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

Friday, March 30, 2012

"Let justice roll down like waters...."


Fred Clark makes an interesting point, to which I would just add: there isn't a whole lot of punishing going on in the Hebrew Scriptures.

I know the "popular" image of God in the Hebrew scriptures is the vengeful one, the "sinners in the hands of an angry God" which is so much a part of American culture (and one more reason the past isn't over, or even passed). But, as the Yale website indicates, everything is subject to interpretation; and re-interpretation.

And my starting point for this would not be the prophets nor the histories in the Hebrew scriptures, but the wisdom literature: specifically, the book of Job. Do we consider Job when we consider the question of punishment? No, if only because the prologue to Job makes it clear Job is not being punished for anything, despite what his friends think. Job is not being punished because Job is righteous; but also because Job's life has become the game board in a cosmic game is being played out between God and Satan. There's something, indeed, almost Hellenistic about the book of Job; but I digress. The point is, nowhere in the book is Job's suffering properly identified as punishment; in part because it isn't, in part because such punishment is manifestly unjust. As much as Job is a very Hebraic meditation on the question of theodicy (and in Hellenistic terms, on the issue of fate and our mortal relationship to the immortal and powerful gods), it is a meditation on the nature of justice. Is what happens to Job unjust? Only in the sense that justice is something meted out to those who have violated some standard of conduct. But that's not the only sense of justice espoused in the Hebrew scriptures.

The primary discussion of justice is conducted among the prophets, and their subject is the apostasy of Israel that leads to the fall of the two kingdoms and the Exile. But the sin of apostasy is not punished by God through the Babylonians. It is not God who punishes Israel at all; it is Israel who punishes itself, because God leaves them to the consequences of their actions. Indeed, what choice does God have? God neither punishes Israel, nor removes God's magic shield of protection from Israel. God just tells Israel, through the prophets, how badly they screwed up, and what the consequences of their behavior is gonna be. Oh, yeah, and in several famous scenes scattered throughout the works of the prophets, God challenges Israel to point out where God failed and caused Israel to collapse.

Then God comes along and picks up the pieces, and promises to put Israel back together again:

1 The hand of the LORD was on me, and he brought me out by the Spirit of the LORD and set me in the middle of a valley; it was full of bones. 2 He led me back and forth among them, and I saw a great many bones on the floor of the valley, bones that were very dry. 3 He asked me, “Son of man, can these bones live?”

I said, “Sovereign LORD, you alone know.”

4 Then he said to me, “Prophesy to these bones and say to them, ‘Dry bones, hear the word of the LORD! 5 This is what the Sovereign LORD says to these bones: I will make breath[a] enter you, and you will come to life. 6 I will attach tendons to you and make flesh come upon you and cover you with skin; I will put breath in you, and you will come to life. Then you will know that I am the LORD.’”

7 So I prophesied as I was commanded. And as I was prophesying, there was a noise, a rattling sound, and the bones came together, bone to bone. 8 I looked, and tendons and flesh appeared on them and skin covered them, but there was no breath in them.

9 Then he said to me, “Prophesy to the breath; prophesy, son of man, and say to it, ‘This is what the Sovereign LORD says: Come, breath, from the four winds and breathe into these slain, that they may live.’” 10 So I prophesied as he commanded me, and breath entered them; they came to life and stood up on their feet—a vast army.
Ezekiel 37:

11 Then he said to me: “Son of man, these bones are the people of Israel. They say, ‘Our bones are dried up and our hope is gone; we are cut off.’ 12 Therefore prophesy and say to them: ‘This is what the Sovereign LORD says: My people, I am going to open your graves and bring you up from them; I will bring you back to the land of Israel. 13 Then you, my people, will know that I am the LORD, when I open your graves and bring you up from them. 14 I will put my Spirit in you and you will live, and I will settle you in your own land. Then you will know that I the LORD have spoken, and I have done it, declares the LORD.’”
Isaiah 40:

1 Comfort, comfort my people,
says your God.
2 Speak tenderly to Jerusalem,
and proclaim to her
that her hard service has been completed,
that her sin has been paid for,
that she has received from the LORD’s hand
double for all her sins.

3 A voice of one calling:
“In the wilderness prepare
the way for the LORD[a];
make straight in the desert
a highway for our God.[b]
4 Every valley shall be raised up,
every mountain and hill made low;
the rough ground shall become level,
the rugged places a plain.
5 And the glory of the LORD will be revealed,
and all people will see it together.
For the mouth of the LORD has spoken.”

6 A voice says, “Cry out.”
And I said, “What shall I cry?”

“All people are like grass,
and all their faithfulness is like the flowers of the field.
7 The grass withers and the flowers fall,
because the breath of the LORD blows on them.
Surely the people are grass.
8 The grass withers and the flowers fall,
but the word of our God endures forever.”

9 You who bring good news to Zion,
go up on a high mountain.
You who bring good news to Jerusalem,[c]
lift up your voice with a shout,
lift it up, do not be afraid;
say to the towns of Judah,
“Here is your God!”
10 See, the Sovereign LORD comes with power,
and he rules with a mighty arm.
See, his reward is with him,
and his recompense accompanies him.
11 He tends his flock like a shepherd:
He gathers the lambs in his arms
and carries them close to his heart;
he gently leads those that have young.

12 Who has measured the waters in the hollow of his hand,
or with the breadth of his hand marked off the heavens?
Who has held the dust of the earth in a basket,
or weighed the mountains on the scales
and the hills in a balance?
13 Who can fathom the Spirit[d] of the LORD,
or instruct the LORD as his counselor?
14 Whom did the LORD consult to enlighten him,
and who taught him the right way?
Who was it that taught him knowledge,
or showed him the path of understanding?

15 Surely the nations are like a drop in a bucket;
they are regarded as dust on the scales;
he weighs the islands as though they were fine dust.
16 Lebanon is not sufficient for altar fires,
nor its animals enough for burnt offerings.
17 Before him all the nations are as nothing;
they are regarded by him as worthless
and less than nothing.

18 With whom, then, will you compare God?
To what image will you liken him?
19 As for an idol, a metalworker casts it,
and a goldsmith overlays it with gold
and fashions silver chains for it.
20 A person too poor to present such an offering
selects wood that will not rot;
they look for a skilled worker
to set up an idol that will not topple.

21 Do you not know?
Have you not heard?
Has it not been told you from the beginning?
Have you not understood since the earth was founded?
22 He sits enthroned above the circle of the earth,
and its people are like grasshoppers.
He stretches out the heavens like a canopy,
and spreads them out like a tent to live in.
23 He brings princes to naught
and reduces the rulers of this world to nothing.
24 No sooner are they planted,
no sooner are they sown,
no sooner do they take root in the ground,
than he blows on them and they wither,
and a whirlwind sweeps them away like chaff.

25 “To whom will you compare me?
Or who is my equal?” says the Holy One.
26 Lift up your eyes and look to the heavens:
Who created all these?
He who brings out the starry host one by one
and calls forth each of them by name.
Because of his great power and mighty strength,
not one of them is missing.

27 Why do you complain, Jacob?
Why do you say, Israel,
“My way is hidden from the LORD;
my cause is disregarded by my God”?
28 Do you not know?
Have you not heard?
The LORD is the everlasting God,
the Creator of the ends of the earth.
He will not grow tired or weary,
and his understanding no one can fathom.
29 He gives strength to the weary
and increases the power of the weak.
30 Even youths grow tired and weary,
and young men stumble and fall;
31 but those who hope in the LORD
will renew their strength.
They will soar on wings like eagles;
they will run and not grow weary,
they will walk and not be faint.

It's not about punishment; it's about consequences. It's not about justice as punishment for wrongs done, or as suffering before lessons are learned. It is about justice as mercy, and redemption. God is not just because God abandons Israel. God is just because God restores Israel. Justice is not a consequence free life. Justice, as Martin Luther King said, is the telos toward which the arc of the universe is bent.

Fred references one of the semeia of John, the man born blind whose sight is restored. The disciples think justice is punishment for sins done, by the man or his parents. Jesus knows that is not justice, and he uses the man as a sign, a semeia, of God's work (as all the semeia are meant to be seen in John's gospel). In the synoptics the healings and other signs of God's power are dunamis, or acts of power. What they show, time and again, is that justice is accessible to us all, and justice is most important as an action, not an abstract concept. Especially in the synoptics the dunamis reveal that justice is active, not deliberative. When Jesus makes the lame walk and the blind see, he never does it because they deserve his attention, but because they deserve our attention. Do you see this woman? How do you see her? As a prostitute? A female? A child of God? The distinction is crucial; but it is crucial to us. If justice is going to be done on this earth, it must come from us. It does not fall down on us from God, any more than punishment falls down on us from God. What comes from God is justice; what we suffer is the consequences of our own actions. Can we complain against God for not saving us from ourselves? The children of Abraham have been doing so almost since the first children of Abraham. Does that make God unjust?

No. Only our definition of justice is unjust; especially when we limit who justice is done for, or think of justice as who it is done to.

People are No Damned Good!


I wasn't going to write about this but I find it hard not to use my tiny platform to raise a peep of protest.

Have we gone completely mad?

“If a man is struck down by a heart attack in the street,” Butler said, “Americans will care for him whether or not he has insurance. If we find that he has spent his money on other things rather than insurance, we may be angry but we will not deny him services — even if that means more prudent citizens end up paying the tab. A mandate on individuals recognizes this implicit contract.”

That is from 1989, from Stuart Butler, founder of the Heritage Foundation. Interestingly, it doesn't require any faith in God to see the legitimacy of the claim (although anyone professing Christianity should see it almost reflexively). I get it via E.J. Dionne, who goes on to point out:

Justice Antonin Scalia seemed to reject the sense of solidarity that Butler embraced. When Solicitor General Donald Verrilli explained that “we’ve obligated ourselves so that people get health care,” Scalia replied coolly: “Well, don’t obligate yourself to that.” Does this mean letting Butler’s uninsured guy die?
I had just heard that line, from Jon Stewart on The Daily Show, when I read this. It confirmed for me a notion that Scalia engages in theater in arguments like this; that he revels in the attention, and only cares that you spell his name correctly, and he enjoys the notoriety, even if it makes him look like a pig. He's a Supreme Court Justice with lifetime tenure; what're you gonna do about it?

But if words mean things, then Mr. Dionne is right, and Justice Scalia's argument is: "Screw 'em. The Federal Government can't help 'em, the States won't: sucks to be you, buddy!"

As Mr. Dionne points out, Dahlia Lithwick understood Justice Scalia in just that way:

Slate’s Dahlia Lithwick called attention to this exchange and was eloquent in describing its meaning. “This case isn’t so much about freedom from government-mandated broccoli or gyms,” Lithwick wrote. “It’s about freedom from our obligations to one another . . . the freedom to ignore the injured” and to “walk away from those in peril.”
So this is who we are now: a nation that doesn't give a damn for anybody else, because Trayvon Martin was wearing a hoodie, after all: he asked for it! And "illegal immigrants" aren't really people, they're something less than dogs and cats, so they don't deserve the protection of our laws and our 14th Amendment (which speaks of "persons," not "citizens." The major Constitutional distinction between those classes is that the latter gets to vote; nothing more.), and should be hounded out of our country because we have no room for them, and no compassion, either. This is the country where dumping people from E.R.'s onto Skid Row is just good stewardship of public funds. This is now a country where we aren't obligated to anyone but ourselves and our sense of justice, and if we want to shoot somebody, well that's our God-given right because we have to defend ourselves from black children in hoodies by chasing them down behind a row of townhouses, or just to recover our property, because obviously personal property is more important than human life.

Hell, this is America! Everything is more important than human life!

Really? Is that who we are now?

Thursday, March 29, 2012

History is Bunk


When I was at UT Austin many, many moons ago, the biggest controversy in the Deadly Toxin was the cartoon strip "Eyebeam."

Sam Hurt had a character, Hank the Hallucination, who decided to run for Student Body President. It was good for a laugh; and then Hank won. This, mind, was hot on the heels of the Art and Sausages Party, who campaigned on the promise to replace the motto on the Main Building (the UT "Tower," infamous and famous for other reasons), which read: "Ye Shall Know the Truth, and the Truth Shall Set You Free." Their substitution was the more honest and appropriate: "Money Talks."

Anyway, the victory of Hank didn't sit well with the DT's editor at the time, who took student government far more seriously than law students like Hurt, who knew what governance was really about. So did most of the student body, for that matter.

I recall, too, an editorial cartoon from Berke Breathed, mocking an ad for a real estate development going in just north of Austin (again, this was the late '70's/early '80's). The ad featured a folksy guy in cowboy garb touting the benefits of "Brushy Creek," which virtues included good schools (illustrated by a school bus disgorging white children into pristine suburban neighborhoods). Breathed's version showed this character (in caricature) standing with one foot pushing down the strands of a barbed wire fence as he intoned: "Neighbor. Come on over to the Mushy Creek side of the fence. Ain't no nisgers over here."

30 some odd years later, we get this, which frankly is so racist I'm appalled the DT's editors considered it appropriate even as the personal expression of the cartoonist. That's what web sites are for. But the cartoonist is apparently too young to have grown up with the phrase "colored boy" as anything but an historical term, and to know "Yellow journalism" as only a phrase tossed about when describing news you don't like. I have to consider that the current student editorial board of the Daily Texan is equally naive and historically ignorant.

The cartoonist has apologized, and I take her explanation to be that she knew the terms "colored boy" and "Yellow journalism," but they are historical terms to her, archaic phrases with no more real meaning than "Zounds" or "Bull's pizzle." Except, of course, most of us know what "Colored boy" meant, and means, and many of us understand that "yellow journalism" is closer to what Fox News and NewMax peddle, than what is found in mainstream media. As Rush Limbaugh used to love to intone (before it caught up with him): "Words mean things." Being too historically and culturally ignorant to know when you have picked up dynamite instead of a firecracker is only partially excusable; but it certainly underlines one of my favorite themes: that a little knowledge is a dangerous thing.

Or, that these things that pass for knowledge, I don't understand.

Tuesday, March 27, 2012

Still regarding Trayvon Martin....



As I drove in just now, Talk of the Nation was discussing the Trayvon Martin case, and much ado was made by some callers about hoodies, to the point of one person (about my age, from his description) complaining that the Obama campaign was selling hoodies on its website, and what an outrageous comment on the Martin shooting that was.*

Made me think that my (very white) daughter has several hoodies in her closet; and even my (equally white) wife has one or two (I have two gray seminary sweatshirts, and an orange one from UT-Austin; no hoods, though, thank the lords and the low creatures). Guess I should confiscate them, huh? Just for their safety, and to reassure people the outrage over the failure of the police to even investigate the shooting of Trayvon Martin, isn't about race.

'Course, this guy (in the photo) is just askin' for it. I've never seen him on the show without a hoodie.

Thug. Probably a racist, too.

*To its credit, NPR pointed out those have been on sale long before they became part of this controversy.

Monday, March 26, 2012

These things that pass for knowledge....


The joke at my UCC seminary was about the graduate who came to face his ecclesiastical council in order to be ordained, and confessed that, due to seminary, he had lost his belief in God.

But it was the UCC, so what could they do? They ordained him anyway.

It's a jest on the UCC, but also on seminary. In his biography of Martin Luther King, I remember a passage where King was surprised to find one of his seminary professors attended church. Why? Because the professor so challenged King's church derived beliefs, the doctrines he brought to seminary from his childhood, that King was sure the man was an atheist. Seminary is not "Bible College." It is not a place to have your Sunday school aphorisms affirmed and your faith reassured. There was always some lively speculation in seminary as to which professors were secretly atheists, and a general reluctance to put too much stress on piety, and not enough stress on intellectual foundations.

Which I thought of while I watched this story on "UP with Chris Hayes" this morning. I don't want to pass judgment on Mike Aus (his is a non-denominational church, I'm not sure what title he carries, if any) . But the discussion of how he lost his belief (not his "faith," I would argue; he simply transferred that to something else. Watch this discussion from earlier in the show, and replace "trust" with "faith," a perfectly legitimate transfer as the Greek word in the Gospels translated as "faith" can be equally translated as "trust." You'll see, as Anthony points out here from time to time, that we all "believe" in something. The question is, do we ever examine the roots of that belief, be they science, or religion?) is interesting because he credits two guests on the show: Richard Dawkins and Stephen Pinker.

Dawkins I've written about before; and Pinker, too, to a lesser degree. Later in the show Pinker defends his thesis that human life is "progressing" towards at least non-violence, first by pointing out violence is down since 1946 (probably due more to the Pax Americana than to "progress," but I digress) and that this decline in violence is due to institutions, not individuals.

Which is interesting on two fronts: one, it tacitly accepts the concept of "original sin," at least as espoused by Christopher Hedges and Reinhold Niebuhr, if not by the local Bible thumper. Two, Mr. Pinker would be hard pressed to exclude the Church, at least in the West, from the institution most to be credited for the improvement he argues has, and is, occurring (and perhaps he doesn't exclude it. My point is the same, with or without his concurrence.).

Here is Niebuhr on the question of sin and national innocence:
A further consequence of modern optimism is a philosophy of history expressed in the idea of progress. Either by a force immanent in nature itself, or by the gradual extension of rationality, or by the elimination of specific sources of evil, such as priesthoods, tyrannical government and class divisions in society, modern man [sic] expects to move toward some kind of perfect society. The idea of progress is compounded of many elements. It is particularly important to consider one element of which modern culture is itself completely oblivious. The idea of progress is possible only upon the ground of a Christian culture. It is a secularized version of Biblical apocalypse and of the Hebraic sense of a meaningful history, in contrast to the meaningless history of the Greeks. But since the Christian doctrine of the sinfulness of man [sic] is eliminated, a complicating factor in the Christian philosophy is removed and the way is open for simple interpretations of history, which relate historical process as closely as possible to biological process and which fail to do justice either to the unique freedom of man or to the daemonic misuse which he may make of that freedom.
Reinhold Niebuhr, The Nature and Destiny of Man: A Christian Intepretation, Vol. I (Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox Press 1996), p. 24.

And here is Chris Hedges, on much the same point:
We have nothing to fear from those who do not believe in God; we have much to fear from those who do not believe in sin. The concept of sin is a stark acknowledgment that we can never be omnipotent, that we are bound and limited by human flaws and self-interest. The concept of sin is a check on the utopian dreams of a perfect world. It prevents us from believing in our own perfectability or the illusion that the material advances of science and technology equal an intrinsic moral improvement in our species. To turn away from God is harmless. Saints have been trying to do it for centuries. To turn away from sin is catastrophic. Religious fundamentalists who believe they know and can carry out the will of God, disregard their severe human limitations. They act as if they are free from sin. The secular utopians of the twenty-first century have also forgotten they are human. These two groups peddle absolutes. Those who do not see as they see, speak as they speak and act as they act are worthy only of conversion or eradication.
Chris Hedges, I Don't Believe In Atheists, New York: Free Press, 2008, p. 13-14.

As if to underline Mr. Hedges point, Richard Dawkins declared everyone who doesn't think as he does unmutual . He told Chris Hayes that all Roman Catholic politicians should be challenged on the doctrine of transubstantiation; those who didn't refute it should be humiliated for believing such an obvious myth. To his credit, Chris Hayes and the rest of the more Jeffersonian panel considered that a disastrous concept of civility. But Mr. Dawkins' sentiments were perfectly clear.

Almost no one in public life any longer speaks of human spirituality (although given the tenor of this televised discussion, I shouldn't be), even though the spiritual emptiness of modern life has been a staple of American literature for over a century now:
The German-American has made contributions to our national life, but they have been economic rather than spiritual. He has served the body of our nation well, but his contribution to its soul-life seems to have been inadequate. In developing our national resources, particularly the agricultural resources of the Middle West, the German-American has had no inconspicuous part. His thrift and industry are proverbial, and these virtues were employed to good advantage upon our countrysides and prairies. The industry of the German immigrant converted our prairies into fruitful fields; his thrift contributed to the prosperity of the nation which established his own. By virtue of his prosperity and affluence, and by virtue also of his well-known qualities of dependability and prudence, he has become a potent influence in the communities in which he had been placed. Where the interests of the nation and his own interest were identical, the German-American can has served the interest of the nation well.

But, unhappily, the interests of the nation are not always identical with those of the individual. They often require sacrifices on the part of the individual, and they always demand large social sympathies. In these qualities the German-American seems to be deficient. His virtues seem to be individualistic rather than social. He has unwittingly served the nation through his qualities of prudence and thrift, but he has been rather indifferent to the problems of the nation that did not directly affect him. He has manifested no great interest in a single one of the great moral, political, or religious questions that have agitated the minds of the American people in late years. His failure to do so is all the more striking because he comes from a country where interest in community welfare on the part of the individual has reached its highest development. This indifference toward our national ideals and problems was vaguely felt by the American people even before the outbreak of this war. Perhaps it is the reason why German-Americanism had only to manifest itself as a definite element, to arouse the resentment of the American people. They had not known it to be hostile to our ideals, but they had felt it to be indifferent to our problems. The German-American had poorly fortified himself by solid achievement against the day when his loyalty would be, justly or unjustly, questioned.
We really have reduced all considerations in public life to matters of economics. The Paul Ryan budget, the concerns over the deficit, the outcry about funding Planned Parenthood or even providing insurance coverage that might pay for contraceptives, is ultimately all about money, and not about people. Money trumps every question of spirituality or human value, because it is only money that matters, it is only money that can be quantified, counted, assessed, and truly valued. It is perfectly clear, across the Western world in the throes of an economic crisis, that people are too damned expensive, and saving money from the people who would consumer is the greatest good and highest duty of society. In some recent speeches Obama has sounded the note emphasized in that second paragraph; but who has echoed it for him? And why is this kind of talk so important? Why is spirituality so valuable to modern democracy?
John Adams in his warnings to Thomas Jefferson would seem to have had a premonition of this kind of politics. "Power," he wrote, "always thinks it has a great soul and vast views beyond the comprehension of the weak; and that it is doing God's service when it is violating all His laws. Our passions, ambitions, avarice, love and resentment, etc., possess so much metaphysical subtlety and so much overpowering eloquence that they insinuate themselves into the understanding and the conscience and convert both to their party." Adams's understanding of the power of the self's passions and ambitions to corrupt the self's reason is a simple recognition of the facts of life which refute all theories, whether liberal or Marxist, about the possibility of a completely disinterested self. Adams, as every Christian understanding of man has done, nicely anticipated the Marxist theory of an "ideological taint" in reason when men reason about each other's affairs and arrive at conclusions about each other's virtues, interests and motives. The crowning irony of the Marxist theory of ideology is that it foolishly and self-righteously confined the source of this taint to economic interest and to a particular class. It was, therefore, incapable of recognizing all the corruptions of ambition and power which would creep inevitably into its paradise of innocency.
The Irony of American History, by Reinhold Niebuhr. Charles Scribners' Sons, New York, 1952, p. 21-22.

None of this came up among the public intellectuals and pontificators on Chris Hayes show Sunday morning. None of these ideas were presented as fair challenge; discussed; even considered. Nothing pierced the rather simplistic bubble of the conversation aside from Mr. Dawkins' outrageous demand against Roman Catholic politicians. I found, after a while, that I couldn't look at Stephen Pinker and not think: Here is a man of extraordinary privilege sitting at the very pinnacle of a pyramid that is literally international in scope and reach and which provides that privilege to him, out of all the billions of human beings alive in the world at this moment, and all the millions of Americans and Canadians who might, out of all the other billions on the planet, have any hope of laying claim to the same privilege and comforts Mr. Pinker enjoys. And he is absolutely Panglossian in his assertion that this is the best of all possible worlds and it's only getting better and violence is going down as we all become better people thanks, of course, to Western civilization (he's not enough of an anthropologist to give any attention to any other form of civilization). From his perch he gets to scan human history and see nothing but improvement which leads inevitably to his comfortable place, and which will, with his added insight and wisdom, soon guide us all to the new millenium of human perfectability. It's not just the Calvinist and Niebuhrian in me that laughs at his presumption, it is the knowledge that any situation, when you simplify it enough, looks tractable and even eminently explicable. Mr. Pinker is no wiser than Gulliver, no more thoughtful than Pangloss, no less naive than Candide. He assumes his enormous privilege is deserved rather than wrenched from the mouths of children he will never know, who will die because of a system that ignores, if it doesn't exploit, them, just as much as it serves the every comfort of the Stephen Pinkers of the world, and it does the latter only by doing the former. From Mr. Pinker's perch, there are signs of progress; from the perch of the children shot by the US Army Sergeant? Or dragooned into involuntary military service by Kory? Or who will die of starvation, malnutrition, dehydration, across the planet, at any given moment? What progress in the affairs of common humanity do they enjoy?

And just this week I hear doctors warning that an over-reliance on antibiotics may bring an end to medicine as we know it, because of the "superbugs" which prove ever more resistant to those very antibiotics. Technology that has made life such a blessing, may soon leave us where it found us: having tasted paradise, and then cast out again, forevermore. Technology which has already made life a blessing for those on one end, makes it a hell on earth for those on the other, right down to the discarded electronic waste with its heavy metals and poisons that decay in foreign (to us) landfills where people not us, live. Global warming is not the result of bushmen in Australia burning campfires, yet they will be affected by it. Resource wars for water and oil are predicted to be on the horizon, the product of the very progress in science and rise of civilization which Mr. Pinker avers is responsible for the decline in human institutional violence. Surely the people are grass!

But that's alright, because the reliance on violence is declining! That could as much be because the long arm of the powerful, as it was for the Romans in their heyday, is so much longer and more powerful than it is for the recipients of that violence. How does one counter a tank, except with an IED? How does one counter a drone, if at all? How does one shoot back against a bomber, or a cruise missile? Who, in the world, truly possesses the weapons of mass destruction, and who possesses only the ability to kill at best many at a time? Three planes on 9/11 killed 3000 people. How many millions did we manage to kill in retaliation? The great violence of the two world wars was more because of the ability of the two sides to inflict massive injuries on each other over a sustained period. The battles since have been far more one sided. Statistic alone do not indicate the presence of the trend Mr. Pinker is looking for.

And his argument, too, is based on the fact that Samuel Pepys went to a public place to see a hanging, or a quartering, or some other act of violence actually inflicted on another person, as a form of entertainment (as well as an assertion of the power and authority of the State). What's changed now is that we can see such violence 24 hours a day in the comfort of our own homes, and the only difference now is that it's simulated violence. Does that really matter to the audience? Did they really care about the lives of the gladiators any more than fans today care about the lives of "professional wrestlers"? In modern day entertainment, we pretend to hurt people, and even when the violence involves children, we find a good reason for it; or at least we find it entertaining. Perhaps it is better that we don't slaughter people outright for our pleasure; but we still find violence as compelling a subject of spectacle as ever we did. Whether it is real or staged doesn't matter much to us, as we want our faked violence to be as realistic as possible. Even in the movie of "The Hunger Games," the bodies of the children being killed by children were realistically presented as dead, and in some cases their deaths were portrayed as very painful. Do we really care any more about the actors playing the minor roles (the red shirt in "Star Trek," the henchman in any James Bond or other action film; many of the dead children in "The Hunger Games") than the audience cared about the gladiators who were slain? My daughter knew one of the actors in "The Hunger Games" from her school; but she was a minor character, and I can't even remember if she died on screen or not.

And let me just back up and say the idea, presented again by Robert Wright on Chris Hayes' panel, that morality comes only from God is not a theological proposition, but a 19th century secular one. It arose primarily out of concern for the rising atheism of the educated (read: ruling) classes, especially in England, who reasoned that if they couldn't subjugate the masses with a fear of hell and visions of sinners in the hands of an angry God, all public morality (read: the social order that keeps us at the top!) might be undone. It had far more to do with the Great Chain of Being than with Moses giving the law to the tribes of Israel, and for Mr. Wright and others to continue to beat this shibboleth as if it were a real (but dead) horse says far more about their ignorance and credulity, than it does about the least knowledgeable believer in any world religion.

Even as I divest myself of these opinions (prick me and I bleed a gallon of response), I wonder who I think I'm talking to. Stephen Pinker is comfortable in his amorally moral universe, and Susan Jacoby (also on Chris Hayes) was, frankly, incoherent (not that I was much of a fan). Robert Wright is a spent force in this arena (when he isn't, as Chris Hedges would put it, simply illiterate), no more deserving of serious consideration than Pinker or Dawkins. Pinker declares that the angels of our better nature are being wooed on a world-wide basis by institutions? And where do those institutions come from, and from whence comes their beneficent influence? Space aliens? Selfish genes? The progress of Western civilization? Or is it more likely from human beings, and human nature? Has Pinker so much as heard of Reinhold Niebuhr, so much as read sociology or anthropology? Niebuhr's central insights into institutions and morality absolutely turn Pinker's bland assertions and statistics inside out. And I speak as a serious student of the subjects they think themselves qualified to dabble in. Most other serious students know these "ideas" (I use the word cautiously) aren't worth the effort it takes to refute them, and the majority of the world's religious believers don't give a wet snap what the four of them say, or who they say it to. This is a conversation conducted by a small group ignorant of everything except their own preconceptions, impervious to understanding and of no real consequence to the course of human history. Not, at least, when it comes to the very human realm of the religious.

I know I'm not Kierkegaard; but neither am I taking on Hegel or the State Church. And I am reminded of two things; or is it three?
"The core of most religions is not doctrinal. In non-western traditions and even some strands of western monotheism, the spiritual life is not a matter of subscribing to a set of propositions. Its heart is in practice, in ritual, observance and (sometimes) mystical experience . . . "

"My church comforts the sick and the dying. My church feeds the hungry. What does your church do? Oh, that's right, you don't have a church!"
And: Those who can't do, teach. Or, at least, they talk a lot; without getting very much done.

These are not, of course, refutations. No idea is ever refuted, ever finally put to rest; no idea, good or bad, is ever ended. But at some point it is apparent that there are discussions worth having, and discussions not worth bothering with. And there is a reason Kierkegaard wanted his audience to eventually leave behind the philosophical works, and take up (and truly learn from) the edifying discourses.

So this is not a refutation; consider it more of a rejection. Again.

Mimi is right in her comment below; I would be better off ignoring this subject, unless I can turn some good out of it. And that good would be to make efforts to refocus the discussion away from the supremacy of materialism and back toward the necessity of spirituality.

And maybe one day I'll learn to leave it lay where Jesus flang it.

Saturday, March 24, 2012

Meanwhile, back in Florida....



This is why George Zimmerman has not yet been arrested:

(1) A person who uses force as permitted in s. 776.012, s. 776.013, or s. 776.031 is justified in using such force and is immune from criminal prosecution and civil action for the use of such force, unless the person against whom force was used is a law enforcement officer, as defined in s. 943.10(14), who was acting in the performance of his or her official duties and the officer identified himself or herself in accordance with any applicable law or the person using force knew or reasonably should have known that the person was a law enforcement officer. As used in this subsection, the term “criminal prosecution” includes arresting, detaining in custody, and charging or prosecuting the defendant.
(2) A law enforcement agency may use standard procedures for investigating the use of force as described in subsection (1), but the agency may not arrest the person for using force unless it determines that there is probable cause that the force that was used was unlawful.
Emphasis added.

In other words, the police cannot even arrest a suspect until they establish probable cause that he had no valid self defense claim, a determination that cannot be made at the scene of the Trayvon Martin shooting (or almost any shooting, for that matter), and still might be questionable (under Florida law, given this statute) at this time.*

I don't doubt for a moment the Sanford police did a poor job investigating this crime. As far as I can tell, they didn't so much as check his cell phone to try to ascertain his identification, or to see if he was talking to someone just before the shooting who could be a witness. But if they didn't arrest Zimmerman, it's because Florida law says they can't.

Whether the Florida legislature wants to reconsider that is still uncertain. But it couldn't be a clearer mandate to shoot someone, and then claim a "King's X" that can't even be challenged in open court without extreme difficulty; mostly because this statute makes it almost impossible to get the shooter into court.

Unbelievable.


*In Texas, by contrast, it is a defense to prosecution, but not an immunity from prosecution. This is not to justify the Texas statute, but to underline how extreme the Florida statute is.

Update: There was a shooting in Texas after a version of the "Stand your Ground" law was passed, involving a man who saw two men stealing his neighbor's property. The parallels with this case are interesting, not least of which is this:

In his 911 call, Horn cited a newly enacted Texas law, the "castle doctrine," which authorizes the use of deadly force during a home invasion.

But Sen. Jeff Wentworth, who wrote the law, said it did not apply to Horn's case.

"It was not an issue in this case other than him saying incorrectly that he understood it to mean he could protect his neighbor's property," said Wentworth, R-San Antonio.

He said the castle doctrine simply didn't apply because, although the burglars were running across Horn's lawn, Horn's home wasn't under siege — his neighbor's home was.

"It comes from the saying 'A man's home is his castle,' " Wentworth said. "But this wasn't his castle."
Mr. Horn said he "feared for is life," but he was inside on the phone to 911 when he said that, and he stepped outside and shot the two men in the back as they fled his neighbor's house.

There is also this substantial difference between Texas law and Florida law (from an article published before Mr. Horn was no-billed by the grand jury):

"Some people on the grand jury will sympathize with him," said Adam Gershowitz, a law professor at South Texas College of Law. "Maybe he shouldn't have done this, but he was acting in a way a lot of people feel."

But that does not mean he won't be charged, Gershowitz added.
I don't know if the grand jury sympathized with Mr. Horn (very likely) or if the DA got the result he wanted (also very likely). There was also the fact the two men were on Horn's yard when the shots were fired, although one was running away when he was killed; and a police detective, in response to the 911 call, had just pulled up in front of Horn's house when the killings took place. Mr. Horn also made it quite clear to the 911 operator that he was going to kill the two suspected criminals, and it was only when he stepped outside with the shotgun, that he found them on his property (the fact that they were on his property may well have gotten him within the purview of the law).

Of course, it didn't hurt that the grand jury was white, and the two men killed were not.

Funny how these laws don't apply in awkward cases, though, isn't it? I guess we'll have to start talking about activist police, or grand juries, or something. At any rate, Joe Horn had to testify before a grand jury. George Zimmerman is in hiding, but only because Trayvon Martin's family has decried this gross injustice, an injustice that is as much a creature of Florida law, as it is of Florida culture.

Friday, March 23, 2012

God Botherers and their Discontents


NPR woke me up this morning telling me tomorrow would be "Woodstock for Atheists," and my first thought was: "Who cares?"

Not "who cares?" because the event shouldn't be reported on, but "who cares?" because the entire raison d'etre of atheists, it seems to me, is to affirm among themselves that theism is something to be "a-" about. Which I've always thought was kinda funny. I mean, if it weren't for theism, what would you affirm you didn't believe in? Love? Beauty? Jumbo shrimp? And apparently, as I always suspected, it's because of us believers.

Mehta, who writes a blog called The Friendly Atheist, says openly dismissing God in the most religious country in the West requires courage: You risk losing friends, family and even jobs because of your nonbelief. In poll after poll, he says, people say they don't like atheists; one showed that people think an atheist is more likely to steal than a rapist.
I guess. If an atheist doesn't get a job, or loses a job, because of their professed atheism, I would have a problem with that. I don't like that politicians are called on, more and more, to describe their religious beliefs in terms acceptable to the lowest common denominator, and to end every public utterance with "God bless you [as if we've all sneezed] and God Bless the United States of America" [as if we suffer from a national case of the sniffles]. I am fine, in other words, with fewer expressions of religious sentiment in public life, and don't confuse those sentiments with religious belief (which is why I'd prefer to see and hear fewer of them.) But what is atheism, that it should be celebrated at it's own "Woodstock"? Is it non-belief on steroids? Is it militant non-belief? Seems to me the valid theological stance, at least since Kierkegaard in the mid-19th century, is that non-belief is the human default setting, and belief is the activity. Isn't it their argument that atheism is simply the human default? If so, isn't "celebrating atheism" a bit like celebrating being a social animal, or walking upright?

I'm a bit confused by atheists who make it their identity to be, well: atheists. It's like the theists in the world somehow impinge on their sense of self, and they must push back against it. In that way they are most like conservative Christians who can't stand the idea that there are people in the world who don't think like they do. If atheists want to talk about putting up with annoying religious people, I could sympathize. I grew up around people like Dennis Terry, and they used to bug the hell out of me (no pun intended). Eventually, though, I realized my identity as a believer wasn't tied up with opposing their beliefs. If they want to deny that I'm a Christian, it's fine with me; there are some thing I can't do anything about. And if the rest of the world wants to move away from theism in all its forms (that's not really happening, but anyway...), it wouldn't really bother me either. Some atheists are openly hoping that will happen:

Silverman, of American Atheists, says atheists have time and momentum on their side. He says the fastest-growing segment of religion in the U.S. is no religion — people who identify as atheist, agnostic or secular. Just look at Canada and parts of Europe, Silverman says; religion there is going "extinct."

"I believe America is not far behind," he says. "I believe in two decades, we will be in a position where secularism is the norm."
But then they are like the dog chasing the car: what do they do if they catch it?

I've just started reading The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, a book set in contemporary Sweden. One character is described as Muslim, but as an adult he "of course" no longer believes in God. Oddly, this doesn't make him an atheist. He just lets the matter go, in other words. Another character, a young girl, tells her father she's started attending church. He's not exactly pleased, but he doesn't seem particularly offended by it. Is he an atheist? Or simply a non-believer?

Which is kind of where I'm going with this: if you are an a-theist, then you have tied yourself rather tightly to theism. If theism truly doesn't matter to you, why do you declare yourself an a-theist? Why not just drop the whole matter and go on about your business?

I mean, what would atheists do as atheists together? Discuss the non-existence of God?

[John] Gray [professor of European Thought at the London School of Economics] argues that this fixation misses the point of religions: "The core of most religions is not doctrinal. In non-western traditions and even some strands of western monotheism, the spiritual life is not a matter of subscribing to a set of propositions. Its heart is in practice, in ritual, observance and (sometimes) mystical experience . . . When they dissect arguments for the existence of God, atheists parody the rationalistic theologies of western Christianity."
The Christianity of TV evangelists and mega-church preachers and pulpit thumpers, is not the Christianity of the world. And Christianity itself is not the only religion in the world. Christians are no more identified solely with people like Dennis Terry than Muslims are identified with the assassin recently shot to death by police in France. Most of us are anti-terrorist, for very good reasons. But we don't feel the need to gather and proclaim our anti-terrorism, and to insist that one day anti-terrorism will be the norm and terrorism will cease to exist. If only because, frankly, it won't.

And the only absurdity in that comparison is that religious belief is not to be equated with terrorism. Well, not by intelligent people, anyway.

I was looking for anything I'd written earlier about Christopher Hedges and his book I Don't Believe in Atheists. Instead, I found this. I flipped it open to where he made this point:

The atheists and the fundamentalists speak in slogans. Atheists ridicule magic, miracles, and an anthropomorphic God. They remind us that the world is not 6,000 years old, that prayer does not cure cancer, and that there is no heaven or hell. But these are not thoughts. They are self-evident tautologies. These two camps never step outside their narrow intellectual boundaries. The atheists believe they know religions' inadequacies, although they have never investigated religious thought. They delight in critiques that are, to any first year seminarian, shallow and stale. Hitchens assures us that "the unanswerable question of who...created the creator" has never been addressed by theologians. Theologians, he says, "have consistently failed to overcome" this conundrum.
This is the declaration of an illiterate. Aquinas, along with many other theologians, addressed at length the issue of who created the creator. God, Aquinas argues, is not an entity. God is not a thing or a being. Creation is not an act of handicraft. Creation is a condition there being something rather than nothing. Creation didn't happen long ago. Creation is constant in human existence. It is part of life. And this is why "creationism"--the belief in a single, definitive act of invention by an anthropomorphic god--is pseudoscience and pseudotheology. But stepping out of the cartoonish and childish taunting of religion to a discussion of the writings of Aquinas, Augustine, Paul Tillich, Karl Barth and Reinhold Niebuhr is beyond the capacity of these atheists. They haven't read them and they don't want to.
Christopher Hedges, I Don't Believe in Atheists, New York: Free Press, 2008. pp. 70-71.

To be fair, this isn't necessarily the attitude of the people interviewed by NPR. But I doubt any of them could identify the major works of any of those writers, much less their major ideas. They are too busy being "against," and identifying themselves as such, to be for even the acquisition of knowledge. Which is where I really kind of wonder about such professed atheists, and their profession of reason and rationality: why do they bother?

Thursday, March 22, 2012

Regarding the shooting of Trayvon Martin


Here's what we know:

Zimmerman told the police he was in his truck, stepped out of it to check the name of the street he was on, and then Tayvon Martin jumped him from behind. Zimmerman had to defend himself, so he shot the 17 year old.

The 911 tapes tell a different story: Zimmerman saw Martin, saw Martin begin to run from him, and he got out of his truck in pursuit. When he caught up with Martin, he shot him. "What happened" is clear from what Zimmerman told police.

A friend of Martin's was on the phone with him as he noticed Zimmerman, and as he walked quickly (he told his friend he wouldn't run) away from Zimmerman, who pursued him. She heard Martin ask "Why are you following me?" and heard Zimmerman (presumably) say: "What are you doing around here?" Almost immediately after that, Martin was shot and killed.

The police didn't bother to check Martin's cell phone for recent calls, or to notice he was on the phone as he was shot (making the person on the other end of that call a potential witness). They took Zimmerman's story at face value even though it contradicts the 911 tapes.

To sum up: for Zimmerman's story to be true, he had to get out of the truck to tell the 911 operator the name of the street he was on, get back in his truck, get out again to pursue Martin, who somehow at that point vanished from running down the street away from Zimmerman, and appeared behind him, threatening Zimmerman so that he had to shoot to defend himself.

The Dept. of Justice has noted it must have evidence of intent in order to pursue federal charges; that negligence (such as the gun going off in a struggle, without Zimmerman intending to fire) cannot be charged under federal law. But Zimmerman's statement to the police is that he intended to fire. If Zimmerman changes his story now in order to evade federal prosecution (such as saying the shooting was accidental), he loses all credibility (not that he should have any, in light of the evidence that contradicts his statement to the police).

And the authors of the so-called "stand your ground law" argue it doesn't protect Zimmerman from a situation he placed himself in. However, Jeffrey Bellin's analysis of the requirements of the law in Florida points out raising the defense puts a burden on the prosecution: to disprove the defense.

Critical to this determination will be evidence reflecting: how the confrontation began and how the suspect acted after the confrontation (prosecutors often look for actions such as flight or a cover-up that indicate a "consciousness of guilt"). Perhaps most critically, investigators will compare all the evidence (physical and otherwise) with the suspect's statement (if any) about what happened.
Which, I think, is where the evidence known so far gets Zimmerman in trouble. His statement to police contradicts the 911 phone call he made; and the statements of Martin's girlfriend contradict Zimmerman's statement, too. The evidence of the phone calls indicate who started the confrontation, and who escalated it, and that Zimmerman decided, after he'd fired, to claim self-defense.

There is also the absolutely grotesque dereliction of duty evident in the Sanford Police Department's handling of the case. Trayvon Martin was treated as a John Doe, despite the fact he had a cell phone which could have been investigated for information (the family brought out the story of Trayvon's girlfriend, not the police). Trayvon was tested for drugs and his criminal background checked, not Zimmerman's.

And in all of this, the family has called consistently for one thing: the arrest of George Zimmerman. Not his conviction, or even his execution: simply his arrest. Which says a lot about the nature of the Martin family, but also a lot about race in America. The City Manager of Sanford, Florida was on Lawrence O'Donnell's show last night, and while he admitted the Police Chief of Sanford serves at the pleasure of the City Manager, he refused to consider firing Bill Lee without a full investigation: in other words, not until sometime in the far future. Which sounds reasonable, in one sense; in another, it indicates the politics of this town in Florida. Even City Managers have to take politics into account, and right now George Zimmerman is seen as white (he claims Hispanic), and Trayvon Martin is a dead black boy in a hoodie. A white family would be demanding rough justice; a black family knows all they can demand, is justice.

They are right to ask for no more than that. But they also understand society entitles them to no more than that. A white family might well consider they are entitled to vengeance. The arguments for the "stand your ground" law in Florida were based on that sense of entitlement: you have to defend yourself in a situation of threat. The problem is, of course, what constitutes a "threat;" and also, who is threatened. If Trayvon Martin had also had a gun, and ended up shooting George Zimmerman, does anyone really think he'd be free right now because of "self-defense"?

Tuesday, March 20, 2012

The Hunger Games


I'm gonna use Athenae to do it: put in my $.02 on The Hunger Games.

First, I'm excited by the trailer, as it appears to be a picture and note-perfect representation of the world of Panem as I imagined it. Yes, the name of the country is Panem. It is what is left of the United States after war and global warming have taken their toll on the population and the available living space (think of losing the coasts and the Gulf reclaiming as much of Texas as it once covered. There's nothing specific about that in the book, but it's a fair representation).

The world of Katniss (more on the names in a moment) is District 12, a coal mining region that's probably in the Appalachians. There are 12 districts, down from 13. There is a Capital, probably in the Rocky Mountains (none of the familiar names apply anymore. Again, more on that in a moment.), and every year there is a "Reaping," where two children of a certain age group (see the trailer or the books for such details) are chosen by drawing to go to the Hunger Games, and fight to the death in an arena. The survivor is excluded for life from the Games, and is set for life, as well. Their district is rewarded with riches (usually food) for a year, until the next Games.

At the time of the book, this has been going on for 75 years.

All wealth and power flows to and from the Capital. Districts most supportive of the Capital benefit the most, and each district provides good, or Peacekeepers (soldiers), or fuel (coal), etc., to the Capital. Think of all roads leading to Rome, except Rome is set off from the rest of the empire, the empire is divided into distinct districts, and travel between districts is impossible, except with permission of the government in the Capital. All means of transport are controlled by the Capital, too, as well as all energy supplies (electricity, etc.).

The comparison to Rome, you may have guessed, is not accidental. The country is Panem. Many of the people in the Capital have Roman names. Caesar. Cressida. Troilus. Katniss is named for a plant that grows in District 12, as is her sister, Primrose (Prim). It's never explicit, but Katniss is cat-like; she is practically "cat-ness". She is a hunter (a predator); she is a loner (she can barely make an emotional commitment to either of the two boys who feature in the story); she is a survivor (9 lives). She also hates her sister's cat, who returns the sentiment. They are too much alike, you see.

But Katniss is who she is because of Panem and the Games. Her father dies in the mines when she is young, her mother withdraws in shock and pain, and Katniss has to hunt (illegally; she's bascially poaching the king's (Capital's) grounds, outside the fence that surrounds District 12) to keep the family in food. Growing up too fast with too many burden, she is forced into the Hunger Games because her sister Prim, the first year she is eligible, is chosen. Katniss volunteers to take her place.

Note this process of selection is called "The Reaping." Those chosen are "tributes." The games are to remind the Districts who is in control. They are run by and for the Capital (whose children are never subject to selection). Reaping means both harvest, and reaping what you sow; a reminder to the districts of the price of rebellion; even after 75 years. "Tribute" is rather more obvious.

The YA (Young Adult) aspect of the novels is that Kat is used, almost from the beginning, as a pawn in several other group's games. Like a teenager, she is held responsible for what she does, but she's never quite let in on what's going on (think Harry Potter and Dumbledore, without Dumbledore's benevolent watchfulness over Harry, or Harry's chance at resurrection). But the even more interesting aspect is the references to Rome.

Joe Romm says:

The books also had some fortunate timing for the author in terms of catching the zeitgeist, since perhaps the core theme is the 99% (the 12 districts) vs. the 1% (Capitol), the poor and underfed vs. the rich and overfed.
But this misses the salient, and subversive, point. The overt theme here is that power tends to corrupt. It corrupts not just the Capital, but the rebellion against the Capital. The subvert theme is that history tends to repeat itself, and it does so for the simple reason that we continue to rely on power to further our own ends. That lesson is expressed most clearly at the end of Mockingjay, the third book in the series, when Katniss finally realizes who she must choose, and why, between the two boys who love her. It is not a romantic moment, to say the least. And it happens because of an act of violence, and the justifications for violence, which justifications always have to do with seizing, or keeping, power. Katniss is not interested in power.

Rome was. At one point a character in the books makes the connection clear: Panem et circenses. The Hunger Games are the gladiatorial bouts that remind everyone who is in charge (gladiators were slaves, not citizens). Everything flows to the Capital (Rome) from even the farthest reaches of Panem (the Empire); and the brutality recorded in the crucifixion of Jesus of Nazareth, the absolute and brutal imposition of the Pax Romana that destroyed Jerusalem in 70 CE, is reflected in the actions of the Capital over the course of the trilogy. There is a Pax Panem.

How clearly does Panem reflect the reality of our world today, with US military bases around the globe and the US Navy that now advertises itself as a "Global force for good", a US Air Force that you would never know flies bombers and drones all over the globe, doing far more damage than one sci-fi plane does benefit? Well, we aren't as brutal as Panem; unless you count torture in Abu Ghraib or in "black sites" around the globe, or the School of the Americas, where we trained the torturers who terrorized the countries of Central America in the 1980's. But these connections take a conscious effort; they don't appear anywhere in The Hunger Games where, as I say, all knowledge of the US and its history have been completely erased.

In that way it is only slightly different from the world we live in. In its simplicity (each district contributes only one thing to the whole, a division of labor that is literally impossible) Panem is a child's idea of a country. In its brutality, though; in its ruthlessness; in its determination to keep the flow of goods and benefits confined to the hands of the few who can appreciate them; in its depiction of a Capital where luxury and waste are bywords (at a feast, the attendants gorge themselves, drink an emetic to vomit, and gorge themselves again; else what's the point?, as one character says); it is a true picture of our world.

Not that it is any more obviously related to us than Omelas is. We see what we want to see; and disregard the rest.

Friday, March 09, 2012

The Arc of the Universe is long....


It's not that I disagree fundamentally with Dr. King's observation about the telos of the universe.

But I teach Greek tragedy about once a semester, and I tell my students the basic Greek cosmology was that logos (reason) imposed order on Chaos, and that order gave rise to what we call the universe (Creation in the Hebrew cosmology, just to make the connection). Chaos, however, was not vanquished, and inevitably will wear down order and the universe will return to its original state.

It's a theory I'm more and more inclined to, given that issues I considered settled in my childhood, like contraception, voting rights, even civil rights, are as much in contention now as they were when I was a child. Jim Crow laws were a reaction to freed blacks voting for freed blacks. Now we have an African American in the White House, so the universal fear is of who else might get elected.

It wasn't that long ago Texas, always a one-party moss-bound conservative state, was at the forefront of the "motor voter" law campaign. By the time George Will was harrumphing about such accomplishments, it was settled law in Texas. Now, the next time I vote, I'll have to show my driver's license.*

Before 1965, some voters in Texas would probably have had to pass a literacy test. Same difference.

Contraception? Ain't it obvious. Civil Rights? The University of Texas may soon stand in legal circles for the abolition of "affirmative action" in access to education, despite the fact Texas public education is still underfunded and is still unfairly funded (where you live determines the quality of the school you attend, and "vouchers" wouldn't change that for vast swathes of the state).

It's hard to say chaos doesn't win in the end. But maybe it isn't that chaos triumphs. Maybe it's simpler, and the evil nature of humanity (which ain't, at the other extreme, necessarily Satan) will always run unchecked unless people of good try to put a stop to it. After all, the question "Who sinned, that this man was born blind?" is not a challenge to the status quo, but a blank acceptance of it. The right answer is not to challenge the assumption of fault, but to ask a different question: "Who dares leave this child of God to languish in poverty, ignorance, want, disease, isolation? When all these things can and should be cured?"

The answer, in other words, is not necessarily to oppose evil; it is to not let it get a foothold. The challenge is to how we are to be (if I can express it that way), not merely to how we live, or what life we accept.

*Or maybe not, unless Texas is successful in getting portions of the Voting Rights Act declared unconstitutional (not likely, as their attack is based on the 10th Amendment, but it all sure sounds familiar all over again).