Thursday, August 31, 2006

The truly dark side of the church

What is most ingenious about all this is not so much its destructiveness but the way it appeals to mainstream notions of fairness. Consider another of Jack Abramoff’s remarks from back in the days when he raged against PIRG. The groups, he said, should “compete in the free marketplace of ideas” just like the College Republicans did, where attracting private funding was what proved an idea to be “truly good and truly worthwhile.”

In Washington today, where each bad idea to rattle through the nation’s billionaire class seems to have a dedicated think tank to push it along, we are living out Abramoff’s dictum: that an idea is not worth hearing unless a large amount of somebody’s money is behind it.

Thomas Frank

This is the basic approach being taken by conservative critics of most mainstream Protestant denominations in America: money = the truth of God. It's an old ploy, of course. Jesus complained about it. But it's still effective. If your words are true and can be trusted, if you speak for God, then the majority will support you, and they will do so with their money. It is, after all, the majority which defines justice, and justice is at the heart of the kerygma of the basiliea tou theou.

Except it is impossible to square that definition of justice with a kenotic Christ and a kenotic God. Which is the kergyma of the crucifixion, that center of the Absolute Paradox of Christianity, that central symbol of Christianity in whatever form it takes: the crucifix, the cross. Indeed, it is impossible to square "$$=God's approval" with the proclamations of the Hebrew prophets:

"Though your cedar is so splendid,
does that prove you a king?
Think of your father; he ate and drank,
dealt justly and fairly; all went well with him.
He upheld the cause of the lowly and poor;
then all was well."--Jeremiah 22:15-16

That message is preceded by one you aren't likely to hear from the pulpit of very many mega-churches:

"Woe betide him who builds his palace on unfairness
and completes its roof-chambers with injustice,
compelling his countrmen to work without payment,
giving them no wage for their labour!"--Jeremiah 22:13

What majority would support a preacher who said that? How could a majority support a man who would do this?

"O man, take a tile and lay it in front of you. Draw a city on it, the city of Jerusalem: portray it under seige, erect towers against it, raise a seige-ramp...then take a griddle, and put it as if it were an iron wall between you and the city...

Next, lie on your left side, putting the weight of Israel's punishment against it; for as many days as you lie on that side you will be bearing their punishment. I ordain that you bear Israel's punishment for three hundred and ninety days, allowing one day for each year of their punishment. When you have completed these, lie down again, this time on your right side, and bear Judah's punishment; I ordain you forty days, one day for each year....See how I tie you with ropes so that you cannot turn over from one side to the other until you complete your days of seige."--Ezekiel 4:4-8.
This is not the only time God has a prophet carry out a physical enactment of God's message. But who would listen to this prophet, either, or shower him with money?

This is the beginning of the Lord's message given by Hosea. He said, 'Go and take an unchaste woman as your wife, and with this woman have children; for like an unchaste woman this land is guilty of unfaithfulness to the Lord. So he married Gomer daughter of Diblaim, and she conceived and bore him a son. The Lord said to Hosea, 'Call him Jezreel, for in a little while I am going to punish the dynasty of Jehu for the blood shed in the valley of Jezreel, and bring the kingdom of Israel to an end. On that day I shall break Israel's bow in the valley of Jezreel. Gomer conceived again and bore a daughter, and the Lord said to Hosea: "Call her Lo-ruhamab, for I shall never again show love to Israel, never again forgive them."...After weaning Lo-ruhamah, Gomer conceived and bore a son, and the Lord said: "Call him Lo-ammi, for you are not my people, and I shall not be your God."--Hosea 1:2-6, 8-9.
My notes indicate the first name means "not loved," the second "not my people."

And Amos, of course, was told to go away, to leave Israel and pester Judah with his prophecies, to which Amos responded: "I was no prophet, nor was I a prophet's son; I was a herdsman and a fig-grower." And clearly, he acquired no power, no authority, no institution, by his call.

Is the church quite so stark as Frank's description of Washington? "[T]hat an idea is not worth hearing unless a large amount of somebody’s money is behind it"? No, but it is the nature of the beast. The preferred source of authority is the institution, the government, the voice of the people, be that voice representative or the words of Hobbes' Leviathan. There is so much more safety in numbers and what is known than there is in faith in the living God. But that is precisely why Paul says:

So then, my beloved, even as you have always obeyed, not only in my presence, but now much more in my absence, work out your own salvation with fear and trembling.
Because that admonition begins here:

If there is therefore any exhortation in Christ, if any consolation of love, if any fellowship of the Spirit, if any tender mercies and compassion,

2 make my joy full, by being like-minded, having the same love, being of one accord, of one mind;

3 doing nothing through rivalry or through conceit, but in humility, each counting others better than himself;

4 each of you not just looking to his own things, but each of you also to the things of others.

5 Have this in your mind, which was also in Christ Jesus,

6 who, existing in the form of God, didn't consider equality with God a thing to be grasped,

7 but emptied himself, taking the form of a servant, being made in the likeness of men.

8 And being found in human form, he humbled himself, becoming obedient to death, yes, the death of the cross.

9 Therefore God also highly exalted him, and gave to him the name which is above every name;

10 that at the name of Jesus every knee should bow, of those in heaven, those on earth, and those under the earth,

11 and that every tongue should confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father.
And ends here:

For it is God who works in you both to will and to work, for his good pleasure.
It is, in other words, the kenotic God through the kenotic Christ, the self-emptying God who chose even mortality and even death in order to show the path to salvation, who is at work in the believer, emptying the believer that she may be filled. It is a very difficult calling, indeed. But if it prevailed in the church, imagine what the church would be like. It is a question of being, and of behavior. Can we be as Christ was; can we behave as Christ would have us behave?

And so we are drawn back to Archbishop William's comments, and the question of being (I'm taking this from Father Jake's post because I want to incorporate his discussion here, too):

...I don't believe inclusion is a value in itself...Welcome is. We welcome people into the Church, we say: 'You can come in, and that decision will change you.' We don't say: 'Come in and we ask no questions.' I do believe conversion means conversion of habits, behaviours, ideas, emotions. The boundaries are determined by what it means to be loyal to Jesus Christ. That means to display in all things the mind of Christ. Paul is always saying this in his letters: Ethics is not a matter of a set of abstract rules, it is a matter of living the mind of Christ. That applies to sexual ethics; that is why fidelity is important in marriage...
But here, again, is the question: When is a homosexual a homosexual? When they are attracted to persons of the same sex? Or when they engage in homosexual behavior? There was a great hue and cry once about Bert and Ernie on Sesame Street. Two males living together, sleeping in the same bedroom; clearly they were "gay." Frank Rich finally pointed out that they were hand puppets, so they couldn't be gay; they lacked the genitalia necessary to complete the description. I understand that pedophilia can be described in the DSM, but the outcome of that desire is dependent on a power relationship over a child (which, by the way, is what got Warren Jeffs in trouble; not his polygamy, but arranging marriage between adults and minors. The question of polygamy, like pedophilia, has gotten drawn into these discussions; I want to make it as clear as I can that they are separate issues.), not just a predilection toward children instead of adults. I find it hard to label someone "homosexual" if they never have sex with anyone, anymore than I label lifelong celibates "heterosexual." Why does the description, without the behavior, even come up?

In part, of course, because of identity issues. We have learned to identify ourselves as sexual beings, so whether we ever engage in sex or not, we are either "hetero-" or "homo-". My daughter has a new friend in her new high school, a young boy who I am quite sure has not so much as kissed anyone he's not related to by blood (and then probably only adults). But he doesn't like sports or most "manly" pursuits, so he's convinced he's gay. Why? He likes domestic pursuits, and pay attention to fashion. But honestly, unless he finds he'd rather sleep with males, is he gay? Seems an odd designation to give him. Isn't an interest in certain cultural activities as an indicator of sexual identity a culturally driven model, not an absolute one? Are you bi-sexual if you are open to having sex with males and females, but in fact you never have sex at all? That seems a rather bizarre standard. Is it truly a matter of choice, however? Does my heart betray me, lead me into perdition, whether I act on it or not?

Well, Jesus says it does, but then we have to decide what "sin" is, don't we? Jesus allowed unclean people to touch him. He allowed his disciples to glean the wheat in the fields on the Sabbath. He ate with sinners and prostitutes and anyone who would invite him to the table. God told Peter not to declare unclean what God had made clean. When does "sin" settle down so we can get a handle on it? When does God stop doing "a new thing" and let us get comfortable with what is allowed, and what isn't, and who is acceptable, and who must change before they are fully accepted? It seems Jesus healed a lot of people without ever asking them now to change their life or asking them questions before he made them walk, or see, or hear. There are a few arguable examples of Jesus making his healing almost contingent on a right heart, but none I know of based on future behavior. Jesus never said "Be good, now, or I'll take your eyesight back!" And most of the healings are just that: healings. Many are reported without any mention of even "go, and sin no more." And what does that mean, anyway? How can one "sin no more", unless sin is not the pervasive and all-encompassing concept we seem to think it is.

Maybe sin is just behavior, then. But which behavior is sinful? Unclean friends? Unclean food? When Paul says we are to display the mind of Christ, what else is he saying but that we are to be emptied, as Christ was emptied, the better to let God work out our salvation through us? And yet that salvation is the mysterium tremendum, the great secret even we don't know, the one that makes us tremble; tremble, and fear. And maybe that's the problem for Archbishop Williams: institutions don't do fear and trembling very well. Maybe it's the ethical paradox of group loyalty that's at work, where "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.'

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.
But that's an even sadder commentary, when it's turned on the Church.

Wednesday, August 30, 2006

It's money that matters/In the U.S.A.--Randy Newman

(Picture courtesty of No Capital)

Maureen Dowd:

Asked by the anchor whether he was asking people in the country to sacrifice enough, he replied briskly, “Americans are sacrificing — we pay a lot of taxes.”
The video is here. No. 7: "Americans are sacrificing."

The dead in New Orleans, on the Gulf Coast, in Iraq, in Afghanistan? No. The dislocation of millions, the loss of cities and villages on the American Gulf Coast from Beaumont to Bilox? No. The sacrifice is the money we spend. Taxes. That's how this President measures sacrifice.

'On Margate Sands.
I can connect
Nothing with nothing.
The broken fingernails of dirty hands.
My people humble people who expect
la la

To Carthage then I came

Burning burning burning burning
O Lord Thou pluckest me out
O Lord Thou pluckest


-T.S. Eliot, "The Waste Land"

Tuesday, August 29, 2006

Anniversary Photos

August 29, 2005

“The truth of the matter is, we can work together and will, but when disaster strikes, the first people that you rely upon, the people that matter most, are your friends. It’s friends helping friends that turns out to make an enormous difference in saving lives and helping to get by the trauma of the first days.”
George W. Bush, August 28, 2006.

Mr. Bush delivered his remarks at an intersection in a working-class Biloxi neighborhood against a carefully orchestrated backdrop of neatly reconstructed homes. Just a few feet out of camera range stood gutted houses with wires dangling from interior ceilings. A tattered piece of crime scene tape hung from a tree in the field where Mr. Bush spoke. A toilet seat lay on its side in the grass.

Update: Where we are now:

The death toll in Louisiana from Katrina is close to 1,600, including nearly 300 who died in other states after fleeing from the hurricane.

In Jackson Square last year, Bush offered three proposals to help fight poverty. One idea carried out, the Gulf Opportunity Zone, is giving $8.7 billion in tax breaks to developers of low-income housing, small businesses and individuals.

But worker recovery accounts, meant to help victims find work by paying for school, job training and child care, didn't materialize. Neither did the Urban Homesteading Act that would have given poor people sites to build homes they would finance themselves or get through programs like Habitat for Humanity.

Only half of New Orleans has electricity. Half its hospitals are closed. Violent crime is up. Less than half the population has returned. Tens of thousands of families still live in trailers and mobile homes with no real timetable for moving to more permanent housing. Insurance settlements are mired in red tape. The city still has no master rebuilding plan. And while much debris has been cleared, some remains as if the clock stopped when the storm struck.

So far, Congress has approved $110 billion in hurricane aid. The Bush administration has released $77 billion to the states, reserving the rest for future needs, but $33 billion of that has not yet been spent.

Bush pictures courtesy of the White House

New Orleans pictures courtesy of the BBC.

Monday, August 28, 2006

Gee, maybe it is Bush's fault

Paul Krugman explains why the iconic picture of Bush & Katrina is so appropriate (via JurassicPork)
Apologists for the administration will doubtless claim that blame for the lack of progress rests not with Mr. Bush, but with the inherent inefficiency of government bureaucracies. That’s the great thing about being an antigovernment conservative: even when you fail at the task of governing, you can claim vindication for your ideology.

But bureaucracies don’t have to be this inefficient. The failure to get moving on reconstruction reflects lack of leadership at the top.

Mr. Bush could have moved quickly to turn his promises of reconstruction into reality. But he didn’t. As months dragged by with little sign of White House action, all urgency about developing a plan for reconstruction ebbed away.

Mr. Bush could have appointed someone visible and energetic to oversee the Gulf Coast’s recovery, someone who could act as an advocate for families and local governments in need of help. But he didn’t.. How many people can even name the supposed reconstruction “czar”?
Well, at one point, if memory serves, it was Karl Rove.

This incompetence, by the way, is so obvious even AP can casually report on it:

President Bush marks the anniversary of the hurricane that still haunts his presidency with worries a new tropical storm could bring the first test of his promise that the botched post-Katrina response will not be repeated.

Bush's trip is his 13th to the Gulf Coast since Katrina, and his first in over three months. The highlights this time are a pair of speeches, one each in Mississippi and Louisiana.

He wasn't bringing any new aid announcements or fresh policy proposals. Instead, the president was hoping the addresses would persuade local residents and doubters elsewhere that he remains committed to seeing the region rebuilt better than before.
As long as you blame your local leaders, not W.:

On one matter that has become a subject of some finger-pointing between Washington and the region, aides said Bush would stress that the states and local governments need to do their part to get federal money to victims — an unmistakable jab at leaders in Louisiana and New Orleans, where federal money for citizens to rebuild homes has not yet begun flowing.

So far, Congress has approved $110 billion in hurricane aid. The Bush administration has released $77 billion to the states, reserving the rest for future needs, but $33 billion of that has not yet been spent.

Don Powell, Bush's federal Gulf Coast coordinator, also warned in an interview that no more money would flow to the region until there is proof that what has been approved is being well-spent.

"It's now time for the people to demonstrate they're going to use this money wisely," he said in an interview. "We need to see plans, execution."
Because we're sure not going to see it from Bush.

Bush's itinerary looks a lot like previous trips, many of which have been criticized as featuring too much staged contact with supportive locals and overly dominated by meetings with officials.

He is spending a little more time freely roaming Mississippi than harder-hit, less-recovered New Orleans. On Monday, after lunching with community leaders in Biloxi, Miss., he was to walk through a damaged neighborhood and visit a Gulfport company that builds and repair boats.
Quelle surprise!

And just to underline a point I've made before:

His approval ratings have never rebounded from their post-hurricane plummet. A New York Times/CBS News poll conducted this month found that 51 percent of those surveyed disapproved of the way Mr. Bush had responded to the needs of hurricane victims, a figure statistically no different from last September, when 48 percent disapproved.
Now: what are we going to do for New Orleans and the Gulf Coast? Easy to criticize the Administration; harder to have the heart open to tragedy, open to hope. But it is having that heart which is going to make the Gulf Coast recover, and get us involved in it.

Sunday, August 27, 2006

“The hardest thing in the world is to have a heart that is totally open to tragedy — like we see all around us — and also open to hope.”

Pop Quiz: which is better off today: Baghdad, or New Orleans?

Amy Liu and her colleagues at the Brookings Institution in Washington keep a monthly tally of where the rebuilding stands [in New Orleans]. About 60 percent of former customers have electricity. Just over 40 percent have gas. Seventeen percent of the buses are running. Half the hospitals are closed. So are 77 percent of the child-care centers.
Which is likely to be re-populated sooner: Beirut, or New Orleans?

At the risk of stating the obvious, it is amazing what damage floodwaters can do. In metro New Orleans, 160,000 homes were damaged or destroyed. Katrina left the city itself with 12 million tons of debris. That is about seven times the amount produced when the World Trade Center collapsed. Before the storm, New Orleans had about 450,000 residents. Postal data released this month found 171,000 had returned. That is 38 percent.
And who is doing a "heckuva job" now?

Brookings does not chart leadership, but presidential credibility waned early with six words: “Brownie, you’re doing a heckuva job.” (Brownie was Michael Brown, the director of the Federal Emergency Management Agency, and his fumbling efforts drew national scorn.) President Bush did appear in the French Quarter two weeks later with a pledge to rebuild the city “higher and better.” But his attention has been sporadic, and his priorities have been abroad. Two months later, a front-page editorial in The Times-Picayune warned about broken promises. It says something about Bush’s Gulf Coast ambitions that his emissary to the region carries such an unambitious title: “federal coordinator.”

If federal leadership has been halting, local leadership has halted. Mayor C. Ray Nagin appointed a commission to produce a rebuilding plan, and he has run from it ever since. The plan contemplated a city with a shrunken “footprint,” one limited to neighborhoods with plausible elevations and economics. This was rational from a planner’s point of view (the city cannot afford all the police, firefighters and utility lines it had) and lethal from a politician’s, since it would likely abandon many poor black neighborhoods and some that are not so poor. Greeted with howls of black outrage, it was dead before arrival. But talk of conspiracies abounds. Many black New Orleanians warn that whites are trying to drive them away, and a few even ask whether the destruction was planned.
Meanwhile, the hidden wound of racism in America just stays hidden.

I asked the fifth graders if they thought the country cared much about New Orleans. “No!” they said.

Tamera: “I don’t have a feeling they care.”

Logan: “President Bush, he stayed in the White House. He didn’t even come and see.”

Devonté: “His wife do. She cares.”

Chelsea: “They’re going to tear down all the projects! They’re building houses on them for people who have money!”

Israel: “A lot of racist people want to move the black people out.”

Tamera: “They bombed the levees. White people!”

Ranatza walked in, hardly surprised at what kids can hear on the streets. “Did black people get flooded?” she said patiently. “Yes. Did white people get flooded? Yes. Did rich people get flooded? Yes. Did poor people get flooded? Yes.”
She's right about that:

The anxiety of waiting afflicts the city's affluent as well. Colleen Monaghan, 44, lived in the once-thriving neighborhood of Lakeview, where blocks of water-damaged homes sit vacant and exposed. The wall of floodwater that broke over poorly built levees caused $470,000 in damage to her home.With only $26,000 in insurance coverage, Monaghan turned to the Small Business Administration, which provides loans to homes and businesses damaged in natural disasters. She said she applied for a loan to rebuild her house a month after Katrina struck. In November, the agency informed her she would receive a $200,000 loan. But it was not until Wednesday that Monaghan received the money.

"It's been an ongoing nightmare for the one whole year," said Monaghan. "I feel I'm finally beginning to see the light. I'm proud to be an American, but I've lost all confidence in our government."
Maybe because $110 billion has been allocated for Gulf Coast recovery, and only $44 billion has been spent. It isn't even clear that much has been spent yet, but if it has: where did it go? Not where it was needed:

Then we talked about how flimsy the trailers feel, especially in a storm, and how boring the trips to the Laundromat are and how much garbage is still on the ground. When I asked if there was anything else they want people around the country to hear, Israel spoke up again. His father, a National Guardsman, is in Kuwait, his flooded house was burglarized and someone killed his dog.

“We deserve better,” he said.
And have for a long time; long before the levees broke.

Gotta work harder on that heart open to tragedy, open to hope.

Christians call it the way of the cross.

Friday, August 25, 2006

Katrina fatigue? Nah!

When the time comes, I won't say I told you so. I'll say Newt told you so:

``It was Katrina that broke the sense that the Republicans could govern well,'' former House Speaker Newt Gingrich said in an interview. Bush ``was still seen before Katrina as a relatively strong leader, and somewhere in this process there was a substantial erosion because Americans were shocked'' by the government's failure to perform.
And Newt's not the only Republican saying that:

``Sadly, George Bush has forgotten us,'' says a radio advertisement running this week in New Orleans. The narrator is Joe Lavigne, a Republican candidate who is seeking a House seat in November. Bush is ``spending too much time and money on Iraq and not enough living up to his promise to rebuild New Orleans,'' the ad asserts.
``Republicans very much hoped to reach out to African- Americans and bring them into the Republican tent,'' said David Gergen, a government professor at Harvard University in Cambridge, Massachusetts, and an adviser to Presidents Richard Nixon, Ronald Reagan and Bill Clinton. ``Katrina really turned that around.''
``We don't have transportation, we don't have health care, there are a lot of places that still don't have electricity,'' said Roger Villere, a New Orleans florist and chairman of the state Republican Party. ``Things don't look much different than they did a year ago.''
The damage on the Gulf Coast is not gone; and it is not forgotten. New Orleans wasn't even hit by Katrina; it was flooded by an inadequate levee system. It was devastated by a completely inadequate and incompetent response. It showed us, in our own backyard, precisely what is going on in Iraq; and now Lebanon; and coming soon to a community near you. "Things don't look much different than they did a year ago" could be a phrase from scout prime as much as from a New Orleans resident. I especially like the attitude of the Rising Tide New Orleans Bloggers Conference: "Unfatigued." Yeah.

Since I don't have the chops to add music, and the MadPriest already has the best tunes, let's incorporate his music herein by reference (as the lawyers say) and go out into the world singing.

Good music ('cause Indians are rulers on the holiday!)

More good music

And just so we stay "unfatigued:" A Katrina Timeline.

Wisdom takes her stand at the crossroads

I was reading this truly excellent column by Athenae and I was thinking about her conclusion, about the issue of boundaries and when we say: "We've done enough. What more can you ask of us?"

And thinking about the controversy in the Anglican Communion, and the statements of Archbishop Williams, that it isn't about inclusion, it's about being right. The decision of who to admit to the church is one question. The decision of who to admit to the priesthood, or the bishopric, is another. The latter is clearly a question of power. No pastor, no priest, is ever unaware of the power of the church to remove her, or him, from the position she holds. Few church members ever face that issue: every priest or pastor does. It's entirely a question of power, and how it is exercised.

And the fact is, it is usually exercised badly. Certainly there are priest and pastors who shouldn't hold pulpits, bishops who shouldn't have a diocese to oversee. But usually the failure of power runs the other direction, and it runs that way because those with the power decide that they are overwhelmed, and that their first responsiblity is to the people of Jefferson Parish; their people. And they don't want to take account of the relationship they have, or might have, or should have, to anyone else.

"We've done enough. What more can you ask of us?"

Pastor Dan also had an excellent post the other day, and in it he said this:

You may be as right or as justified as you possibly can be, but if you do not maintain basic connection to the people around you, all that righteousness is wasted.
This is what boundary issues come down to: who are you maintaining basic connections with, and why? Archbishop Williams has made it clear who he wants to maintain a basic connection with. He's made it clear he thinks the fault lies entirely with The Episcopal Church, and he is now free to disdain them and their position and their choice of bishops. But basic connection is more fundamental than that, and more demanding. As Pastor Dan put it:

My ministry as an ordained pastor is not between me and God; it is a calling to serve a specific set of people. Up to a point, you have to give them whatever they want, and beyond that point, you just walk away. Most of the time, though, you have to just stand by and watch them make awful decisions, then help clean up the mess afterward. You have to stand by people. It's like that with any profession: lawyer, doctor, whatever. You have to be able to separate your own sense of right and wrong from what your clients want to see happen. That's not to say the client is always right: I've had to confront congregations about to do something terribly un-Christian more than once. But you have to at least take their concerns into consideration. A professional who simply refuses to provide services in any way, shape or form isn't much of a professional, then, because they have disregarded the needs of the people they serve.
I would broaden that, a bit. We are all called to serve whoever we come into contact with. "Lord, when did we see you?", is the most pitiful and terrible and existential question in the Gospels. It is the cry of despair when all hope is truly lost. It is the voice of fear when all reason to be afraid has truly passed. Lord, when did we see you? And the answer is always the same: when did you not?

It is not our job to keep every mess from happening, or to wash our hands of it when it does. It is our calling, our responsibility, to clean up whatever mess has been made, whoever has made it, whatever it may cost us. Nothing that happened on that bridge that night had to be a death sentence for anybody. Read Athenae's words; they're better than mine. Imagine "Disregarding the boundaries we erect to keep poverty and chaos away from us, and recognizing once and for all that we are kind and generous to everyone or we are kind to no one. That everyone is safe on high ground or no one is."

Imagine disregarding the boundaries between people of faith. Imagine disregarding the boundaries we erect to keep order and control in place, and trusting God to maintain the order and the control, a Hebraic creation that is good rather than a Hellenistic dream of reason which will collapse back into chaos. A new thing, a righteous thing, a blessed thing. Imagine really living in the Church as if "everyone is safe on high ground or no one is." Imagine it: it would be the kingdom of God.

As simple, as direct, as unbrokered, as that. Instead of "the story of a standoff, the story of fear of who was approaching, step by step," it would be the story of how "[w]e work together to do what must be done, and our compassion knows no limits."

Imagine what it would be like to be a church like that.

Gotta tell ya, Colorado

Even Texas isn't this stupid:

A seventh-grade geography teacher who refused to remove Chinese, Mexican and United Nations flags from his classroom was placed on paid administrative leave Wednesday by Jefferson County officials who were concerned that the display violates the law.

District officials said state law forbids the display of foreign flags unless they are temporary and related to the curriculum.

Carmody Middle School principal John Schalk looked at the curriculum for Eric Hamlin's world geography class "and there was nothing ... related to any of these countries," said Lynn Setzer, district spokeswoman.

She said Schalk asked the teacher three times to remove the flags and warned there would be consequences, but Hamlin refused.

Hamlin, in his first year at Carmody, said he regularly displays flags from different countries, rotating them out based on countries being studied.

He said that the first six weeks of school are devoted to discussing the "fundamentals of geography" and that the flags were randomly selected.

District officials are citing Colorado Revised Statute 18-11- 205. It says: "Any person who displays any flag other than the flag of the United States of America or the state of Colorado or any of its subdivisions, agencies or institutions upon any state, county, municipal or other public building or adjacent grounds within this state commits a class 1 petty offense."

It says an exception to that law is "the display of any flag ... that is part of a temporary display of any instructional or historical materials not permanently affixed or attached to any part of the buildings ... ."

Mark Silverstein, an attorney with the American Civil Liberties Union, said he didn't see how the statute applied to this situation.

District Superintendent Cindy Stevenson said the district has contacted Hamlin and is trying to resolve the issue.


Schalk did not return a phone call seeking comment, but Stevenson said the current topic for the class was "latitude and longitude, not the culture of China, not the culture of Mexico."


[Hamlin] said he believes school officials are being extra cautious because of a controversy at Denver's North High School when a Mexican flag was hung by a social studies teacher and people complained.
'Cause a Mexican flag is just an invitation to illegal aliens, donchaknow? Why, we might as well tell the Border Patrol not to bother! Their flag is already here, the state is as good as annexed to Mexico!

I have been in schools in the Houston area where flags from around the world were on permanent display. Telling a teacher he can't display international flags in a world geography course? Wow. Suddenly the Texas educational system looks just a little smarter than it did.

Thursday, August 24, 2006

Obligatory Responsive Posting

Or, Father Jake Stops the World, and I want to get off.

(Did I mention I hate these things? I did? Good. And no, I don't know why I feel obligated to answer these things. Something to do with my vestigial orthodox theology, I'm sure.)

1. Two books that changed your life.

Fear and Trembling, by Johannes de Silentio (I’m a stickler for Kierkegaard’s pseudonyms; I have my reasons)

I’m prompted to this by Father Jakes’ entry, which I modify slightly for my own purposes. “I read this as a young man” in high school. Growing up in Southern Baptist dominated East Texas, “It was a relief to find someone else grappling with some of the paradoxes of life. It reassured me that I might not be insane after all!”

I should mention Kathleen Norris’ books, especially The Cloister Walk and Dakota, as well as the Psalms. But since I’m limited to only one more:

Carmina Gadelica, by Alexander Carmichael

2. Two books that you have read more than once.

The Gift of Death, by Jacques Derrida. A study of Kierkegaard’s Fear and Trembling, it is one of the single best modern texts on philosophy of religion that I know. Certainly my favorite.

Dune, by Frank Herbert.

This is a confession of my geek side. But I have read and re-read this book, and find it endlessly fascinating. Herbert understands better than most modern writers the richness, fullness, and therefore importance, of religion in human existence. His is modeled almost exclusively on Islam, an interesting historical choice as the book was written 40 years ago. But Islam has that one great advantage over Christianity: it doesn’t presume a religious culture, it requires one. Herbert allows us to understand why faith is part of the human condition.

Alright, three: A Day with Wilbur Robinson, by William Joyce. I love William Joyce. I've read a lot of his books twice. This one is far and away my favorite.

3. Two books you'd want on a desert island.

A prayer book. I can’t say that I’m yet familiar enough with the BCP to want it as constant companion (going from Presbyterian to UCC to TEC will do that to you). But since I’m on a desert island, I’ll want the BCP to keep me company. And a Bible. If I’m going to live like a desert father, I’m going to read like one.

4. Two books that made you laugh.

Anything by P.G. Wodehouse

Any of the Rumpole books by John Mortimer.

5. Two books that made me cry.

Maus I and II, by Art Spiegelman

Jayber Crow, by Wendell Berry. The ending simply broke my heart.

6. Two books that you wish had been written.

Living Backward: a new perspective on spirituality
Christian Hospitality: the real struggle with God

I’m going to get to both of these, eventually.

7. Two books that you wish had not been written.

Most of the books on any bookshelf in any bookstore in the world, if I was going to be honest. There are really very few books worth reading once, and even those are probably 1% of the books available at any one time. It’s depressing to consider how many books get published each year, and how few of them are worth the paper they are printed on, much less worth noticing 6 months after they are released. Without them, however, how would all the worthwhile books ever get published? Books are part of a very complex conversation, a sort of midrash, if you will. I have a vague memory of Walt Whitman saying something about finding seeds for something good in the most overlooked and neglected texts, and I’ve always thought he was right. A long way of saying I don’t know of a book I wish had not been written. Who knows what good thing it might have prompted?

8. Two books that you're currently reading.

In the Shadow of Young Girls in Flower, by Marcel Proust. I am determined to work my way through A la recherche du temps perdu, and the new Penguin translations are making that task enormously easier.

In Search of Paul, by John Dominic Crossan and Jonathan L. Reed.

9. One book you've been meaning to read.

An Eccelesiastical History of the English Speaking People, by Bede

And (I’ll cheat again), the new Grove Centenary edition of the Complete Works of Samuel Beckett. 4 vols. Beach reading for next summer, perhaps.

And no, I won't pass it on. I can't afford to make any more enemies in left blogistan! Anyone else feels prompted to answer these questions: you can't blame me!

Wednesday, August 23, 2006

Blind leading the blind

Note that the Idea is never at fault; only those who execute the demands of the Idea can fail:

President Bush and Vice President Dick Cheney have been extremely disappointed by Israel's failure to defeat Hezbollah.

Government sources said the Israeli failure has led to deep pessimism within the National Security Council and Pentagon regarding U.S. goals in the Middle East, particularly the effort to stop Iran's advance in Iraq and toward nuclear weapons. The sources said the Israeli experience has been used by the Pentagon to explain the U.S. difficulty in halting the deterioration of order in Iraq.

"There's a lot of doom and gloom in the White House over the U.S. future in the Middle East," a source said. "Everybody feels there's been a significant strategic shift in favor of the bad guys."
And the White House is apparently an irony-free zone:

Mr. Bush and his advisers have sought to clarify Israel's standoff with Hezbollah in the 33-day war in Lebanon. Over the last week, Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld, who has avoided meeting Israeli leaders, held an unannounced session with visiting Israeli Vice Premier Shimon Peres.


"The overall impression is that the Israeli government is not the kind of government that provides clear and effective management of war," said Anthony Cordesman, a former Pentagon official and now a senior fellow at the Center for Strategic and International Studies. "The same message is one that is being communicated about the senior command of the IDF [Israel’s military]. It was very clear that the government began this war rapidly, without proper preparation, without proper training of the reserves."
Funny thing is, "close" only counts in horseshoes and hand grenades:

The US-led "war on terror" has bolstered Iran's power and influence in the Middle East, especially over its neighbour and former enemy Iraq, a thinktank said today.

A report published by Chatham House said the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan had removed Iran's main rival regimes in the region.

Israel's conflict with the Palestinians and its invasion of Lebanon had also put Iran "in a position of considerable strength" in the Middle East, said the thinktank.
But, it's not like Bush & Cheney thought the invasion of Lebanon was a good idea:

President Bush and Vice-President Dick Cheney were convinced, current and former intelligence and diplomatic officials told me, that a successful Israeli Air Force bombing campaign against Hezbollah’s heavily fortified underground-missile and command-and-control complexes in Lebanon could ease Israel’s security concerns and also serve as a prelude to a potential American preëmptive attack to destroy Iran’s nuclear installations, some of which are also buried deep underground.
And, of course, we all know about the importance of well-trained reserves:

U.S. Increases Troop Level in Iraq to 138,000
The number of U.S. troops in Iraq has increased to 138,000. But the military is facing a tough time finding enough soldiers to fight.

Marines Announce Involuntary Recall of Inactive Members
On Tuesday, the U.S. Marines announced it is beginning an involuntary recall of inactive service members to return to duty and go to Iraq and Afghanistan. This marks the first involuntary recall by the Marines since the early days of the war. As many as 2,500 inactive Marines will be initially recalled.
Nope; no irony here. Nosirree!

Tuesday, August 22, 2006

They'll Know We Are Christians By Our Intolerance for Sin?

Archbishop Williams apparently thinks intolerance in defense of a very traditional morality is no vice.

But let's start at the beginning. Clearly "unity" and "integrity" are in the eye of the beholder; or at least depend on who's doing the defining, and whose "unity" is meant:

Do you in your heart of hearts ever despair that Anglican unity can be saved?
,,Despair is a very strong word, but there are moments that I really don't know whether it is still possible. I just know that I have been given the task to preserve what unity and integrity there is.''
But it isn't that simple, is it?

Unity in the Church - worldwide - is to you a means of coming closer to the truth. As you put it, 'If we don't stay together, 'we are only following our own local denomination or our personal preferences. Where then do you draw the line? How far can unity be stretched within the boundaries of still being based on the Bible?

In reply to this question Williams starts off with a rebuke of those who argue it is high time the Church accepted gay relationships. Their ideal is the inclusive church. ,,I don't believe inclusion is a value in itself'', says the Archbishop. ,,Welcome is. We welcome people into the Church, we say: 'You can come in, and that decision will change you.' We don't say: 'Come in and we ask no questions.' I do believe conversion means conversion of habits, behaviours, ideas, emotions. The boundaries are determined by what it means to be loyal to Jesus Christ. That means to display in all things the mind of Christ. Paul is always saying this in his letters: Ethics is not a matter of a set of abstract rules, it is a matter of living the mind of Christ.

That applies to sexual ethics; that is why fidelity is important in marriage. You reflect the loyalty of God in Christ. It also concerns the international arena. Christians will always have reconciliation as a priority and refuse to retaliate. By no means everything is negotiable for me. I would not be happy if someone said: Let us discuss the divinity of Christ. That to me seems so constituent of what the Church is.''

We're not getting any closer, though. Ethics is always "a matter of living the mind of Christ"? Good enough. But then, one central problem in the TEC (glossed over but still active) is the elevation of a woman to Presiding Bishop. Yet Jesus clearly had women in his entourage (from the unnamed woman of Mark 14 to the many named women in Jesus' entourage in Luke 8 and thereafter. Clearly acceptance of women as part of Jesus' story grew as the story grew and spread, from Mark in 70 C.E. to Luke's story two decades later. There are almost no characters in John's gospel, except as props for the Paraclete, but when Jesus raises Lazarus, he does so for the sake of Mary and Martha as much as anyone, and they are two of the most fully realized persons in that Gospel. Of course, it is no coincidence that women come to the tomb first, or stay throughout the crucifixion, from Mark's story to John's. Is it sexist to point out women seem to know what is important, and what is not, and so aren't as prone to deny and flee as men? Very well then, I'm sexist.), as did Paul. History, however, has done its best to erase these truths and render the message of Jesus more "orthodox."

And there, precisely, is the problem with "orthodoxy." It is a guide, but not an infallible one. On a very minor point, it is "orthodox" for priests to wear robes. It sets them apart, makes them look "religious." That wasn't the original purpose, though. The traditional alb of priestly garb was the t-shirt and blue jeans of the 1st century. Today it is cinctured with a soft cotton rope or something else equally ornamental (the robes usually have velcro closures). Originally it was hank of rope, necessary to keep the robe closed and the body covered. Priests wore it to emphasize their humility, their identity with the laborers. Imagine your priest today wearing a t-shirt and work boots and blue jeans in the pulpit, you'll get the idea. An unorthodox imagining? Yes, very; but truer to the intent than the tradition and orthodoxy which prescribes priestly garb today. We no longer identify with the humble, we identify with a special class. (Even pastors of mega-churches betray their aspirations; they wear either business attire (suit and silk tie) or "casual clothes," (polo shirt and slacks or maybe chinos). None of us want to look too much like the poor wanderer of Palestine we are supposed to be modeled on.)

And women in positions of religious authority is unorthodox; so the image of Theoklia next to Paul first reflects reality (a woman equal to the apostle), then the reaction (her upraised fingers in blessing are burned off of the plaster), and finally all but erased (no women at all!). Just as women were systematically erased from the Biblical stories (although Luke draws our attention to every one of the expectant mothers between Sara and Mary in his nativity story, and Matthew's geneaology turns on three women, in a chain of men). Women as apostles were, for a brief period, quite orthdox. But today scholars distinguish between Pauline letters and pseudo-Pauline letters in part on the basis of the mention of women as equals. It is such an ahistorical idea that only Paul, the reasoning goes, would include it. A pseudo-Pauline writer would never venture such a radical notion in the name of his authority.

Such is the true history of "orthodoxy." Things as we want them to be, are not necessarily things as God wants them to be. In fact, one of the most unorthodox scenes in the Bible is Ezekiel 8-11. Thomas Cahill thinks one of the "hinges of history" is Abraham leaving Ur and going where God leads him, and it is certainly a radical proposition. But in an age when gods were gods of regions, areas of land, and given temples as houses (God as Creator of the Universe probably developed after the Exile, not before), the idea of God leaving Jerusalem and traveling where God willed, was so radical as to be heretical. And yet Ezekiel records that the "God of Israel" (place as well as people) leaves the city of Jerusalem (having already left the Temple, which was bad enough) and goes to the mountains east of it. The clear message is that God goes where God wills, across all of God's creation. A settled message for us, who cannot conceive of God as tied to one place; but radically unorthodox for Ezekiel and his friends on the banks of the Chebar. Radically liberating; but only after you get over the shock, and who can say how long that took?

Is this one of those times? Am I Ezekiel, come to tell you all what I have seen? No, to the second question; perhaps, to the first. What is now orthodox always begins as unorthodox. Understood from a comfortable distance of time past, it can be seen as a movement always toward greater light and greater liberty, as Chesterton puts it. He writes of Aquinas and Francis:

They were not bringing something new into Christianity, in the sense of something heathen or heretical into Christianity; on the contrary, they were bringing Christianity into Christendom. but they were bringing it back against the pressure of certain historic tendencies, which had hardened into habits in many great schools and authorities in the Christian Church; and they were using tools and weapons which seems to many people to be associated with heresy or heathenry. St. Francis used Nature much as St. Thomas used Aristotle, and to some they seemed to be using a Pagan goddess and a Pagan sage. Saint Thomas Aquinas: "The Dumb Ox," G.K. Chesterton (New York: Doubleday, 1956, p. 29)
Chesterton concludes this passage with what he says will be the central argument of that book: "But it is best to say the truth in its simplest form; that they both reaffirmed the Incarnation, by bring God back to earth." And here is where things get messy.

"Lord, when did we see you?" the sheep and the goats ask plaintively in Matthew's final parable, and the answer is always the same, and has never been limited just to the hungry, the sick, the prisoner. It has always been understood, not legalistically, but inclusively: the Christ is present in everyone. But our calling as Christians is to see the Christ in the least and the lowest, because that reflects the humilty of the Incarnation, the central teaching of Christianity: God with us, Emmanuel. And that is a very inclusive doctrine which already accepts everyone, because it sees in everyone, God. If we ask for bona fides after our service, we are asking God for payment. If we ask for justification, we are asking God to stand justified. This is the central problem. This is, as Frank Zappa might say, the crux of the biscuit.

It's the apostrophe. That was Frank's line; but take it seriously, and consider a moment what an apostrophe does: it signals possession. It signals what we own. Well, what do we own? Christianity? Christian doctrine? Traditions? Orthodoxy? Do we own these things? Or are they passed to us for safe-keeping? Or are they given to us, for our benefit, and the benefit of others? But others, and which others? Those we approve of? Those who keep the traditions as we do, because that's how they were handed on to us, because "we've always done it this way?" Where, then, is there room for the spirit of the living God? Whenever times are at their hardest, their most demanding, their most limited and narrowing, there invades the spirit of God to do a new thing. Abraham and Sarah (Genesis 16:7-16 and 18:1-15); Manoah and his wife (the parents of Samson; Judges 13:3-24); Hannah, the mother of Samuel (1 Samuel 1:1-20); and, of course, Mary, in Luke's gospel. But then, of course, the Hebrew Scriptures abound with stories of God breaking into human lives; and there is Saul on the road to Damascus, and the vision of Peter when he struggles with whether or not to preach to the Gentiles; and we cannot disgregard the Crucifixion, because anyone hanged on a tree was, by Mosaic law, cursed (Deuteronomy 21:23).

Who owns our orthodoxy, then? And how do we fit God into it?

Which is just a preliminary consideration to the statements of Archbishop Williams. "The boundaries are determined by what it means to be loyal to Jesus Christ. That means to display in all things the mind of Christ." I agree; and there have to be boundaries. Who can deny that there must be boundaries? But can there only be on Sordello? Sordello, and my Sordello?

That is the issue of ecclesiology. And it is starkly before the Anglican Communion. But we're no closer to answering that question: what is the "mind of Christ"? How do we define it? How do we know it?

Aquinas and Francis, says Chesterton, defined it in terms of Aristotle and Nature, respectively; two distinctly Pagan (his term) sources. But, as the medieval church especially argued the case, if all things come from God, then even those sources share in the enlightenment on Creation of the God of Abraham (so Dante places Socrates, Plato, and Aristotle in the ante-room to Hell. Born too early to be saved by the Christian church, they cannot merit salvation; but being lights of reason that illuminate the Christian path, they do not deserve damnation, either.) Both were, Chesterton assures us, revolutionaries. Yet Thomistic Natural Law is the center of Catholic doctrine, and the teachings of Francis affected even the state I live in. The Spanish missions in San Antonio were settled by Franciscan monks. So revolutionary were they, they served as an arm of the Spanish government. Such is the constant movement of radical to orthodox. Jesus of Nazareth was killed for being a political troublemaker; the Catholic church now bears the name of that empire. The history of orthodoxy is rich with irony.

Do we get any closer to an answer to this question by arguing about it? Perhaps. But Aquinas presented his arguments in a calm, lucid, and reasonable tone, and Francis presented his by his life. "Preach the gospel. Use words, if necessary," is a phrase attributed to him. Like all apt phrases, if he didn't say it, he should have. Do we argue over this? Or do we live it out? Who is the final arbiter of morality? That's the other question the Archbishop poses:

,,In terms of decision-making the American Church has pushed the boundaries. It has made a decision that is not the decision of the wider body of Christ. In terms of the issue under consideration: there are enough Christians of good faith in every denomination - from evangelical to Roman Catholic - to whom it is not quite so self-evident. Who are not absolutely sure that that we have always read the Bible correctly. They are saying: this is an issue we must talk about. But if we are going to have time to discuss this, prayerfully, thoughtfully, we really don't need people saying: we must change it now. The discussion must not be foreclosed by a radical agenda. The decision hasn't been made yet. Or rather, the tradition and teaching of the Church is what it always was.
And here we are up against the Birmingham Jail problem, and the question of justice. The Archbishop says we must go slowly. The issue then, is, to justify action; and also, to justify inaction. That is, the issue is the question of justice. Which position is just, that is, justifiable? Action; or inaction? And there's the problem of history: it refuses to stand still, to wait on our deliberations.

There is precedent for this. Luther split with the Roman church over the issue of indulgences (among other things), and the doctrine of justification by faith. The Catholic Church eventually stopped the selling of indulgences, and accepted validity of the heretic's doctrine. The Lutheran and Reformed traditions split over the meaning of the eucharist: symbols merely, or true body and blood of Christ mystically transubstantiated, or something in between, neither dully symbolic nor mystically capable of bleeding? It took 500 years (or a Prussian ruler, in the case of the German Evangelical Church), but that rift was finally healed. Members of most Protestant churches are now welcome at each other's tables, having determined at last that we all have the "mind of Christ" we can agree on; at least when it comes to sharing the body and blood of Christ. I have served Christian churches where orthdoxy and tradition once demanded that the men sit on one side of the church, women and children on the other. The nature of ortodoxy is that the unorthodox is always changing it.

And it is the nature of Christians often to "walk apart" from each other. This is as traditional and orthodox as the agreement between Paul and Peter to agree to disagree, and so the church in Jerusalem recognized Paul's mission to the Gentiles. It has been going on for centuries. The "mind of Christ"? Even Peter and Paul couldn't agree on it. It's the reason we have 4 gospels, not just one. It's the reason some scholars study the other gospels, not just the canonical four. Orthodoxy is not a seamless cloth, it's a patchwork quilt. And sometimes, it is the old wineskin, and God is offering us new wine. And, as ever, when God does, or someone thinks God does, some will drink it, and some will not. And if the wine proves to be good, eventually all will drink it. And that time has always come, and is always coming.

But in the meantime, where we always live, we sometimes just have to agree to disagree, and to say the larger church is too large; or just not large enough. And keep struggling to live up to the vision of the basiliea tou theou Jesus taught us: where the first are last, and the last first, and the leader is the servant of all, and humblest of all.

And work on who is excluded from our humility, and how our humility puts us in the seat of judgment.

Monday, August 21, 2006

Are we embarassed enough yet?

The question America is beginning to ask itself:

A senior Downing Street source said that, privately, Mr Blair broadly agrees with John Prescott, who said Mr Bush's record on the issue [Israel-Lebanon] was 'crap'.

The source said: "We all feel badly let down by Bush. We thought we had persuaded him to take the Israel-Palestine situation seriously, but we were wrong. How can anyone have faith in a man of such low intellect?"

Pounding Sand

Athenae started it! (She of the superfluous vowels).

I have many things to add, but not in any coherent order. One observation, though, is on this whole question of "meaning" and "meaninglessness." That's a favored pursuit of many social critics, from T.S. Eliot:

"What life have you if you have not life together?
There is no life that is not in community,

And now you live dispersed on ribbon roads
And no man knows or cares who is his neighbour
Unless his neighbour makes too much disturbance,
But all dash to and fro in motor cars.
Familiar with the roads and settled nowhere.
Nor does the family even move about together,
But every sone would have his motor cycle,
And daughters ride away on casual pillions."

to the crisis in Iraq:

Haider Ali communes with God through his CD player.

That is how he listens to the lectures of Shiite imams these days, for he rarely sets foot in a mosque anymore.

Even on Fridays, the Muslim Sabbath, he prefers to pray at home, kneeling on a rug in a room adorned with posters of green-robed Shiite martyrs slain centuries ago.

“We’d go a lot to mosque before, but it’s too dangerous now,” Mr. Ali, 42, said as he watched his 9-year-old son stack boxes in his downtown convenience store. “Now, you feel a little empty inside.”

Across central Iraq, more and more Iraqis associate the neighborhood mosque, the cornerstone of life in the Muslim world, with the Kalashnikov rather than the Koran.

Exploding sectarian violence has undermined the mosque’s traditional role as a gathering place, further unraveling the country’s communal fabric. Mosque attendance has plummeted, according to clerics and government officials, as tens of thousands of Iraqis like Mr. Ali choose to pray at home out of safety concerns. Gatherings at Friday Prayer are sometimes one-tenth the size of what they once were, and parents no longer send their children to mosques for spiritual lessons.

As a result, sales of CD’s with religious lectures have boomed, while satellite channels showing bombastic clerics are more popular than ever.

The decline in mosque attendance is a noticeable reversal of a trend that began right after the American invasion of 2003, when religious freedom flowered and worshipers, especially long-oppressed Shiites, flocked to mosques.

Now, however, mosques have become a frequent flash point in the widening Sunni-versus-Shiite warfare.
The reality of the spiritual and communal cost of that war is just now being realized. How do we quantify that? On what spread sheet do we assess it? By what body count do we measure it? With what metric do we guage it? Does it have any meaning at all?

Sociologists like Robert Wuthnow will insist it does; but sociologists deal with abstractions like human motivation, and speak in generalities which can be reflected in statistics, hard numbers which somehow make the situation real and tangible and, in some way, something we can respond to, if only to use science in our condemnation of "them," "those people" who are always our problem. Vague and glittering generalities dressed up as established verities. That is, to the critic, the domain of sociology. But I am no critic of sociology; I don't know enough about it to criticize it. Instead, I use it, as I was trained in seminary to do, to decide that this picture may well be right:

An awful lot of people, good people, nice people, people living what you'd call normal lives, are just sort of ambling around trying to figure out what the fuck they're doing here... ...They're miserable in a low-level kind of way, quiet desperation and all, and church isn't doing it for them, and drugs are too destructive, and most of them aren't living the lives they wanted to live.
Even easier, I can just go with Thoreau over 100 years ago: "The mass of men lead lives of quiet desperation." Even then it was apparent to the New England naturalist that the American Dream was a chimeraical object.

But is meaning truly what we are looking for? Sociologists say yes. It's where we find it, and the energy we'll expend on it, that's the issue. Athenae is clearly committed to her cause, and just as clearly frustrated that other people don't seem to be as committed as she is. It's a problem every seminary student faces leaving seminary with a heart full of idealism and a head full of biblical and scholarly knowledge: why aren't the people in the pews as excited about this as I am? Why don't they care about the same things I do? Why am I willing to sacrifice to make the church a place of meaning and belonging, and most people just want it to mean something they can belong to? Who's wrong: me, or them?

Dangerous question. A lot of this goes back to the Industrial Revolution, actually. Once we no longer had to depend solely on agriculture in human society, God was easily displaced (today the weather is still capricious, but the machine does just what we expect it to do) and meaning supposedly came from our own existence (the insistence on the primacy and later, supremacy, of the individual made this understanding inevitable. Existentialism is the logical outcome of Romanticism.). Suckled on a creed outworn:

They wait for that kind of leadership, and even when they seem to have found it they say, maybe next time, when the time is right, when I'm ready, when the world is ready, when something so horrific I can't ignore it any more jolts me out of this Barcalounger and onto my feet, then I'll follow. Then I'll act.
And we're back to Thoreau's observation. Or maybe Alfred Bester's, from The Stars My Destination. Maybe the driven ones, the leaders, think they have to be in charge, and the rest of us just let them. Maybe we're waiting for someone to tell us to take control, to make them, the leaders, the masters, the ones who take charge, let us make the decisions about our own lives.

Mabye. Except I'm not so sure we are. I'm not so sure so many people really are looking for such ultimate meaning in their lives or otherwise, don't bother me. I'm not so sure everyone is waiting for the wake-up call that makes their existence worthwhile, meaningful, "self-actualized," as the modern vocabulary has it. For instance, this isn't the 1960's that I remember:

It had everything to do with a hunger in suburbia for the kind of purpose their parents had as young people in the 1960s, the kind of purpose America had when it was led by real men and not hucksters and thieves.
Lyndon Johnson could give Karl Rove master classes on political hucksterism, as could Richard Nixon. J. Edgar Hoover was the scariest man in government right up until the day he died, and even afterwards, for quite a while. Martin Luther King, Jr. wasn't lionized even after his assassination; he was vilified, he was caricatured, he was despised for his anti-war stance and he died supporting a labor action for fair wages, not because he integrated a lunch counter. People had dogs set on them, fire hoses trained on them, bullies in police uniforms beating them near to death; "inner cities" (the first time I ever heard that phrase) were burning, riots were so prevalent some said in 1970 that the country was lucky it didn't split up in revolution in 1968. Yippies and SDS and Weathermen and Vietnam and Kent State: the '60's and early '70's were an unrelenting drumbeat of violence and racial tension and fear and hatred and if anybody thought they were going to change the world, most likely they thought they would burn it down or blow it up, but it was gonna end in a bloodbath, not a new millenium, a thousand year reign of peace and love and pot-smoking.

That's all looking backward, long after the dust has settled, and any view about the past that thinks that's how it was is not longing for meaning, it's just dumb wishful thinking, it's just plain ignorance.

Which is not to attribute those sins to Athenae; but if we're gonna talk truth to power, let's talk truth. There was never a unifying call: Kennedy's call didn't reach Martin Luther King. Kennedy wanted nothing to do with the civil rights movement King envisioned. He was part of the crowd urging King to "go slow." Johnson was pushed into it; he was smart enough to see where the parade was going, and Southern enough to understand the justice issues involved, and he did the right thing. But he didn't unify anybody. The violence provoked by King's non-violent movement had to be lived through to be believed; it's almost impossible to understand it without experiencing the racism that was then so strong (and is now so hidden) in American society. Hoover spent so much time investigating King it took the Church Committee to finally uncover everything he had on the minister, and how he tried to use it. King didn't unify, he scared people. Malcolm X advocated violent change. The Black Panthers were seen as thugs and gang members long before that term took on the connotation it has today. They all wanted what King wanted, at least. But they weren't unified behind him. The country wasn't unified in its opposition to Vietnam, it nearly broke apart over it, and in ways far more deep, far more public, and far more meaningful, than a contested primary in Connecticut.

It has, in other words, never been better than this. Life has never had more meaning than it does now, things have never made more sense than they do now. It wasn't that Bush had a golden opportunity to make things better after 9/11 and he squandered it. The only opportunity Bush had was to make wise policy decisions, to boldly and intelligently guide the ship of state. And this he completely and even resolutely failed to do, but then, given his history, his past, his life, what could we expect? Sure we bought into the jingoism masquerading as patriotism, and our willful ignorance of the world and what we call the "Middle East" and our ever-renewed faith in violence led us charging into war, but, you know what? That's what human beings do.

This is who we are. This is what we expect of our "nation." This is what being a country means. People from Neil Young to Atrios still argue we were right to invade Afghanistan, and aver that anything that went wrong in that war was the result of the "distraction" of Iraq, as if more troops or more reports on CNN or FoxNews or by the New York Times would have made a difference in the invasion and occupation of a third-world country that no outside power has been able to control in centuries. This is us; this is what we do. We have met the enemy. Look in a mirror. The whole effort is dreams and delusions. And we never quite get away from Thoreau, do we?

His objection was to the industrialization of New England. He lamented the loss of peace and quiet brought to his retreat on Walden Pond by the faraway train whistle, a sound we now remember nostalgically as a part of a pastoral past we'll never know again, a simpler time when people rode the rails instead of dashing "to and fro in motor cars./Familiar with the roads and settled nowhere." The loss of meaning is tied intimately to the changes we have eagerly embraced, nay, sought out, by way of technology. And when we have lost meaning, replacing it with what we are assured is the better life, yet somehow none of the improvements seems spiritually fulfilling, quite finally bring about the "self-actualization" we are told we all long for, then we say the church or the politicians or even the bloggers have let us down, and we'll just wait here for someone to come along and lead us.

Or "they" will: the mass of people leading lives of quiet desperation will. Meanwhile, their desperation is driving us, the concerned ones, slowly mad with despair and anger, with trying to figure out just what's wrong and why "they" are like that, why "they" elected Bush over Gore, or Bush over Kerry, or listen to Bush at all and give him even enough votes to fudge the rest and claim another victory.

So that's maybe the worst of it. Pundits and politicians taken in by Bush's blather would have to admit they wanted to feel good about themselves more than they wanted 2,500 American soldiers to live.
In the end, that's what it comes down to. But we all want to feel good about ourselves. We all want to join the group that gives us a sense of meaning and belonging, and few of us want to join the group that requires a sacrifice for meaning and belonging. It's simply the way we are. Like electricity, we follow the path of least resistance, and we call our anger, our despair, our sense of helplessness against the tides of history or forces of war in nations, our sacrifice. We want to take away all meaning, and then replace it solely on our terms. And I'm not indicting Athenae, here, just speaking to the same subject from my own observations. "They" are not some species of animal or human in which I have no part, share no character, bear no resemblance. "They" are me, and we just disagree on what is most important. And when we say "They" fail to provide meaning to us, or "they" fail to take up the responsibility of seeking meaning, or accepting meaning, or even trying to make meaning in their own lives, we are lying to ourselves. We are failing to remember that in a convex surface, objects are closer than they appear; and everything we see, is seen through our own eyes. And too often what we see, is a reflection.

Which image is right, in the end? The self-important person who only has to reach out his hand to pluck the grapes, and worries about his life's ultimate meaning? Or the mother working two jobs, just trying to get by, too tired to even be concerned with her "self-actualization"? Are people, indeed, "drinking the sand"? I don't quite see it. Yes, there is a need for meaning, and for spiritual meaning, in human life. Disassemble the Iraqis ability to attend mosgue, and you haven't made them more rational, you have undercut their identity, truncated their humanity. Maybe John Cheever and John Updike and Raymond Carver are right, and those people aren't so different from one another after all. And we aren't so different from Haider Ali. We want our lives; we want our places to pray, or not pray, as we are moved. We don't want a life of violence; but then, maybe, we should stop visiting that on others, stop even thinking that violence is sometimes a solution, is viable as a rallying cry, makes sense in some situation some time, this time, the very next time.

It doesn't. It's about as effective as pounding sand. What life have we if we have not life together? And what does "together" mean, if it doesn't include all of humanity, in an increasingly intertwined, "global village" of a world? We all want to feel good about ourselves. But if Donne was right, and "no man is an island," perhaps no man includes no woman, too; and no child; includes everyone, everywhere. Which is no real solution; not in the real world. But there are worse sins you could commit, than to love your enemy.

Far worse; like to not even try. What kind of meaning would that give your life, to just try, every day, day after day?

Update: courtesy where courtesy is due: Hecate's response to Athenae's post.

Saturday, August 19, 2006

Desperately Seeking Affirmation

But I'm telling you: Katrina still looms large in the public imagination, even if it doesn't dominate the nightmares of political consultants or the rants of political bloggers.

Frank Rich (via Raw Story):

"The results are in for the White House's latest effort to exploit terrorism for political gain: The era of Americans' fearing fear itself is over," writes Rich.

"In each poll released since the foiling of the trans-Atlantic terror plot -- Gallup, Newsweek, CBS, Zogby, Pew -- George W. Bush's approval rating remains stuck in the 30s, just as it has been with little letup in the year since Katrina stripped the last remaining fig leaf of credibility from his presidency," Rich writes.
As Rich is quoted saying about the "liquid bomb" plot:

What makes the foiled London-Pakistan plot seem more of a serious threat -- though not so serious it disrupted Tony Blair's vacation -- is that the British vouched for it, not Attorney General Gonzales and his Keystone Kops. This didn't stop Michael Chertoff from grabbing credit in his promotional sprint through last Sunday's talk shows. "It was as if we had an opportunity to stop 9/11 before it actually was carried out," he said, insinuating himself into that royal we. But no matter how persistent his invocation of 9/11, our secretary of homeland security is too discredited to impress a public that has been plenty disillusioned since Karl Rove first exhibited the flag-draped remains of a World Trade Center victim in a 2004 campaign commercial. We look at Chertoff and still see the man who couldn't figure out what was happening in New Orleans when the catastrophe was being broadcast in real time on television.
The emphasis is all mine.

Of course, now Scotland Yard has only 4 days left to make a case against 23 suspects, or release them. The case has raised more questions than answers, but the suggestion that "mass murder on an unbelievable scale" was "imminent" was most certainly exaggerated.

Turn out the lights; the party's over.

Update: NTodd has Rich's column in its entirety.

Stupid Question Dept.

Anybody else see a pattern here?

Colombia’s Coca Survives U.S. Plan to Uproot It

The latest chapter in America’s long war on drugs — a six-year, $4.7 billion effort to slash Colombia’s coca crop — has left the price, quality and availability of cocaine on American streets virtually unchanged.

The effort, begun in 2000 and known as Plan Colombia, had a specific goal of halving this country’s coca crop in five years. That has not happened. Instead, drug policy experts say, coca, the essential ingredient for cocaine, has been redistributed to smaller and harder-to-reach plots, adding to the cost and difficulty of the drug war.

Bush administration officials say that coca farmers are on the run, and that the leftist guerrillas and right-wing paramilitaries who feed on drug profits are weaker than ever. That has made Colombia, Washington’s closest ally in a tumultuous region, more stable, they say. They argue that the plan has scored important successes, like a spike in the price of cocaine last year.

But that claim was disputed by a wide range of drug policy experts, and some politicians are questioning the drug war’s results as well as its assumptions.
Is abstinence policy failing to fight HIV? (subscription only, so once again I'm indebted to the Mad Priest):

Talk about a policy backfiring. The US government's emphasis on abstinence and faithfulness to prevent the spread of HIV may be leading to an upsurge in infection rates, delegates were told on Monday at the International AIDS Conference in Toronto, Canada.

In 2003, the US government pledged $15 billion over five years to fight AIDS in Africa and the Caribbean. Of the 20 per cent earmarked for prevention, it ruled that at least a third must be spent on promoting abstinence outside marriage. Abstinence is the key element of the "ABC" programme - Abstain, Be faithful and use Condoms - but for many at high risk, the A and B parts don't help. Instead, they siphon funds away from provision of condoms, the one element that might work. Jodi Jacobson at the Center for Health and Gender Equity, a non-profit organisation based in Takoma Park, Maryland, says that in some countries as much as 70% of the prevention budget is spent on encouraging people to abstain from sex or be faithful. In Uganda, she says, where such policies account for 60% of prevention dollars, there are hints that the strategy is failing and the number of infections is growing.
Israeli Troops Criticize War Handling

Israeli soldiers returning from the war in Lebanon say the army was slow to rescue wounded comrades and suffered from a lack of supplies so dire that they had to drink water from the canteens of dead Hezbollah guerrillas.

"We fought for nothing. We cleared houses that will be reoccupied in no time," said Ilia Marshak, a 22-year-old infantryman who spent a week in Lebanon.

Marshak said his unit was hindered by a lack of information, poor training and untested equipment. In one instance, Israeli troops occupying two houses inadvertently fired at each other because of poor communication between their commanders.

"We almost killed each other,” he said. "We shot like blind people. ... We shot sheep and goats."
And not to forget the Gulf Coast:

But a funny thing happened on the road to economic renaissance. A key feature of the legislation allows Alabama, Mississippi and Louisiana to issue up to almost $15 billion of tax-free "GO Zone" bonds on behalf of companies seeking to build or renovate. So far, however, many of the firms seeking to take advantage of the cheap loans are pursuing ventures at best loosely connected to the devastation wrought by Hurricanes Katrina and Rita.

In Louisiana, for example, a furor quickly erupted after the first projects to get a preliminary go-ahead included several in Baton Rouge, well upriver from New Orleans. Among them were a four-star hotel as well as a new office building and parking garage for The Shaw Group, a politically connected engineering firm that has so far received close to $400 million in hurricane-related federal business, according to the latest Federal Emergency Management Agency tally.

In Alabama, where Republican Gov. Bob Riley is running for re-election, applicants for GO Zone financing don’t have to show any link to hurricane recovery. Simply improving the quality of life or stimulating economic development may be enough. Of the 19 new projects greenlighted thus far, only two are directly tied to Katrina, the Mobile Press-Register recently reported. Others include an aircraft assembly plant in the works before the storm and a Mexican restaurant to be built in Tuscaloosa, a drive of several hours from the coast.

And as of the end of last month, the Mississippi Business Finance Corporation had granted preliminary approval to some 90 projects, although only one had actually gone forward. Fewer than half of the proposed ventures are in the three waterfront counties raked hardest by Katrina. The single biggest chunk -- $400 million -- is set aside for defense contractor Northrop Grumman, whose three Gulf Coast shipyards are already in line for hundreds of millions of dollars in direct federal aid.
The common denominator? The policies of George W. Bush. Even failing upward isn't working for him anymore.

Friday, August 18, 2006

Israel, we hardly know ye

Well, this is interesting:

A majority of Americans thinks the U.S. should not ally itself with either Israel or Lebanon in the current conflict that spans the borders of those countries, a new Zogby International telephone poll shows.

The survey was conducted Aug. 11–15, 2006, and included 1,018 interviews. It carries a margin of error of +/– 3.1 percentage points.

While 52% said the U.S. should remain neutral, 34% said it should back Israel in its fight against Hezbollah forces in Lebanon. Almost no one thinks the U.S. should stand with Lebanon against Israel, the poll shows.
I'm not surprised by that last; but then again, the US media quickly buried the deaths at Cana, and we never hear about things like this:

More than 15,000 tonnes of fuel oil has leaked from Lebanon's Jiyye power plant since it was attacked by Israeli warplanes on 13 July. As if deliberately to hamper any attempts to staunch the flow of oil, Israel then bombed the power plant again two days later, preventing emergency workers from gaining access to the site. An indication of the scale of the disaster comes from satellite photos showing a 3,000-square-kilometre slick along two-thirds of Lebanon's coastline. The oil has now begun to wash up in Syria.
Or, for that matter, this:

Violence against the land and its inhabitants has become part of the same matrix of aggression. Perhaps most revealing was Israel's destruction of a solar power project in Gaza in an air strike on 28 June. That environmentally friendly technology could deliver a better future for Palestinians is not part of Tel Aviv's plan. As far as Israel is concerned, the Palestinians have no future - except as a dispossessed underclass, deprived of land and identity, segregated by a four-metre-high wall into a network of South African-style bantustans. This is not a future any people can or should accept, not in South Africa, nor in Palestine. And so, the war goes on.
No, we in America are kept in the dark, kept wondering why no one likes us. Do I mean by this example that Israel is singularly evil? No. But the general impression in America is that Israel alone in the region is a bastion of light and reason, and is surrounded by peoples who hate it for that light and reason, or perhaps for its "freedom and democracy." And I sometimes despair of Americans ever understanding that there is a reason for the anger and violence of the people of the Middle East, and it is in part because of the violence done to them.

That said, does the Zogby poll mean anything? Well, the most talked about Democratic Senator right now is Hillary Clinton, of New York. Can you imagine a New York politician complaining about the actions of Israel? The hottest race in the Senate seems to be in Connecticut. Joe Lieberman is Jewish, which he clearly thinks is a political selling point, and Ned Lamont backed Israel's actions in Lebanon. Do I mean to indicate a "conspiracy"? No, of course, not; this is political reality. There is support for Israel among Southern fundamentalists, too, who may not even have a synagogue in their city. I can't imagine my Texas senators coming out in support of Lebanon, even if the facts reported in "The New Statesman" were published on the front page of every major newspaper in this country. The simple fact is the political power in this country is heavily tilted toward support for Israel; that is not going to change. But support for foreign action is once again waning. Partly because we do it so badly, so clumsily; partly because we don't understand why no one likes us, which in turn makes our support for our clumsy and immoral efforts, so clumsy and immoral.

Reinhold Niebuhr argued that we can't expect nations to behave in a moral manner. I don't think, however, that is carte blanche for nations to do whatever they perceive to be in their national interests at any given time. Perhaps at least an ethic as Sartre imagined, one that recognizes the responsibility of choosing ethically because your choice is for all of humankind, is applicable. No person is an island, after all; neither are nations.

Cutting down the forest of laws

Interesting point about this decision:

It rests on the assertion that enough has been publicly disclosed by the Administration itself to make findings of fact on the plaintiff's allegations. Indeed, the ruling is on a motion for partial summary judgment, which requires the court to construe all the available evidence in favor of the non-moving party (the defendant, or the US, in this case) in order to grant the motion. (Summary judgment is a remedy afforded the moving party when, all evidence being construed in favor of the non-moving party, the moving party still wins without bothering with a trial).

Why haven't those facts been disclosed? The Government claims "national security." But there is another reason: Congress has held no hearings on the matter. Congress has refused to investigate this program.

Think about that. A program of wiretapping which the government will not fully admit is in operation (it claimed in its own motion for summary judgment that the full scope of the program could not be revealed), coupled with a data-mining operation it has not admitted is in operation (the court ruled in the government's favor on that point, and granted summary judgment against the plaintiffs' claims on that issue), one that seems on its face to be in violation of the Constitution as well as statutory laws, and the Congress will not investigate.

When Richard Nixon was accused of covering up a "third rate burglary" at Watergate, a full Congressional investigation revealed the extent of the illegal activities and forced Nixon's resignation (even the Republicans in Congress realized they couldn't protect him, though many tried mightily and many insisted his resignation was not justified or necessary, as they would not admit he had done anything illegal).

But George Bush has better control of Congress than Nixon did. Bush, of course, has a Republican Congress. Still, there are no Democrats demanding an investigation; none who aren't marginalized and ignored by their own party, that is. Only lately have party leaders like John Kerry seen fit to challenge Bush on the war in Iraq. Richard Nixon was re-elected by the largest landslide in modern political history, a burial of a Democratic candidate so thorough it echoes loudly 34 years later; and yet Democrats mounted and pushed through an investigation that forced Nixon's resignation a mere 2 years later. George Bush barely won a seriously contested second term on votes counted in a state by the elected official who was also Bush's state campaign manager, and yet Democrats cannot work up sufficient outrage to point out the obvious: Bush and his administration are in violation of several criminal laws.

Small wonder the Bush administration is so anxious to change the laws on war crimes retroactive to 9/11. AG Gonzalez is not so confident of his legal opinions as he would have us think. Would that the Democratic party had at least the faith in the rule of law that Mr. Gonzalez has belatedly found.

Update: DAS reminds me, inadvertently, that I don't expect we'll find another Barbara Jordan, either. Not only is it hard to imagine "Watergate" hearings over what Bush has clearly done, it's hard to imagine any Democrat who could give a speech that would convince the GOP that Bush must go.

Golly gee willikers, politics is just so partisan these days! Must be the Democrats fault, huh?