"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

Wednesday, April 16, 2014

The Trace

The story of that picture can be found here.

As I've said before, ideas are bulletproof; and that's the problem.  This, for example, is certainly not an idea I'd have thought was alive and well in the late 20th century, or still stirring events in the 21st century.

By the time Mack saw him speak in 1984, Skousen was a leading light of right-wing radicalism, a theocrat who believed the decline of America began with passage of the 14th Amendment and its guarantee of equality for the former slaves and others. A former Salt Lake City police chief who spent 11 years with the FBI, Skousen had toured the country in the late 1950s and into the 1960s to whip up anti-communist fervor under the banner of the John Birch Society. His best-selling book in 1958, The Naked Capitalist, warned of a cabal of global elites who were scheming to create a worldwide, collectivist government — what the JBS and Patriot groups now fear as the “New World Order.” He demonized the federal regulatory agencies and wanted to abolish civil rights laws, labor unions, the minimum wage, the income and estate taxes, the direct election of U.S. senators, the wall between church and state, and many other government programs and initiatives.

Yes, before Barack Obama or Agenda 21, it was George H. W. Bush and the "New World Order."  But before all that, it was the Civil War, and the 14th Amendment.

And you thought all the crazed and paranoid racists were in the Old South.

"Mack," there, by the way, is Richard Mack, former sheriff of Graham County, Arizona.  He is now known to us for being the founder of the Constitutional Sheriffs and Peace Officers Association.  Why do we care, you ask?  Because he's directly connected to Cliven Bundy:

It was Richard Mack, a former Arizona county sheriff and founder of the Constitutional Sheriffs, who had said Monday that the gathered self-described militia had considered using women as human shields if a gunfight with federal officials erupted. He elaborated on those comments Monday in an interview with radio host Ben Swann.

“It was a tactical plot that I was trying to get them to use,” Mack said in comments flagged by The Raw Story. “If they’re going to start killing people, I’m sorry, but to show the world how ruthless these people are, women needed to be the first ones shot.”

 “I’m sorry, that sounds horrible,” he continued. “I would have put my own wife or daughters there, and I would have been screaming bloody murder to watch them die. I would gone next, I would have been the next one to be killed. I’m not afraid to die here. I’m willing to die here.”

Yeah, that guy; a guy happy to martyr others for his cause.  A guy happy to see his wife and daughters die for his cause.  "My death, is it possible?," Jacques Derrida asked.  To Mr. Mack even the deaths of his wife and children are not really possible, or he wouldn't talk so blithely about them.  Aside from that, why are we interested in "Sheriff Mack"?

“Disarm the federal bureaucrats," Bundy said in an interview with Fox News's Sean Hannity. He had been asked to respond to Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid's assertion that the Bundy Ranch standoff (as it is now officially known on Wikipedia) was "not over."

Bundy had already  asked  his local sheriff to arrest the BLM officials who were rounding up his cattle, but he directed his new message to "every county sheriff in the United States."

Bundy's statement brought to the forefront a theory that some on the far right have held for decades: that local sheriffs are ordained with an immense amount of power, going beyond that of even federal authorities. In the Bundy Ranch dispute, that theory is the driving ideology of some of the groups that have rallied to the rancher's side. Those include the Constitutional Sheriffs and Peace Officers Association and the Oath Keepers, whose members are law enforcement officials and military who have pledged to defend the Constitution against government overreach.

Bundy has already said the federal court was not a court of competent jurisdiction over this dispute; he denies the legitimacy of the claims of the BLM to collect grazing fees from him.  Why?  He denies the legitimacy of the federal government.  And what does this illegitimacy trace back to?  Well, in at least one direction, to the 14th Amendment, which gave equal rights to people who don't look like Cliven Bundy or any of the 1000+ people who turned out last week to protest the actions of the BLM.

But this dispute didn't arise because Barack Obama was inaugurated into the Presidency.  There is no direct link between Bundy and Obama.  That doesn't mean Bundy's claims are not about race; but it does mean that, in America, it's never about race.

Cliven Bundy insists this dispute is about the legitimacy of governments and of law.  The driving force, however, is identity.  Cliven Bundy identifies with a handful of cranks.  I've no doubt most of the ranchers in Arizona and Utah quietly pay their grazing fees and don't lionize Bundy for getting away with not paying his.  He's an outlier, even in the West.  But the driving force here is who he identifies with, and the basis upon which he breaks with the U.S. government.  No doubt many ranchers in the area resent some federal government policy or other, or even resent how much of the West is federal, not private, land.  That's kinda like resenting the authority of your landlord, even as you want to stay on your landlord's good side.  Bundy's resentment, though, is rooted in the idea that such power must be illegitimate; and he gets support for that idea from people like "Sheriff Mack."  Who in turn got that idea from W. Cleon Skousen; who thought the 14th Amendment proved the federal government had overstepped the Constitution, by amending the Constitution.

Which returns us to the vision of the "Founding Fathers," and just how much control that "vision" should have in our public policy debates today.  Because if you adhere closely enough to what the "Founding Fathers intended," it's really not that hard to argue changes like the 14th Amendment violate the Constitution itself.  I mean, if the Founding Fathers had intended it, it would have been part of the "Bill of Rights," right?

But it's not about race; because it's never about race.  And the reason the 14th Amendment wasn't in the Constitution to begin with, was not because of race; or class; or gender; or power.


No, the Constitution was a vision about who should be in power; and who shouldn't.  And it still is.  And who shouldn't be in power are individuals who think any power that limits their power, and recognizes the legitimacy of others, is itself illegitimate.  And that's where it is about race, even though it's never about race.  There is a clear thread, if you wish to follow it, from complaints about the 14th Amendment to complaints about the legitimacy of the Affordable Care Act and the Voting Rights Act.

It is that hidden wound that keeps on bleeding.

Tuesday, April 15, 2014

Texas, Our Texas....

"(People) through their elected officials clearly send the message 
of their comfort with the amount of oversight"--Gov. Goodhair

Charlie Pierce is right, the problem in West, Texas is that, well...they need the money.  Which means they need the fertilizer plant.  But the people of West, Texas, aren't quite ready to have that discussion in front of the rest of the world.

Some residents were hesitant to embrace the idea of a new fertilizer plant and declined to speak publicly because of the delicacy of the issue. Mayor Muska said he heard some angry comments when he raised the topic at the town meeting.

"It's too soon to be talking about another plant when the damage from the old one isn't fixed yet," said a middle-aged woman from West who declined to be identified.

This is a small town that lived with the benefits of this plant for 50 years.  One might think, from the overwhelming silence of the townspeople since the blast, that they were ready to rebuild and return to status quo.  Nope, not really:

If a new plant is ever built, it would be made of and concrete with a proper sprinkler system, something the previous plant was lacking, Muska said.

"We want it back in West, but we need to have it safe. We need to have it zoned correctly so people don't build around it - we learned that important lesson," Muska said.

Back in West means, not in the town, though:

"It would be a service to our community if we had another fertilizer plant, but it needs to be located outside of town and maintained properly," said Mimi Irwin, owner of the downtown Village Bakery, which sells Czech pastries called kolaches.

You don't get the sense people in West are really comfortable with "no regulations" and the "let bidness be bidness" posturing of Rick Perry.  They lived with this disaster; they don't want to live with it again.  And I can't blame them for wanting another plant nearby.  When the explosion occurred at Texas City in 1947, the port wasn't shut down and mothballed.  People gotta eat.

Still, I can't help but think there's more concern for a new plant, and for how it will be built, than there was before.  I hope there's even some concern with what the plant has stored onsite, and who else knows about it:  like governments local to federal, firefighters, "first responders," etc.  Mostly, though, my heart goes out to the silent people of West; the ones who don't want to air their opinions even anonymously to a Reuters journalist.

They are the ones who need to be heard, and who need representation by someone other than Rick Perry and the government of the state of Texas.

The Legislature is still not interested, and the fix is pretty much in:

Thomas McGarity, a University of Texas at Austin law professor and an expert on regulation, said he also doesn't expect to see more than "a modest bill that the industry can live with and that allows legislators to claim that they have addressed the problem."

"The West tragedy is already fading in the public memory, and the absence of similar tragedies in the interim has reduced the sense of urgency that is typically needed to impel regulatory legislation through the Texas Legislature," McGarity said.

Who knows, though?  Maybe something will happen.  Ask the right questions, and the Mayor of West might even give you the right answers:

Joyce Gregory, a 15-year West resident, said her daughter's family lived seven houses away from the fertilizer plant when the explosion happened. The family since has relocated for jobs, but she said the loss of lives changed her view about the need for government regulations.

"If there are rules, then the state or whomever should make sure they are following them," said Gregory, a waitress at the West Auction Barn Café. "If that means new rules, so this can't happen, then I would hope everyone wants to follow them."

Much of the furor comes from not knowing what exactly the plant was doing, West Mayor Tommy Muska said. Longtime residents, he said, remember when the plant was simply a place where bags of fertilizer were stored after arriving on rail cars.

"The bags morphed into something else," he said. "At some point, it became a blending plant and all those materials showed up."

Muska said the blast should be a wake-up call for communities like West.

"Every volunteer fire department in Texas, hell, in the country, should have learned something," he said. "Find out what is in your backyard."

Maybe a Democratic governor would even help.....

It's never about that; unless it is


This happened:

"I didn't say there was a racial component. I was very careful not to say that," Holder told The Huffington Post on Friday, when asked about his comments before the Rev. Al Sharpton’s National Action Network.

In his speech last Wednesday, Holder said that he and President Barack Obama have faced "unwarranted, ugly and divisive adversity."

"What attorney general has ever had to deal with that kind of treatment? What president has ever had to deal with that kind of treatment?" Holder asked during his National Action Network speech.

Although much of the media coverage of Holder's comments  interpreted them as a reference to racial divisions, he told HuffPost that he was referring to a lack of civility in Washington.
"I think what we have seen is kind of a breakdown in civility in Washington, D.C., and that becomes important because I think it has substantive impact," Holder said. "We are celebrating the 50th anniversary passage of the 1964 Civil Rights Act. If we had a Congress or an executive branch-legislative branch relationship in the way that we now have one, where there's this lack of civility, I wonder whether or not you could have forged the necessary compromises, things that involved personal relationships, in order to get such a landmark piece of legislation passed.
"And that's essentially what I was decrying, the fact that we can't somehow separate whatever our personal feelings are and focus on our functions as members of the executive branch or as legislators. I think that I've done a pretty good job in doing that, but it's frustrating at times," Holder said.

That's actually funny.  Who said this contretemps was about race?  And why?  Because, as we know, it's never about race, unless some black person makes it about race; which is why this happened:

A police officer from West Hartford had pulled up across the street, exited his vehicle, and begun walking in my direction. I noted the strangeness of his being in Hartford—an entirely separate town with its own police force—so I thought he needed help. He approached me with purpose, and then, without any introduction or explanation he asked, “So, you trying to make a few extra bucks, shoveling people’s driveways around here?”

The speaker is Doug Glanville, a former MLB player; and an African American male.  I'm sure the confusion was his fault; I mean, who in that neighborhood shovels their own driveway, amirite?

Also this happened; or almost happened:

“We were actually strategizing to put all the women up at the front,” Mack said in a Fox News clip pulled by The Blaze. “If they are going to start shooting, it’s going to be women that are going to be televised all across the world getting shot by these rogue federal officers.”
So the people who came to the aid of Cliven Bundy were not only idiots, but cowards.

Best I can find, despite vague statement in supporting articles that Bundy has a legitimate claim, is that Bundy thinks he does't have to pay the BLM because the federal government isn't legitimate.  His right, NPR tells me, is based on an "ancestral right."  (In fact, NPR so far is the best source for information on this.)  He told FoxNews:

VAN SUSTEREN: There's a court order that says that the federal government can do this. So what's your response to that.

CLIVEN BUNDY: My response is it's the wrong court. I've never had my due process in a Nevada state court, a court of competent jurisdiction.

AMMON BUNDY: Hey, uh - I like my Dad's little story he uses to explain the situation. If someone came in and busted into my house and abused my children, and I call the cops, they don't respond. And then I take them to court, I show up in the courtroom, look on the stand, and it's the very person that abused my children looking down at me in a black robe. How in the world are we going to get justice in that court? 

Did you get that? Mr. Bundy has decided what a court of competent jurisdiction is, because he's an American citizen, and Constitution!!!! Or something.

And justice, of course, means the court tells me what I want to hear.  Every lawyer has had clients like that; doesn't mean the clients didn't get justice.

Heroes?  Not hardly.  But at least that story isn't about race.

Right?  I mean, the fact that these are all white people who feel entitled to do as they please has nothing to do with race, does it?

Because it's never about race; unless black people make it about race, that is.


Maybe only tangentially relevant to this post, but it resembles the new sticker on my keyboard, so....

I trace this brouhaha from Dohiyi Mir back to First Draft back to Mother Jones back to The American Prospect.

And let's throw in the Thought Criminal for good measure.

First:  we could have an interesting discussion, I suppose, on whether a movie about a Christian evangelist who finds out a bill in the U.S. Congress will give "equal time" to all religions would be framed for murder because he...knows about this bill?; is not really any different from, say, "Enemy of the State," where Will Smith is hounded by an NSA with superpowers and an apparently endless ability to chase people through streets, shoot at them, blow stuff up, and never once draw the attention of any bystander, much less the local cops (I was just listening to a story about the police response to the Boston Marathon bombers (I won't try to spell their names).  There was a small army of police forces, from FBI to Boston Transit police to local constabularies, and every level of state and local in between, turned out for that pursuit.  In most action films?  Nada.).

I mean, really:  is once scenario less realistic than the other?  Yet we can get endless mileage out of the persecution of Glenn Greenwald or the snooping of the NSA, while authentic persecution of Christians does occur (although in foreign countries, so who really cares?  Did Jerry Falwell ever care about Maura Clark, Ita Ford, Jean Donovan, Dorothy Kazel, or Oscar Romero?).  But it doesn't occur here, in America; well, not anymore than black SUV's and helicopters chase people down based on a real-time search of phone conversations which can isolate your location within seconds, and conveniently near NSA agents who can be beside you before you can hang up (yet you can never find a policeman when you need one!).

Can we really talk about realistic scenarios in this context?

More aptly, we have to discuss sensible paranoid fantasies.  "Enemy of the State" is silly but not, somehow, as silly as "Persecuted."  If the latter is sillier, it is because of the people who take it seriously.  Glenn Greenwald probably takes "Enemy of the State" more seriously than "Persecuted," but does that mean the former is more acceptable as action fantasy than the latter?  Injecting religion into action films is always a dubious effort:  I love "Constantine," but only because I treat it as a video-game version of Roman Catholic traditions, and the portrayal of Satan at the end is the best I've ever seen, bar none.  (Be my guest; "Busy, busy, busy, busy!  Need a vacation!").  But in most action films the topic of religion enters only to justify cosmic violence and special effects, and seldom as a commentary on what's really going on in the world.

Still, I don't want to see a film like "Persecuted" because the idea is too dumb for me.  Which I can't quite defend, because I did see the latest Captain America film, and thoroughly enjoyed it.  As a paranoid fantasy, it rates up there with "Enemy of the State."  The difference is, "Captain America:  The Winter Soldier" actually has a Nietzschean worm at the heart of its rose.  I won't give anything away, except to say that those who stare too long into the abyss, find the abyss starting back at them; and those who fight dragons too long, become dragons themselves.

Which makes that film, which also makes no pretense of not being a fantasy, far worthier thing to contemplate than whatever motivates Gene Hackman, or whether an evangelical pastor would ever be persecuted for trying to speak about a law that's going to become public sooner or later.  If anything, I'd rate "Persecuted" alongside "Enemy of the State," or maybe one of the action films that depend on the hero saving the day against all odds (and with lots of explosions, gunfire, and stealthy assassinations):  simply too dumb to spend the time on.  Besides, as Thought Criminal points out, persecution of Christians in the world today is a real thing; we don't need silly fantasies to entertain us or make us think we have real problems din America with such things.  If we are going to consider the subject, let us consider reality, not a persecution fantasy.

But I'm going astray from the point:  should liberals try to be more understanding of the complaints of conservative and fundamentalist Christians?

No.  Not really.

And I say that as a pastor, trained to be open and understanding to opposing ideas; taught to listen to people because life is messy, and preconceptions and pre-digested responses are perfectly useless when trying to counsel people or keep any faction of the congregation from trying to fire you at any one time (some of these things I'm better at than others!).  I say that having spent four years in seminary being pushed to consider that everything, and I mean everything, I know is wrong, and there's just a possibility that someone else may be right, may even be the voice of God for me, and I should take that awkward possibility into consideration at all times, lest I make God an idol of my own preferences and predilections.

No, I don't have to consider their point of view.  And I don't say that from some Niebuhrian stance of protecting the community's identity or even its existence.  I say that because what the groups identified by Waldman and Drum want is to establish a control they never had, and a respect they don't necessarily deserve.  I am mindful, as I don't think Waldman or Drum are, that the reaction against modernity began not so much with German biblical scholarship (that scholarship did prompt the formulation of the "fundamentals"), but with the mockery that followed on the Scopes monkey trial (of which "Inherit the Wind" and the treatment of it in public discourse is a continuing echo).  As Karen Armstrong put it:

Before the Scopes ‘monkey’ trial—when the secular press ridiculed the fundamentalists and said they had no place in the modern agenda—fundamentalist Christians had been literal in their interpretation of scripture but creation science was the preserve of a few eccentrics. After the Scopes trial, they became militantly literal and creation science became the flagship of their movement. Before the Scopes trial, fundamentalists had often been on the left of the political spectrum and had been willing to work alongside socialists and liberal Christians in the new slums of the industrializing North American cities. After the Scopes trial, they swung to the far right, where they remained. They felt humiliated by the media attack. It was very nasty. There was a sense of loss of prestige, and, above all, a sense of fear.

There is making God an idol of your preferences; and then there is making God a defender against that which you fear.  Read The Gospel of John with the idea that John's community is persecuted and under attack, and you get a wholly different idea of why it is the only gospel to consistently reference the "Jews", and why it is the likeliest source of anti-Semitism in Christianity.  Matthew, Mark, nor Luke are so concerned with setting themselves apart from the "Jews" (I use the term carefully in this context) as John's community is.  The sense of loss of prestige, and "above all, a sense of fear," is palpable in that gospel.  I've always been bothered by "the gospel in miniature," John 3:16, for it's exclusionary flavor.  That exclusion is more purposeful than it is Godly, and I have a hard time reconciling it with Isaiah's image of all the nations drawn to Israel because Israel has finally become the light to the nations God promised it would be.

But, again, I wander; getting back to the main path, we have to recognize that some of the "militantly literal and creation science" was caused by ridicule and humiliation.  The corrective to that, however, is not to take seriously the inflamed passions of those who now want to play the part of victims of a secular age.  Yes, as Waldman points out, there was a race to be more victimized than anyone else, and so claim the moral high ground.  This was not the teachings of either Martin Luther King or Malcolm X, the two icons of the civil rights movement of the '60's (a movement far more complex than those two figures, but that's yet another digression); it was a corruption of their teachings, a result of the lack of leadership after both men were killed.  But it happened; and fundamentalist
Christians picked it up as their justification for power.  It was spurious before; it's spurious now.

Here is Waldman's key paragraph, the one Drum and almost everyone else, picks up on:

But liberals should acknowledge that for more fundamentalist Christians, there's a genuine feeling that underlies their fears. In many ways, the contemporary world really has turned against them. Society has decided that their beliefs about family—in which sex before marriage is shameful and wicked, and women are subordinate to their husbands—are antiquated and worthy of ridicule. Their contempt for gay people went from universal to acceptable to controversial to deplorable in a relatively short amount of time. If you are actually convinced that,  in the words  of possible future senator and current congressman Paul Broun, "I don't believe that the Earth's but about 9,000 years old," then modern geology is an outright assault on your most fundamental beliefs. And so is biology and physics and many other branches of science.
Again, I was trained as a pastor to respect the "genuine feelings" that may underlay another person's  fears.  But that's respect was meant to allow me to enter into their thinking, not to regard their feelings as legitimate and worthy of continuation.  The fears of fundamentalist Christians may seem genuine to them, but that doesn't mean those fears are grounded in reality.  The matter of ridicule is, I think, a valid issue.  We ridicule the ideas of others at our own peril.  Our ancestors after the Scopes trial essentially made the world we are wrestling with now.  But by the time you get to "modern geology is an outright assault on your most fundamental beliefs," all I can say is:  time to recognize the universe truly is "other" to you, and if reality assaults your "fundamental beliefs," it's time to let go of your fundamental beliefs.  Protestantism has a long history of recognizing and denouncing "superstitions."  It might be time to resurrect that tradition.

As the brief internet history of this meme shows, it becomes sillier and sillier the more it is taken seriously.  Drum expands it to cover prayer in schools and creches and the Ten Commandments, all of which Athenae eviscerates without quite touching on why Drum brings it up:

Needless to say, I consider these and plenty of other actions to be proper public policy. I support them all. But they're real things. Conservative Christians who feel under attack may be partly the victims of cynical politicians and media moguls, and a lot of their pity-party attempts at victimization really are ridiculous. But their fears do have a basis in reality. To a large extent, it's the left that started the culture wars, and we should hardly be surprised that it provoked a strong response. In fact, it's a sign that we're doing something right.

As far as I'm concerned, the culture wars are one of the left's greatest achievements. Our culture needed changing, and we should take the credit for it. Too often, though, we pretend that it's entirely a manufactured outrage of the right, kept alive solely by wild fantasies and fever swamp paranoia. That doesn't just sell the right short, it sells the left short too. It's our fight. We started it, and we should be proud of it.
This is where the whole thing turns into the intertoobs version of that old game "Telephone."  Drum is actually critiquing Waldman's original post.  I'm not sure Athenae gets that.  On the other hand, the way Drum makes his argument, it's hard to be sure exactly what he's trying to say.  Be that as it may, Drum's critique is really not that well thought out.  The consequences of war are never what the parties to the conflict think they will be.  In "Mr. Selfridge" last Sunday night, Jeremy Piven's character assured his staff that, if the politicians were right, the war in Europe begun in 1914 would "be over by Christmas."  As it turned out, it wasn't truly over until 1945.  The mockery of one party to the Scopes monkey trial (where most onlookers thought the case for evolution made sense, once they heard it.  The Tennessee law was passed in fear, not in knowledge.) in part created the polarized situation we are in today.  Should we, then, champion this war, and put on the armor of righteousness?  Besides, do the fears of the right have any basis in reality?  Any more than the fears of the left about creationism and religion in public discourse?  I've read a lot of people saying religion stops discussion because it establishes an authority that is absolute; those same people relying on the absolute authority of science, or ideology, without a trace of irony.

Has there really been a culture war waged by the "left"?  I don't remember a war, or even the "moral equivalent of war,"  for the "free love" movement of the '60's.  No-fault divorce wasn't a result of a war, either.  Racial tolerance came about with a lot of violence attached, but Brown v. Board of Education wasn't prompted by a war from the left, anymore than the Civil Rights and Voting Rights acts were.  The latter were largely products of the intentionally non-violent movement headed by Dr. King.  Interracial marriage wasn't the result of a concerted effort to change state laws one at a time; it was overturned by the Supreme Court.  Was that part of a war?  Or was it all just social change, which the opponents took as offensive and as a kind of war?

I've mentioned before my experiences in East Texas when Brown v. Board was finally implemented 17 years after the original ruling.  There were fights and struggles, but the "war" came entirely from those who opposed the rule of law and the court's order; it didn't come from the "left" insisting integration happen in 1955 (as I say, it took 17 years to reach there, and longer still to get to Boston.  I still remember watching the riots over bussing there, and wondering how that was possible in the "enlightened North.").  So where does the metaphor of "war" come from, if not the opponents of social and legal change?  And what is their impetus, if not rejection of the poor and the brown (who are, in the public mind, largely assumed to be the majority in the former category, even if they aren't)?  I think one could easily trace the reaction against LBJ's "Great Society" to the hidden wound of American racism, a racism that is so deep in our culture we participate in it even while insisting we don't really mind our daughter bringing Sidney Poitier home for dinner.  Why else has the anti-New Deal/anti-Great Society movement in American public life come to a head under our first African American President?

Waldman is naive, and Drum too simplistic in his triumphalism.  "War" is by and large what has been waged to keep the status quo from changing; it is not what has been done to effect social justice and equality for all.  It is the same "war" as the one to preserve slavery; the South started that because it resisted the changes coming from the North; not because the North invaded in order to free slaves from cotton plantations.  Of course, the downside to the Civil War is that the notion of "states rights" was never truly vanquished, and the punishment of Reconstruction guaranteed grievances would be nursed down to the present day, some 150 years later.  So there is something to the warning to avoid triumphalism, and to consider the positions of your opponents; if only in the interests of civility.

But I have no reason, in my theology, to consider the validity of people who insist the Scriptures are both inerrant and literally true in all aspects.  For one thing, I don't want to do the mental gymnastics required to reconcile the "facts" of the Lukean and Matthean nativity narratives.  For another, I'm just not going to give such a stupid premise any serious consideration.  I might want to understand it in order to fully understand why the literalists are wrong (I don't want to be like Richard Dawkins, critiquing what I am ignorant of and taking pride in my ignorance), but I don't have to give it a regard it does not deserve.

Which is not to say I need to sneer at it, either.  I can recognize the fears of the fundamentalists as genuine; I can even find in what they teach something of value, if it is there (generalities will always lead us away from seeing something worthwhile in particularities).  Do those fears, however, have a basis in reality?  I'd say, rather, that their fears have a basis in the language games they play.  I do not speak dismissively, here, when I use the word "games."  I mean the language game they employ, the rules for meaning that they adhere to, are not my rules.  My soteriology, to put it bluntly, is not their soteriology; my God is not their God.  My God is involved in history, but it not bound by history.  Their insistence that God abhors same-sex marriage is, in my mind, no different from the arguments prevalent until Loving v. Virginia that God abhors mixed-race marriages, too.  Their argument is that God's presence in the world is best known by adhering to standards that prevailed in an earlier day, because that generation was closer to God than we are now.  I disagree.

It is not that we should awaken to a new day every day, with new rules and customs for guiding our behavior; but neither are we bound to what we think was normal in our childhood as normal for all times and places.  God is not active in the status quo; God is active as the power that tosses the powerful off their thrones and raises up the lowly.  God is not concerned with the practices handed down by our ancestors, the feasts and sacrifices and burnt offerings of old; God is concerned with our doing justice, loving mercy, and walking humbly with the Creator.  To the fundamentalists "salvation" means being assured a place in heaven; to me, "salvation" means discerning God's will in how I live among other human beings, here and now.  I know, from long experience, that while we use the same vocabulary, we do not speak the same language.  Does that make them afraid of me, or even fearful for the state of my immortal soul (I've experienced both reactions, over the years)?  So be it.

Waldman and Drum are right, in one respect:  I should acknowledge the fears and anxieties of the groups they identify.  But they are also wrong:  I should not treat them as warriors on the wrong side of a cause I champion, nor as groups only.  I should treat them as individuals, whether they treat me as one or not.  I should recognize that while we may use the same words, we attach very different meanings to many terms.  And while I shouldn't demonize them, I can give legitimacy to their personhood, their individuality, without giving legitimacy to their ideas.

If anything, I should invite them into a consideration of what identity is, and how our thoughts about it govern our behavior, and our treatment of others.  That is a point where some of the people we think are afraid of "our world," might actually have something to teach us.

Saturday, April 12, 2014

"Everybody's talkin' at me..."


The biggest fallacy in our modern political discourse is this belief that because one believes in God, one has to involve God’s wishes in your decision-making. The problem with that, as Carter understands, is no one actually knows what God is thinking and so they are simply asserting what they believe and assuming God is along for the ride. The best thing Carter could do to advance the cause of a liberal, feminist Christianity is to challenge his fellow Christians to get past this endless loop of Bible-mining and instead to join the secular world in putting the real-world evidence first and seeing where it leads them.
Everyone takes their presumptions from somewhere, and everyone starts with presumptions.  They are not "true" because they are objectively sourced from "reason."  All the subjugation of women started long before Christianity and is not inherent to Christianity (if you don't believe me, read Chaucer.  I suggest "The Miller's Tale" and "The Wife of Bath's Prologue."  And I will just point out that the woman in both, is named "Alison," and she always manages to come out on top.  Literally, and figuratively.)  So to argue that starting with "reason" will somehow not start you from Western culture (which is by now so intertwined with Christianity there is no unwinding it; you cannot tell the dancer from the dance) is simply foolish.  And if Western culture is inherently sexist (and I will accept, arguendo, that it is), then you need to start by critiquing that sexism, and its basis in history.

Forget Socrates and Xanthippe (almost everyone does), let's go to Moses and Miriam.

After successfully crossing the Red Sea (which didn't exist, at least not in the form described in Exodus or crossed by Charlton Heston.  It's Egypt.  Name me a Great Lake in Egypt.  There is a Reed Sea, but it's a marsh; more of a swamp, really.  End of discussion.), Moses bursts into a song of praise to God for their deliverance.  So does Miriam, Moses' sister.

Never heard of her song?  That's because all we have of it is the "refrain" (per my Revised English Bible) at the end of Exodus 15:21.  The rest of her song?  Well, she didn't sing it, right?

Not likely.  More likely she had her tongue, so to speak, cut out.  You can read all about it in the work of the (so-called, because I find the title a bit misleading and demeaning to their fine work) feminist Biblical scholars.  They have been doing fine work for decades now (I encountered them nearly 2 decades ago, and they weren't new, then) in the field, recovering the lost voices of people like Miriam by pointing out what we don't have.

The parallel here is to Luke, and Mary's Magnificat, easily the longest of the four songs in the Lukan nativity narrative.  Luke restores some of what was lost.  And that should tell us something.

You can, as Ms. Marcotte complains of Pres. Carter doing, "cherry-pick" Bible verses to support your claims.  Or you can use reason and "real-world evidence" to examine assumptions literally "baked in" to the Bible, to find a new hermeneutic, a new method of understanding (because we all have methods of understanding, and whether we understand that, and them, is really the key to hearing anew what God has been saying all along).

You could say, for example, that Miriam's song survives at all merely reflects the lack of attention to detail of the male censors so long ago.  Or you could say, as I would, that it testifies to the endurance of God's truth, that is must find its way to us in the cracks and the forgotten places, even in God's own  word.

And that should teach us to approach the scriptures with more humility, and less arrogance that our reason (which is no different from secular reason; sorry, but it's true) is all we need to understand what we think we already know.

Tuesday, April 08, 2014

Jeremiah Wright was not the outlier you thought he was....

I came across these in a slide show on Huffington Post.  It struck me they were a nice counterpoint to the idea that all Baptists are bible-thumpers who support the status quo, and all mainline churches are only interested in keeping things exactly as they are, or in oppressing people or, sometimes seen as worse, in being silent about oppression.  Anyway, I took 'em so I could post 'em here:

"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

 It always makes me think of Linda Hunt and Sigourney Weaver and Mel Gibson, and of betrayal; but still, this is the most beautiful music....

(There is a live version here, with slightly better sound.  YouTube won't let me post it, so don't hesitate to follow the link).

Monday, April 07, 2014

So much depends...

I find this courtesy of the Thought Criminal:

Part of the disconnect, Ehrenreich suggests, involved her atheism, which remains a proud piece of her heritage. "I was born to atheism," she writes, "and raised in it, by people who had derived their own atheism from a proud tradition of working-class rejection of authority in all its forms, whether vested in bosses or priests, gods or demons. This is what defined my people: We did not believe, and what this meant, when I started on my path of metaphysical questioning, was that there were no ready answers at hand."

I was not "born to atheism;" but I nearly embraced it at one point. I was so disgusted with the soteriology of "Are you saved?" that I considered rejecting religious belief altogether.  I learned to reject "authority in all forms" by rejecting the religious authority around me, especially the Southern Baptist brand extant in the culture I grew up in. As a Presbyterian among the Baptists, I was already suspect. But again, Ehrenriech conflates belief with "believing what you know ain't so." Belief is a construct, be it built upon scientific experiments you have never conducted (how many of us are qualified to read the test results of a cyclotron, or an x-ray, for that matter?) or upon a religious belief you were raised in. Contrary to popular opinion, confirmation happens to adolescents because they are, by that age, expected to decide for themselves. That most decide to be confirmed, and then leave the church (maybe to return, maybe not) says a lot about "respect for authority" and what you are "born to be." 

When I started on my "path of metaphysical questioning," there were no ready answers at hand, either; mostly because I questioned the basis of the metaphysics that was providing me the answers. When I found Western metaphysics was rooted in Plato, I didn't find the secret truth hidden behind appearance; but Ehrenreich did:

Well, I think there’s a series of little strange things that happened there. First when I was 13 I started having these, what I now found out now are called, dissociative episodes which — suddenly the layer of language and associations and significance peels off the world, and you just see what’s underneath.

Which is simply a form of Platonism, of dualism:  what is seen or known (she conflates the act with the metaphor; "sight" = "knowledge," perhaps even "understanding") is shadow, what is real is "beneath."  Even the problem of placement is present there, as it is in the opening words of John's gospel.  John says the Logos was "pros ton theon."  The Logos was "before" God.  But does that mean in time, or in space?  In the presence of, or predating?  Is the reality of the world actually "underneath" the sheets of language and association and significance?  Is there a noumenon which can actually be known?

Kant would be shocked.

Alright, alright, enough pointless quibbling.  I come to bury Caesar, not to praise him.  But before I do:

Such a distinction is important, for "Living With a Wild God" is not a book of faith. Educated as a scientist, trained as a reporter, Ehrenreich does not believe in what she cannot see.

So does she "believe" in justice?  Truth?  Beauty?  Love?  If so, can you please show me any of those things?  They are not visible, and I can only point to examples of them as I define them (your mileage may vary, as the intertubes say), yet they motivate people across centuries, cultures, empires.  Are they just brain chemistry?  Cultural markers?  Sex or territory or selfish genes, misspelled?  I ask because, educated as a scholar and a lawyer and a clergy, I don't believe in what cannot be adequately explained or at least discussed with some consistency.
"In some ways," she says, "the book is a critique of science, which offers very much a Cartesian view of a dead world." At the same time, she adds, "I'm still an atheist because I can't say that what I encountered had anything to do with a deity. This hung me up for a long time, the tendency to conflate the mystical with something good or holy. The attribution of moral qualities seems bizarre to me, since the only morality I know is human morality."
And human morality cannot be divine morality because?  I ask because the point is usually presented to prove God is unnecessary as well as non-existent (the two great bugaboos of atheists, it seems), rather than as the contrary and equally plausible proposition:  that morality is known to humanity because it comes from a single, central, and so "universal" source.

Or perhaps it doesn't, and the plan is still that foreseen by the Hebrew prophets:  that the blessings of God upon the children of Abraham who live by the precepts shown to them will be a light to the nations, and the true blessing of the people Israel.  Maybe morality is not, in other words, the be all and end all of religion and Christianity; maybe morality is the byproduct of wisdom, and our lives are not guided by what makes us happy (Aristotle) but by sophia which proceeds from God (Jesus and the Hebrew prophets).

So much depends upon a red wheelbarrow, glazed with rain water, beside the white chickens; and what you make of it.
"How," she asks, "do we reconcile the mystical experience with daily life? Let us be open to the anomalous experience. If you see something that looks like the Other, do not fall on your knees. Find out what it is and report back."
Kierkegaard would have a lot to say about that; which doesn't make Kierkegaard right, so much as it makes the conversation much more complex than Ms. Ehrenreich's simplistic either/or.  For one thing:  is there an objective stance from which one can regard the events of one's own life?  And is that "objective stance" privileged above all others?  Some commenters at Salon have already pointed out what Ms. Ehrenreich experienced can be explained in terms of brain chemistry (a reductio argument that isn't well supported by anything except assertions, but let it go).  Ms. Ehrenreich, with a PhD in cell biology, doesn't seem to accept that explanation for her experience.  Perhaps she has good reason not to; perhaps she considers it unsatisfactory to objectively explain her experience.  Perhaps her ability to be objective about her experience is not what she thinks it is.

Or perhaps Kierkegaard was on to something:

Suppose that Christianity does not at all want to be understood; suppose that, in order to express this and to prevent anyone, misguided, from taking to road of objectivity, it has proclaimed itself to be the paradox.  Suppose that it wants to be only for existing persons and essentially for persons existing in inwardness, in the inwardness of faith, which cannot be expressed more definitely than this:  it is the absurd, adhered to firmly with the passion of the infinite.
But the absurd is a category, and a category that can have a restraining influence.  When I believe, then assuredly neither faith nor the content of faith is absurd.  Oh, no, no---but I understand very well that for the person who does not believe, faith and the content of faith are absurd, and I also understand that as soon as I myself am not in the faith, am weak, when doubt perhaps begins to stir, then faith and the content of faith gradually being to become absurd for me.
If the paradoxical-religious address does not pay attention to this (the incomprehensibility), it abandons itself to the mercy of legitimate ironic interpretation, whether the address peers behind the curtain with a revivalist's mussiness and spiritual intoxication, reads the obscure runes, catches a glimpse of the explanation, and now sermonizes on it in a singing tone that is the echo of the seer's unnatural association with the marvelous....The basis of this misunderstanding is that, despite the use of Christ's name, etc., Christianity has been showed back into the aesthetic (something the superorthodox unwittingly are especially successful in doing)....which in time has explanation in something higher behind itself, rather than in Christianity's being an existence-communication that makes existing paradoxical, which is why it remains the paradox as long as there is existing and only eternity has the explanation.
In briefer terms:  the truth of any religious doctrine is in its acceptance by the faithful (trust being, as even Shakespeare showed repeatedly, the only basis upon which human beings can function as social beings; can function, in other words, as human beings).  It is what William James called a "living option."  A community gives that option life.  But that option is granted by the community, and no other.  The argument of Johannes Climacus here is that there is a community in which the claims of Christianity are wholly understood; or at least wholly realized; and another community, in which they are wholly misunderstood, and what is understood ceases to be Christianity.  Science is also a "living option," in this sense; but it is not THE universal living option, nor even the one which crowds all others out.

There is something substantive to all this, in the end.  The presence, or absence, of God is not confirmed by individual experience:  it is confirmed by a community.  If that community is not one of believers, confirmation is impossible because the reality of God is impossible.  If that community is one of believers, confirmation must fit the understanding of the community as to the nature of God.  This is often used to undermine the reality of any religious claim, because the claims should be unitary and unambiguous.  Of course, life understood by physicists is not life understood by geneticists is not life understood by medical doctors is not life understood by psychiatrists or anthropologists or sociologists.  And while all those fields produce good and useful information the "hard" sciences tend to be rather chauvinistic about their superior view of the world, and trying to reconcile "selfish genes" with anthropology or psychiatry is a mug's game (or with reality, for that matter) and the world as seen from the point of view of quantum mechanics is really little different than the Renaissance view of the medieval Scholastics.  Physicists who describe the world of quantum mechanics insist it is true because the mathematical equations say it is (holy be the name of the equations!), and we can no more question it than a medieval Catholic can question Holy Mother Church.  While we don't have the church pronouncing on heresies, we do have writers doing so.  And the community of believers insists on raising its voice, be that voice mainline Protestant or fundamentalist Christian or "radical" Islam or the Pope in Rome (so many Christian denominations alone are left out of that, and "everybody knows" the Jews are no more religious than Woody Allen, except for those guys in the 19th century Polish garb, and they don't count), but in a world which no longer acknowledges their assertions (not faith claims; that's another matter entirely.  In atomization, as Ms. Ehrenriech mentions, comes understanding.  Well, sort of.)  It is that change in the world which is causing the problems.

Not that this wasn't foreseen in the 19th century in Denmark. Or the early 20th century, in Germany.  This isn't new, but it's finally in front of us.  Whether or not we can reconcile it all, is the question for our age.

Judging from appearances on the internet, there isn't much hope of that.  Then again, the commenting class on the internet is a tiny portion of the world; not even enough to be the tail wagging the dog.  Maybe a flea on that dog's tail, imaging its flexing is causing the tail to move....

Momma don't allow...

Charles Pierce on the Senate report on U.S. torture:
For years, our herd immunity on these matters consisted of a general consensus that there were some things that the United States simply could not do and remain the country we told ourselves and the world that we were. We believed that there were things that were unthinkable, and that kept us at least partly safe from an outbreak of our worst impulses. That herd immunity will not be rebuilt easily. It will take a steady intellectual and political inoculation against the worst in us all. And we must contain the spread of the infection as best we can, and not listen to those people who tell us that what always has worked in the past for us endangers us now.
I am of two minds about this.  On the one hand:  yes, we Americans have lost our innocence; again.  And yes, torture is a terrible thing, and yes, we are supposed to be much, much better than that.  There are supposed to be lines we will not cross, things we will not do.  We don't set fire to villages by hand.  Far better we do it by plane.  Napalm is good; a cigarette lighter is bad.  That whole line of argument brings out my inner Niebuhr and I want to start talking about the irony of American history again.

But the simpler response is:  the Trail of Tears.  Wounded Knee.  Smallpox infected blankets.  Tuskegee.  Slavery.

We don't have enough examples of things we thought were unthinkable, so we just did them and didn't think about them?  Is Dick Cheney really Patient Zero in this outbreak of contagion?  Or is he just the Joker to our Batman; the id we unleashed when we set about making the world safe for democracy over 200 years ago?

Sunday, April 06, 2014

"You know I'm strong and holy, I must do what I've been told"

In light of the complaints about the story of Noah recently, I was listening to Cohen's "Story of Isaac" and I heard it in a new light:

You who build these altars now
To sacrifice these children,
You must not do it any more.
A scheme is not a vision
And you never have been tempted
By a demon or a god.
You who stand above them now,
Your hatchets blunt and bloody,
You were not there before,
When I lay upon a mountain
And my father's hand was trembling
With the beauty of the world.

We speak, as Barbara Ehrenreich does, of morality being "only human."  This is human morality:  to send young people to war; to have them return broken in body and mind.  Rachel Maddow reported the other night on soldiers returning from Iraq with ruined knees and injuries unrelated to combat, but brought on by wearing heavy body armor.  The sheer weight of what protected them from bullets and IED's has broken their bodies, has left young men with the knees of old men, have destroyed cartilage and bone.  And for what?  They will live with those injuries the rest of their lives; even if the VA (hah!) gives them all the care they need and deserve, they will need and deserve care because we built the altar upon which they were sacrificed.

A scheme is not a vision.  Perhaps if it has been from God, it would have been better.  Perhaps not.  Too many wars have been justified as being commanded by God.  But the difference between that and a God who commands Abraham to sacrifice a son, or tells Noah the world will end in water?

I think the difference is in the complaint, more than in the purpose of either story.  Context matters, and the context of the story of Noah makes it a different story than when recounted by Bill Maher.  Be that as it may, critiques of these stories tend to come from a place of privilege; especially when we place them in the context of human affairs, as Cohen does here.  Bill Maher has never had to face the draft or fear death and destruction from the skies.  What does he know of evil or injustice or random death and destruction on the scale the U.S. can unleash it on another country?  Afghanistan was no paradise before the U.S. invasion, but has it really improved under our military?  Iraq was no Garden of Eden under Saddam, but is life there immeasurably better now?  We stand above both countries, our hatchets blunt and bloody; and we were not there before, when Isaac lay upon a mountain.  Who are we to say we were right, God was wrong?  Abstract deaths in stories distress us, but concrete deaths in other countries are mere abstractions?

Is this merely human morality?  And if it is, is there no better morality available?  If you are used to being in charge of the world (white Americans in particular; or white male Americans, if you want to be more particular) the stories of Noah and Abraham are perhaps more appalling than they are to people accustomed to being killed by the world; by flood or famine or fire or war or soldiers or....

Neither position changes the morality or immorality of the stories, nor even the difficulty of the stories.  But to complain that God is psychotic to kill everyone, or order the death of one child, when we actively support the deaths of thousands of children even as they inflict death on millions of children, is to miss the privilege of our position in all this criticism.

Friday, April 04, 2014

Dancing about Architecture

Now see if you can pick up the spare....

Let me see if I can remember this correctly.  I want to be fair to the science; I'm not trying to be critical of physics here.

According to the eminent physicist/mathematician on Science Friday this afternoon, "dark energy" is real, and we know what it is.  What it is, is a number.  It is a number in an equation.  And that number is the cosmological constant first suggested by Einstein (they finally worked out the number itself much later) in 1917.  It is a number, but it is real.  It does not have a particle attached to it (quantum mechanics, if I understand correctly) or a field, because then it would be variable.  It is a constant.  It is real.  And it is a number in an equation.

But it's real.

And they complain that theologians bicker about how many angels can dance on the head of a pin.

Theology, contrary to popular opinion, has never been concerned with describing reality in the way physics (for one) tries to.  Yes, the Roman church tried to silence Galileo, but that was the church hierarchy acting, not the church doctors.  The distinction is important, especially if we remember Gregor Mendel was a monk, and the big bang theory was postulated by a Jesuit priest.  Theology is not concerned with contradicting or being confirmed by science; nor is it limited to "faith seeking understanding," the formulaic phrase I was given in seminary (and which never satisfied me.  It made "faith" into a think akin to James' famously dismissive formulation).  Theology is the attempt to understand the human relationship to the divine, to, in Johannes de Silentio's terms, "the god."  Theology is the study of that relationship, and how humans can understand it, and how humans can understand the nature of God based on the accepted Christian (since it is a Christian field) revelations.

It is no more a complete statement of the nature of God than I can make a complete statement of the nature of my wife (lovely though she is).  Theology is comparable to me trying to understand my relationship to my wife; an act sometimes necessary in any marriage, and sometimes wholly unnecessary (and in a happy marriage, more commonly the latter).  Theology is not a definitive statement on anything; but then the things most important to us are not really amenable to definitive statements.  Do I love my daughter because she carries my genes?  Do I love my wife because she was able to help me pass my genes on to another generation?  And before my daughter; did I love in anticipation of the birth?  Now that she is an adult, do I no longer love my wife, the purpose of my love being fulfilled?

Surely my love for my family is better explained than in terms of "selfish genes."  My relationship to my wife matters much more to me than the cosmological constant, or how it can be both a number and real at the same time, or how time can be without beginning or end, yet to say the same for God is a patent absurdity.  Yet if I say it about God, I am speaking of the ineffable in terms of human understanding.  And if I say time is infinite because the evidence of the universe is that there are multiple universes existing one after the other in time (not continuous in space) because, rather like the Hindu myth of creation, they expire and start over, a cycle without beginning or end, am I not still speaking of the ineffable in terms of human understanding?

And yet if you say this condition of the universe is known because the physicists say so, is that any different than saying the nature of God is known because the priests say so?  Am I not as illiterate in physics and math as the medieval peasant was in literacy itself?  Do I not have to accept that it is so, that the cosmological constant is a number and yet real, while it is still just a number in an equation?  If I accept that, am I not merely accepting it on faith, on trust that the physicist is certain it is true and can be trusted, and so I can trust it without ever understanding whatever proof supposedly upholds it?  Or even what it means when I'm told numbers in equations are real?