Adventus

"The central doctrine of Christianity, then, is not that God is a bastard. It is, in the words of the late Dominican theologian Herbert McCabe, that if you don’t love you’re dead, and if you do, they’ll kill you."--Terry Eagleton

"It is impossible for me to say in my book one word about all that music has meant in my life. How then can I hope to be understood?--Ludwig Wittgenstein

“The opposite of poverty is not wealth; the opposite of poverty is justice."--Bryan Stevenson

Wednesday, May 30, 2012

Men With No Reasons

Once again I'm caught relying on Charles Pierce for my material (although he commits some howlers in his discussion of this latest move by the "clan of the red beanie", to wit:  "The Civil Rights Movement was an exercise of political pressure that used for its philosophical underpinnings certain religious themes and rhetoric. (And 'the light of the Gospels'? Well, partly, but, in his strategy of nonviolent resistance, which was the actual work of the movement, King was a student of Gandhi, who liked Christ, but didn't trust Christians.)"  Um...it was the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.   Re-read that Birmingham letter, Mr. Pierce; it's by a Christian pastor directed to Christian pastors (the "My Dear Fellow Clergymen" should be your first clue), and nowhere in it does the Rev. Dr. mention Ghandi.  I did hear John Lewis on Diane Rehm this morning mention how the movement studied (he emphasized "studied") the ideas of Gandhi, as well as Thoreau, as well as the Gospels.  To toss Christianity out of a movement that was largely based in black CHRISTIAN churches on the thin thread of lessons learned from Mahatma Gandhi and what he thought of Christianity, is, well, really, just pathetic.  But I digress....)

Anyway, this is what the Bishops in the U.S. are up to:
 
“Some unjust laws impose such injustices on individuals and organizations that disobeying the laws may be justified,” the bishops state in a document developed to be inserted into church bulletins in Catholic parishes around the country in June.

“Every effort must be made to repeal them,” the bishops say in the document, which is already posted on the website of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops. “When fundamental human goods, such as the right of conscience, are at stake, we may need to witness to the truth by resisting the law and incurring its penalties.”
 Now seriously:  is publishing a flyer to be distributed into churches around the country likely to get police dogs and water cannons turned on you in the streets?  Is any Bishop likely to go to jail because they don't want to provide insurance to Pierce's Presbyterian charwoman so she can get birth control pills?  Is anybody's liberty threatened by this rule from the Obama Administration?

We have a theological term for this.  We call it "Bullgeshichte."

As the article notes:

The bulletin insert the bishops have prepared to distribute in parishes around the country in June specifically references the late Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr., who was imprisoned in Birmingham, Ala., on Good Friday 1963 for marching without a permit to protest the racist segregation laws enforced in Alabama in that period.
So yes, it just gets worse.

 “In his famous ‘Letter from Birmingham Jail’ in 1963,” the bishops says, “Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. boldly said, ‘The goal of America is freedom.’ As a Christian pastor, he argued that to call America to the full measure of that freedom was the specific contribution Christians are obliged to make. He rooted his legal and constitutional arguments about justice in the long Christian tradition: ‘I would agree with Saint Augustine that ‘An unjust law is no law at all.’… A just law is a man-made code that squares with the moral law or the law of God. An unjust law is a code that is out of harmony with the moral law.’”
 Excuse me while I throw up in my mouth a little.   Can there seriously be a comparison between the laws Dr. King opposed, and this ruling on insurance coverage?  Well, let's see.  Here's what President Obama said about it:

"We don’t need another political fight about ending a woman’s right to choose, or getting rid of Planned Parenthood or taking away affordable birth control," Obama said. "We don’t need that. I want women to control their own health choices, just like I want my daughters to have the same economic opportunities as my sons. We’re not turning back the clock. We're not going back there."
And this is the paragraph that precedes Dr. King's analysis of just and unjust laws the Bishops are referring to:

We have waited for more than 340 years for our constitutional and God given rights. The nations of Asia and Africa are moving with jetlike speed toward gaining political independence, but we still creep at horse and buggy pace toward gaining a cup of coffee at a lunch counter. Perhaps it is easy for those who have never felt the stinging darts of segregation to say, "Wait." But when you have seen vicious mobs lynch your mothers and fathers at will and drown your sisters and brothers at whim; when you have seen hate filled policemen curse, kick and even kill your black brothers and sisters; when you see the vast majority of your twenty million Negro brothers smothering in an airtight cage of poverty in the midst of an affluent society; when you suddenly find your tongue twisted and your speech stammering as you seek to explain to your six year old daughter why she can't go to the public amusement park that has just been advertised on television, and see tears welling up in her eyes when she is told that Funtown is closed to colored children, and see ominous clouds of inferiority beginning to form in her little mental sky, and see her beginning to distort her personality by developing an unconscious bitterness toward white people; when you have to concoct an answer for a five year old son who is asking: "Daddy, why do white people treat colored people so mean?"; when you take a cross county drive and find it necessary to sleep night after night in the uncomfortable corners of your automobile because no motel will accept you; when you are humiliated day in and day out by nagging signs reading "white" and "colored"; when your first name becomes "nigger," your middle name becomes "boy" (however old you are) and your last name becomes "John," and your wife and mother are never given the respected title "Mrs."; when you are harried by day and haunted by night by the fact that you are a Negro, living constantly at tiptoe stance, never quite knowing what to expect next, and are plagued with inner fears and outer resentments; when you are forever fighting a degenerating sense of "nobodiness"--then you will understand why we find it difficult to wait. There comes a time when the cup of endurance runs over, and men are no longer willing to be plunged into the abyss of despair. I hope, sirs, you can understand our legitimate and unavoidable impatience. You express a great deal of anxiety over our willingness to break laws. This is certainly a legitimate concern. Since we so diligently urge people to obey the Supreme Court's decision of 1954 outlawing segregation in the public schools, at first glance it may seem rather paradoxical for us consciously to break laws. One may well ask: "How can you advocate breaking some laws and obeying others?" The answer lies in the fact that there are two types of laws: just and unjust. I would be the first to advocate obeying just laws. One has not only a legal but a moral responsibility to obey just laws. Conversely, one has a moral responsibility to disobey unjust laws. I would agree with St. Augustine that "an unjust law is no law at all."
You can see the Bishops are suffering just like Dr. King and his ancestors did for 340 years.  Why, you can't slip a piece of paper between the difference between them; it's that close. Requiring all employers to provide the same health care coverage to all of their employees is just like suffering from lynch mobs and segregated amusement parks and people calling you "nigger."

Yup.  I can see that, now.

“It is a sobering thing to contemplate our government enacting an unjust law,” the bishops said. “An unjust law cannot be obeyed. In the face of an unjust law, an accommodation is not to be sought, especially by resorting to equivocal words and deceptive practices. If we face today the prospect of unjust laws, then Catholics in America, in solidarity with our fellow citizens, must have the courage not to obey them. No American desires this. No Catholic welcomes it. But if it should fall upon us, we must discharge it as a duty of citizenship and an obligation of faith.”
And I'm sure the penalty will be a very serious fine.  A very serious fine.  Maybe as they write the check for it, the Bishops will find time to scratch out a letter on hidden bits of paper and sneak it out of their bishoprics to be published in defiance of the overwhelming burden of governmental regulations.  And please note, this is the slippery slope to closing Catholic churches altogether:

What we ask is nothing more than the right to follow our consciences as we live out our teaching. This right is not only about our ability to go to Mass on Sunday or pray the Rosary at home.
 Today, it's insurance coverage for non-Catholic employees of non-religious (i.e., non-ecclesiastical) institutions; tomorrow, they'll come for your rosary rings.  Because:

What is at stake is whether America will continue to have a free, creative, and robust civil society—or whether the state alone will determine who gets to contribute to the common good, and how they get to do it.
And the common good is not benefited by treating all non-religious employees as equally as possible. 

I wanted to end with some clever, sharp comment; but honestly, I think the Bishops have simply lost their minds.

It must be something in the water.

Goin' Rogue

"The various vitalities of human history are moreover not only in conflict with Zeus but in conflict with each other."--Reinhold Niebuhr

Charles Pierce's place is giving me the best points for discussion just now. Case in point: Obama's Kill List and the End of the Post-9/11 World, where he makes this salient point:

 This has been the new normal since September 11. Everyone knows, but nobody says, that if something happens again, the elite consensus in this country, and the overwhelming consensus of the citizenry, will be to pitch the Bill of Rights out the window and start rounding folks up. And, also, that, if it happens on a Democrat's watch, they'll be carving Dick Cheney's head on Mt. Rushmore by sunset of the second day. Could make it tough in Indiana or North Carolina this fall. And thus do homicidal maniacs overseas come to control the spirit of the democratic process.

But that sounds a bit cynical and bitter (if it isn't still a proper political analysis; and every politician knows it doesn't matter what you want to do if you aren't in office to do it.  Ask LBJ.); this is the real point:
Laws are weak. Laws are wrong. Laws are as clumsy as flintlocks and Bowie knives. Laws do not help make people dead. (Except in Texas, of course.) Laws are not even good politics any more. They won't get you re-elected. It used to be that we were in a post-9/11 world, and that made anything acceptable. Now, apparently, we are in a post-bombs-in-the-skivvies world, and that's an even more dangerous place.
Which prompts at least one commenter to recall Thomas More.  But that's too easy; let's go for the jugular, and bring in the French:
Perhaps this is the moment to recall an example that would appear particularly symptomatic of the current situation we have been discussing regarding Islam and democracy, namely, what happened in postcolonial Algeria in 1992 when the state and the leading party interrupted a democratic electoral process. Try to imagine what the interruption of an election between the so-called rounds of balloting might mean for a democracy. Imagine that, in France, with the National Front threatening to pull off an electoral victory, the election was suspended after the first round, that is, between the two rounds. A question always of the turn or the round, of the two turns or two rounds, of the by turns, democracy hesitates always in the alternative between two sorts of alernation: the so-called normal and democratic alternation (where of one party, said to be republican, replaces that of another be equally republican) and the alternation that risks giving power, modo democratico, to the force of a party elected by the people (and so is democratic) and yet is assumed to be nondemocratic.... The great question of modern parliamentary and representative democracy, perhaps of all democracy, in this logic of the turn or round, of the other turn or round, of the other time and thus of the other, of the alter in general, is that the alternative to democracy can always be represented as a democratic alteration. The electoral process under way in Algeria in effect risked giving power, in accordance with perfectly legal means, to a likely majority that presented itself as essentially Islamic and Islamist and to which one attributed the intention, doubt with good reason, of wanting to change the constitution and abolish the normal functioning of democracy or the very democratization assumed to be in progress.... The Algerian government and a large part, though not a majority, of the Algerian people (as well as people outside Algeria) thought that the electoral process under way would lead democratically to the end of democracy. Thus they preferred to put an end to it themselves. They decided in a sovereign fashion to suspend, at least provisionally, democracy for its own good, so as to take care of it, so as to immunize it against a much worse and very likely assault....[T]he hypothesis here is that of a taking of power or, rather, a transferring of power to a people who, in its electoral majority and following democratic procedures, could not have been able to avoid the destruction of democracy itself.
Jacques Derrida, Rogues, tr. Pascale-Anne Brault and Michael Naas (Stanford University Press, Stanford, 2005), pp. 30-36 Sounds more like Egypt right now than the U.S., eh?  Well, add this to the mix:
...one will never actually be able to "prove" that there is more democracy in granting or in refusing the right to vote to immigrants, notably those who live and work in the national territory, nor that there is more or less democracy in a straight majority vote as opposed to proportional voting; both forms of voting are democratic, and yet both also protect their democratic character through exclusion, through some renvoi; for the force of the demos, the force of democrary, commits it, in the name of universal equality, to representing not only the greatest force of the greatest number, the majority of citizens considered of age, but also the weakness of the weak, minors, minorities, the poor, and all those throughout the world who call out in suffering for a legitimately infinite extension of what are called human rights. One electoral law is thus always at the same time more and less democratic than another; it is the force of force, a weakness of force and the force of a weakness; which means that democracy protects itself and maintains itself precisely by limiting and threatening itself.
Democracy maintains itself by limiting and threatening itself.  And when even that is seen as a threat to democracy, then democracy must be destroyed in order to be preserved.   "The alternative to democracy can always be represented as a democratic alteration."  After all, we elected the President to protect us, and we maintain a military force in order to preserve the union; and we cannot allow another attack on American soil.  It cannot even go unanswered, it cannot happen at all.  Because if it does, " the elite consensus in this country, and the overwhelming consensus of the citizenry, will be to pitch the Bill of Rights out the window and start rounding folks up."

You know, we seem to have forgotten in our rush to congratulate ourselves on electing the first black man to the Presidency, that we still expect our black men and women to be twice as good as any white man or woman, to be considered half as good.  And if you think racism plays into the political angst Barack Obama generates, it's hard to argue this doesn't play into why Barack Obama administers his duties as ruthlessly as he does.  Pierce is right about Aquinas and Augustine and "just war;"  that's all just so much eye wash.  Obama is using that "doctrine" the way it's always been used:  to justify what he wants to do in the first place.  But then, he's a good lawyer, and while legal theory is always about what ought to be done, legal practice is about what you can get done.  Or get away with; two conditions that often appear alike.

And then there's the lagniappe of needing to be twice as good, in order to be half as good.  Obama hasn't escaped that trap, either.

Wendell Berry had some pithy observations on 9/11; among them were these:

I. The time will soon come when we will not be able to remember the horrors of September 11 without remembering also the unquestioning and economic optimism that ended on that day.

II. This optimism rested on the proposition that we were living ina a "new world order" and a "new economy" that would "grow" on and on, bringing a prosperity of which every new increment would be "unprecedented."

VI. The paramount doctrine of the economic and technological euphoria of recent decades has been that everything depends on innovation. It was understood as desirable, and even necessary, that we should go on and on from one technological innovation to the next, which would cause the economy to "grow" and make everything better and better. This of course implied at every point a hatred of the past, of all things inherited and free. All things superceded in our progress of innovations, whatever their value might have been, were discounted as of no value at all.

VII. We did not anticipate anything like what has now happened. We did not foresee that all our sequence of innovations might be at once overridden by a greater one: the invention of a new kind of war that would turn our previous innovations against us, discovering and exploiting the debits and the dangers that we had ignored. We never considered the possibility that we might be trapped in the webwork of communication and transport that was supposed to make us free.

VIII. Nor did we foresee that the weaponry and the war science that we marketed and taught to the world would become available, not just to recognized national governments, which possess so uncannily the power to legitimate large-scale violence, but also to "rogue nations," dissident or fanatical groups and individuals--whose violence, though never worse than that of nations, is judged by the nations to be illegitimate.

IX. We had accepted uncritically the belief that technology is only good; that it cannot serve evil as well as good; that it cannot serve our enemies as well as ourselves; that it cannot be used to destroy what is good, including our homeland and our lives.

Wendell Berry, In the Presence of Fear, Three Essays for a Changed World, The Orion Society, Great Barrington, MA, 2001, pp. 1-3.

To which I would add:  before 9/11, we still believed in "Fortress America."  No world war touched our shores any closer than Hawaii.  The wars we fought in the last half of the 20th century stayed far away from us.  9/11 not only turned our technology against us, it tore down the barriers of two oceans, and proved we were part of the planet after all.  We are still terrified by that thought; as well as the thought that our power can be challenged by small groups, when all our efforts have been to contain "rogue nations."

And we still believe we can't ever, ever, be a "rogue nation."  Dat's dem other guys.

Tuesday, May 29, 2012

Memorial Day Memorialized

I missed this "controversy" over the weekend, which is odd because I usually watch Chris Hayes (but I slept late that morning). 

I find it ironically funny that Mr. Hayes' innocuous remarks sparked such outrage, considering that AMC (the cable channel, not the defunct car company) ran "Flags of Our Fathers" over and over again all weekend, a movie dedicated to examining the idea of "war heroes" and even the wisdom of making the iconic flag raising on Iwo Jima iconic at all.

According to the film, the Marines and Navy corpsman responsible for that image were made into heroes in order to generate funding for the war effort.  They didn't think they were heroes.  They pointedly called the dead on Iwo Jima the real heroes, and never seem to have been comfortable with their roles (if the movie is accurate, one of them was even promised all kinds of jobs, but after the war he was "last week's hero," and never worked any job better than janitor for the rest of his life.  One of the others, a Native American, died of "exposure."  To say the way America treats its "heroes" does not come across well in this film would be an understatement.)  They were told, in blunt terms, that they would be heroes in public because without them, the war bond drive would collapse, and with it would go the ability of the U.S. to continue to wage war.  (Which, not incidentally, puts a new light on the bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki.  Two atomic bombs that caused Japan to sue for peace were cheaper, and not just in American lives.)  The film is a nuanced and careful examination of what we mean by "heroes" (shot through with war scenes that make "Saving Private Ryan" look like a Sunday school picnic.)

But that isn't controversial, while Mr. Hayes' remarks are.

Hmmmm.    Score one for art, I suppose.

Friday, May 25, 2012

Preaching it round and also square....

Apropos of nothing except that you can't keep up with reality,  Charles Pierce notices that Romney stepped on 30 years of GOP economic policy:

Halperin: Why not in the first year, if you're elected - why not in 2013, go all the way and propose the kind of budget with spending restraints, that you'd like to see after four years in office?  Why not do it more quickly?

Romney: Well because, if you take a trillion dollars for instance, out of the first year of the federal budget, that would shrink GDP over 5%.  That is by definition throwing us into recession or depression.  So I'm not going to do that, of course. 

Now, as it readily admits, the blog's knowledge of economics is limited to the blog's first law of economics -- Fck The Deficit. People Got No Jobs. People Got No Money -- and it also believes that most professional economists arrive at their conclusions by reading the entrails of doves and cutting up goats on a rock, so it may be wrong here but didn't Romney, in saying that, pretty much blow up the entire rationale for over 30 years of Republican economics right there? Cutting government spending will throw us into a recession or depression? No Christmas cards from the Ryan household this year, Willard.

Which would be stunning, shocking, and amazing, if not for the GOP Senators in Washington:
Sen. Harry Reid’s refusal to “back off” looming cuts to the Pentagon won’t just harm the nation’s security, Republicans say. It could plunge the fragile U.S. economy back into a recession next year. GOP defense hawks struck back at the Senate majority leader Thursday for insisting he won’t stave off or delay $600 billion in automatic defense cuts unless Republicans budge on new revenues.

Or, as Jon Kyl puts it:

 “The whole point here is to try to get some economic growth, job creation, to get out of this recession,” Kyl told POLITICO. “Why would we risk going backward with policy that even CBO says would be the wrong prescription right now?”
Now, yes, these are cuts the Republicans insisted on in the Budget Control Act last August.  But then, foolish consistency is the hobgoblin of small minds.

Or something.

Thursday, May 24, 2012

Meanwhile, back at the ranch....

Diane Rehm covered this recently, courtesy of Ross Douthat (who really should know better).  It was nothing new to me; I'd learned about this in seminary, more than a decade ago.  But what is known to academics and "experts" in the field, is always last known by the people who will be affected by it.  Like the people in Muncie, Indiana:

Knock around Muncie for proof: City Hall, like Washington, is petty and polarized, driving down voter engagement. Stodgy mainline churches are losing worshipers in droves. Low-tech and unruly public schools are prompting parents to pull their children out. The city’s once-beloved business class shuttered its factories, leaving a legacy of double-digit unemployment and helplessness. Labor unions once credited with creating the middle class are now often blamed for the demise of industry. Even The Star Press, Muncie’s daily newspaper once venerated for holding locals to account, was gutted after a job-killing merger in 1996 and the sale, a few years later, to media giant Gannett.
I mention Muncie only because of that highlighted sentence. The cause and effect there is all wrong. "Stodgy mainline churches" have been losing worshipers in droves since long before the economy collapsed. Even Ross Douthat knows that.


The goings-on at Union Chapel Ministries, just a few miles away, help explain why traditionalists are languishing. Sitting on a 40-acre plot, Union Chapel is part of a fast-growing multibillion-dollar religious industry in America that is adapting one of the world’s oldest institutions to fit modern times—by giving congregants a sense of connection many had ceased to feel elsewhere. These so-called mega-churches are led by charismatic pastors with the skill set of corporate marketers; they sell not just the word of God but also the utility of God’s teaching in an era of atomization and economic change. What would Jesus do about long-term unemployment, school bullying, and Facebook? These churches help worshippers figure it out.

Union Chapel’s pastor, Gregg Parris, speaks in phrases you’d expect from an M.B.A. (“I’m in the word business”) or a sociologist (“We’re going from a Gutenberg world to a Google world”). He keeps his sermons simple because “you can’t assume everybody knows the Lord’s Prayer,” and he strives to make the liturgy relevant to life’s challenges. His church offers counseling for depression, anxiety, eating disorders, marriage problems, alcoholism, and sexual abuse. Union Chapel heavily promotes its social clubs to buoy connection-starved people. The services are casual, hip, and focused on middle-class Muncians who feel abandoned amid economic change. “My job,” Parris says in an interview at his office, “is to fill in the gaps where our institutions have failed us.”
By, one cannot help but notice, being as secular as possible. Remind me, what world did Jesus live in? It wasn't the Gutenberg world. Although, true enough, Jesus spoke to people of his day outside the institutional structures, which seem in the Gospels to have failed people then as much as they have today. But Jesus made no effort to set up an institution.  Nor did he seem too interested in the gaps where the institutions had failed.  Paul set up an institution, without really meaning to.

Next, Paul believes absolutely that "Jesus" or the "Messiah/Christ" or the "Lord" all refer to the same person. Paul can spaek of the Lord Jesus Christ or of the Lord Jesus or, most simply, of the Lord. On the one hand, "lord" was a polite term usable by slave to master or disciple to teacher. On the other, "the Lord" meant the emperor himself. What we see here is what Gustav Adolf Deissmann described, almost a hundred years ago, as "the early establishment of a polemical parallelism between the cult of Christ and the cult of Caesar in the application of the term kyrios, 'lord.'" Or, if you prefer, polemical parallelism as high treason.

(In Search of Paul, John Dominic Crossan and Jonathan L. Reed, (New York: HarperCollins 2004, p. 166.).  That was Paul. And I quote that particularly because of the reference to Diessmann's work from almost a century gone now.  We've known this was Paul's work for longer than any of us have been alive.  But who among us has yet heard of this?  Who has noticed?  Paul set his "institution" up among families, the basic foundational unit of Roman society. But he did it in a way that was radically counter-cultural.  There are reasons the Romans didn't like the Christians, and it doesn't have solely to do with Roman "tolerance" and Christian "intolerance."  That version gives too much credit to Rome, and too little to Paul and his disciples.  Now, as in Rome, the family is a one-stop shop for all your psychological and material (and spiritual? Maybe. Maybe they get to that eventually) needs. But is it Christianity? Is it discipleship?
Walt [Kallestad] led Community Church of Joy in Phoenix, a megachurch that had been an average congregation of 200 before he took over in the 80s and oversaw it's growth. But in 2002 he suffered a massive heart attack requiring six-way bypass surgery. The heart attack, says Walt, was a "wake up call" for the leaders to develop a succession plan to ensure the megachurch continued to thrive after Walt's tenure. Kallestad began networking around the country looking for a young pastor he could bring onboard and eventually hand the church over to. One conversation stuck with him. "It's a pretty good opportunity," Walt said. "We have 187 acres just off a major freeway, multipurpose buildings, and a great staff." The leader looked him in the eyes and said, "Who'd want it? Who in their right minds would want to run that?" "That's when it dawned on me," Kallestad reflected. "By the time we service the $12-million debt, pay the staff, and maintain the property, we've spent more than a million before we can spend a dime on our mission. At the time, we had plans for a spectacular worship center with a retractable roof. After that conversation, I scrapped it."
Part of the problem there, of course, is that seminary and bible colleges are not business schools.  They don't train pastors to be administrators of multi-million dollar enterprises, and few of us enter ministry with that ideal in mind.  The question that young pastor was asking was:  Who wants those headaches?  Ministry is hard enough without being the CEO of a business enterprise with major capital investments.  Kallestad seems to be understanding there that the mission of church is mission, not church.  But that doesn't answer the question, it just raises one:  what is the mission of the church?

If it is just to help us get through our daily lives, then it isn't for much at all.  On the other hand, if church is wholly unconcerned with our daily lives, then it isn't much good at all, either.  There is a legitimate question in this quote:  "What would Jesus do about long-term unemployment, school bullying, and Facebook? These churches help worshippers figure it out." But aside from Facebook, none of those issues are new to the church or to America. Churches have always dealt with those problems; you can't be a pastor and not encounter every problem of modern existence (Facebook, for example) and human existence in the course of just a few years, including the extremes of death, suicide, murder, and deep psychological trauma. I've no doubt Americans are "connection starved people." Does the Church have to be "casual, hip, and focused on the middle-class" in order to address that? (And by the way, point me to one congregation in America that isn't focused on the economic class from which the majority of its congregants are drawn.) But before I start yelling about bad writing and lazy journalism (or, as Charles Pierce would say, without meaning to reference Ricouer at all, narrative!), let's try to consider the slightly larger picture.
If Parris’s church is fresh, new, and relevant, John Hunt, the head usher back at High Street, knows how his church is perceived. “Some people think it’s cold and unfriendly,” he says. Mendenhall, too, knows he’s failing to reach people, as are other traditional churches struggling to keep pace with the times. As the 60-year-old Methodist pastor puts it, “Churches are still stuck in the mentality that we just have to fling our doors open, and people will come. That’s not the case anymore. Just look around.”
Douthat hits this point correctly: church growth exploded after World War II. People moved to the suburbs and took the churches with them (many "inner city churches" are dying or have died for just that reason; it's been going on for over 60 years now), and church attendance went up to heights literally not seen even when the Puritans ran Massachusetts. The collapse, or rather the return to status quo, was inevitable. What Pastor Mendenhall identifies as no longer the case hasn't been the case since at least my childhood. This is not, in other words, news (and an Episcopal priest was the first caller to the show, and his comment boiled down to "Same as it ever was!"). I do like this bit, too:
Traditional churches often cater to people who no longer exist—men and women guaranteed long marriages, many children, and a single job that lasts a lifetime. Today, as people search for moral grounding in an uncertain world, what is more relevant to them, Mendenhall must wonder: choirs or rock bands? Church-basement socials or Starbucks? Bake sales or yoga classes? Missions that serve the poor overseas or those that help the church’s own destitute neighbors?
I'm not sure what having a single marriage, job, and "many children" has to do with choirs v. rock bands.  The Starbucks reference is just trying to be cute, and yoga is a spiritual practice of Hinduism (it is first described in the Baghavad Gita), so, um..... (besides, how very '60's. Everything old really is new again.).  Again, this argument has been around since I was a pre-teen in the Presbyterian church, and we're no closer to an answer now than we were then (nor have the mainline churches disappeared yet.  Taking a long itme for the collapse to sink in, apparently.) As for the highlighted portion, which neighbors does the church plan to serve? Its own congregants? Or the people around the church?  Or the vast, abstract "poor" who are somewhere out there and deserving of our charity? (although not anyone who might be drawn to the church door.  At least, few churches are truly interested in soup kitchens on their grounds).  The latter is seen as "charity" and might well clash with the sensibilities of people who think the poor are lazy, shiftless, or the cause of their own woes (I've known many a middle-class church member to express that opinion). Charity for the members? Is that really going to draw a crowd, when you are asking the church to emulate the one Luke described in Acts? Even Paul knew that couldn't last long.

I also like the slam at "low-tech schools."  I was discussing this with my college age daughter today, recalling my childhood of filmstrips and movies (Your friend, the Atom!) and speed reading machines (????), and all the technological folderol which was cutting edge before we knew there was a cutting edge, and all aimed at making us learn better and faster than our parents because we were the true TV Generation!

And it was all bollocks.  Film strips taught us to wait for the "ding" on the record.  Movies taught me we could watch TV in school (same difference).  Disney taught me atomic power was my friend.  (Oops!  Sorry, Japan.  Again.)  I learned more about atomic physics by reading my way through the books at the Carnegie Library downtown.  A lot more.  Technology didn't teach me squat, except how to keep my eyes open in a dark room.  Books taught me.  Teachers taught me.  I teach in a "low-tech" classroom now; at least the way I use it is low-tech.  Would I be a better teacher with a smart board and a Power-Point presentation, and lots of streaming video from YouTube?  I can tell teachers next door to me are doing that, because I can hear their audio track above my own lecturing.  For some reason audio can't be heard unless it is louder than the action film in the theater next to you at the multiplex. And when I've substituted in classes where a film was assigned, I see the same glazed eyes in the students I undoubtedly had at home in front of my parents' TV.  Or in the classroom, with the movie projector whirring noisily above the soundtrack.

But, you know, narrative.

Which is ultimately the problem here:  narrative.  Tie this into it, if you will:

Mainstream news organizations like the New York Times, ever-fearful of being branded anti-religious, have allowed themselves to be bullied into accepting the Christian right’s implicit suggestion that the only true Christian is a Christian conservative member of an evangelical or fundamentalist congregation.
And the irony is, even the most MSM-skeptic blogs tend to buy right into that narrative:

I’ll give him the secular part. He probably likes using birth control, eating at nice restaurants, etc. He definitely likes writing about anal sex (be very afraid).
Because we all know only secular people like birth control, eating at nice restaurants, etc.

Yeah, Balloon Juice only means that as shorthand for the stereotype of the "believer," but really:  does everyone have to swallow the blue pill in order to critique the Matrix?

I come at this via  Slacktivist, who rails against the mis-labeling of Christians.  While I'm sympathetic, I'm not sure this isn't attacking the branches of the tree of evil, rather than the roots.  Maybe that's because I grew up in Southern Baptist East Texas, struggling almost as for air to establish my Christianity (mainline Protestantism) as equally valid to the "Are you saved?" variety practiced by every wide-eyed Baptist boy and girl of my acquaintance.  Even then I was less worried about my individual salvation and my eternal soul than how should I then live.

But we are still circling the question of what church is for.  Is it supposed to buttress the decisions of the world, as Douthat seems to advise?  That's the church Martin Luther King excoriated in his "Letter from Birmingham Jail."  Michael Sean Winters points out something that came up in Douthat's interview with Diane Rehm:  his pitiful ignorance of where most churches in America stood on the question of King's civil rights marches:

 He argues that “both branches of American Christendom [Mainline Protestantism and Roman Catholicism] embraced the civil rights movement well before the politicians did.” That would come as news to many white, Southern, mainline preachers, who searchingly found ways to resist the civil rights movement. It is true that the leaders of the Catholic Church, which had been quite ambivalent about slavery during the Civil War, took up the cause of desegregation wholeheartedly, but when Dr. King got to the Catholic suburbs of Chicago in the 1960s, he saw the same hatred that he had seen in Birmingham.

Of course, Douthat's analysis seems to rest on criticism of the Roman Catholic church that is limited to Vatican II, and criticism of the culture generally which seems to have deviated from this:

“Both the Protestant Mainline and the Catholic Church were strong cultures in 1950s America—capable of making their presence felt in the commanding heights of American life, from the media and the academy to the film and television industries, even as they provided a powerful spiritual and ethical vocabulary for everyday life down below. Together, these two traditions supplied a common religious story and a common moral framework for a vast and complicated nation, influencing even where they did not predominate, and sowing seeds in fields where they did not reap the harvest.”

 Which is simply nonsense, as Winters shows in his review.  In fact, he sums up Douthat's argument quite nicely, this way:

In the 1950s, Reinhold Niebuhr and Bishop Fulton Sheen carried the arguments for orthodoxy while Bing Crosby and Karl Malden brought the presbyterate onto the Hollywood screen and Charlton Heston came down from Sinai with God’s Holy Law. Everyone went to Church and understood the value of chastity. Then came the 1960s and liberal theology, the pill, and Vietnam, and America went to hell.
 It is pure bosh, in other words.  When things went wrong, Vietnam and the Pill were the world's contribution; "liberal theology" (i.e., Vatican II) was the church's error.  And so it goes.  We are back to the Big Idea which can never fail, but can only be failed.  People are no damned good because they fail to be servants to the Big Idea.  Interestingly, that's an entirely un-Biblical, and un-Christian, view of the world; and of God.

I've been reading, finally, The Brothers Karamazov, and I recently finished the story of the Grand Inquisitor.  In my youth this was presented to me, in various references to the novel, as a penetrating piece of theological challenge; yet, when I finally get to it, it's a simple ecclesiological screed aimed at the Roman Catholic church from an Orthodox perspective with the Jesuits as its bull's eye.  The point of the poem, as Ivan Fyodorovich calls it, is that the Church has twisted the teachings of Jesus of Nazareth into a Big Idea, the better to control the people with it.  And they did this because the people are sheeple and demand, not freedom, as the Inquisitor claims Christ came to offer them, but security.  They demand certainty.

Did you forget that peace and even death are dearer to man [sic] than free choice in the knowledge of good and evil?  There is nothing more seductive for man than the freedom of his conscience, but there is nothing more tormenting either.  And so, instead of a firm foundation for appeasing human conscience once and for all, you chose everything that was unusual, enigmatic, and indefinite, you chose everything that was beyond men's strength, and thereby acted as if you did not love them at all--and who did this?  He who came to give his life for them!  Instead of taking over men's freedom, you increased it and forever burdened the kingdom of the human soul with its torments.  You desired the free love of man, that he should follow you freely, seduced and captivated by you.
Fyodor Dostoevsky, The Brother Karamazov, tr. Richard Pevear and Larissa Volokhonksy, New York:  Vintage, 1990, pp.254-255.

I might quibble with some of the Inquisitor's details, but I think that is a sound explanation of the teachings of Christ.  I also think they are thoroughly in-line with the Hebrew Scriptures, centered as they are around the Torah.  The Inquisitor goes on to mention "the firm ancient law," but it was not so firm as most Christians imagine, and there was as much dispute about what it required as there is among Christian sects as to which doctrines are true.  Such disputes are not only human, they are necessary.  There is nothing wrong with a Big Idea; the problem is when the Big Idea replaces the human beings.  The prophets who told Judah what went wrong during and after the Exile didn't re-dot all the "i's" and recross all the "t's" of the Law:  they told the people the problem was justice.

Woe to him who says,
"I shall build myself a spacious palace
with airy roof chambers and
windows set in it.
It will be paneled with cedar
and painted with vermilion."
Though your cedar is so splendid,
does that prove you a king?
Think of your father: he ate and drank,
dealt justly and fairly; all went well with him.
He upheld the cause of the lowly and poor;
then all was well.
Did not this show he knew me? says the Lord.
But your eyes and your heart are set on naught but gain, set only on the innocent blood you can shed,
on the cruel acts of tyranny you perpetrate.

Jeremiah 22: 14-17 (REB)

And justice is never a Big Idea, or it is no longer justice.  It is measured, not by fealty to an abstraction, but by the conditions of individuals.  God isn't telling the people to become better legal scholars, to be more exacting in how they sacrifice or worship or in what doctrine they adhere to.  God is telling the people do see that justice prevails among them, to uphold the cause of the lowly and poor.  The Exile was not God's punishment for apostasy; it was the consequence of failing to follow the wisdom of the Law.

Heresy is only possible when the Big Idea becomes more important than the people, because heresy is any idea that doesn't uphold the Big Idea.  The Grand Inquisitor is not interested in the people, only in the idea of the people.  He is a servant, not of the living God, but of the Big Idea.  He is in the world and of the world, and he serves it by upholding the Big Idea.  As Charles Pierce points out, that has always been the problem:

The First Council of Nicaea, after all, was called by the Emperor Constantine, not by the bishops of the Church. Constantine — whose adoption of the Christianity that Douthat so celebrates would later be condemned by James Madison as the worst thing that ever happened to both religion and government  — demanded religious peace. The council did its damndest to give it to him. The Holy Spirit works in mysterious ways, but Constantine was a doozy.
As long as I'm wandering far and wide, and picking up shiny objects like the jackdaw that I am, a word from Gary Wills is in order here:
There was a vogue, just after the Second Vatican Council, for some Catholics to demonstrate their liberation from Catholic schooling by making fun of nuns, as strict disciplinarians or prissy moralists. I wrote at the time that this was untrue of the many nuns I have known, beginning with the Dominican Sisters of Adrian, Michigan, who taught me for five of my grade school years. They taught me the Latin of the old liturgy; Father Sullivan, our pastor, just got angry at words mispronounced or forgotten. The Dominicans never physically punished anyone that I saw or heard of.

They were more supportive of talent than were most of the lay teachers I met in a brief experience of public school. I had no artistic inclinations, but classmates who did were encouraged. The nuns’ genuine interest in their pupils can be seen in the fact that my seventh grade teacher kept in touch with me for all the years until her death in 1996. She was Sister John Joseph when I met her, but she recovered her real name after the Council, and as Anne O’Connor congratulated me on anything I wrote. (I would no more have kept up with Father Sullivan than with cholera.)
Wills writes in the context of the rebuke of the nuns by the Vatican:  "Nuns have always had a different set of priorities from that of bishops. The bishops are interested in power. The nuns are interested in the powerless."  And he notes:

Nuns were quick to respond to the AIDS crisis, and to the spiritual needs of gay people—which earned them an earlier rebuke from Rome. They were active in the civil rights movement. They ran soup kitchens. 

And still the question remains:  what is church for?  The nuns, actually, point us to an answer.

In my own church, the United Church of Christ, there is actually a history of nuns.  The UCC is a very Protestant church.  Its roots going back to the Pilgrims and Puritans on one side, and to the Lutherans and Reformed churches of Germany on the other.  When German immigrants came to this country, they brought their Evangelical church with them (a forced merger of the Lutheran and Reformed churches).  They saw that immigrants needed help, and so they set up orphanages for children left behind by parents who died too soon.  They set up asylums for the care of the mentally ill.  They established a hospital run by "sisters," women who dedicated their lives to the care of others.  Those were the "nuns."  When men went down the Mississippi from St. Louis to Biloxi on the steam ships, they needed help at the other end.  Wages were low, life was hard.  A mission to help them was set up there.  All of these institutions still exist, and they were possible only because people gathered together and cared enough in that gathering to do such things.  It's a common argument today (prick any blog and it will bleed this response) that such things are entirely possible among atheists and non-believers; and indeed, they are.  But show me an organized group of atheists who has ever set up a hospital for the public good, with entirely private efforts.  Show me a group of atheists who ever gathered together long enough to leave behind the institutions in Missouri and Mississippi established by the German Evangelical church, by immigrants themselves almost too poor to feed themselves.  Those immigrants were not so poor they couldn't set up orphanages and hospitals and asylums; but they weren't so rich that such things were done out of their pocket change.  Yes, atheists and non-Christians could have done such things:  but they didn't.  Later many more institutions would arise, and they would become more and more secular (Deaconness Hospital is now part of a larger system; it no longer stands alone, or with any affiliation to the UCC; no more than Harvard is still connected to the Congregational church.).  These things happened when they happened because people of faith cared enough to make them happen.  And I know of plenty of Episcopal and Methodist and Presbyterian, as well as Roman Catholic, hospitals still functioning today.  Such institutions do not exist without people organized enough to see to their existence.  Many of these places did not happen without a church interested in seeing them happen.

So what is church for?  "Religion is responsibility, or it is nothing at all," Jacques Derrida tells us.  Is church just a community organization that does good?  There are other such organizations in America, organized for just that purpose, and none of them are considered "religious."  They take the claims of responsibility as seriously as any religious institution; perhaps more so.  To say "churches did this" is not to elevate believers above non-believers or even anti-believers.  It is to say institutions and organizations and groups of people have a purpose beyond merely serving the interests of the group.  If they do not, then Reinhold Niebuhr's rather bleak sociological vision of human communities large and small leaves us on a darkling plain where ignorant armies clash by night (he was, by the say, savaging the "Social Gospel" which Gary Wills and others are currently praising in response to the Bishops and the Vatican.  The term has changed in meaning since Niebuhr's day; and Niebuhr's attack on the older term is still sound.) 

Is the purpose of the church to remain unchanged by a changing world?  Is it to be the still point of the turning world?  But aren't those the churches that are now failing to reach the people?

If my sympathies are with the nuns against the Bishops, it is in part because I probably misunderstand the conflict.  But it is also born of experience with church judicatories.  My experience being between the congregation and the judicatory (whatever they are:  Bishops, Conference Ministers, employees out of UCC Cleveland, what have you) is that the latter inevitably treat every problem as amenable to a Big Idea.  The representative of the hierarchy always has a larger vision, a bigger view, a nobler purpose, than those of us in the trenches, and no matter what we may say about conditions on the ground, the representative knows better and understands deeper and needs us only to listen and convey the interests of the Church or the General Synod or whoever it is, to the people in the pews.  Who will undoubtedly understand, if we the ministers will simply do our job and ad-minister the policy of the hierarchy.

That this seldom works out in practice, and even more seldom leads to a fruitful dialogue among all parties concerned, is also seldom considered a significant obstacle to implementation.  When I considered entering seminary the Dean of the school told me the seminary wanted to put theologians in the pulpits.  It was (obviously) an idea I was sympathetic to; but it also meant someone with knowledge exercising that knowledge in empathy with the people in the pews (never, actually, the "congregation."  There is no "congregation."  That, too, is an abstraction, not a noun; an idea, not an object.).  "They don't care how much you know until they know how much you care," I was reminded time and again; and it turned out to be the truest advice I got.   Ministry is hard because it involves working with individuals, and individuals lead messy lives.  A minister needs guiding principles; but she also needs deep understanding; the kind of understanding you get only by establishing relationships with individuals, and with the group they make up as a "congregation."  (So it is, after all, a thing; but a querulous thing, a thing usually more quarrelsome than quiet.)

So what is church for?  It is for the faithfulness to the tradition, and to the revelation.  Which faithfulness, by and large, cuts out the Prosperity Gospel.  Church is not for how you can think and grow rich.  Whatever Joel Osteen runs he does not, in my humble opinion, run a church.  Not that I'm going to take that issue up with the IRS; but there we are.  Church is also for the transmission and communication and development of the faith.  That is a definition Paul would probably agree with, although his "house churches" look nothing like anything we call church today, and their absence underlines the need for something more institutional and less based on accidental (i.e., family) relationships.  How that faith is transmitted (and, equally, what faith is transmitted) is a complex issue, but it isn't necessarily one of choirs v rock bands.  I wonder how much this is an issue in churches which don't have choirs as part of their tradition, (there are more than a few of them), and which encourage singing because there are no instruments to drown out the people in the pews?  I grew up with beautiful organ playing, but more and more I've come to recognize it serves to keep the congregations quiet, not to encourage them to open their throats and make a joyful noise.  And does anybody really sing to a rock band?  Or is it just there for the entertainment value, like the multiple screens and the light show and the PowerPoint presentations during the sermon?

And what is that form of "worship" teaching?  That worshiping God is a spectator sport?  Liturgy is the work of the people.  If you aren't doing any work at all, except to keep up with the images flashing on the screens, or the dialogue of the actors on the "stage," how is "worship" any different from live theater? As I've noted before, this style of worship doesn't create disciples, it creates attendees.  It creates an audience, not a congregation.

I've talked about all of this before.  The question is:  what makes a congregation?  The megachurch hasn't really answered that question, and already shows many signs of trying to find its way in a still-changing world.  And before the megachurches, it was the TV evangelists, of whom a friend of mine who is a pastor derisively said:  "Call them when you need a funeral."  And before the TV evangelists, it was the tent revivalists.  And before them, it was...

Well, it's turtles all the way down.

The analysis of Douthat's discontent that I mentioned above ends on a note that made me wish I'd written it:

 My problem with Douthat’s book is not that his opinions differ from my own. My problem is that he does not seem to have any idea what he is talking about. In the West, there has been no universally accepted authoritative voice on orthodoxy since the Reformation. “What am I to do when many persons allege different interpretations, each one of whom swears to have the Spirit?” asked Erasmus in 1524. But Douthat does not see the larger picture that he aims to explain, and his treatment of his subject is so pitifully mistaken in things large and small that what we are left with is a meandering, self-serving screed. The book has the same reliance on private judgment that anyone who was really concerned with heresy would recognize as part of the problem, not part of the solution.
It's the stupidity, stupid.  And by the way, Charles Pierce tells me Chuck Todd and David Brooks were terribly interested in the National Journal article I started with, so don't let anybody tell you my 12th century theological obsessions are not on the cutting edge of what's happenin' now! (IMHO it's a nothing burger of an article, but it was good for a quote.)  I think I really start to despair (rather than just playing at despair) when I realize how many times humanity has to reinvent the wheel just to start to get a handle on what's really ailing us:  and what it is, ain't Facebook or technology or even the New Atheism.

It's that humanity is still the same as it ever was.

Wednesday, May 23, 2012

"What kind of people worship here?"

It should be noted at the outset that Reinhold Niebuhr would likely agree with James Madison.  But Niebuhr would also note that Madison is letting the people in the pews off far too lightly.  An institution, after all, be it ecclesiastical or corporate, is guided by those who comprise it far more than it is guided by the people who think they operate it:

What influence, in fact, have ecclesiastical establishments had on society? In some instances they have been seen to erect a spiritual tyranny on the ruins of the civil authority; in many instances they have been seen upholding the thrones of political tyranny; in no instance have they been the guardians of the liberties of the people. Rulers who wish to subvert the public liberty may have found an established clergy convenient allies.
-- James Madison, Memorial And Remonstrance Against Religious Assessments, June 20, 1785.

The other night on Lawrence O'Donnell's show Martin Bashir played a by now familiar clip of a Baptist preacher spewing hatred for gays.  Anthea Butler, a woman I hold in fairly high regard from her appearances on MSNBC, also argued that the people were being led by their pastor to this hatred.  She called the congregation "docile" and "very comfortable" with listening to such speech.  It's a nice world, if you can live in it; but it isn't reality.


Would that it were, in fact; would that it were so simple as to simply mislead people on what scripture says, or what Jesus taught.  Would that the only problem was a handful of ignorant and hate-filled clergy, making convenient allies with rulers who wish to subvert the public liberty.  But only a person who has spent little time in a church, and no time in a pulpit, could imagine it were so.

Congregations are not sheep, and pastors and priests are not shepherds.  Woe be unto the seminary graduate who imagines the people in the pews are simply waiting for their divine guidance to see the light and to learn to love and not hate, to accept and not reject.


It's interesting to read the comments at Charles Pierce's blog, where I got the Madison quote.  Someone raised the issue of Dr. Martin Luther King and other religious leaders as a counterpoint to Madison, and others almost immediately noted Madison was speaking of institutions, not individuals.  On that cleavage we always find our salvation, because we can praise the sainted memory of Dr. King and ignore the fact he lived and died an ordained clergy, and all of his work was done in the context of churches and through institutions, most of them religious or with roots in religious institutions.  We love the simple dualism of "love the sinner, hate the sin," as if sin were something always outside of us, and we were all loving and reasonable and kind, and the fault always lay with someone else. Our body is bad, but our soul is good, so our intentions are interrupted by our carnal prisons, but who can blame us?   How soon do we forget that Dr. King's famous letter from Birmingham was addressed to the clergy there, and the last quarter of it is taken up with the failings of white churches to join the struggle for justice that Dr. King and the black churches who supported him are engaged in.

When I was suddenly catapulted into the leadership of the bus protest in Montgomery, Alabama, a few years ago, I felt we would be supported by the white church. I felt that the white ministers, priests and rabbis of the South would be among our strongest allies. Instead, some have been outright opponents, refusing to understand the freedom movement and misrepresenting its leaders; all too many others have been more cautious than courageous and have remained silent behind the anesthetizing security of stained glass windows.

In spite of my shattered dreams, I came to Birmingham with the hope that the white religious leadership of this community would see the justice of our cause and, with deep moral concern, would serve as the channel through which our just grievances could reach the power structure. I had hoped that each of you would understand. But again I have been disappointed.

I have heard numerous southern religious leaders admonish their worshipers to comply with a desegregation decision because it is the law, but I have longed to hear white ministers declare: "Follow this decree because integration is morally right and because the Negro is your brother." In the midst of blatant injustices inflicted upon the Negro, I have watched white churchmen stand on the sideline and mouth pious irrelevancies and sanctimonious trivialities. In the midst of a mighty struggle to rid our nation of racial and economic injustice, I have heard many ministers say: "Those are social issues, with which the gospel has no real concern." And I have watched many churches commit themselves to a completely other worldly religion which makes a strange, un-Biblical distinction between body and soul, between the sacred and the secular.

I have traveled the length and breadth of Alabama, Mississippi and all the other southern states. On sweltering summer days and crisp autumn mornings I have looked at the South's beautiful churches with their lofty spires pointing heavenward. I have beheld the impressive outlines of her massive religious education buildings. Over and over I have found myself asking: "What kind of people worship here? Who is their God? Where were their voices when the lips of Governor Barnett dripped with words of interposition and nullification? Where were they when Governor Wallace gave a clarion call for defiance and hatred? Where were their voices of support when bruised and weary Negro men and women decided to rise from the dark dungeons of complacency to the bright hills of creative protest?"

Yes, these questions are still in my mind. In deep disappointment I have wept over the laxity of the church. But be assured that my tears have been tears of love. There can be no deep disappointment where there is not deep love. Yes, I love the church. How could I do otherwise? I am in the rather unique position of being the son, the grandson and the great grandson of preachers. Yes, I see the church as the body of Christ. But, oh! How we have blemished and scarred that body through social neglect and through fear of being nonconformists.

There was a time when the church was very powerful--in the time when the early Christians rejoiced at being deemed worthy to suffer for what they believed. In those days the church was not merely a thermometer that recorded the ideas and principles of popular opinion; it was a thermostat that transformed the mores of society. Whenever the early Christians entered a town, the people in power became disturbed and immediately sought to convict the Christians for being "disturbers of the peace" and "outside agitators."' But the Christians pressed on, in the conviction that they were "a colony of heaven," called to obey God rather than man. Small in number, they were big in commitment. They were too God-intoxicated to be "astronomically intimidated." By their effort and example they brought an end to such ancient evils as infanticide and gladiatorial contests. Things are different now. So often the contemporary church is a weak, ineffectual voice with an uncertain sound. So often it is an archdefender of the status quo. Far from being disturbed by the presence of the church, the power structure of the average community is consoled by the church's silent--and often even vocal--sanction of things as they are.

But the judgment of God is upon the church as never before. If today's church does not recapture the sacrificial spirit of the early church, it will lose its authenticity, forfeit the loyalty of millions, and be dismissed as an irrelevant social club with no meaning for the twentieth century. Every day I meet young people whose disappointment with the church has turned into outright disgust.
"What kind of people worship here? Who is their God? Where were their voices when the lips of Governor Barnett dripped with words of interposition and nullification? Where were they when Governor Wallace gave a clarion call for defiance and hatred? Where were their voices of support when bruised and weary Negro men and women decided to rise from the dark dungeons of complacency to the bright hills of creative protest?"  No preacher preaches apart from his congregation.  No pastor serves an idea alone; she serves the people who call her to their pulpit.  Does this mean they should reinforce the hate?  No; but they don't create it, either.  The pastor cannot create a hatred that isn't already there, isn't already looking for confirmation and affirmation and conviction.  What kind of people worship here?  Observe their pastor, and you will know.

What kind of influence have ecclesiastical establishments had on society?  The kind the society wants them to have.  If you preach the gospel of Jesus, if you teach that Jesus came to bring sight to the blind and freedom to the prisoner and food to the hungry, very few people will join with you.  If you preach the gospel of abundance against the theology of scarcity, very few people will be interested in what you say.  I've yet to see a church buy air time or ads in a shopping mall to proclaim their discipleship, or their concern for the least and lowest, or their acceptance of prostitutes and tax collectors.  Their ads proclaim community of like people, or the gospel of prosperity, or comfort for your predilections.  No church advertises that it will challenge you and shake you loose from your comfortable mooring and set you out on a sea of uncertainty where your only hope is your trust in God.  I'm hard pressed to read any of the parables of Jesus as anything but challenges to not only the status quo, but to what you, the individual, thinks is true.  The prodigal son is rewarded for his profligacy, and his father defies all the conventions of any well-ordered society in doing so.  Yet who would disagree with what the father does?  The woman who loses one coin, then spends all night and precious fuel looking for something that would be revealed at sunrise; and when she finds it, she awakes the house to throw a party and spend the coin and many times its value, celebrating her find.  The merchant who sells all he has to buy a pearl of great price; and now what?  The shepherd who leaves 99 sheep defenseless, to find one sheep that is lost.  The church tells us these parables are about the kingdom of heaven, But how is the kingdom of heaven like that?

If you preach a kingdom where the first are last, the last first; the rich are sent away empty, the poor are welcomed in, the hungry are fed, and the fed sent off without food, and it all ruled over by the ultimate force of weakness, which displays ultimately the weakness of force, you'll soon have no followers at all.  Those who arrive first will want to remain first; those who arrive last will want their priorities acknowledged.  The rich won't like being told they should go away empty; the poor will wonder then they will get filled.   You won't find any among them who will docilely listen to what you are saying.  You won't find any among them who won't want to establish a spiritual tyranny on the ruins of civil authority.  You won't find any among them who won't want to erect a political tyranny.  Mary's Magnificat is lovely poetry, but don't go trying to put it into practice; not if you want to establish and pastor a congregation.  There is no one who doesn't imagine their throne deserves to remain stable, that their vision of a just society isn't benevolent and fair.  There is no social group that doesn't imagine its tyranny is not tyranny at all.

Having said that, let me say this:  without the church extending through two millenia, I couldn't say anything about what I think the gospels say.  Without the church preserving these texts and these ideas, and espousing them and adding to them and taking away from them, for over 2000 years, I couldn't have been educated in seminary to even have these ideas.  Without the people of the church, the clouds of witness, the communion of the saints, I couldn't have the hope I do in the midst of all these despairing observations, because I would have nothing to hope on, and no knowledge or understanding of the hope I do have.  Without the church, I wouldn't even be a clanging gong or a ringing cymbal; nor would I know those metaphors.  Without the church, life as I know it now would be unimaginable.  George Bailey got to see the world without him, something he could not otherwise imagine.  A world wholly without the Church?  I cannot imagine that, either; nor do I want to.  Without the church, I would not be who I am; and flawed and broken and useless as that is, this life would be less than nothing, I would be less than nothing, if the church had never existed.

As for the world, without the church we wouldn't have Martin Luther King, Jr.  Or Dorothy Day, Thomas Merton, Oscar Romero, Julian of Norwich, Thomas Aquinas, universities, the Big Bang Theory, or....you get the idea.

And how is the kingdom of heaven like that?

So what do we conclude?  Do we hammer the church?  Yes, with the largest and heaviest hammer you can find.  And if it fall, let it go down.  But be honest about what you are swinging at, and why.  Is the church the leadership, or the people?  Can it be both and a little bit of neither?  Ideally it should be, but it never is.  Does the church influence society?  No more than society influences the church.  Is it a gathering place for those seeking power?  What group of two or more people isn't?  What is the church, is one question.  What should the church be?  Aye, there's the rub. 

Friday, May 18, 2012

Take me out to the (hard) ball game....

I was all ready to say this about this:

“The world is about to see Jeremiah Wright and understand his influence on Barack Obama for the first time in a big, attention-arresting way,”

And this:

 “Our plan is to do exactly what John McCain would not let us do: Show the world how Barack Obama’s opinions of America and the world were formed,” the proposal says. “And why the influence of that misguided mentor and our president’s formative years among left-wing intellectuals has brought our country to its knees.” 

I'm not really too worried about the politics of this attack.  I think this tells us everything we need to know about the source of it:

Lamenting that voters “still aren’t ready to hate this president,” the document concludes that the campaign should “explain how forces out of Obama’s control, that shaped the man, have made him completely the wrong choice as president in these days and times.” 
There is this weird notion among some small portion of the populace that Barack Obama has committed treason and violated the Constitution, but nothing about those claims is ever tied to anything substantive.  By now the country knows what Obama wants to do and how he wants to do it, so the idea that Jeremiah Wright has secretly influenced Obama to destroy the country in his second term is laughable.  It's rather like the NRA conspiracy theory that because Obama hasn't even tried to confiscate all privately held guns yet, it's proof he's going to if he's re-elected.  So this campaign is only going to convince the people who are already convinced.  How can I be so sure?

The group suggested hiring as a spokesman an “extremely literate conservative African-American” who can argue that Mr. Obama misled the nation by presenting himself as what the proposal calls a “metrosexual, black Abe Lincoln.”
Does anybody still say "metrosexual" any more?

My primary concern was because of my sympathies with the ideas of Jeremiah Wright. That was really the only part of this that concerned me.  However, later that day came news the campaign had been spiked.  And now we find out why:

 In 2009, the Ricketts family won a bidding war to purchase the Chicago Cubs baseball team from the Chicago Tribune Co. for nearly $1 billion. Within 12 months, the family was pushing the state of Illinois to borrow $300 million to revamp the famed Wrigley Field where the Cubs play. But the proposal has yet to be approved, and now Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel, former chief of staff to President Obama and a master of political hardball, has made it clear he's incensed about the Rev. Wright ad proposal and what an aide called the Ricketts' "blatant hypocrisy."
 Mayor Rahm is certainly not happy:


"The Mayor was livid when he read that the Ricketts were going to launch a $10 million campaign against President Obama -- with the type of racially motivated ads that are insulting to the President and the Presidential Campaign,” an Emanuel aide told the Chicago Sun-Times. "He is also livid with their blatant hypocrisy."

Publicly, Emanuel blasted the effort, which planned to link Obama to incendiary comments Wright has made in the past. "America is too great a country with too great a future for the content that they’re talking about. And it’s insulting to the president. It’s insulting to the country," he said.

The Ricketts family owns the Chicago Cubs, and Joe's son Tom is chairman of the team. The bombshell report couldn't come at a worse time for the Ricketts, who are seeking public funds to renovate 98-year-old Wrigley Field. Emanuel has a plan to use amusement tax revenues and other incentives to pay for the renovations to the park, which did not have night lights until 1988.

 Emanuel is reportedly refusing to take the Ricketts' calls.
 Is it wrong to be enjoying this story now?

Thursday, May 17, 2012

Is Sophia Vergara White?



Word comes today that "Minority births outnumbered whites for first time." Which might mean "whites" are no longer the "majority," and even upend our notions of "majority" and "minority" (well, really:  how long do we think the fiction of "majority minority" can be sustained?).

But the Census also tells us that 50% of Hispanics identify themselves as "white."  And 100 years ago or so, Italians and Irish and Eastern Europeans were not, at least on these shores, considered "white."

So:  is Sophia Vergara white?  Or Hispanic?  And what about Eduardo Saverin?  White?  Or Hispanic?

When we think "minority" v. "white" we usually think in terms of "brown" (mestizo or Amerindian; we've kind of dropped "redskin" altogether) or black (African American, or just African, in the case of immigrants; except, I guess for Jamaicans and....well, now it's going to get complicated, so let's move on) or Asian.  Although I must admit it would be a simple matter to consider Asians "white", at least rather than "yellow" (the old stereotype) or "brown".

I put the colors in quotes not to make them scary, but to make a point:  these distinctions are so arbitrary.  Barack Obama is black; but his mother was white.  Of course, under the old race statutes of America, he would be a mulatto, his children quadroons (I think), their children octaroons.  I think it got traced down to 1/16th (the distinctions are all based on halving the original 1/2 distinction).  I'd have to re-read Puddn'head Wilson to be sure.  Thus, at any rate, did we get the "touch of the tarbrush" of yore.  We no longer identify people for themselves; we let them do that.  Thus Barack Obama is black.

But what does "white" mean anymore?  Skin color?  Why isn't Sophia Vergara "white," then?  Penelope Cruz is white, right?  Yes, she's Spanish, but why isn't she Hispanic?  Because that term is reserved for non-Europeans?

This just gets crazier and crazier.  Fox News tells me: The figures for "white" refer to those whites who are not of Hispanic ethnicity," but that's little help.  What's the difference, really, between my heritage and that of Sophia Vergara?  Is it a distinction without a difference?

I'm not afraid of a brown planet, or fearful of dramatic changes as minorities become majorities.  I'm just curious:  is this really a change, or is it just a question of definition?

And is it a definition that really matters very much?

(But how is the Kingdom of God like that?)

(I just like that picture, is all....)

I'm not a fan of economics as it is discussed in the public arena; and before I'm through, it may be that illustration has something to do with what I have to say.  Or not.  As I say, I really just like it....

This is sticking in my mental craw only because the entire notion of "wealth creation" is so ludicrous:

Defence Secretary Philip Hammond accused company bosses over the weekend of “whingeing” while Foreign Secretary William Hague said they should stop complaining on get on with the business of wealth creation.
It sounds substantive, doesn't it?  "Wealth."  It sounds like something tangible, something permanent, something you can bring out and show to the neighbors:  "This is wealth.  I have wealth.  And I created it."

Shades of idolatry and competing with the Creator.

I often try to explain to my students the distinction between abstract and concrete.  The law, I say, is abstract (and I teach Kafka's parable "Before the Law.")  Beauty, I say, is abstract.  I cannot bring these things into the room and show them to you and say, "Now, next time you see it, you'll know what it is."  Wealth, of course, is abstract.  But it seems so much less abstract than "value."  Value, of course, is the true basis of an economic system.  If you value an object, it is by definition "valuable."  If you have enough of that object, you might even be said to have "wealth."

But the dragon sitting on the pile of gold under the mountain in Beowulf (or under the Last Lonely Mountain; Tolkien stole from good sources) may have wealth, may have valuable objects:  but to remove them is to incur the dragon's wrath.  And really, what does the dragon do with it all day except sleep on it and note when the smallest piece goes missing?  It is a picture of wealth (the treasure horde is almost priceless, it is so valuable.  And what an irony that is, eh?); but what possible good is it?

It is not value, because it is only valued if it is on a market.  It is wealth, this pile of gold things.  Wealth beyond the dreams of avarice. But it is only wealth if it is of some value; and the value of the treasure horde in Beowulf costs the king his life, and the kingdom it's existence.   And yet, of what value is it if disturbing it means you awaken the destructive wrath of the dragon and lose your king and your kingdom in the process.  Consider these words from Beowulf:

So this bad blood between us and the Swedes,
this vicious feud, I am convinced,
is bound to revive; they will cross our borders
and attack in force when they have found out
that Beowulf is dead.

As the poem drily notes a few lines later:

Such was the drift of the dire report
that gallant man delivered.  He got little wrong
in what he told and predicted.

Wealth is substantive.  It is also costly.

But is wealth really substantive?  If your wealth was in deutschmarks in Weimar Germany, you had almost no wealth at all; indeed, no one would apply the term to your paper money.  A Twilight Zone episode posited a future four gold thieves entered through the miracle of suspended animation, only to find in the end that gold was no longer valuable, but worthless.  It was, to them, the most concrete form of wealth imaginable; but only because it was valued at one time.

Wealth is when you have something many other people want, and which they are willing to make an exchange for.  But it is not created, and it is easily destroyed.  What is created is the desire for the thing; what is easily destroyed is its value to those who desire it.

To put the matter in Biblical terms, and in the pithy version of Dom Crossan:

The Kingdom of God is like this

A trader sold all his merchandise to buy a single pearl

(But how is the Kingdom of God like that?)

John Dominic Crossan, The Essential Jesus (New York: HarperSanFranciscso, 1994, 1st ed.), p. 93

How, indeed?  Consider:  if you sell all your merchandise (the canonicals prefer the more extreme "all he had") just to buy one thing, what do you do now?  If the pearl is metaphorical, it seems like a spiritual enterprise, and we are with Eliot in "a condition costing not less than everything."  But Eliot didn't mean everything material; he meant something far more metaphysical, something abstract.  Then, however, the interpretation runs up against another canonical saying that is quite familiar:  "What does it profit a man to gain the whole world if he loses his own soul?"  Can you do one without the other?  Careful; the answer may well depend on what you mean by "gain."  Simple asceticism is not the answer either, in other words.  Keep the two in balance, the world and your soul, and then where are you?  If you sell all you have to acquire a single pearl, what do you do now?  You have gained the whole world.  Now what?  Sell it for food, for pots and pans, for shelter?  Or, in Crossan's version, stop trading and keep it?

Then what?  Are you wealthy now?  Or the poorest person alive?

Let me lengthen the discussion by appending this post which I've been working on; it runs along the same lines, and this isn't a carefully edited essay, I can be sloppy:


What life have you if you have not life together?
There is no life that is not in community,
And no community not lived in praise of God.
Even the anchorite who meditates alone,
For whom the days and nights repeat the praise of God,
Prays for the Church, the Body of Christ incarnate.
And now you live dispersed on ribbon roads,
And no man knows or cares who is his neighbour
Unless his neighbour makes too much disturbance,
But all dash to and fro in motor cars,
Familiar with the roads and settled nowhere.
Nor does the family even move about together
But every son would have his motor cycle,
 And daughters ride away on casual pillions.

I had an interesting experience with this target audience and their fear of scarcity that I'd like to share.

During the Great Blackout of 2003 the area in which I lived got a warning and short reprieve prior to losing power along with everyone else.  An unusual temporary loss of power on a sunny day on which that shouldn't have happened had people turning to the television and radio for an explanation, where they learned the entire eastern seaboard and mid-atlantic states had gone dark without explanation. Panic began to build as people raced to stores to stock up on supplies.

Since my car was low on gas and I lived in a semi-rural area I headed to a local station to fill up. The scene unfolding there was interesting and bordering on surreal. Long lines had already begun to form, and it was quickly apparent that there were two distinctly different responses to this crisis. My county was home to both very rich and very poor. The more well-to-do individuals in larger and more expensive cars were visibly frightened. Not only that, they jostled for better position and furtively looked over their shoulder lest someone attempt to steal their stuff before they completed their task and sped off.

The less well off, however, were treating this incident as an occasion for kindness and friendly outreach; even celebration. A group of young adults had formed in one corner of the parking lot and was engaged in excited talk around their dilapidated vehicles. One young lady in a dress was twirling happily. People in cut-offs and tee shirts chatted amiably with each other at the pumps.  Behind me in a beat-up pick-up truck two aged hippies laughed and joked continuously, making light of the situation with outbursts like "Damn terrorists anyhow!" Before leaving I saw them outside of their vehicle patiently helping an elderly couple who were having difficulty fueling up..

About twenty minutes later we lost power along with much of the rest of the country for the next few days. When it returned, our governor asked that people help transition the fragile system back online through conservation and to avoid using non-critical systems like air-conditioning. Again, there were two responses. Those neighbors of mine with little to spare were very conscientious about their energy use because it was important for them that everyone enjoy some crucial power rather than risk it failing again. In the wealthy white-flight town near my home (famously a welcome haven for Dick Cheney even after the many revelations of misconduct and the turning of the war) however, there was a fierce resistance to conservation in the restaurants. People mocked the idea as being "for hippies" and they sure weren't going to listen to some damn Democrat governor. When a friend reminded his wealthy sister-in-law in that town of the the state's request to conserve when he noticed her use of her central air conditioning system she angrily responded that those suggestions were for "other people" - meaning, the poor, the less privileged, the dirty masses.

We've all probably had experiences similar to this. Behind all the striving for the most exclusive schools and chasing after wildly expensive kitchen gadgets and memberships to elite country clubs is a deep fear that at any moment it could all be taken away. Our current economic system and dominant culture fully endorses walling ourselves off with the happy illusion of materialism and has gotten so paranoid, in fact, that its members have gone from passively anesthetizing themselves to attacking and criminalizing the poor for being a reminder of unpleasant realities and for taking a few fallen crumbs around the margins.
 My thought processes are anything but orderly.  I was thinking about using this comment from windhorse to set up a long and bifurcated post on Eduardo Saverin and the theology of scarcity, when I opened my blog to find I'd already posted on Saverin.  Rather than create a new post that cleverly and subtly ties into that post, I decided to abandon artifice and go for the jugular (as an Old English professor taught me).  In other words, do something completely different.

Now, where is that jugular....?

I've encountered this same phenomena before.  I've mentioned that where I live is across an interstate highway (up to about 24 lanes, now) from some of the wealthiest enclaves in Houston (it ain't the Hamptons, but wealth in Houston is nothing to sneeze at).  A new grocery store opened up within a half-mile of my domicile (more or less, and as the crow flies), designed to attract people from both sides of the freeway, which it has done very successfully.

One secret of the store's success has been an off-duty police officer, in full uniform, standing outside the store at peak hours.  When the store opened, an e-mail almost immediately flashed around the neighborhoods about a purse theft from a parked car (why any woman would leave her purse in her car was never explained.  The story may or may not have been apocryphal.).  The store responded with the conspicuous presence of security cameras on portable platforms (they wanted the visibility, not the expense of actually installing the things in the parking lot.  You've seen video from such cameras on the web; they're pretty much useless in small stores; imagine them in parking lots), and lots of police outside the doors at all times.  People calmed down, the cameras were removed, and the police presence is, by now, minimal.

But, you see, on our side of the freeway, we are all drug dealers and immigrants and poor and...well, you get the picture.  And this "side" of the freeway is, according to Census figures, one of the most racially diverse in a racially diverse city (Houston really isn't the white hegemony you might imagine it to be).  So I'm familiar with the paranoia that "they" want only to take what "we" have.

The irony is there is a grocery store in a much nicer neighborhood down the freeway on the "other" side, in amongst most of the middle-management (but well paid) oil executives in what has dubbed itself the "Energy Corridor."  The store has a bank branch in it, which bank has been robbed multiple times.  In broad daylight.  While all the wealthy white female shoppers were filling the aisle.

I don't think they keep an off-duty policeman in the parking lot there.  Funny, that.

There is a jugular here somewhere, I just know it.....

When we go grocery shopping we sometimes make a game of identifying the shoppers from the "other" side of the freeway:  they uniformly act as if the store were theirs by right of privilege, and are usually the rudest and least aware of other shoppers in the store.  I've seen this phenomenon, too, when I worked retail in an independent bookstore down in the Energy Corridor.  Some customers were always convinced their money made them special.

What does it profit you to gain the whole world and lose your own soul?  And what is your soul?  A metaphysical construct first argued into existence by Socrates?  Or that which makes humans both uniquely human and individual, and uniquely part of a greater whole?  What life, indeed, have you, if you have not life together?   And which is better to be created:  community, or wealth?  Which, in the end, is more valuable?

My other favorite "economic" notion is "creative destruction."  Which always makes me think of Gary Oldman in "The Fifth Element."  Creative destruction is admirable, so long as it doesn't affect you. And where would Zorg have been, if the good Father had not felt some sense of human community?

It's times like this I remember economics started out as a branch of ethics.  Of course, it almost immediately picked up utilitarianism and then went completely astray by trying to become a "science," but still....