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

Wednesday, August 31, 2005

Just so we're clear on this....

The mayor of New Orleans:

According to the mayor, Black Hawk helicopters were scheduled to pick up and drop massive 3,000-pound sandbags in the 17th Street Canal breach, but were diverted on rescue missions. Nagin said neglecting to fix the problem has set the city behind by at least a month.

"I had laid out like an eight-week to ten-week timeline where we could get the city back in semblance of order. It's probably been pushed back another four weeks as a result of this," Nagin said.

"That four weeks is going to stop all commerce in the city of New Orleans. It also impacts the nation, because no domestic oil production will happen in southeast Louisiana."

Nagin said he expects relief efforts in the city to improve as New Orleans, the National Guard and FEMA combine their command centers for better communication, followup and accountability.

And at the UN, we have: John Bolton

This is going to be the greatest American refugee crisis of our lives. 1.3 million displaced from New Orleans alone. Then there's the rest of Louisiana (some towns wiped off the map completely), not to mention the southern portion of Mississippi and Alabama.

Even with power, where do people live? With no place to live, how do they go to work? With out work, how do they pay for the necessities of life? 25,000 alone will be brought to Houston's Astrodome. Imagine housing 25,000 people for any length of time. How do you feed them, clothe them, bathe them, keep them occupied?

Seriously: we could use international help here, if only to figure out how to handle something I don't think the U.S. has ever handled before, certainly not within its own borders, certainly not since the Civil War. We have a refugee crisis.

And in charge, we have George W. Bush, and his idea of FEMA. The Mayor of New Orleans is already blasting the lack of coordination of helicopters for the deepening disaster in that city. The Washington Post has reported how Bush has destroyed FEMA (like father, like son, as Kevin Drum has noticed).

And John Bolton wants to destroy the U.N. Which would include the UN High Commission on Refugees. Who just might have some useful advice for us.

In the meantime, no helpful advice from our "religious leaders," at least the only ones the press recognizes: Messrs. Falwell, Dobson, and Robertson. I won't hold my breath waiting for them to appear in the disaster areas with a shovel and a broom, or even a blanket and a cot to offer.

Is this a great country, or what?

New Orleans Update

Per Democracy Now!:

As the devastation left in the wake of hurricane Katrina continues to unfold, we go to New Orleans to speak with law professor Bill Quigley of Loyola University. Quigley, who is volunteering at Memorial Hospital, said, "The people who are in New Orleans are - in all honesty - dying and there could be a lot more casualties unless there's a lot of help, real fast."
Quigley says estimates are 100,000 people are still in New Orleans, with no way to leave. They are in hospitals, or nurses, doctors, etc., or simply too poor to afford transport earlier.

"They're tryin' to wash us away...."

As the situation in New Orleans decays from tragedy to travesty, we are reminded again that, despite our recent "John Wayne" culture, John Donne was indeed right, and "No man is an island, entire of itself; every man is a piece of the continent, a part of the main." And government plays a bigger and bigger role in our more and more technological lives.

We might imagine or remember pictures of people in the South manning levees in hurricanes, bravely piling sandbags to stem rising water. But that was the rural South, a South that hasn't existed for nearly 100 years now, the South of "O Brother, Where Art Thou?" that now only lingers on in memory and movies. New Orleans was evacuated; at least all of those who could afford to leave, or somehow manage. There was no one left "home" to man levees, and no sand, shovels, sandbags, or trucks, to make repairs possible. And this disaster has grown because of ineptitude, miscommunication, poor leadership. Sandbags that should have been dropped yesterday are only now being dropped, because helicopters were diverted from repairing levees to save a city, to rescuing individuals. and why didn't the levees hold? Why did the pumps fail? Because Katrina was overwhelming? Perhaps. Or perhaps because of government shortsightedness. Perhaps because the federal government, like Dick Cheney in the Vietnam War, had "other priorities."

Randy Newman's album "Good Old Boys" keeps going through my head now. "We've taken all you've given/It's gettin' hard just to make a livin'/Mr. President, have pity on the workin' man." In 1927, flooding destroyed much of the South, and the federal government looked on: "President Coolidge say, 'Little fat man, isn't it a shame/What the river has done to this poor cracker's land?' " New Orleans is underwater. 1.3 million people displaced from their homes for...weeks? Months? The largest port in the country is shut down, if only because none of the workers will be able to live in their homes and get to work until....when? No phones. No water. No electricity. The "energy of slaves" we are all used to relying on, is useless now. Cars won't help. Electricity is of no avail. All of our technology fails us now. It doesn't not comfort us; it does not save us. It burdens us, as we realize how much we depend on it.

As the New York Times says, we are now "beyond devastation," and not just in New Orleans. Entire towns in Louisiana and Mississippi are gone. Literally wiped off the map, and all that is left behind is debris. Much of the region is without power, which again makes cars useless: without electricity, gas pumps don't work. Without gas pumps, cars can't get more fuel. And then, where do they go? Where do 1.3 million people go while they wait for the flood waters to recede, for damage assessments to be done, for new construction to get underway?

And our leadership? New Orleans moved the city offices to Baton Rouge yesterday. President Bush, doing his best imitation of Calvin Coolidge, went to San Diego. He has promised to visit Louisiana on Friday, according to CNN last night. He is also reportedly "cutting" his vacation "short." Which is odd, since he was supposed to return to work in September, by his own announced schedule, and that would be: tomorrow.

And then, finally, faced with all of this, we may ask: where is God? This is, of course, a man-made disaster. No divine inspiration told people to build a major city below sea-level, or try to contain the flow of the Mississippi River, or dam a huge lake with levees. But it has been done, and it might have held, had the governments that serve the people truly served the people. That is a political issue now, however. Right now, the question is: what do we do? And where is God?

God is on a roof in New Orleans, waiting to be plucked off. God is in the streets of New Orleans, trying to keep order as a lone policeman in a mob of looters. God is in the Superdome, hot and sweaty in a fetid atmosphere. And God is the National Guardsman trying to help people there. God is the woman with all her possessions in two plastic bags in Slidell. God is the woman stranded in Mississippi, unable to buy gas from a pump that can't pump, unable to go forward, unable to go backward. "Lord, when did we see you?," the people ask at Judgment Day, in Matthew 25. Look around Louisiana, Mississippi, Alabama: you'll see God. What do we do now? We help. We help in any way we can.

And when we have helped them, we help them make sure this never happens again. Not like this. Natural disasters are one thing. There will be legitimate questions asked, as to whether this had to happen at all. We need to look for answers to those questions, too; in time. But right now, whatever can be offered: money, labor, prayer; needs to be offered to the victims of Hurricane Katrina.

Tuesday, August 30, 2005

Time to Go Home

David Brooks apparently offered a strategy for "winning" in Iraq. Ironically, it apparently made the war sound a lot more like Vietnam than the proponents of this war would like. For example:

To the Editor:

David Brooks has been seduced by the myth of pundits like Andrew F. Krepinevich Jr. who write about counterinsurgencies and the Vietnam War: that the war could have been won if the United States had adopted the oil-spot strategy.

This myth is built on certain historical "lessons" or "models," like the British in Malaya. But if you look at the case of Malaya, you will see a context that is radically different from Vietnam and, more important, present-day Iraq.

The example of Malaya is often cited by those who believe that there is a template to follow for "winning" in Iraq. Such reductionist templates are seductive because they offer easy-to-understand solutions for complex problems.

Is the oil-spot template feasible for the United States in Iraq? It sounds nice, but what number of American troops would be required to carry it out?

One can argue, counter to the facts, that Vietnam would have been winnable if the United States had deployed, say, two million to three million troops to carry out the oil-spot strategy. But was this ever politically realistic for the United States in Vietnam? Is such a rise in troop numbers and time commitment realistic today in Iraq?

(Lt. Col.) Gian P. Gentile

Fort Hood, Tex., Aug. 28, 2005
Another letter writer points out that we had 500,000 troops in Vietnam, at its peak. This number may or may not be accurate, but it gives us some perspective on containing an insurgency with 130,000 troops (and does that number include the 22,000+ dead or wounded already?)

Maybe its time to consider the lessons of St. Francis: "Lord, make me an instrument of your peace...."

Saturday, August 27, 2005

In case you missed it elsewhere

Here's where we are:

For his part, Mr. Hagel backed up his assertion that we are bogged down in a new Vietnam with an irrefutable litany of failure: "more dead, more wounded, less electricity in Iraq, less oil being pumped in Iraq, more insurgency attacks, more insurgents coming across the border, more corruption in the government." Mr. Kissinger no doubt counts himself a firm supporter of Mr. Bush, but in Washington Post this month, he drew a damning lesson from Vietnam: "Military success is difficult to sustain unless buttressed by domestic support." Anyone who can read a poll knows that support is gone and is not coming back. The president's approval rating dropped to 36 percent in one survey last week.

What's left is the option stated bluntly by Mr. Hagel: "We should start figuring out how we get out of there."

He didn't say how we might do that. John McCain has talked about sending more troops to rectify our disastrous failure to secure the country, but he'll have to round them up himself door to door. As the retired Gen. Barry McCaffrey reported to the Senate, the National Guard is "in the stage of meltdown and in 24 months we'll be coming apart." At the Army, according to The Los Angeles Times, officials are now predicting an even worse shortfall of recruits in 2006 than in 2005. The Leo Burnett advertising agency has been handed $350 million for a recruitment campaign that avoids any mention of Iraq.

Frank Rich.

Who you gonna believe? Me, or your lyin' eyes?

The problem with being a pastor without a church (and one of the values of religious community), is that you can easily decide that what is interesting to you, is also important. And if you have no regular daily reason to read Scripture other than as a scholar (which I am not), or as a layperson, you can fall into the trap I fall into, and treat Scripture as just another book you really ought to get around to.

It is very difficult to find reasons to read Scripture as it is meant to be read, outside a religious community, and a place in that commnity. The "place" where I learned finally to find value in Scripture, was as a teacher of it, an interpreter of it, a leader in the community. But while I don't have that position....

Still, this morning, an idle conversation at Eschaton set me to thinking about the rich man and the "eye of the needle." As NTodd finally pointed out, the idea that the "eye of the needle" was a gate in Jerusalem goes back to at least the 9th century (per Wikipedia); something I didn't know. I had, frankly, assumed it was more American and middle class than that; but then, the parable itself teaches that the more things change, the more they remain the same. So I'm sure the idea goes back at least that far. The problem remains, however: it's simply wrong.

The phrase is found in all three synoptics, which means it traces back to Mark, according to the "Q" theory of composition. Mark 10:25 says: "It's easier for a camel to squeeze through a needle's eye, than for a wealthy person to get into God's domain!" Matthew 19:24 and Luke 18:25 are similar enough to show that they relied on Mark for their language. And all use the same Greek word for "needle:" rhaphis. Which Bauer, the standard Greek-English lexicon for koine Greek, translates as: "needle, esp. one used for sewing."

Jesus, in other words, meant just what he said: it's easier for something physically impossible to happen, than for a rich person to enter God's domain. Because he meant to curse the rich? Well, some scholars might think so. But I think it's a shade simpler than that; but only a shade, mind you.

In Mark, Jesus goes on to answer the crowds, all of whom wonder: "Well, then how can anyone be saved?" Then, as now, wealth meant blessing from God, and a blessing from God meant salvation. Jesus explains to them: "For mortal's it's impossible, but not for God; after all, everything's possible for God."

Which is really the point of the story. Who are you going to rely on? Humankind? Or God? And how do you determine the difference? But how interesting that we don't like that answer; and that we spend so much interpretive (scholars like to call it "exegetical") effort redefining the terms to make them more comfortable for us. We spend, in other words, so much energy relying on humankind, whom we know to be fallible. So we don't really rely on humankind, we rely on what satisfies, what makes us most comfortable. We rely on wealth, and tell ourselves that wealthiness is truly next to godliness. Even though there is little warrant for that belief in the Scriptures. It is Israel that demands God stay on the mountain, and speak only to Moses. it is Israel that demands God give them a king. It is David who wants to build God a Temple.

It is human to want to secure our future, to hedge our bets against our own mortality. But this is a recognized proclivity of human nature; and it is not limited to matters religious. It is when all bets are off, that sometimes we begin to see someone like Cindy Sheehan. It is when something other than our own comfort is invoked, that we begin to see other possibilities. It's a matter of boundaries, and where we draw them.

Friday, August 26, 2005

"What Keeps Mankind Alive?"--Bertolt Brecht

One summer I taught an Intro. Philosophy course, and since I had a long class day to fill, I opened with a two-day viewing of the film "A.I." Argue the artistic and literary merits of it all you want, the story is a fascinating examination of what it means to be human. And the answer seems to be: emotions.

This is a very modern question, in Western culture: what does it mean to be human? It originates with Descartes, but his speculations on the topic have roots that extend at least back to Socrates, and are certainly heavily influenced by Christianity and Augustine (who really taught us to begin to think of ourselves as, well, "selves.") It's no coincidence that phenomenology and its subgroup, existentialism, are still major players in modern philodophy. It's all about the self. But what is the self? How do we define it?

Locke would ultimately settle on memory; and that empiricist approach would influence psychology and the scientific approach to the question, ever after. But Descartes focussed on our ability to reason: "I think, therefore I am." And "I think," for Descartes, in good Platonic Christian form, specifically excluded emotions, which he attributed to the body, an obstacle to true being that had to be controlled like the rest of the body and its desires (food, sex, rest) by the "ghost in the machine."

But we've never been quite comfortable with that, and while most Western philosophy has worked assiduously to assert the primacy of reason over emotion, and to clearly delineate the two, it has never been a comfortable or clean split. Curiousity, for example, may have killed the cat, but it is often "lifted up" from the "merely emotional" and made an attribute of "intelligence," where it is both "purer" and can legitimately take its place among the "higher functions" of our humanness. Hierarchies abound.

Computers have made us reconsider all of this. Metaphors for the "mind" (itself a concept, sometimes related to "self," sometimes separate from it, depending on the philosophy invoked) soon took on all the features of the metaphors for what a computer "does." Metaphors, of course, are merely attempts in language to describe concretely something that is entirely abstract. What does a computer "do"? In the field of artificial intelligence, you can still stir quite a lively debate trying to nail down that question. We can easily explain what a hammer or a screwdriver does, and even how it does it. Describing what a computer "does" is a much more difficult task. Does it, for example, "think"? Well, of course, that would depend on our definition of "think". Since Descartes, we've always considered thought to be a purely rational process. But if computers are devoid of emotion, and yet seem to emulate human thought, are they "thinking"?

"A.I." makes us realize we aren't really so dogmatic in our opinion of "thought." The first robot the audience encounters in the movie is an attractive young woman in a crowded room of attractive young people, and our first clue that she isn't "human" is her emotionless response to the lecturer in the room (William Hurt). It is her lack of affect, the flatness of her social responses, that betrays her lack of "humanity."

The same is true of Jude Law's character, a gigolo robot who is framed for the murder of a jealous husband's philandering wife. But can one commit adultery with a robot? Well, can one commit adultery with a dildo, or a Playboy magazine? Jude Law's robot betrays his lack of emotion when he dips his fingers in the woman's blood, and doesn't immediately recognize that he is not only in danger, but this is a scene of horror. He doesn't, in other words, react to the situation. He finally reasons about it, but his reasoning is slower than an emotional reaction would be.

When Haley Joel Osmet's character is "turned on" in the movie, when he becomes "more human," at least in simulacrum, it is his emotional character that is activated. And then it is his reaction to situations that makes him both more human, and more dangerous. When he panics at his "brother's" birthday party and drags him to the bottom of the swimming pool, it is clear that he is not thinking rationally, but he is thinking. Unlike Jude Law's character, Osmet's immediately recognizes a threat to his existence. Recognizing that he even has an existence that should be protected is, it seems, an emotional response. Not a rational one, not even a reasonable one; but certainly a more human one.

So: is it because we think, that we are? Or because we feel? And can we even know the former, without the latter? Can we truly think, without knowing we are? And can we truly know we are, without feeling it?

This Cartesian split is the basis for Christopher Hitchens' critique of Cindy Sheehan, what Hitchens calls her "sinister piffle." For Hitchens, reason is what makes us human, and reason must triumph over all other human proclivities (which are, after all, weaknesses that undermine our "true nature"). While force and violence arise from emotions, reason employs force and violence to oppose emotion, and the use of force and violence is therefore sanctified. It is no accident that our metaphors betray our preferences, too. Science is supremely the realm of reason, but there are "soft" sciences, like psychiatry, and "hard" sciences, like physics. The "harder," of course, the better. And the cold equations of realpolitik mean that morality cannot be allowed to triumph over rationality; and rationality requires we recognize that the world is a harsh place, full of people who would kill us if they could; and the only reasonable response, is to kill them, first. "Hard" always triumphs over "soft."

But is reason our only human trait, and is "hard reason" the only sure guide to our actions? The neo-cons vision of the world is certainly a "hard" one; but they have succeeded only in making it harder on themselves, and on us, but their relentless employment of reason uber alles.

Hierarchies abound. But are the hierarchies justified? And if so, on what basis? On the basis that morality is all well and good, but we have a social order to get on with, here? Should we remind Mr. Hitchens that is was morality, both aggregate and personal, that drove the civil rights struggle in this country, that forced the President and Congress to change the course of the nation in order to "do the right thing"? Curiously, Martin Luther King recieved more vociferous condemnation for his morality after his anti-war speech at Riverside church than for any of his civil rights efforts. Some of his strongest supporters of the civil rights struggle condemned him for going too far when he denounced the reasoning behind the Vietnam War. Apparently morality is only valid so long as it doesn't touch on the supreme exercise of our reason, through violence.

Violence is usually considered an emotional human response, and this characterization is used to place it below rational action, the better to both denigrate it and to control it. But then we sanctify violence by making it the necessary tool of our reason, the one we cannot afford to abdicate or even allow to be challenged. Is this what it means to be human?

Many Gold Star mothers are standing with Cindy Sheehan. Are they being sinister, and "merely emotional"? Or are they being human? Perhaps we would do well to remember that pursuing survival alone is the life of rats and roaches. We justify competition as supremely rational, but as Wendell Berry reminds us: "Rats and roaches live by competition under the laws of supply and demand. It is the privilege of human beings to live under the laws of justice and mercy."

Perhaps being able to conceive, and even perceive, justice and mercy, is what makes us human. It certainly makes us privileged.

Thursday, August 25, 2005

Meanwhile, back at Camp Casey...

Cindy Sheehan returns to her vigil:

The hardest thing for me to hear -- I don't care about them talking about me being a “crackpot” or a “media whore” or a “tool of the left,” you know? I’m like, if I truly was a media whore, do you think I would like maybe get myself fixed up a little bit before I went on? That doesn't bother me at all, though. What bothers me so much is when they say I'm dishonoring my son's memory by what I'm doing, that my son would be ashamed of me or that what they really like to say is I'm [bleep] or spitting on his grave.

And look what Casey -- look what Casey has started. You know, I'm here because of Casey. We're all here because of Casey. And, you know, literally there's over 2,000 of our brave young people and tens of thousands of innocent Iraqis, and I know they're behind us, and I see them all, all their faces on your faces.

But Casey was such a gentle, kind, loving person. He never even got in one fistfight his whole life. Nobody even hated him enough to punch him, let alone kill him. And that's what George Bush did. He put our kids in another person's country, and Casey was killed by insurgents. He wasn't killed by terrorists. He was killed by Shiite militia who wanted -- they wanted him out of the country. When Casey was told that he was going to be welcomed with chocolates and flowers as a liberator, well, the people of Iraq saw it differently. They saw him as an occupier.

Uncommon Sense notes that Tammy Pruett has been presented as the "anti-Cindy Sheehan," but of course, she doesn't get to speak. Nor has she yet lost a child in military service; and God willing, she will never have to make that sacrifice. But even if her children die willingly for what they believe in, that does not negate the witness of Cindy Sheehan, nor the question: what is the reason why Americans were sent to war in Iraq? The newest answer lifts itself by its own bootstraps: because Americans have been killed in Iraq.

We have to continue to insist the President give a better answer than that. We have to continue to insist that moral voices be raised, and be heard, and be answered.

Wednesday, August 24, 2005

I know it's pointless, but....

"The picture of marriage is the picture of Christian salvation," said {Rep. John] Hostettler [R.-Ind], who describes his elected office as a ministry. "Any diminishing of that notion - whether homosexual marriage or any other degradation of marriage - is something we must fight in public policy."

Can we please start licensing theology, so idiots with no clue will stop picking up the intellectual armaments and start blasting away like three year olds in a gun closet?

DCCC weblog, via Atrios.

"Feudin' like the Hatfields and McCoys...."

President Bush says we can't leave Iraq now because of all the American men and women who have already died in Iraq. (Interestingly, that argument doesn't even get traction in the New York Times article that first reports it). Both the NYT lead editorial and Maureen Dowd point out that this argument makes no sense. But it does, perversely. It is American foreign policy as a feud.

It was once a common-place in American political culture, to disparage the Irish and the Palestinians and Israelis, for carrying on "blood feuds" generation after generation, where the only justification for more violence and more killings was to honor those who had already been killed. We rightly condemned this as madness, and madness it was: families, communities, nations, caught up in an endless cycle of blood lust and destruction, one that was self-perpetuating because every new death had to be avenged by an even newer death. An endless cycle of violence whose only justification is that it is an endless cycle of violence.

And now the President wants to enshrine that as our foreign policy, and the justification for war. We did it to them, which made them do it to us, so now we can't stop doing it to them until they stop doing it to us. Palestine. Northern Ireland. The Hatfields. The McCoys.

Tuesday, August 23, 2005

The Closer

TNT has been promoting the heck out of this series. I've seen ads for it every time I've gone to the the movies this summer, but I've never tried to watch it. Last night found me in front of the TV and nothing else on, so I sat through it.

I can't exactly reommend it, or condemn it, but the episode (#10) was interesting for a few reasons. Kyra Sedgwick and her "Priority Homicide" team at LAPD are investigating the murder of an Iranian national. This murder draws the attention of the FBI. The plot, actually, wasn't so interesting as the way the story was developed. The audience, of course, has a presumption where an Iranian is involved: terrorist. The writers played that angle, slowly revealing a story of a man who had become more political after the invasion of Iraq. But it was the treatment of the FBI agents that was most telling.

First, we learn the FBI is interested in the murdered man because he had $2 million, which they think he was using to fund terrorist activities; or so you think. It turns out the money came from the FBI, and they were going to track its movement through channels that presumably included either drug dealing or funding of terrorist activities. But then their informant was killed, and the money disappeared. They want their money back.

Enter the angry son, and the wife in headscarf and head to toe clothing (no burqa, however). Son is an angry young man who wants to send Mom back to Iran, and who may himself be involved in terrorist activities (aren't all Muslims?). Eventually Kyra and the FBI find out where the money is, and son is arrested and, we are told, sent to Egypt.

Now all along, Kyra Sedgwick has made pointed remarks to the FBI liaison agent working with her about Gitmo and torture. At one point she even confronts another FBI agent with the assertion that torture doesn't produce good information (she is, apparently, the expert at getting criminals to confess). Jump to the end of the story, where Sedgwick reveals to us (and her team) that the wife's lover murdered the husband so he couldn't take her back, as the wife tearfully says, "to the 17th century!" It was the husband who planned to return the family to Iran, it seems. But again, that's the plot. The devil here is clearly in the details.

In the interrogation of the wife, her lover tries to convince her to stop talking and ask for a lawyer. But Sedgwick as a trump card: she tells Mom that her son has been arrested and sent to Egypt. Mom immediately knows what that means. She then tells Mom that if she asks for a lawyer, Sedgwick will turn the whole affair over to the FBI. But if she cooperates? Well, son will be brought back to America.

Got it? Extraordinary rendition, terrorism, torture? But no one is a terrorist, and the murder was simply to end a marriage she apparently couldn't concieve of ending in divorce court. All the elements from the headlines are in play, but the story is a simple Perry Mason plot in the end. And through it all the FBI looks particularly dirty (at one point the FBI agent tells the son to review the PATRIOT act, because there are lots of things, he implies, that the FBI can do to the son). Well, that last part you might expect, too; LAPD is the "star" of this vehicle, the FBI should come off as "bad cop." But then, once the wife has confessed to the crime and to where the $2 million is, the FBI steps in and takes her away. She's dragged out tearfully pleading with Kyra Sedgwick to "save my son!" Kyra, of course, is both aghast, and powerless.

Drama, indeed. Not exactly film noir; but a fair simulacrum, for these times.

Bait and Switch

Barbare Ehrenriech has a new book coming out on this topic (follow Holden's link to the article proper): Bait and Switch: The (Futile) Pursuit of the American Dream. It's Nickel and Dimed for the middle class. Its due out in September, I'm reading an advance copy right now.

Depressing stuff, as she makes her way through the cottage industry of "coaches" and programs, all that, for a price, (usually a high one, too, especially when you are unemployed) will teach you how to adjust yourself to get back into the corporate culture and claim the brass ring of the American Dream (which seems to be a secure, high-paying job). When did we reduce ourselves to this? To people whose only purpose is to "make it" in the "corporation," to "fit" within the ever-shifting demands of a legal fiction whose sole interest is the wealth of the shareholders and the top executives? How did we let our lives be reduced to this?

I know there are lot of answers, both to that question and to what should be done about it. Wendell Berry generally presents the most clear-eyed assessment of the situation. Still, it's depressing to see how avidly we have sold our birthright for a mess of pottage.

The Two Cultures?

This is an interesting article, if only because I get dragged into this debate all the time on the Internet, and the question is usually a variation of this one: "They'll say, 'how can you believe that? Did you check your brain at the door?" But he said he had discovered in talking to students and colleagues that "there is a great deal of interest in this topic." I also come across that question in my classes, whenever I tell my students that I'm an ordained minister, as well as an adjunct professor of English or Philosophy (depending on what class I'm teaching). And while I try not to encourage it (because it isn't the subject matter of the course), I suspect there is a great deal of interest in the topic among my students, too.

This usually springs from a simple source: people simply don't know what they are talking about, and fill in the gaps with speculation and ignorance. "Superstition" is a word I grew up with, too, although I applied it to fear of black cats and triskedecaphobia. When "scientists" apply it to religion, it is usually the "hard" sciences that are so dismissive. Few anthropologists today speak of "superstitions" among the "primitive cultures," because few social scientists are so arrogant as to rank cultures from "primitive" to "sophisticated." Indeed, the idea that cultures "progress" from simple to complex states has long ago been relegated to the dustbin of 19th century European imperialism, along with the idea of "simple" human languages. Despite the best efforts of 19th century British grammarians (who decided Latin was a more "advanced" tongue because it was spoken in Rome, the apex of human civilization; at least, that was the "scientific" presumption), scientists of language (linquists) have never found a "simple" language used by humans. Asl languages are equally complex, and no "proto-language" has ever been found from which more complex languages "evolved." But the same token, no "primitive" cultures are known from which our far more "advanced" cultures have "risen." The very idea is supremely arrogant in its presumptions.

But "scientists," as this article makes clear, continue to think that "religion" is somehow an attitude of humanity's "childhood."
This response is not surprising to researchers like Steven Weinberg, a physicist at the University of Texas, a member of the academy and a winner of the Nobel Prize in 1979 for his work in particle physics. He said he could understand why religious people would believe that anything that eroded belief was destructive. But he added: "I think one of the great historical contributions of science is to weaken the hold of religion. That's a good thing."
The presumption here is that religion is primarily concerned with explaining the material world, and was the primary agent of such explanation until the Enlightenment dethroned it.

But science is at heart a materialist philosophy, concerned with explaining the material world. The pre-Socratics lived comfortably alongside Socrates; Aristotle was simply interested in other issue than Plato. While Plato and Aristotle have never been reconciled in Western culture, we've managed to make the two live together (even architecturally!) . We recognize that Aristotle had other concerns than Plato. And yet we still struggle to recognize that while religion has stumbled into explaining the material world (most famously in the case of Galileo), such explanations have never properly been the sole province of religion, or religion's sole reason for being. (There is far less history of antagonism between religion and science in Eastern Christian traditions, for example). If you want a critigue of a religion that depends on miracles for its veracity, you need look no further than the Gospel of John. All four gospels include various "miracles" of Jesus of Nazareth, all for different purposes. John includes them, as Wendell Berry says of the Mad Farmer's Liberation Front Manifesto, to be like the fox "who makes more tracks than necessary/some in the wrong direction." John alone calls the miracles of Jesus "semeia," "signs," and in his gospel alone is the word used ironically. One of the gospel's themes is that "signs" are not evidence either of God's existence, or of God's activity. For John, if you are looking for a sign, if your standard for 'reality' is locked in the material world, then you are already asking the wrong questions.

The problem for the scientists in this article are that they leap from science, which is simply a type of knowledge (the Greek word from which the English word derives), to meta-science, or the overarching explanation "behind" that knowledge. Stephen Jay Gould is close to the point when he describes science and religions as "non-overlapping magisteria." And using either method to explain things beyond the scope of that method, is where the problems begin.

When I teach philosophy, I always include one of the central questions of philosophy of religion (itself a Hellenistic pursuit: I would pause to note that these scientists are very Western in their concerns. There are entire cultures on this earth, many of which are Christian, which are not concerned with the "conflict" between "reason" and "religion," because they harmonize the two on radically different, but radically satisfying, grounds. Shakespeare was right; there are more things in heaven and earth, Horatio, than are dreamt of in your philosophy. "Philosophy," you understand, being a Greek, not a universal, concept.): "Can God's existence be proven? Short answer: No. As Kierkegaard asked: can yours? The best you could do right now is prove that someone with my name is the source of these words. But prove my existence? Well, first, you'd have to define "existence." From that issue alone, springs phenomenology.

But when I teach philosophy of religion questions, or "Caedmon's Hymn," "The Dream of the Rood," Dante's Inferno, Paradise Lost, even Genesis, I never engage the question of religion or religious doctrine. I engage the philosophical or literary critical questions of the course. It is entirely possible, in other words, to teach Milton's Paradise Lost without engaging his soteriology, or Dante's Inferno without disagreeing with his medieval theodicy. And it's a notable omission that none of these scientists (especially the Nobel laureates questioned at the beginning of the article) note that the Big Bang theory of cosmology was first posited by Georges Lemaître, a Jesuit priest. (Apparently Fred Hoyle, who coined the term "Big Bang," never forgave Lemaître for being a priest; the more things change, I suppose. I've often wondered if Lemaître wasn't the model for Arthur C. Clarke's Jesuit priest in his short story, "The Star," with much the same sense of animosity.)

Well, I can see I've not thought about this clearly enough to be either succinct or conclusive. My point, I suppose, is that nothing in human experience that is worth pursuing, worth spending one's life on, ever means one part of our abilities is set aside in favor of all others. Just as I need to exercise in order to be healthy enough to think clearly, I need to harmonize my mind and my spirit, my reason and my faith. To even think that one must exclude the other, is to misunderstand the human experience altogether.

Monday, August 22, 2005

Witness to the Truth

Cindy Sheehan proves, in a sense, the power of powerlessness.

Her case is easily overstated, just as it was easily understated, at one point, ignored when it started. She is not Mahatma Ghandi, and she is not leading a movement to eject an imperial ruler. But consider her situation, consider what power she has.

Mike Allen, just yesterday, said the people at Camp Casey are simply "PETA, hippies, Naderites," which makes them easily dismissable. Camp Casey is drawing more and more people, and even musicians. It is dismissive to marginalize them all by such terms. Listen to the people interviewed on Democracy Now! this morning; few of them sound like "hippies" or "Naderites." Hippies and Naderites don't go to war. The people at Camp Casey are also the families of soldiers, dead and still alive, in Iraq.

But what power did Cindy Sheehan have? And what power does she have now?

The story is that Ms. Sheehan was in Dallas for a peace rally, and being so close to Crawford (closer than her home in California), and being in Texas in August, when Bush was in Texas, she decided she'd had enough, and she was going to Crawford to demand President Bush explain to her why her son had to die in Iraq. It was that simple. Her resolve was that plain. From that decision, to stand in a ditch in the August heat on a country road in Texas, from the determination of one person, these events have come.

Support for the war had fallen into negative numbers in early August. Ironically, or interestingly, those polls were released 6 days before Ms. Sheehan decided to stand in a ditch on the road. I don't know what the polls show now about suppport for the war, but I have little doubt the numbers have not gone in the President's favor. And she has effected the public debate without political consultants, without an expensive advertising campaign (the Gold Star Families for Peace is running one ad, on a few stations in Salt Lake City); without extensive polling or the support of Washington "insiders," or even the approval of the pooh-bahs and pundits of TV and radio. Cokie Roberts called her "an unsophisticated woman" this morning, but understood that the symbolism is the message, not the messenger. As she says, this has moved beyond a fringe movement, and is starting to take in people like Chuck Hagel. She has changed the conversation of the country, simply by having the moral courage to personally demand accountability from the President of the United States, and by taking responsibility for her part in the death of her son. It is that willingness to take responsibility, to stand up and be accountable personally, that this Administration seems absolutely unable to fathom, and is absolutely unable to respond to.

Speechless, in the comments below, is right: "I think we can say that this woman has taken on the role of the Prophets of old, parking herself on the doorstep of the King, covering herself with sackcloth and ashes, eating bitter herbs and dry bread to make real and visible the truth of suffering in the world. Her truth is compelling in a way which scares the Bejaysus our of Bush." We easily forget that the prophets put themselves in opposition to power and authority, and only on the authority that they spoke for God, a claim no more credible in their day than it would be in ours. Isaiah worked in the court; Jeremiah placed himself in harms way, and wept bitterly and openly over what God said would happen to Israel; Ezekiel suffered both bizarre visions and physical punishments as visual metaphors of the judgment of God on Israel; and Hosea married a prostitute and gave his children names Frank Zappa would not have countenanced, as signs to Israel of how they had sinned against God. Cindy Sheehan is not a prophet, either; but we would do well to remember the prophets were individuals, people, wrenched out of ordinary lives by extraordinary events, and called to witness, on their own, to the truth.

Cindy Sheehan is a witness to the truth. Behold the power of such a witness. Cindy Sheehan is simply a mother, a mother who will never again, in this life, know her child. Behold the power of powerlessness.

Sunday, August 21, 2005

This, too, is worthy of notice

Frank Rich:

Specialist Sheehan was both literally and figuratively an Eagle Scout: a church group leader and honor student whose desire to serve his country drove him to enlist before 9/11, in 2000. He died with six other soldiers on a rescue mission in Sadr City on April 4, 2004, at the age of 24, the week after four American security workers had been mutilated in Falluja and two weeks after he arrived in Iraq. This was almost a year after the president had declared the end of "major combat operations" from the aircraft carrier Abraham Lincoln.

According to the account of the battle by John F. Burns in The Times, the insurgents who slaughtered Specialist Sheehan and his cohort were militiamen loyal to Moktada al-Sadr, the anti-American Shiite cleric. The Americans probably didn't stand a chance. As Mr. Burns reported, members of "the new Iraqi-trained police and civil defense force" abandoned their posts at checkpoints and police stations "almost as soon as the militiamen appeared with their weapons, leaving the militiamen in unchallenged control."

Yet in the month before Casey Sheehan's death, Mr. Rumsfeld typically went out of his way to inflate the size and prowess of these Iraqi security forces, claiming in successive interviews that there were "over 200,000 Iraqis that have been trained and equipped" and that they were "out on the front line taking the brunt of the violence." We'll have to wait for historians to tell us whether this and all the other Rumsfeld propaganda came about because he was lied to by subordinates or lying to himself or lying to us or some combination thereof.

As The Times reported last month, even now, more than a year later, a declassified Pentagon assessment puts the total count of Iraqi troops and police officers at 171,500, with only "a small number" able to fight insurgents without American assistance. As for Moktada al-Sadr, he remains as much a player as ever in the new "democratic" Iraq. He controls one of the larger blocs in the National Assembly. His loyalists may have been responsible for last month's apparently vengeful murder of Steven Vincent, the American freelance journalist who wrote in The Times that Mr. Sadr's followers had infiltrated Basra's politics and police force.

Casey Sheehan's death in Iraq could not be more representative of the war's mismanagement and failure, but it is hardly singular. Another mother who has journeyed to Crawford, Celeste Zappala, wrote last Sunday in New York's Daily News of how her son, Sgt. Sherwood Baker, was also killed in April 2004 - in Baghdad, where he was providing security for the Iraq Survey Group, which was charged with looking for W.M.D.'s "well beyond the admission by David Kay that they didn't exist."

Casey Sheehan's death, in other words, was an almost direct result of the "Vietnamization" (excuse me, "Iraq-ization") of this war. And it is that which is bringing Mr. Bush's little house of cards down around his head. The want of a nail, for which the kingdom was lost.

'Twas ever thus, of course. But people who believe in power are slow to learn the lessons of power. Cindy Sheehan has proven, once again, that a moral voice carries a power that cannot be ignored, derided, or destroyed. When the history of this Administration is written, I truly think she will be the pivot point upon which the failure of this Presidency became undeniably clear.

A quick update

Cindy Sheehan has made an ad, which is running in Salt Lake City, Utah. Well, on most of the stations there. Bush will be speaking to the VFW there this week. The story is interesting.

For the Record

All that needs to be said about "Intelligent Design" (aside from, "It's neither"), has been said by The Onion:

"Things fall not because they are acted upon by some gravitational force, but because a higher intelligence, 'God' if you will, is pushing them down," said Gabriel Burdett, who holds degrees in education, applied Scripture, and physics from Oral Roberts University.

Friday, August 19, 2005

"I'm Proud to be an Okie from Muskogee"

From the Muskogee (Oklahoma) Daily Phoenix:

Cindy Sheehan's son, Casey, lost his life in Iraq. When the president visited her a few days after his death, the president changed the subject when she tried to talk about Casey and wouldn't look at pictures of her son.
...
Former President Nixon allowed antiwar protesters to gather and camp on the White House lawn and even went out and visited them with a very small Secret Service detail. I don't expect the same from Bush. Especially not after being at Camp Casey for a couple of days and seeing the police presence and tactics they used. But from the little I know of Cindy Sheehan after talking to her three or so times, I have no doubt that she will be camped somewhere in Washington D.C.
....
The president had to pass the crosses and protestors when he attended a GOP fundraiser Friday afternoon (Aug. 12) at a nearby ranch. We protestors were backed farther away from the road, roped off with police tape for about four hours with Secret Service, state and county law enforcement officers. A helicopter flew overhead lower than others that we were accustomed to. The helicopter had an agent riding outside with a weapon trained on us, but once the motorcade passed he moved on as well. The motorcade went by us twice very fast, and a few of the vehicles had rifles pointed out open windows. I was thankful no one made any sudden moves.
I can honestly say I never thought anyone would make Richard Nixon look like a decent human being. Or make Nixon look less paranoid than I remember him.

Never say "never".

George W. Bush is a small man in a big job. He is not fit to be President. I'm not sure he's fit to live among civilized people. And the columnist for the newspaper in Muskogee, Oklahoma, doesn't think we should be in Iraq:

We Americans have sat by while this administration and top Pentagon officials have gone against the Geneva Convention, which will put our troops in harm's way for years to come. This administration felt the need to have "torture" defined by the attorney general for the first time.

We Americans have sat by and allowed the low-level military personnel become scapegoats after the torture photographs came out. Everyone knows that in the military you follow orders without question. We haven't seen all the torture photos and videos. I'm sure we don't want the world to see our shame. Once we know about it and do nothing to stop it, then aren't we just as guilty as those who carry it out?

I am antiwar in Iraq because we were lied to about why we are in Iraq, our troops still don't have enough protective equipment, there were no weapons of mass destruction and Iraq wasn't responsible for the bombing of the World Trade Center. The first report I saw on CNN was that Marines had successfully secured 20 oil sites. It hasn't been about taking democracy to the Iraqi people. The Downing Street memos, the massive number of soldiers returning wounded and with missing limbs and more than 1,841 American soldiers' deaths, those are some of the reason's I am against the war in Iraq.
...
We Americans should make sure we elect officials who will send our boys to war only when absolutely necessary. I do not intend to be partisan as I am very disappointed in the leadership in both parties. I am disappointed in "we Americans," too, as many of us have sat quietly by and let this happen and that includes me. I pray that our troops will be home by Thanksgiving. I don't care which side of the aisle in Congress can get it done. But I don't think it will happen unless we Americans start letting our voices be heard. Peace.


If Cindy Sheehan simply makes us all take a little more responsibility for our lives, and our country, she will have done this country a greater service than any politician ever could.

Turn out the lights, Mr. Bush. The party's over. By your unwillingness, or inability, to take responsibility for what you did, you are shaming this country.

Thursday, August 18, 2005

Words Worth Keeping In Mind

"Rats and roaches live by competition under the laws of supply and demand. It is the privilege of human beings to live under the laws of justice and mercy."

Wendell Berry

Shooting an Elephant

"I and the schoolchildren know,
What everyone must learn.
Those to whom violence is done
do violence in return."--W.H. Auden

Perhaps we can blame it on the Holocaust. Perhaps on Christian anti-semitism. Maybe we should take it all the way back to Cain and Abel.

But listening to reports of Israeli settlers being forcibly evicted from their homes on the Gaza Strip, I keep remembering the man I heard speak a few years ago, at my church. He was a Palestinian, a few years older than me. He was Palestinian, but he had spent his professional career in Dallas, as a Medical Examiner, and had recently retired from that position.

He told us how his family was evicted from their home, when the State of Israel was created. How his father, a jeweler, a man of means settled in the community, was given a few hours to gather what belongings he could carry and leave his house, forever. The men who told him this carried machine guns. They were not going to wait patiently for days, nor give months of notice, or come in force and gently carry people out who refused to leave. Refusal was clearly not an option. They were to leave, and there was no government to relocate them, to re-orient them, no neighborhood to receive them nearby. They were to leave, and where they went was of no concern to the men with the guns.

I know little, shamefully, of the history of modern Israel. I know little about the Balfour Declaration, and hadn't heard of the "Palestinians" until Munich, in '68. I'm afraid I'm like most Americans in that regard. It took me decades to understand the anger of the PLO that erupted in Germany that year, and I still don't condone it, or excuse it.

But violence has deep roots. Whenever we excuse it as being in our name, the name of our group, for the sake of our idea of "right," we simply condone violence: nothing more, nothing less. Might does not make right, we say; and then we employ it to do just that. We ask the Palestinians to reject violence, condemn Hezbollah for claiming their violence drove Israel to abandon Gaza, and then look on passively, even approvingly, as Israel uses violence to achieve its ends, as we use violence in Afghanistan and Iraq to pursue our "good."

Violence has deep roots, and it is always personal. I don't know the history of the formation of modern Israel, and I don't intend to take sides with this posting. Every Sunday, I join in the community's prayer for "the Church in Israel, and the church in Palestine." And I remember the story of that man; and I remember, as ministry has taught me, as one of my seminary professors taught me, that "life is messy." It is messy, because it is made up of the stories of individuals. Not of great events, or the zeitgeist, or historical currents upon which we are borne as chips on a stream. It is made up of the lives of individuals. And their stories are the hardest things of all for us to deal with, because they are concrete. They are personal.

We prefer the abstract, because it is impersonal. We prefer the "big picture," because it leaves us out. One of George Orwell's best works was his essay, "Shooting an Elephant." It reminds us that, not only is the individual implicated in the "sweep of history." The individual is responsible for it. History is not made of impersonal forces. It is made of human actions, individual stories. History is messy.

Support our Troops!

Well, here's a shorter and simpler one. Call it: Bob Herbert in support of Cindy Sheehan:

For all the talk of supporting the troops, they are a low priority for most Americans. If the nation really cared, the president would not be frolicking at his ranch for the entire month of August. He'd be back in Washington burning the midnight oil, trying to figure out how to get the troops out of the terrible fix he put them in.

Instead, Mr. Bush is bicycling as soldiers and marines are dying. Dozens have been killed since he went off on his vacation.

As for the rest of the nation, it's not doing much for the troops, either. There was a time, long ago, when war required sacrifices that were shared by most of the population. That's over.

I was in Jacksonville, Fla., a few days ago and watched in amusement as a young woman emerged from a restaurant into 95-degree heat and gleefully exclaimed, "All right, let's go shopping!" The war was the furthest thing from her mind.

For the most part, the only people sacrificing for this war are the troops and their families, and very few of them are coming from the privileged economic classes. That's why it's so easy to keep the troops out of sight and out of mind. And it's why, in the third year of a war started by the richest nation on earth, we still get stories like the one in Sunday's Times that began:

"For the second time since the Iraq war began, the Pentagon is struggling to replace body armor that is failing to protect American troops from the most lethal attacks by insurgents."

Scandalous incompetence? Appalling indifference? Try both. Who cares? This is a war fought mostly by other people's children. The loudest of the hawks are the least likely to send their sons or daughters off to Iraq.

Herbert raises the question: what does support for the troops mean? No public protest? Kind thoughts, when you think of them at all? Voting straight party GOP every two years?

When we support our country in war, what do we do? And if we aren't moved to actively support our troops, is that our failing (as Henry Kissinger seems to think)? Or is that the failure of the leadership who sold us on this war?

Which is precisely Cindy Sheehan's question: Mr. President, why are our children dying on your orders? What is your explanation?

"What Would Jesus Do?

Eventually, I will resist the temptation to recycle myself, and post pithier (or at least shorter) posts. In the meantime, however.... Lots of ideas here, I realize: hospitality; ecclesiology; soteriology (salvation by faith? by works? both and a little bit of neither?); inclusion/exclusion. In the end, still a sermon; which means it had its own purposes, once upon a time.

TEXT: ISAIAH 35:4-7A; JAMES 1:1-17; MARK 7:24-37

The question that James puts before us is this one: Do you belong to this church? Or does this church belong to you? It's a question of ministry. Do you belong to your ministry, or does your ministry belong to you? That's what the Syrophoenician woman is asking. Who do you serve? And why? What do you think? What would Jesus do?

"My brothers and sisters, do you with your acts of favoritism really believe in our glorious Lord Jesus Christ? For if a person with gold rings and in fine clothes comes into your assembly, and if a poor person in dirty clothes also comes in, and if you take notice of the one wearing the fine clothes and say, "Have a seat here, please/, while to the one who is poor you say, "Stand there," or, "Sit at my feet," have you not made distinctions among yourselves, and become judges with evil thoughts?" We don't do this, of course. We don't dishonor the poor here. We don't treat the stranger differently because of the way they are dressed. We know that lesson. We know how we should behave. But the assembly James is talking about is the "synagogue." It's the meeting of the believers, the gathering of Christians in the name of Christ. So there's more to it than just being civil; there's more to it than just not being a snob. Because the question really is: how should we act in church? And why?

The second question answers the first; and it isn't an easy answer to get to. It isn't easy in part because we don't like to think that little slights, that personal opinions, are the same as evil thoughts. But James says that, as soon as we distinguish among ourselves, that's what we become: "judges with evil thoughts." But over so slight a thing as how someone is dressed! Surely that isn't what he means! Surely it isn't that simple, that easy, to do evil! But if it is, what do we do about it?

Well, what kind of evil are we describing? The evil of adultery, or the evil of murder? One is surely worse than the other, and both are surely worse than showing favoritism to one person over another. But all of them violate the law. It's inevitable we would violate the law; is one violation better than another? The frightening truth is, that evil is that close at hand. It is as close as the way you treat the next stranger who comes through that door. So I repeat: do you belong to the church, or does the church belong to you?

Because if the church belongs to you, it is yours: it is your possession, your property, you own it. If you own it, then you have a vested interest in maintaining it in the way that suits you best. And that includes who you invite here; who you welcome here; young or old, rich or poor.

Because every time someone new comes to church, that means your church changes. Your idea about church has to change; it has to expand to include someone new. And what if that person doesn't look like you, or doesn't speak your language, or, hardest of all, brings new ideas about the church, ideas you don't like? What does that do to your church? And what right have they, these strangers, to change it, to mess with your church?

Isn't that what James means? If someone comes to your church with poor rags, but wants to worship here; if someone comes who is young, or brings children, and they want to eat here, and study the Bible here, aren't they also bringing new ideas here? Aren't they changing your idea of what this church is? Is it even easier, in fact, to accommodate new people, than to accommodate new ideas? After all, if it's only one person, you can adjust to that. But what if it's 100 people, and they all have new ideas about how to do things, how to use the kitchen or what hymns to sing or what missions we should pursue? What if it is so many people you can't adjust, your idea of church can't expand enough, and pretty soon it's not "your church" anymore? What then?

"What good is it, my brothers and sisters, if you say you have faith but do not have works? If a brother or sister is naked and lacks daily food, and one of you says to them, "Go in peace; keep warm and eat your fill," and yet you do not supply their bodily needs, what is the good of that? So faith by itself, if it has no works, is dead." Faith without works is refusing to get your hands dirty, refusing to get involved with all the other people who make up this church. Faith without works is trying to keep the church "your church," because to do otherwise would mean getting involved, and expanding your world, and doing things for other people you might never have done before. It's easier to say "Go in peace" than to offer your hand; to say "keep warm" than to open your door or give a blanket; to say "eat your fill" than to add "and do it here, at my table, right now."

Faith without works is saying "This is my church." But what if you were to say "I am the church's. I belong to this church." What then? Would you see the church as whoever is here, and you here equally as they are, young or old, rich or poor? Would you see the church as belonging to God, and you as having a ministry, a service, a role here in Christ's name? And then, instead of looking at the poor and saying ''There but for the grace of God...," you would say "We are both here because of the grace of God, and because of God's grace, I will help you." What then? Then you don't care what the person looks like who walks in the door; you just thank God who has called them.

Then, every time someone new came with a new way of doing things, a new song to sing, you could bless God for the new things that are being done. Then, the church would be God's, and you a part of it, each of us a servant, and all of us praising God together. Then, if you asked yourself, what would Jesus do, you would know the answer; you would know he had been there before you, he had shown you what to do. Because when the woman comes to him, a Gentile woman, and asks for help, he tells her his ministry is not to her. He reacts as we might to a poor person, or a newcomer: "Let us be served first," we might say. Your turn to be served will come. Or, as Jesus puts it: "Let the children be fed first," he says, "for it is not fair to take the
children's food and throw it to the dogs." But she reminds him that his ministry is God's, not his; that his role is servant, not judge. "Sir," she says, "even the dogs under the table eat the children's crumbs." Now this is a new thing; Jews didn't have anything to do with Gentiles. Gentiles were not the children, the children of Abraham. But this Gentile woman opens Jesus' eyes, and his heart. "For saying that," he says, "you may go-the demon has left your daughter." In other words, he blesses her for teaching him, for allowing him to see that his ministry is God's work, not his; that his ministry is a blessing from God, for him to share.

What would Jesus do? Listen, and learn. In fact, the next thing he does is heal another Gentile, this time without hesitation. He has learned that his ministry is God's work, that his ministry is not his possession to protect, but a blessing to share. He learned that God is indeed doing new things, and Jesus opens the ears of the deaf-mute, just as he opens our ears, so we can hear, and learn, and do God's will, and not ourselves be judges with evil thoughts.

When your idea of church is too small to contain all the people who want to be part of it, when your idea of church has been forced to expand so many times you can no longer hold onto it, that's when you should let it go. Let it go, because what you will have is better than what you held on to. Let it go, because that's what Jesus would do.

Let it go, so your ears can be opened, and your tongue can speak. Our ministry is not our possession, anymore than this church is our possession. We, and this church, and this ministry, all belong to God. And in God's name and in God's love we welcome children, and strangers, the rich and the poor, those with new ideas, and those with old. We welcome them all, because God welcomes them just as God welcomes us. This is Christ's place, and we are Christ's ministers. There is great joy, great freedom, great strength in that! What would Jesus do? Jesus would free us from our fears, from our need to be in possession. Jesus would open our ears so we can let go of being judges in favor of being ministers. Jesus would have us simply listen, and believe:

"Be strong, do not fear!
Here is your God.
He will come and save you."
Then the eyes of the blind shall be opened,
and the ears of the deaf unstopped;
then the lame shall leap like a deer,
and the tongue of the speechless sing for joy

For God is about to do a new thing, and we are going to be a part of it.

Amen.

Tuesday, August 16, 2005

"What Goes Around"

I know when I do this kind of thing, it tends to drive traffic right into the ground (not that I pay attention to how many visitors I get, you know; that would be vainglorious; not to mention futile). But this seemed to catch some themes we've been discussing, or raising in the comments, so I figured: "Well, it'll fill a page."

From the 7th Sunday of Epiphany, 2001.


TEXT: GENESIS 5:3-11, 15; PSALM 37:1-11, 39-40; 1 CORINTHIANS 15:35-38,42-50; LUKE 6:27-38

Charity must have its limits. That's what the man told me. We'd only just met, but he was quite sure of his opinion. We were talking about someone who had been with him in downtown Houston. This third person had tried to give a dollar to a homeless man on the street. My new acquaintance thought it quite absurd, to be handing out perfectly good money to someone who obviously was not a perfectly good person. Charity, he told me, must have its limits. Because, after all, if we gave away everything, we'd soon have nothing left. Yes, charity must have its limits.

But Jesus says: "Love your enemies, do good to those who hate you, bless those who curse you, pray for those who abuse you. If anyone strikes you on the cheek, offer the other also; and from anyone who takes away your coat do not withhold even your shirt. Give to everyone who begs from you; and if anyone takes away your goods, do not ask for them again. Do to others as you would have them do to you."

Now: which one makes more sense?

"Love your enemies" is hard, because it throws the whole idea of enemies into question. Do you have enemies, or do you make them? I know people who virulently hate politicians, people they've never met and never will meet. Did the politician make them an enemy, or is it just part of being a public figure to have some people who just hate you, simply because you're there? Either way, can you really love an enemy? Don't you have to have some reason to love someone? Don't you have to have some reason to even like them?

And what's this business about giving away your cloak and your shirt? Do you realize what that would mean? The cloak was just an outer garment, kind of a robe. It was worn over an undergarment, kind of like a nightshirt. Those were your clothes, in Jesus' day: a shirt, and over that a cloak. If you gave those away, all you'd be left with would be your sandals. Giving away your cloak and your shirt would leave you, well, naked.

It's no better if you give to everyone who begs from you. Go out here on [the road ] and give some money to the first person you see. Better yet, come live near the church, come live in the parsonage with me for a week. See how many people come to the door, or to the church office, once they find out they might get some money here. See how many come back, again and again. Charity must have its limits, certainly. But Jesus says "Give to everyone who begs from you." How long could we keep that up, and still pay the electric bill? Before long, we'd be naked. Which is what Jesus tells us to be.

"If you love those who love you, what credit is that to you? For even sinners love those who love them. If you do good to those who do good to you, what credit is that to you? For even sinners do the same. If you lend to those from whom you hope to receive, what credit is that to you? Even sinners lend to sinners, to receive as much again. But love your enemies, do good, and lend, expecting nothing in return. " When you give a gift, do you expect something in return? A thank you, an acknowledgement, at least some recognition that you were the giver and the gift was received? But if you expect that, is it really a gift?

I know it's hard to think about, but look at it this way a moment. When you work for somebody, they give you money in exchange: your time for their money. When you buy something, you give the store your money, the store gives you its goods. Their toaster, for your money. Or you give the bank your money to lend, they pay you for the use of your money. There's always an exchange, something for something. Even in our charity, we want to think we helped someone, that we gave money for a good reason, that it was appreciated, or used well, or not misspent or just given to somebody who was hustling us, scamming for a dollar. When you think about it that way, there really isn't such a thing as a gift, is there? Not a gift you give, expecting nothing in return. Even a birthday gift, or a simple card, you expect someone to say something, don't you? You expect something back for what you gave. So it's always an exchange, even if the exchange is not for money.

So if I love you because you love me, love isn't a gift, it's simply an exchange. I give back to you as you gave me. If I do good to you because you did good to me, my good deed isn't a gift, I'm keeping up the system of exchange. If I lend to you, I expect you to return the money to me. That's the system of exchange. I don't love my enemies, because they are outside the system of exchange: they won't love me back. I don't lend, expecting nothing in return, because then I lose in the system of exchange. If I keep that up, I wind up naked, or begging on the streets of downtown Houston.

Charity has to have its limits.

But what credit is that to me? It's a credit among people, among sinners, as Jesus says, but what credit is that with God? After all, God gives, expecting nothing in return. God gave you life, and you don't have to return anything to God for it. You may; indeed, you should. But God does not require it. God gives us the church, and we don't even have to return anything to that; no one charged you admission this morning, no one's going to check on how much you paid before you get out of here. "Pretty good show for a buck" is the standard joke. But you don't have to do anything for it. But of course, if you don't do anything for it, you don't get anything from it.

But what do you get from charity, besides a nice feeling of doing something for somebody? Well, at least, as long as you are sure you've done something for someone. Maybe you've given a buck to a wino, and now he's off to the liquor store. Maybe you've given a bag of groceries to someone who doesn't seem grateful at all, who won't even get out of the car when you carry them out for his wife. Maybe you've given a dollar to someone who simply doesn't deserve it, but how do you know? Charity has to have its limits, doesn't it?

Well, it does; but those limits are beyond our understanding. Those limits are better than we could ever imagine. Because the problem of the ideal gift that I outlined, the problem of the gift that is given with no idea of getting back, is that it's impossible. You always get back for what you give. It's the idea of getting back, the expectation, that matters. "Lend, expecting nothing in return," Jesus says. But you will get something in return. What goes around comes around. "Give, and it will be given to you. A good measure, pressed down, shaken together, running over, will be put into your lap; for the measure you give will be the measure you get back."

And if you are fortunate, this won't always be true. Consider the story of Joseph. His brothers beat him, stripped him, threw him in a pit, tried to decide if they should kill him, and then sold as a slave to a passing caravan on its way to Egypt. That's how he got there and then, through the grace of God, he saved Egypt from the famine. That's what brings his brothers there, years later; the famine. And when they come to Egypt begging for food, begging for relief, Joseph could have killed all of them. Charity, after all, has to have its limits. The measure you give will be the measure you give back, so who could blame him if he'd said to them: what you did to me, I now do to you. But he didn't. Instead, he has an epiphany.

"And now do not be distressed, or angry with yourselves, because you sold me here," he tells his brothers, "for God sent me before you to preserve life. God sent me before you to preserve for you a remnant on earth, and to keep alive for you many survivors. So it was not you who sent me here, but God; [and] You shall settle in the land of Goshen, and. . . I will provide for you there." Joseph does not give back the measure he gave. His brothers meant for him to have death; but he gives them life. "Love your enemies," Jesus says, "do good to those who hate you. . . . and you will be children of the Most High; for [God] is kind to the ungrateful and the wicked." God is kind even to the brothers of Joseph; because if God hadn't been kind, there would have been no nation of Israel, no Jesus of Nazareth, no [ ] church, today.

What goes around, comes around. If there are limits to charity, they are not yours to define. If you charity leaves you naked, that's as it should be. Love is naked. Love is exposed. That's why love, love as Jesus talks about it, love for your enemies, for those who curse you and abuse you, for those who hurt you so deeply you'll never fully recover, that's why love for those people is so hard, so dangerous, so scary. Because it leaves you without cloak or shirt, without even sandals. It leaves you naked. But it makes you children of the Most High. Love like that clothes you in God. Love like that, covers you in prayer. Love like that, is why this church is here; it's why God's church is here, on earth; the church of which we are just a part, a small portion. Clothed in love, naked to the world. Exposed, but not vulnerable. Living without limits to our charity, because there are no limits to our God. Because God is kind even to the wicked and the unjust. It is God's way in the world, and we see all around us the benefit of it. May this be an epiphany to you.

Amen.

Sunday, August 14, 2005

From the Lectionary for this Morning

Isaiah 56:1-7

Thus says the Lord: Maintain justice, and do what is right, for soon my salvation will come, and my deliverance be revealed. Happy is the mortal who does this, the one who holds it fast, who keeps the Sabbath, not profaning it, and refrains from doing any evil. Do not let the foreigner joined to the Lord say, "The Lord will surely separate me from his people"; and do not let the eunuch say, "I am just a dry tree." For thus says the Lord: To the eunuchs who keep my Sabbaths, who choose the things that please me and hold fast my covenant; I will give, in my house and within my walls, a monument and a name better than sons and daughters; I will give them an everlasting name that shall not be cut off. And the foreigners who join themselves to the Lord, to minister to him, to love the name of the Lord, and to be his servants, all who keep the Sabbath, and do not profane it, and hold fast my covenant-these I will bring to my holy mountain, and make them joyful in my house of prayer; their burnt offerings and their sacrifices will be accepted on my altar; for my house shall be called a house of prayer for all peoples.
Nothing was said about the controversy over ordaining homosexuals in the Episcopal church from this passage, but it might have been. Had I been preaching this morning, I probably would have said it. I have no expertise in the social order of Israel in the time of Deutero-Isaiah, but I assume from context that eunuchs were almost abominations, because they were unable to engender children. They were certainly not whole, certainly could not be "holy," and therefore could never come into the house of God.

Most of the restrictions on people in what we now call the "Middle East" arose around notions of cleanliness, which became entangled with righteousness. Unclean and impure persons could not be holy persons; and only those persons who could purge their unclean state, were considered acceptable to God, as God was holy, and could not allow anything unholy to be in God's presence. There was a practical side to this: God's holiness made it impossible for any mortal to be in God's presence. As Isaiah says early in his ministry: "Woe is me! I am a man of unclean lips, and I live among a people of unclean lips, but my eyes have seen the Lord God of Hosts!" If Isaiah was unclean, imagine how much more unclean a eunuch must be, a man who cannot function as a man, who has been cut off (literally and figuratively) from that which men alone (in the old understanding of reproductive biology) can do: plant seed for the next generation.

So, from eunuchs, unholy because they are not "wholly" men, to homosexuals...is it such a far leap? And yet God tells the eunuch not to say "I am just a dry tree." (The power of the metaphor alone speaks volumes here.) God accepts, and redeems, the eunuch. Yes, by proper observance of the rituals, and also by how the eunuch keeps the covenant. But the foreigners, and even the eunuch, are acceptable in the house of God. Not only are they acceptable, but their sacrifices are acceptable at God's altar. At God's altar, in God's house; making it truly a house of prayer for all peoples.

So at what point are they excluded from the prayers of the house? At the point they are mentioned aloud? At the point they stand up to lead? And why?

My tradition has a phrase, one I think that goes back to the origins of the Evangelical Church in Prussia in the 19th century; but I am not sure about that. It doesn't matter; the phrase is what's important. "In essentials, unity," it goes; "in non-essentials, diversity; in all things, charity." It's a nice sentiment, but the sharp-eyed will notice immediately, it doesn't offer any definitions of "essentials" or "non-essentials." But then, it doesn't have to. It is what it seeks, what it directs us toward, that is important. In essentials, we not only should find unity but, turn it around, we will find unity. In non-essentials, we will accept diversity. And how are we to do this? By practicing, in all things, charity. Charity enough to let even the sacrifices of the eunuch, of the gay man, the lesbian woman, be acceptable at the altar of our God.

Friday, August 12, 2005

"Some of us have a little bit, and some of us are soaked in it."

You may have seen this post by Cindy Sheehan. I just happened to stumble across it, and it is worthy of wider dissemination.

Jacques Derrida wrote: "Religion is responsibility, or it is nothing at all." Ms. Sheehan understands what our leaders don't: in a democracy, we are all responsible:

There is too much at stake to worry about our own egos. When my son was killed, I had to face the fact that I was somehow also responsible for what happened. Every American that allows this to continue has, to some extent, blood on their hands. Some of us have a little bit, and some of us are soaked in it.
When I think of the moral courage it took to write those words, it erases all of the slander and libel being directed toward Ms. Sheehan from so many "supporters" of the President.

It is a matter of responsibility. It is, also, a religious matter. "Whatever you did to the least of these, you did to me."

Final Words on McKibbens' Essay

"There are a thousand hacking at the branches of evil to one who is
striking at the root." - Henry David Thoreau

McKibben's closing description of 'mainstream' churches made me think that, to the extent the churches focus their public messages on "gay marriage" or other divisive and controversial issues (with the clear aim of gaining attention; the UCC brags about how its ad for an "inclusive" church, i.e. "we accept gay people", has increased its membership; a very secular standard of measure, one must say), they are playing their opponents' game.

I got this from my father the other day in an e-mail. It supposedly comes from Andy Rooney:

DID YOU KNOW? As you walk up the steps to the building which houses the U.S. Supreme Court you can see near the top of the building a row of the world's law givers and each one is facing one in the middle who is facing forward with a full frontal view ... it is Moses and he is holding the Ten Commandments!

DID YOU KNOW?

As you enter the Supreme Court courtroom, the two huge oak doors have the Ten Commandments engraved on each lower portion of each door

DID YOU KNOW?

As you sit inside the courtroom, you can see the wall, right above where the Supreme Court judges sit, a display of the Ten Commandments!

DID YOU KNOW?

There are Bible verses etched in stone all over the Federal Buildings and Monuments in Washington, D.C.

DID YOU KNOW?

James Madison, the fourth president, known as "The Father of Our Constitution" made the following statement:

"We have staked the whole of all our political institutions upon the capacity of mankind for self-government, upon the capacity of each and all of us to govern ourselves, to control ourselves, to sustain ourselves according to the Ten Commandments of God."

DID YOU KNOW?

Patrick Henry, that patriot and Founding Father of our country said:

"It cannot be emphasized too strongly or too often that this great nation was founded not by religionists but by Christians, not on religions but on the Gospel of Jesus Christ".

DID YOU KNOW?

Every session of Congress begins with a prayer by a paid preacher, whose salary has been paid by the taxpayer since 1777.

DID YOU KNOW?

Fifty-two of the 55 founders of the Constitution were members of the established orthodox churches in the colonies.

DID YOU KNOW?

Thomas Jefferson worried that the Courts would overstep their authority and instead of interpreting the law would begin making law an oligarchy, the rule of few over many.

DID YOU KNOW?

The very first Supreme Court Justice, John Jay, said: "Americans should select and prefer Christians as their rulers."

How, then, have we gotten to the point that everything we have done for 220 years in this country is now suddenly wrong and unconstitutional?

Lets put it around the world and let the world see and remember what this great country was built on.

I was asked to send this on if I agreed or delete if I didn't. Now it is your turn...It is said that 86% of Americans believe in God. Therefore, it is very hard to understand why there is such a mess about having the Ten Commandments on display or "In God We Trust" on our money and having God in the Pledge of Allegiance. Why don't we just tell the other 14% to Sit Down and SHUT UP!!!

My brother immediately fired off a response:

Claim: Religious symbols and references abound in U.S. capital buildings and the words of America's founders.

Status: Multiple — see below:

* Buildings in the U.S. capital and statements by America's founding fathers includes references to Judeo-Christian tradition: True.

* The items included in the piece quoted below demonstrate a government endorsement of Judeo-Christian tradition: False.

Example: [Collected on the Internet, 2003]

[I'll leave out the repetition of the claims above, and go straight to the responses.]

Origins: Although the intent of this piece is presumably to demonstrate a government endorsement of Judeo-Christian tradition through the symbols and words used in U.S. federal buildings and the writings of America's founding fathers, nearly all of the information it presents is inaccurate or — when taken in its proper context — misleading.

As you walk up the steps to the Capitol Building which houses the Supreme Court you can see near the top of the building a row of the world's law givers and each one is facing one in the middle who is facing forward with a full frontal view — it is Moses and the Ten Commandments!

* The United States Capitol does not house the Supreme Court of the United States. The Supreme Court has met in its own building since 1935.

* The two representations of Moses which adorn the Supreme Court building both present him in a context in which he is depicted as merely one of several historical exemplars of lawgivers, not as a religious figure. (This is why, for example, the Supreme Court of the United States rejected appeals to overturn a decision ordering the removal of a monument to the Ten Commandments from an Alabama courthouse — the monument did not present the Ten Commandments in a context other than as quotations of Biblical verse and was therefore deemed an unconstitutional state endorsement of religion.)

The depiction referred to here is a sculpture entitled "Justice the Guardian of Liberty" by Hermon A. McNeil, which appears on the eastern pediment of the Supreme Court building. (The eastern pediment is the back of the Supreme Court building, so this sculpture is not something one would see "walking up the steps to the building which houses the Supreme Court." The front entrance is on the western side.) The sculpture was intended to be a symbolic representation of three of the Eastern civilizations from which our laws were derived, personified by the figures of three great lawgivers: Moses, Confucius, and Solon (surrounded by several allegorical figures representing a variety of legal themes):

McNeil described the symbolism of his work thusly: Law as an element of civilization was normally and naturally derived or inherited in this country from former civilizations. The "Eastern Pediment" of the Supreme Court Building suggests therefore the treatment of such fundamental laws and precepts as are derived from the East. Moses, Confucius and Solon are chosen as representing three great civilizations and form the central group of this Pediment.

Note also that the two other lawgiver figures (Confucius and Solon) are not "facing [the] one in the middle" (i.e., Moses) as claimed here — all three of the lawgivers are depicted in full frontral views, facing forward. (The allegorical figures who flank the lawgivers are facing towards the middle, but they are looking in the direction of all three men, not just Moses.) And although many viewers might assume Moses is holding a copy of the Ten Commandments in this depiction, the two tablets in his arms are actually blank.
....

* The doors of the Supreme Court courtroom don't literally have the "Ten Commandments engraved on each lower portion" — the lower portions of the two doors are engraved with a symbolic depiction, two tablets bearing only the Roman numerals I through V and VI through X. As discussed in the next item, these symbols can represent something other than the Ten Commandments.
....

* The wall "right above where the Supreme Court judges sit" is the east wall, on which is displayed a frieze designed by sculptor Adolph A. Weinman. The frieze features two male figures who represent the Majesty of Law and the Power of Government, flanked on the left side by a group of figures representing Wisdom, and on the right side by a group of figures representing Justice:

According to Weinman, the designer of this frieze, the tablet visible between the two central male figures, engraved with the Roman numerals I through X, represents not the Ten Commandments but the first ten amendments to the U.S. Constitution, collectively known as the Bill of Rights.

* The friezes which adorn the north and south walls of the courtroom in the Supreme Court building (also designed by Adolph Weinman) depict a procession of 18 great lawgivers: Menes, Hammurabi, Moses, Solomon, Lycurgus, Solon, Draco, Confucius and Octavian (south wall); Justinian, Mohammed, Charlemagne, King John, Louis IX, Hugo Grotius, Sir William Blackstone, John Marshall and Napoleon (north wall):

According to the Office of the Curator of the Supreme Court of the United States, these figures were selected as a representation of secular law: Weinman's training emphasized a correlation between the sculptural subject and the function of the building and, because of this, [architect Cass] Gilbert relied on him to choose the subjects and figures that best reflected the function of the Supreme Court building. Faithful to classical sources, Weinman designed for the Courtroom friezes a procession of "great lawgivers of history," from many civilizations, to portray the development of secular law.

Note that Moses is not given any special emphasis in this depiction: his figure is not larger than the others, nor does it appear in a dominant position. Also, the writing on the tablet carried by Moses in this frieze includes portions of commandments 6 through 10 (in Hebrew), specifically chosen because they are not inherently religious. (Commandments 6 through 10 proscribe murder, adultery, theft, perjury, and covetousness.)

[Re: the statement attributed to James Madison] * Actually, this statement appears nowhere in the writings or recorded utterances of James Madison and is completely contradictory to his character as a strong proponent of the separation of church and state.

[Re: the statement attributed to Patrick Henry] * Another spurious quotation. These words appear nowhere in the writings or recorded utterances of Patrick Henry.

[Re: the chaplain] * Congress has indeed retained paid (Christian) chaplains since 1789 (not 1777) to open sessions with prayer and to provide spiritual guidance to members and their staffs upon request. This practice was strongly opposed by James Madison at its inception.

* The constitutional propriety of Congressional chaplains has been challenged in an August 2002 lawsuit filed in federal district court by Michael A. Newdow (the California man who won a federal appellate court decision against the use of the phrase "under God" in public school-led recitations of the Pledge of Allegiance). The case is still pending.

[Re: Jefferson]* Yes, Thomas Jefferson was concerned about courts overstepping their authority and making (rather than interpreting) law, as was James Madison, who said: "As the courts are generally the last in making the decision, it results to them, by refusing or not refusing to execute a law, to stamp it with its final character. This makes the Judiciary department paramount in fact to the Legislature, which was never intended, and can never be proper."

However, this issue really has nothing to do with the subject at hand (the endorsement of Judeo-Christian tradition by the federal government), other than in the tangential sense that some people feel one of the areas in which U.S. courts have overstepped their bounds is the body of decisions prohibiting the use or display of religious symbols and references in state-operated institutions. (if you read much about Jefferson you'll see he was practically an agnostic and he's the man who wrote the amendment regarding the separation of church and state - DEJ).
Well, the tedium of that has a purpose. With all the problems facing the country, why does this one stir any interest? The simple answer: because it seems to be something we can "do something" about. Why we need to to anything about it is not critically examined (although it should be). But it seems like something we can "fix," although the truth is, it is not something that can be "corrected," anymore than the UCC General Synod can affect justice in society by affirming gay marriage (a controversial position within the church, to say the least) or advocating a boycott of Taco Bell (for the tomato supplier; an old controversy that also had at least some local churches wondering if General Synod even knew what it was talking about).

The issue comes around to "talking points," in the end. If I can describe a situation in inflammatory terms, I can stir your response. This is the favorite tool of demagogues, of course; although "demagogues" tend to be people we are opposed to, not our own "leaders." But what does any such abstract issue have to do with you, or you with it? Many churches call upon the examples of the Hebrew prophets for their justification, but Isaiah and Jeremiah and Ezekiel were personally involved in the issues of their day, were personally affected by them, and were personally challenged to tell the truth God revealed to them. They weren't dealing with the abstractions of legal arguments or corporate policy or social/legislative concerns.

Abstractions are very attractive. They are the bright, glittery things that draw our eye and make it easy for us to have a position. But when you are faced with the issue of your child being gay and wanting to have the legal securities of marriage that the law provides even common-law couples, or the complex realities of farming and food supply in America, or even the spouse who looks at you in the emergency room and asks: "What do I do?" when the doctor has just advised she authorize the removal of her husband's life support, abstract issues suddenly aren't attractive at all. Suddenly they are concrete, and the decision, and the responsibility, is yours.

We prefer decisions for which we will not be responsible. And even the mainstream churches have become guilty of that sin, largely in the name of increasing their membership, and thus assuring their continued institutional existence. It is frightfully easy, especially when you are not the pastor, the rector, the priest, to claim the church should take a stand on a very controversial issue, and damn the brickbats. But explain to the parents of a child who was gunned down in a robbery why the church is right to oppose capital punishment for people like the man convicted of murdering their son. Especially when you come into the scene after the event, and when they have been waiting years already for his execution.

All ministry, ultimately, is about individuals. And religion, as Derrida noted, is about responsibility; or it is about nothing at all. Ministry is religion enacted, enfleshed, made as incarnate as we creatures can make it. It is not about ideas alone; except without ideas, there is no ministry, and the individuals get nothing. But do the individuals also count for nothing? Athenae, at First Draft, linked to an essay where an adult recalls moving to a new city and attending the Catholic church there for the first time. The priest meets him, and pressures him at the age of 10 or so, to bring his parents to church, lest they burn in hell and he be responsible for their damnation. That, of course, is putting ideas above people.

Ministry is about balancing the two. Church is about balancing the two. It is, in fact, about balancing the bright and shiny generalities, and the individuals who cut themselves on the sharp edges of your pet passion; or belief; or theological position.

What are churches for? They are for people. Real people. Which is what makes them such tough places to be in, and put up with. And what makes them so very necessary. They are the place that, when you have to go there, they have to take you in.

What they are not, is about games: games on the congregational level, or games against "enemies." That is not being "church." That is engaging in the game of power. And power exists for its own purposes. You only think you are wielding it. It is always wielding you. It always seeks its own good. Which is why it always urges you to say: "Why don't we just tell the other 14% to Sit Down and SHUT UP!!!"

It may look like fun, hacking at the branches. It's the hard, slow work of gardening, to go after the roots.