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

Sunday, December 31, 2006

Hogmanay!



Hogmanay Carol

I am now come to your country,
To renew to you the Hogmanay,
I need not tell you of it,
It was in the fime of our forefathers.

I ascend by the door lintel,
I descend by the doorstep,
I will sing my song becomingly,
Mannerly, slowly, mindfully.

The Hogmanay skin is in my pocket,
Great will be the smoke from it presently
The house-man will get it in his hand,
He will place its nose in the fire;
He will go sunwards round the babes,
and for seven verities round the housewife.

The housewife it is she who deserves it,
The hand to dispense to use the Hogmanay,
A small gift of the bloom of summer,
Mauch I wish it with the bread.

Give it to us if it be possible,
If you may not, do not detain us,
I am the servant of God's Son at the door,
Arise thyself and open to me.

Hogmanay of the sack

Hogmanay of the sack,
Hogmanay of the sack,
Strike the hide,
Strike the hide

Hogmanay of the sack,
Hogmanay of the sack,
beat the skin,
beat the skin.

Hogmanay of the sack,
Hogmanay of the sack,
Down with it! Up with it!
Strike the hide.

Hogmanay of the sack,
Hogmanay of the sack,
Down with it! Up with it!
Beat the skin.

Hogmanay of the sack,
Hogmanay of the sack.

Further reflections on ecclesiology



Let's clarify "clergy driven."

Does a priest represent the people in the pews? Is she called from them to represent them? Does the shepherd represent the sheep?

Without question the people often lead and the clergy follows. Augustine was made a bishop by acclamation and the will of the people, not by his own ego and seeking office. Without the people, there is no church; without their agreement about what the church does, clergy are worse than useless. But do clergy represent the people? And if so, to who?

A representative in the legislature represents her district, a Senator her state, in a national body of other such representatives where, ideally, the different interest of the differing regions are resolved into something resembling the national interest.

In some Protestant denominations the pastor may be regarded as a representative of the congregation, perhaps the person who represents God to them, or better, represents them to God. The danger in this is that the pastor who represents the congregation, is the employee of the congregation, and must be lead by them, rather than they by her. If that person represents the congregation, it may well be as a puppet, not as a shepherd.

Shepherd is a fortunate metaphor for ministry. The shepherd does not represent the sheep; does not come from the sheep; does not represent the interests of the sheep to the wolf, the weather, the pastures. The shepherd takes care of the sheep, protects the sheep, provides for the sheep. But the shepherd is not of the sheep, and does not consult the sheep for guidance in how they want to be cared for. Push that metaphor too far and the shepherd is out of a job, of course, because people simply are not sheep. But neither are they represented by their priest; not in the sense we generally think of as "representative."

After all, to whom does the priest represent the congregation? The bishop? God? For what purpose? To be sure the people's interests are considered, their privileges protected, their comforts preserved? If the church is the only institution that exists for the benefit of others, how can the priest possibly be a representative? So, if the people demand the church change, is the priest obligated to do as they demand? And if that could be shown to be the case, would that exonerate priests from any responsibility for talk of schism, or actions of schism, in the TEC today?

It may be the struggle in The Episcopal Church originated with parish members. But what do church members do when they disagree strongly with the position of the church? Take their building and seek another denomination? Or simply stop filling the pews? They may make the effort of changing the pastoral leadership, if that lies at all within their power. But above the level of the local church, what power, really, does a layperson have? Perhaps you can get the ear of a bishop, but to lead a movement that affects the entire Anglican Communion, you must have clergy. Otherwise all you have are disgruntled church members, and in an era which has seen a steady decline in church attendance across the board, and in which various "churches" from those of Ted Haggard to Joel Osteen compete for attention and members, who notices a few more unhappy church members?

So, is the struggle in the TEC clergy-driven? If clergy weren't involved in it, it wouldn't occur at all. This makes clergy responsible for it, to a large degree. Are priests obligated to follow the lead of their congregations? Well, they cannot defy them, even if they think the congregation is wholly wrong. Fr. Jake is right about that: defiance couched as "follow my lead!" is an abuse of power, not good pastoral leadership. But priests (and pastors, in my opinion) have a peculiar position: they are not lay people without true responsibility for the church, able to walk away as it suits them (which shouldn't be so for the laity, but it is). Priests (or pastors) have sought a position with the church, sought to use it's authority and the institution itself, and agreed to abide by its workings. If those workings go too much against one's conscience, the priest can always resign. But to defy the church in the name of purifying the church, especially for a priest, who can make that effort his life's work (lay people have jobs!), is simply arrogance, and again, an abuse of one's position. You cannot serve two masters and, if you are convinced the church is no longer following the will of God, your final obligation is to leave. But you cannot take the church you want to have, with you.

Anymore than you can ever have the church you want to have. But that's a question of Christian community; which is a far thornier question than who's driving this small team of horses they wish would turn into a stampede.

Saturday, December 30, 2006

Comments



on the death of Saddam Hussein:

“Saddam Hussein’s execution comes at the end of a difficult year for the Iraqi people and for our troops. Bringing Saddam Hussein to justice will not end the violence in Iraq, but it is an important milestone on Iraq’s course to becoming a democracy that can govern, sustain and defend itself, and be an ally in the war on terror.” - President Bush.
For Bush, "justice" = "kill bad guys." Nothing more; nothing less. After all, if we'd only been allowed to execute Moussauoi, justice would have been done again. Feh.

“An execution is always tragic news, reason for sadness, even in the case of a person who is guilty of grave crimes.” -The Rev. Federico Lombardi, spokesman for the Holy See.

---

Saddam’s execution punishes “a crime with another crime. ... The death penalty is not a natural death. And no one can give death, not even the state.” - Cardinal Renato Martino, Pope Benedict XVI’s top prelate for justice issues.

---

“The test of a government’s commitment to human rights is measured by the way it treats its worst offenders. History will judge these actions harshly.” - Richard Dicker, director of Human Rights Watch’s International Justice Program.
“The country is being plunged into violence and is essentially on the edge of large-scale civil conflict. The execution of Saddam Hussein may lead to the further aggravation of the military-political atmosphere and an increase in ethnic and religious tension.” - Russian Foreign Ministry spokesman Mikhail Kamynin.

---

“This is an unfair verdict and if Saddam is executed or not ... he will remain a symbol and no one can delete it, neither the Iraqi government nor the Americans.” - Muhssin Ali Mohammed of Tikrit, Saddam’s hometown.

---

“He got his last prayer. He got his last meal. I’m assuming he was probably able to talk to his family. And that’s something my husband didn’t get and something thousands of other soldiers didn’t get.” - Stephanie Dostie, whose husband, Sgt. 1st Class Shawn Christopher Dostie, was killed by an explosive device a year ago.

---

“Given the crime blamed on Saddam, it is unfair if George Bush is not also put on an international tribunal. Saddam was executed for killings 148 people, Shiite Muslims, while Bush is responsible for the killing of about 600,000 Iraqis since the March 2003 invasion.” - Fauzan Al Anshori of the militant group of Majelis Mujahidin Indonesia.

"It will not increase our moral authority in the world. ... Saddam’s heinous crimes against humanity can never be diminished, but he was our ally while he was doing it. ... Eye for an eye, tooth for a tooth will make us blind and disfigured. ... Saddam as a war trophy only deepens the catastrophe to which we are indelibly linked.” - the Rev. Jesse Jackson.

---

“It is not a great day for democracy and democrats. Barbarity has to be fought by other means than barbarity. There were other ways to punish the abominable acts of Saddam Hussein.” - Louis Michel, European Union commissioner for development and humanitarian aid.

Reflections on the News of the Day



No man is an island, entire of itself; every man is a piece of the continent, a part of the main. If a clod be washed away by the sea, Europe is the less, as well as if promontory were, as well as if a manor of thy friend's or of thine own were. Any man's death diminishes me, because I am involved in mankind; and therefore never send to know for whom the bell tolls; it tolls for thee. Neither can we call this a begging of misery or a borrowing of misery, as though we are not miserable enough of ourselves but must fetch in more from the next house, in taking upon us the misery of our neighbors. Truly it were an excusable covetousness if we did; for affliction is a treasure, and scarce any man hath enough of it. No man hath affliction enough that is not matured and ripened by it, and made fit for God by that affliction. If a man carry treasure in bullion, or in a wedge of gold, and have none coined into current moneys, his treasure will not defray him as he travels. Tribulation is treasure in the nature of it, but it is not current money in the use of it, except we get nearer and nearer our home, heaven, by it. Another man may be sick too, and sick to death, and this affliction may lie in his bowels as gold in a mine and be of no use to him; but this bell that tells me of his affliction digs out and applies that gold to me, if by this consideration of another's dangers I take mine own into contemplation and so secure myself by making my recourse to my God, who is our only security. --John Donne


Epitaph On A Tyrant


Perfection, of a kind, was what he was after,
And the poetry he invented was easy to understand;
He knew human folly like the back of his hand,
And was greatly interested in armies and fleets;
When he laughed, respectable senators burst with laughter,
And when he cried the little children died in the streets.

W.H. Auden

Then Herod, when he saw that he was mocked of the wise men, was exceeding wroth, and sent forth, and slew all the children that were in Bethlehem, and in all the coasts thereof, from two years old and under, according to the time which he had diligently enquired of the wise men.--Matthew 2:16

Thursday, December 28, 2006

And not there, either!



Unfortunately I'd have to register to respond to this post, so instead I'll bring the comment over here.

Citing this post (apparently I am now "someone"), the assertion is made that I've said:

the Episcopal schism is being driven by clergy - that lay people are content to sit in their pews and bask in the comfortable glow of a "post-denominational" world
Well, not entirely. Lay people are not sitting back in their pews, but neither are they the driving force on this split, at least not in my opinion. There may be pressure from the laity to realign their congregation with what the laity expects a church should be, but my argument is that comes from "cultural Christianity," not from some abiding interest in the theological issues raised after 19th century German Biblical scholarship or the Jesus Seminar or Mel Gibson's "Passion of the Christ." (I mention just three notable events in religious and theological circles that are known in the public square, not that anyone of them is the sole source of concern in parishes today. These are representative, not exhaustive.)

That realignment, inasmuch as it comes from the laity, is one designed to increase their comfort with the familiar, not to improve and clarify their institution's understanding of God's will or expression of proper Christian doctrine. The latter is the language used by clergy (I am one, I know the vocabulary well). And the clergy seek it as a question of power, not of purity.

I'm not sure anyone besides monks and hermits are driven by a desire for purity in their lives. Perhaps that makes me cynical. But in seminary, we were sharply warned not to expect our congregations to love us just because we'd been to seminary and were sincere in our beliefs. So I don't think I'm cynical so much as I am realistic. Certainly there are congregations which don't approve of the ordination of Gene Robinson, or perhaps aren't even comfortable with PB Schori simply because she is a woman (this seems to be a major problem in the Communion, too). But how many of those congregations are demanding, against the advice of their clergy, that the congregation leave the denomination? That's the question that must first be answered.

Wednesday, December 27, 2006

Only Connect...but not there!


How does this observation:

Dr Tom Wright, the Bishop of Durham, said: “Nobody takes any notice of what churchmen say about these things. Now this has turned into a very sorrowful ‘I told you so’.”
Connect to the controversy in The Episcopal Church? I think I have an idea about that.

This would-be schism is clearly clergy driven (this has been the subject of a lively discussion at Father Jake's place). I know of a large UCC church here in Texas which left the denomination (easier to do in a congregational polity), and hoped to take several Texas or other UCC churches with it. The clergy of that church were so zealous to create a new counter-denomination that they sent pastors to small UCC church in rural areas, trying to persuade them the UCC was apostate and their congregation should withdraw. It was, of course, all a numbers game: the more churches/congregation members, the more "successful" their "movement" would be.

No one followed them nor, to my knowledge, has to date. The one church that withdrew did so over 6 years ago now. I suspect the same thing is happening at Truro and Falls Church, the two churches which voted to leave the Episcopal church ( a vote that is effectively a nullity, as the Presiding Bishop has pointed out. Individuals can leave the church, but congregations in Episcopal polity are creatures of the church. The only question will be who is entitled to use the property, and there the issue gets dicey, indeed. The question will be less who gets to use the property for what purpose than, how is that right enforced? Permanent injunctions and restraining orders? It really will be a question, ultimately, of who blinks first.). So how does this connect to N.T. Wright's comment about the effectiveness of clergy?

The zeal for denominationalism is not what it used to be. These "schisms" fizzle because fewer and fewer people identify themselves as UCC, or Methodist, Presbyterian or Episcopalian, or even Baptist of Assembly of God. The generic terms now are "mainstream" or "conservative," "evangelical" or "fundamentalist," and no one really agrees on what those mean. But it's easy to find complaints on the Web about "Baptists" joining Episcopal congregations and then no understanding the polity of the church, and undoubtedly it's true. The church culture of America is more and more what the media reflects: we are all located on a spectrum of Protesant Christianity spanning something from "conservative" to "evangelical," and all other flavors (like your host, of course) are irrelevant because their numbers are so small as to be insignificant. It is, again, all a numbers game.

But American culture is saturated with "Baptists," or if you prefer slightly greater accuracy, "conservative Christians" and "evangelicals." Just as even idol-despising anti-Papist Baptists will put up nativity scenes in their places of worship (originating with none other than St. Francis) and think no more of it than non-Christians think of putting up a Christmas tree, more and more attendees at Christian churches will attend any Protestant Christian church, assuming they are "all the same," and that the real distinction is in theology, not doctrine (how we worship and pray) or polity (how we structure our denomination). The denominational divides which splintered their grandfathers (or perhaps great-grandfathers) are as irrelevant to them as the origin of the now universal nativity scene. And theology only divides into "conservative" (i.e., everybody) and "liberal (everybody else). The only people who truly care about denominational identity any more are, by and large, the clergy. When I pastored two UCC churches, the majority of the congregation members either didn't care what "UCC" meant, or wanted to change the name back to "E&R," because their friends thought they attended a "Church of Christ" (several people were certain a return to "E&R," which meant no more to the world than "UCC," would draw members back, too). It wasn't a question of identity for them, it was a question of label, and marketing. Had the name been less easily confused with the Church of Christ, they wouldn't have cared what the denomination called itself. They certainly didn't notice what pronouncements it made, or care much about the ones which stirred the Biblical Witness Fellowship (the "anti-UCC" movement in the UCC, driven, yes, by a UCC pastor).

Clergy, of course, have a vested interest in the niceities of church polity; which is all well and good, but if there is going to be any energy generated over questions of polity, doctrine, and church identity, it will not come primarily from the laity, and even if it originates there, unless the majority of the people supporting a change are clergy, the change isn't going to happen. Time was when people sought denominational identity, and freely created new ones as they felt the need, inventing clergy to serve them as they went along (well, seldom did the clergy lead the departure. Wesley didn't intend to start a new church anymore than Luther did, and most American denominations were formed by lay people, not pastors.). The majority of congregants simply don't care what denomination their church is. They go to the church they are comfortable with, not the one they grew up in. We are, in other words, in a post-denominational world, and as we go from one state to the other we face an interregnum in which all manner of morbid symptoms appear.

Which is why clergy are driving this talk of schism in The Episcopal Church, not laity. The leaders in this issue are Archbishops and Bishops and priests. That seems normal for a polity like the TEC's, but they are the ones whipping up the froth; they are not responding to pressure from their parishes. Father Jake has one example of what I mean, which will stand well for all:

In December 2003, Kirkpatrick said, a vestry survey showed that the majority of St. Stephen's members wanted to remain in the Episcopal Church.

However, Mahaffey recalled, the perceived failings of the Episcopal Church "became the topic of his sermons from that point forward. It did not matter what the liturgy was for any given Sunday or what the Gospel was, there was always a way to bring the topic around to that issue. We very often got the message that the Episcopal Church had sinned and needed to be repentant."

"It got to the point that our needs for pastoral oversight and ministry were not being met because of the single-minded focus on this issue. We were not hearing the Word and how that was applicable in our daily lives. I don't think we were being ministered to in all of our needs."

There was a "steady outgo of people who found this message intolerable," Kirkpatrick said, and a "steady influx" of people who approved of the leadership's position.

"Everyone down here knew that St. Stephen's was taking this stance," she said.

Mahaffey said the growing disaffection with the Episcopal Church "has been very well staged."

"I think it has been sold to the congregation," she said. "Three years of hearing it week after week after week"...
This issue is simply far less important to the congregation than it is to the clergy. And the more it is unimportant to the former, the more important it becomes to the latter; because without it, they fear becoming more and more irrelevant.

And so we are back to the comment of Bishop Wright; more or less.

UPDATE: for those of you coming from "Stand Firm," welcome. There is a response just above.

Tuesday, December 26, 2006

And so this is Christmas-Part Ib



The Santaland Diaries, by David Sedaris

I can't post music, but I can link you to this.

Something's happening here...



What it is is not exactly clear

Hundreds of British and Iraqi soldiers assaulted a police station in the southern city of Basra on Monday, killing seven gunmen, rescuing 127 prisoners from what the British said was almost certain execution and ultimately reducing the facility to rubble.

The military action was one of the most significant undertaken by British troops since the 2003 invasion, British officials said, adding that it was an essential step in any plan to re-establish security in Basra.

When the combined British and Iraqi force of 1,400 troops gained control of the station, it found the prisoners being held in conditions that a British military spokesman, Maj. Charlie Burbridge, described as “appalling.” More than 100 men were crowded into a single cell, 30 feet by 40 feet, he said, with two open toilets, two sinks and just a few blankets spread over the concrete floor.

A significant number showed signs of torture. Some had crushed hands and feet, Major Burbridge said, while others had cigarette and electrical burns and a significant number had gunshot wounds to their legs and knees.
There's a man with a gun over there, tellin' me I got to beware:

The American military is holding at least four Iranians in Iraq, including men the Bush administration called senior military officials, who were seized in a pair of raids late last week aimed at people suspected of conducting attacks on Iraqi security forces, according to senior Iraqi and American officials in Baghdad and Washington.

The Bush administration made no public announcement of the politically delicate seizure of the Iranians, though in response to specific questions the White House confirmed Sunday that the Iranians were in custody.

Gordon D. Johndroe, the spokesman for the National Security Council, said two Iranian diplomats were among those initially detained in the raids. The two had papers showing that they were accredited to work in Iraq, and he said they were turned over to the Iraqi authorities and released. He confirmed that a group of other Iranians, including the military officials, remained in custody while an investigation continued, and he said, “We continue to work with the government of Iraq on the status of the detainees.”

It was unclear what kind of evidence American officials possessed that the Iranians were planning attacks, and the officials would not identify those being held. One official said that “a lot of material” was seized in the raid, but would not say if it included arms or documents that pointed to planning for attacks. Much of the material was still being examined, the official said.

Nonetheless, the two raids, in central Baghdad, have deeply upset Iraqi government officials, who have been making strenuous efforts to engage Iran on matters of security. At least two of the Iranians were in this country on an invitation extended by Iraq’s president, Jalal Talabani, during a visit to Tehran earlier this month. It was particularly awkward for the Iraqis that one of the raids took place in the Baghdad compound of Abdul Aziz al-Hakim, one of Iraq’s most powerful Shiite leaders, who traveled to Washington three weeks ago to meet President Bush.

Over the past four days, the Iraqis and Iranians have engaged in intense behind-the-scenes efforts to secure the release of the remaining detainees. One Iraqi government official said, “The Iranian ambassador has been running around from office to office.”
Wnning hearts and minds: Britain v. the US.

Monday, December 25, 2006

And so this is Christmas-Part Ia



So long as we're piling on world leaders with religious leaders, I found this via Notes from Underground:

Christians in the Middle East are being put at unprecedented risk by the Government’s “shortsighted” and “ignorant” policy in Iraq, The Archbishop of Canterbury, Dr Rowan Williams, says today.

In an extraordinary attack, Dr Williams accuses Tony Blair and the US of endangering the lives and futures of many thousands of Christians in the Middle East, who are regarded by their countrymen as supporters of the “crusading West.”

He has been backed by bishops across the Church of England, who say that Christians in the Middle East are now paying the price for the “chaos” in Iraq after the British Government failed to heed their warnings about the consequences of military action.

Dr Williams, writing in today’s Times, says that one prediction that was systematically ignored was that Western military action would put the whole of the Middle East’s Christian population at risk.

Writing from Bethlehem, where the number of Christians has plummeted to a quarter of what they were, he condemns the Government for failing to put in place a strategy to help Christians.

I understand why he's limiting his comments to Christians at risk; it sharpens his point that this invasion was a fiasco ab initio, and gives the people of England (despite their disinterest in the faith) something to identify with.

More's the pity we have no similar voice sounding in America. And that this is so true:

Dr Tom Wright, the Bishop of Durham, said: “Nobody takes any notice of what churchmen say about these things. Now this has turned into a very sorrowful ‘I told you so’.”

Dr Wright, who is one of the Church’s top five clerics, said: “We have argued all along that what was being done in our name by our Government, led by America, would have disastrous consequences.

“The 64-and-a-half thousand dollar question is, what do we do now? We have made a problematic situation far worse. Even if there were changes of government in America and Britain, they will still have to cope with the chaos that has been unleashed.”
Every year I remember that Christmas is followed shortly by the Massacre of the Innocents.

Urbi et orbi 2006



Once again, I'm forced to rely on news reports. The Vatican link is here, but the 2006 message doesn't seem to be up yet. Once again, what I read I find I don't really disagree with. Indeed, I'm glad to know the Pope and your humble host have wrestled with the same questions:

"Does a 'Saviour' still have any value and meaning for the men and women of the third millennium?" he asked in his address to tens of thousands of people in a sunny St. Peter's Square.

"Is a 'Saviour' still needed by a humanity which has reached the moon and Mars and is prepared to conquer the universe; for a humanity which knows no limits in its pursuit of nature's secrets and which has succeeded even in deciphering the marvelous codes of the human genome?"

"Is a Saviour needed by a humanity which has invented interactive communication, which navigates in the virtual ocean of the Internet and, thanks to the most advanced modern communications technologies, has now made the Earth, our great common home, a global village?"
We think, of course, we are the masters of our destinies. Such thinking is not new, nor is it necessarily sinful (I'm not going in that direction, let the reader understand). But our mastery still doesn't amount to much:

"People continue to die of hunger and thirst, disease and poverty, in this age of plenty and of unbridled consumerism," he said from the central balcony of Christendom's largest church.

"Some people remain enslaved, exploited and stripped of their dignity; others are victims of racial and religious hatred, hampered by intolerance and discrimination, and by political interference and physical or moral coercion with regard to the free profession of their faith," he said.

"Others see their own bodies and those of their dear ones, particularly their children, maimed by weaponry, by terrorism and by all sorts of violence, at a time when everyone invokes and acclaims progress, solidarity and peace for all," he said.
Once again, and because I don't have time to look for yet another example, I think the poet was right. And already we are bearing down on the comites Christi:

JUST as it is the crucified who is "Messiah," so it is the cru¬cified who is Sun and Light-Tree and the end of darkness and the world's health. That is evident in the liturgy by all the light themes being sung at mass, the Christ-mass, at the meal which proclaims Christ's death until he comes. . . . It is further evident in the themes of the littleness and hiddenness and humility of the birth-present in hymnody and readings¬themselves sub-themes of the cross, or in the cross references of the readings ("a sword will pierce through your own soul also"), or, most especially in the feasts which have very anciently accompanied the day of Christmas (the feasts of the comites Christi, Durandus called them in the thirteenth century, the "companions of Christ"). This sun is hated by the rulers of the world and his cross is foreshadowed in the sufferings of the Innocents and in all unjust sufferings. This Sun ("I see the heavens opened and the Son of man standing at the right hand of God.") [d. Roman liturgy readings for St. Stephen] invites to witness and to a martyrdom parallel to his own.

So it is that our Christmas comes to have the admirabile commercium, "the wonderful exchange," as its central theme-our wretchedness for his blessedness, as Luther would say. Or so it is "only in these our Christian mysteries that we can rejoice and mourn at once for the same reason" (T. S. Eliot in Murder in the Cathedral).--Gordon Lathrop

And so this is Christmas-Part I

Sunday, December 24, 2006

And so this is (almost) Christmas



I have to say, this sounds about right:

Non-Christians are the most regular attenders - 29% say they attend a religious service at least weekly. Yet Christmas remains a religious festival for many people, with 54% of Christians questioned saying they intended to go to a religious service over the holiday period.
But then, so does this:

"You also have to bear in mind how society has changed. It is more difficult to go to church now than it was. Communities are displaced, people work longer hours - it's harder to fit it in. It doesn't alter the fact that the Church of England will get 1 million people in church every Sunday, which is larger than any other gathering in the country."

The Right Rev Bishop Dunn, Bishop of Hexham and Newcastle, added: "The perception that faith is a cause of division can often be because faith is misused for other uses and other agendas."
While this says as much about America as it does about Britain:

Britain's generally tolerant attitude to religion is underlined by the small proportion who say the country is best described as a Christian one. Only 17% think this. The clear majority, 62%, agree Britain is better described as "a religious country of many faiths".
I find myself thinking of the words of William Temple, former Archbishop of Canterbury: "Church is the only society on earth that exists for the benefit of non-members.” As Bishop Don Wimberley said: "We are a missionary church, a missionary people, and a missionary institution." This raises distinct issues of hospitality, as well as identity. The battle in the Anglican Communion right now is because some are forgetting who the church exists for. The short answer is: if you think it exists for you, you are wrong. The church doesn't exist to serve you, or people like you. It exists to serve others, and especially people who are not like you. I know this is a radical attitude, and a fundamentally non-institutional one. But that's one reason Jesus never founded a church. It wasn't about him, and it wasn't about his disciples. It was always, and always is, about God. And to us, God is always and wholly (as well as holy) Other. This is what makes us a missionary church, a missionary people, a missionary institution. We (the TEC, I mean) are one in the Spirit, not in the canons, or in who gets to decide who is, and who is not, fit to be a Bishop; or even a Presiding Bishop.

So are we a minority in Britain, or in the world? Good. Better we should be, as the call to Christianity is a call to discipleship. If non-Christians are attending our services more regularly than Christians, it either means people are more honest in a poll, or that we're doing even better than we thought. What is our purpose, after all? To fill the pews with paying customers? Or to be in mission to the world? Is the swollen attendance at Christmas an excuse to soft-pedal the message? No, not at all. Neither is it an excuse for bashing people, either. It is a reason to do what we do best. Did the Christ child come as a conqueror? Or as a helpless child? And who was first invited to his birthplace? Priests and bishops? Or shepherds, the outlaws, the bikers, the rowdies and and lowest class of his day. Did anyone ask them what they believed, or their sexual preference, before the angels showed up? Were they pre-screened to be sure they appeared regularly at Temple, and were fit to attend the birth of the Saviour? Why did Gabriel appear to Mary, if women were unfit for the presence of God? And what was it Mary said that found favor with Gabriel, when Zechariah was struck dumb until he named his first-born child?

Compare and contrast: Zechariah asked for a sign: "How can I be sure of this?" But Mary simply asked how the miracle would be done: "How can this be, since I am not involved with a man?" And she answered more wisely than the priest in another way, too: "Here I am, the handmaiden to the Lord."

Jesus, Jesus, rest your head; you has got a manger bed.

Another Advent Meditation



Yoou know, each of the last several years, my Christmas prayers have included asking again for what we were promised the first time. Peace on Earth, Good Will towards mankind. Yeah, I know, the peace is peace between man and God, all references to liberty are liberty from sin, death, and the Devil, etc, etc. But still, is a little peace here ON Earth, between man and man, too much to ask?
Scott the Obscure
When wilt thou save the people?
O God of mercy, when?
The people, Lord, the people,
Not thrones and crowns, but men!
Flowers of thy heart, O God, are they;
let them not pass like weeds away
Their heritage a sunless day
God save the people

Shall crime bring crime forever,
Strength aiding still the strong?
Is it thy will, O Father,
that men shall toil for wrong?
No, say thy mountains; No, say thy skies;
man's clouded sun shall brightly rise,
and songs be heard, instead of sighs,
God save the people!

When wilt thou save the people?
O God of mercy, when?
The people, Lord, the people!
Not thrones and crowns, but men!
God save the people; thine they are,
thy children as thy angels fair;
from vice, oppression and despair,
God save the people!

The words date to 1850, but I know the song from Godspell.

The question is still current. Marana tha. O Lord, come. Save the people.

Saturday, December 23, 2006

Christmas Stories



O Emmanuel, ruler and lawgiver, desire of the nations, savior of all people; Come and set us free, Lord our God.
Bill Moyers says what I was thinking but, of course, says it better:

The Christian story begins simply: A child is given, a son. He grows up to be a teacher, sage, healer and prophet. He gains a large following. To many he is a divine savior; to the rich and powerful he is an enemy. They put him to death in brutal fashion, befitting his humble beginnings in peasant Galilee and his birth in a stall thick with the raw odor of animals.

Toward the end of his life, Jesus preached in the Temple to large crowds, reaching the height of his power. There he told the parable that likely sealed his fate. He said there was a man who created a prosperous vineyard and then rented it to some tenants while he went away on a journey. At harvest time, the owner of vineyard sent a servant to collect a portion from the tenants, but they beat the servant and sent him away empty-handed. Another servant came, and they struck him on the head. Another they killed. Finally, the owner sent his own son to collect the back payments. “They will respect my son,” he thought. But when the tenants saw the son, and knew him to be the heir, they saw their chance to take full possession of the harvest. And so they killed the son, thinking now they would owe nothing from the vineyard to anyone.

The listeners understood the symbolism: God, of course, is the owner of the vineyard, and the vineyard is Israel or the covenant, or, more broadly, the whole creation. It is all that God entrusts to the leaders of his people. And what is in question is their stewardship of this bounty.
Religion, the majority of Britons believe, is divisive, not uniting. They mean, of course, religious tensions; and undoubtedly have deep memories (far older than American memories) of religious wars and goernments toppled by the Church. Put in that context, the poll results almost make sense. It was certainly so in Jesus' day, but the shoe was on the other foot, and the ones divided away from Empire were the Hebrews, soon to be the Jews (with a helpful push out of Jerusalem by Rome). Britain has, to be honest, never wandered far from the Roman standard of civilization, though it has never been quite as brutal. Not at home, anyway.

But then consider the American experience, as Moyers puts it:

I grew up in East Texas, in a county that once had more slaves than any other in Texas. It is impossible to forget that as the slave power grew in the South and King Cotton catapulted the new nation into the global marketplace, the whole politics of the country was infected with a rule of property that did not—indeed could not—distinguish the ownership of things from the ownership of human beings. Drawing from the Hebrew prophets and the Book of Revelation, the abolitionists simply said this: the rule of law has become moral anarchy. God’s light clarified that the rule of law had become moral anarchy.
Something repeated again, a century later, with Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.

And this, by the way, is how one writes with moral authority:

The scale of the disorder in our national priorities right now is truly staggering; it approaches moral anarchy. Alexander Hamilton, the conservative genius of the financial class, warned this could happen. Speaking to the New York State legislature in 1788, he said:

As riches increase and accumulate in few hands; as luxury prevails in society; virtue will be in a greater degree considered as only a graceful appendage of wealth, and the tendency of things will be to depart from the republican standard. This is the real disposition of human nature: It is what, neither the honorable member nor myself can correct. It is common misfortune, that awaits our state constitution, as well as others.

Conservatives who revere the founding fathers tend to stress the last point—that there is nothing to be done about this "common misfortune." It is up to the rest of us, who see the founding fathers not as gods but as inspired although flawed human beings—the hand that scribbled "All men are created equal" also stroked the breasts and thighs of a slave woman, whom he considered his property—to take on "the tendency of things " to "depart from the republican standard," and hold our country to its highest, and most humane, ideals.

As stewards of democracy, we, too, have a covenant—with one another.
Or: "Religion is responsibility, or it is nothing at all."

Which aren't my words either; but it's almost Christmas, so whattya want from me?

Friday, December 22, 2006

Toys for Tots



I have a Christmas album (I'm too old to reflexively say "CD," although that's what it is) with a medley of '60's ads by famous singers (well, famous in the '60's) for "Toys for Tots." It's nostalgia for me, because I remember those ads coming on around Christmas time, and the Marines in their dress uniforms and white gloves standing by to deliver presents with all the seriousness and determination that only military training can imbue, while the celebrities like Nat "King" Cole, Peggy Lee, and Nancy Wilson crooned (yes, crooned; this was "Rat Pack" music, not the Beatles) how "some had too many/some hadn't any."

My first thought, to be honest, was about how this was used to domesticate the Marine Corps and make us think our military was trained to be the ultimate humanitarians, not killers. It is, of course, what a military is for, and why we train them: to kill, not to deliver toys. And it struck me as a bit insidious, the more I thought about it: using Marine Corps personnel to sell the country on a standing army and the "normalcy" of always having men (and now women) under arms, because, after all, the American military is humanitarian, not mercenary.

But I also imagined this was a program which had gone the way of the Vietnam War and the military draft, because those ads were all old ones and I haven't seen one since childhood. Through the magic of the internets, however, I find Toys for Tots is still alive and well, and that it's a "59 year old tradition of the Marines Corps Reserves." And I can't be Scrooge enough to complain about any program that tries to give toys to children at Christmas time. So I won't comment on the problem of imagining our military is always humane and humanitarian, the problem of American exceptionalism which has only gotten worse since World War II, not better. It's a good thing; I'm glad to know it's still being done, even if no modern celebrities are crooning, or even rapping, for it.

What I miss, too, is the message from my childhood. The lyrics went like this:

"The joy of living,
Is in the giving.
So let's give lots of toys for tots,
Toys, toys, toys for tots.
You can be a Santa,
If you will lend a hand.
Yessirree, there never will be an empty stocking in the land.

"Some have too many,
some haven't any.
If those who have
give those who haven't
Oh, what a Christmas Day!
The Marine Reserve will help you,
Will help you fill your sleigh.
With lots and lots of toys for tots,
So give a little toy today."

That last stanza was the real tag-line of the appeal; and it's perfectly in keeping with the message of John in Luke's gospel, which is perfectly in keeping with the season of Advent:
The people asked him, 'Then what are we do to?' He replied, 'Whoever has two shirts must share with him who has none, and whoever has food must do the same.' Among those who came to be baptized were tax-collectors, and they said to him, 'Teacher, what are we to do?' He told them, 'Exact no more than the assessment.' Some soldiers also asked him, 'And what of us?' To them he said, "No bullying; no blackmail; make do with your pay!' Luke 3: 10-14, REB
There you have everything the program proclaimed, including a reference to soldiers. It's a pity we don't hear that message at Christmas anymore; at least not on TV.

Nostalgia really isn't what it used to be.

An Advent Meditation



Or if the hypothesis were offered us of a world in which Messrs. Fourier's and Bellamy's and Morris's uptopias should all be outdone, and millions kept permanently happy on the one simple condition that a certain lost soul on the far-off edge of things should lead a life of lonely torment, what except a specifical and independent sort of emotion can it be which would make us immediately feel, even though an impulse arose within us to clutch at the happiness so offered, how hideous a thing would be its enjoyment when deliberately accepted as the fruit of such a bargain?

All the higher, more penetrating ideals are revolutionary. They present themselves far less in the guise of effects of past experience than in that of probable causes of future experience, factors to which the environment and the lessons it has so far taught us must learn to bend.
--William James

O Ruler of all the nations, the only joy of every human heart, O Keystone of the mighty arch of humankind: Come and save the creature you fashioned from the dust.

from Luke 1 (REB)

68 Praise to the Lord, the God of Israel
For he has turned to his people and set them free.

69 He has raised for us a strong deliverer from the house of his servant David.

70 So he promised: age after age he proclaimed by the lips of his holy prophets,

71 that he would deliver us from our enemies, out of the hands of all who hate us;

72 that, calling to mind his solemn covenant, he would deal mercifully with our fathers.

73 This was the oath he swore to our father Abraham,

74 to rescue us from enemy hands and set us free from fear, so that we might worship

75 in his presence in holiness and righteousness our whole life long.

76 And you, my child, will be called Prophet of the Most High, for you will be the Lord's forerunner, to prepare his way

77 and lead his people to a knowledge of salvation through the forgiveness of their sins:

78 for in the tender compassion of our God the dawn from heaven will break upon us,

79 to shine on those who live in darkness, under the shadow of death, and to guide our feet into the way of peace.

Thursday, December 21, 2006

The Qlone Family Xmas



I’ve been thinking of new and interesting ways to broach the subject of Christmas and commercialism and all that. This is one way to do it.

There is a “comedy institution” in Austin, Texas, known as Esther’s Follies. Long ago, on an Austin Christmas album, they recorded this song. It’s a medley of familiar Christmas songs, with decidedly unfamiliar words. It's a piece meant to be performed by actors, so there are sound effects I can only vaguely recreate; and I can’t possibly recreate the sense of mad glee that should accompany this. But this will have to do. There are also some now archaic, as well as local, references, that date the song. But it’s message is timeless (The “X” in “X-mas,” by the way, should be very distinctly pronounced):

The Qlone Family Christmas [tunes are indicated in brackets]

[Silver Bells]
I remember in December
Buying gift after gift. It’s a feeling that’s strictly commercial
People hawking, people gawking, people catching the drift,
And in every cash draw-er you hear!
Silver coins! Dollar bills!
It’s X-mas time, cost you plenty!
Ding a lings! Charging things!
Sooner or later you’ll pay!

[change tempo, and tune: Jingle Bells]

C’mon, let’s all go flying ‘n’ shop at Highland Mall!
We’ve got a lot of buying and not much time to stall!

All of those cards and presents and things we never can use!
Hurry up, Hurry up, Hurry up, let’s go! Let’s to go the sto’!
We’ve got to buy some things you know!
Some of this, some of these, some of those, some of that!
[Just look at that hat!]
It’s fun, with a charge card in hand, buying everything that you can!

[sounds of a store pressed with shoppers, including people fighting over a sweater]

C’mon now spend that money you know that nothing is free!
You’d better use that credit or, honey, you’ve had it with me!

Pull out your BankAmericard (it’s not very hard!)
If it’s very large (use your Master Charge!)
Let’s go on an X-mas shopping spree!

[change tempo—Little Drummer Boy]

There was a drummer boy, a drummer dumb dumb
He was a dumber boy, a dumb a dumb dumb
He could not play the drums, a drum a drum drum
He played the drums real dumb a dumber dumb dumb
Dumber dumb dumb; dumber dumb dumb
Where did he come from, this drummer dumb dumb?
He is no sugar plum, a drum a drum drum
We wish he had not come, a drum a drum drum
He cannot play the drums, this drummer is dumb!
Number than numb, dumber than dumb!
We always thought he was a very good drummer!
But he was a bummer!

[Hark! The herald Angels sing]

Hark! The herald Angels sing,
shop at Sears for everything!
Peace on earth and Goodyear tires,
God replaced by man’s desires!
Joyful all you prices rise!
Datsun, Triumph, to the skies!
Hark, the herald angels sing! Sears has everything

[The Christmas Song]
Jack Frost roasting on an open fire [horrific screams in the background]
Chestnuts nipping at your nose!
Although it’s been bled many times, many ways,
Merry X-mas! Merry X-mas! Merry X-mas
To
You!

Isn't this what Christmas is all about?



“Stability in Iraq ultimately depends on spreading the message of Jesus Christ, the message of peace on earth, good will towards men. Everything depends on everyone learning about the birth of the Savior.”
Rep. Robin Hayes, R-NC.

I think at this point it's safe to say most of the world knows about the birth of the Savior. Clearly this brings up the image of the Crusades, which actually weren't concerned with converting the infidel, just with controlling property (land=power in the Middle Ages). The irony of spreading "the message of peace on earth, good will towards men (and women? and children?)" by military force seems to be completely lost here, as well.

I suppose we need to know what the lunatic fringe is up to at all times. Peace on earth and goodwill towards all is the best message. But if you can't show it, why do you expect people to believe it if you just say it?

The Rebel Jesus



Neither a pagan nor a heathen, this is still one of my favorite contemporary Christmas songs. By Jackson Browne, the album it was first released on is also one of my favorites: "The Bells of Dublin," by the Chieftans, with many guest artists, all of them excellent.

All the streets are filled with laughter and light
And the music of the season
And the merchants windows are all bright
With the faces of the children
And the families hurrying to their homes
As the sky darkens and freezes
Theyll be gathering around the hearths and tales
Giving thanks for all God's graces
And the birth of the rebel Jesus

Well, they call him by the Prince of Peace
And they call him by the Savior
And they pray to him upon the seas
And in every bold endeavor
As they fill his churches with their pride and gold
And their faith in him increases
But they've turned the nature that I worshipped in
From a temple to a robbers den
In the words of the rebel Jesus

We guard our world with locks and guns
And we guard our fine possessions
And once a year when Christmas comes
We give to our relations
And perhaps we give a little to the poor
If the generosity should seize us
But if any one of us should interfere
In the business of why they are poor
They get the same as the rebel Jesus

But please forgive me if I seem
To take the tone of judgement
For I've no wish to come between
This day and your enjoyment
In this life of hardship and of earthly toil
We have need for anything that frees us
So I bid you pleasure
And I bid you cheer
From a heathen and a pagan
On the side of the rebel j=Jesus.

Wednesday, December 20, 2006

Eschaton v. Parousia



O Key of David, O royal power of Israel, controlling at your will the gate of heave: Come, break down the prison walls of death for those who dwell in darkness and the shadow of death, and lead your captive people to freedom.

Apocalypticists proclaimed an imminent act of transcendental power that would make the whole world, but especially the land of Israel, into a space of unhindered fertility and unlabored prosperity, into a Eutopia of perfect justice, idyllic peace, and absolute holiness. Soon. Immediately. Any day. Now. Recall, also and always, that apocalypse then did not mean destruction but transformation, not just the end of the material world of space and time but the end of the social world of evil, impurity, injustice, and violence.
Jon Dominic Cross and Jonathan Reed, Excavating Jesus, revised & updated (New York: HarperSanFrancisco, 2001), p. 182.

"And Mary said, 'My soul extols the Lord, and my spirit rejoices in God my Savior, for he has shown consideration for the lowly status of his slave. As a consequence, from now on every generation will congratulate me; the Mighty One has done great things for me, and holy is his name, and his mercy will come to generation after generation for those who fear him. He has shown the strength of his arm, he has put the arrogant to rout, along with their private schemes; he has pulled the mighty down from their thrones, and exalted the lowly; he has filled the hungry with good things, and sent the rich away empty. He has come to the aid of his servant Israel, remembering his mercy forever.' "--Luke 1:46-56, SV.

Tuesday, December 19, 2006

December 19



O Flower of Jesse's stem, you have been raised up as a sign for all peoples; rulers stand silent in your presence; the nations bow down in worship before you. Come, let nothing keep you from coming to our aid.

"Half a league, half a league, half a league onward..."



Well, its not all about the denari, ya know.
left rev.
What does this mean?

President Bush said today that he plans to expand the size of the U.S. military to meet the challenges of a long-term global war against terrorists, a response to warnings that sustained deployments in Iraq and Afghanistan have stretched the armed forces to near the breaking point.

In an interview with The Washington Post, Bush said he has instructed newly sworn-in Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates to report back to him with a plan to increase ground forces. The president gave no estimates about how many troops may be added but indicated that he agreed with suggestions in the Pentagon and on Capitol Hill that the current military is stretched too thin to cope with the demands placed on it.

"I'm inclined to believe that we do need to increase our troops -- the Army, the Marines," Bush said in the Oval Office session. "And I talked about this to Secretary Gates and he is going to spend some time talking to the folks in the building, come back with a recommendation to me about how to proceed forward on this idea."
Nothing, really, to do with Iraq, and everything to do with what Dwight Eisenhower warned us about: the military-industrial complex:

The Army has already temporarily increased its size from 482,000 active-duty soldiers in 2001 to 507,000 today and soon to 512,000. But the Army wants to make that 30,000-soldier increase permanent and then grow an additional 7,000 soldiers or more per year. The Army estimates that every 10,000 additional soldiers will cost about $1.2 billion a year.
That's where the approval comes in: more money in order to hire more mercenaries soldiers so we can engage in even more foreign adventures. The lesson we learn from Iraq? Not that we don't need to engage in futile attempts to impose our national will on other countries, or that we don't need a foreign expeditionary force (remember those days?), but that we need a still bigger army.

Because then the enemy can't decimate our army as fast as they've done this time.

So, it's not all about the denarii; except when it is. Maybe we should consider rendering unto Caesar what is Caesar's, and to God what is God's.

Monday, December 18, 2006

Rendering Caesar



What's revealing about this controversy is that it involves the Perkins School of Theology at SMU:

A letter, dated December 16, from "Faculty, Administrators, & Staff" of the Perkins School of Theology to R. Gerald Turner, president of the Board of Trustees, is now circulating not only on the SMU campus but also among a wider academic community, urging the board to "reconsider and to rescind SMU's pursuit of the presidential library."
Paul Burka's response, however, is more typically Texan than one would like to admit:

The folks at the Perkins School should render unto Caesar: in this case, the trustees. The decision to accept or reject a presidential library is not a moral one--and even if it were, it is not theirs to make.
The uppity theologians of Perkins should mind their P's and Q's and remember who pays their salaries, in other words. They have no place meddling in the business of their betters, i.e., the trustees of SMU. Business decisions are no place for morality, donchaknow? And what are their objections? To hear Burka tell it, it's only a matter of politics:

Texas Monthly has obtained a copy of this letter, which, as you might expect, focuses heavily on objections to Bush's policies: "We count ourselves among those who would regret to see SMU enshrine attitudes and actions widely deemed as ethically egregious: degradation of habeas corpus, outright denial of global warming, flagrant disregard for international treaties, alienation of long-term U.S. allies, environmental predation, shameful disrespect for gay persons and their rights, a pre-emptive war based on false and misleading premises, and a host of other erosions of respect for the global human community and for this good Earth on which our flourishing depends."

"[T]hese violations are antithetical to the teaching, scholarship, and ethical thinking that best represents Southern Methodist University."

"Another matter that warrants our attention is that whether it aims to or not SMU will, in the long run, financially profit on the backs of hard-working Americans who feel squashed by policies they've now rejected at the polls. Surely it's not the case that SMU will allow itself to benefit financially from a name and legacy that globally is associated with suffering, death, and political 'bad faith.' Taken together, all these issues set decision-making about the Library in a framework of inescapable ethical questions, and remind us of a key imperative adopted by many leading universities around the globe: 'to be critic and conscience of society.'"
Burka offers no argument about these positions, mind. He simply engages the ad hominem of "no sympathy for the protagonists" (who promotes this position is completely irrelevant) and then slams them for having the temerity to involve themselves in matters better left to, well, businessmen like Paul Burka.

Which, of course, is what got us into the mess this letter decries. What could be more appropriate now, than to try to bring some sense of morality and justice to these issues, wherever they might apply? Ironically (or perhaps not), I've just been reading about the notion of redistributive justice under Roman rule when Jesus walked in Galilee, and how his proclamation and action of a basiliea tou theou in which all were welcome and all were fed was a radical challenge to the status quo of Rome.

I'm sure Mr. Burka would find that offensive, too, and probably profess no sympathy for the protagonists of that moral stance, either. After all, it was Caesar who secured the blessings of civilization for the Empire, and whose visage adorned the coins to remind everyone where their prosperity came from:

A coin of Julius Caesar shows his spirit descending cometlike to takes it place among the eternal deities. A coin of Augustus Caesar calls him divi filius, son of a divine one, son of a god, son of the aforesaid comet. A coin of Tiberius Caesar hails him as pontifex maximuis, supreme bridge builder between earth and heaven, high priest of an imperial people. A silver denarius was a day's pay for a laborer and, if a day laborer meant somebody who worked every day rather than somebody who looked for work every day, it would have been a very good salary. Imagine this situation: If, after three days of hard work, a day laborer held those silver denarii in hi hand, how would he, could he, should he distinguish between politics and religion in the Roman Empire?....

Rome, and Rome alone, had built a kingdom and only it could approve how to build an underkingdom, a minrealm, a subordinate rule.
Jon Dominic Cross and Jonathan Reed, Excavating Jesus, revised & updated (New York: HarperSanFrancisco, 2001), pp. 178-79.

Those are the coins Jesus was referring to; not the simple folding money in your pocket with a dead president on it. The professed purpose of the Bush Presidential Library is "to spread the gospel of a presidency that for now gets poor marks from many scholars and a majority of Americans," and $500 million will be spent to do it. Mr. Burka's reference to the question of how to pay the temple tax is more apt than he realizes. One can almost hear him posing the original question, in fact.

Do I repeat myself?



Very well, then, I repeat myself.

The War on Christmas rages on, from both sides. Athenae notes the FoxNews side; the MadPriest is determined to take the Christmas out of Advent.

But there has always been a war on Christmas. Dicken's Christmas Carol is our cultural touchstone, but read through it in vain to find any mention of Luke or Matthew or even a reference to a creche. True, there are people going to church on Christmas morning (and it isn't even a Sunday!), but no mention of what they do there, and only the merest mention of Christianity in the bathetic tale of Tiny Tim. None of our cultural touchstones for Christmas, the ones we all agree to, are too distinctly religious, actually. The Christmas Tree? Charlie Brown? The Grinch? The Night Before Christmas? Santa Claus?

The war actually goes back to the Puritans, if not before. We've never comfortably reconciled the religious observance of Christmas with the secular observance of a holiday; and we're not likely to start anytime soon. The irony, of course, is that the very heart of the Nativity story is humility and humbleness, attitudes that make it impossible to fight any kind of war, especially in the name of the Prince of Peace.

And me? I'd rather let them know it's Christmas. But it's not even morning in America; or mourning in America.

I'm proud to be an American

where at least I know I'm free.

Well, maybe not:

Detainee 200343 was among thousands of people who have been held and released by the American military in Iraq, and his account of his ordeal has provided one of the few detailed views of the Pentagon’s detention operations since the abuse scandals at Abu Ghraib. Yet in many respects his case is unusual.

The detainee was Donald Vance, a 29-year-old Navy veteran from Chicago who went to Iraq as a security contractor. He wound up as a whistle-blower, passing information to the F.B.I. about suspicious activities at the Iraqi security firm where he worked, including what he said was possible illegal weapons trading.

...

Nathan Ertel, the American held with Mr. Vance, brought away military records that shed further light on the detention camp and its secretive tribunals. Those records include a legal memorandum explicitly denying detainees the right to a lawyer at detention hearings to determine whether they should be released or held indefinitely, perhaps for prosecution.

The story told through those records and interviews illuminates the haphazard system of detention and prosecution that has evolved in Iraq, where detainees are often held for long periods without charges or legal representation, and where the authorities struggle to sort through the endless stream of detainees to identify those who pose real threats.

“Even Saddam Hussein had more legal counsel than I ever had,” said Mr. Vance, who said he planned to sue the former defense secretary, Donald H. Rumsfeld, on grounds that his constitutional rights had been violated. “While we were detained, we wrote a letter to the camp commandant stating that the same democratic ideals we are trying to instill in the fledgling democratic country of Iraq, from simple due process to the Magna Carta, we are absolutely, positively refusing to follow ourselves.”

A spokeswoman for the Pentagon’s detention operations in Iraq, First Lt. Lea Ann Fracasso, said in written answers to questions that the men had been “treated fair and humanely,” and that there was no record of either man complaining about their treatment.
This just gets better and better. Makes me quite sure Admiral Harris knows what he's doing in Cuba. But it's all okay. It only took the military 3 weeks to find Detainee 200343's FBI contact. And even then, the military determined he was a threat, and only released him because he promised to leave Baghdad. Why? Apparently because he told the military about two large weapons caches in Baghdad that he thought they should confiscate.

You can't make this stuff up. And legal rights? You ain't got no rights! This is a war on terra! Just be glad you're an American citizen!

Their legal rights, laid out in a letter from Lt. Col. Bradley J. Huestis of the Army, the president of the status board, allowed them to attend the hearing and testify. However, under Rule 3, the letter said, “You do not have the right to legal counsel, but you may have a personal representative assist you at the hearing if the personal representative is reasonably available.”

Mr. Vance and Mr. Ertel were permitted at their hearings only because they were Americans, Lieutenant Fracasso said. The cases of all other detainees are reviewed without the detainees present, she said. In both types of cases, defense lawyers are not allowed to attend because the hearings are not criminal proceedings, she said.
And Newt Gingrich isn't the only one who wants to curb our freedom of speech:

On his way out, Mr. Vance said: “They asked me if I was intending to write a book, would I talk to the press, would I be thinking of getting an attorney. I took it as, ‘Shut up, don’t talk about this place,’ and I kept saying, ‘No sir, I want to go home.’ ”
As for poor Mr. Vance:

“It’s really hard,” he says. “I don’t really talk about this stuff with my family. I feel ashamed, depressed, still have nightmares, and I’d even say I suffer from some paranoia.”
Paranoia is contagious. You get it from your government.

Sunday, December 17, 2006

Some Churches See Him



NPR: What other reforms do you hope to bring to the Church under your leadership?

PB [Katherine Jefferts Schori]: I think my basic hope is that we remember that, as the Archbishop of Canterbury in 1940 said, "The Church is the only institution that exists primarily for the benefit of those who are not members." Our focus needs not to be so much on internal politics, but on serving the world, on helping to heal a world that is broken.
(Cribbed from Father Jake, just because it was easier that way)

Some churches (by which I mean congregations) see this, and some do not. It is the distinction between a Church of Meaning and Belonging, and a Church of Sacrifice for Meaning and Belonging. PB Schori is calling The Episcopal Church to be the latter. It's a good calling, and one I think the church is up to.

But it certainly won't be easy; or painless. Nothing worthwhile ever is.

December 17, 2006



Tonight the O Antiphons begin.

I find them quite different from "O Come, O Come Emmanuel." Not better; just different. It's the lack of the repeated refrain. But then, antiphons are not song lyrics; they are a response by the body, the people, the worshippers gathered, to the prayer or the plea.

And yes, Pastor Dan and I have the same resource. Tonight I note this bit in what Thomas Talley tells us:

That canon urges the constant presence of the faithful in the church, calling on them not to stay at home or run off to the country or the mountains during a period of twenty-one continuous days, beginning from December 17 and reaching to the Epiphany.
Over 1600 years ago, people still had to be urged to attend worship during December.

'Twas ever thus. Hymns like "O Come, O Come Emmanuel" make it worth attending, though.

That "Release of the Captives" Stuff?

That's been suspended indefinitely:

Since spring 2004, the military’s handling of the detainees had been heavily influenced by the political and diplomatic pressures that grew out of the Abu Ghraib scandal and other cases of prisoner abuse. At the same time, Guantánamo’s focus was shifting from interrogations to the long-term detention of men who, for the most part, would never be charged with any crime.

With little guidance from Washington, senior officers here began in 2005 to edge back toward the traditional Geneva Convention rules for prisoner treatment that President Bush had disavowed after 9/11 for the fight against terrorism, military officials said. Military officers began listening more attentively to the prisoners’ complaints, and eventually met a few times with a council of detainee leaders.

Those talks were quickly aborted in August 2005. The hunger strikes were effectively broken last January, when the military began strapping detainees into padded “restraint chairs” to force-feed them through stomach tubes.

But those protests gave way to several drug overdoses in May and the hangings in June of three prisoners — all of whom had previously been hunger strikers.

The current Guantánamo commanders eschewed any criticism of their predecessors. But they were blunt in laying out a different approach.

Asked about his discussions with prisoners, Colonel Dennis said he basically had none. As for the handful of detainees who have continued to wage hunger strikes, including three who were being force-fed last week, he said they would get no “special attention” from him.

“If they want to do that, hook it up,” he said, apparently referring to the restraint chair system for force-feeding. “If that’s what you want to do, that’s your choice.”

Admiral Harris said he had ordered a hardening of the security posture on the basis of new insights into the threat that the detainees pose. “We have learned how committed they are, just how serious they are, and how dangerous they are,” he said.
Notice the hunger strikes which "were effectively broken last January" were apparently not so effectively broken: an unspecified number of prisoners were being force-fed just last week. And resuming Sartre's definition of ethics: how you see others is how they are. You are responsible for the ethical choices you make, and we, through Admiral Harris, have made ours:

Several military officials said Admiral Harris took over the Guantánamo task force with a greater concern about security, and soon ordered his aides to draw up plans to deal with hostage-takings and other emergencies.

He and Colonel Dennis both asserted that Camp 4 — where dozens of detainees rioted during an aggressive search of their quarters last May — represented a particular danger.

Admiral Harris said detainees there had used the freedom of the camp to train one another in terrorist tactics, and in 2004 plotted unsuccessfully to seize a food truck and use it to run over guards.

“Camp 4 is an ideal planning ground for nefarious activity,” he said.
Hmmm: men in severe lockdown, facing indefinite detention with little or no hope of release, much less a court hearing, are planning nefarious activity. Gee, I wonder why? And I wonder why the military thinks this approach will work. It's known in this couintry that gangs operate despite the controls of a supermax prison. Follow that link and you'll find several stories about the problems with the US penal system. Getting tougher simply doesn't work. You don't break a prisoner's spirit; you simply create more dangerous prisoners. Many of the people put in charge of the prisons in Iraq were guilty of abuses in the US prison system. Now we are taking the model of Abu Ghraib to Guantanamo.

Jean-Paul Sartre argued that there is no categorical imperative which guides our ethical decisions, but rather, we create an ethic from the way we treat others, and the way we treat others determines who they are, to us. And who they are to us is all that matters. One seldom sees such an object lesson in ethical philosophy as this. Admiral Harris says: “They’re all terrorists; they’re all enemy combatants,” Admiral Harris said in an interview...I don’t think there is such a thing as a medium-security terrorist.”

But,as the article notes:

Admiral Harris, who took command on March 31, referred in part to the recent departure from Guantánamo of the last of 38 men whom the military had classified since early 2005 as “no longer enemy combatants.” Still, about 100 others who had been cleared by the military for transfer or release remained here while the State Department tried to arrange their repatriation.

[Shortly after Admiral Harris’s remarks, another 15 detainees were sent home to Saudi Arabia, where they were promptly returned to their families.]
To the man with a hammer, the whole world looks like a nail. To the man with a prison, the whole world looks like a gang of terrorists. One is left wondering what experience in penal systems Admiral Harris has.

Friday, December 15, 2006

Welcome back, my friends



Just putting a few pieces together. Don't mind me.

TPM Muckraker:

Nir Rosen of the new blog Iraqslogger reports, calling it a "mysterious psychological operations campaign," that Baghdad residents have reported "receiving phone calls that the caller ID shows to be originating from outside Iraq." What follows is a "recorded message from an anonymous man speaking formal Arabic" who goes on to condemn the Mahdi Army, the Shiite militia headed by the powerful cleric Muqtada al Sadr that's been a continual thorn in the U.S.'s side.
Froomkin notes an increase in troops in Iraq is being talked about seriously, although the problems with that are manifold, viz:

But consider this: "The idea is . . . running into strong opposition in Baghdad. Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki has flatly told Gen. George Casey, the top American military commander in Iraq, that he doesn't want more U.S. personnel deployed to the country, according to U.S. military officials. The U.S. sent thousands of additional combat personnel to Baghdad earlier this year in an attempt to quell the daily violence there, but American officials say Mr. Maliki has made clear that he wants to see those forces -- except for U.S. trainers and advisers -- moved out of the city.

"Senior U.S. commanders on the ground in Iraq, meanwhile, say they aren't sure additional forces are needed in Iraq."
Of course, all of this would be contrary to what the President has told us he would do, which is to listen to his commanders. But then listening is so pre-11/7:

Bush's former chief of staff, Andrew H. Card Jr., who was by Bush's side as he formulated many of his key decisions on the war, said Bush hears many opinions and thus believes that 'his knowledge is more complete than anyone who is advising him.'"
(This one courtesy of Holden.)

Not to mention, as Froomkin notes, the sovereign in the US isn't too wild about the idea:

And, of course: "Deploying more U.S. forces to Iraq would be deeply unpopular in the U.S., where polls show that an increasing majority believes the U.S. is losing in Iraq, disapproves of the administration's handling of the war and wants to see a fixed timetable for a military withdrawal."
Even the number to be called up is fluid just now:

Warren P. Strobel and Jonathan S. Landay write for McClatchy Newspapers that Bush appears likely to call for as many as 40,000 more troops.
And, lest everything go down the memory hole:

They offer a little context: "Only a year ago, on Nov. 30, 2005, Bush, under pressure to show progress, unveiled a ' National Strategy for Victory in Iraq.' Then, as now, he pledged to focus on training Iraq's security forces.
Okay, so why will an increase in troops work? One answer is: more cowbell.

U.S. News reports: "White House insiders tell the US News Political Bulletin that there are more divisions within the administration than Bush's spokesmen have admitted, and that factionalism has led to the postponement of Bush's decisions and speech on Iraq. . . .

"Vice President Dick Cheney wants to hew as closely as possible to the original goal of victory by creating a government in Baghdad that can, as Bush says, 'sustain, govern, and defend itself.' Cheney is believed to be leaning toward sending a 'surge' of additional U.S. troops to Iraq, perhaps 30,000, to put down sectarian violence. Military leaders, however, are against such a move because they think it will increase the Iraqis' dependency on the United States."
But I smell a rat (again, via Froomkin, the clearing house for this kind of stuff):

Charles Krauthammer, who is often prescient about what the White House is planning, writes in his Washington Post opinion column: "As a result of the Iraq Study Group, President Bush has been given one last chance to alter course on Iraq. This did not, however, come about the way James Baker intended. It came about because the long-anticipated report turned out to be, as is widely agreed, a farce."

Bush, Krauthammer writes, "must do two things. First, as I've been agitating for, establish a new governing coalition in Baghdad that excludes Moqtada al-Sadr, a cancer that undermines the ability of Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki and his government to work with us. It is encouraging that Bush has already begun such a maneuver by meeting with rival Shiite and Sunni parliamentary leaders. If we help produce a cross-sectarian government that would be an ally rather than a paralyzed semi-adversary of coalition forces, we should then undertake part two: 'Double down' our military effort. This means a surge in American troops with a specific mission: to secure Baghdad and (with the support of the Baghdad government -- a sine qua non) suppress Sadr's Mahdi Army.

"It is our last chance for success. Bush can thank the Iraq Study Group and its instant irrelevance for making it possible."
Which brings us back to where this started: robocalls to Iraq. If Krauthammer is prescient about what the White House is planning, it's not because he has a sixth sense for these things. Clearly the White House thinks power will finally prevail (how is another question, in't it?). And the bonus is, they can blame the Democrats for not trying to use more troops to quell the violence. After all, if a little force is good, even more force is better.

The only real hope the Democrats have is to follow Rep. Kucinich's lead, and cut off funding. This, however, they will not do. So how much more effective will doing nothing be than sending in even more troops? Especially if you can claim more troops would solve the problem? Not that anyone is buying that idea, but we're already well beyond any solution to the problem of Iraq. Everybody except the President, apparently, understands this, but his lack of understanding on that point is irrelevant right now. There is one thing he clearly understands, which is actually more important: and that is power.

I watched the movie "Elizabeth" again yesterday, the Cate Blanchett movie about Henry VIII's daughter. It may be no more historical than the average Hollywood costume drama, I simply don't know. But it is fascinating for how much intrigue swirls around the throne, which, of course, is where the power is. It's all about power, and it explains the present situation perfectly. Elizabeth ascends to the throne upon the death of her half-sister Mary, and her authority is immediately tested. It takes her some time to realize that innocence is not a virtue in a leader, and the people around you aren't your friends. But it also takes her some time to realize how much power simply cascades off of her position, to be wielded by people around her; and simultaneously, how much power there is in other centers, to be wielded against her.

Of course, in the movie, all those against her end up with their heads on pikes at the end, and the credits not that she reigned another 40 years after the events of the movie. Power serves no one, but seduces many. It is the ultimate prostitute, but it never becomes anyone's mistress.

This is the still unlearned lesson of Iraq. And it is precisely why there is so much talk about making 20,000, 30,000, even 40 or 50 thousand, troops appear out of thin air and descend with vengeance (at last) and victory (to be sure!) upon Iraq. Not because "It is the act of a desperate president hoping for one last way to salvage his war and prove that he was right, in spite of all the evidence to the contrary" (Froomkin), but because it is also the interregnum between the fall of the old power (the 109th Congress) and the rise of the new Congress (the 110th). In that interregnum, all manner of strange things appear. Is the old dying? Is the new struggling to be born? Frankly, I don't think so. But power abhors a vacuum, and it is ready for a new suitor. Who will prove worthy of its hand, is the question being played out just now.

But we, the people, are just the sovereign, the figurehead monarch. This fight is between the real powers: those who actually control the levers of government, and who obviously pay little attention to us at all. For which, ultimately, we have only ourselves to blame. Still, it's an interesting show; and it's one that never ends.

Come inside, come inside.

TAKE heed, watch; for you do not know when the time will come. It is like someone going on a journey, who leaving home and putting the servants in charge of their work, commands the doorkeeper to be on the watch. Watch therefore-for you do not know when the lord of the house will come, in the evening, or at midnight, or at cockcrow, or in the morning-lest the lord come suddlenly and find you asleep. And what I say to you I say to all: Watch.
Mark 13:33-37

Bit of a P.S.: Where we are now:

Warning that the active-duty Army "will break" under the strain of today's war-zone rotations, the nation's top Army general yesterday called for expanding the force by 7,000 or more soldiers a year and lifting Pentagon restrictions on involuntary call-ups of Army National Guard and Army Reserve troops.

Gen. Peter J. Schoomaker, the Army's chief of staff, issued his most dire assessment yet of the toll of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan on the nation's main ground force. At one point, he banged his hand on a House committee-room table, saying the continuation of today's Pentagon policies is "not right."
There can be no doubt everyone calling for more troops is quite serious.

P.P.S

And then I wake up this morning to find there is a counter-strategy in place, and it is attacking on all fronts:

Incoming Democratic committee chairmen say they will hold a series of hearings and investigations early next year to build the case for their call for a phased withdrawal of U.S. troops from Iraq and for possible action against defense contractors found to have wasted billions in federal funds.

The emerging plans to grill administration officials on the conduct of the war are part of a pledge for more aggressive congressional oversight on issues such as prewar intelligence, prisoner treatment at Abu Ghraib and Guantanamo Bay, and the government's use of warrantless wiretaps.
And next, behind the glass, is a real blade of grass; be careful as you pass, move along, move along.