports this, too, in the end; although Ilyich anguishes for much of the story that death is only his), none of us dies alone.  Our death is a part of our life, and our life is lived among others.

If we are truly blessed, among others who truly care for us, and for them our death is their loss, too.

Wednesday, October 15, 2014

Meanwhile, back at the courthouse....

Yes, twice in a row; but is it my fault there's so much legal stuff to cover all at once?

Speaking of things in Texas, it seems we are in the news for other reasons:

Houston's embattled equal rights ordinance took another legal turn this week when it surfaced that city attorneys, in an unusual step, subpoenaed sermons given by local pastors who oppose the law and are tied to the conservative Christian activists who have sued the city.
Sorry we can't read more of that there, but it gives you the most information I have on this issue.  "Conservative media" is screaming, but then, that's what they do:
It is astounding to have to say that most Houston citizens – including most Christians and pastors – are still unaware of the radical nature of Mayor Annise Parker’s commitment to imposing the full “San Francisco Style” Gay, Lesbian, Bisexual, Transgendered, etc. agenda. … We have a sin-sick city and we need the power of God through Jesus Christ changing lives and changing City Hall!
 For the record, I like our mayor, and so does most of the city, since she was re-elected rather handily since that denunciation was recorded.  So this is a very definitely minority view in Houston.

But anger over the subpoenas apparently is not:

The Rev. Welton Gaddy, president of the Interfaith Alliance and an advocate for both LGBT rights and religious liberty, has penned a letter to Houston’s Mayor Parker and City Attorney David Feldman, opposing the subpoenas. “I will work as hard to defend the freedom of speech from the pulpit for those with whom I disagree, as I will to defend the rights of the LGBT community. As long as a sermon is not inciting violence, the government has no business getting involved in the content of ministers’ sermons,” Gaddy wrote.
When I was working for a law firm (before law school; yes, it's been a long and checkered career at chez Adventus), I quickly learned that the next thing I said on the phone after "I work for ---------- law firm," was to reassure the party on the other end that they weren't in trouble, they weren't being sued, and in fact I was a nice guy with no ulterior motives.  Had to do that a few times as a lawyer, too.

People are afraid of lawyers.  And I guess when you combine "subpoena" (which is issued by the government; in this case, a court of law) and "City Hall," suddenly everybody hears jackboots ringing on the floor.

Seems there is a lawsuit, NOT filed by the City but against it, by:

activists who claim the City wrongfully rejected their effort to put a recently-passed amendment to the city’s anti-discrimination ordinance up for a voter referendum. The recent change to the law would bar businesses from denying a transgender person entry to a restroom consistent with his or her gender identity. After the city attorney ruled that many of the signatures collected for the referendum petition were invalid, the petitioners no longer had the requisite number of signatures to place the referendum on the ballot.
So lawyers working pro bono for the city (not city attorneys, IOW, who might have consulted with Herroner), issued subpoenas duces tecum (Law talk!  Very scary!):

The subpoenas, served on pastors who are not litigants in the lawsuit, seek a broad range of documents and communications, including sermons, regarding their statements on homosexuality, the Houston Equal Rights Ordinance (HERO), and the petition process. Represented by the religious right legal firm Alliance Defending Freedom, the pastors are seeking to quash the subpoenas.

Now maybe these subpoenas go beyond the pale, maybe not.  I'd let the court decide, myself.  Discovery in civil cases is very open-ended, and non-parties can be asked to turn over documents that might be useful to the defense of a case.  According to the Houston Chronicle, these pastors are not just names drawn from a hat, but people associated with the plaintiffs in this lawsuit; or may associated with people associated with the plaintiffs in this lawsuit. I dunno, to be honest.  And the further you get from the plaintiffs, the less legal ground you have for the subpoenas.  But a court issued these at the request of the defense lawyers, so some judge has already decided this is not a bad idea on its face.

It may still be a bad idea on reflection, of course.

I was mostly moved by the statement of the Rev. Gaddy, who somehow imagines this is a free speech case and his rights are tied up with the rights of the subpoenaed pastors.  Personally, you want my sermons, come and get 'em.  I gave them (o long, long ago!) in public; there's nothing in 'em I don't want people to read.    This isn't the government "getting involved in the content of sermons."  This is the government trying to defend itself in a civil suit.

Now, some of the documents may not be amenable to discovery.  As I say, civil discovery is broad, and its best to go on a "fishing expedition" as much as you can; never know what you might net, and the Texas courts are usually lenient in these matters.  I can understand the conservative pastors screaming about what this lesbian mayor is doing to them now.  I can almost understand the hyperventilating about the 1st Amendment.  But the Rev. Gaddy needs a calm voice from a knowledgeable source to tell him he's not about to be frog-marched into the city jail, and a subpoena for his sermons would hardly be equivalent to censorship.

I mean, seriously, you give those things in public.  You speak them out loud to large rooms.  What difference do you think it makes if someone wants to read the paper version?

Hell, I'd be flattered.

More fun with state laws

Yeah, pretty much any excuse will suit me....

I'm really not trying to proof-read Charlie Pierce over the intricacies of Texas legal culture, and it's a minor point, but this is what i get for not being on Faceplace (or MyBook, or whatever it is.  I don't Twit, either.)

Charlie say:

(I do believe it would be very helpful if we could keep it out of an election for county judge in which the primary issue seems to be Who's The Biggest Yokel? More proof that an elected judiciary is the second-worst idea in American politics.)

But his link is to an article about the race for county judge in Dallas County.  That's a Constitutional position in Texas (under our Constitution, Rube-Goldberg mechanism that it is).  It's the presiding officer over the County Commissioner's Court, the ruling body over the county (we have 256 of them, if I recall correctly).  They have nothing to do with legal disputes.  They get to out yokel each other because they will be responsible for lots and lots of people, not just for criminals and parties to lawsuits.

In Texas, legal cases go to the County-Court-at-Law (with hyphens), a creation of the statutes.  Those judges, also elected (we'd elect janitors in Texas if they'd thought of it when the Constitution was being re-drafted after the War.  You know which war.), preside over courtrooms in black robes on "benches."  The County Judge does not.

Nor is the County Judge ever addressed as "Yur Honor."  Nor does anybody with business before the County open with "May it please the court" when they rise to speak.

Always liked getting to say that; kinda miss it, to be honest.

Anyway:  that's go nothin' to do with ebola or the CDC or why nurses in Dallas are probably overworked, underpaid, and under protected (I tend to believe the nurses who say they weren't properly trained and didn't have adequate protective gear.  I suspect everybody expected the first case of ebola to be in NYC, or El "A", or some bigger and more glamorous location than a Presbyterian hospital in Big D.  I also expect private hospitals to be cheap when it comes to staff, and stingy when it comes to protective gear they don't think their staff will ever need.  I'm cynical that way.)

Nothin' to do with anything important, as I say:  but now you know.  Carry on.

"So rudely forced, tereu...."

Jonathan Chait says:

For various reasons, including the long stalemate in Washington, the movement to confront campus rape has shot up the list of liberal priorities. One can detect in this movement an impatience with balancing risk against liberty that, in other contexts, would be readily recognizable as a tone of creeping illiberalism.
Or it could be that rape has been a topic of political discourse for the last couple of years, including trying to redefine rape as "forcible rape", and declare that pregnancy after rape (a medieval canard, literally) is impossible (proving, by the way, that the rape is "legitimate," because, well, you know how women are)?

I stirred a strong discussion when I posted an entry about the complexities of consent, the central legal issue in a charge of rape (and pretty much the central social issue, too).  I have, in the recent past, used a textbook that included an essay on the question of how consent is defined in rape cases.  The essay presented examples from "stranger rape" (assault by a stranger, the kind we all think of as "definitely rape") to a case where a college student, drunk, slept with her close friend (male, and also drunk), and a day or two later decided it was a bad idea and the fault was his,  She condemned him on campus as a rapist, largely because she decided, as much as 72 hours later, that she had withdrawn her consent to the sexual intercourse.

Rape turns on this question of consent.  The stranger in the bushes seems a clear case of non-consensual sex.  Regrets the morning after, or the morning after the morning after, seems far less clear.  But when can consent be withdrawn?

California's affirmative consent law apparently tries to address this issue, although only in the context of sex on college campuses; it is not an alteration to California criminal law.  I don't know how effective this law should be, or even if it is a sound idea (the devil is in the details, and I haven't studied the details).  But it's the return to the question of consent that intrigues me.

Chait thinks this new law redefines most sex as rape.  The law, he says:

...requires all sexual activity among college students to obtain “affirmative, conscious, and voluntary agreement” and requires such consent be “ongoing throughout a sexual activity.”
Okay, and the problem is?

Sex, as I recall from my college years, is a delicate minefield of negotiations and desires.  I'm not sure "affirmative, conscious, and voluntary agreement" is too high a standard to set for an act that can involve identity, disease transmission, morality, intimacy, and self-consciousness (did I mention identity?).  And why shouldn't the consent be "ongoing throughout a sexual activity"?  Because once the train leaves the station, it ain't gonna stop 'til it reaches its destination?  I understand small animals can't control their bodily functions as readily as adults (pick up a housecat peeing in the wrong place and watch the stream continue unabated), but are we saying once she lets him in, it's too late to change her mind?  Isn't Chait's argument still aimed at making the male experience of sex normative, and the woman at some point just has to give up some agency in order to prevent unwanted outcomes (like a male college student being accused of rape)?

Is it "illiberal" to not want to turn off the issue of consent once penetration has occurred?  Or even before the clothes come off?  Isn't it more liberal to recognize there are two persons involved here, and both have equal agency in the event, and that agency doesn't come crashing to a halt at some event horizon beyond which the law cannot peer?

Besides, how does Mr. Chait think the culture of racist attitudes in this country began to change?  Because of Dr. King's inspiring speeches? Or because of changes in the law?

Tuesday, October 14, 2014

I just gotta say

Look carefully; you'll see her hand is out, and his hand isn't.  On such matters do elections turn.

Yes, tout le monde is upset that Wendy Davis put a wheelchair in a campaign ad, because Greg Abbott (her political opponent) is in a wheelchair following an accident that Charlie Pierce tells me made Mr. Abbott a very rich man (it happens, though usually payments are for medical expenses and pain and suffering; perhaps punitive damages added to that high total Mr. Pierce records.  Anyway....).

That bothers me not a bean.  Texas politics is routinely ignored unless there is a reason to pay attention to it, and then it is routinely distorted.  Rick Perry has won re-election constantly, so he is the Great White Hope of the GOP until...."Oops."  Wendy Davis has gone "too far, TOO FAR, I say!" by including a wheelchair in a campaign ad about how tort liability is good for Greg Abbot, but not for other people.  Whatever; because this is what bugs me:

Davis has been less of a candidate than people thought she would be, and remains likely to lose the election.
Davis was never likely to win this election.  The fact people are still paying attention to her candidacy, that Greg Abbott is on FoxNews trying to milk this "controversy" for some mileage, should speak volumes.  But it doesn't, because no one understands the peculiar political culture of Texas.

When I was a child, Texas was a one-party state, and that party was the Democrats; the party of the Civil War, of the non-Reconstruction government of Washington, D.C.  The party not the party of Lincoln.  If the GOP has changed in the last few decades (as Mr. Pierce says they have), the Democratic Party changed with the ascension of LBJ to the White House.

You cannot overstate the power of one-party.  In Texas, no one voted for Republicans, because they were anathema.  The first non-Democratic governor elected in Texas since Reconstruction was elected in 1978.  You do the math.  Before that, Texas had some of the most nondescript men in the state as governor.  Texas Monthly even ran a memorable photo spread showing Dolph Briscoe (yes, that was his name) sitting in the Governor's office, smiling at the camera.  Reading from left to right, Mr. Briscoe slowly faded from view until there was just the empty chair, a metaphor for his governorship, according to the magazine.  It is a perfect illustration of the campaigning Democrats had to do, that a non-entity like Briscoe could be Governor of the state.  They weren't all picturesque figures like John Connolly.  Most of them were worse candidates  than Bill White, who ran four years ago.  Despite having been Mayor of Houston (a city that loves business), White couldn't get elected State Dogcatcher (if we had such an office, it would be an elected position), because he ran as a Democrat.  He ran a campaign so low-key, by the way, it makes the Davis campaign look like a Hollywood version of a "barn-burner."

Wendy Davis faces the same uphill battle.

But, you will say, Ann Richards charmed her way into the Governor's Mansion.  As a fluke, I will respond.  She was the last Democrat to sit in the Governor's office, and she lost in her second run to George W. Bush, as the state shifted allegiance from one party to the other.  She only won the first time because her opponent, Clayton Williams, refused to shake her hand at a debate, and the TV cameras captured that moment for posterity.

And this was a man who compared rape to the weather:  "There's nothing you can do about it, so just lie back and enjoy it."  Anybody want to call him less of a candidate than Wendy Davis?  But he probably would have won, if he'd shaken Ms. Ann's hand.  We're political neanderthals here, but we know how to treat a lady.

Will Davis lose?  Probably; but only because she never had a chance to begin with.  Although she has a GOTV effort working that hasn't been seen in this state since I was born.  I've been called, I've even been approached in my own front lawn, by Davis supporters.  I've literally never had that experience before.  Will it make a difference?  Time will tell.  Texas is a notoriously low-voter turnout state; perhaps she can change that.

But in the meantime, please stop telling me what a poor candidate Wendy Davis is.  She mopped the floor with Abbott in their one debate (on public broadcasting stations, who the only people who saw it were in major urban areas; and the rural vote swamps the "urban liberal" vote every time).  Her ads are sharp and pointed and good, even the "wheelchair" ad.  Can she win?  Only if she can turn out the vote.

And then the best thing she can do is replace as many Perry appointees as she can get her hands on in the next four years.  The Lege doesn't really listen to the governor, and it's gonna be in GOP hands for the foreseeable future.  But that's another thing the pundits who aren't from Texas don't understand.....