Tuesday, October 31, 2006

A Sop to the Mad Priest

(who is still on about it!) and what may well be the last Hallowe'en post of the year (thanks to Moonbootica, another Brit, for the link).

What is it about the French?

It seems the festival, which came to prominence in the late 1990s, is in decline because it is perceived as "too American".

An association called No to Halloween - which was set up to combat the trend - has now wound down as a result of the festival's waning appeal.

It said Halloween was artificially inflated to serve commercial interests.

"There was no need for the group to exist any more," former president Arnaud Guyot-Jeannin told Reuters news agency.

"Halloween was a marketing gimmick aimed mainly at children. It's a big festival of consumption selling outfits, masks, gadgets and it couldn't last forever," he added.

As a result, supermarkets are reported have lost interest in the festival this year.

"Apart from a few local celebrations, Halloween is no longer taken into account by our stores," Thierry Desouches of Systeme U supermarket told Catholic newspaper La Croix.

"This lack of interest is real in all big-name supermarkets," he added.

"Our Halloween sales have been falling by half every year since 2002," Franck Mathais of toy retailer La Grande Recre told Le Monde newspaper.
I mean, how dare they be so sensible? And after what we did for them in WWII, too!

Arrogance, I call it.


In other news, the Hallowe'en horror show continues. I received this e-mail yesterday from my U.S. Representative. Notice the subtle appeal to racism, as most Americans presumably couldn't distinquish a "Mexican" from an "Arab" (because for reasons unstated, Hezbollah is not trying to sneak "terrorists" into Canada. I especially love the idea of a pipe bomb designed to "spread the virtues of Hezbollah by pamphlet upon explosion." Huh? And, of course, the obligatory assault on the "liberal media".)

Dear District 7 Neighbor:

In case you missed it, this op-ed piece ran in Saturday's Houston Chronicle. The author is a former White House and Defense Department official who confirms the serious security threat that Venezuela and its President, Hugo Chavez, pose to our southern border. I was mocked by the Chronicle Editorial Board and Chronicle columnist Rick Casey for discussing this threat, but it will not deter my efforts to send money to the border sheriffs to secure our borders.

Want a Scary Read? Try Report on Border Security

Gaping Holes are Allowing Terrorists Unimpeded Entry

By Douglas MacKinnon

October 27, 2006

While much of the national mainstream media continue to focus on "he said, she said" political stories, an exponentially more serious subject is escaping their notice. It's a story that has a direct impact on Texas and involves the national security of the United States.

U.S. Rep. Michael T. McCaul, R-Austin, chairman of the House Committee on Homeland Security - Subcommittee on Investigations, has released a report titled "Line in the Sand: Confronting the Threat at the Southwest Border." If you want to experience real terror, then skip the latest horror movie playing at your local cineplex and read this report.

Contrary to what some Republicans, Democrats or the press may state or believe, the national security of our country is not a partisan issue. If we don't work together as Americans to defeat terrorism and close the gaping holes at our borders, then we will all bear some responsibility should the worst happen and tens of thousands of our fellow citizens are killed in a terrorist attack. This alarming report underscores that threat and possibility.

Aside from confirming that heavily armed Mexican drug cartels with military-grade ordnance control all to the south of our borders and have direct control over every single illegal person, weapon or narcotic that enters our nation, the report also affirms something much more sinister: Terrorists from Islamic organizations have and continue to enter our country through our southern flank.

Among its numerous sobering details of infiltration of known terrorists into our nation, are these findings: U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement investigations have revealed that aliens were smuggled from the Middle East to staging areas in Central and South America, before being smuggled illegally into the United States. That members of Hezbollah have already entered the United States across the Southwest border.

Let's pause a moment here to take in that little newsflash. Members of Hezbollah have already infiltrated the United States. And finally, the report stresses that U.S. military and intelligence officials believe that Venezuela is emerging as a potential hub of terrorism in the Western Hemisphere.

While Venezuelan strongman and madman Hugo Chavez just embarrassingly lost his bid to buy his way onto the United Nations Security Council, this report validates and reiterates that not only is Chavez not going away, but that he intends to franchise his revolution and Islamic terrorism throughout the Western Hemisphere with the direct goal of punishing the United States of America.

The report further states that Venezuela is providing support - including identity documents - that could prove useful to radical Islamic groups. The Chavez government has issued thousands of cedulas - the equivalent of U.S. Social Security cards - to a number of suspect nations, including Middle Eastern nations - that host foreign terrorist organizations.

A vivid example of this is that several Pakistani nationals were apprehended at the U.S.-Mexico border with fraudulent Venezuelan documents. Whether the Chavez government directly gave the Pakistanis the documents or they obtained them elsewhere is still not certain. What is not a question, is that they had them and were trying to enter the United States illegally. To those who pay attention, Hugo Chavez makes no secret of his intentions. As he said on Al Jazeera television, "I am on the offensive because attack is the best form of defense. We are waging an offensive battle."

The report went on to stress that in response to the Chavez threat and others, a number of U.S. officials are alarmed that terrorism is seen chiefly as a Middle East problem and that the U.S. must look south to protect itself. As an aside, two pipe bombs were just found at the U.S. Embassy in Caracas. These were apparently designed to spread the virtues of Hezbollah by pamphlet upon explosion.

While the report is chilling in its warning, there is still debate on how best to respond to its findings. Even among local members of Congress. U.S. Rep. John Culberson, R-Houston, seems to be of the mind-set that we need to respond directly and forcefully to these incursions along our border. While Rep. McCaul, the author of the report, also wants the U.S. and Mexican governments to take immediate action, he seems to want to dot every "i" and cross every "t," before making categorical charges.

Which man is right in his response to this frightening report? Both, if they get more of their fellow politicians and government officials to pay attention to this verifiable and growing danger.

It's the silly season in terms of the midterm election, but national security belongs to no party. Al-Qaida and its imitators dream about ways to infiltrate our nation. This report says they may have found the door. As Americans, we need to work together to seal it, or suffer the consequences.

MacKinnon was press secretary to former Sen. Bob Dole. He is also a former White House and Pentagon official and author of the forthcoming novel "America's Last Days."
This, by the way, is the same Hugo Chavez the US tried to depose at least once, and who has promised, again, to sell fuel oil as cheaply as possible to residents of Maine, and who also, if memory serves, offered money and aid to New Orleans in the aftermath of Katrina.

Clearly the man has no reason not to cooperate with this government, and knows no bounds in his devious attempts to undermine the Bush Administration and the US government. Aside from that, I'm sure this House report is as factual as the case made by Colin Powell for WMD in Iraq.

In defense of Hallowe'en

and contra my good friend across the pond; also because my memories of Hallowe'en are more like Ray Bradbury's than my daughter's are.

And because I can root around in the archives for seasonal commentary. But it is true, unfortunately: Hallowe'en isn't what it used to be.

Alternatively, you can remember that Martin Luther nailed his 95 theses to the Wittenburg church door on this date, in 1517. He was protesting church corruption. Wonder how one would protest cultural corruption today? Maybe by pointing out Hallowe'en isn't the worst that American culture has to offer.

ADDING: It didn't occur to me until just now that Hallowe'en is our vestigial Feast of Fools. I couldn't find a link for it, but the History Channel last night ran a brief video on efforts to "tame" Hallowe'en over the years. It was once a time of pranks and mischeif, some of it quite serious (may father still remembers it that way from his childhood). Candy, per the History Channel, was introduced in the '30's by candy makers partly to turn channel that mischief by giving treats for being good. And so it grew. But today, it is the one chance we all have to dress up and be someone else; or to mock politicians (Richard Nixon was the favorite of my adolescence, at least judging from the availability of the mask), or to be provocative (how often do women not on stage get to wear French maid or cat-suits?). It's always been a problem, keeping it from becoming dangerous or destructive. But it's one more indicator to me that we really aren't that different from our ancestors, and the more we try to be, the more we need some of their release from social norms.

Monday, October 30, 2006

Serendipity? Synchronicity?

Partly because I agree with Rick:

The gentleman in the originally-cited post is concerned that the Episcopal catechism, which seems to have been carefully drafted with modern sensibilities in mind, is offensive to his post-modern mind. He is looking to see if he can find any communion conformable to himself before forming his own denomination. I do not put him beyond God's mercy or the Church's welcome. But I think his attitude, a very common American one, perhaps the most common, is a stumbling block.
Rick Allen
Partly because I had some time to kill yesterday in the church library. Connecting nothing with nothing, as is my wont, I offer these observations.

Church libraries are like time capsules:

"Echoing Jesus' polemic against the religious institution of his day, Father James Kavanaugh presents a devastating yet deeply moving account of what pharisees and high priest have done in the church of our generation."--Father Gregory Baum, O.S.A.

"One of the most soul-searching and progressive statements I have read in years. It will move millions of hears and minds."--Rabbi Samuel M. Silver, National Chaplain, Jewish War Veterans

"Here is what millions have felt and desperately needed to be said. A superbly written and courageous book. It is the religious book of our generation. This book will move the world."--Mary Harrington Hall, Managing Editor, Psychology Today*

"It is the most powerful, most persuasive plea of this kind that I have ever read."--Rev. Richard C. Grant, Retired Professor, Union Theological Seminary

The book? A Modern Priest Looks at his Outdated Church, by Father James Kavanaugh (New York: Trident Press 1967) Yes, James Kavanaugh the poet. Apparently his poetry (no comment) had more impact on the world than his theological views. But the importance of hype in American culture is not really the point here (but it is the elephant in the room, isn't it? I'm intrigued by the call of humility of Christianity and the call to hyperbole of American culture, especially since we are "a Christian nation." But, as usual, I digress...) Kavanaugh obviously was not the Bishop Spong of his generation, and more than Bishop Spong speaks for any identifiable generation. What really struck me was how quaint things look from only a short distance.

3 years before publishing this book, as Kavanaugh himself admits in it, he published a pseudonymous article in The Saturday Evening Post (back when that was the magazine in America; even I still mourn its demise, though probably I shouldn't), about why he, a Catholic priest, should be allowed to marry. That one, of course, is still around; the controversy, I mean. It was the hype on the book jacket (quoted above) that really caught my attention. Clearly the more things change...

..Except things have changed. Another book on the shelf was a history of the Episcopal Church (to be clear, the one in America, not to be confused with the Anglican Communion). This I needed to read, so I sat down with it, and quickly found a reference to another book I'd just seen on the shelf (small world, indeed!): The Secular Meaning of the Gospel: An Original Enquiry, by Paul M. Van Buren. This title, the history book told me, had gained Van Buren some notoreity, not to say almost infamy, and gotten him dubbed a "death of God" theologian. As all of that was recent history for the history book, little more was said. But Van Buren's book, published in 1963, had a lot more to say.

In the introduction alone there are references to Rudolf Bultmann, Shubert Ogden (one of Bultmann's students), Martin Heidegger, and Ludwig Wittgenstein. This is a fairly serious attempt at theology for the non-theologian. Van Buren starts, as everyone did, wiht Bultmann's critique of theology by challenging modern humanity's ability to assimilate a 1st century world view in which heaven could be understand in terms of 7 ascending spheres and God's transcendence cannot be decribed in terms of the modern understanding of the world. To encapsulate this, he starts with a quote from Dietrich Bonhoeffer:

Honesty demands that we recognize that we must live in the world as if there were no God. And this is just what we do recognize--before God! God himself drives us to this realization.--God makes us know that we must live as men who can get along without Him. The God who is with us is the God who forsakes us (Mark 15:34)! We stand continually in the presence of the God who makes us live in the world without the God-hypothesis."
(Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Widerstand und Ergebung (Munich: Chr. Kaiser Verlag, 1951), p. 241, tr. Paul Van Buren, quoted in Paul M. Van Buren, The Secular Meaning of the Gospel (New York, The Macmillan Company 1963), p. 1.

You can see where the "Death of God" label came from. In fact, though I haven't studied it (it was considered obsolete shortly after it was labeled), this is probably where it started: with the Lutheran theologian who proclaimed the absolute necessity of discipleships and who plotted to kill Hitler. Ironies abound.

Van Buren represents the theologians of the 1960's who were concerned that "modernity" was leaving them behind. But, it turns out, the future isn't what it used to be. Part of that is attributable, in part no doubt, to faulty analysis. Despite the explicit reliance of Bultmann on Kierkegaard in the former's magnum opus, The Gospel of John, there is no mention of Kierkegaard in this book at all. Those studies were just about to break forth and institute changes Van Buren and the theologians of his time could not foresee. But the other cause is just as unforeseeable: these theologians, seeking to respond to reality, also sought to reshape it. So they pushed reality: and reality pushed back.

Some of that is just failure of vision. You can't read Niebuhr's work in the 1950's and catch even a glimmer of the Civil Rights movement, and while King clearly read Niebuhr in seminary (as Taylor Branch records), he doesn't often cite Niebuhr or Bonhoeffer in his speeches or letters, except to drive a point home to his fellow pastors about the importance of justice. No one who marched in the South was discussing the "Death of God" as a motivation for their activism. Neither, of course, would they have gone far listening to the Gospel as preached by Jerry Falwell or Joel Osteen. But the assumption that modern man was forged in the image of either Immanuel Kant (Van Buren mentions the Idealist philosophers of Germany) or phenomenology (Van Buren mentions Heidegger, but Sartre and Levinas and French phenomenology would soon rush the stage) or Anglo-American empiricism, simply hasn't proven true.

And that's the fight many of us are still fighting. Having chosen sides with either Dawkins-Dennett-Sam Harris, Spong-Crossan-Borg, or Falwell-Osteen-Dobson, we continue to fight over the "soul" of "modern humanity." But is that the fight at all? Given our propensity for hype and outrageous categorical statements, is perhaps the problem one of our own making?

*I can't help but note I think I read that encomium, in a review of Sam Harris' The End of Faith. Obviously going in a different direction, but basically the same idea.

What is Church for?

Lest this be buried below:

carry on.

This prompts an interesting set of considerations, apart from "Should this person be welcomed into this (i.e., The Episcopal) church?". The primary one is what distinction, if any, do we make between Christianity and religion? Is there one? Or is that a "dancer and the dance" question?

And more to the point: what is church for? Is it for spiritual nurture? Or the close agreement of like minds on essential subjects? And which subjects are essential? "In essentials, unity; in non-essentials, diversity; in all things, charity." How far, then, does charity (the KJV's translation for Paul's agape in 1 Corinthians) extend? Does love have no limits, no end?

Early morning finger in the air

Scout prime finds one.

The other is George Will:

Which brings us back to Iraq, which Patrick J. McDonnell of the Los Angeles Times covered for two years following the 2003 invasion. He recently returned. His Oct. 23 report ( "Into the Abyss of Baghdad") begins:

"I keep seeing his face. He appears to be in his mid-20s, bespectacled, slightly bearded, and somehow his smile conveys a sense of prosperity to come. Perhaps he is set to marry, or enroll in graduate school, or launch a business—all these flights of ambition seem possible. In the next few images he is encased in plastic: His face is frozen in a ghoulish grimace. Blackened lesions blemish his neck. 'Drill holes,' says Col. Khaled Rasheed, an Iraqi commander who is showing me the set of photographs."

Electric drills are the death squads' preferred instruments of torture. McDonnell:

"One evening I accompanied a three-Humvee convoy of MPs through largely Shiite east Baghdad ... The objective that evening was to patrol with Iraqi police, but the Iraqi lawmen are hesitant to be seen with Americans, whom they regard as IED [improvised explosive device] magnets. The joint patrol never worked out ... The next night, an armor-piercing bomb hit the same squad, Gator 1-2. A sergeant with whom I had ridden the previous evening lost a leg; the gunner and driver suffered severe shrapnel wounds."

For what?
And just a reminder: Hallowe'en is the eve of All Saint's Day.

Sunday, October 29, 2006

It's enough to make your pumpkin puke

As you might not have heard, the Red Cross has met with the 14 prisoners recently relocated from "black prisons" to Guantanamo Bay. What's in the US news is stuff like this:

Just days into the job, the Pentagon's new Southern Command chief made an overnight weekend visit to the U.S. Navy base at Guantanamo Bay - and declared captive conditions compatible with the Geneva Conventions.
and this:

What is your opinion of the Military Commissions Act that President Bush signed this month?

Renzi ­ It allows military prisoners to see the evidence against them. It sticks with the Geneva Convention. Pres. Bush doesn't decide what constitutes torture. Congress and the intelligence oversight committees can watch over the process, and they have a list of what's acceptable. The CIA must report on its interrogation techniques. It includes new standards about how fast a case must move through the military court system.

I've been to our military prison at Guantanamo Bay twice. The interrogators are trying to move people through the system. The Red Cross oversees conditions.

These prisoners shouldn't be entitled to habeas corpus.
Or maybe this:

The International Committee of the Red Cross said Thursday that an anti-terrorism law approved by President Bush last week undermines international humanitarian law.

ICRC President Jakob Kellenberger warned that the Military Commissions Act "disrupts" parts of the Geneva Conventions that are regarded as "elementary considerations of humanity."
But nothing so plain and direct as this:

SPIEGEL ONLINE: Mr. Suskind, the Red Cross recently visited all of the prisoners at Guantanamo who had been transferred from secret CIA prisons, including Khalid Shaikh Mohammed and Ramzi Binalshibh. Do we know more about these CIA prisons, or "Black Sites" as a result of this visit?

Suskind: We know that almost everything from the tool kit was tried: extraordinary techniques that included hot and cold water-boarding and threats of various kinds. We tried virtually everything with Binalshibh. But he was resistant, and my understanding of that interrogation is that we got very, very little from it. At one point, there was some thinking that we should put out misinformation that Binalshihb had been cooperative, he had received money and he was living in luxury. So that would mean that his friends and family, who obviously are known to al-Qaida, might face retribuition, and we ended up not doing that.

Suskind: He was really the prize. He is the 9/11 operational planner, a kind of general in the al-Qaida firmament. He was water-boarded, hot and cold, all matter of deprivations, beatings, threats. He told us some things, but frankly things that professional interrogators say could have been gotten otherwise.

SPIEGEL ONLINE: With waterboarding, the prisoner is made to feel as though he is drowing, even if he isn't really at risk of dying. There are reports that Mohammed was a kind of unoffical record-holder when it came to waterboarding.

Suskind: With extraordinary minutes passing he earned a sort of grudging respect from interrogators. The thing they did with Mohammed is that we had captured his children, a boy and a girl, age 7 and 9. And at the darkest moment we threatened grievous injury to his children if he did not cooperate. His response was quite clear: "That's fine. You can do what you want to my children, and they will find a better place with Allah."
This is why President Bush won't talk about "techniques" and the euphemism is "enhanced interrogation" and Vice-President Cheney thinks a little fake drowning to save a life (an unprovable assertion, of course) is a good thing. Because, in the deepest, most secret places, we've gone medieval on the enemy. But here, as they say, is the money quote:

Suskind: ... yes, and without paying this terrific price, namely: America's moral standing. We poured plenteous gasoline on the fires of jihadist recruitment.

SPIEGEL ONLINE: So the average interrogator at a Black Site understands more about the mistakes made than the president?

Suskind: The president understands more about the mistakes than he lets on. He knows what the most-skilled interrogators know too. He gets briefed, and he was deeply involved in this process from the beginning. The president loves to talk to operators.
Bush has never denied knowing what the techniques are. He's never denied knowing what's being done, or approving it. He's just played games, insisting that what we do isn't torture.

Now, it appears, the Red Cross says otherwise. But good luck finding that out before the first Tuesday in November.

Saturday, October 28, 2006

In Advance of Halloween

and now that Blogger is working, and because I keep posting this picture,

I want to direct you to this picture.

Please carry on with the more serious ecclesiastical discussion below. This one's just for fun (although I haven't made my jack o'lantern yet....)

Wednesday, October 25, 2006

"All hail the mighty state"

The "front page" lede read:

For many patients with chronic diseases, it would be cheaper to provide free preventive care than to absorb the high cost of repeated emergencies.
So naturally I was intrigued. Was economics finally triumphing over plain greed? Were the champions of market forces right, and bottom-line thinking would finally start lifting the smallest, least sea-worthy boats, as a matter of efficiency?

So I read on:

Unable to afford health insurance, Dee Dee Dodd had for years been mixing occasional doctor visits with clumsy efforts to self-manage her insulin-dependent diabetes, getting sicker all the while.

In one 18-month period, Ms. Dodd, 38, was rushed almost monthly to the emergency room, spent weeks in the intensive care unit and accumulated more than $191,000 in unpaid bills.

That is when nurses at the Seton Family of Hospitals tagged her as a “frequent flier,” a repeat visitor whose ailments — and expenses — might be curbed with more regular care. The hospital began offering her free primary care through its charity program.

With the number of uninsured people in the United States reaching a record 46.6 million last year, up by 7 million from 2000, Seton is one of a small number of hospital systems around the country to have done the math and acted on it. Officials decided that for many patients with chronic diseases, it would be cheaper to provide free preventive care than to absorb the high cost of repeated emergencies.

With patients like Ms. Dodd, “they can have better care and we can reduce the costs for the hospital,” said Dr. Melissa Smith, medical director of three community health centers run by Seton, a Roman Catholic hospital network that uses its profits and donations to provide nearly free care to 5,000 of the working poor. Over the last 18 months, Ms. Dodd’s health has improved, and her medical bills have been cut nearly in half.
The large print giveth, the small print taketh away. I have to admit up front I have a soft spot for Seton Hospital: my daughter was born there. That's the extent of my contact with it, but I'm not surprised it has a charitable desire. The order founded by Elizabeth Seton is, after all, the "Sisters of Charity." But that's as far as this charity goes. It's offered by a handful of public hospitals and some private ones, like Seton. Thus do we care for the poor, the widow and the orphan, in this "Christian" nation.

And, of course, even Seton is a business (I think again of bluemeadow's reference to Walter Wink), and is doing this because it is good for their business, not solely because it is good for the people involved. Which, actually, is what Christianity is supposed to be about: not what's good for me, but what's good for you. Try as we might (and we don't try hard), we keep missing that target.

Still, I suppose, better than a poke in the eye with a sharp stick. Which is what we offer most poor, ill people in this country. And this is still Texas, after all:

[O]nly a fraction of the uninsured, in Central Texas and in most other states, are benefiting. “All these local efforts are commendable, but they are like sticking fingers in the dikes,” Ms. Davis of the Commonwealth Fund said, noting that the larger trend was hospitals’ seeking to avoid the uninsured.

Nowhere is the problem more acute than in Texas, where nearly a quarter of the population is uninsured, the nation’s highest rate. Small businesses here are unlikely to offer benefits, and the state government’s unusually stringent restrictions on Medicaid for adults leave many of the working poor at risk.

Even without counting the large immigrant population, Texas has the country’s highest share of uninsured, at 21 percent, according to the Center for Public Policy Priorities in Austin.

“All the hospitals here provide some uncompensated care, and they are eating it and passing the costs along to the payers,” said Patricia A. Young Brown, president of the Travis County Healthcare District, which was set up last year to oversee care of the indigent through public clinics, drawing on property taxes to pay.

“So insurance rates go up, and then more businesses drop insurance,” Ms. Young Brown continued, describing a trend unfolding nationwide. “It’s hard to see where it will end. We hear a cry for national and state leadership.”
Is this the place to point out that the cry of the widow, the orphan, the prostitute and the beggar, was the cry Jesus gave voice to? Is this the place to remind everyone how "Christian" Texas is, how many Baptists we have per square mile, about the "mega churches" we have, some with four and five campuses?

In March 2005, Ms. Martinez, a Seton patient, was found to have liver cancer. She was put on Medicaid, applied for federal disability and was put in line for a liver transplant, without which, doctors said, she had six months to two years to live. Through the summer of 2005, she made the hour-and-a-half drive from her home to San Antonio for preparatory tests.

That August, she was awarded disability payments of $561 a month. But because her income surpassed the $535 limit for Medicaid in her circumstances, she said, she was told by the state that her coverage had ended, and the hospital said it could not proceed with a transplant.

“I asked Social Security if they couldn’t just reduce my payments by $30 a month,” she said, “but they said it doesn’t work that way.”

In another twist, by federal rules, she will qualify for Medicare two years after the initial finding of disability. She awaits the start of Medicare coverage next March, when she can rejoin the transplant line.

In Texas, as throughout the country, the coverage of poor children through Medicaid and related programs expanded greatly over the last decade. But a majority of states do not provide Medicaid to parents making even poverty-line incomes, and Texas is one of the least generous: here, a working parent of two does not qualify for coverage if he or she makes more than $3,696 in a year, leaving people like Ms. Dodd to fend for themselves.
When I was a lawyer, I actually had to counsel a woman, a devout Christian, to divorce her husband so she could qualify for Medicare payments. She had to divest herself of enough property and income to get the payments to pay for her chronic condition. The divorce, of course, was on paper only, but she still felt like she was "living in sin." I would like to say this is all because of a political party, or an Administration in Washington.

But clearly, it isn't.

Jeffrey, we hardly knew what ye hit us with...

Houston is remembering the legacy of Enron with the sentencing of Jeffrey Skilling this week. Too bad so few people in Houston read the New York Times, or are paying attention to the real legacy of Enron:

After the Texas Legislature, urged by Enron and big industrial customers, voted to make electricity generation a competitive business, the utility serving the Houston area sold 60 power plants that generate most of the power for the area to four investment firms — the Texas Pacific Group, the Blackstone Group, Kohlberg Kravis Roberts and Hellman & Friedman — which soon resold the plants at the $5 billion profit.

But state regulators have ordered electricity customers to pay an average of $4.75 monthly for 14 years to finish paying for the construction of the power plants, plus interest.

And the utility that sold the plants, Centerpoint, is suing for even higher payments from customers. Houston-area consumers now pay among the highest electricity rates, nearly double the national average.
When I lived in Austin, we notoriously paid high electricity rates because the City owned the power generating equipment. This was prudent, actually, since the State owned much of the prime downtown real estate (and not a small portion outside of downtown), which the City couldn't tax. So it collected money via electricity rates. Actually, by the time I left Austin, rates were fairly competitive.

Now, thanks to deregulation, the rates in Austin are cheaper than the rates in Houston.

But unfortunately, that's not making any news in the gubernatorial race, or in the state legislative races. And high electricity rates, like sales taxes (Texas depends on sales and property taxes, largely, for state income), are incredibly regressive. My electric bill has jumped almost 50%, even though I use no more than I did last year.

I hate to think what those rates are doing to the poor and the janitors living on minimum wage.

Tuesday, October 24, 2006

Learning from Candide

Mimi stings me where I need to be stung, r@d@r thanks me when I need a bit of thanks. So I'll shove this one out of the nest and get back to more useful considerations. Someone wrote me to ask if the "torture bill" had broken me. No, it wasn't that; or not that alone. It was everything and nothing; it was left blogistan and preaching last Sunday. It was simply reality, and my response to it. So, continuing (and completing) the sad spectacle of commenting on my own comments (or just expanding my point), consider the Gulf Coast and New Orleans.

What happened to it?

The electorate is supposedly voting on Iraq. Or they are voting for accountability, which leads back to Iraq. But what about New Orleans? What about the Gulf Coast? Who speaks for them? If I want to register my concern for the cities, for the towns, for the people, the displaced, the homeless, the poor, the newly-impoverished, for whom do I vote?

It was power that put them in those places of vulnerabilty, power that made them still more vulnerable. The power of oil and gas corporations, eating away the wet lands of Louisiana. The power of commerce, forcing the marginalized onto the Gulf shores and exposing them to the vagaries of nature. Power that now ignores their plight and wishes them well and hopes they can recover, but basically has no interest in whether they do or not because, after all, it doesn't serve the interests of power to see that they do. It was power that forced poor blacks to stay in the Ninth Ward and to stay behind in the flooding and to sit waiting for days on their rooftops, or surrounded by high water, or helpless in the Super Dome. It was power that ignored them, until finally power was forced to respond. And it is the irony that those who wielded the power are now paying the price for their malfeasance and misfeasance and just plain incompetence. But power is not restoring New Orleans and the Gulf Coast. People are doing that, despite the indifference of power.

For whom do I vote, then? Who speaks for the powerless of New Orleans, of the coast of Louisiana and Mississippi? Who speaks for justice for the loss of an entire American city? Isn't this what we are supposed to fear, that terrorists will get a bomb into this country capable of destroying an entire city, of rendering it virtually uninhabitable? One of the greatest cities on earth was destroyed, rendered almost unlivable, and what is our system of political power doing about it? Which seems to be greater for us? The abstraction of fear, or the reality of New Orleans?

I'm tired of dealing with abstractions. I cannot decide who wins the Senate race in Connecticut. I don't even have a vote in the matter. I cannot decide who controls the Congress. I'm no longer convinced it will make any difference. I will vote for the Democrats because I despise what the GOP has become. I agree with Bill Curry, this is definitely the time to vote the party, not the candidate. But I also agree with Wendell Berry: I must think locally, and more importantly, act locally.

All my grand sweeping theoretical pronouncements about how things ought to be in matters far beyond my control are just wind, just legend and song, and of no matter whatsoever. I am tired of straining at gnats and swallowing camels. New Orleans and the Gulf Coast shame us all, and none of us are even looking anymore (well, almost none of us). It is time I did what I could where I can, because that is all I can do. I can't do any more.

Mimi, I'm ready for that support group now.

Just to drive this right into the ground

(because I'm stinking up the comments at Eschaton with this topic, and causing concern among the regulars there, bless 'em), do we really expect this to change in January?

I’m at the Center for American Progress, listening to Sid Blumenthal and Glenn Greenwald talk about the Imperial Presidency, and one thing is important enough for me to want to live blog. Sid says that Wilkerson, Powell’s old chief of staff, believes that the correct number of victims in secret Bush prisons is 35,000, only 5% of which “may” have to do with terrorism. More than twice what I thought, and hardly any to do with the “war on terror.”
(link courtesy of Holden)

Assuming that number is anywhere close to right, who wants to bet against the house that any "detainees" will be released before 2008? And assuming a Democratic President in '08, how late into that year before the releases start? How late into '09? How late into that Administration, before the prisons are empty?

Anybody? Bueller? Ferris Bueller?

Tell me where I'm being unreasonable here. Tell me how this isn't Wounded Knee, or the Trail of Tears, or the Japanese Internment Camps, but this time, we've gone global. Tell me I'm wrong. Please. I'm begging you.

And tell me how we get rid of the 12 Democratic Senators who effectively voted for this, and replace them with people who understand the concept of rule of law, and human rights, and simple decency.

"The Gruel of Fear"

That said, I have to say, Keith Olberman is good.

Very, very good.

The other stuff available there is good, too. I especially recommend the "Stay the Course" video, while it's still visible at the video link (watch Keith; it's even better than reading his words).

Told you I was a political junkie. And I can quit whenever I want to.

The "Daisy" ad, for those too young (or old) to remember. I, for one, had forgotten that Johnson paraphrased Auden in that ad; or that everyone in the ad seemed to have a Texas accent. Which is scary in its own right.

Swan Song 2.0: The End of the Affair (Redux)

Politics is an addiction. I freely admit it.

"My name is Robert. I'm a political junkie."

Back in the day, before I made a daily practice of feeding my habit, instead of reacting to the latest news, I thought about things like this. Maybe not the most stirring meditation or the most insightful commentary, but certainly different enough from what usually gets posted in left blogistan to be of some interest. Certainly something more worthy of my time and (negligible) talents.

But politics is an addiction; and if there is no support group to take me through recovery, it's simply time to go cold turkey.

Politics is a dead end, for a spiritual seeker. Politics is about power, pure and simple. Politics is about selecting the lesser of two evils, the least offensive of two parties. Politics is not even about justice, the golden thread that runs through the Hebrew Scriptures and the New Testament. Politics is about control. My faith is about giving up control. My faith is rooted in the demand for justice. My faith is practically antithetical to politics.

Consider the present situation: the Senate passed the Military Commissions Act of 2006 with the votes of 12 Democrats. To use President Bush's favorite phrase, support for that bill is simply unacceptable. Torture is reprehensible. There is no excuse for voting for it. But 12 Democratic Senators did. What do I do to express my outrage, my disgust, my dissent? Support their GOP opponents? And that yields me what? So I compromise, yield on my principals, accept the lesser of two evils? And why? For power?

Yes, for power. Purely and simply, for power. There is no other reason, no other excuse. Because someone has to wield power, and I should always accept the lesser of two evils to see that is done. Except I don't.

This isn't a naive choice. This isn't a choice based on foolish expectations that somehow the "universal mind" will come nearer to fruition if I just keep voting for the least offensive party, if I keep challenging the current status quo. I'm perfectly happy to see the power-greedy monkeys of the GOP get knocked off their perch. But I'd be just as happy if those monkeys were Democrats, and I'm not so naive as to believe only the GOP is capable of such abuses of power. Certainly theirs tend to be more militaristic, but 12 Democratic Senators have proven they can be just as "tough," just as militaristic. And that leaves me with no party to support anymore.

I wish I could believe the status quo would change come November. I wish I could believe that in January, with the swearing in of a new Congress, that this nightmare would be swept away, that the Augean stables of Washington, D.C. would be cleansed. But all that I can realistically expect is the stable hands will be given new uniforms; and that simply isn't good enough. I wish I could believe that in 2008 a new Thomas Jefferson would be inaugurated, who would sweep away the cobwebs of the Military Commission Act of 2006, and Abu Ghraib, and Gitmo, and secret prisons, with the antiseptic of sunlight and habeas corpus and respect for law and constitutional governance: but I see no one of that stature in the Democratic party. Instead I see the "Holy Trinity" of Joe Biden, Hillary Clinton, and Barack Obama (already being crowned "king" by Joe Klein, the man who would be kingmaker, largely because Obama has written (or had written) yet another book) being declared the leaders of the Democratic party. And I see no change in the Democratic party, anymore than voters do. The Democrats are winning, not on any platform for change or destruction of the reprehensible and unacceptable status quo, but simply on party status: "We aren't the GOP!" is all that's really drawing voters to the Democratic side. And what challenge to the status quo is that?

Niebuhr's reference to those who seek power is applicable here:

In each case they identified all evil with the type of power from which they suffered and which they did not control; and they regarded particular sources of particular social evils as the final source of all evil in history.
He speaks to all of left blogistan, even to those who would wield power with what they are sure is the best interests of the powerless, in mind. The struggle for power can't help but break down into an "us v. them" zero-sum game, where the evil we most clearly identify is not our evil, but theirs. Except the evil "we" identify in "them" is always the weakness in ourselves, the powerlessness we are most keenly aware of, and therefore most sure is the greatest power our enemy has, and if we just controlled it, all would be well, or certainly much better. But that is precisely why Jesus said you see the splinter in your brother's eye, but can't see the log in your own. What you see is a reflection. It is your own weakness you wish to overcome, by laying claim to the reins of power.

But the paradox of Christianity, is the power of powerlessness. Power doesn't exist to serve you. Power is the ultimate master. It always and only serves its own ends, which are merely to exert power as fully as possible. Christians, especially, are called to be servants, servants of all. We cannot be servants to each other, however, if we are servants to power. We surely cannot serve two masters.

Niebuhr addresses this, too, though I would say he lacks the courge of his convictions to take the matter to the sticking point. For a former Detroit pastor who courageously took on labor issues, I sometimes think Neibuhr betrays the comfort of his later years as a professor in a seminary, and prefers the struggle with abstract concepts which, after all, can't really struggle back, or the debate over foreign policy issues which, after all, can never be one person's responsibility, especially a seminary professor's, to the personal quotidian struggles of a pastor, of individuals:

The liberal world has always oscillated between the hope of creating perfect men by eliminating the sources of social evil and the hope of so purifying human "reason" by educational techniques that all social institutions would gradually become the bearers of a universal human will, informed by a universal human mind.
Those words, too, could apply to left blogistan, both the atheists and the religious. Substitute "left blogistan" for "liberal world," and you have a very contemporary observation, indeed. If everyone would just think like us, then all would be well and all manner of thing would be well, and if we don't work toward that end, we are not working for justice! But it isn't, of course, nearly that simple. The struggle against injustice, as Dr. King understood, is not a political matter, not a matter of gaining the support of a majority through compromise and collaboration. As Dr. King outlined it to the pastors of Birmingham, Alabama: "In any nonviolent campaign there are four basic steps: collection of the facts to determine whether injustices exist; negotiation; self-purification; and direct action." And as he says:

We have gone through an these steps in Birmingham. There can be no gainsaying the fact that racial injustice engulfs this community. Birmingham is probably the most thoroughly segregated city in the United States. Its ugly record of brutality is widely known. Negroes have experienced grossly unjust treatment in the courts. There have been more unsolved bombings of Negro homes and churches in Birmingham than in any other city in the nation. These are the hard, brutal facts of the case. On the basis of these conditions, Negro leaders sought to negotiate with the city fathers. But the latter consistently refused to engage in good-faith negotiation.

Then, last September, came the opportunity to talk with leaders of Birmingham's economic community. In the course of the negotiations, certain promises were made by the merchants --- for example, to remove the stores humiliating racial signs. On the basis of these promises, the Reverend Fred Shuttlesworth and the leaders of the Alabama Christian Movement for Human Rights agreed to a moratorium on all demonstrations. As the weeks and months went by, we realized that we were the victims of a broken promise. A few signs, briefly removed, returned; the others remained.

As in so many past experiences, our hopes bad been blasted, and the shadow of deep disappointment settled upon us. We had no alternative except to prepare for direct action, whereby we would present our very bodies as a means of laying our case before the conscience of the local and the national community. Mindful of the difficulties involved, we decided to undertake a process of self-purification. We began a series of workshops on nonviolence, and we repeatedly asked ourselves : "Are you able to accept blows without retaliating?" "Are you able to endure the ordeal of jail?" We decided to schedule our direct-action program for the Easter season, realizing that except for Christmas, this is the main shopping period of the year. Knowing that a strong economic with with-drawal program would be the by-product of direct action, we felt that this would be the best time to bring pressure to bear on the merchants for the needed change.
It is the last part of that which is the most important to me: the process of self-purification. "Are you able to accept blows without retaliating? Are you able to endure the ordeal of jail?" Well, are we? When do we decide that is false civility? How much humility is too much humility? When does love come to an end?

These are not simple questions; but they are deeply and profoundly, Christian questions. That is not to say they are not Jewish questions as well, or Muslim questions, Buddhist questions, Hindu questions. I can only speak from my Christian perspective, but I don't mean to be exclusive about it; I mean only to be honest about my limitations.

And my limits with politics have been reached. I cannot effectively oppose the use of torture by Americans any longer because I cannot vote for an alternative to the legalization of torture. Which is not to overlook the legacy of the School of the Americas, which taught D'Aubisson and the rapist of Marianela Garda Vilas, the murderers of Maura Clarke, Ita Ford, Jean Donovan, and Dorothy Kazel. But where do I turn, now, to undo that legacy? Who, indeed, stands against it? Which politician stands for justice against injustice, for truth against lies, for life against death?

Which politician can, and remain a politician?

Martin Luther King never campaigned for a political candidate. He never saw his movement as one aligned with either political party. LBJ was right; the Civil Rights Act he signed gave the South to the GOP for the foreseeable future. So be it; LBJ did the right thing. But politicians since have learned the lesson. Obama, Clinton, Biden: what do they stand for, except the status quo? As I said elsewhere, to someone else:

Politicians will always use religion, or any other cultural institution, to effect power. Some effect power for good ends, like LBJ. Some for bad ends, like George W. Bush. Using religion to achieve a political end is no more remarkable than exploiting a national tragedy. If it is more common, it is simply because it is more available.

But religion in politics is the rub. Hoping Democrats will be kinder and gentler abusers of politics seems a faint hope indeed. Better they should leave it alone, in that case. Expecting them to use it well is equally bizarre, especially if they try to expand "religion" to include something other than Protestant Christianity (do you really see another John Kerry appealing to fellow Catholics by citing doctrine?). At that point it becomes pandering all over again. What does any American politician know of Islam, Buddhism, or even just Greek Orthodox or Russian Orthodox? And if they proclaimed their personal knowledge of another religion publicly, wouldn't they be a political freak? Joe Lieberman wears his Judaism on his sleeve when it serves his purpose, much as Bush goes to church to show off his piety (who started that in modern times anyway, Carter? Don't remember LBJ or Kennedy or even Nixon going to church while in office.) But he's never let any tenet of Judaism get in the way of his political aims. John Danforth is an Episcopal priest; but that didn't stop him from pushing Clarence Thomas onto the Supreme Court.

Which makes them no worse than the rest of us. But there's the rub: religion is supposed to make us better, else what's the point? Upon further consideration, is the relationship between religion and politics necessary? It was always assumed in American history, but that's largely because it went unchallenged, which was the point of my history lesson . Once the challenge took root in the public square, once someone took separation of church and state seriously, the political troubles started. Religion is part and parcel of American culture, but then so is the Jeffersonian separation of state and church. Not much reliance on God in the salient points of Jefferson's 1st Inaugural, but he says a whole lot I'd like to hear emphasized right now, and I wouldn't mind hearing the Democrats doing it.

Gustavo Gutierrez went to some lengths to deliberately disentangle his "liberation theology" from competing secular ideologies like Marxism and sociology, so as to keep his work grounded in doing God's will. I just have to say, I think he had a point.

But that's hardly news, is it?
That's a resolve I hope to cling to, now. A reliance on discerning God's will, not on discerning the subtle differences between political parties.

Monday, October 23, 2006

"Man the master, ingenious past all measure"--Sophocles

The liberal culture has been informed by similar hopes since the eighteenth century. It has been as impatient as Marxism with the seeming limitations of human wisdom in discerning the total pattern of destiny in which human actions take place, and the failure of human power to bring the total pattern under the dominion of the human will. "If man can predict with almost complete certainty," asked Condorcet, "the phenomena of which he knows the laws, if...from the experience of the past he can forecast with such probability the events of the future, why should one regard it is a chimerical undertaking to trace with some likeness the future destiny of the human species in accordance with the facts of history?" Condorcet was not only certain the future could be known but that he knew it. "Our hopes for the future state of the human species," he continued, "may be reduced to three important points: the destruction of inequality between nations, the progress of equality among the common people, and the growth of man toward perfection" required no more than that "the vast distance which divides the most enlightened people...such as the French and the Anglo-Americans" from those people who are "in servitude to kings" should "gradually disappear."

Obviously the idea of the abolition of the institution of monarchy as the most important strategy for the redemption of mankind was characteristic of the peculiar prejudices of middle-class life as the idea of the abolition of the institution of property was of the unique viewpoint of the propertyless proletariat. In each case they identified all evil with the type of power from which they suffered and which they did not control; and they regarded particular sources of particular social evils as the final source of all evil in history. Neither Condorcet, nor Comte in his subsequent elaborations of similar hopes, placed all their trust in this single strategy. The liberal world has always oscillated between the hope of creating perfect men by eliminating the sources of social evil and the hope of so purifying human "reason" by educational techniques that all social institutions would gradually become the bearers of a universal human will, informed by a universal human mind. These ambiguities, which have saved the Messianic dreams of the liberal culture from breeding the cruelties of communism, must be considered more fully presently. At the moment it is worth recording that the Frenchman, Condorcet, envisaged the French and the "Anglo-Americans" as the Messianic nations. Here we have in embryo what has become the ironic situation of our own day. The French Enlightenment consistently saw the American Revolution and the founding of the new American nation as a harbinger of the perfect world which was in the making. Though Comte, almost a century later, rigorously clung to the idea of French hegemony in the coming utopia and fondly hoped that French would be its universal language, France has fallen by the wayside as a nation with a Messianic consciousness, its present mood being characterized by extreme skepticism rather than apocalyptic hopes.

--Reinhold Niebuhr, The Irony of American History (New York: Charles Scribner's Sons 1952), pp. 66-68.

Though it doesn't appear strongly here, it is impossible to read Niebuhr on the irony of American history without reflecting on the irony of the history about to be made when he published these lectures, and which is wholly lacking even as a storm cloud on the horizon on his analysis.

Writing from the vantage point of 1952, Niebuhr is concerned with global conflicts, and concerned far less with justice than with order (which, in the classic American construction, proceeds from law. Contrast that with the end of Sophocles' "hymn to reason" in "Antigone," where law clearly comes from human endeavor (not Aquinas' "nature") and justice from the gods. By Niebuhr, we have neatly divorced the two, and law imposes order, which eventually gives rise to justice. It is that divorce that is the root of our modern problem, at least where Christian theology and politics are concerned.) Niebuhr goes so far as to state that Americans are not accustomed to using power, and so are unaccustomed to the abuses of power, a sentiment that would have been quite a surprise to the Native Americans (Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee) or African Americans (the Civil Rights Movement, which would begin only a few years after Neibuhr published this book), or even gay and lesbian Americans, who started their own effort for justice a few decades after Irony was published. And, of course, there is also the Church Commission Report; the revelation of the Tuskegee Experiments; the history of US involvement in Central and South America; even Twain's work denouncing US involvement in the Phillipines ("The War Prayer" is a direct response to that involvement). Not so long ago, I'd have cited that list and said "We will never be so innocent again" about Niebuhr's perspective. Now I'm convinced it's a permanent condition of American culture, something else I'm not sure Niebuhr saw.

There isn't a glimmer of any of those things in Niebuhr's analysis, which is perhaps the greatest irony of all. He is focussed solely on foreign affairs, and despite being the preacher from Detroit he always thought of himself as, missed entirely any anticipation of those justice issues. To further the irony, none of those movements had to do with party politics. They were political, in that they were taken that way. But King and the Civil Rights Movement and the American Indian Movement and the gay rights movement, were all concerned with justice, not political power. They did not associate themselves with a political party, the political parties eventually associated themselves with the movements. Perhaps the most effective one was the civil rights movement, which was grounded in Christianity, never sought politial party affiliation (King's break with the Vietnam War earned him a new round of enemies, including supporters of civil rights), and focussed solely on justice. Niebuhr, on the other hand, warned his own daughter about the dangers of a Republican administration.

Despite that, there is a great deal in this passage that speaks to our current situation, and even to the reaction to it in left blogistan. Niebuhr was right: "Modern democracy requires a more realistic philosophical and religious basis." It requires both, and I'm less and less convinced either of those are the province of a particular political party, or that the defeat of the worse party means the rise of the better party. Democrats, after all, are running right now pretty much on the platform of: "We're not the GOP!"

Which is not the same thing as saying they are an improvement; or that politics and faith truly live in a creative tension with one another. Politics, after all, is about winning power. Faith is about how one lives one's life. Religion and faith speak to the question of evil, which in turn encompasses the realm of politics.

And that perspective is the source of a very creative tension, indeed.

Three Four things that can make your head hurt

1) The sound of one hand clapping.

2) Can God make a rock so big and heavy God can't lift it?

3) What happens when our troops don't support our troops?

Turn out the lights, George. The party's over.

and the fourth? Tony Snow:

Q Tony, it seems what you have is not "stay the course." Has anybody told the President he should stop calling it "stay the course" then?

MR. SNOW: I don't think he's used that term in a while.

Q Oh, yes, he has, repeatedly.

MR. SNOW: When?

Q Well, in August, because I wrote a story saying he didn't use it -- and I was quite sternly corrected.

MR. SNOW: No, he stopped using it.

Q Why would he stop using it?

MR. SNOW: Because it left the wrong impression about what was going on. And it allowed critics to say, well, here's an administration that's just embarked upon a policy and not looking at what the situation is, when, in fact, it's just the opposite. The President is determined not to leave Iraq short of victory, but he also understands that it's important to capture the dynamism of the efforts that have been ongoing to try to make Iraq more secure, and therefore, enhance the clarification -- or the greater precision.

Q Is the President responsible for the fact people think it's stay the course since he's, in fact, described it that way himself?


Foundation for Contemporary Theology

I should have thought to promote this earlier, but bluemeadow tweaked my nose on it. I should have thought, because Bob Tucker is a friend of mine (and pastoral colleague) and is the driving force behind the Foundation. Also should have thought because I suppose I have a few Houston area visitors here (never considered it, really, until recently) and because my NT professor Steve Patterson is scheduled for a return visit, under the auspices of the Foundation (which, I think, is coming up in 2007, so not yet on their website, apparently).

Anyway, to the extent I have any local influence at all (an enormous "IF" indeed), take note.

The Lesson of World War II

Coincidentally, this morning, I woke up thinking about war again (well, that was no coincidence). NPR reported that we've been in Afghanistan for 5 years now, but the US Ambassador to that country assures us it was not a war of choice (oh, really?), and that it's complicated and we must not be impatient children, we must "stay the course" and see it through. Even though we're no longer a "stay the course" country (does it get any weirder than this?). And I began to wonder why all our wars since WWII have been long, complicated, drawn out affairs with no clear conclusion (don't cite Gulf War I as the counter-example; we're finishing that one, or trying to, now). And I thought about how WWII has become our touchstone war, the one that taught us the lessons about not letting evil take root in the world (I heard some people from Nebraska, retired people, of course, making that argument yet again on NPR over the weekend). I don't have an answer as to why those wars ended inconclusively, while WWII ended so decisively. But I do know the real lesson we took from it, and it wasn't the perils of appeasement or isolationism. It was the lesson of the Nazis: might makes right. And as the Ambassador and the President keep arguing: the only way to have order in society, is through the use of force. Which is also the way of the Nazis.

I and the public know
What all schoolchildren learn,
Those to whom evil is done
Do evil in return.

Auden wrote those words, and linked them to the events of September 1, 1939. Still assured of our innocence, we are still sure we can make the world right. Some of us even think politics can do it.

I'm going back to bed.

Sunday, October 22, 2006

Prior Aelred Speaks!

Well, actually, he sent me a link, and a review. Since it is available on-line, I'll just give you the review. It's a very good one, from the London Review of Books, on Dawkins' The God Delusion.

It's also an excellent review of mainstream Christian theology. I'd like to clip a copy of it and just attach it to my blog, for the rest of left blogistan to peruse.

UPDATE: Fresh straw from Dawkins (or probably just recycled). A prime example:

[Dawkins speculates on the impact of "scientific evidence" that Jesus was born of a virgin mother, as if such could exist, then goes on:] You can bet your boots that not just the fundamentalists but every professor of theology and every bishop in the land would trumpet the archeological evidence to the skies.

Either Jesus had a father or he didn't. The question is a scientific one, and scientific evidence, if any were available, would be used to settle it.
First: no, they wouldn't. We settled this issue in seminary, actually. The statement that Jesus was born of a virgin is a confessional one, not necessarily and essentially an empirical one (which is different from a scientific claim; Dawkins blurs distinctions with abandon). So, like "proof" that the Shroud of Turin was real, or rather the proof that it wasn't, wouldn't change the church at all.

As for his second claim, if he asserts that is a scientific claim, then he's a poorer scientist than I thought, and I stand even more firmly beside my critique of his "selfish gene" theory. Clearly the man doesn't even understand science, much less either religion or theology. But if he wants to base his argument on Gould's "NOMA," I'll see his NOMA and raise him Wittgenstein's "language games," a much more penetrating analysis of how we talk about things, and whether or not we can denigrate another person's beliefs based on not sharing their understanding of what the words refer to. As Terry Eagleton says: "Only positivists think that ‘rational’ means ‘scientific.’" Considering how thoroughly Wittgenstein (and Godel) ended the logical positivists (described as the only philosophical school that actually came to an end. Russell abandoned it for anti-war protests, Whitehead followed Wittgenstein into quasi-mysticism, the rest faded away in to obscurity), it's little surprise Dawkins doesn't take on one of the greatest philosophers of the 20th century.

Or a real theologian, for that matter.

Shameless Self-Promotion as Evangelism

Because there was a visitor today, and because blogs are all about shameless self-promotion, and despite the fact sermons seldom "read" as well as they "sound," here is the "long version" of what was delivered this morning. It probably sounds mostly familiar, to be honest.

The scriptures were: Isaiah 52:4-12; Hebrews 4:12-16; and Mark 10: 35-45.

"Children, how difficult it is to enter God’s domain! It’s easier for a camel to squeeze through a needle’s eye, than for a wealthy person to get into God’s domain!" No, I know, that’s last week’s Gospel reading. But it’s really where this gospel story starts: with the lesson about how difficult it is for the rich to get into heaven. The lesson leaves the disciples perplexed; but James and John, the sons of Zebedee, think they have it figured out, and if it’s easier for a poor man to get into the kingdom of heaven, they figure they’ve got it made, so they jump ahead of the others in order to get first dibs on the best place. When I was a kid in high school driving around with my friends we called it "riding shotgun," and the first person to yell "Shotgun!" was supposed to be designated by the driver as the lone passenger in the front seat. Those were the rules; that’s how it was done; that was justice; or at least fairness. If you called "shotgun" first, the driver had to honor your claim and let you in the front seat.

So here are James and John calling "shotgun," and the rest of the disciples get mad because that means they have to ride in the backseat. But it isn’t as simple as that, either. Jesus tells them they don’t know what they are asking, but you can see them look at each other and say: "Uh, yeah, we do!" And Jesus says, "Well, can you drink the cup I’ll drink from, or undergo the baptism I’ll undergo?" And before someone can warn them to be careful what they ask for, because they might get it, they say: "Yeah, sure, we can do that!" And Jesus says: "Okay, then you will. But where you end up is not up to me. Those places are already reserved." And before they can ask him what that means, the disciples are on them, mad that nobody even told ‘em they were going anywhere, and they didn’t get a chance to call shotgun, and no fair anyway, and what’s goin’ on, we’re still tryin’ to figure out that one about the rich guy and the camel. And Jesus, being Jesus, just doesn’t let up. But here’s the secret about it; here’s the main point, the single golden thread running through all the gospels, running through all the teachings of Jesus and Paul and all the holy scriptures, and running right through the last story from Mark into this one: it’s all about the power of powerlessness.

Think about it a moment: Jesus is God, and God can do anything, but Jesus can’t say who will sit at his right hand and at his left, the positions of greatest distinction. Why can’t he say? Who are those places reserved for, and who reserved them, if not Jesus? But the way he talks those reservations are out of his hands. Maybe he’s just being coy; maybe he just doesn’t want to tell them they’re too late, that "shotgun" has already been decided, and they didn’t call it soon enough. Maybe. But I don’t think so.

Because it’s about what he says next, and about what Isaiah says. That’s an odd text to our ears, the words from Isaiah. We’re used to that language in Lent. "O Sacred Head How Wounded." "Surely he has borne our griefs and carried our sorrows." Those are Lenten themes; not words for the middle of October, for the season of Pentecost. But they fit in perfectly here: they complete the sense of reversal Jesus has already begun.

That beautiful passage in Isaiah is all about reversal, about something done that undoes: "the chastisment he bore restored us to health and by his wounds we are healed." Ponder on that for a moment, for it is a great mystery. It is the wounds that heal us. This is one of the classic reversals of Isaiah, he of the springs in the desert and the straight highway in the wilderness, of the low places made level and the high places brought low. A little later in his book, he will invite us to buy food without money, purchase wine without price. His favorite image is the signs of life God brings out of lifeless places, is how God reverses and upends our expectations, how everything we think we know, is wrong. And this time he turns his vision on the suffering servant, the one who, like the life in the desert and the leveling of the wilderness, brings release by captivity, eternity by mortality, victory by being utterly defeated. Isaiah is our great prophet proclaiming the power of powerlessness, of the awesome reversal of all we think we know that is the true power and sign of the presence of God. And this time he makes it personal. This time it’s the one who is despised and of no account who is raised up by God, who presents the reversal of all we have expected.. Not the rich man; not the beautiful movie star; not the successful business leader. The one no one else wanted anything to do with, the one with no authority, no power whatsoever, the one who accepts it all in order to be a servant to all. Yes, that one; the one Jesus is talking about. The one who drank from the cup and suffered the baptism James and John have just agreed to. You can almost see them standing there, and if they could hear this, and make the connection, they’d start reconsidering what it was they said they would do. Too late, though; the choice is made.

But that isn’t a bad thing; because our hope is in that reversal. Our hope is not in the victory, but in the defeat; our hope is not in the one so powerful he will save us all, but in the one so powerless he is willing to die for us all. Our hope is not in overcoming, our hope is in being found worthy because of our willingness to place service above everything else we know, to make service the reason for everything we do. Our hope is in the reversal of what we expect. If our hope was only in our gain, we would reach a point where all we could expect was to hold tenaciously to what we had, to keep it "ours" for as long as we could, to protect it against all other claimants and cry "no fair!" to the driver when someone else claimed to right to ride shotgun. We have to restore our claim to priority over and over and over again, and it takes all our energy, and we can never be certain we’ll prevail again. That condition is permanent.

But also permanent is the condition of others; also permanent is that we can always be of service to others. And there is no competition there, no risk of loss, no concern that we will lose our place of privilege. There is no privilege in service, except that we get to model Christ, and we get to serve the Christ, and by service we become more like Christ. We, too, will drink the cup and undergo the baptism of our Lord and Savior. But that is because we will not be in charge of others, but in service to others. There is no privilege in service, except that in service, we do as God did. In service, we model the Creator of the Universe. And our energy is used in help, not holding on; in giving, not gain. It is the paradox of the powerless, that, letting go of power, we have all the power we will ever need.

This is the word of God the letter to the Hebrews is talking about; the word of God that is alive and active, that cuts more keenly than any two-edged sword, that separates soul and spirit, joint and marrow, that discriminates among the purposes and the thoughts of the heart. It is the bottom line, we say, that matters; it is the outcome, not the intent, sometimes not even the action. Because at the bottom, is where everything happens to everybody. At the bottom, among the servants, is where we find God. Because at the bottom, God serves everyone, and at the bottom, is where we serve and honor God. It is the reverse of what the world teaches, of those who supposedly rule over foreigners.

Our hope is in reversal. Our hope is in the fact that everything we know is wrong. Our hope is in the power of powerlessness. Our hope is not in power. God is all powerful because God is powerless. No, not powerless, but acts without power. God reverses everything we know. God tells us to race, not for the top, but for the bottom. The top is ephemeral, it is false; it is a place only in legend and song. The bottom is where we all are, and where we never rise from. When you are #1, the only way to go is down. Go down, then, because #1 is not the first, but the last; not the ruler, but the servant. Amen.

Saturday, October 21, 2006

Interesting times

Reading Antigone again, and it is impossible to read these words and not think of the GOP:

Man the master, ingenious past all measure
past all dreams, the skills within his grasp--
he forges on, now to destruction
now again to greatness. When he weaves in
the laws of the land, and the justice of the gods
that binds his oaths together
he and his city rise high--
but the city casts out
that man who weds himself to inhumanity
thanks to reckless daring. Never share my hearth
never think my thoughts, whoever does
such things.
The conventional wisdom is that the Democrats will take the House, but not the Senate. However, the conventional wisdom a few months ago was that no GOP incumbent could be defeated, and only a handful of seats were in play. I"m not saying, either, that the Democrats will necessarily weave the justice of the gods into the laws of the land. But the public mood certainly does seem to have shifted toward the last lines of that chorus: "Never share my hearth/never think my thought, whoever does/such things."

Katrina. Abu Ghraib. Iraq. Guantanamo. Habeas corpus. Some pieces loom larger than others, but ultimately it is all of a piece. There may be no Antigone in this public drama, but there is certainly a Creon who has overplayed his hand, and done so just as badly as the fictional king. Creon is a nervous, suspicious, insecure ruler who throws away all the respect for his authority he intends to garner, precisely because of his fear and his insecurity. He ends by nearly taking the kingdom down with him, all because he is the one who weds himself to inhumanity. It looks more and more like George W. Bush is going to bring down the GOP.

What is disturbing is how much the situation resembles a Greek tragedy.

Friday, October 20, 2006

Friday Morning Document Dump & Movie Review

The news-related posts have piled up in the past 24 hours as I've been devoting creative energies to the sermon. So the three posts this morning are part of the document dump for the day, coming in rapid succession because the weekend is the busiest time of the week around here. Consider them in whatever way you wish to.

I have to digress, however, and say that, seeing the ads for it, I wasn't too thrilled by Clint Eastwood's latest offering, "Flags of our Fathers." Everything about it screamed "Hollywood jingoism/patriotism!", all neatly wrapped up in a WWII ("The GOOD War!") package. Well, according to the interview I just heard on NPR, the director of "Unforgiven" (which I have seen) and "Million Dollar Baby" (which I still haven't; please don't write in to chastise me) does not disappoint, and has not reverted to Hollywood war movie form. Indeed, he's got another film coming out in a few months about the same battle, from the Japanese point of view. As he tells Steve Inskeep, he wanted to humanize an enemy who was seen as demonic during the war. Both films, then, are about the power and perils of war propaganda.

I wonder if the GOP is going to claim this, too, was coordinated by Soros and the Democrats.

I know it when I see it

I would make this an update, but it goes on a bit on its own, so let's consider it here. Bush on torture, via Froomkin:

O'Reilly: " But if the public doesn't know what torture is or is not, as defined by the Bush Administration, how can the public make a decision on whether your policy is right or wrong? "

Bush's ducking of such an important question, it seems to me, is highly newsworthy. Here's the president's response, in its entirety:

Bush: "Well, one thing is that you can rest assured we are not going to talk about the techniques we use in a public forum, no matter how hard you try, because I don't want the enemy to be able to adjust their tactics if we capture them on the battlefield.

"But what the American people need to know is we have a program in place that is able to get intelligence from these people and we have used it to stop attacks. The intelligence community believes strongly that the information we got from the detainee questioning program yielded information that made America safer, that we stopped attacks.

"Secondly, the courts. Yeah, I believe it is necessary to have military tribunals because I ultimately want these people to be tried. And it took a while to get these tribunals in place. The Supreme Court ruled that the president didn't have the authority to set up these courts on his own, that he needed to work with Congress to do so, and we did.

"What's interesting about these votes that took place in the Congress is the number of Democrats that opposed questioning people we picked up on the battlefield. And I think that's an issue that they will have to explain to the American people."

So apparently that's his answer to O'Reilly's excellent and important question: Democrats are pro-terrorist.
Parse those answers a bit, you get something interesting:

A) Terrorists are so clever they can "adjust" to torture.

B) We're from the government. Trust us. We're keeping the elephants away. Seen any elephants lately?

C) Ultimately, he wants to put these terrorists on trial. When he's tortured them enough that they'd confess to killing Archduke Ferdinand. Not before then, though.

D) It's all the Democrats fault that 58% of Americans are opposed to torture.

As Gene Lyons says:

There’s long been an undercurrent of authoritarianism in American politics, particularly across the South and agrarian Midwest. Some of Bush’s warmest supporters are direct descendants of the 19 th century nativist Know-Nothing Party. Many seem morally outraged by anybody who can count higher than two. I get frequent e-mails telling me that being anti-torture makes me pro-terrorist or that it’s un-American to oppose life imprisonment without a trial. Some take grim pleasure in identifying the enemy as Islam itself, making the conflict religious and racial—just how they like it.
That would account for the 36% who support torture, which is rougly equivalent to the President's approval rating. But notice the President never did define "torture." I suppose if he did, the terrorists would adjust. You know what terrorists are like. As John D. Hutson, former judge advocate general of the Navy and dean of the Franklin Pierce Law School in New Hampshire, said: "Let's not kid ourselves. This is not about an invasion. It is about the embarrassment of holding people who, if they got to court, could show they should not have been held."

But of course, he's being shrill.



In Baghdad, General Caldwell [the senior spokesman for the American military in Iraq] said that violence had begun to return to some of the areas that had been the focus of the crackdown, as Sunni insurgents and Al Qaeda “push back.”

He said their strategy seemed to be that “if you want to discredit this government, go back and strike at those areas” that officials have announced as newly peaceful.

He said that American forces had recently returned to the Dora neighborhood in southeastern Baghdad, which had been held up as one of the prime successes of the crackdown.

“Obviously the conditions under which we started are not the same today,” General Caldwell said.

In earlier statements, General Caldwell and other American commanders had called for patience, saying that the crackdown would take time to produce results.

General Caldwell did not explain what conditions had changed or say what new approaches were under consideration.
Wow. You mean if you secure a neighborhood and then pull out of it, the enemy strikes that neigbhorhood again just to make you look bad? And conditions change after you withdraw? Sorta like, I dunno, Vietnam? What do you say, Tony Snow?:

Q Does the President still think that Iraq is a winning issue for Republicans, and can you elaborate on what he was talking about yesterday in the Stephanopoulos interview about linking -- comparing it with the Tet Offensive?

MR. SNOW: Well, let's back up. We'll do the Tet Offensive question first. That comparison was made by Tom Friedman. That was a question about a column that Tom Friedman wrote. And the President was making a point that he's made before, which is that terrorists try to exploit pictures and try to use the media as conduits for influencing public opinion in the United States. And as Lieutenant General Caldwell said today in his briefing in Baghdad, it is possible, although we don't have a clear pathway into the minds of terrorists, it is possible that they are trying to use violence right now as a way of influencing the elections.
Oh, and a vote for a Democratic Congress is a vote for the terrorists. No, really:

The Republican Party will begin airing a hard-hitting ad this weekend that warns of more cataclysmic terror attacks against the U.S. homeland.

The ad portrays Osama bin Laden and quotes his threats against America dating to February 1998. "These are the stakes," the ad concludes. "Vote November 7."
And this would be why:

Asked who they planned to vote for in the congressional election, 37 percent of those polled said Republicans and 52 percent said Democrats. The 15 percent difference was the highest disparity ever in the poll and up from a 9-point difference a month ago, NBC said.
As NPR pointed out yesterday, the Tet Offensive of 1968 is when public opinion turned dramatically, and irrevocably, against the war. By the way, Mr. Snow, "winning" means "not losing." Which is what we are doing in Iraq.

Stating the Obvious

Well, it's becoming clear to almost everyone: we are completely screwed.

[Bush] can once again order a rearrangement of American forces inside the country, as he did in August, when American commanders declared that newly trained Iraqi forces would “clear and hold” neighborhoods with backup support from redeployed American forces. That strategy collapsed within a month, frequently forcing the Americans to take the lead, making them prime targets.

There is no assurance, though, that another redeployment of those forces will reduce the casualty rate, which has been unusually high in recent weeks, senior military and administration officials say. The toll comes just before midterm elections, in which even many of his own party have given up arguing that progress is being made or that the killing will soon slow.

Or Mr. Bush can reassess the strategy itself, perhaps listening to those advisers — including some members of the bipartisan Iraq Study Group, the advisory commission charged with coming up with new strategies for Iraq — who say that he needs to redefine the “victory” that he again on Thursday declared was his goal.

One official providing advice to the president noted on Thursday that while Mr. Bush still insists his goal is an Iraq that “can govern itself, sustain itself and defend itself,” he has already dropped most references to creating a flourishing democracy in the heart of the Middle East.

Or, he could take the advice of Senator John McCain, the Arizona Republican who is expected to run to replace him in two years, who argues in favor of pouring more troops into Iraq, an option one senior administration official said recently might make sense but could “cause the bottom to fall out” of public support.

But whatever choices he makes — probably not until after the Nov. 7 election, and perhaps not until the bipartisan group issues its report — they will be forced by a series of events, in Iraq and at home, that now seems largely out of Mr. Bush’s control, in Iraq and at home.
But the real stunner, is this one:

“There’s certainly a stepped up level of violence, and we’re heading into an election,” he told George Stephanopoulos of ABC News on Wednesday. “George, my gut tells me that they have all along been trying to inflict enough damage that we would leave.”
And why else, pray tell, would they be inflicting violence on us? Could it be this is a logical response to the invasion of their country, one almost anyone could have foreseen?

What was that Jefferson said, about "absolute acquiescence in the decisions of the majority, the vital principle of republics, from which is no appeal but to force, the vital principle and immediate parent of despotism...."? The majority of Iraqis don't want us there. Why doesn't that make us the despots?