Friday, August 12, 2005

Final Words on McKibbens' Essay

"There are a thousand hacking at the branches of evil to one who is
striking at the root." - Henry David Thoreau

McKibben's closing description of 'mainstream' churches made me think that, to the extent the churches focus their public messages on "gay marriage" or other divisive and controversial issues (with the clear aim of gaining attention; the UCC brags about how its ad for an "inclusive" church, i.e. "we accept gay people", has increased its membership; a very secular standard of measure, one must say), they are playing their opponents' game.

I got this from my father the other day in an e-mail. It supposedly comes from Andy Rooney:

DID YOU KNOW? As you walk up the steps to the building which houses the U.S. Supreme Court you can see near the top of the building a row of the world's law givers and each one is facing one in the middle who is facing forward with a full frontal view ... it is Moses and he is holding the Ten Commandments!


As you enter the Supreme Court courtroom, the two huge oak doors have the Ten Commandments engraved on each lower portion of each door


As you sit inside the courtroom, you can see the wall, right above where the Supreme Court judges sit, a display of the Ten Commandments!


There are Bible verses etched in stone all over the Federal Buildings and Monuments in Washington, D.C.


James Madison, the fourth president, known as "The Father of Our Constitution" made the following statement:

"We have staked the whole of all our political institutions upon the capacity of mankind for self-government, upon the capacity of each and all of us to govern ourselves, to control ourselves, to sustain ourselves according to the Ten Commandments of God."


Patrick Henry, that patriot and Founding Father of our country said:

"It cannot be emphasized too strongly or too often that this great nation was founded not by religionists but by Christians, not on religions but on the Gospel of Jesus Christ".


Every session of Congress begins with a prayer by a paid preacher, whose salary has been paid by the taxpayer since 1777.


Fifty-two of the 55 founders of the Constitution were members of the established orthodox churches in the colonies.


Thomas Jefferson worried that the Courts would overstep their authority and instead of interpreting the law would begin making law an oligarchy, the rule of few over many.


The very first Supreme Court Justice, John Jay, said: "Americans should select and prefer Christians as their rulers."

How, then, have we gotten to the point that everything we have done for 220 years in this country is now suddenly wrong and unconstitutional?

Lets put it around the world and let the world see and remember what this great country was built on.

I was asked to send this on if I agreed or delete if I didn't. Now it is your turn...It is said that 86% of Americans believe in God. Therefore, it is very hard to understand why there is such a mess about having the Ten Commandments on display or "In God We Trust" on our money and having God in the Pledge of Allegiance. Why don't we just tell the other 14% to Sit Down and SHUT UP!!!

My brother immediately fired off a response:

Claim: Religious symbols and references abound in U.S. capital buildings and the words of America's founders.

Status: Multiple — see below:

* Buildings in the U.S. capital and statements by America's founding fathers includes references to Judeo-Christian tradition: True.

* The items included in the piece quoted below demonstrate a government endorsement of Judeo-Christian tradition: False.

Example: [Collected on the Internet, 2003]

[I'll leave out the repetition of the claims above, and go straight to the responses.]

Origins: Although the intent of this piece is presumably to demonstrate a government endorsement of Judeo-Christian tradition through the symbols and words used in U.S. federal buildings and the writings of America's founding fathers, nearly all of the information it presents is inaccurate or — when taken in its proper context — misleading.

As you walk up the steps to the Capitol Building which houses the Supreme Court you can see near the top of the building a row of the world's law givers and each one is facing one in the middle who is facing forward with a full frontal view — it is Moses and the Ten Commandments!

* The United States Capitol does not house the Supreme Court of the United States. The Supreme Court has met in its own building since 1935.

* The two representations of Moses which adorn the Supreme Court building both present him in a context in which he is depicted as merely one of several historical exemplars of lawgivers, not as a religious figure. (This is why, for example, the Supreme Court of the United States rejected appeals to overturn a decision ordering the removal of a monument to the Ten Commandments from an Alabama courthouse — the monument did not present the Ten Commandments in a context other than as quotations of Biblical verse and was therefore deemed an unconstitutional state endorsement of religion.)

The depiction referred to here is a sculpture entitled "Justice the Guardian of Liberty" by Hermon A. McNeil, which appears on the eastern pediment of the Supreme Court building. (The eastern pediment is the back of the Supreme Court building, so this sculpture is not something one would see "walking up the steps to the building which houses the Supreme Court." The front entrance is on the western side.) The sculpture was intended to be a symbolic representation of three of the Eastern civilizations from which our laws were derived, personified by the figures of three great lawgivers: Moses, Confucius, and Solon (surrounded by several allegorical figures representing a variety of legal themes):

McNeil described the symbolism of his work thusly: Law as an element of civilization was normally and naturally derived or inherited in this country from former civilizations. The "Eastern Pediment" of the Supreme Court Building suggests therefore the treatment of such fundamental laws and precepts as are derived from the East. Moses, Confucius and Solon are chosen as representing three great civilizations and form the central group of this Pediment.

Note also that the two other lawgiver figures (Confucius and Solon) are not "facing [the] one in the middle" (i.e., Moses) as claimed here — all three of the lawgivers are depicted in full frontral views, facing forward. (The allegorical figures who flank the lawgivers are facing towards the middle, but they are looking in the direction of all three men, not just Moses.) And although many viewers might assume Moses is holding a copy of the Ten Commandments in this depiction, the two tablets in his arms are actually blank.

* The doors of the Supreme Court courtroom don't literally have the "Ten Commandments engraved on each lower portion" — the lower portions of the two doors are engraved with a symbolic depiction, two tablets bearing only the Roman numerals I through V and VI through X. As discussed in the next item, these symbols can represent something other than the Ten Commandments.

* The wall "right above where the Supreme Court judges sit" is the east wall, on which is displayed a frieze designed by sculptor Adolph A. Weinman. The frieze features two male figures who represent the Majesty of Law and the Power of Government, flanked on the left side by a group of figures representing Wisdom, and on the right side by a group of figures representing Justice:

According to Weinman, the designer of this frieze, the tablet visible between the two central male figures, engraved with the Roman numerals I through X, represents not the Ten Commandments but the first ten amendments to the U.S. Constitution, collectively known as the Bill of Rights.

* The friezes which adorn the north and south walls of the courtroom in the Supreme Court building (also designed by Adolph Weinman) depict a procession of 18 great lawgivers: Menes, Hammurabi, Moses, Solomon, Lycurgus, Solon, Draco, Confucius and Octavian (south wall); Justinian, Mohammed, Charlemagne, King John, Louis IX, Hugo Grotius, Sir William Blackstone, John Marshall and Napoleon (north wall):

According to the Office of the Curator of the Supreme Court of the United States, these figures were selected as a representation of secular law: Weinman's training emphasized a correlation between the sculptural subject and the function of the building and, because of this, [architect Cass] Gilbert relied on him to choose the subjects and figures that best reflected the function of the Supreme Court building. Faithful to classical sources, Weinman designed for the Courtroom friezes a procession of "great lawgivers of history," from many civilizations, to portray the development of secular law.

Note that Moses is not given any special emphasis in this depiction: his figure is not larger than the others, nor does it appear in a dominant position. Also, the writing on the tablet carried by Moses in this frieze includes portions of commandments 6 through 10 (in Hebrew), specifically chosen because they are not inherently religious. (Commandments 6 through 10 proscribe murder, adultery, theft, perjury, and covetousness.)

[Re: the statement attributed to James Madison] * Actually, this statement appears nowhere in the writings or recorded utterances of James Madison and is completely contradictory to his character as a strong proponent of the separation of church and state.

[Re: the statement attributed to Patrick Henry] * Another spurious quotation. These words appear nowhere in the writings or recorded utterances of Patrick Henry.

[Re: the chaplain] * Congress has indeed retained paid (Christian) chaplains since 1789 (not 1777) to open sessions with prayer and to provide spiritual guidance to members and their staffs upon request. This practice was strongly opposed by James Madison at its inception.

* The constitutional propriety of Congressional chaplains has been challenged in an August 2002 lawsuit filed in federal district court by Michael A. Newdow (the California man who won a federal appellate court decision against the use of the phrase "under God" in public school-led recitations of the Pledge of Allegiance). The case is still pending.

[Re: Jefferson]* Yes, Thomas Jefferson was concerned about courts overstepping their authority and making (rather than interpreting) law, as was James Madison, who said: "As the courts are generally the last in making the decision, it results to them, by refusing or not refusing to execute a law, to stamp it with its final character. This makes the Judiciary department paramount in fact to the Legislature, which was never intended, and can never be proper."

However, this issue really has nothing to do with the subject at hand (the endorsement of Judeo-Christian tradition by the federal government), other than in the tangential sense that some people feel one of the areas in which U.S. courts have overstepped their bounds is the body of decisions prohibiting the use or display of religious symbols and references in state-operated institutions. (if you read much about Jefferson you'll see he was practically an agnostic and he's the man who wrote the amendment regarding the separation of church and state - DEJ).
Well, the tedium of that has a purpose. With all the problems facing the country, why does this one stir any interest? The simple answer: because it seems to be something we can "do something" about. Why we need to to anything about it is not critically examined (although it should be). But it seems like something we can "fix," although the truth is, it is not something that can be "corrected," anymore than the UCC General Synod can affect justice in society by affirming gay marriage (a controversial position within the church, to say the least) or advocating a boycott of Taco Bell (for the tomato supplier; an old controversy that also had at least some local churches wondering if General Synod even knew what it was talking about).

The issue comes around to "talking points," in the end. If I can describe a situation in inflammatory terms, I can stir your response. This is the favorite tool of demagogues, of course; although "demagogues" tend to be people we are opposed to, not our own "leaders." But what does any such abstract issue have to do with you, or you with it? Many churches call upon the examples of the Hebrew prophets for their justification, but Isaiah and Jeremiah and Ezekiel were personally involved in the issues of their day, were personally affected by them, and were personally challenged to tell the truth God revealed to them. They weren't dealing with the abstractions of legal arguments or corporate policy or social/legislative concerns.

Abstractions are very attractive. They are the bright, glittery things that draw our eye and make it easy for us to have a position. But when you are faced with the issue of your child being gay and wanting to have the legal securities of marriage that the law provides even common-law couples, or the complex realities of farming and food supply in America, or even the spouse who looks at you in the emergency room and asks: "What do I do?" when the doctor has just advised she authorize the removal of her husband's life support, abstract issues suddenly aren't attractive at all. Suddenly they are concrete, and the decision, and the responsibility, is yours.

We prefer decisions for which we will not be responsible. And even the mainstream churches have become guilty of that sin, largely in the name of increasing their membership, and thus assuring their continued institutional existence. It is frightfully easy, especially when you are not the pastor, the rector, the priest, to claim the church should take a stand on a very controversial issue, and damn the brickbats. But explain to the parents of a child who was gunned down in a robbery why the church is right to oppose capital punishment for people like the man convicted of murdering their son. Especially when you come into the scene after the event, and when they have been waiting years already for his execution.

All ministry, ultimately, is about individuals. And religion, as Derrida noted, is about responsibility; or it is about nothing at all. Ministry is religion enacted, enfleshed, made as incarnate as we creatures can make it. It is not about ideas alone; except without ideas, there is no ministry, and the individuals get nothing. But do the individuals also count for nothing? Athenae, at First Draft, linked to an essay where an adult recalls moving to a new city and attending the Catholic church there for the first time. The priest meets him, and pressures him at the age of 10 or so, to bring his parents to church, lest they burn in hell and he be responsible for their damnation. That, of course, is putting ideas above people.

Ministry is about balancing the two. Church is about balancing the two. It is, in fact, about balancing the bright and shiny generalities, and the individuals who cut themselves on the sharp edges of your pet passion; or belief; or theological position.

What are churches for? They are for people. Real people. Which is what makes them such tough places to be in, and put up with. And what makes them so very necessary. They are the place that, when you have to go there, they have to take you in.

What they are not, is about games: games on the congregational level, or games against "enemies." That is not being "church." That is engaging in the game of power. And power exists for its own purposes. You only think you are wielding it. It is always wielding you. It always seeks its own good. Which is why it always urges you to say: "Why don't we just tell the other 14% to Sit Down and SHUT UP!!!"

It may look like fun, hacking at the branches. It's the hard, slow work of gardening, to go after the roots.

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