Saturday, December 31, 2005

Morality, Nationality, and Paradox

George Orwell once wrote that Christianity is as weak as straw in the face of nationalism. A corollary might be that reason -- or even the notion that any sort of reasoned discourse should inform the fateful decision of whether to resort to violence -- often seems as weak as a twig in the face of violent, triumphalist nationalism.

Is this quantifiable? No, it’s just an impression formed from scores of conversations with pro-war types and way too much reading of sites like LGF. There’s also, of course, an enormous difference between imagining horrific punishment and actually carrying it out. And yes, there are many pro-war people who are genuinely horrified by violence and had hoped to avert war at all costs.

Still, there’s a rich irony here. Pro-war folks point to beheadings as the number one example of the irredeemable savagery of “the enemy” -- because it seems to reveal that they are in the grip of a pathology that no longer allows for any glint of reason or mercy to intrude on their lust for violence. And they’re right, of course. What’s amazing -- and ominous -- is how easily some of our colleagues and neighbors fall prey to the very same collapse of rationality they claimed to be appalled by in the first place.
-- Greg Sargent

Orwell was right; and the theologian Reinhold Niebuhr recognized it. Nationalism is a function of a group. Morality, Niebuhr noted, is paradoxically inappropriate to a group. this produces what sociologists Michael O. Emerson and Christian Smith call the "ethical paradox of group loyalty:"

At the individual level, selfishness is usually considered negative, but at the group level, it is considered moral and just. Indeed, at the group level, it is not called selfishness, but morality, service, sacrifice, or loyalty. Although we are selfish ifwe always look out for our own individual needs first it is considered wrong and immoral if we do not consider the needs of our family first, ahead of other families. We house our families first, and only if we can spare extra do we help house other families. To do otherwise is considered immoral or, at a minimum, a sad case of misplaced priorities.

The story of Elijah and the widow notwithstanding.
The paradox means that "members of a group cannot understand and feel the needs of another group as completely and deeply as those of their own group," so "reliance on love, compassion, and moral and rational suasion to overcome group divisions and inequalities is, in Niebuhr's words, 'practically an impossibility.'

For this reason, relations between groups are always mainly political rather than ethical or moral. As Niebuhr says, 'They will always be determined by the proportion of power which each group possesses at least as much as by any rational and moral appraisal of the comparative needs and claims of each group.' (quoted from Emerson and Smith, Divided by Faith: Evangelical Religion and the Problem of Race in America (New York: Oxford University Press 2000), pp. 158-159.
So nations go to war, compete against each other, and can never, in any real sense, be considered "Christian."

Because they can never, in any real sense, be moral.

In the face of nationalism, Christianity can never be more than a straw in the wind. So while it is normal, even understandable, to be outraged by the lack of morality of the President, to be angered at the complete absence of any action that can be called Christian ethics in his justifications for his illegal, not to say incompetent, dealings as President, it is also perfectly useless.

Criticize George W. Bush all you want for not being the Christian he pretends to be; but the question of Christianity in guiding the nation, simply doesn't apply. It is inapplicable.

It is possible to resort to a "higher power" argument, to argue that all human governance is derived from authority that stands apart from even the consent of the governed. That was the argument of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., and the civil rights movement he spearheaded. Indeed, none of the changes that came about as a result of the civil rights movement are possible if one cannot consider and act on a transcendent authority that checks the power of even the majority in a representative democracy. But that argument has greater moral power in the arena of civil and voting rights. It is almost a piece of straw in the argument against the wiretapping of the NSA. The question there has to remain the authority, under Constitutional and statutory law, for the President to act without legal consequence. The "higher power" argument holds only against the ideal of the republic, and whether the consent of the governed can be persuaded to hold to that ideal, or whether it sees its own survival as a nation so threatened that even that ideal must give way to insure the nation continues.

Christianity is difficult, both in practice and in theory. Following in the Judaic tradition of valuing human reason, Christians treasure the mind as a gift of God, and the faithful are called to use his gifts to the fullest; to fail to do so is a sin. Every believer, says the author of the First Epistle of St. Peter, should "be ready always to give an answer to every man that asketh you a reason of the hope that is in you." The admonition is a good one, for it encourages the faithful to ask questions, and in asking questions, one enters the debate about God and man that began with the ancient pagans.

The suggestion that Christianity is a matter of both intellect and imagination, however, has fallen from popular favor. Many secularists see the whole business as fanciful, or, at best, as a comforting tale impossible to square with empirical truths. To literalist believers, imagination is beside the point: in their eyes, inerrant Scripture teaches humankind all it really needs to know.

--Jon Meacham

This is, I think, the central question of ecclesiology today, and ecclesiology is the central question of Christianity today. Ecclesiology is the subject and the discussion of what it means to be a church. And the Church Triumphant is a pale shadow of its former self, which perhaps is as it should be. That which you most oppose, you most come to resemble. This is the reality Greg Sargent has realized. The "pro-war folks" he discusses fear what Jung would call their shadow self. Seeking to expunge it, they will in fact destroy themselves, and stand amazed as they throw their enemy into the pit, to find they have hurled themselves there, too. It is a perilous time for Christians, who are called to be in the world but not of the world. It is this position that brought such calumny down on the head of Tom Fox and the three other Christians, still (so far as I know) being held captive for their witness and their efforts for peace. It is an identity issue: if someone can actually stand up for principles which are noble and unselfish, then what does that say for me? Better to vilify them as fools, than to recognize my own severe limitations.

Thomas Merton, writing about the desert fathers who fled collapsing civilization to live in the Egyptian deserts in the 4th century, said that there are times when it is every man and woman for him- or her-self, when the best you can do is to grab a piece of flotsam and hold on in the flood that is coming. Sometimes, in other words, the most Christian thing you can do is to save yourself, so that you can provide a witness to the world that will arise from the destruction. It may be we are in one of those times, again.

The gravest difficulty of Christianity is the one Jon Meacham recognizes: that reason is a necessity of faith, but that both reason and faith have their limits. At some point, as Jacques Derrida, we are left only with the mysterium tremendum, the deep secret that makes us tremble, without knowing what causes the trumbling, or even where it is coming from. The mysterium tremendum comes from outside of us, but it is the state of our being. It is, if we are attentive, part of the condition that prevails. It is also a sure cure for pride, about which Meacham is also right:

Pride is fueling an unhappy trend toward Christian self-satisfaction in the United States. Though roughly 80 percent of Americans identify themselves as Christians, conservative evangelicals have long felt themselves under siege, particularly since the 1962 Supreme Court decision banning government-written prayer in public schools. In reaction they have spent the ensuing four decades becoming a major political force. Instead of reading Stark as an amicus brief for the faith, though, believers might be best off taking his case for an intellectually curious Christianity to heart.

Having become a political force, conservative evangelicals have, effectively, stopped being believers. They have stopped being Christians. There is no valid comparison to the civil rights movement. Martin Luther King, Jr. was never a political force, certainly not in the way James Dobson or Jerry Falwell is. When King spoke out against the Vietnam War, he was vilified even by those who supported his civil rights movement, even though his stance was of a piece with his activism on that front. When he died, he was organizing an economic boycott for garbage workers. King never supported the status quo, he challenged it.

And that has become my bedrock position on Christianity: if it is not a challenge to the status quo, if it does not afflict the comfortable and comfort the afflicted, it may be any number of things, but it is not consistent with the teachings of Jesus of Nazareth. There is many a slip there, many ways to be afflicting and comforting, and certainly not all of them are harmonious with the stories of the Gospels, either.

Religion has one fundamental principle, however it is practiced: it calls the individual out of self and toward other. That is why, and how, religion is responsibility; and precisely why, if it is not that, it is nothing. "No one," note Emerson and Smith, "can opt out of commitment to some fundamental moral orientation or take a normative view 'from nowhere.'" (p. 142). A conclusion, I should note, that could have come from the writings of Søren Kierkegaard. Religion serves to provide that orientation (among other sources), and that orientation always directs one toward others. And that direction is always a challenge to the status quo of: "what's in it for me."

But we never get far from that status quo; or never far enough. A matter I want to develop further, in consideration of certain matters of ecclesiology. We start here, however: with Christianity that is as weak as a straw; that is a product both of reason and imagination, in equal measures; that relies on faith and requires tradition (as Meacham points out, quoting Chesterton both times: "Reason itself is a matter of faith," G. K. Chesterton wrote. "It is an act of faith to assert that our thoughts have any relation to reality at all;" and "Tradition, Chesterton wrote during the Edwardian Age, 'means giving votes to the most obscure of all classes, our ancestors. It is the democracy of the dead. Tradition refuses to submit to the small and arrogant oligarchy of those who merely happen to be walking about. . . . We will have the dead at our councils.' " We start by recognizing the power of our powerlessness. And the paradox of Christianity, that it requires a group, a movement away from self and toward others.

The group establishes the identity for the individual, the normative orientation that must come from somewhere. But a nation does that as well as a congregation, and both are subject to the same pressure: to provide a place of meaning and belonging. The church, however, is called to be a place of sacrifice for meaning and belonging; and that is its greatest weakness, is in fact the source of weakness Orwell identified (although he didn't identify it as such). But it is its necessity, too, and its greatest strength. The only other problem is: we have to accept it, so that we do not become the enemy we seek to oppose.

Paradoxes abound.


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

Hogmanay of the sack,
Hogmanay of the sack,
Beat the skin,
Beat the skin.

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

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

Hogmanay of the sack,
Hogmanay of the sack.

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

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

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

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

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

The song of Hogmanay

Now since we came to the country
To renew to you the Hogmanay,
Time will not allow us to explain,
It has been since the age of our fathers.

Ascending the wall of the house,
Descending at the door,
My carol to say modestly,
As becomes me at the Hogmanay.

The Hogmanay skin is in my pocket,
Great the fume that will come from that;
No one who shall inhale its odour,
But shall be for ever from it healthy.

The house-man will get it in his grasp,
He will put its point in the fIre;
He will go sunwise round the children,
And very specially round the goodwife.

The wife will get it, she it is who deserves it,
The hand to distribute the Hogmanay,
The hand to bestow upon us cheese and butter,
The hand without niggardliness, without meanness.

Since drought has come upon the land,
And that we do not expect rarity,
A little of the substance of the summer,
Would we desire with the bread.

If that we are not to have it,
If thou mayest, do not detain us;
I am the servant of God's Son on Hogmanay,
Arise thyself and open the door.
Hogmanay here! Hogmanay here!

We are come to the door,
To see if we be the better of our visit,
To tell the generous women of the townland
That tomorrow is Calendae Day.

After being entertained the guisers go sunwise round the fire singing:

May God bless the dwelling,
Each stone, and beam, and stave,
All food, and drink, and clothing.
May health of men be always there.

Should the guisers be inhospitably treated, they file round the fire withershins walk out, and raise a cairn in or near the door, called carnan mollachd (cairn I malison), carnan cronachd (scathe, or evil, cairn).

They tramp loudly, shaking the dust of the place off their feet, and intoning' a deep voice the following and other maledictions:

The malison of God and of Hogmanay be on you,
And the scathe of the plaintive buzzard,
Of the hen-harrier, of the raven, of the eagle,
And the scathe of the sneaking fox.
The scathe of the dog and of the cat be on you,
Of the boar, of the badger, and of the brugha,
Of the hipped bear and of the wild wolf,
And the scathe of the foul foumart.

(All selections from Carmina Gadelica, ed. Alexander Carmichael)

(Still don't know what the "skin" is. It may be the link in the title will give the clue.)

Irony is not dead

Perhaps it has something to do with New Year's Resolutions.

Maybe it's just the American Way.

But the hottest selling title at the bookstore today was: Give It Up! : My Year of Learning to Live Better with Less

And all you need to do to learn how to live with less, is buy one more thing....

Is Victory the Issue?

There are two reviews of the book Jon Meacham mentions, The Victory of Reason, by Rodney Stark, in the New York Times. The second gives a better summary of the book than Meacham does. But neither reviewer points out the fundamental flaw in Stark's reasoning: both reviewers and Stark start from the assumption that materialism is the fundamental truth of the universe, and spirit and spirituality are merely aftereffects of that reality.

So Stark can write: " 'Without a theology committed to reason, progress and moral equality' - all of which could describe faiths other than Christianity - 'today the entire world would be about where non-European societies were in, say, 1800: a world with many astrologers and alchemists but no scientists.'" But the assumption that science is an unalloyed good is based on the notion that only the material world is, ultimately, good, or ultimately the provider of good for all. Buddhists and Taoists, as well as Hindus and Christian ascetics and mystics (not to mention Muslim, Janists, and several other religions), might beg to differ.

There was a book published a few years ago, photographs of everything families owned, from around the world. American families literally could not remove every possession from their houses and place it on the lawn. A family in Asia, however, could arrange all its possessions and stand before its house, with ease. A new book makes the same presentation based on food. A British family of four brings out food for a week, and the stacks overwhelm the people. An African family of 9 piles it's food for the week on a blanket.

Is one family happier than the other, because of what it possesses? Because of science, which has made industrial production and industrial agriculture, possible?

Science has conquered disease and improved hygiene, and done much that is good; this no one can deny. But we are speaking of religion, here, of the realm of the spirit. Is the measure of its success how much our material lives have been improved? Is there not a conflict at the heart of that analysis that reduces religion to simply another handmaiden of empiricism?

After all, Augustine and Aquinas saw reason as a pathway to God, who is spirit, and ineffable. Indeed, near the end of his life Aquinas had a mystical vision, in light of which he declared all his writings "straw," and never wrote another word.

Where is victory, and who is the victor?

Happy Holidays

My last word on the "war on Christmas."

I have spoken to or recieved cards from at least two people of my parent's generation now, who have mentioned disparagingly the term "Happy Holidays," and insisted that we all must use "Merry Christmas."

As Eliot said, I did not think death had undone so many.

I've been hearing the phrase "Happy Holidays" for 50 years, and in that time, no one thought ill of it. Bing Crosby was singing about them as far back as I can remember. My parent's favorite Christmas album was Crosby's Christmas tunes, which included that song.

Why, now, is the phrase so offensive? Because Bill O'Reilly and John Gibson said so?

Many in the blogospher bemoan the influence of FoxNews on America. I join Harlan Ellison, and bemoan the influence of television. "The Glass Teat," he called it; but I always thought it had affected my generation, the "TV Generation," most profoundly.

Sadly, it is making my parents' generation senile and peurile, long before their time. I love these people, but I'm baffled as to how they can care so much about something so insignificant. In fact, perhaps that's what it is. All of these people are retired, long ago, and society does a very good job of telling them they are useless and no longer necessary. Being concerned about something so artificial, is a sad way of giving them some token sense of purpose, some tiny flame of outrage to warm themselves by.

This is, in the end, a problem for the churches. It is another issue of ecclesiology, in fact. And the irony is, it is tied to the churches, whether they like it or not, because Christmas is a religious holy-day.

Friday, December 30, 2005

Compare & Contrast

I had seen this earlier, but jane reminds me of it's importance:

The broad-based effort, known within the agency by the initials GST, is compartmentalized into dozens of highly classified individual programs, details of which are known mainly to those directly involved.

GST includes programs allowing the CIA to capture al Qaeda suspects with help from foreign intelligence services, to maintain secret prisons abroad, to use interrogation techniques that some lawyers say violate international treaties, and to maintain a fleet of aircraft to move detainees around the globe. Other compartments within GST give the CIA enhanced ability to mine international financial records and eavesdrop on suspects anywhere in the world.

Over the past two years, as aspects of this umbrella effort have burst into public view, the revelations have prompted protests and official investigations in countries that work with the United States, as well as condemnation by international human rights activists and criticism by members of Congress.

Still, virtually all the programs continue to operate largely as they were set up, according to current and former officials. These sources say Bush's personal commitment to maintaining the GST program and his belief in its legality have been key to resisting any pressure to change course.

"In the past, presidents set up buffers to distance themselves from covert action," said A. John Radsan, assistant general counsel at the CIA from 2002 to 2004. "But this president, who is breaking down the boundaries between covert action and conventional war, seems to relish the secret findings and the dirty details of operations."
As jane says: "Good God! What's next?"

This does explain, at least in part, why Bush is comfortable revelling publicly in such operations, and why it's not just political expediency that has driven him to investigate the "leak" of this illegal program. What it doesn't explain is why Democratic congressional leaders are not speaking out more forcibly about this travesty of governance. This is not malfeasance; this is active and intentional violations of law.

When that happens in Britain, the opposition demands an investigation.

A British opposition politician called on Thursday for an inquiry into allegations that British intelligence officers took part in the interrogation of Pakistani terror suspects, said to have been abducted and tortured in Greece after the London bombings in July.

Jack Straw, the British foreign secretary, has called the accusations "complete nonsense" and the government has issued a gag order known as a D- notice to prevent British media from identifying a purported British agent named in Greek press reports.

But some opposition politicians have drawn oblique parallels between the Greek allegations and the debate across Europe over the so-called extraordinary rendition of suspects by American agencies to third countries where torture is practiced.

Menzies Campbell, the foreign affairs spokesman of the opposition Liberal Democrats, told a BBC radio interviewer on Thursday: "I believe the appropriate course now would be for the Intelligence and Security Committee of Parliament to investigate these matters."
The covert prisons in Europe were broken by the European Union's insistence that its members comply with its own laws. Why can't we do as much?

All we are hearing during the Christmas break is how Bush had to break the law in order to catch the bad guys (just like every cops 'n' robbers movie since "Dirty Harry"), or now how the DOJ will find out who illegally leaked the information about this illegal operation.

The British have learned how to at least appear to be retaining their form of government. Have we?

Is this a leak that needs to be investigated?

Bush is either preparing for impeachment, or cementing his power:

The three U.S. military service chiefs have been dropped in the doomsday line of Pentagon succession, pushed beneath three civilian undersecretaries in Defence Secretary Donald Rumsfeld's inner circle.

A little-noticed, holiday-week executive order from President George W. Bush moved the Pentagon's intelligence chief to the No. 3 spot in the succession hierarchy behind Rumsfeld. The second spot would be the deputy secretary of defence but that position currently is vacant. The army chief, which long held the No. 3 spot, was dropped to sixth.

The changes, announced last week, are the second in six months and mirror the administration's new emphasis on intelligence-gathering versus combat in 21st-century warfare.

Technically, the line of succession is assigned to specific positions, rather than the individuals holding those jobs.

But in its current incarnation, the doomsday plan moves to near the top three undersecretaries who are Rumsfeld loyalists and previously worked for Vice-President Dick Cheney when he was defence secretary.

The changes were recommended, said Pentagon spokesman Bryan Whitman, because the three undersecretaries have "a broad knowledge and perspective of overall Defence Department operations."

The service leaders are more focused on training, equipping and leading a particular military service, said Whitman.

Thomas Donnelly, a defence expert with the American Enterprise Institute, said the changes make it easier for the administration to assert political control and could lead to more narrow-minded decisions.

"It continues to devalue the services as institutions," said Donnelly, adding it will centralize power and shift it away from the services, where there is generally more military expertise and interest.
Either way, it's in keeping with the pattern and practice of this Administration.

Whatever you did to the least of these....

When you can simply prosecute them, why worry about taxing the churches out of existence?

Churches, social service agencies and immigration groups across the country are rallying against a provision in the recently passed House border-security bill that would make it a federal crime to offer services or assistance to illegal immigrants.

The measure would broaden the nation's immigrant-smuggling law so that people who assist or shield illegal immigrants would be subject to prosecution. Offenders, who might include priests, nurses or social workers, could face up to five years in prison. The proposal would also allow the authorities to seize some assets of those convicted of such a crime.

Proponents of the legislation have argued that such provisions would make it harder for illegal immigrants to thrive in the United States by discouraging people from helping them. The legislation, which cleared the House this month, could also subject the spouses and colleagues of illegal workers to prosecution.

Several Republicans and Democrats in Congress say the measure appears unlikely to become law. But the legislation has touched off an outcry among groups that teach English and offer job training, medical assistance and other services to immigrants.

The United States Conference of Catholic Bishops has written to members of Congress and called on President Bush to oppose the measure publicly. In Manhattan, scores of immigrants demonstrated against the bill last week. Here in the Washington area, a coalition of immigrant-services groups is planning rallies, visits to members of Congress and a letter-writing campaign to try to prevent the immigration bill from becoming law.

"We are going to fight this legislation," said Gustavo Torres, executive director of Casa of Maryland, one of the advocacy groups rallying against the measure. "The immigrant community is very upset about this."

In 1982, the U.S. Supreme Court decided Plyler v. Doe, and held that the equal protection clause of the Constitution required that illegal immigrants be allowed access to public education, a decision that has never set well with at least one segment of the population of this country.

This law would effect schools as well as churches, and would in effect declare illegal immigrants non-persons. School nurses as well as hospital nurses would become criminals, and priests and congregations offering help to strangers in Jesus' name would become outlaws.

"We never ask for documentation," [Gustavo Torres, executive director of Casa of Maryland] said. "Our mission is to help anyone in need of service, regardless of their immigration status. We are proud of that."
In fact, I would be a criminal had this law been in effect 5 years ago. I lived in a neighborhood of very poor people, many of them undoubtedly illegal immigrants, and like Mr. Torres, I never asked for papers before offering them whatever help I had.

Perhaps it would be expedient to remind Mr. Bush of what his "favorite philosopher" said about what we do to "the least of these."

About that "bounce" in the polls recently.


Mr. Bush started the year, the first of his second term, with a lower job approval rating than any two-term president in the past 50 years. And his numbers continued to sink from there.

Moral Man and Immoral Society

This is why John Yoo's theory of legal interpretation isn't interpretation at all. It is, instead: what does the client want the law to be?

Refining what constitutes an assassination was just one of many legal interpretations made by Bush administration lawyers. Time and again, the administration asked government lawyers to draw up new rules and reinterpret old ones to approve activities once banned or discouraged under the congressional reforms beginning in the 1970s, according to these officials and seven lawyers who once worked on these matters.
And why is this happening? The "official story" (still being trumpted by WaPo here) is that the nation must be protected from "another attack." As General Mihael Hayden, deputy director national intelligence, says:

Not stopping another attack not only will be a professional failure, he argued, but also "will move the line" again on acceptable legal limits to counterterrorism.
But the real reason? The same reason Dick Cheney's official residence is obscured on Google Earth: knowledge is power. Control the knowledge, you control the power:

"The Bush administration did not seek a broad debate on whether commander-in-chief powers can trump international conventions and domestic statutes in our struggle against terrorism," said Radsan, the former CIA lawyer, who is a professor at William Mitchell College of Law in St. Paul, Minn. "They could have separated the big question from classified details to operations and had an open debate. Instead, an inner circle of lawyers and advisers worked around the dissenters in the administration and one-upped each other with extreme arguments."
Close off who has access to the discussion, you control the direction of the discussion.

Choke off dissent, you control the debate. "Free speech zones" exist only outside the White House; well outside the White House.

Reinhold Niebuhr argued that nations must act in their survival interests. Individuals may act unselfishly against their own interests for a higher purpose, but organizations must act selfishly, as their first duty is to preserve the organization. But he did not contend that a nation must act against its own principles. His was not a Machiavellian argument, but an argument against expecting a nation to "do the right thing" according to any given set of moral principles. Nations must act to protect themselves from threat. But the citizens do not have to accept those conditions as the absolute terms of citizenship.

But there are checks on any set of actions, and no nation is given carte blanche to abandon its principles and seek survival through any available means. For one thing, such a nation quickly devolves into a dictatorship, as the legitimate rights and concerns of the governed are subordinated to the "national security interest." The problem with using that standard is that "national security" always serves the interests of those with the power to decide what it is, and how it should be protected.

Which should be kept in mind: this Administration is not interested in security, or even how it would justify itself should another terrorist threat occur. It is only interested in power, and wielding power for its own sake.

Even the ancient Greeks, with almost no concept of "civil disobedience," understood that Creon's power to ban the burial of the traitor Polynices was not a law the king could make. Even they understood that there are moral limits on the reach of governmental power, especially in the hands of one person.

To allow these actions to be implemented in our government does far more harm than any number of terrorist attacks could do. Terrorists can only destroy our buildings and kill people in our country, or abroad.

By the actions of our government, we are undoing the very concept of self-governance.

Thursday, December 29, 2005

"What is Herod in these times?"--Gabe Huck

The semantic effect of this journalistic obfuscation is clear. If Palestinian land is not occupied but merely part of a legal dispute that might be resolved in law courts or discussions over tea, then a Palestinian child who throws a stone at an Israeli soldier in this territory is clearly acting insanely.
Robert Fiske

In the Obey Your Thirst/Image Is Everything era of American politics, Bush's National Victory campaign is a creepy innovation. It features the president thumping a document -- the "National Strategy for Victory in Iraq" -- that was largely written not by diplomats or generals but by a pair of academics from Duke University named Peter Feaver and Christopher Gelpi. Essentially a PR document, the paper is basically a living political experiment, designed to prove that Americans will more readily accept military casualties if the word "victory" is repeated a great many times in public.

"This is not really a strategy document from the Pentagon about fighting the insurgency," Gelpi told The New York Times. "The document is clearly targeted at American public opinion."
Matt Taibbi

The seven military recruiters here, six of whom have themselves served in Iraq, want the sign taken away. "It's disheartening," Staff Sgt. Gary J. Capan, the station's commander, said. "Everyone knows that people are dying in Iraq, but to walk past this on the way to work every day is too much."

But Scott Cameron, a local man who was wounded in the Vietnam War, says his sign should remain. Mr. Cameron volunteers for a candidate for governor of Minnesota whose campaign opened a storefront office next door to the recruiting station, and he has permission to post the message he describes as "not antiwar, but pro-veteran."
A few days after the opening, the office drew a visit from next door. Sergeant Capan, 31, said his recruiters were upset and wanted the sign removed. One woman who had just returned from duty in Iraq, he said, found the sign especially disconcerting and impersonal. "It was upsetting to veterans who don't look at their friends and colleagues killed as numbers on a list," he said.
New York Times

... We forget that every adult was brought up on fairy tales so it's natural to go on and, politically for example, want to believe that your President is a nice, honest man. The inability to turn to an adult perspective once you get to the age where you have some political weight is a great tragedy, and this is a period of history when it seems the most obvious type of disguise is on display to the entire world and yet those are the people who are still in power.
Bruce Springsteen

The farce continues

Sidney Blumenthal:

Bush hoped to erase the year's infamies with the election in Iraq on December 15, his ultimate turning point. He delivered five major speeches crafted by his new adviser on the National Security Council, Peter Feaver, a Duke University political scientist and co-author of "Choosing Your Battles," based on his public opinion research showing that "the public is defeat phobic, not casualty phobic." In one speech, Bush mentioned "victory" 15 times, against a background embossed with the slogan "Plan for Victory," and the White House issued a document entitled "National Strategy for Victory in Iraq."

On December 14, the president invited bipartisan groups of senators and representatives to White House briefings on the progress that would follow the election. Among those assembled in the Roosevelt Room were the president, Vice President Dick Cheney, Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, Secretary of Defense Dnald Rumsfeld, National Security Adviser Stephen Hadley - and Peter Feaver, the polling expert. At the meeting with senators after the presentation, Bush called first on Senator John McCain, the Republican maverick, who gave an enthusiastic statement of support. A few more spoke. "Great, gotta go," said Bush. Afterwards, Feaver buttonholed senators to survey their opinions on the new approach.

Since the election of the Shiite slate that will hold power for four years, dedicated to an Islamic state allied with Iran, the president and his advisers have fallen eerily silent. As his annus horribilis draws to a close, Bush appears to have expended the turning points. Welcome to victory.

Acapulco Gold?

The farce goes on.

What you will notice missing from this WaPo article is what Kaus noticed missing from the poll question: no mention of NSA at all. And only the slightest mention of Katrina, or Rita, issues which continue to roil the Gulf Coast, if not the Beltway.

Which is the only explanation for why the White House thinks things are improving for Bush.

Despite the gain in polls, some advisers see trouble ahead. Bush's top aides are telling friends they are burned out. Andrew H. Card Jr., already the longest-serving White House chief of staff in a half-century, is among those thought to be looking to leave. Rove's fate is uncertain, as he appears likely to remain under investigation in the CIA leak case, people close to the inquiry said.

Some are concerned that although Bush has changed his approach, he has not changed himself. He has been reluctant to look outside his inner circle for advice, and even some closest to Bush call that a mistake because aides have given up trying to get him to do things they know he would reject.

As they end a difficult year, advisers said they know they cannot take the recent political progress for granted. "We view this as not mission ccomplished," one top aide said. "It's going to need to be sustained."
Let's see: we know the White House has dropped Katrina recovery off of its radar screen; but the stories about New Orleans and the Gulf Coast are still out there. And everyone ignores the impact of Rita on the rest of the Louisiana coast, and the Texas Gulf Coast from Louisiana down to Galveston.

This is the plan to stabilize Iraq.

And no one has been talking about anything except the NSA story since December 18th. And that story is just getting wider and wider and wider. The White House is even losing the courts, and Alito's nomination is likely a train wreck. So where does the WaPo article go with this? Apparently, no one expects the Spanish Inquisition:

No one in the White House expects the speech to include anything of the magnitude of Social Security. As one aide put it, instead of home runs, Bush will focus on hitting singles and doubles. "The lesson from this year," said Grover G. Norquist, a GOP activist close to Rove, "is you cannot do anything dramatic unless you have 60 votes" in the Senate, where Republicans are five shy of the count needed to break a filibuster.
Uh, that would be the Patriot Act, WaPo; at a minimum. You know, the one that was supposed to pass handily, and is now extended for only 5 weeks? I mean, even the Republicans in Congress realize they haven't been doing their jobs.

And the White House response is: Iraq is getting better?

And that's just what I can put together in 20 minutes, at this rather obscure and certainly not-influential blog, just from MSM sources.

What are they smoking at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue?

Wednesday, December 28, 2005

December 28--Fourth Day of Christmas

The Massacre of the Innocents

When Herod realized that the astrologers had tricked him he flew into a rage, and gave orders for the massacre of all the boys aged two years or under, in Bethlehem and throughout the whole district, in accordance with the time he had ascertained from the astrologers. So the words spoken through Jeremiah the prophet were fulfilled: 'A voice was sl heard in Rama, sobbing in bitter grief; it was Rachel weeping for her children, and refusing to be comforted, because they were no more.'--Matthew 2:16-18, REB

Lully, lullay, thou little tiny child,
bye, bye, lully lullay.

O sisters too, how may we do,
for to preserve this day,
this poor youngling for whom we sing,
bye, bye lully lullay.

Herod the king in his raging,
charged he hath this day,
his men of night, in his own sight,
all young children to slay.

Then woe is me, poor child, for thee!
And every morn and day,
for thy parting not say nor sing
bye, bye, lully lullay.

Lully, lullay, thou little tiny child,
bye, bye, lully lullay.
--Coventry carol, fifteenth century

"There was this birth. There was the bursting of waters, blood, pushing, cutting cord, fondly wrapping. There was parting at the beginning, as at every beginning. And not only, the stories tell, the blood of birth spilled, but other blood, the world's most innocent blood. It is a true story being told for that, we know, is the way it goes, the way it went, the way it will go: We've all known kings like Herod. It's practically a prerequisite for the job: "Sure, somebody's going to get hurt, a few lives lost, but isn't it worth it?" It comes with the territory.

"But then consider how the medieval drama called "The Play of Herod" ends: the escape to Egypt, the hasty retreat of the magi, then the intrusion of the military into the village. The children are murdered and Rachel - the biblical mother - weeps and laments. A comforter is sent by God, but she refuses to be comforted because her children are no more. But this is not the end of the play. Did they somehow invent a happy ending? Nothing of the kind. The ending is not happy, it is a great mystery. For there is a Te Deum sung: "We praise you, God, we confess you as Lord." The greatest chant of praise. This is sung by Mary and Joseph, processing through the audience, but they are joined in their song and procession by the animals and the angels, by the shepherds, by the lamenting Rachel and the parents of Bethlehem, and they are joined by the soldiers and their victims and by Herod. Knowing that (Hopkins again)

we are wound
With mercy round and round. . . .

they all, incarnate God and all creation, even death, tyrants and martyrs, all process and all sing praise. And we sing too, and find ourselves in the procession.

"Today we can't imagine it. We take our Christmas with lots of sugar. And take it in a day. Though we've been baptized into his death, we have little time for or patience with how that death is told at Christmas, a death that confuses lament and praise forever. And no wonder we are careful to keep Christmas at an arm's length. What is Herod in these times?"--Gabe Huck

WE remember today, O God, the slaughter of the holy innocents of Bethlehem by King Herod. Receive, we pray, into the arms of your mercy all innocent victims; and by your great might frustrate the designs of evil tyrants and establish your rule of justice, love, and peace; through Jesus Christ our Lord, who lives and reigns with you, in the unity of the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever. Amen.--Book of Common Prayer

"Not saying much, but speaking as Yoo"--W.H. Auden

This is simply sophomoric:

"It would be inappropriate for a lawyer to say, 'The law means A, but I'm going to say B because to interpret it as A would violate American values,'" Yoo said. "A lawyer's job is if the law says A, the law says A."
The question of "what the law says" is a question of jurisprudence as well as a question of legal interpretation.

Both of those things can be taught, and are, in law school. It is the whole basis for an education in the law.

But no one trained in the law truly believes the law simply "speaks" and the lawyer simply reports that speech. Lawyers are not so many Delpic Oracles, dashing about proclaiming the utterances of the gods.

And judges, by the way, take "American values" into account almost as a matter of course. Witness the outcry when a recent Supreme Court decision cited rulings from European countries in its argument for the legal conclusion reached by a majority of the justices. The claim, from Mr. Yoo's side of the legal debate, was precisely that "American values" were weighed against "foreign values," something the critics considered wholly illegitimate.

The law is as much an expression of our values as Americans as the most pious statements about how noble, virtuous, and good "we" are.

The lawyer's job, of course, is to make an argument for his client. If he can establish that argument in a unique interpretation of the law, he should do so. But he cannot establish a legal argument based on a wholly unknown interpretation of the law that suits his predilections and tells the client what he wants to hear. That kind of "legal analysis" prompts practicing lawyers to contact their malpractice carriers.

Unfortunately for the nation, there is no malpractice in giving wholly unsound legal advice to the President. Especially when you never worked directly for the President.

The more complete examination of Yoo's legal analysis is linked here. But for simply uttering the sentence that a lawyer is bound by what the law "says"? Well, it's laughable.

It's simply laughable. Or would be, coming from anyone else than John Yoo, because:

"He has succeeded and won people over and advanced his ideas," said Manus Cooney, who hired Yoo on to the Judiciary Committee staff of Sen. Orrin G. Hatch (R-Utah) in 1995. "As far as conservative academics, I don't think there's anyone in the law whose contacts run deeper in the three branches, or higher."
UPDATE: And this is simply one reason why no lawyer can argue that his interpretation is one of "black letter law" that no one else has yet found in that same law, yet his unique interpetation is true and can be trusted:

Defense lawyers in some of the country's biggest terrorism cases say they plan to bring legal challenges to determine whether the National Security Agency used illegal wiretaps against several dozen Muslim men tied to Al Qaeda.

The lawyers said in interviews that they wanted to learn whether the men were monitored by the agency and, if so, whether the government withheld critical information or misled judges and defense lawyers about how and why the men were singled out.

The expected legal challenges, in cases from Florida, Ohio, Oregon and Virginia, add another dimension to the growing controversy over the agency's domestic surveillance program and could jeopardize some of the Bush administration's most important courtroom victories in terror cases, legal analysts say.

The question of whether the N.S.A. program was used in criminal prosecutions and whether it improperly influenced them raises "fascinating and difficult questions," said Carl W. Tobias, a law professor at the University of Richmond who has studied terrorism prosecutions.

"It seems to me that it would be relevant to a person's case," Professor Tobias said. "I would expect the government to say that it is highly sensitive material, but we have legal mechanisms to balance the national security needs with the rights of defendants. I think judges are very conscientious about trying to sort out these issues and balance civil liberties and national security."

While some civil rights advocates, legal experts and members of Congress have said President Bush did not have authority to order eavesdropping by the security agency without warrants, the White House and the Justice Department continued on Tuesday to defend the legality and propriety of the program.

Trent Duffy, a spokesman for the White House, declined to comment in Crawford, Tex., when asked about a report in The New York Times that the security agency had tapped into some of the country's main telephone arteries to conduct broader data-mining operations in the search for terrorists.

But Mr. Duffy said: "This is a limited program. This is not about monitoring phone calls designed to arrange Little League practice or what to bring to a potluck dinner. These are designed to monitor calls from very bad people to very bad people who have a history of blowing up commuter trains, weddings and churches."

He added: "The president believes that he has the authority - and he does - under the Constitution to do this limited program. The Congress has been briefed. It is fully in line with the Constitution and also protecting American civil liberties."
That last bit could have come directly from John Yoo. And it is going to sound just as weak in a court of law, as it does in a newspaper article.

Tuesday, December 27, 2005

As I was saying,

John Yoo protests too much. But at least he's likely to get away with it.

Those in power have responsibility for their egregious actions:

The current dispute over whether the president had the authority to order domestic spying without warrants, despite a law against it, has put new focus on the legal officials who have guided Bush. And the qualifications of Ashcroft, Gonzales, and Miers could become a focus of the upcoming Senate hearings on the spying decision.

Legal advice given to the president in national security matters can hardly be of greater importance. Telling Bush that he lacks the authority to make a particular move could leave the country vulnerable to attack; assuring him that he has the power to override civil liberties could consign innocent suspects to imprisonment, abuse, or disappearance to secret holding areas in other countries.

Since Sept. 11, 2001, Bush's legal advisers have cleared the way for him to hold enemy combatants without trials; eavesdrop on overseas telephone calls and e-mails; place ever-greater numbers of government documents under a veil of secrecy; imprison a US citizen indefinitely on the suspicion of terrorist links; and, according to The Washington Post, operate a secret CIA prison in an Eastern European country.

In each case, the legal official responsible for assessing the extent of Bush's powers was Ashcroft, Gonzales, or Miers.

Defining the president's powers -- when he can act alone, when he's constrained by treaties, when he must seek congressional authorization -- is extremely difficult. If there's one area of the law where the framers of the Constitution relied on the good faith of the men and women in government, it's in adhering to a system of divided powers. Nonetheless, presidents and members of Congress have often disagreed on their respective powers, and the Supreme Court has approached such cases warily, fearful of upsetting the constitutional balance of power.

The determinations of Ashcroft, Gonzales, and Miers have had great weight because they effectively cut Congress out of the decision-making, at least until the Supreme Court could weigh in. But in spying cases especially, the targets weren't aware that they were being monitored, and thus could not challenge Bush in court.
The crux of the biscuit: our governmental system is only as good as the men and women who agree to be bound by it.

Congress recognized that when Nixon was investigated over Watergate.

Will they recognize that again?

Recruiting the New National Guard

9/11 changed everything:

"Have it alls," the ideal Guard recruit, who wants to go to college, likes military paraphernalia, wants to be an officer, and actually tests higher than those who want to use the Guard for tuition.

The last category accounts for 32 percent of Guard members and is the one Jones and company are most interested in.

Moskos, the professor, said the biggest challenge for the Guard is to make it enticing for men and women from more affluent families to join. In England, the military has a different cache, he said.

Military recruiters in the United States acknowledge that getting first daughter Jenna Bush to join would be a far bigger boost than even doubling the recruiting budget again, Moskos said.

"Unless you get privileged youth to serve, you'll have recruitment difficulties," he said. "This is trying to convince working-class youth they otherwise have a worthless existence.

"I'd like see an ad with somebody listening to Mozart and reading Milton or
Shakespeare," Moskos said.
But working-class youth do otherwise have a worthless existence. What does Professor Markos think all the consumer society is all about, if not to convince them of that?

Wonderful public morality we have in this country, eh?

Link thanks to Holden.

Monday, December 26, 2005

Christmas Songs

Some Children See Him, by Alfred Burt

Some children see Him lily white,
The Baby Jesus born this night,
Some children see Him lily white,
With tresses soft and fair.

Some children see Him bronzed and brown,
The Lord of heav'n to earth come down;
Some children see Him bronzed and brown,
With dark and heavy hair.

Some children see Him almond-eyed,
This Savior whom we kneel beside,
Some children see Him almond-eyed,
With skin of yellow hue.

Some children see Him dark as they,
Sweet Mary's Son to whom we pray,
Some children see Him dark as they,
And, ah! they love Him, too!

The children in each diff'rent place
Will see the Baby Jesus' face
Like theirs, but bright with heav'nly grace,
And filled with holy light.

O lay aside each earthly thing,
And with thy heart as offering,
Come worship now the Infant King.
'Tis love that's born tonight!

The Rebel Jesus, by Jackson Browne

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

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

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

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

Be Afraid. Be Very Afraid.

No, seriously:

The consequences of Yoo's vaunted "flexibility" have been self-destructive for the US—we have turned a world in which international law was on our side into one in which we see it as our enemy. The Pentagon's National Defense Strategy, issued in March 2005, states,

Our strength as a nation state will continue to be challenged by those who employ a strategy of the weak, using international fora, judicial processes, and terrorism.
The proposition that judicial processes —the very essence of the rule of law —are to be dismissed as a strategy of the weak, akin to terrorism, suggests the continuing strength of Yoo's influence. When the rule of law is seen simply as a device used by terrorists, something has gone perilously wrong. Michael Ignatieff has written that "it is the very nature of a democracy that it not only does, but should, fight with one hand tied behind its back. It is also in the nature of democracy that it prevails against its enemies precisely because it does." Yoo persuaded the Bush administration to untie its hand and abandon the constraints of the rule of law. Perhaps that is why we are not prevailing.
Yoo protests that he was never in a position to be so powerful, but the NYR article establishes that he protests too much. It is long, but worth reading.

And it is scary, in the real sense of that word. What we have is a government more clearly divided against itself, and against the people, than we are currently being told.

And what is most important, is that many of us make our decisions on what is good, what is bad, based on the general tenor of the "national discussion." "So long as it's not me" is the default position for most of us, but that goes by the board if the conversation focusses on what should be, not what is most expedient.

Yoo's argument is one of expediency. We need to return the conversation to one that is morally based.

Because the expediency argument is costing us; dearly.

Update: James Carroll, not surprisingly, says it even better.

Where is the shame in Washington today? How does Donald Rumsfeld not blush in the presence of the soldiers he so routinely betrays? How does Dick Cheney maintain that straight face, treating core values as a joke? The recasting of the nation's moral meaning - a blatant embrace of ends-justify-the-means - is happening in plain daylight. No shadows here.

Everytime the Bush administration is caught in one of its repugnant purposes (Thank God, again this year, for Seymour Hersh), the White House declares its intention to stay the course. Torture? Wiretapping? Kidnapping? Deceit? The president's eyes widen: Trust me, he says with a twisted smile. Then he leans closer to display a snarling defiance. The combination reduces his critics to sputters.

Perhaps Bush's savviest achievement has been to make the public think that Rumsfeld and Cheney are the dark geniuses behind the administration's malevolence. If Bush is taken as too shallow to have a fascist ideology; as too weak to stick with hard policies that undermine democracy; as a religious nutcase whose apocalyptic fantasies don't matter; as a man, in sum, the average citizen can regard as slightly less than average - then what he is pulling off will not be called by its proper name until it is too late. 2005? Oh yes, that was the year of the coup.

Kanye West had it right: Bush is a racist. But that's such an offensive charge, that none dare level it unless we have photos of Bush in a white peaked cap standing smiling that twisted smile before a burning cross. Bush is an amoral monster, but none dare say it unless we find his version of the "Final Solution" in draft form and it is leaked to the New York Times or the Washington Post. Bush is hell-bent on destroying the very democracy he claims to promote and protect, but none dare state that obvious fact until...well, until when?

This, after all, is still just the opinion of James Carroll, or me. The opinions that truly matter are those of the members of the United States Congress.

Urbi et Orbi

Unfortunately, a quick search via Google failed to turn up the text of the Pope's "Ubi et Orbi" homily on Christmas Day, so I have to rely on news reports. The fact is, while we might disagree as to what constitutes "spiritual barenness and emptiness of heart," I don't think he's at all wrong here:

Pope Benedict XVI, standing on the spot where he appeared as the newly elected pontiff last spring, delivered his first Christmas message to a large crowd in St. Peter's Square and warned of dangers of technological advance made in the absence of religious belief.

"Today we can marshal vast material resources," he said from a balcony to thousands of people below as rain poured down from gray skies. "But the men and women in our technological age risk becoming victims of their own intellectual and technical achievements, ending up in spiritual barrenness and emptiness of heart.

"The modern age is often seen as an awakening of reason from its slumbers, humanity's enlightenment after an age of darkness," he said. "Yet without the light of Christ, the light of reason is not sufficient to enlighten humanity and the world."
Though maybe it just sounds better coming from a poet:

All our knowledge brings us nearer to our ignorance,
All our ignorance brings us nearer to death,
But nearness to death no nearer to GOD.
Where is the Life we have lost in living?
Where is the wisdom we have lost in knowledge?
Where is the knowledge we have lost in information?
Forgetful, you neglect your shrines and churhces;
The men you are in thiese times deride
What has been done of good, you find explanations
To satisfy the rational and enlightened mind.
Second, you neglect and belittle the desert.
The desert is not remote in southern tropics,
The desert is not only around the corner,
The desert is squeezed in the tube-train next to you,
The desert is in the heart of your brother.

--T.S. Eliot

Update: full text, thanks to Rick, available here. Perhaps later it will be subjected to parsing and closer examination.

Two Quick Bites at the Political Apple

1) Why everyone loves Colin Powell:

WASHINGTON -- Former Secretary of State Colin Powell on Sunday supported government eavesdropping to prevent terrorism but said a major controversy over presidential powers could have been avoided by obtaining court warrants.

Powell said that when he was in the Cabinet, he was not told that President Bush authorized a warrantless National Security Agency surveillance operation after the Sept. 11, 2001 attacks.

Appearing on ABC's "This Week" Powell said he sees "absolutely nothing wrong with the president authorizing these kinds of actions" to protect the nation.

But he added, "My own judgment is that it didn't seem to me, anyway, that it would have been that hard to go get the warrants. And even in the case of an emergency, you go and do it."
What's not to love about a guy who can so fluidly be on both sides of an issue, standing firm and resolute by standing for absolutely nothing at all.

2) Could it be any more obvious that the Bush Administration is over?

President Bush has been summoning newspaper editors lately in an effort to prevent publication of stories he considers damaging to national security.

The efforts have failed, but the rare White House sessions with the executive editors of The Washington Post and New York Times are an indication of how seriously the president takes the recent reporting that has raised questions about the administration's anti-terror tactics.
Say goodnight, Gracie.

Take Joy!

Woke up this morning thinking about a comment by Stephen Nissenbaum I'd read in one of the numerous articles about Christmas that were published before the 25th. I can't find it now, but not matter. Toward the end of the article the reporter quoted Nissenbaum, who argued that the more raucous celebrations of Christmas were too deeply rooted in time and behavior to ever be fully extricated by pecknsniffian Christian concerns.

Well, more or less, that's what he said. I find the concern with the less decorous celebratory side of the season "Pecksniffian," myself, a consequence of Protestantism being linked to the more dour side of northern European and northern British cultures; but that's another matter.

Anyway, it occurred to me this morning how sad that sentiment was, because it relegated the sheer pleasure of the season to habit and circumstance, and left no room for joy. Certainly the anthropologist and the sociologist (good scientists all) would explain such patterns of culture and behavior in safely scientific terms. But when they had, won't they have simply torn apart the baby's rattle, and never really have explained to us what was so pleasurable about the noise from inside it, a noise now gone?

Perhaps the better explanation, and the one lacking from a scientific perspective (which merely means it cannot, however it tries, explain everything) is to simply say we need to pause, at least once a year, and take joy.

And a better thought is that, instead of waging a "war on Christmas," we need to re-discover the joy of the "Twelve Days of Christmas." Christmas isn't over on December 25th; it has just begun.

Take joy!

There is nothing I can give you, which you have not; But there is much, very much, that while I cannot give it, you can take. No heaven can come to us unless our hearts find rest in today. Take heaven! No peace lies in the future which is not hidden in this present instant. Take peace! The gloom of the world is but a shadow. Behind it, yet within reach, is joy. There is a radiance and glory in the darkness, could we but see, and to see we have only to look. I beseech you to look. Life is so generous a giver, but we, judging its gifts by their covering, cast them away as ugly, or heavy or hard. Remove the covering, and you will find beneath it a living splendor, woven of love, by wisdom, with power. Welcome it, grasp it, and you touch the angel's hand that brings it to you. Everything we call a trial, a sorrow, or a duty, believe me that angel's hand is there; the gift is there, and the wonder of an overshadowing presence. Our joys too: be not content with them as joys. They, too, conceal diviner gifts. And so, at this time, I greet you. Not quite as the world sends greetings, but with profound esteem and with the prayer that for you now and forever, the day breaks, and the shadows flee away.
--Fra Giovanni 1513

Burning the Library

What I truly love about this kind of discussion, is how truly ignorant it usually is.

People who know nothing about religion are not afraid to weigh in on it and even "prove" what religion is "for," even though they have no training in psychology, sociology, anthropology, philosophy, or theology. When people with a similiar ignorance of science critique evolution and promote "intelligent design," they are derided as fools and interlopers in the hallowed halls of reason. And while I accept the claims of science without having to study biology sufficiently to establish the validity of Darwin's basic theory myself (or even to read his works), I recognize in that acceptance that I could be sufficiently swayed by another well articulated and well grounded theory, too.

But that is because I am not trained in evolutionary biology. At asome point I have to accept what is presented as a reasonable explanation for certain aspects of the material universe. I am trained in religion, however. And I weary of the "experts" who have learned a crumb of knowledge and think they have discovered a hidden "truth" the rest of us have long ago lost.

Mr. Dobny mentions, for example, that Christmas was not a national holiday until 1885; but does he know why? Does he know that the Puritans, as devoutly religious as anyone could be, knew full well the "origins of Christmas," and so rejected the celebration as irreligious? In my "Christmas Sourcebook," a Catholic publication, I find this passage:

HOW far Christianity had seized hold of the imagery of the sun god and appropriated it for her own use can be seen vividly today in the necropolis excavated under St. Peter's in Rome during the search for the apostle's grave. Not far from the traditional site of the tomb there is a small Christian burial chamber of the third century, hemmed in between two pagan mausoleums. The walls of the interior are decorated with biblical themes-fishermen, the Good Shepherd, and Jonah-but in the ceiling there is a splendid mosaic of Helios in his chariot of the sun, drawn by white steeds. His right hand (now lost) must have been raised as a signal for the journey to start. He stands erect, his mantle fluttering in the breeze and his left hand holding the world orb. But it is the nimbus of light rays round his head that reveals his true identity. The lower rays are fashioned into a T cross, a design unknown in earlier pagan examples of this type. The Helios is Christ. No wonder Christian apologists had to deny so often that the members of the church were sun-worshipers!
This kind of data is shocking only to the ignorant, and I have to count Mr. Dobny among their number. His silly generalizations about religion demean the contributions to Western culture of Aquinas, Augustine, Anselm, and so many people I cannot start to mention them all. Indeed, it is Thomas Cahill's assertion that the Irish saved civilization, and they did so in the name of religion. Literacy, that beacon of reason so fundamental we insist every one in a civilized country learn to read, was once the province almost solely of monks and priests, and the books Mr. Dobny no doubt prizes as much as I do, were kept alive from the time of Heraclitus by religious people. But not by an irrational fear of death, or a perplexed group of benighted fools who couldn't explain a solar eclipse in Newtonian terms.

Was it indeed the fear of death that drove Martin Luther King, Jr.? That led Dietrich Bonhoeffer to a prison cell in Nazi Germany, where he was executed?Or, in our own time, is that what drove Nelson Mandela? Is that the explanation Mr. Dobny has for their actions, for what motivated them?

Of course, the sheer arrogance of assuming that we alone are truly "enlightened," and that previous generations lived in ignorant darkness, in Carl Sagan's "demon haunted world," just underscore Mr. Dobny's lack of credentials in anthropology or sociology, or indeed even anything more than a grade school knowledge of world history. Such 19th century imperial European views of the "barbarians" (another legacy of the Roman empire) have long been displaced by better understandings of Europe's place in the global village. Mr. Dobny is amazed at how much American religious tradition has regressed since the “age of enlightenment.” I am amazed at how much his attitude about culture and history, and religion, resembles the imperialist view of dead white men from 200 years ago.

What we really see here, and what I want to comment on later, and seperately, is how knowledge passes from generation to generation by the thinnest of threads, and we spin those threads anew in every generation. Mr. Dobny considers himself an educated and "enlightened" man, and yet he is more benighted and has less knowledge than the average Christian would have had even 100 years ago. I have an album of Christmas music recorded by the Kingston Trio, and one of the songs tells stories derived from the apocryphal "Infancy Gospel of James." (I hope to post the words in a subsequent entry). Obviously at some point in the past those stories were well known enough to pass into folklore as a song. Yet today, some people discuss that gospel as if it were "gnostic" knowledge known only to the enlightened few. What happened? How did the thread of knowledge wear so thin, break so easily? Is this a legacy of decay since the Enlightenment? Or is this the normal state of human affairs, one merely accelerated and emphasized in this "Information Age"?

The Enlightenment is usually the touchstone for such arguments. It represents as supposed "Golden Age" in which reason reigned supreme. But, of course, as Michel Foucault among others has pointed out, that is also the convenient position that leaves the 'rational' people in charge, the 'reasonable' ones in a superior position; because, after all, they "know better," and know "what is good" for the poor, the ignorant, the despised. Those whom it can be just as reasonable to ignore, as it can be heartless and cruel. It is just as foul to see religion, especially Christianity, used to such an end. But proclaiming the "superiority" of reason, is not the same thing as proclaiming a more humane way to organize society and improve the lot of all. It wasn't, after all, religion that relegated people in the 9th Ward of New Orleans to their rooftops; it was the surpremely rational conclusions of utilitarianism.

I will elaborate on this point a bit later; but the idea that we stand on the edge of the light, and before us and behind us all was darkness, is not a result of our superior knowledge or our good fortune to be born in a world ruled by reason. It is our arrogance and our ignorance that tells us we know all we need to know, and that whatever knowledge has been lost was unnecessary knowledge anyway. It is a sign of how thin the thread is that binds us to previous generations, how little we know or understand the world around us and our place in it, our relationship to it, or to one another, past and present. It is the attitude that burned the library at Alexandria, because those with the torches, couldn't read.

In a very real sense, there are many today who are no more literate than those barbarians.

Christmas Presence

It's the thought that counts.

Christmas Night

Athenae is right: Christmas is about this:

On Christmas Eve and Christmas Day, the story still will be told: a poor woman traveling, hugely pregnant and exhausted, along on a dirt road. Her husband, going door to door, looking for shelter and finding none. Off the beaten track, in the hay beside the animals, she gives birth, and even though her child is manger-born, something happens: People come to see him. They tell others. Word reaches the shepherds high in the hills.

This is a holiday that, at its heart, is about grace from unlikely beginnings and hope in dark times, about stories spread among the poor and the outcast about someone who was coming to give them a chance. It's a holiday well suited to a time of ancient rites designed to remind people of light in the darkness: the Norse Yule, the Roman Saturnalia, celebrations of family and harvest, warmth and plenty, in the coldest and shortest of our days.
But it is also, and inescapably, about this (though I would never so forcibly tell her so; this addition is for my own sake):

TODAY the virgin is on her way to the cave where she will give birth in a manner beyond understanding to the Word who is, in all eternity. Rejoice, therefore, universe, when you hear it heralded: with the angels and the shepherds, glorify him who chose to be seen as a new-born babe, while remaining God in all eternity.
Which, of course, is the problem, what Johannes Climacus called "the Absolute Paradox" (and why I would never force it on Athenae). But we have to acknowledge that this is just as much a mystery, too. For, as Sidney Callahan says:

MARY speaks for all those who have been lowly, on the outside, at the bottom, colonized, suppressed, andtotally outside of the halls of the princes and power wielders. If she has been favored and blessed, if she is a sign of the ultimate and greatest power, then the lowly who follow her can believe themselves favored and backed up by the universe. They may make their demands and unite against the princes who oppress them. If the hidden is real, if it is true that spiritual power is greater than the power of guns and bombs, then the lowly and the oppressed have hope. If the Almighty sides with justice, hope can be fulfilled and all can win equality.

It is no accident that almost always the cult of Mary has been a cult of the people. Everywhere "folk Catholicism" has main-tained a devotion to Mary in the face of opposition and disparagement from theologians and leaders of church and state. True the major central doctrines of Christianity were frequently obscured by crude superstitions and by importation of pagan myths and rites into the cult of Mary. But as at the beginning of the devotion of Mary and in the first developments of under-standing of her, perhaps it has been something more subtle which has fired this devotion. Perhaps it has been the realization in Marian cultic practice of the importance of the lowly and humble and outcast and oppressed who will triumph in the end. If Mary, the young unmarried pregnant girl, can believe in the incredible happening that she is a part of, if she can trust herself and believe in her role in the great story, then the most ordinary people can believe in their parts in the drama. Her exaltation is their exaltation. She carries the banner for all those powerless ones whom the princes have ignored as they go to and fro on the earth making policy, making war, making for-tunes, and bringing destruction everywhere. Mary is the cham-pion for all the obscure, peaceful ones who live in the corners of the world, who work, who help each other, who bear chil-dren and hope to see them live and prosper-those who do not aspire to the thrones and the vanities of princes.

The poor may have seen a defender of their cause in the woman and mother. She is beloved in an infinite variety of feminine forms, from young virgin to older mother. By exalting Mary as queen of mercy, queen of peace, a mother most gracious, a mother most wise, in all of the traditional devotions, there has been a hope that the feminine qualities which have been demeaned for so long in our society could have their day and could be influential in ordinary life. The high, cool exercise of power and judgment was never seen as part of Mary's role. She never rejected the poor and the lowly or those who tried and met failure time after time. While Christ's mercy and ten-derness and feminine qualities were often obscured by the male princes and powers who fought in his name and killed in his honor and taxed for his representatives, still Mary as mother could guard that aspect of the Christian message which her son's followers hid so successfully.
That is the mystery of the life of the man whose birth we celebrate, was all about. That he was proclaimed as the Creator of the Universe; but as far as the Romans were concerned, he died as a defender of the poor, proclaiming a kingdom that raised them, not Caesar, to the highest position.

Sunday, December 25, 2005

Christmas Day

Isaiah 52:7-10
52:7 How beautiful upon the mountains are the feet of the messenger who announces peace, who brings good news, who announces salvation, who says to Zion, "Your God reigns."
52:8 Listen! Your sentinels lift up their voices, together they sing for joy; for in plain sight they see the return of the LORD to Zion.
52:9 Break forth together into singing, you ruins of Jerusalem; for the LORD has comforted his people, he has redeemed Jerusalem.
52:10 The LORD has bared his holy arm before the eyes of all the nations; and all the ends of the earth shall see the salvation of our God.
Psalm 98
98:1 O sing to the LORD a new song, for he has done marvelous things. His right hand and his holy arm have gotten him victory.
98:2 The LORD has made known his victory; he has revealed his vindication in the sight of the nations.
98:3 He has remembered his steadfast love and faithfulness to the house of Israel. All the ends of the earth have seen the victory of our God.
98:4 Make a joyful noise to the LORD, all the earth; break forth into joyous song and sing praises.
98:5 Sing praises to the LORD with the lyre, with the lyre and the sound of melody.
98:6 With trumpets and the sound of the horn make a joyful noise before the King, the LORD.
98:7 Let the sea roar, and all that fills it; the world and those who live in it.
98:8 Let the floods clap their hands; let the hills sing together for joy
98:9 at the presence of the LORD, for he is coming to judge the earth. He will judge the world with righteousness, and the peoples with equity.

Hebrews 1:1-4, (5-12)
1:1 Long ago God spoke to our ancestors in many and various ways by the prophets,
1:2 but in these last days he has spoken to us by a Son, whom he appointed heir of all things, through whom he also created the worlds.
1:3 He is the reflection of God's glory and the exact imprint of God's very being, and he sustains all things by his powerful word. When he had made purification for sins, he sat down at the right hand of the Majesty on high,
1:4 having become as much superior to angels as the name he has inherited is more excellent than theirs.
1:5 For to which of the angels did God ever say, "You are my Son; today I have begotten you"? Or again, "I will be his Father, and he will be my Son"?
1:6 And again, when he brings the firstborn into the world, he says, "Let all God's angels worship him."
1:7 Of the angels he says, "He makes his angels winds, and his servants flames of fire."
1:8 But of the Son he says, "Your throne, O God, is forever and ever, and the righteous scepter is the scepter of your kingdom.
1:9 You have loved righteousness and hated wickedness; therefore God, your God, has anointed you with the oil of gladness beyond your companions."
1:10 And, "In the beginning, Lord, you founded the earth, and the heavens are the work of your hands;
1:11 they will perish, but you remain; they will all wear out like clothing;
1:12 like a cloak you will roll them up, and like clothing they will be changed. But you are the same, and your years will never end."

John 1:1-14
1:1 In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God.
1:2 He was in the beginning with God.
1:3 All things came into being through him, and without him not one thing came into being. What has come into being
1:4 in him was life, and the life was the light of all people.
1:5 The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not overcome it.
1:6 There was a man sent from God, whose name was John.
1:7 He came as a witness to testify to the light, so that all might believe through him.
1:8 He himself was not the light, but he came to testify to the light.
1:9 The true light, which enlightens everyone, was coming into the world.
1:10 He was in the world, and the world came into being through him; yet the world did not know him.
1:11 He came to what was his own, and his own people did not accept him.
1:12 But to all who received him, who believed in his name, he gave power to become children of God,
1:13 who were born, not of blood or of the will of the flesh or of the will of man, but of God.
1:14 And the Word became flesh and lived among us, and we have seen his glory, the glory as of a father's only son, full of grace and truth.

I want to write a sermon on these passages, the third available reading for the Nativity of the Lord for Christmas Day; but time truly won't let me.

I want to point out how Isaiah is the "Third" Isaiah, clearly written after the end of the Exile (Isaiah starts before the Exile), and how physical and metaphorical the ruins are there, especially for Christians at the end of Advent. The wisdom of the church in selecting that passage; the wonderful hope it embodies; all of that.

And how that hope is sung in the six verses of the Psalm. And how it is all made timeless and a light to the nations (we Gentiles) in the Letter to the Hebrews.

And the overwhelming mystery of the Incarnation, in John. How odd and hard to translate the language of that opening hymn is (it's the only Greek I still remember from seminary; I often quote it in lectures), written so that it sings all by itself in the original, and yet the translation is so hard. "With" God? "In the presence of God"? "Was God"? We think it is clear, and it isn't, at all.

And how that ambiguity, that fundamental unknowable-ness, links to the mystery of our incarnation. Howt he Word made flesh is made flesh again when our tongues tell it and sing it and talk about it.

I want to write a sermon on all of that. But it's Christmas Day; and the turkey wants to come out of the oven.

So, all I have time to say is: God's peace be with you.

December 25

WOLCUM be thou hevene king,
Wolcom, born in one morning,
Wolcum for whom we sail sing!
Wolcum Yole!

Wolcum be ye, good Newe Yere,
Wolcum, Twelfthe Day both in fere,
Wolcum sentes fefe and dere,
Wolcum Yole!

Wolcum be ye Candelmesse,
Wolcum be ye Quene of bliss,
Wolcum bothe to more and lesse.
Wolcum Yole!

Wolcum be ye that are here,
Wolcum aile and make good cheer.
Wolcum aile another yere.
Wolcum Yole!

IN the liturgy the solstice themes of the birth and the appearance of the light or the sun powerfully recur, and are interwoven with the related themes of our seeing and of the renewal of the earth. . . .

The theme is not the infancy or childhood of Jesus. It is rather that the presence of the man Jesus is the presence of the Light and of the Sun. . .. Just as with the world's solstice, light is celebrated where light seems most threatened. Solstice festivity means to encourage the return of the light. Christian liturgy at solstice means to pray for the Light and to celebrate its presence. . . .

The immense popularity of Christmas among us is probably due to the dominance in North America of people whose ethnic origins are in northern latitudes where the solstice is an impressive and still powerful event, as it is in much of North America as well. Most of what has been added to Christmas over the ages can be interpreted as solstice phenomena: feasting and greetings and greens and the light-tree and lights against the darkness and the yule-log and nostalgia for the recovery of old memories and, for us especially, gift-giving and consumer over-spending-all are attempts to secure the return of light and summertime wholeness, are mid-winter protest.

These solstice phenomena are powerful metaphors for us. The darkness does stand for our fears and the feast does awaken-perhaps more than we would have them awakenedour hopes. These metaphors ought not be easily maligned. The pastoral intention of the origin of the feast may be recalled. The human feast of Christmas needs a good deal of sympathetic interpretation and loving support. We have had enough campaigns against the world's Christmas. It is more important to ask: "Why do we keep it with such vigor?" For us solstice is an immensely important human and therefore pastoral occasion.--Gordon Lathrop

Tomorrow shall be my dancing day.
I would my true love did so chance
To see the legend of my play
To call my true love to my dance.
Sing, 0 my love, a my love, my love, my love.
This have I done for my true love.
In a manger laid and wrapped I was,
So very poor, this was my chance,
Betwixt an ox and a silly poor ass,
To call my true love to my dance.

Christmas is an ancient feast of frivolity (the Puritans forbade it!) and this English carol seems to have caught that spirit, anticipating the current "theology of play." If we wish you a playful, dancing, merry Christmas our intention is not the hope that you will find some rough mockery of the ecstasy, the pattern, the joy and the grace of the Ancient Dance in the frenzied days, the harried attempts to make sense of our lives, the half-guilty celebrations, the stilted human relationships which mark our fasts and fill our days.

It is rather the hope that you may perceive the legend of God's play: "this have I done for my true love" -and that the festival of this prodigality will strengthen and deepen the elements of the Dance in your life: love and forgiveness and mystery and harmony and grace and attention and wonder and jubilation and praise and bodiliness and freedom and a pas de deux spontaneously discovered for a few moments or labored out over faithful years.

In this year of the plod and march of technology and war, of our own plod and march we wish you the Dance of the word of God. Now he shares our poverty and there is a chance.

I know nothing, except what everyone
knows-if there when Grace dances,
I should dance.

W. H. Auden

--Gordon Lathrop, Christmas Greeting

Christmas Eve--"Does the Master break down his own door to enter his home?"

I have never witnessed it, but a friend has told me of the Christmas Eve practice in the Orthodox tradition.

The model for the Orthodox service is the throne room of God, which is largely the model of the liturgical practice of Christianity (taken from Isaiah's vision of God, where the prophet is commissioned to preach to Israel on God's behalf). But in the Orthodox tradition, there is a screen between the altar and the people, the latter standing about as if in a king's court, waiting for an audience.

The priests conduct the service on the other side of the screen from the congregants. At midnight, a priest comes around one edge of the screen, and whispers to those standing there. In a wave, a ripple of sound and action, the Word literally becomes flesh again, as the message is passed from ear to tongue, and tongue to ear:

"Christ is born!"

Christ is born! Christ is born! Christ is born.

Alleluia! Thanks be to God.

Saturday, December 24, 2005

Christmas Eve-I

Wandering past the stereo, it changed CD's and started playing a beautiful choral version of "In the Bleak Midwinter."

Suddenly, it felt like Christmas.

The traditional opening of the Anglican Festival of Lessons and Carols, sung as a treble solo:

Once in royal David's city
stood a lowly cattle shed,
where a mother laid her baby
in a manger for his bed:
Mary was that mother mild,
Jesus Christ her little child.

A thoroughly American (Appalachian) Christmas carol.

Jesus, Jesus, rest your head,
You has got a manger bed.
All the evil folk on earth
sleep in feathers at their birth,
Jesus, Jesus, rest your head,
You has got a manger bed.

Have you heard about our Jesus?
Have you heard about his fate?
How his mammy went to the stable
on that Christmas eve so late?
Winds were blowing,
cows were lowing,
stars were glowing,
glowing, glowing.

Jesus, Jesus, rest your head,
You has got a manger bed.
All the evil folk on earth
sleep in feathers at their birth,
Jesus, Jesus, rest your head,
You has got a manger bed.

To that manger came then wise men,
Bringing things from hin and yon.
For the mother and the father
and the blessed little son.
Milkmaids left their fields and flocks,
and sat beside the ass and ox.

Jesus, Jesus, rest your head,
You has got a manger bed.
All the evil folk on earth
sleep in feathers at their birth.
Jesus, Jesus, rest your head,
You has got a manger bed.