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

Tuesday, July 31, 2012

In the valley of the dry bones....

I got this from Wounded Bird, who got it from nakedpastor.  And let me just say, yeah, we should be humble in our theology, but let me also say so few of us truly understand or properly employ theology that any attempt to encapsulate it in an image, is inevitably going to go wrong.

And this goes pretty wrong.

I used to have this argument with a friend in seminary, who had come to Christianity literally by conversion (I was born and reared; a very different course) through the fundies.  She dumped the fundamentalism but kept the resistance to "theology" as something too intellectual or too abstract for truly reaching God.  To each her own, of course, and we discussed the subject, we never violently argued about it.  But it's a curious argument to me, seeing as how much Christian doctrine and teaching and understanding over 2 millenia is built on theology, and how it's impossible to read the letters or the gospels of the New Testament and not be fully engaged in matters theological.  But somehow, especially now, theology is something wholly other that we'd be better off without, if we could just figure a way to slip this sinful state and state pure in the presence of the God of Creation (if not of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob.  Which is to say just to identify God is to make a theological statement.  God tells Moses "I am that I am" is how he is to tell the children of Israel who has sent Moses to liberate them.  If that's not a theological statement, I don't know what is.  How do I set that aside in order to reach the presence of God?)

Well, now I'm seeming churlish and perhaps a bit resentful; and I don't mean that at all.  Nakedpastor isn't wrong in this cartoon; it's just the simplification of theology until it can be something we can stand apart from, that is wrong.  Aquinas reportedly had a mystical vision at the end of his theological career which, he said, made all he had written appear as straw; and he never wrote again after that.  But this raises several interesting issues:  was that vision a result of, or in spite of, his theological efforts?  And either answer you give, is a theological answer.  You may prefer a very simple reply; you may deplore the complexity of theology, especially of systematic theology (which is only one branch of theology, not the whole of the subject), and take the very Protestant stance that too many words get between the soul and God, rather than make God clear to the soul.  You could cite centuries of mystics, many of the Roman Catholics (ironically) in support of your claim.  But if God is the simplest of all, as Leonard Bernstein's Celebrant sings in "Mass," what happens when the simplicity encounters reality (as it does in "Mass")?

That's one way to go.  The other side of the issue is exemplified by Chris Hedges. I've never attended Harvard Divinity School, I don't know what it emphasizes in its degree programs, but I assume from the works of Chris Hedges where he details his life as a divinity student and a pastor, that there is no small emphasis on the abstruse and abstract subject of theology.  One could use Hedges, unfairly, as an example of how a Harvard education does not prepare one for ministry (I sometimes think Hedges is still living out, and with, that disappointment).  But that's the usual response of fundamentalists and "evangelicals," that seminaries and divinity schools teach one how not to believe in God, and the usual culprit is theology, which somehow keeps you from appreciating, or even approaching, God.  Not that most fundamentalists or evangelicals put much more emphasis on the knowledge of God, emphasizing as they do knowledge of what it takes to earn the salvation of God ("Let Jesus into your heart!") and to keep that salvation.

But that, too, is a theology.

Which would bring us back to the cartoon, wouldn't it?  Because surely that's an example of our theology holding us back from truly apprehending God; or of theology reshaping God in our preferred image (as a non-fundy/non-evangelical believer, I'm very comfortable in saying I don't recognize the God "they" worship).  But the critique of that position, comes from theology; the correction to that position, comes from theology.  Any apprehension of God at all, any understanding that what we have experienced is not delusion nor demonic, comes through theology.

Miserable creatures that we are, who is there to set us free?

Be careful; your answer will involve theology.

By now you are convinced that I am just playing Socrates, employing what Walt Kelly once described as the "buckshot use of the curved question."  You are convinced of that if you are trying to challenge my argument; if not, you're just going along with me, which is not fair to you.  But consider the idea that theology is merely a ball and chain which we must remove in order to "rise" to the Good (oops!  Sorry.  God.  Got too Platonic there), much as we must shed our mortal sight in order to leave the cave and see the true things (so there was a reason for that Platonic knee jerk reaction).

So the upshot of the image is that either I need an faith hacksaw to cut away my chains, or I need a belief incantation to transmute the base metal of the ball into a balloon.  Either way, I've got to stop letting it hold me down.

Okay.  But how do I know what is holding me down is not valid, if I don't have the structure of theology to enlighten me?  Do you see this woman?

That was Jesus' question to Simon, the Pharisee.  Jesus used the prostitute who wept over his feet to make a theological point to Simon, a student of Jewish teachings (not properly theology, since theology is a Greek concept, and Simon was in the Hebraic, soon to be Jewish, tradition).  Any challenge to one's idea of what God demands or desires, is a theological challenge (at least in Christian circles).  Luke uses the story of the anointing to make a very valid theological point:  that a blessing from God is bestowed, not earned; and that just as God causes it to rain on the just and the unjust alike, God is free to bestow blessings as God sees fit.  Any statement about the nature of God is necessarily a theological one (unless it's a matter of philosophy of religion).  But does my theology hold me back from seeing that?  It can; Simon's does.  It is also, however, theology that allows me to see the woman has not earned her blessing, she has simply been given it.  Merely by asking the question "Do you see this woman?", Jesus is violating all manner of religious and social taboos.  He is a holy man, and he is making himself unclean by allowing her to touch him, even just with her hair and tears.  He is a holy man, and he not only acknowledges the woman among the men, but speaks directly to her, and blesses her.  Merely by asking that question Jesus is raising all manner of theological challenges.  There are almost too many theological statements being made there to count.  How are we to interpret this correctly, if not theologically?

And how much of that theology holds me back?  And how much of it helps me to see?

"My theology" is even a bit of a misnomer.  If I have "a theology," it is necessarily part of a larger discourse, or it isn't theology at all, it's merely a set of personal preferences.  My personal preferences as to the nature of God and of my relationship to God is certainly a ball and chain if I don't submit them to challenge, if I don't place them before the community of believers and allow them to be critiqued.  For one thing, we are back to the distinction between the demonic and the divine, and we needn't believe in demons to understand the distinction.  The person who is guided by the "voices" in his head may not be demon possessed, but he is certainly cut off from the community of others.  Any claim to an experience of God is invalid until the community of believers validates it, and yes that can mean the validity of snake handlers as much as it means the validity of the occupant of the Papacy.  No man or woman is an island, especially in these matters.  Theology is a construct and a conversation, participated in by many voices over 2 millenia and the 7 continents of the world.  "My theology" may be the theology of Protestantism or Orthodox Christianity or the Coptic Church, but it is never mine alone, or it is not "theology" at all.  Indeed, the cure for "my theology" is not "No theology," but theology itself.  If you think theology is only what you believe, U R DOING IT WRONG!

As example, I humbly submit George Zimmerman, who says the shooting of Trayvon Martin was God's plan  That is a theological statement; and it is "a theology."  But it isn't really theology at all; and it isn't theology that is keeping George Zimmerman from truly reaching God; if anything, it is lack of theology.

Which puts us back to the nature of theology.  Theology is complicated, and yet God is the simplest of all.  Well, maybe.  God is simple when I get to define the terms of the discussion.  God is simple right down to having a plan for the life of Trayvon Martin that suits my life story and maybe even lets me off the hook, morally if not legally, for murder.  But if that simple story doesn't suit the family of Trayvon Martin, whose story gets to prevail?  Immediately we are involved in a tangle of competing interests and perspectives, and suddenly even "my theology" can't be as simply represented as a ball and chain that holds me down from reaching God.  Maybe nothing is so simple, and what I consider essential or important, is really only essential or important from my point of view.  And how valid is "God" if "God" is merely a construct of my solipsism, as so many critics of religion claim?  How do I escape that trap without consulting a community of believers, and by what system or construct do I classify and assess their responses, their perspectives, their competing theological claims?  If I don't do it with theology, how do I do it at all?

You see, what you do is theology; what I do is faith.  Mine, being simpler, wins.  And if you agree with me, you have faith, too.  If you don't, you're being held down by your theology.  My theology is no theology at all; which makes it better.

Nothing always trumps something.  Except, as Lear says to Cordelia, "Nothing will come of nothing, speak again."  Beware of that, though, because immediately you respond, immediately you speak again, you will be involved in theology.

And there's the problem:  if I subject your beliefs to critique, I'm "doing theology" and it's unfair or unkind or harsh or even unGodly.  And it can be; but so can ignorance and blind faith.  But without critique, without evaluation by a community of believers, what do you have, except nonsense?  Science always has adherents who claim science is superior because it is tested by peers, but there's nothing unique in that.  The only difference between the work of Aristotle and modern science is the lack of reverence for the observations of Aristotle.  There are precious few assertions in theology which have been accorded the reverence that was given to Aristotle for so many centuries; indeed, we haven't yet reached the break even point between the years of fealty and the years of criticism where Aristotle is concerned.

But theology will not allow me to reach God.  It simply won't.  Theology will, however, allow me to know when I have reached God.  Call it Hamlet's dilemma.  Visited by a ghost who resembles his dead father, Hamlet is charged with avenging his father's murder.  But the murderer is Hamlet's uncle, now King of Denmark.  How does Hamlet justify this murder to the people of Denmark?  They might accept the burden of the son to avenge the father, but on what evidence does he justify regicide?  The word of a ghost who has only spoken to Hamlet?  What if the ghost is a demon, trying to destroy Hamlet?  How can he be sure?

Hamlet doesn't dither because he is weak in character; he delays because he's put in an impossible situation, literally damned if he does, and damned if he doesn't.  To whom can he turn to evaluate his situation, to determine if what he has been told is true, or is mere delusion?  Few of us are Abraham who, being simply told to go, will follow.  We may not be as skeptical as Thomas, but we need some reason to believe.  We need to have something to say, some argument to make, some explanation for our faith.  We need some kind of theology, or the experience of God can simply be a devastating one.

Mother Teresa famously suffered the absence of God throughout her life in India.   Theology did not offer her the comforts the absence of God's presence removed, but it gave her a vocabulary and a structure for her thoughts and feelings on the matter.  Doris Grumbach wrote a small, spiritual memoir about an experience she had as a young woman, an experience she was, and is, convinced was an experience of the presence of God:

What happened was this:  sitting there, almost squatting on those wooden steps, listening to the quiet,  I was filled with a unique feeling of peace, an impression so intense that it seem to expand into ineffable joy, a huge delight.  (Even then I realized the hyperbole of these words, but I could not escape them.)  It went on, second after second, so pervasive it seemed to fill my entire body.  I relaxed into it, luxuriated in it.  Then with no warning, and surely without preparation or expectation, I knew what it was: f or the seconds it lasted I felt, with a certainty I cannot account for, a sense of the presence of God.
 The rest of her book, rather like Julian of Norwich's experience, or that of Simone Weil (to whom Grumbach feels a kinship), is spent trying to understand that experience, and put it in the context of her life.  Is that a theological pursuit?

If it isn't, what is?

Theology can be a dry pursuit.  Kathleen Norris despises it; she metaphorically spits on the ground whenever she mentions the word in her books.  Yet I find her books theological, in the best sense of the word.  Theology can become the pursuit of distinctions no one else cares about, but even from those distinctions, wisdom can break through. That theology comes after the call of God to Abraham, or the burning bush speaks to Moses, or an itinerant rabbi speaks to Peter, is of no matter.  Peter has to decide, later, what it is he has been left to do.  He has to decide whether food can be clean or unclean, and who can be invited to the table:  children of Abraham alone, or Gentiles as well.  That decision, is decided in the realm of theology.  It is still debated:  who is welcome to the Eucharist?  Who, indeed, as undergone a Christian baptism?  These are not minor matters, because whatever peace the presence of God may bring, it's absence does not leave behind peace.  I have noted in my copy of Grumbach's book:  "...Luther is supposed to have said that not once in his life had her prayed entirely undisturbed by any distracting thoughts."  The author of those words is Søren Kierkegaard.  

Theology is those distracting thoughts; but it is also the way we try to find release from those distracting thoughts; even as that, too, can become a way of distracting ourselves.  For some, theology is the thicket of thorns we need to escape; for others, the only route of escape is to push through.  When the pursuit becomes an end in itself, it is helpful to remember the experience of Aquinas.  But it is also useful to wonder whether that experience came in spite of Aquinas' life long efforts; or because of them.

One answer is as valid as the other.
.


Wednesday, July 25, 2012

Romney is Q?

Is it too early to say "I told you so"?

Or is it just too churlish?

ROMNEY: Well this person shouldn’t have had any kind of weapons and bombs and other devices and it was illegal for him to have many of those things already. But he had them. And so we can sometimes hope that just changing the law will make all bad things go away. It won’t. Changing the heart of the American people may well be what’s essential, to improve the lots of the American people.
Because lorry nose, there's nothing the law can do!  Our only hope is to change human nature!  Or the gravitational constant of the universe.  Whichever is easier.

But changing the laws so crazy people can't get guns so easily?  Why, that's just crazy talk!

Responsibility and its Discontents

Why does these apologies make me think of squids disappearing in a cloud of ink?

Louie Gohmert:


Some of my comments in an interview with Ernie Istook on his Heritage Foundation radio show have been grossly taken out of context. Ernie is a good friend and former Congressman who asked for the interview long before the horror in Colorado. I had promised him a 10 minute interview and the topic scheduled for discussion was to be the economy and the President’s comments about it. When I learned of the tragedy I was heartbroken. Such devastation fills our hearts with sympathy making us want to hug our family and that should have been the extent of my comments. Prayers immediately went out for the victims and their families and their community.

Instead of the prearranged interview, Ernie asked me about the shooting in Colorado mentioning a Washington Post column that already brought up the issue of gun control, as well as, asking about my own personal experience as a judge with years on the bench. Tragedies immediately become personal, and I thought about our shooting in Tyler and what a hero Mark Wilson was along with another prior shooting in Texas. As a father, my heart goes out to those who lost loved ones in this heartless attack. The killings were a senseless, outrageous act. Our thoughts and prayers continue for all those so tragically affected, and I am very sorry if my comments caused heartache to anyone in Colorado.
I left the links in there so you can judge for yourselves how Rep. Gohmert's remarks were "taken out of context."  It's a nice dodge, especially just before slipping in the requisite passive voice apology:  "if my comments caused heartache to anyone in Colorado."  Or embarrassment to anyone in Texas; but that doesn't matter.   Nice work, too, separating himself from what he said, because, you know, words just come through us, they don't come from us.

Now is not the time to remind Rep. Gohmert, who was moved to quote Jesus into the Congressional Record over the shooting he mentions in his apology, that Jesus also said it's not what goes into you that matters, but what comes out of you.  I'm sure Jesus didn't mean words, though.  That would be harsh.

All the requisite elements, then, including the word "sorry" somewhere in the verbiage.  It's almost a standard text. 

Russell Pearce:

 "There comes a time when explaining stops making sense and you are better off simply apologizing. So for those who were offended by my post regarding the shootings in Aurora, please accept my apologies. When I wrote it my heart was heavy and we were concerned about the fate of one particular young lady who we knew was at that theater that night. The points I tried to make were not presented well ... and have since been lost in the furor that resulted.

The most important thing, now as then, is that our thoughts and prayers remain with the victims, their families and all of those effected. There were great acts of courage in that theatre and our hearts have been moved to hear about them, like the stories of three young men who had taken their dates to the movies and ended up sacrificing their lives by shielding their girlfriends’ bodies with their own; what love, sacrifice and courage. My wish was simply for a miracle that might have saved lives in this horrific senseless attack.

I will never understand policies that disarm honest citizens and leave them vulnerable to the premeditated attacks of madmen, but it is still far too early for any sort of discussion over how to prevent the next such attack. When that time comes, we need to involve not just those involved in the debate over guns and public safety, but over mental health as well. We need to find out if there are better ways to be able to spot and help someone whose mental state is deteriorating as badly as this young man’s did.

For now, I remain very sorry for my remarks and any possible pain they may have caused."
 Again, the careful distinction between the speaker and his words ("my remarks") and an even more careful refusal to take responsibility for them ("any possibly pain they may have caused").  Careful use of the passive voice is critical to the modern public apology.  He also rather neatly continues to blame the victims for not being armed (the same thing Gohmert originally did; maybe that was the part "taken out of context"?) without appearing to do so.  And, again, the cloud of ink:  "The most important thing, now as then, is that our thoughts and prayers," and so on, and so forth.  Why you lookin' at me?  Now is not the time.  And by the time it is the time, you'll have forgotten this, and my deleted Facebook posts will be history, and we can all forget I was an asshole in public, mkay?

A cloud of ink, and away!

I suppose we should be grateful Messrs. Pearce and Gohmert at least feel the need to apologize for their comments.  That's some kind of progress.

Tuesday, July 24, 2012

Sucks to be you, pilgrim

Wholly consonant with the theme of responsibility in the Batman trilogy, comes, as a result of the Batman film, yet another national non-discussion about gun control.  Whenever a heinous crime fixes the national attention, responsibility is always the first cry.  The criminal is responsible.  The state is responsible for not containing the criminal, especially if the criminal has a record.  Politicians are responsible for not passing severe enough laws, police are responsible for not catching criminals soon enough, courts are responsible for letting criminals get away on "technicalities."  The criminal's family is responsible for not recognizing the warning signs of the heinous crime.  Even the victims may be responsible.

The air is thick with responsibility.  But what is never responsible is the weapon; if that weapon is a gun.

Guns don't kill people.  People kill people. Evil kills people.  But guns never kill people.

Part of the corollary of Reinhold Niebuhr's thesis in Moral Man and Immoral Society is that societies, large groups, nation-states, ultimately cannot be held responsible for their actions (set aside the troubled application of "war crimes," noting that such crimes are only applied to the vanquished, never the conquerors).  They cannot be held responsible, under Niebuhr's theory, because they cannot be moral.  Societies, Niebuhr argues, cannot choose the self-sacrifice of morality.  They can only act to preserve the members of their order (perhaps at the sacrifice of some, but never at a risk to all).  A society which does act to sacrifice all its members is no longer a society; and so its act is never moral, even if the sacrifice is the "right thing to do."  Bruce Wayne/Batman flies away with the nuclear bomb at the end of "The Dark Knight Rises," because it is a moral act.   But he is an individual.  There is nothing moral in leaving the bomb in the city.  One act is moral; the other is simply evil.  But the society can even expect the individual to sacrifice on its behalf, could demand it, if necessary.  Societies cannot be moral; only individuals can.

Neither, then, can they societies be morally responsible.  Societies can be responsible for justice, especially to the members of the society.  But societies cannot be held responsible for being immoral; people can be immoral, individuals can be immoral; societies cannot.  They can, however, be just.  They can do justice to their members, and it is justice a society must uphold.  Justice is not morality, but it is as close as a society can come, and it is where any society must go:  towards justice.  American society is a just society, with one glaring exception.  For one reason or another, American society feels it would be held responsible if it ever acted to control access to guns, if it ever enacted truly meaningful gun control.  It feels as if gun control were a moral issue, rather than a justice issue.  Unable as a society to accept the burdens of morality, unwilling on this issue to pursue the proper ends of justice, unable to recognize that gun control is not an issue of societal morality but rather of societal justice, we put the blame on abstractions; and our first choice for blame is "evil," because only evil is powerful enough to undo justice and so release us from any societal obligation to protect our citizens that we might have.

When do you ever hear "evil" used as an excuse to learn to accommodate crime in America?   A serial killer is evil.  A pedophile is evil.  A rapist, an arsonist, especially if they strike again and again, is evil.  The Unabomber was evil.  But no one ever says because the pedophile is evil, there is nothing we can do about them.  No one ever says that because the rapist is evil, we are helpless to prevent them raping again.  No one says we must accept arson as the cost of being a free society, because we cannot stop the arsonist, that arson is evil and nothing can be done about it.  And we can't, in one sense.  One more arrest for rape doesn't dissuade the next rapist.  One more sex offender put on the public lists, doesn't stop another one from lurking near school yards or following children down sidewalks.

But when the crime is a mass shooting, evil renders us powerless.  Evil has struck again, and who can stop it, any more than they can stop the rain, a flood, a tornado?  Worse, we can prepare for natural disasters, but the only preparation for another shooter is to become shooters ourselves.  But to prevent it, to limit it, to control it by controlling access to the weapons, to the ammunition, to the ability to commit the crime?  No, we can't do that.  We can do it for floods, for hurricanes, even for tornados.  But not for guns; because we can't prevent evil.

We can't prevent arson or rape or child sexual abuse, either.  We can't lock up all combustible materials, all matches, all sources of flame.  We can't prevent rape by castrating all suspicious males.   That doesn't mean we can't try to control it.  And if we can try to control that, we can try to control gun crimes.  Does anyone seriously believe a mass murderer would walk into a theater and begin stabbing people, or throwing knives?  If we can't take away the guns, we can take away ammunition, rendering guns expensive paperweights.  There may be some limited right to bear arms; there is no right to fire them.  We can tax ammunition as a means of controlling guns.  We can do that much.

But, apparently, we can't; because mass shooters are evil.  And there is nothing you can do to stop evil.

[Bill] O'Reilly mocked [Bill] Moyers for his criticism, saying the PBS host "has no clue, no clue at all."

"He apparently believes that federal and state governments can actually control gun crimes," O'Reilly said with disbelief. "That's so dumb it hurts."

O'Reilly listed off gun violence statistics in various cities, highlighting that Chicago has seen 1136 shootings this year, even with a ban on hand guns in public.

"How about your state, Bill, New York?" O'Reilly taunted. "It has the fourth toughest gun law in the country. Sounds good, doesn't it? Ready? 2011 - nearly 4000 guns confiscated by New York City cops."

Unfortunately for O'Reilly, I was listening to Diane Rehm's show.  The guns that enter New York state come from Virginia, and other states nearby with virtually no gun control laws.  The laws in New York state work very well at controlling guns. What they can't do, is control guns in Virginia.  What the New York state laws can't do, is prevent guns from crossing the state border.  Most of those 4000 guns O'Reilly mentioned can be traced to out of state purchases.

O'Reilly might just as reasonably mock US drug laws.  Drugs are illegal here, but they cross our borders anyway.  Are drug control laws, then, worthless?  (I might say "yes," but for reasons different from why guns should be controlled).  O'Reilly, of course, would reject the comparison out of hand.  And as for the question of any attempt at control at all:  we deal with river banks better than this.

So pay attention to the arguments, because they all come back to the same thing:  we can't do anything about guns, because we don't want to.  Gun crimes is a special kind of crime:  it's the kind we put up with, because we choose to.  All the victims in Aurora, or in the next shooting, or in any shooting before last Friday morning, are sacrifices this society makes to the principal of freedom to have access to guns.  We paper over it with talk of "evil" or of everyone else being armed or with any distraction we can come up with.  But that's really what it comes down to.

No matter who you are, your life is not nearly as important to us, as our idea of freedom to possess and use guns is.

That is immoral.  That is unjust.  But in America, right now; that is the way it is.  Whether we can face that honestly or not, is another matter.

ADDENDUM:  lest you think I exaggerate, take a walk on the truly weird side, where a discussion of the shooter in Aurora and the possibility he was possessed by demons ends with this:
 
This is why evil feels so bad. We wouldn't mind so much if bad people got gunned down by a vengeful killer. But Evil doesn't work that way. Evil seeks innocent victims. That's why it's evil. We wouldn't feel so bad if vile, genocidal dictators get their just reward and hang, but evil seeks out the helpless old person, the vulnerable woman, the child yet unborn.

All we can do when faced with mindless evil is recognize that it is mindless. The only answer is that there is no answer. The murders in Aurora and the crazed face of James Holmes remind us that real evil is random and meaningless. It is deadly and ruthless and cruel simply to be deadly, ruthless and cruel. All we can do is gaze on in fascinated horror at the senseless suffering.

I don't even want to touch the topic of feeling good when "bad people" get gunned down by a "vengeful killer."  But as a lawyer and a pastor, I cannot countenance the idea that we are helpless in the face of "mindless evil."  It is "deadly and ruthless and cruel simply to be deadly, ruthless and cruel."  But we can certainly do more than "gaze on in fascinated horror at the senseless suffering."  As a society, and as moral individuals, we can do so much more.

And honestly, I would expect a Roman Catholic priest to understand that.

Rise(n)


"The figure of the circle will obsess us...."  --Jacques Derrida

There's a Peanuts cartoon where Lucy gives Snoopy a red balloon to hold while she goes in to lunch.  Snoopy falls asleep, yawns, and releases the balloon, which floats away.  In the final panel Snoopy is walking a lonely railroad track, carrying a bindlestiff.  He thinks:  "Make one mistake, and you pay for it the rest of your life."

It could be the theme of Christopher Nolan's "Batman" trilogy.

Which means, first:  here be spoylers.  If you don't want to know the gritty details of "The Dark Knight Rises," do not read on.  I will spare no plot point in making mine.

This third movie rests heavily on the first two, but stands lightly.  You can see it without seeing them.  If you do, though, you will miss much.  In the climax of the second film, the Joker casts two boats adrift, each loaded with explosives, each with a detonator for the other.  On one boat, prisoners:  murderers, rapists, cutthroats.  On the other:  the "decent citizens of Gotham."  One boat must choose to kill the other, or the Joker will destroy them both.

In the third film, the entire island is set adrift:  the bridges to Gotham's island are destroyed, save for one.  If anyone crosses that bridge, a nuclear bomb goes off.  Bane, the villain, explains that one person in Gotham has the detonator, the trigger, to explode that bomb.  He means they hold the means of their destruction by their decision; but he is taken literally (of this more later).  The movie makes much of the point:  that some ordinary citizen of Gotham has the means of thermonuclear destruction.  And, as with the Joker, there is no escape:  the bomb will explode anyway, though no one knows that.  So again, a no exit scenario.

Who will be responsible for the death of the island?

Now, the first question should be:  why is Bane doing this?  The Joker was a self-professed agent of chaos, and he set up his no-win scenario to prove to Batman just how damned the citizens of Gotham were, just how selfish and self-centered they were.  And the "decent citizen" who insists the criminal's boat blown up to save them, seems to prove his point.  But then a criminal takes the detonator from the trembling official, and does, he says, what the official should have done:  he throws it into the river.

Taking responsibility means you live with the consequences.

That, of course, is where Bruce Wayne's story begins.  He isn't faced with the dilemma of Hamlet, forced to prove a crime based on the word of a ghost, as well as to avenge that crime.  But he is given the responsibility to avenge his father's death (and his mother's, but she makes almost no appearance in the trilogy), a responsibility thrust on him by circumstance, but one older even than the story of Shakespeare's Dane.  "Batman Begins" details how he discharges that responsibility, and the consequences that ensue (including the loss of the family mansion).  The "League of Shadows" has another responsibility, one it takes just as seriously (even as it creates its nemesis, training Bruce Wayne to become Batman; who begets his nemesis, the Joker, and also brings the League of Shadows back to Gotham by saving Gotham from it in the first place.  I told you there would be spoilers).  In all the talk about the Occupy movement and the speech Anne Hathaway delivers about the storm that is coming, in the third film, no one has noticed that Liam Neeson's justification for destroying Gotham in the first film is the same as the public figures today who think our economic problems will purge the body social and politic of corruption, of laziness, of those who are the problem, in other words. If we get rid of the poor, the weak, the lazy, if we flush them out of the "system" (to where, no one ever says), then all will be well again.   The League of Shadows has the same purpose, except they won't wait for forces natural or societal to finally do the work.  That goal is evil in "Batman Begins," and Batman offers a counter proposal for how to "clean up Gotham." By the third film the goal remains, but the purpose is lost, and the only motivation is revenge; revenge, and the mindless evil of destruction.   It's like the Joker returns, and this time, he does have a plan

And the money to carry it out.  Alyssa at ThinkProgress tried to make something of the socioeconomics of this third movie, but I think she's almost entirely wrong.  There is a "99%" sub-text to this film, but it doesn't play out as Jeffersonian democrats taking back the power from a sclerotic system that needs to be changed.  Instead, it plays out as a blatant act of terrorism where the people with the money create the means of their annihilation, unbeknownst to even the government (literally an unlicensed nuclear reactor, although this time strapped to a trailer, not on the backs of the Ghostbusters).  It's in the name of a good cause (renewable energy for the middle class!), and it's not exactly the denizens of the underworld of "Batman Begins" who take the streets of Gotham (it's actually the prisoners).  Nor do they rise to overthrow their bourgeois oppressors, or to right the wrongs done them by Marie Antoinette.  Indeed, it turns out the wealthy are buying the destruction of Gotham just as Bruce Wayne is using his fortune ("Where does he get those marvelous toys?", Jack Nicholson's Joker asks in Tim Burton's first Batman movie.  Chris Nolan's answer is: from Wayne Enterprise's defense contracts.) to save it.  But back to the question of responsibility.

Bruce Wayne fights crime to continue the work his father started; so it's a better reason than mere anger at how he was orphaned (the prime motivation of Frank Miller's Batman is sheer anger at evil in the world.  Christian Bale's Batman is more nuanced and human than that.  Anger is adolescent; it can't burn for long, even in the darkest heart.).  But his decision has consequences, the responsibility he takes on doesn't end the story, it's just the beginning of it.  And so the second film is all about what that responsibility generates:  the Joker.

If you've seen the second film, I assume that analysis is obvious enough I don't need to belabor it.  If you haven't, take my word for it.  The Joker is unleashed on Gotham because Batman is imposing order on Gotham.  He makes the point explicitly in the film, Nolan's version of the encounter between Micheal Keaton/Batman and Jack Nicholson/Joker:  "I made you?!  You made me!"  The Joker is as inspired by the Batman as are the citizens of Gotham who dress up in Batman costumes and carry shotguns out to try to stop Gotham's crime bosses (and only get in the way).  As Heath Ledger's Joker asks Harvey Dent, now hideously disfigured, in the hospital:  "Do I look like a guy with a plan?"  The end result of the Joker's chaos, we find in the third film, is the new order of strict laws and finally an end, in the interregnum between the time of the two films (second and third) to the crime of war and Gotham's war on crime.  And having taken on responsibility for Gotham, then having created the greatest threat to Gotham since defeating the League of Shadows, Batman retires to lick his wounds and mourn the death of his beloved.

But being responsible for saving Gotham from the League of Shadows does not mean he is not still responsible for what follows.  Defeating the Joker, Batman took on the responsibility for the death of Harvey Dent, the better to clean up Gotham.  That plan worked, but the Batman had to disappear.  Now the League of Shadows returns, and the Batman has the responsibility of stopping them.  But the League of Shadows is not back to finish what was started; it is back to do the Joker's work.  It is back as literally a suicide bomber, but this time with a nuclear bomb.  Gotham will not be cleansed; Gotham will be a nuclear wasteland.  And why?  Because they can.  The Joker wants to watch the world burn; Bane wants to destroy Gotham, for love; and to prove himself worthy, just as Bruce Wayne wants to prove himself worthy.

See what responsibility can do to you?  It is not too much to say Bane acts out of love; but not out of any kind of love you have in mind right now.  Hold that thought; we will come back to it.  Because love makes you responsible, too.

The idea of responsibility is an old one; but we generally think responsibility ends things, rather than begins them.  Even when we think of the rite of passage, the journey from childhood to manhood* (which journey takes up about one third of the story of "Batman Begins"), we think of the acceptance of responsibility as the goal, as the sign one is now an adult.  It is, in other words, the end of the story; what happens next, is another matter, and sometimes literally to another person (because the adult has put away childish things).  Greek tragedy focused on this:  the classic tragic hero finally recognizes both his error, and his responsibility for it.  Oedipus, in response, gouges out his eyes and then carries out his pre-announced punishment, forcing himself into exile.  Creon, standing over the bodies of Antigone and Haemon, hearing of the suicide of his wife, collapses in grief and, realizing what he has done, prays for death; but he doesn't get it.  Responsibility ends the plays; and what happens after, is another story.  Responsibility is what should end the story of Nolan's Batman.  But Bruce Wayne takes on his father's mission; not to avenge his death, like Hamlet, but to carry out his vision of a Gotham redeemed from violence, through the vast Wayne fortune.  Batman takes on the responsibility for Gotham's future, and that is not another story; that is the second part of the same story.

That responsibility has consequences.  It creates the Joker, and the struggles of "The Dark Knight."  But the end of that film doesn't discharge Wayne's responsibility, either.  Once taken on, it is not something you can set down when you wish to.  The model here is another great tragedy:  Shakespeare's "King Lear."  Lear opens the story by trying to set aside the responsibilities of the crown, but keep all it's privileges; and there, all his troubles begin.  Wayne, in "The Dark Knight Rises," has not become Lear (it is clear he isn't the recluse it seems he is, either; but that's later in the story), but he was withdrawn from responsibility for his company and his charitable foundation, to the point that both are endangered.  Once you accept responsibility, you don't have the privilege of laying it down again.  Responsibility does not end things; it is only the beginning.

So Wayne has turned over responsibility for the law and order of Gotham back to the law and the police of Gotham, and that has worked well for 8 years.  Life, however, intrudes, and it turns out even the seemingly casual intrusion of Selina Kyle as a catburglar in stately Wayne Manor is part of a much larger plan, an effort aimed directly at Batman.  Not only can you not hide; you can't even run.

What happens is the story of the film; why it happens, is the theme.  And the theme here is the burden of responsibility; is how responsibility isn't the goal, but the obligation, the burden, that true starting point.  Bane is the mastermind behind everything that draws Bruce Wayne out of crime-fighting retirement, but behind Bane is the true mastermind, and she is as wealthy as Bruce Wayne, and just as strategic a planner.  There is a point, late in the film, where Batman and Selina Kyle (she is never called "Catwoman") make common cause around a computer program Kyle wants, and Wayne has.  The program will erase all mention of a person from all computers everywhere; the perfect "new life" Kyle desperately wants to buy.  Wayne, however, bought it first, realizing what a weapon it could be in the "wrong hands" (and proof Bruce Wayne has not been spending 8 years in solitary, collecting his fingernails and storing his urine in glass jars).  At that point in the story, if not earlier, you've come to realize Wayne has become a planner, not just a fighter; a thinker, not just an action figure.  Still, his only weapon against Bane is his fists; and that's not nearly enough.

The mastermind, though, behind the plans, is the daughter of Ras al Ghul.  She is not so interested in avenging her father's death, however, as in carrying out his plans for Gotham.  Why?  As much as anything, to prove herself worthy of her father's League of Shadows.  It seems she was the child born in a prison created by her grandfather.  Her mother was put there, pregnant, for marrying against her father's (the daughter's grandfather's) wishes.  She is the only one to escape the prison, and Bane is the former prisoner who protected her as she did so.  He acted from love, as al Guhl did when he married Talia's mother.  Talia's mother is punished for her irresponsibility (in her father's eyes).  Bane is punished for being responsible for Talia's escape, for saving her life.  When she returns, she becomes responsible for Bane, and they become responsible for each other.  This is one more version of love.  Ah, but again, responsibility is only the beginning; and in this beginning there are many sad endings.

It seems that, in her escape, Bane was severely beaten.  A doctor, also imprisoned there, takes on responsibility for treating the injured Bane.  He is a doctor, this is a patient; but a doctor is always responsible for the care he gives.  He can, of course, only do so much; it's a prison, not a modern hospital.  But excuses count for nothing, and good intentions do not erase responsibility for your actions (one of the more appalling truths one learns in law school, or if not there, in adulthood; if you are lucky.  To not learn it is to live with very dangerous illusions about yourself in the world.).  Bane is left in chronic and debilitating pain, something only relieved by the iconic mask he wears (this alone prove his Achilles Heel; only when Batman damages the mask is Bane weak enough to be defeated by force).  But the doctor who tried (did he mean well?  Did he not?  We don't know.) is returned by Bane to the prison long after Ras al Ghul has liberated it and emptied it.  By that time the prisoner has become Bane, and has proven, like his lover Talia (al Ghul's daughter) too dangerous even for the League of Shadows.  Cast out of her father's organization, Talia and her beloved are determined to prove themselves worthy of it.  Rather like Bruce Wayne, who will save Gotham because of his father's legacy, they will destroy it to prove themselves worthy heirs to Ras al Ghul's legacy.

The sins of the fathers aren't just visited on the children, they are embraced by them as a responsibility.  And responsibility is not ameliorated or exacerbated by intentions; we pay the price for them whatever might have been hidden in our hearts.  This the doctor knows, because when he tells Wayne the story of the child who escaped the prison, he lets Wayne think that child was Bane, not Talia.  He knows he is responsible for what Bane has become, as much as Bane has made the doctor responsible for Bane's chronic pain.    Yet ha also teaches Wayne a valuable lesson:  that the only way to live with responsibility, is to accept responsibility.

Wayne cannot escape the prison as Talia did, until he does it as Talia did.  The escape requires a dramatic leap to a ledge; if you don't make it, you die.  Prisoners who try to escape do so with a rope that catches them so they won't fall.  Only when Wayne tries without the rope, does he have a chance to succeed.  But Wayne insists he is not afraid of death; that, says the doctor, is the problem.  If you don't fear death, you don't care about life.  And as his escape makes obvious, if you don't care about life, you can't battle your way back to resurrection.

I don't mean to inject a Christian theme here.  I don't even want to characterize resurrection in this film as anything consonant with the Christian concept.  But Wayne is buried in an underground jail, with one exit:  to rise by climbing out, back to the world.  And he cannot do it by conquering his fear of death  (he's already dead, metaphorically).  He has to do it by yearning for life, for return to the world of the living.  He has to take responsibility for being alive.  It is the final true act of adulthood.

The story line, then, comes full circle.  Wayne saves Gotham from the bomb he built (and tried not to complete; another part of Talia's master plan), and he and Selina get to start their lives over (her with a cleaned computer slate, he with another death.  He is presumed dead for a period in "Batman Begins," and officially "buried" at the end of this film, only to be seen by Alfred precisely where Alfred expects him.  To explain that would really take a while, so if you've read this far, either see the movie, or you already know what I mean.).  Not only is the circle complete, but he hands off the cowl to Robin (no, seriously; again, you know what I mean, or you can find out).   The only true end of responsibility is to accept it:  Wayne leaves behind a will that takes care of Alfred, but also establishes a more permanent home for orphans.  His responsibilities to Gotham ended, he takes up new ones with Ms. Kyle.  That, finally, is another story.

Responsibility is our beginning, and our end, and we discharge it only in death.  The Greek tragic heroes lived with their responsibilities; Shakespeare's tragic heroes discharged it in death.  They took it on, but it ended with them because they did.  Bruce Wayne's father passed responsibility to his son, just as Talia took it from her dead father.  But where Ras al Ghul meant to purge Gotham and set it again on the "right path"  (much as many apologists for the economic crisis see it as part of the natural order, clearing out "dead wood" or "cleaning out the corrupt and lazy"), Talia and Bane seek only mindless destruction.  They think this makes them worthy of al Ghul's mantle, makes them truly responsible for what should be done.  Al Guhl would leave ruins that could be rebuilt; Bane and Talia would leave a radioactive wasteland.  They do it as a duty, as proof they can be "responsible," which for them means they can be relied on.

In "Batman Begins," the character of Rachel Dawes serves as a foil to Bruce Wayne; she highlights what responsibility does to individuals.  Rachel laments, by the end of the film, that Bruce is no longer the boy she grew up with.  But he stopped being that boy the moment his parents were murdered.  This only becomes obvious to her when Bruce is stopped from avenging his parents' death by killing the killer, when someone beats him to it.  When she throws Bruce out of her car in disgust, his journey to becoming Batman begins.  Does he do what he does in part to redeem himself in Rachel's eyes?  Yes.  But he hasn't recovered her by the end of the film, and by the end of "The Dark Knight," his choice of who to save is her doom.  Still, he thinks he had all but reclaimed his childhood, all but redeemed his losses since the night his parents were killed, until the third film, where Alfred tells him the truth.  And it's an interesting point in the story.

One of the subplots of "The Dark Knight Rises" is just how dark the Knight has been, and how many have shared in his darkness.  When Bane reveals that Harvey Dent was a psychotic killer driven mad by his injuries and the death of Rachel Dawes, he also reveals that Batman and James Gordon used a lie to impose order on Gotham, and to take prisoners until crime was under control.  This revelation disgusts even "Robin," a police officer who helps Gordon and Batman, and in the final scene, takes on the Batman mantle.  The other great lie of the story is more personal:  Alfred's decision to burn the note Rachel leaves with him (not knowing she will never return) telling Bruce her true love is Harvey Dent, not him.  For 8 years, in the third film, Bruce has lived thinking Rachel would have married him; but Alfred finally reveals the truth, and Bruce feels as betrayed as "Robin" does about Gordon.  It is a neat parallel, but an important one:  when you take on responsibility, you take on all the consequences of that responsibility, and your intentions, good or bad, don't really matter.  You are still responsible. Forgiveness for your decision is not automatic just because you accept the consequences of your decision.

This revelation leaves Bruce Wayne completely alone, and it's no coincidence that the next event in the film is his first encounter with Bane, and a defeat that leaves him literally a broken man in a prison from which there is virtually no escape.  Alfred tells the truth about Rachel trying to convince Bruce the city needs Bruce Wayne, not Batman.  In the end, it turns out Alfred is right, because even as Batman flies the time bomb away from the city on a suicide mission, he reveals to James Gordon who the man behind the mask is, in much the same way he revealed himself to Rachel.  Rachel needed Bruce then; the city needs Bruce now.  And in the end, it gets the Wayne legacy, which does the city as much good as Batman ever did (and is less likely to draw any more crazed criminals seeking chaos or destruction).  Wheels within wheels within wheels; or if your prefer, circles within circles.

Responsibility involves all the people we are, but it is also a condition costing not less than everything.

Bruce begins to realize this in "The Dark Knight," when copycats dressed as "Batman" interrupt his attempt to capture some criminals, and then one of them is captured by the Joker.  He is responsible for their actions just as he is responsible for the Joker coming to Gotham; but it is an entirely different responsibility than the one that led him to become Batman, or that cemented his estrangement from Rachel.  He's also responsible for that estrangement; yet another kind of responsibility.  And he is responsible, again, for Talia and Bane returning to Gotham, just as the Doctor is for leaving Bane so damaged yet not dead.  This is not why Wayne decides to oppose Bane; but in the end, it is why he must.  It is why he returns from the prison Bane has left him in, and struggles to the end to stay alive to stop them. That he is responsible for the bomb that holds the city hostage, is yet another kind of responsibility he bears. The point here is not to detail and define the different meanings we can attach to the word "responsibility;" just to point out they exist, that we are not dealing with a monolithic term.  Responsibility itself is a kaleidoscopic term:  it changes as you turn the tube, but it never goes away.

I mentioned earlier the trigger to that nuclear bomb, but didn't elaborate.  Bane announces to the stadium full of people stunned by the explosions which have just consumed the field, that the trigger for that bomb rests in the hand of someone in the crowd; and that if anyone tries to leave the island (all bridges but one destroyed, so it is effectively cut off), the bomb will be detonated.  Much is made of which citizen of Gotham has this trigger, and while Batman insists Bane would never trust it to anyone, the faith, the trust, that it is "out there" persists among almost all the other characters in the film.  It's an interesting point, since it is obvious Bane never would release that trigger, and that his statement was metaphorical, not literal; rather like saying the person held in criminal contempt of court "holds the keys to his cell."  The old phrase means he can release himself at any time, by clearing the contempt; it doesn't mean he goes into the cell with the keys in his pocket.  Bane, likewise, means that if anyone tries to leave the island, they will be responsible for the bomb going off.  They "hold the detonator."  So to speak.

But responsibility that great is too great; evil that profound is too profound; so the characters all act as if that switch were somewhere, with someone, rather than face the awful truth that Bane holds them all under a terrorist threat that makes you suspicious of everyone else you see.  Oddly, the only people who understand this fully are the police guarding the remaining bridge.  When "Robin" leads a bus of orphans to what should be safety across that bridge, the police take their responsibilities seriously, and destroy it; lest Bane destroy the city.  They do exactly what Bane has already done; they become his agents.  Such is the multifoliate problem of responsibility.  And what no one can believe, except a few after Batman returns, is that the bomb will explode anyway, that it is a time bomb, not just a detonator-activated bomb.  Again, accepting that kind of responsibility, responsibility for your own death because you are trapped with a suicide bomber, is more than any character in the film can countenance; even when they have to.

"Make one mistake, you pay for it the rest of your life."  That is the lesson Bruce Wayne learns, and he finally pays for that mistake with his life, a death which allows him a resurrection, another new start.  He took the boy who lost his parents and made the Batman of him. He finally kills the Batman so he can live as Bruce Wayne, again.  Not an opportunity many of us will have; but that isn't the point.  The point is to examine the question of what you are responsible for, and how far your responsibility extends, and how clearly you can see that, how calmly you can face it.  The point is to be a hero; and that doesn't involve fighting in an action movie.  It involves accepting your measure of responsibility, and accepting it for good and all, even to death.

Monday, July 23, 2012

Running Low

JCF asks:

For those who say "If only there were other armed citizens in theater": when the police arrive, are they supposed to say "OK, *this* is Psycho-Killer Shooter #1 'who started it', whereas *that* is Righteous Armed Citizen Shooter #2, firing back."

SRSLY??? Or do the police shoot down EVERYBODY w/ a gun (and more power to 'em)?

Oh, it is so much worse than that.

I was going to write a lengthy post about the sad response to the Aurora shooting, and the excuses for gun violence, a post pretty much in line with what Mayor Bloomberg has been saying, which is:  screw the sentiment, let's do something about crime!

But it's guns, and only people kill people, and the shooter would have armed himself with a banana or a bunch of grapes, or something, so why bother?

Gov. John W. Hickenlooper of Colorado, a Democrat, told CNN’s “State of the Union” that the killer might have built a bomb or found some other lethal device if no assault weapons had been around. And Senator Ron Johnson, Republican of Wisconsin, defended people’s rights to own large-quantity ammunition magazines.

“The fact of the matter is, there are magazines, 30-round magazines, that are just common all over the place, and you simply can’t keep these weapons out of the hands of sick, demented individuals that want to do harm,” Mr. Johnson said on “Fox News Sunday.” “And when you try and do it, you restrict our freedoms.” 
Nothing is more important than the freedom to buy weapons on the internet so you can shoot children in a crowded theater.

Well, you can see where I was going.  Instead, I decided to write a quick response to this, which is making the rounds, or should have, by now (and no, no pun intended).

First, consider that you are in a dark theater full of screaming people, tear gas in the air, and a gun going off (or two, or three; the shooter had a pistol, an assault rifle, and a shotgun).  And you, brave brave Sir Greg Block, hero of your own action movie, are going to move skillfully down the line of movie theater seats, crouching and firing and crouching and firing and....

Those movie theater seats are going to give you how much protection, again?  Let's say:  zilch.  Because the muzzle velocity of a bullet leaving an assault rifle, or a pistol above the size of a .22, or even a short range shot gun blast, is going to send a projectile through that theater seat like it was cardboard.  And besides, are you sitting in the only empty row in the entire theater?  Have all the other patrons magically vanished into other rows, disappeared, been raptured, removed from both the line of fire you are now drawing to your part of the theater, and the row of seats so you have an uninterrupted course to run and crouch down in, just like in the movies?  And your heroism isn't making all the people around you targets, all those people whom you are now stepping on or crouching on or otherwise stumbling over as they try to avoid you, Mr. Gun Wielding Lunatic, as they wonder just how many crazy people came armed tonight?

Right.

Now, on to the fact the shooter is wearing armor, including a helmet.  Maybe the helmet wouldn't stop a bullet, but how many do you expend on his torso before you figure out he's bulletproof there?  Or do you knock him down (most likely) when you finally make a good shot (also most likely; and the rest of those bullets you fired they, what, evaporate rather than strike someone in the theater?  Sure, let's say that happens), then crawl over the screamers and the bodies and the wounded, trying to find him in the dark to be sure he's down, only to find yourself facing a shotgun and the last sound you hear is....

Yeah, that's a bit more likely.

Greg Block may be a certified firearms safety trainer, but he's not a policeman, he's not a combat soldier, and he's not the star of his own action film.  Frankly, if this is how he imagines reality, he's not very imaginative, either.  I have neither training in arms nor arms safety nor in killing people in combat situations, but I can easily imagine how much worse it would have been had Mr. Block been there and decided it was hero time.

And while we consider Mr. Block's obvious assumption that being armed and somewhat trained makes him invisible and bulletproof, let us recall the number of military personnel killed or wounded at Ft. Hood, including those who tried to attack the gunman either simply physically or with firearms themselves.    They were brave, they were heroic, and some of them, sadly, still died.  And the shooter kept on shooting.  Not to say someone shouldn't try to stop such an assailant; but don't fool yourself that life is like the movies.  Indeed, if there is any real damage done to society by action movies, it's the idea that the hero never dies before the villain does, and that we can all be that hero if we just have a gun.  In fact, wasn't that part of the story of "The Dark Knight"?

We don't need more guns in this country, we need fewer bullets.  We can't clawback the guns that are out there, but we can make the bullets so expensive no one can afford them, withe perhaps exceptions for hunting rifles and certain sizes of shot for shotgun shells.  It wouldn't be perfect, but it would be a start.

There may be a limited constitutional right to keep and bear arms; but there is no right to fire them; especially in a crowded theater.

We need more prayers for peace.  Not because then God will finally grant it to us, but because it will change our hearts and minds and perhaps start to turn us from war and violence and slaughter, and because it will turn us to healing the hearts and minds of those torn asunder by these events.  It would also be a better us of our time than arguing about whether guns kill people or people kill people, and about what drove the shooter to this hideous act.

P.S.  Notice, too, the shooter is being called "evil,' a theological term meaning "there's nothing we can do about it, because evil is as inevitable as sunrise, so move along."

Guns don't kill people, evil kills people, and evil cannot be predicted, controlled, or countermanded.  We can only live with the consequences of it, especially when guns are involved.

That's the other argument you're going to hear again and again.  Funny how that absolves us from all social responsibility for protecting each other from the criminal element.  Better we should suffer the evil among us, than we should control guns.  We cannot stop evil, we might as well get good at suffering from it.   (I'm actually hearing this argument right now on the BBC World Service.)

And if you go here, you'll see that mass shootings are safe, legal, and infrequent (I heard a variation on that claim on BBC earlier today).   Evil.  I mean, whadareyagonnado?

One last time, revising and extending my earlier remarks:

Louie Gohmert referenced this incident in my hometown (his too, to my eternal shame.  All I can say is we'd rather he be in D.C. than in Texas).  I bring it up only to point out the shooter took two shots from a .45 pistol from 50 feet, and never fell down, because he was wearing a bulletproof vest.  It took Mr. Wilson several shots to figure this out, in broad daylight.  Or perhaps he never figured it out; unfortunately we'll never know, as the shooter eventually killed him.  116 police rounds later, with a sniper firing a rifle at the shooter, he finally fled the scene.  He died later, taking 5 shots to the back of his head.

Tell me again, Mr. Block, how you would be more effective in a dark crowded theater than several police officers were, one of them a trained sniper, on open ground in broad daylight?

As I say, everybody is a hero in their own action movie....

Friday, July 20, 2012

...which passes all understanding....


You knew the only Texas politician stupider than Rick Perry had to sound off:

"People say ... where was God in all of this?" Gohmert said. "We've threatened high school graduation participations, if they use God's name, they're going to be jailed ... I mean that kind of stuff. Where was God? What have we done with God? We don't want him around. I kind of like his protective hand being present."

 Gohmert also said the tragedy could have been lessened if someone else in the movie theater had been carrying a gun and took down the lone shooter. Istook noted that Colorado laws allow people to carry concealed guns.

"It does make me wonder, with all those people in the theater, was there nobody that was carrying a gun that could have stopped this guy more quickly?" he asked. 

Okay, last first, then first last.  The shooter went in this way:

 Holmes was dressed all in black and wearing a helmet, a bullet-proof vest, armored leggings, a groin protector and a gas mask when he walked into the theater. Aurora Police Chief Dan Oates said the young man brought an assault rifle, a shot gun and at least one .40 caliber Glock pistol with him.
So maybe he was keenly aware Colorado allowed people to carry concealed weapons.

Second:  just what you need in a dark, crowded theater, when shots start ringing out, is another shooter, or two, or three, to stand up and start firing at the first shooter. If they can see who it is, and if they can be sure the first shooter is the only shooter, and that they are aiming for the first shooter.  One guy firing wildly is bad enough, let's add another person pumped up on adrenaline and pulling the trigger hoping the bullets magically find their target and don't pierce the walls of the multiplex, striking other moviegoers!  Brilliant!  Add to that  the story of the Gabby Giffords shooting, where the concerned citizen with a licensed handgun ran out into the chaos and very nearly shot the brave citizen who had wrestled the gun away from the real shooter, because handgun-carrying-guy figured the person with the gun was the perp.

So, yeah, real display of genius there, wishing more people in that theater had been armed.  Because if there's one thing we've learned in Afghanistan, it's that when lots of people have guns, nobody dares shoot anybody else.

As for the idea that this is all because God is no longer among us, because we are a faithless people:  yeah, we have covenant just like Israel does.  And yeah, God is just that petulant.

I much prefer what our President had to say:

 “Even as we learn how this happened and who is responsible, we may never understand what leads anybody to terrorize their fellow human beings like this,” Obama said. “Such violence, such evil is senseless, it’s beyond reason.”
He really is a man of deep religious thought.

May the peace of God which passes all understanding keep the hearts and minds of all who lost friends, family, loved ones, or who had persons they love who were wounded, in the knowledge and love of God and the comfort of Christ be with them.  Even with Louie Gohmert.

Wednesday, July 18, 2012

I come at this via Slacktivist, and while I want to agree with Ed Kilgore, I can't quite wholeheartedly do it.  This is the passage that made me stumble:

What should be wished for…is that liberal Christianity recovers a religious reason for its own existence. As the liberal Protestant scholar Gary Dorrien has pointed out, the Christianity that animated causes such as the Social Gospel and the civil rights movement was much more dogmatic than present-day liberal faith. Its leaders had a “deep grounding in Bible study, family devotions, personal prayer and worship.” They argued for progressive reform in the context of “a personal transcendent God … the divinity of Christ, the need of personal redemption and the importance of Christian missions.”
Today, by contrast, the leaders of the Episcopal Church and similar bodies often don’t seem to be offering anything you can’t already get from a purely secular liberalism.
That's Douthat, in the original offending piece.  Kilgore responds:

I read this and wonder if Ross Douthat has ever actually set foot in an Episcopalian Church, where each and every week, the Nicene Creed is recited, a Eucharist is celebrated (at least that is the trend that has accelerated under the “liberal” leadership of that church; less frequent communion is mostly the dying habit of more conservative, “evangelical” Episcopalians), scriptures are read, and there’s all sorts of talk about Jesus Christ and the Kingdom of God. Ross is either ignorant about all this, or has the temerity to suggest that none of the people sitting on or kneeling at those pews mean a thing of what they say.

The church, in my experience, ain't necessarily the people in the pews; be it a Protestant or a Roman Catholic, church (and why do the Orthodox never figure into these discussions?).  I've heard too many missives come down from "headquarters" which left people in the pews (my people in their pews, in some cases) scratching their heads.  I can cite too many stories of individuals outraged by positions declared for them by "their "church, or declared to them as if it was their role to accept what was being taught.  And when I went into the pulpit with my head stuffed with the knowledge a "liberal" seminary had filled me with (thanks be to God!), more often than not the people in the pews were surprised and offended by what I had to say. 

Especially if I emphasized the need of personal redemption and the importance of Christian missions.

So, you see, I'm not sympathetic with Douthat's claims; but neither do I think pious worship and talk about "Jesus Christ and the Kingdom of God" means the church is offering something "you can't already get from purely secular liberalism."  I attended a retreat when I was in the pulpit, one organized by my denomination (i.e., not by the local church I served).  It was an attempt to put together a resolution on genetics and religion, to be presented at the next meeting of the whole denomination.  When I objected to the fact the resolution we ended up with was barely mentioning God, aside from an obligatory opening reference to "the Creator," and that we could make it a more theological, and less strictly scientific, document, all the clergy in the room acted as if I'd just shit in the punchbowl, and one lay person excoriated me for trying to deny the value of science with some kind of fundamentalist critique. He was quite pointed and quite personal about it.

And everyone else in the room made it quite clear I should just shut up.

Those same people would go back to their churches and recite the Creeds and celebrate the Eucharist and hear scriptures read and probably hear talk about Jesus Christ and the Kingdom of God.  But I always found such people could be just as comfortable with"the agenda of the American conservative movement and the Republican Party" as anyone else.  I also recall showing a young visiting German pastor around my church, chaperoned by her local contact, a member of the most liberal local church in the denomination.  This was a man who might consider Paul Tillich too conservative, but when it came to explaining the US flag in the sanctuary, he defended it stoutly, overriding the German pastor's obvious discomfort because of Germany's recent past, and the conflation of state and church.  Which kingdom of God is represented by that flag, I still wonder?

Do I mean there are no liberal churches?  Not at all.  But drawing bright line distinctions between "them" and "us" is always a risky business.  I don't agree with Douthat's argument (what I know of it from these links), but I don't think he's wrong to critique "liberal" mainline Protestantism from being a bit weak on certain doctrines (even if I don't think personal redemption is the core concern of Christianity, or that the "kingdom of God" is as clear and simple a concept as Mr. Kilgore does).

I guess what I'm saying is that it's easy to talk about things; it's the doing of them that matters.  Rather than discuss the basileia tou theou, what are churches doing to realize it?  Instead of propounding the importance of personal redemption, what is the congregation doing to be last of all and servants of all?  Instead of talking about what should be done in the world, and for what reasons:  what are you doing?

The world is out there....

I really should turn the news off....

Mitt Romney says he won't release his tax returns because Teresa Heinz Kerry didn't release her tax returns when John Kerry ran for President.

Last night on "The War Room" Jennifer Granholm ran a clip of a debate during the Massachusetts gubernatorial campaign which Romney won, where Romney refused to release his tax returns because his opponent's husband wasn't releasing his tax returns.

Somewhere in his mind, Mitt Romney is convinced this is a winning strategy; or at least a sensible response.

And for those of you who don't remember America in the 1960's, this is pretty much how the Civil Rights movement was criticized by public figures:

"In labeling the Texas voter ID law as a "poll tax," Eric Holder purposefully used language designed to inflame passions and incite racial tension. It was not only inappropriate, but simply incorrect on its face.

"The president should apologize for Holder's imprudent remarks and for his insulting lawsuit against the people of Texas."

Because it's all about the emotional instability of brown folks, and state's rights.

Gah.

P.S.  Can't wait for Perry to jump on the Brennan Center:

 The 11 percent of eligible voters who lack the required photo ID must travel to a designated government office to obtain one. Yet many citizens will have trouble making this trip. In the 10 states with restrictive voter ID laws:
• Nearly 500,000 eligible voters do not have access to a vehicle and live more than 10 miles from the nearest state ID-issuing office. Many of them live in rural areas with dwindling public transportation options.
• More than 10 million eligible voters live more than 10 miles from their nearest state ID-issuing office.
• 1.2 million eligible black voters and 500,000 eligible Hispanic voters live more than 10 miles from their nearest ID-issuing office. People of color are more likely to be disenfranchised by these laws since they are less likely to have photo ID than the general population.
• Many ID-issuing offices maintain limited business hours. For example, the office in Sauk City, Wisconsin is open only on the fifth Wednesday of any month. But only four months in 2012 — February, May, August, and October — have five Wednesdays. In other states — Alabama, Georgia, Mississippi, and Texas — many part-time ID-issuing offices are in the rural regions with the highest concentrations of people of color and people in poverty.
More than 1 million eligible voters in these states fall below the federal poverty line and live more than 10 miles from their nearest ID-issuing office. These voters may be particularly affected by the significant costs of the documentation required to obtain a photo ID. Birth certificates can cost between $8 and $25. Marriage licenses, required for married women whose birth certificates include a maiden name, can cost between $8 and $20. By comparison, the notorious poll tax — outlawed during the civil rights era — cost $10.64 in current dollars.
Facts are so unfair.

Monday, July 16, 2012

Everyone holding out for a hero....

Sorting through the recent news trying to make sense of it, I start with this lucid observation:

...Romney’s reaction to the Bain Storm is very much of a piece with the way assorted hedge fund managers, bankers and other Masters of the Universe have responded to even the slightest criticism from Obama — with as much shock as outrage.

Over the past 20-25 years these guys have gotten used to extreme deference from BOTH parties (think Cory Booker and Ed Rendell) and like to think of themselves as rational beings who are far, far above the partisan sandbox in Washington, up there in the financial heavens, doing the Lord’s Work — to quote Lloyd Blankfein.

And one of those people doing the Lord's Work has descended from Olympus to explain to us mere mortals the errors of our ways.  Edward Conard was on "UP with Chris Hayes" this past Sunday morning:

 CONARD: I think the problem with defending it, for Mitt, I’m not speaking for Mitt [...] people look very close at the micro, get their nose close to the paper and say, ah-ha there is a job that was lost and went overseas, and we can speak about Bain. On a macro level we can see 20 million immigrants came into our country, there’s net insourcing, not net outsourcing. We were growing the economy fast enough that we were pulling the employees into the country, more than sending out of the country. Of the 40 million jobs created, 50 percent were created at the highest end of the wage scale, 40 percent of the jobs in the 1980s were at the highest end of the wage scale, so, there was a disproportionate increase at the high end of the wage scale over that, over that period.
That's a fairly typical of what he had to say.  Mr. Conard was very concerned with the "macroeconomic" view of the world, a view in which, from a far enough distance, everything is beautiful and nothing hurts, and the financial crisis we are all now suffering through was caused by government interference; or something.  His argument here is a textbook example:  all those people in America who lost jobs were balanced by all the immigrants who came here and found jobs.  A job is a job to Mr. Conard, and it's the job that matters:  not who is employed, or how they are employed, but only that jobs are being filled by warm bodies.  Interesting jobs, remunerative jobs, humane jobs?  Who cares?  And if those 20 million immigrants mean 20 million people already here are unemployed, well, the unemployment number is still offset by the immigrants, so it's still all good!

Or something.  Jobs matter.  People?  Well, sucks to be unemployed.  Not that Mr. Conard can imagine that.  Still, Mr. Conard is a very serious person because he wrote a book and he got rich alongside Mitt Romney and besides he's on TeeVee (even if it is basic cable) and you aren't.

So there.

And in religious news:  no.  Just "No."

The Higgs boson explains why particles have mass -- and in turn why we exist. Without the boson, the universe would have no physical matter, only energy.

The cosmological implications are hotly debated. Can God fit in a scientific story of creation?

Because honestly, anybody still having that argument is too illiterate to engage in the discussion.  

This entire article is simply gossip in search of a controversy.  The idea that faith in God is inextricably linked to God as Creator-in-ways-science-cannot-explain is a post-Enlightenment chimera on par with the "How many angels can dance on the head of a pin" slander of the Renaissance (that was a Renaissance joke about medieval theologians, not an historical concern of medieval theology).  That is, something like it may be true for some people, but they don't care about Bosons and quantum mechanics anyway.  On the other hand, and underscoring the idea that there are narratives which are zombie lies that never die:

Unexpectedly, liberal Christianity is--in some congregations at least--undergoing renewal. A grass-roots affair to be sure, sputtering along in local churches, prompted by good pastors doing hard work and theologians mostly unknown to the larger culture. Some local congregations are growing, having seriously re-engaged practices of theological reflection, hospitality, prayer, worship, doing justice, and Christian formation. A recent study from Hartford Institute for Religion Research discovered that liberal congregations actually display higher levels of spiritual vitality than do conservative ones, noting that these findings were "counter-intuitive" to the usual narrative of American church life.
I like what Ms. Bass has to say aside from her conclusion.  Sadly, if you go to the comments there, you'll get a lot of the blinkered nonsense of the sort that says the Higgs-Boson is going to destroy all religious faith soon.  Or something.

Ignorance, in other words; displayed proudly.

Honestly, some days it's not worth engaging your fellow humans on anything, because reality is so counter-intuitive to the usual narratives.  Did I mention that the "liberal "churches Ms. Bass identifies, the ones reviving by bringing in some Pietism (she won't name it, I will) and old-fashioned spirituality (still Pietism) are presenting narratives completely contrary to that of the Masters of the Universe and their sycophants?  And that the last Batman movie promises to examine that very question (rich white guy saves city because he can afford to, and what response does that provoke?), albeit without Marx of Jesus (I assume).

As E.M. Forster said, "Only connect...."

Wednesday, July 11, 2012

"...and all we can do is keep repeating these antitheses...."

I listened to this very interesting conversation the other night on the way back into town (radio captive, IOW, and fortunate it was, too).  Simon Critchley described himself as a man who wants to believe, a man who has his nose pressed against the windowglass of religious faith, but can't join them on the other side.  He meant, though neither Smiley nor West identified it, that all he lacked was a confession.  But he discussed faith in much the same terms RKC did below:

To have a real faith (not one someone chooses to believe, but exists in the warp and weave of their life) means to have responsibility for all the consequences.
I found myself wanting to join the conversation last night, one in which all the major philosophers were invoked (from Rousseau to Hobbes, Socrates to Santayana to Niebuhr (West is a Niebuhr scholar, and a good one), but sadly no mention of Derrida or Kierkegaard), by raising Derrida's excellent insight:  "Religion is responsibility, or it is nothing at all."  Interestingly, I think Critchley was all for taking on the responsibility of religion, with the exception of taking on the responsibility of the confession of religion.

"Confession" is a difficult term to get a handle on.  If you go to New Advent, you will get "Confession, Sacrament of," "Confessor, Seal of," and "Confessor."  If you go to Wikipedia, you can find "confession of faith," but that is about doctrine.  It is also described as "a Christian practice," but that seems to mean the doctrinal arena.    "Confession" otherwise is considered by Wiki to be "an admission of guilt."  Militant atheists might think that definition would suit my purposes; but it doesn't.  Confession is an admission, but it is not a statement against interest (which is ultimately what a confession is, under the law; and why it is generally taken as valid).  But the confession I mean is closer to the admission of guilt than it is to a commitment to a doctrine.

This is where it gets tricky.

But it shouldn't; not really.  The heart of Christian religious faith in the post-Enlightenment era is the confession of faith.  Again, not confession in the doctrinal sense of "I believe in one God, the Father Almighty, maker of heaven and earth, and in Jesus Christ, his only son, our Lord...."  I mean confession in the sense of a confession of faith, of trust, of belief.  An admission, on other words, that one is religious.  Gallons of ink have been spilled on the question of God's existence (as if that mattered or was of first importance) and whole forests laid waste on what it means to live a Christian life, especially in a post-Christendom world; but on the central issue of the confession, there seems to be no general consensus at all; not even much interest in the issue.  Churches have riven and splintered and been torn asunder or had their ground metaphorically sown with doctrinal salt over questions of what one actually believes in.  But to confess one's religious belief (and render the concept a verb, rather than a noun) is the act of Stephen, even as he is stoned to death.  It is the act of Mother Teresa, living out her faith even as she admits she feels abandoned by God.  To confess, then, is to act, and the action is beyond merely "to say."  But that doesn't get us any closer to understanding what it means to confess one's faith.

Basically, of course, to confess one's faith is to admit one's faith.  That admission can be public, as when one confesses faith in order to be baptized or to join a Christian church.  But it means a bit more than that, because the heart is devious, beyond reckoning; and the public act can be merely words, a collection of sounds, and mean nothing more than noises.  Just as with an admission of guilt, there is always the question:  when is a confession true?

There are two concepts which often appear alike, although we recognize them as different (without ever really being able to explain the difference:  profession, and confession.  The latter has been reduced to more of a label for labour, for how one earns one's pay: the distinction we used to call "white collar" v. "blue collar," although in the "service economy" almost everyone who doesn't do manual labor regards themselves as a "professional."  But to turn the word back into a verb for a moment, "to profess" was, until the 1500's the OED tells me, limited to its religious meaning, i.e., to take holy orders.  One made a profession (the verb, not the noun) by becoming a member of a religious order.  To "confess," the OED again tells me, is to reveal or to disclose something, which brings it closer to the nature of a revelation, except the revelation is disclosed to you, not by you.  To confess, then, in this context, is to disclose your religious beliefs or, to get away from the vexed issue of "believe", to disclose your adherence to religious tenets.  What's interesting is that, getting any closer than that seems only to be possible through confessions of faith, which aren't really quite confessions in the same sense.

It is quite easy to recite a confession of faith in a worship service and not even really pay attention to what you are saying.  I spoke the words of the Apostle's Creed, and sang those of the Nicene Creed (more than I recited it) all through my childhood, without really thinking very hard about what I was saying.  It was a "confession of faith" only in the sense that the act in worship bore that label; but it wasn't my confession, in any real sense of the word.  I wasn't disclosing anything; I was just reading along.  A true confession discloses something; but what does it disclose?

At this point I usually leave the conversation dangling, thinking it clever to ask questions that don't have obvious answers.  But I was just re-reading Wittgenstein, some of his collected statements rather than his attempts to actually put something down; and I was struck by what an ultimately bootless exercise philosophy can be, and why, after all these years, I still prefer theology.   Why I prefer it, I mean; not just that I prefer it.

Wittgenstein is, let us say in the wake of Socrates (invoking the spirit of S.K.), struggling like all philosophers to shore up some fragments against his ruin.  He admitted the problem himself:

"If I am not quite sure how I should start a book, this is because I am still unclear about something.  For I should like to start with the original data of philosophy, written and spoken sentences, with books as it were.

And here we come upon the difficulty of "all is in flux".  Perhaps that is the very point at which to start.
 He means to start with Heraclitus, one of the pre-Socratics, in other words, and perhaps iron out the difficulties Socrates left us with.  Easier said than done, of course:

People say again and again that philosophy doesn't really progress, that we are still occupied with the same philosophical problems as were the Greeks.  But the people who say this don't understand why it has to be so.  It is because our language has remained the same and keeps seducing us into asking the same questions.  As long as there continues to be a verb "to be" that look as if it functions the same was as "to eat" and "to drink", as long as we still have the adjectives "identical," "true", "false", "possible", as long as we continue to talk of a river of time, of an expanse of space, etc., etc., people will keep stumbling over the same puzzling difficulties and find themselves staring at something which no explanation seems capable of clearing up.
 And so Wittgenstein, like all philosophers before him and after him, is always trying to understand and think in contrast, that is to say against, all the other philosophers:

In the course of our conversations Russell would often exclaim:  "Logic's hell!"--And this perfectly expresses the feeling we had when we were thinking about the problem of logic; that is to say, their immense difficulty, their hard and slippery texture.

I believer our main reason for feeling like this was the following fact:  that every time some new linguistic phenomenon occurred to us, it could retrospectively show that our previous explanation was unworkable.  (We felt that language could always make new, and impossible, demands; and that this made all explanation futile.)

But that is the difficulty Socrates gets into in trying to give the definition of a concept.  Again and again a use of the word emerges that seems not to be compatible with the concept that other uses have led us to form.  We say:  but that isn't how it is!--it is like that though!  and all we can do is keep repeating these antitheses.
  "...and all we can do is keep repeating these antitheses."  What fresh hell is this?

Kierkegaard points out that Socrates' use of "the Socratic method" doesn't create the difficulty Wittgenstein identifies for the reasons Wittgenstein identifies, but because it is Socrates' purpose to create that difficulty.  Sort of like the guy who asks smart-alec questions he knows you can't answer, and then leaves you with them.  But Kierkegaard's analysis is essentially theological (it was his thesis for his Master's of Divinity, or the equivalent), not philosophical; and therein lies the distinction.

Theology, to make it short and sweet, is ultimately bounded.  That seems obvious, especially when one considers there are topics theology cannot consider, such as the lack of God (let's stay away from basically meaningless concepts like "non-existence" of God).  That is a topic in philosophy of religion; but not in theology.  So there are limits, boundaries, points beyond which theology simply cannot go, because to speak of them is to leave theology behind.  In the same way, of course, physics uses the language of mathematics to explain the importance and even necessity of the Higgs boson; but physics does not explain the importance, or even the necessity, of love.  Limitations are not necessarily weaknesses, in other words.

Philosophy is bounded, too.  What human discourse isn't?  But the boundaries on theology are different, because they are related to an accepted set of ideas; at least, a centrally accepted set of ideas, which is a bit more than can be said for philosophy (the distinctions between theologians is almost slight compared to the distinctions between Continental philosophers and Anglo-American philosophers.  Wittgenstein touches on the point when he discusses the problem with the verb "to be."  Continental philosophy is almost entirely concerned with the question of being; Anglo-American philosophy regards the question, by and large, as a chimera.  Theologians, be they liberal or conservative, fundamentalist or process, are all at least talking about God and the nature of Christ or of soteriology, for example).  This distinction came clearest to me in reviewing the equally gnomic and brief notes of Reinhold Niebuhr:

The excitement about the Federation of Labor convention in Detroit has subsided, but there are echoes of the event in various magazines.  Several ministers have been commended for "courage" because they permitted labor leaders to speak in their churches who represented pretty much their own convictions and pretty much what they had been saying for years.

It does seem pretty bad to have the churches lined up so solidly against labor and for the open shop policy of the town....The idea that these A.F. of L. leaders are dangerous heretics is itself a rather illuminating clue to the mind of Detroit.  I attended several sessions of the convention and the men impressed me as having about the same amount of daring and imagination as a group of village bankers.

....Detroit produces automobiles and is not yet willing to admit that the poor automata who are geared in on the production lines have any human problems.
Reinhold Niebuhr, in 1926.

Wittgenstein and Niebuhr are both addressing human problems; but how different the problems are!  No surprise, since Neibuhr is writing as a pulpit minister, Wittgenstein as a professor at Oxford.  But consider this, from 1927, which is astonishingly relevant 85 years later:

Perhaps there is no better illustration of the ethical impotence of the modern church than its failure to deal with the evils and the ethical problems of stock manipulation.  Millions in property values are created by pure legerdemain.  Stock dividends, watered stock and excessive rise in stock values due to the productivity of th modern machine, are accepted by the church without a murmur if only a slight return is made by the beneficiaries through church philanthropies.

Here is C---- recapitalizing his business and adding six million dollars in stock.  At least five of these millions will not be invested in physical expansion but pocketed by the owners.  They simply represent capitalization of expected profits.  Once this added burden has been placed upon the industry any demands by the workers for a larger share in the profits will be met by conclusive proof that that stock is earning only a small dividend and that further increase in wages would be "suicidal" to the business.
Again, a problem grounded in a very real situation, but one put in the context of a much larger discussion.  But to really get at the distinction, consider a longer example:

While it is possible for intelligence to increase the range of benevolent impulse, and thus prompt a human being to consider the needs and rights of other than those to whom he is bound by organic and physical relationship, there are definite limits in the capacity of ordinary mortals which makes it impossible for them to grant to others what they claim for themselves. Though educators ever since the eighteenth century have given themselves to the fond illusion that justice through voluntary co-operation waited only upon a more universal or a more adequate educational enterprise, there is good reason to believe that the sentiments of benevolence and social goodwill will never be so pure or powerful, and the rational capacity to consider the rights and needs of others in fair competition with our own will never be so fully developed as to create the possibility for the anarchistic millennium which is the social utopia, either explicit or implicit, of all intellectual or religious moralists.

All social co-operation on a larger scale than the most intimate social group requires a measure of coercion. While no state can maintain its unity purely by coercion neither can it preserve itself without coercion. Where the factor of mutual consent is strongly developed, and where standardised and approximately fair methods of adjudicating and resolving conflicting interests within an organised group have been established, the coercive factor in social life is frequently covert, and becomes apparent only in moments of crisis and in the group's policy toward recalcitrant individuals. Yet it is never absent. Divergence of interest, based upon geographic and functional differences within a society, is bound to create different social philosophies and political attitudes which goodwill and intelligence may partly, but never completely, harmonise. Ultimately, unity within an organised social group, or within a federation of such groups, is created by the ability of a dominant group to impose its will.

....

The limitations of the human mind and imagination, the inability of human beings to transcend their own interests sufficiently to envisage the interests of their fellowmen as clearly as they do their own makes force an inevitable part of the process of social cohesion. But the same force which guarantees peace also makes for injustice. "Power," said Henry Adams, "is poison"; and it is a poison which blinds the eyes of moral insight and lames the will of moral purpose. The individual or the group which organises any society, however social its intentions or pretensions, arrogates an inordinate portion of social privilege to itself.
What lies behind that analysis is the Christian concept of Original Sin.  The insight is, perhaps, possible without it (that is to say, you can understand Niebuhr without understanding Christian doctrine); but I'm not sure you can reach the same conclusion so clearly without appealing to a larger context, a realm outside the immediate topic which makes it easier to understand, although it is not itself necessary to understand the analysis.  Philosophy has a harder time doing that (though it's still possible, to be sure), because philosophy is always trying to both establish itself, and to prove itself against other philosophies.  At some point, theological analysis becomes a matter of assessment rather than, in whole or in part, a matter of establishing first principles.  Which doesn't make theology superior to philosophy, necessarily (or superior to any other system of thought); but it does make it more practical.

Unless, of course, you think every mention of "religion" or "theology" means you have to start over again on the argument about the existence of God, or where morality really comes from.  But the distinction is not merely that religion has certain concepts all worked out, and philosophy by its nature doesn't and never will (whether for Wittgenstein's reasons, or for other reasons).  The distinction is that religion, and so theology, is different:

Ancient Roman civilization, says Gibbon, was bound to reject Christianity just because Rome was tolerant. This culture, with its great diversity of customs and religions, could exist only if reverence and assent were granted to the many confused traditions and ceremonies of its constituent nations....But Christ and Christians threatened the unity of the culture...with their radical monotheism, a faith in the one God that was very different from the pagan universalism which sought to unify many deities and many cults under one earthly or heavenly framework....Divinity, it seems must not only hedge kings but also other symbols of political power, and monotheism deprives them of their sacred aura. The Christ who will not worship Satan to gain the world's kingdoms is followed by Christians who will worship only Christ in unity with the Lord whom he serves. And this is intolerable to all defenders of society who are content that many gods should be worshipped if only Democracy or America or Germany or the Empire receives its due, religious homage. The antagonism of modern, tolerant culture to Christ is of course often disguised because it does not call its religious practices religious...and also because it regards what it calls religious as one of the many interests which can be placed alongside economics, art, science, politics, and techniques. Hence the injunction it voices to Christian monotheism appears in such injunctions only as that religion should be kept out of politics and business, or that Christian faith must learn to get along with other religions. What is often meant is that not only the claims of Christ and God should be banished from the spheres where other gods, called values, reign. The implied charge against Christian faith is like the ancient one: it imperils society by its attack on its religious life; it deprives social institutions of their cultic, sacred character; by its refusal to condone the pious superstitions of tolerant polytheism it threatens social unity. The charge lies not only against Christian organizations which use coercive means against what they define as false religions, but against the faith itself.
H. Richard Niebuhr, Christ and Culture (New York: Harper & Row 1975), pp. 7-9

Different does not, as Gibbons thought, imply superiority.  Philosophy, of course, makes the same claim as theology or Christianity, in Niebuhr's terms:  it cannot be properly placed alongside economics, art, science, politics, and techniques, because philosophy subsumes and undergirds them:  it truly comes first, and explains, to some degree, all the others.  Theology once purported to do this, but it lost that throne centuries ago; and good riddance to it.  Still, theology has a similar (though, again, not superior) claim to philosophy:  it subsumes and, properly understood, undergirds, all other subjects.  And it can do so without having to reinvent the wheel, or still argue over what the original data of theology was.  Well, those discussions actually do bear very good fruit, but the discourse is actually more in the nature of re-considering the nature of God, not reconsidering yet again whether there is actually a nature of God to reconsider.

I should bring this to a ringing conclusion, but it's a blog post, not a scholarly essay.  Suffice to say there are virtues to theology which I'm belatedly realizing philosophy does not know; and that gives me new insight on how to read some philosophers, and some theologians; which might prove interesting.  And the concept of confessing one's faith presents a rather interesting lacunae in theological discussions that perhaps deserves a bit more attention.