Thursday, November 30, 2006

Blue Norther

Apropos of nothing, but I woke up this morning to a temperature of 72° F.

As of about now, it's 35° out in Katy, just a few miles west of me. Houston Airport is reporting 42°.

Winter is icummen in,
Lhude sing Goddamm!


"The spirit of the Lord is upon me,
because he has anointed me
to bring good news to the poor.
He has sent me to announce pardons for prisoners
and recovery of sight to the blind;
to set free the oppressed,
to proclaim the year of the Lord's amnesty.

After rolling up the scroll, he gave it back to the attendant, and sat down; and the attention of everyone in the synagogue was rivted on him.

He began by saying to them, "Today, this scripture has come true as you listen."--Luke 4:18-21 (SV)
Israel was under occupation when those words were said. They were under occupation again when Jesus read them in the synagogue. And all he did, and all Isaiah did, was proclaim the rule of the law of Moses, proclaim that Israel would again be sovereign and conduct its own affairs. Or course, Jesus' claim was for the kingdom of God, not the kingdom of David. Still, the oppression of Israel was by an outside force.

A record 7 million people — or one in every 32 American adults — were behind bars, on probation or on parole by the end of last year, according to the Justice Department. Of those, 2.2 million were in prison or jail, an increase of 2.7 percent over the previous year, according to a report released Wednesday.

More than 4.1 million people were on probation and 784,208 were on parole at the end of 2005. Prison releases are increasing, but admissions are increasing more.

Men still far outnumber women in prisons and jails, but the female population is growing faster. Over the past year, the female population in state or federal prison increased 2.6 percent while the number of male inmates rose 1.9 percent. By year's end, 7 percent of all inmates were women. The gender figures do not include inmates in local jails.
If an occupying force were levying this level of incarceration on the US, it would be a cause of the most violent turmoil, and who could disagree? One problem with being the sovereign in a democracy is that the people diffuse responsibility so greatly that there is no responsibility any more. We truly come to believe we do not jail our fellow citizens; they jail themselves. But when the number jailed rises to 13% 2.3% of the population, is it really possible to convince ourselves we have that many bad apples?

Apparently our ability to evade responsibility is bottomless. We prefer to rely on the "System" to take care of all our needs. "O machine, O machine!," the people in E.M. Forster's novella "The Machine Stops," fervently pray. But they are so dependent on the system that, when the machine stops, they don't know what to do. One of the thrusts of Christianity, the one we have been thrusting away again since Jesus sat down in that synagogue and made that announcement, is that we are responsible for our lives, and that no one else is the boss of us, when we accept the sovereignty of God. Israel, the gospels tell us, was waiting for a Messiah to come like David and restore the nation, to come down as in the days of old, and make the mountains quake at God's presence, to make God's name known to God's adversaries, that they might tremble in God's presence. We're still waiting for that. We've merely postponed the time of the arrival, and even planned for a millenia before it, or after it, or maybe no millenia at all, but still quite convinced that God will finally, finally, make every valley level and every mountain a plain, so the world will see and confess the glory of God. And in the meantime, we don't have quite so much responsibility, and if we are the sovereign, why, we are only responsible for keeping law and order and middle class values alive against those who would take these things from us. We suspect up to 13% 2.3% of our fellow citizens, at last count. We are quite sure that when the machine finally stops, the Eternal Repairman will return to set all things right. We haven't abandoned the belief in the Messiah Christians criticize Israel for having; we've simply split the difference, and put off the adventus to a date to be determined. Preferably even one to be agreed upon.

But what would happen if we were to declare the year of Jubilee, of pardon for the prisoners, release for the oppressed, and the Lord's amnesty? What would happen if we were to declare the adventus of God, and live as if we meant it? Most people, including most Christians, would say we would be proclaiming anarchy and the end of civilization as we know it. But isn't that the kerygma of the parousia?

Arise, shine, Jerusalem, for your light has come;
and over you the glory of the Lord has dawned.
Though darkness covers the earth and dark night the nations,
on you the Lord shines and over you his glory will appear;
nations will journey towards your light and kings to your radiance.

Raise your eyes and look around:
they are all assembling, flocking back to you;
your sons are coming from afar,
your daughters are walking beside them.

You will see it, and be radiant with joy,
and your heart will thrill with gladness;
sea-borne riches will be lavished on you
and the wealth of nations will be yours.

Camels in droves will cover the land,
young camels from Midian and Ephah,
all coming from Sheba
laden with gold and frankincense,
heralds of the Lord's praise.--Isaiah 60:1-6, REB
Matthew drew his wise men and their gifts from Isaiah's prophecy. It is part and parcel of the adventus that is again coming. And what does this new dawn herald? Good news to the humble, liberty to the captives, release to those in prison. Isaiah 61, in other words; the words read by Jesus, in Luke's gospel. It is all of a piece, if you put the pieces together. And yet we still prefer the assurances of our own power. And one in 7 of our fellow citizens, has known prison, or is on parole. The people who dwell in darkness have yet to see the promised light.

Is there a religious answer, then? Yes. No. We are not a Christian nation, and should not pretend to be. "Christian nation," in fact, is an oxymoron; let us abandon the concept, and with it the phrase. But yes, something can be done, if we accept the alternative vision of the world that is the kerygma of the kingdom of God.

I've had this book on my shelves for a long time, and never gotten around to reading it. Perhaps its time that I did. The back cover assures me, from people like Walter Wink and Will Campbell, that this is the real deal. It seems like an appropriate meditation for Advent. I haven't read the book, as I say; but here is how it ends, which is a good place for a beginning, too:

As we consider the alternatives for addressing crime and for responding humanly to both offenders and the victims of crime, we are reminded that, biblically understood, "criminal justice" is not a separate "issue" to be addressed by some political forum. The Bible does not instruct us to segregate our lives into areas defined by the issue of crime and the issue of poverty and the issue of morality and the issue of war and peace. Biblically understood, lawlessness and the prison are both manifestations not of a political issue but of a spiritual crisis that affects us all. It is a crisis wherein we persist in choosing death even though God has chosen life on our behalf. When we focus on this spiritual crisis, we see that violence and disrespect for life are the same no matter what the manifestation. And so we cannot talk about robbery on the streets of our cities without also talking about the robbery that takes place when we eat from full tables while one-third of the world remains malnourished. We cannot talk about violence on the streets of our cities without seeing its direct link to the fact that, as a nation, we are armed
to the teeth with enough nuclear weapons to obliterate our planet. If we talk about immorality and prostitution, we must do so with an eye to the numerous ways in which we prostitute ourselves to the gods of success, respectability, and material possessions. And so efforts to address the problem of crime nonviolently will necessarily involve us in efforts to feed the hungry, resist militarism, and climb on down the social ladder.

Will any of these alternatives work? We don't know. We have no guarantees. We only have the biblical story. But what a story it is, and what things we are told! And try as we might, we can't change the story. Try as we might to pin the labels on other people - criminal, thief, murderer, monster - that won't change the story that we all have one Creator and we are all sisters and brothers. We can spend the rest of our lives inventing new handcuffs and building new prisons, but that won't change the fact that Jesus proclaims liberty for the captives and the prisons have fallen. We can buy guns and stockpile nuclear weapons until the earth sinks under their weight, but nothing we can do will ever undo the resurrection and the fact that life is chosen for us. And we can call the police as often as we wish, but let us remember the story: Jesus comes as a thief in the night.--Lee Griffith, The Fall of the Prison: Biblical Perspectives on Prison Abolition (Grand Rapids, Michigan: Wm. B. Eerdmans 1993), pp. 227-28.
See? An Advent lesson wherever you look.

Correction: I originally read those numbers (in haste) as 1 in 7 incarcerated or on parole, not 1 in 32. Which still brings up the other issue of our Christian witness: whatever you did to the least of these, you did to me. DAS points out the Xian emphasis on "original sin" is an easy justification for even 2% of the population behind bars or under police supervision. Oddly, Jesus never preached anything remotely like that. For him, creation was good, and everyone he met worthy of his attention and his blessing, without first confession or even repentance. We are the ones who charge for our services; not God.

Wednesday, November 29, 2006

An Early Merry Christmas Wish

to Athenae.

Following up, the NYT tells us:

[T]here are now more peace symbols in Pagosa Springs, a town of 1,700 people 200 miles southwest of Denver, than probably ever in its history.

On Tuesday morning, 20 people marched through the center carrying peace signs and then stomped a giant peace sign in the snow perhaps 300 feet across on a soccer field, where it could be easily seen.

“There’s quite a few now in our subdivision in a show of support,” Mr. Trimarco said.

A former president of the Loma Linda community, where Mr. Trimarco lives, said Tuesday that he had stepped in to help form an interim homeowners’ association.

The former president, Farrell C. Trask, described himself in a telephone interview as a military veteran who would fight for anyone’s right to free speech, peace symbols included.

Town Manager Mark Garcia said Pagosa Springs was building its own peace wreath, too. Mr. Garcia said it would be finished by late Tuesday and installed on a bell tower in the center of town.
And the fine of $25 a day? Gone. Along with the 3 member board, who have all resigned. Two have disconnected their telephones. Seems there wasn't much support for their position, anywhere.

Which is not necessarily to praise the power of the majority (it is not a power that is always praiseworthy); but to put a finger in the wind. Newt Gingrich says we will have to destroy free speech in order to save it. Based on the reaction to this attempt to stifle free speech, I don't think he has much support for that view.

Peace on earth; goodwill toward all.

Tuesday, November 28, 2006

A Charlie Brown Christmas

Or: Thanksgiving Is Over, So Christmas Has Already Started, Right?

So "A Charlie Brown Christmas" aired under a cloud, because it combined jazz with the perennial Christmas concern about the "true meaning" of the holiday. And now it's a holiday standard, up there with A Christmas Story and It's a Wonderful Life.

Not a surprise, really; at least in hindsight. Jazz and fretting over what Christmas means are two American originals. (a subject I've written on so many times I have posts here, here, and here about it. And I still haven't touched on the point I thought I had made before. Oh, well, maybe this year....) Put them together, and voilá! Instant American holiday classic.

William Blake, November 28, 1757

Garrison Keillor:

It's the birthday of William Blake, born in London (1757). He wrote Songs of Innocence and Experience (1794) and The Marriage of Heaven and Hell (1790). He lived in poverty, ignorant of the rest of the literary world of London, scraping out a living from his trade as an engraver, and writing and drawing under inspiration he considered divine. He said about his long poem Milton, "I have written this poem from immediate dictation, twelve or sometimes twenty lines at a time, without pre-meditation and even against my will." He lived in a world of dreams and visions. One day he and his wife were sitting naked in their garden, reciting to each other passages from Paradise Lost. Blake was not embarrassed when a visitor came by. He said, "Come in! It's only Adam and Eve, you know."

You don't believe - I won't attempt to make ye:
You are asleep - I won't attempt to wake ye.
Sleep on! sleep on! while in your pleasant dreams
Of Reason you may drink of Life's clear streams.
Reason and Newton, they are quite two things;
For so the swallow and the sparrow sings.
Reason says `Miracle': Newton says `Doubt.'
Aye! that's the way to make all Nature out.
`Doubt, doubt, and don't believe without experiment':
That is the very thing that Jesus meant,
When He said `Only believe! believe and try!
Try, try, and never mind the reason why!'

"These things that with myself I too much discuss, too much explain..."

Once again I'm caught talking to myself. I posted this comment at Street Prophets, in response to something Pastor Dan put up. It's becoming a theme with me. Maybe it's because I miss the pulpit; more likely it's because I miss the parish.

"Tistero is a mensch."

Well, maybe.

I must admit, although as a theologian and a lawyer definitions are my bread and butter, I'm growing weary of them.

All of these attempts to draw boundaries and declare who is inside, and who is outside, are becoming tiresome. "Inclusive" is just another word for "who I include," another way of defining who is acceptable ("Are you 'inclusive', or not?") and who isn't ("I can only include 'inclusive' people in my circle. Exclusive people must be excluded. But that's not my fault. They're the ones who are exclusive, not me!")

I'm not pointing a finger at Tristero. I'm just tired of everybody jockeying for their power position. The power to define is the power to set the terms of the debate. And the power to control the terms of the debate is the power to control what people think. At least, that's how we pursue it; and why. And it's all about vague and glittering generalities, which is a much nicer, cleaner, less messy arena to work in, than in real individual lives.

When I had a church, I had people who hated me. Hated me, mind you. Literally. Seriously. They needed an object for their hatred, for any number of complex reasons, and the Pastor was the most convenient focal point. That was not an excuse for some kind of fool's martyrdom (I'm glad I'm not there anymore), but I had to struggle with my "inclusiveness" not to exclude them. They were hateful, vile, bigoted, racist, small-minded, moss-back conservative, people. And they were part of my flock. And I was supposed to tend them.

I started out, fresh from seminary, talking about grand sweeping ideas like "Christianism." It took me a long time to realize no one cares about such word games, such language games. I think such discussions still have their value; but not when they become the thing itself. And how do you avoid that? When do you pull back from your abstracting the world, and see it for what it is?

I know, I know, I've said this all before. But prick me, and I bleed words. So I'll bleed a few more, by quoting myself (either an act of supreme laziness or supreme arrogance; I can't decide):

"How should we then live" is the question everyone is chasing. The problem is, no one is considering how people live, when pursuing the question. How people ought to live is of great concern to a great number of people who never consider the conclusions should apply to them. How we ought to live is the province of the Big Idea, the one that always applies to thee, but never quite to me. How we should live is the province of parable and quotidian mystery, and turns me to thinking about my life and what I am doing. How conservatives ought to behave is of great concern to Mr. Bramwell; even how they ought to be punished. On this, he understands quite rightly that anyone's reach in that matter, will necessarily exceed their grasp; and that's not what a heaven's for:

Worse, no reckoning will be made: they hope in vain who expect conservatives to take responsibility for the actual consequences of their actions. Conservatives have no use for the ethic of responsibility; they seek only to “see to it that the flame of pure intention is not quelched.” The movement remains a fine place to make a career, but for wisdom one must look elsewhere.

Religion, after all, is responsibility; or it is nothing at all. And religion is about the quotidian, and our daily responsibilities there. At least, that's part of my understanding of Christianity, and the gospel message.
And I can only take responsibility, ultimately, for what I do to, or for, individuals. Grand ideas, more and more, feel like they are for me, by which I mean for my ego. Ideas guide my actions; but that's what they are for. The only legitimate control is over myself.

Monday, November 27, 2006

Still Paving the Road to Hell

I wrote this at First Draft, in response to this post by Athenae. As usual, once I got started, the whole thing got out of hand. My subconscious is tricky that way. So I decided to finish it here:

Let us recast the cliche: "The road to Hell is paved with honorable intentions."

Because here's the rub:

I do get it: It's not wrong to want the best. But it is selfish and small and downright immoral to allow your wanting the best to put others in danger when you know your delusions are just that. You have the right to pretend. You don't have the right to ask someone to die for your puppet show. You don't have the right to keep thinking it'll get better, not when you know it won't.
It's never even this simple. "It's not wrong to want the best." Except when "the best" means what's best for me, at the expense of you. And when does that not happen, except in a situation of absolute humility, engaged in This is precisely why Jesus taught that in the kingdom of heaven, the first are last and the last first. This is precisely why Christianity is supposed to preach a "race to the bottom" where we all struggle, not to exert power over one another in the name of peace or freedom or even God, but to be servants to each other. Servants don't have time to think about grand theories and large systems that if just finally and perfectly established, will guarantee peace for everyone everywhere for ever and ever, Amen. Servants just know they have to serve others. That is as much as they can do, and as much as they need to do. Blessed are the meek; they shall inherit the earth.

It is just as selfish and immoral to allow your wantings to put others in danger even if you don't realize you are delusional. This isn't a matter of will, it's a question of consequence. Will just makes it worse, and who among us really doubt that Bush and Cheney and Rummy don't give a wet snap for consequences that don't directly affect them? As Nora Ephron pointed out, Rummy could sleep well at night reflecting on the chaos he unleashed in Iraq, the torture he authorized. What upset him was being fired.

It's simpler than this, but never seen as this simple: you dont' have the right to ask someone else to die. Period. And you don't have the right to keep thinking "it" will get better. Period.

You make it better. Not some system, some ideology, some theory of governance or ethics or belief. You. Period. "Lord, when did we see you?", is the only question that matters. And the right answer won't be: "But Lord, we established a more just social system!" Close only counts in horsehoes and hand grenades. It's what you did for others that counts; not what your "honorable intentions" were supposed to do.

First Shot in the War on Christmas

And Advent hasn't even started yet:

A homeowners association in southwestern Colorado has threatened to fine a resident $25 a day until she removes a Christmas wreath with a peace sign that some say is an anti-Iraq war protest or a symbol of Satan.

Some residents who have complained have children serving in Iraq, said Bob Kearns, president of the Loma Linda Homeowners Association in Pagosa Springs. He said some residents have also believed it was a symbol of Satan. Three or four residents complained, he said.

"Somebody could put up signs that say drop bombs on Iraq. If you let one go up you have to let them all go up," he said in a telephone interview Sunday.

Lisa Jensen said she wasn't thinking of the war when she hung the wreath. She said, "Peace is way bigger than not being at war. This is a spiritual thing."

Jensen, a past association president, calculates the fines will cost her about $1,000, and doubts they will be able to make her pay. But she said she's not going to take it down until after Christmas.
I had a pair of sandals in high school with lateral leather straps. The broadest of the three held a peace sign, made out of leather also, bradded onto the cross strap. I still remember one night trying to convince the mother of a friend of mine that the symbol was not "Satanic."

The more things change....


"What's so funny about peace, love and understanding?"

In the movie "Bobby," Lindsay Lohan plays a young girl who is marrying a boy from her high school in order to save his life. (I told you it was melodrama wrapped around a moment of history). He's been drafted, and if she marries him, he goes to Germany, not Vietnam.

The all-volunteer army is the "lesson" we learned from Vietnam.

With no obvious personal stake in the war in Iraq, most Americans are indifferent to its consequences. In an interview last week, Alex Racheotes, a 19-year-old history major at Wesleyan University in Connecticut, said: “I definitely don’t know anyone who would want to fight in Iraq. But beyond that, I get the feeling that most people at school don’t even think about the war. They’re more concerned with what grade they got on yesterday’s test.”

His thoughts were echoed by other students, including John Cafarelli, a 19-year-old sophomore at the University of New Hampshire, who was asked if he had any friends who would be willing to join the Army. “No, definitely not,” he said. “None of my friends even really care about what’s going on in Iraq.”

This indifference is widespread. It enables most Americans to go about their daily lives completely unconcerned about the atrocities resulting from a war being waged in their name. While shoppers here are scrambling to put the perfect touch to their holidays with the purchase of a giant flat-screen TV or a PlayStation 3, the news out of Baghdad is of a society in the midst of a meltdown.
Indeed, apocalypse and chaos are our sources of entertainment now.

This is the difference between Bobby Kennedy's speech and any similar speech made today about Iraq. The violence is being inflicted in another country, where we have committed fornication; and besides, the wench is dead. It is of no real moment to us. This makes it so much easier to honor swagger and bluster and, when we are tired of it, to simply say "There's no place like home!" and click our heels together three times.

Still, it would be a simple matter to recast Sen. Kennedy's words to apply to Iraq. Change a reference here or there to include people subject to violence because of our actions as a nation, and you'd have it. It's a small act of imagination to do that. But a huge leap of imagination, to envision any politician, any public figure, speaking with such force, such eloquence, today.

The standing army, by the way, is the "lesson" we learned from World War II. The "Good War."

"Too often we honor swagger and bluster and wielders of force..."

Just saw the movie "Bobby," which I can strongly recommend. Yes, it's a typical Hollywood melodrama wrapped around the inevitable (no one goes to this movie not knowing how it ends). But it's an enjoyable movie, and it reminds us of what this country was once like, or once tried to be like.

It reminded me, too, why politicians appear on TV and in very carefully controlled situations, and why we rely more and more on pundits and images to tell us who we are voting for. It wasn't TV that made politicians shy away from crowds. It was us. It was 1968. It was violence.

RFK's assassination couldn't happen today; because of RFK's assassination.

But the movie ends with photos of the Kennedy family, and RFK's public career. Over those photos, and the credits, this speech plays. It is worth reading, if only to realize that giants once walked among us; and not all politicians exploit fear of violence to gain power.

On the Mindless Menace of Violence

City Club of Cleveland, Cleveland, Ohio April 5, 1968

"This is a time of shame and sorrow. It is not a day for politics. I have saved this one opportunity, my only event of today, to speak briefly to you about the mindless menace of violence in America which again stains our land and every one of our lives.

"It is not the concern of any one race. The victims of the violence are black and white, rich and poor, young and old, famous and unknown. They are, most important of all, human beings whom other human beings loved and needed. No one - no matter where he lives or what he does - can be certain who will suffer from some senseless act of bloodshed. And yet it goes on and on and on in this country of ours.

"Why? What has violence ever accomplished? What has it ever created? No martyr's cause has ever been stilled by an assassin's bullet.

"No wrongs have ever been righted by riots and civil disorders. A sniper is only a coward, not a hero; and an uncontrolled, uncontrollable mob is only the voice of madness, not the voice of reason.

"Whenever any American's life is taken by another American unnecessarily - whether it is done in the name of the law or in the defiance of the law, by one man or a gang, in cold blood or in passion, in an attack of violence or in response to violence - whenever we tear at the fabric of the life which another man has painfully and clumsily woven for himself and his children, the whole nation is degraded.

" 'Among free men,' said Abraham Lincoln, 'there can be no successful appeal from the ballot to the bullet; and those who take such appeal are sure to lose their cause and pay the costs.'

"Yet we seemingly tolerate a rising level of violence that ignores our common humanity and our claims to civilization alike. We calmly accept newspaper reports of civilian slaughter in far-off lands. We glorify killing on movie and television screens and call it entertainment. We make it easy for men of all shades of sanity to acquire whatever weapons and ammunition they desire.

"Too often we honor swagger and bluster and wielders of force; too often we excuse those who are willing to build their own lives on the shattered dreams of others. Some Americans who preach non-violence abroad fail to practice it here at home. Some who accuse others of inciting riots have by their own conduct invited them.

"Some look for scapegoats, others look for conspiracies, but this much is clear: violence breeds violence, repression brings retaliation, and only a cleansing of our whole society can remove this sickness from our soul.

"For there is another kind of violence, slower but just as deadly destructive as the shot or the bomb in the night. This is the violence of institutions; indifference and inaction and slow decay. This is the violence that afflicts the poor, that poisons relations between men because their skin has different colors. This is the slow destruction of a child by hunger, and schools without books and homes without heat in the winter.

"This is the breaking of a man's spirit by denying him the chance to stand as a father and as a man among other men. And this too afflicts us all.

"I have not come here to propose a set of specific remedies nor is there a single set. For a broad and adequate outline we know what must be done. When you teach a man to hate and fear his brother, when you teach that he is a lesser man because of his color or his beliefs or the policies he pursues, when you teach that those who differ from you threaten your freedom or your job or your family, then you also learn to confront others not as fellow citizens but as enemies, to be met not with cooperation but with conquest; to be subjugated and mastered.

"We learn, at the last, to look at our brothers as aliens, men with whom we share a city, but not a community; men bound to us in common dwelling, but not in common effort. We learn to share only a common fear, only a common desire to retreat from each other, only a common impulse to meet disagreement with force. For all this, there are no final answers.

"Yet we know what we must do. It is to achieve true justice among our fellow citizens. The question is not what programs we should seek to enact. The question is whether we can find in our own midst and in our own hearts that leadership of humane purpose that will recognize the terrible truths of our existence.

"We must admit the vanity of our false distinctions among men and learn to find our own advancement in the search for the advancement of others. We must admit in ourselves that our own children's future cannot be built on the misfortunes of others. We must recognize that this short life can neither be ennobled or enriched by hatred or revenge.

"Our lives on this planet are too short and the work to be done too great to let this spirit flourish any longer in our land. Of course we cannot vanquish it with a program, nor with a resolution.

"But we can perhaps remember, if only for a time, that those who live with us are our brothers, that they share with us the same short moment of life; that they seek, as do we, nothing but the chance to live out their lives in purpose and in happiness, winning what satisfaction and fulfillment they can.

"Surely, this bond of common faith, this bond of common goal, can begin to teach us something. Surely, we can learn, at least, to look at those around us as fellow men, and surely we can begin to work a little harder to bind up the wounds among us and to become in our own hearts brothers and countrymen once again."

"The dreams in which I'm dying/Are the best I've ever had."

An odd addition, I know. But I just saw this long version in the previews for "Bobby" (about which more later) and I had to find a way to save it.

What better way than in a blog?

The lovely wife hadn't seen this until the movie last night. She called it "paradoxical." And since "...the thinker without the paradox is like the lover without passion: a mediocre fellow," perhaps that's why I like it.

Saturday, November 25, 2006

Just when you thought it couldn't get worse

they keep digging:

While such data may have been omitted to protect the group’s clandestine sources and methods — the document has a bold heading on the front page saying “secret,” and a warning that it is not to be shared with foreign governments — several security and intelligence consultants said in telephone interviews that the vagueness of the estimates reflected how little American intelligence agencies knew about the opaque and complex world of Iraq’s militant groups.

"They’re just guessing,” said W. Patrick Lang, a former chief of Middle East intelligence at the Defense Intelligence Agency, who now runs a security and intelligence consultancy. “They really have no idea.” He added, “They’ve been very unsuccessful in penetrating these organizations.”
What's the central problem? It's still all about politics:

“A judgment like that, coming from an N.S.C.-generated document,” is not an analytical assessment as much as it is a political statement to support the administration’s contention that Iraq is a central front in the war on terrorism, he said. “It’s a statement put in there to support a policy judgment.”
Apparently that policy judgment is: we can't quit now. But what does the report say about Iraq?

The insurgency in Iraq is now self-sustaining financially, raising tens of millions of dollars a year from oil smuggling, kidnapping, counterfeiting, corrupt charities and other crimes that the Iraqi government and its American patrons have been largely unable to prevent, a classified United States government report has concluded.

The report, obtained by The New York Times, estimates that groups responsible for many of the insurgent and terrorist attacks are raising $70 million to $200 million a year from illegal activities. It says that $25 million to $100 million of the total comes from oil smuggling and other criminal activity involving the state-owned oil industry aided by “corrupt and complicit” Iraqi officials.
I suppose we can be grateful that at least the corrupt government officials aren't described as "men in Iraqi government uniforms."

Josh Marshall may be right, and we may be in for a very long two years. I think he is certainly right that Bush is not defeated until Bush thinks he's defeated. But that's irrelevant now. Bush's stubbornness is the least of the country's worries. He may well go to his deathbed insisting someone else lost this for him. Regardless, this war is over for the US. With the kind of coverage I've seen just today, this avalanche is about to break loose, and anyone standing under it will simply be swept away.

Maybe by Christmas

Just a note from the news on this observation by Bramwell:

If Americans understood that soldiers were dying not to kill the bad guys but to prevent them from killing each other, Bush’s popularity would evaporate.
We may be there soon:

Iraq's civil war worsened Friday as Shiite and Sunni Arabs engaged in retaliatory attacks after coordinated car bombings that killed more than 200 people in a Shiite neighborhood the day before. A main Shiite political faction threatened to quit the government, a move that probably would cause its collapse and plunge the nation deeper into disarray.

The massacre Thursday in Sadr City — a stronghold of Shiite Muslim cleric Muqtada Sadr and his Al Mahdi militia — sparked attacks around the country, reinforced doubts about the effectiveness of the Iraqi government and U.S. military and emboldened Shiite vigilantes.

In a sermon Friday, Sadr, a strong opponent of the United States, said the Pentagon's refusal to grant full control of Iraqi security forces to the Baghdad government was leaving the populace vulnerable to insurgent attacks.
The sad part is, one can almost consider that an improvement.

UPDATE: yup, the walls are definitely tumbling down:

With a timely reference to the rise and fall of the O.J. Simpson tell-some book (and what she's calls the "Thanksgiving Day Massacre" in Iraq) Maureen Dowd in her Saturday column for The New York Times suggests that President Bush go on Fox News and declare, "IF I did it -- here’s how the civil war in Iraq happened.”

Bush, she writes, "could describe, hypothetically, a series of naïve, arrogant and self-defeating blunders, including his team’s failure to comprehend that in the Arab world, revenge and religious zealotry can be stronger compulsions than democracy and prosperity."

She also reveals that her own paper, along with other news outlets, "have been figuring out if it’s time to break with the administration’s use of euphemisms like 'sectarian conflict.' How long can you have an ever-descending descent without actually reaching the civil war?

"Some analysts are calling it genocide or clash of civilizations, arguing that civil war is too genteel a term for the butchery that is destroying a nation before our very eyes....

"It will be harder to sell Congress on the idea that America’s troops should be in the middle of somebody else’s civil war than to convince them that we need to hang tough in the so-called front line of the so-called war on terror against Al Qaeda."
With the simple inevitability of winter coming 'round again, though. Sooner or later, this had to happen.

Gonna lay down my burdens

Got in late last night from the Thanksgiving trip, and picked this up from Pastor Dan.

He wants to say it says, in part, what he's been saying all along; and he's certainly entitled to. I want to say the same thing about other parts; but I'm mindful of the statement by Will Durant, that wise people say things so clearly and intelligently that we think we've thought the same thing before. This essay is simply that remarkable. For example:

“Defining Victory” [an editorial previously published in the National Review, which also published this essay] describes the post-9/11 world in terms that have since become familiar. First, it insists on a war that has no definite enemy and no foreseeable end. Short of one-world despotism or universal brotherhood, the U.S. cannot literally defeat “all those who mean to do our people harm.” To trim the hyperbole, NR goes on to name five examples of potential enemies (plus, in later editorials, Saudi Arabia) but does not explain how the list was generated or whether it is even complete. The reader gathers only that we should threaten or go to war with an unspecified number of troublesome nations.

Second, the editors use the term “war” in a purely figurative sense. At the time of the editorial, the U.S. was not at war with Syria, Sudan, or Iran nor, realistically speaking, with any other nation on the list. No matter how vulnerable or despised, no Muslim nation can be turned into a sacrificial substitute for bin Laden. Nor, no matter how often incanted, can the phrase “at war” be made to describe an actual state of affairs. A rhetorical bludgeon designed to compel assent to certain policies, it begs the question of whether war is advisable in the first place.

Third, “Defining Victory” does not identify a casus belli. Neither Iraq, Syria, Iran, Libya, nor Sudan attacked us on 9/11. Later debate would focus on the legitimacy of preventive war as a defense against future threats. All foreign nations, however, by definition pose hypothetical threats; at some point, those threats become so remote, trivial, or contingent that preventive war cannot be distinguished from an aggressive war of domination. By urging belligerence against nations with no known designs—to say nothing of any capacity—for harming the U.S., “Defining Victory” surely advocated crossing that point.
Who can argue with such clear-headedness, such clarity of insight? This is the problem with belligerence in a nutshell, or with war as "therapy," as Richard Cohen advocated. The only logical answer to that claim is a question: therapy for whom? But the conclusion of this catalogue is the best, indeed, the most unbelievable part:

Finally, the editorial defines “victory” in terms of a goal—regime change—that war advances only incidentally. War by itself cannot cause regime change. To overthrow and replace a government militarily, one must either invade and occupy a country (a technique that works best when the occupier has made a policy of slaughtering civilians en masse, as in Dresden or Hiroshima) or else so punish the civilian population that they rise up against their government. By saying, incoherently, that the United States was “at war” with a list of regimes, NR gave no indication of what policies it was actually touting.
Would have been nice if somebody had mentioned that before we attacked Iraq, huh?

By the way, what is the mission today? This is the newest excuse for the war now, I hope you've noted: the "troops" know they have a "mission," and they are dedicated to "seeing it through." Which is just as amorphous and meaningful an argument as the metaphors Mr. Bramwell accuses the National Review of relying on. Indeed, this entire escapade has been a war on metaphors, by way of metaphors. Perhaps in that way, this has been the first post-modern war: it is both self-reflexive and "meta" at the same time, a perfectly slippery fish that we never quite catch, never quite release.

Pastor Dan notes that conservative ideology, at least as Bramwell defines and analyzes it (and to be fair to Bramwell, he is identifying not the conservatism of William F. Buckley, but a "contemporary conservatism." These distinctions are important.) is basically a metric for determining who's in, and who's out. This, of course, is one of the classic uses of a group. But there's something else here, it seems to me: there is still, in this analysis as in any other, a refusal to grapple with what the "Big Idea" means to the "little people." The analysis here is quite penetratingly clear:

As it happens, the broader conservative public supports Bush for very sensible, non-neoconservative reasons. Those reasons just happen to be poorly informed. For example, many believe—including an astonishing 90 percent of soldiers serving in Iraq—that the U.S. invaded to retaliate against Saddam Hussein for his role in the 9/11 attacks. Now that Saddam is gone but Iraqis are still giving us trouble, they reason, we must kill them before they kill us. If Americans understood that soldiers were dying not to kill the bad guys but to prevent them from killing each other, Bush’s popularity would evaporate.
But it never quite makes the point that those soldiers who are dying are really human beings. Of course, that is what soldiers are for. Everybody knows that.

Because we have all, at some level, bought into the "Big Idea."

I sometimes think this is why Jesus spoke in parables. Not merely because they were memorable (clearly they were; an important trait in a non-literate society); and not merely because they were metaphorical (the lesson of Sunday school) or deliberately provocative and paradoxical (pace Dom Crossan), but because they are so difficult to turn into "Big Ideas." No one is going to plunge into war behind the woman who found the lost coin; or the Prodigal Son; or the Good Samaritan; or the Unjust Steward. We can barely figure out what Jesus really means (although some us have thought we can), much less rally 'round his explications of a mustard seed as a metaphor for the kingdom of heaven, or a pearl of great price. No one is going to rush into battle with a picture of a field or a pearl on their battle standard. The parables are all about the quotidian: women sweeping up, sheep going astray, weeds being planted with crops, sheep being separated from goats. There's no grand rallying cry there; indeed, we had to create our own. As Leonard Bernstein wrote: "God made us the boss/God gave us the cross/We turned it into a sword/To spread the word of the Lord!/And it was good! (Yeah!)/And it was good! (yeah)/And it was GODDAMNED GOOD!" He got the sentiment right, but the history a bit wrong: we gave God the cross; and after a few centuries, when Christianity had risen to the level of empire, we took up that cross again, and then turned it into a sword. But the only time Jesus mentions a cross in the gospels, he describes it as a burden. And the only time he mentions a sword, he says one is enough for all 11 disciples. Not exactly the stirring stuff of martial dreams.

The parables, instead, are about ordinary life: about women (!) making bread (with yeast! corruption! impure! everybody knows God prefers unleavened bread!), or about discoveries which must be kept secret, or about sons who defy all the laws and traditions of Moses and Abraham, and yet are welcomed back by their fathers. His parables are about unclean things and ordinary things and obnoxious things, not the grand symbols and ideals of Empire. But wait, see if this sounds familiar:

The Roman Empire was based on the common principle of peace through victory, or, more fully, on a faith in the sequence of piety, war, victory, and peace.

Paul was a Jewish visionary following in Jesus' footsteps, and they both claimed that the Kingdom of God was already present and operative in this world. He opposed the mantras of Roman normalcy with a vision of peace through justice, or, more fully, with a faith in the sequence of covenant, nonviolence, justice, and peace.
In the end, Bramwell is merely making the argument of Rome: that peace comes through a faith in the sequence of piety (he mentions Christianity favorably, although I imagine he and I would quarrel on what "Christianity" means), war, victory, and peace. It's simply that he understands war, victory, and peace are slightly more complex matters than those he critiques think they are. But he certainly is not offering an alternative of peace through covenant, nonviolence, and justice. Indeed, he would clearly consider me (who agrees with Paul) a hopeless idealist, if not a Pollyanna.

However if you read Bramwell carefully you might say that I am wrong; and perhaps cite this passage to support your conclusion:

The notion of a crisis of the West, however, grossly overestimates the importance of ideas; indeed, it requires an unphilosophical and almost paranoid ability to treat ideologies (most conspicuously, liberalism) as living, breathing omnipresences to which intentions, tactics, strategies, feelings, disappointments, and conflicts can all be attributed.
Again, this is so clear-sighted and rational that I cannot argue with it. Indeed, one can make this same critique ring loudly true against left blogistan. But I don't need to argue with it; it is my point in a nutshell. Because this is as close as Bramwell gets to making any reference to real people, outside of the ideas they adopt and try to live by.

Ideas are critically important. The ideas of Rome, proclaimed in marble and building and statuary and even city layout and design, were pounded into the heads of inhabitants of the Empire as surely as advertising jingles and desperate desire for unnecessary goods are pounded into our heads, to reach a crisis point every year about this time. Bramwell sides with Rome on this one (and this is beginning of what Pastor Dan considers the heart of Bramwell's argument):

Still others eulogize local attachments and ancestral loyalties. They invoke a litany of examples: family, church, kin, community, school, the “little platoons” in which Burke found the basis of political association. Celebrating such “infra-political” institutions may well have made sense in the 1950s, the high tide of American nationalism and federal government prestige. At most other times, however, ancestral attachments are dangerously subversive. The U.S. could not have survived had it not ruthlessly extirpated the ancestral loyalties of both natives and newcomers; Great Britain suffered endless civil wars before the great constitutional oak that Burke praised took root; the West itself succeeded precisely because it cut short the reach of the extended family or clan. Ancestral loyalties are the curse of uncivilized peoples, most especially in the hypermnesiac Middle East. Most ominously, praise of local attachments now comes in the guise of multiculturalism, perhaps the most insidious threat to a just order today. Not for nothing did communitarianism become a left-wing vogue.
Certainly Jesus makes much the same argument (I have come to set son against father, daughter against mother), but Jesus was talking about devotion to God above all else, not 19th century notions of nationalism (which Bramwell seems to take as some kind of Platonic ideal of human organization, rather than a result of the peculiarities of European history). Bramwell is positively Roman in his outlook: all local and even familial concerns, must be viewed through the lens of empire, else civilization itself fails. Again, everything must be subsumed into service to the Big Idea. But ideas are not human beings; ideas are not alive, do not draw breath, do not have legs and hearts and lungs; ideas do not even die. In precisely that much "V" was right: ideas are bulletproof. But that's because ideas aren't alive. AS Jesus said: God clothes the flowers of the field and feeds the birds of the air; surely God will take care of you, too. Not your ideas, or even your ideals: simply you. Ideas are not more important than people. Surely if his teachings were about anything, they were about that.

"How should we then live" is the question everyone is chasing. The problem is, no one is considering how people live, when pursuing the question. How people ought to live is of great concern to a great number of people who never consider the conclusions should apply to them. How we ought to live is the province of the Big Idea, the one that always applies to thee, but never quite to me. How we should live is the province of parable and quotidian mystery, and turns me to thinking about my life and what I am doing. How conservatives ought to behave is of great concern to Mr. Bramwell; even how they ought to be punished. On this, he understands quite rightly that anyone's reach in that matter, will necessarily exceed their grasp; and that's not what a heaven's for:

Worse, no reckoning will be made: they hope in vain who expect conservatives to take responsibility for the actual consequences of their actions. Conservatives have no use for the ethic of responsibility; they seek only to “see to it that the flame of pure intention is not quelched.” The movement remains a fine place to make a career, but for wisdom one must look elsewhere.
Religion, after all, is responsibility; or it is nothing at all. And religion is about the quotidian, and our daily responsibilities there. At least, that's part of my understanding of Christianity, and the gospel message.

An Early Christmas Present

The holiday shopping season is upon us. There is no use denying it. As former Texas gubernatorial candidate Clayton Williams said of the weather: it's like rape; you can't do anything about it, so you just have to lie back and enjoy it.

Hey, he said it, not me.

The MadPriest has noted that he's not a nice person. Frankly, neither am I. Probably I'm even less nice than he is; and here's my evidence. Consider this an early Christmas gift to you all: Despair, Inc. :-(

These two are, frankly, my favorites. But like deciding among your children, the choice is not easy.

Ho ho ho.

Friday, November 24, 2006

Preparation for Advent: A Quiz

Robert Novak:

The treatment of his war minister connotes something deeply wrong with George W. Bush's presidency in its sixth year. Apart from Rumsfeld's failures in personal relations, he never has been anything short of loyal in executing the president's wishes. But loyalty appears to be a one-way street for Bush. His shrouded decision to sack Rumsfeld after declaring that he would serve out the second term fits the pattern of a president who is secretive and impersonal.
The news this morning:

Two bombs killed 22 people in northern Iraq on Friday as the government tried to tamp down violence and head off civil war a day after Sunni-Arab insurgents killed 215 people in an attack on Baghdad's Sadr City slum that intensified Shiite anger at the United States.

The blasts in Tal Afar, 260 miles northwest of Baghdad, involved explosives hidden in a parked car and in a suicide belt worn by a pedestrian that detonated simultaneously outside a car dealership at 11 a.m., said police Brig. Khalaf al-Jubouri. He said the casualties — 22 dead, 26 wounded — were expected to rise.
Which of these events "connotes something deeply wrong with George W. Bush's presidency in its sixth year"?

Wednesday, November 22, 2006

Does anybody miss New Orleans?

On NPR this morning, in a discussion about the Roman empire, the interviewer told his guest that a reporter recently returned from New Orleans called it "America's Pompeii." I had come across this post earlier in the week. This seemed like a sign that it was time to bring the subject up again.

This is how we were just over a year ago.

Pope Benedict XVI's envoy to the United States to bring aid for Hurricane Katrina's victims said Saturday that many of them have been struck by "shameful" poverty in "rich America."
"The weakness experienced by the United States faced with this catastrophe" serves to "destroy all of our beliefs about self-sufficiency," the Vatican official said. "Thus, for me, in the bad part of this event there is also the hope, for many citizens, of seeing that the world is greater than the United States," Cordes said.
In that same post, I notede that the President had pledged to provide "whatever it costs" to rebuild the Gulf Coast.

Sadly, beliefs in self-sufficiency are not broken by one catastrophe, and presidential resolve is reserved for foreign ventures that are still in the news. "You can't be president of the United States and conduct yourself if you're going to cut and run," only applies to foreign policy.

May you enjoy your Thanksgiving Day. Say a prayer for the people of New Orleans. Say a prayer for our country. Pray that New Orleans is not our Pompeii, but our road to Damascus. We need the latter. Like Rome, we may not survive the former.

Does Anybody Really Know What Time It Is?

Consider the confusions of the calendar: shops put up Xmas displays before Hallowe'en, and have "Xmas music" blaring from the speakers by early November. A few stores are still judicious, and wait at least until All Saint's Day to put out the glitter and bows, but they are a distinct minority. A shopping season that used to wait until the day after Thanksgiving is already well underway at least a week before, if not earlier. It is only the vast overworked "working class" that clog the stores on the last Friday in November. The rest are people trying to get family out of the house on a day with no football games, in a country largely bereft of any other cultural venues.

Or maybe that's just the view from Houston.

The liturgical calendar offers more bewilderment, if anybody other than a few priests actually paid attention to it. The "church" year ended Sunday, amid talk of apocalypse and terror and eschatological justice. Just the day for a baptism, which I all but stumbled into at the 5 p.m. service. Ironies abound. The new year begins with the First Sunday of Advent, the anticipation of the Christchild which will mean the end of time and God's new beginning. Something which is celebrated every year about this time, as they cycle of the year spins once again around. Confusions abound, too.

The covenental kingdom's sublime perfection is the eschatological or eutopian kingdom and the eschatological kingdom's imminent advent is the apocalyptic kingdom. They are on a continuum from ideal good (covenant) to perfect best (eschatology) and from distant hope (eschatology) to proximate presence (apocalypse). The further the present kingdom of God deviated from normal good, teh more some people looked to ideal best. The further that ideal deviated from present now, the more some poeple looked to future soon. An apocalypse is a "revelation" about that "ending" of evil and injustuce as coming soon, very soon, right now almost. Without some continuity from covenantal to eschatological Kingdom of God, the content of an apocalyptic kingdom becomes an open question or an empty expectation.
--John Dominic Crossan and Jonathan L. Reed, Excavating Jesus (New York: HarperSanFrancisco, 2001) p. 115.

"The motif of the circle will obsess us through this cycle of lectures."--Jacques Derrida

These, by the way, were the scriptures read at the baptism Sunday evening:

Daniel 12:1-3
At that time Michael, the great prince, the protector of your people, shall arise. There shall be a time of anguish, such as has never occurred since nations first came into existence. But at that time your people shall be delivered, everyone who is found written in the book. Many of those who sleep in the dust of the earth shall awake, some to everlasting life, and some to shame and everlasting contempt. Those who are wise shall shine like the brightness of the sky, and those who lead many to righteousness, like the stars forever and ever.
Hebrews 10:11-14, (15-18), 19-25

And every priest stands day after day at his service, offering again and again the same sacrifices that can never take away sins. But when Christ had offered for all time a single sacrifice for sins, "he sat down at the right hand of God," and since then has been waiting "until his enemies would be made a footstool for his feet."
For by a single offering he has perfected for all time those who are sanctified. And the Holy Spirit also testifies to us, for after saying, "This is the covenant that I will make with them after those days, says the Lord: I will put my laws in their hearts, and I will write them on their minds," he also adds, "I will remember their sins and their lawless deeds no more." Where there is forgiveness of these, there is no longer any offering for sin. Therefore, my friends, since we have confidence to enter the sanctuary by the blood of Jesus, by the new and living way that he opened for us through the curtain (that is, through his flesh), and since we have a great priest over the house of God, let us approach with a true heart in full assurance of faith, with our hearts sprinkled clean from an evil conscience and our bodies washed with pure water. Let us hold fast to the confession of our hope without wavering, for he who has promised is faithful. And let us consider how to provoke one another to love and good deeds, not neglecting to meet together, as is the habit of some, but encouraging one another, and all the more as you see the Day approaching.
Mark 13:1-8
As he came out of the temple, one of his disciples said to him, "Look, Teacher, what large stones and what large buildings!" Then Jesus asked him, "Do you see these great buildings? Not one stone will be left here upon another; all will be thrown down." When he was sitting on the Mount of Olives opposite the temple, Peter, James, John, and Andrew asked him privately, "Tell us, when will this be, and what will be the sign that all these things are about to be accomplished?" Then Jesus began to say to them, "Beware that no one leads you astray. Many will come in my name and say, 'I am he!' and they will lead many astray. When you hear of wars and rumors of wars, do not be alarmed; this must take place, but the end is still to come. For nation will rise against nation, and kingdom against kingdom; there will be earthquakes in various places; there will be famines. This is but the beginning of the birthpangs.
Not that it mattered, to be perfectly honest: most of the family there were clearly unfamiliar with church, and treated it as a public theater: i.e., a place to stand about and talk until the lights dim and you hasten to take your seats to watch the show. Most of them displayed no sense of the behaviour expected in an Episcopal setting, and stood up to leave as soon as the priest had walked out (we regulars know to wait for the dousing of the candles. It was conducted that Sunday in something of a scrum as the "audience" resumed their conversations interrupted by the start of the "show"). So these words didn't mean much to them; just more of what "church is about," and another reason why they don't usually attend (it's not always due to pomp and circumstance, in other words).

That's a touchy issue in many way. In the medieval church, the doors were usually open (the windows were sealed, you know) and dogs and cats probably came in and out rather more freely than our post-Victorian sensibilities would like to imagine. People weren't too clean, either, and milled about rather than sat in family pews (I've been to a few European cathedrals, and I'm quite sure the folding chairs were not original equipment). Reminiscent of Bertie Wooster's Great Sermon Handicap (and if you haven't read Wodehouse on country parishes, stop and so so now. I can't help you if you are so benighted as that.), some people used to race from Mass to Mass for the epiclesis, the point when the priest raises the host and asks God to bless it. This, per Catholic doctrine, was the moment of transubstantiation, a regularly performed miracle that, some thought, it would be a blessing to witness. It is, after all, the true presence of God. So add to your imagining of great cathedrals full of people small packs darting in for the epiclesis, and then dashing off to the next chapel lickety-split.

It wasn't always about cry rooms and sitting dead-still for an hour without snoring. So I don't condemn these vistors (though I sound as if I do); but there is a time and a purpose to everything under heaven, and we have become so focussed on time we can no longer tell what time it is. Or, as Jesus said, we can read the signs of the heavens, but not the signs of the times. Which is something the church comes back to every year about this time. As Jacques said, the figure of the circle will obsess us in these lectures. So, are we just going 'round and 'round, making the same motions, expecting the same comfortable results?

What if Advent this year were a true shattering of the vessels? What if the nature of God overflowed everything and fell into our lives? What would we do then? Bake Christmas cookies? Sing age-worn carols? Wrap packages in shiny paper? "Tell us, when will this be, and what will be the sign that all these things are about to be accomplished?" There's a reason we end the church year with those questions, and often begin Advent with them again. We are always looking for explanations, for predictions, for knowledge that will make the new familiar and, so, comfortable for us. But just like Daniel, Mark was speaking to his contemporaries in Jesus' reply. Daniel writes from the experience of the Babylonian Exile; Mark from the experience of the fall of Jerusalem to Rome, the extermination of Temple worship that led to rabbinic Judaism. They both write out of cataclysm.

Our leaders show us, time and again, that none of us here truly understand cataclysm. What sense do these words have for us, then?

I think, this:

When you hear of wars and rumors of wars, do not be alarmed; this must take place, but the end is still to come. For nation will rise against nation, and kingdom against kingdom; there will be earthquakes in various places; there will be famines. This is but the beginning of the birthpangs.
Condi Rice used this language to justify the war in Iraq; but that is arrogance and ignorance speaking. Jesus doesn't tell us to be in charge of events; he says events will seem to be in charge of us. The will-to-power of the evangelical leaders, of any person who thinks they can shape the zeitgeist, is not given a how-to manual here. This is something altogether different. Daniel echoes it, too:

There shall be a time of anguish, such as has never occurred since nations first came into existence. But at that time your people shall be delivered, everyone who is found written in the book. Many of those who sleep in the dust of the earth shall awake, some to everlasting life, and some to shame and everlasting contempt. Those who are wise shall shine like the brightness of the sky, and those who lead many to righteousness, like the stars forever and ever.
These are words of hope, but they are a realistic hope. Daniel doesn't promise exemption, he promises justice. "Many of those who sleep in the dust of the earth...Those who are wise." Justice restores, justice doesn't protect. Justice breaks the cycle of the calendar. Justice is the gift. And its coming is heralded by wars and kingdoms rising against kingdoms, and earthquakes in various places, and famine; and those are just the birthpangs. Imagine what the rest is like. This is not the gift anyone expects, or can expect. We expect power to bring peace, war to bring justice, destruction to bring consent. We expect fighting to lead to victory, and victory to pax. Whenever we seek peace by our own means, by the exertion of our own power, we seek pax, but not shalom. Pax is the peace enforced by power; shalom is the peace of God, which passes all understanding. Shalom is the gift that breaks the cycle of exchange. Shalom is the gift which cannot be foreseen, cannot even be received. It truly comes in spite of us, and apart from us, and yet it is given to us, or it isn't a gift at all.

Consider the confusion of the calendar. Every year we start again, every year the calendar repeats the same events; and we take comfort in it. If something unfamiliar occurs, rather than open ourselves to it in reverence and respect and silence, we are apt to act as if we were familiar with this, too, and we chatter to our friends and family until something we recognize happens, and we react as we think we are expected to react, and once again the new passes by us, doesn't penetrate, doesn't get in. And so we start the cycle again, giving and receiving, balancing the books, making sure every offer is met by acceptance, every opportunity for contract is engaged and fulfilled. And the new comes back around again, offers us another chance to stop, to listen, to hear. For the new is always and ever new, even if we are always and ever the same, and prefer it that way.

And let us consider how to provoke one another to love and good deeds, not neglecting to meet together, as is the habit of some, but encouraging one another, and all the more as you see the Day approaching.
The gift that shatters the cycle of time is coming. The gift we least expected and never expect again, is being repeated. The season that opens our eyes to that gift is coming around again, ever the same, ever new again. Paradoxes abound; so does confusion. Blessed are those who don't even know it has come, for they shall be the first to receive it.

Tuesday, November 21, 2006

"Message: I Care."

Only because I can resist anything but temptation:

"My son is an honest man," Bush told members of the audience harshly criticized the current U.S. leader's foreign policy.

"We do not respect your son. We do not respect what he's doing all over the world," a woman in the audience bluntly told Bush after his speech.

Bush, 82, appeared stunned as others in the audience whooped and whistled in approval.

A college student told Bush his belief that U.S. wars were aimed at opening markets for American companies and said globalization was contrived for America's benefit at the expense of the rest of the world. Bush was having none of it.

"I think that's weird and it's nuts," Bush said. "To suggest that everything we do is because we're hungry for money, I think that's crazy. I think you need to go back to school."

The hostile comments came during a quesion-and-answer session after Bush finished a folksy address on leadership by telling the audience how deeply hurt he feels when his presidential son is criticized.

"This son is not going to back away," Bush said, his voice quivering. "He's not going to change his view because some poll says this or some poll says that, or some heartfelt comments from the lady who feels deeply in her heart about something. You can't be president of the United States and conduct yourself if you're going to cut and run. This is going to work out in Iraq. I understand the anxiety. It's not easy."
I'm tempted to dismiss this as Bush's "I am not a crook" moment. I'm not sure criticism of foreign policy is the equivalent of saying the President is dishonest. He may be perfectly honest in his opinions about Iraq. That doesn't make him right, however; nor does it foreclose explanations based on greed.

If so much of the world didn't seem to agree with this, though, I'd say the elder Bush was simply delusional:

"He is working hard for peace. It takes a lot of guts to get up and tell a father about his son in those terms when I just told you the thing that matters in my heart is my family," he said. "How come everybody wants to come to the United States if the United States is so bad?"
Guts? Well, maybe. But especially when speaking directly to the people most affected by the President's "honesty," that statement has the ring of the soldier's line about Patton, 'Ol' Blood 'n' Guts:' "Our blood, his guts." I'm not sure these people were courageous so much as honest; a quality usually admired in the abstract, and derided in the concrete.

The interesting part, however, is the piercing of the bubble, and how poorly Bush responds to it, rhetorically. The cliche about "everybody wants to come to America" is bad enough; but the flat out denial, especially for a man of Bush's wealth, and for a foreign policy that has so singularly served Halliburton, among other US companies, so well, is simply farcical. Still, there is that quiver in his voice, which comes up when he defends his son for being "a real man," for not being a coward who would "cut and run." If this were Greek tragedy it would be a minor one, but this would be the point when the Chorus realized it's hero had feet of clay, and maybe it was time to ask the gods for a little help, because they can see how this is going to end, and it's not going to be pretty.

"This is going to work out in Iraq." Like saying his son his honest, that's not exactly a statement you can quarrel with; but it's also not the question. Surely someday, things will work out in Iraq. Despite the pessimism of the Greeks that gave rise to such beautiful and dreadful tragedies, chaos is not a constant of nations, or of peoples. So, yes, "this is going to work out in Iraq." But not soon; and not without even more needless death. Their blood; our guts.

Imagine living in such a bubble of power and prosperity you have the nerve to stand in a room full of people on the receiving end of your country's military might, and speaking to them as Poppy did. That's a little frightening, too.

Advent impends

Via Street Prophets and the Episcopal Diocese of Washington, an on-line Advent Calendar.

I'll put this in the blog roll, too, in case anyone else wants to keep up with it.

Of course, clicking on it before Sunday is cheating; and mercantile, too. (Besides, they're opening the windows, not you!)

Sunday, November 19, 2006

"Might Makes Right"

Ken Adelman:

Most troubling, he said, are his shattered ideals: "The whole philosophy of using American strength for good in the world, for a foreign policy that is really value-based instead of balanced-power-based, I don't think is disproven by Iraq. But it's certainly discredited."
Actually, what is most troubling is the rise of the mega-church and the "feel good" branch of Christianity, and the idea that God is on our side, and that we can usher in the kingdom of heaven and bring about the millennia if we help Israel, or otherwise engage in the "right" foreign policy.

One can only wonder how different recent American history might have been if our leadership and our people had learned a few more lessons about history and human nature from Augustine and Aquinas, or just been exposed to Moral Man and Immoral Society and The Irony of American History or The Nature and Destiny of Man. Niebuhr is not without his flaws and weaknesses in his analyses, but at least he tried to tell us what America looked like from a perspective that took into account power and human nature and the limitations of both. The Greeks saw it, too; and the Romans, to a degree. But for all the contemporary complaints about "mythology," for all the critics of religion who misunderstood Bultmann (because they never read him) or railed about the existence of Jesus without even opening Schweitzer's book, none took the time to learn that certain branches of Christian theology were far more sanguine about military power and the realities of military, or even economic, power, than the "hard-nosed realists" have been.

UPDATE: But then, there isn't any reason to believe anyone in the Administration is listening to people like Adelman. Seymour Hersch:

The Democratic victories this month led to a surge of calls for the Administration to begin direct talks with Iran, in part to get its help in settling the conflict in Iraq. British Prime Minister Tony Blair broke ranks with President Bush after the election and declared that Iran should be offered “a clear strategic choice” that could include a “new partnership” with the West. But many in the White House and the Pentagon insist that getting tough with Iran is the only way to salvage Iraq. “It’s a classic case of ‘failure forward,’” a Pentagon consultant said. “They believe that by tipping over Iran they would recover their losses in Iraq—like doubling your bet. It would be an attempt to revive the concept of spreading democracy in the Middle East by creating one new model state.”

The view that there is a nexus between Iran and Iraq has been endorsed by Condoleezza Rice, who said last month that Iran “does need to understand that it is not going to improve its own situation by stirring instability in Iraq,” and by the President, who said, in August, that “Iran is backing armed groups in the hope of stopping democracy from taking hold” in Iraq. The government consultant told me, “More and more people see the weakening of Iran as the only way to save Iraq.”

The consultant added that, for some advocates of military action, “the goal in Iran is not regime change but a strike that will send a signal that America still can accomplish its goals. Even if it does not destroy Iran’s nuclear network, there are many who think that thirty-six hours of bombing is the only way to remind the Iranians of the very high cost of going forward with the bomb—and of supporting Moqtada al-Sadr and his pro-Iran element in Iraq.” (Sadr, who commands a Shiite militia, has religious ties to Iran.)

In the current issue of Foreign Policy, Joshua Muravchik, a prominent neoconservative, argued that the Administration had little choice. “Make no mistake: President Bush will need to bomb Iran’s nuclear facilities before leaving office,” he wrote. The President would be bitterly criticized for a preëmptive attack on Iran, Muravchik said, and so neoconservatives “need to pave the way intellectually now and be prepared to defend the action when it comes.”

The main Middle East expert on the Vice-President’s staff is David Wurmser, a neoconservative who was a strident advocate for the invasion of Iraq and the overthrow of Saddam Hussein. Like many in Washington, Wurmser “believes that, so far, there’s been no price tag on Iran for its nuclear efforts and for its continuing agitation and intervention inside Iraq,” the consultant said. But, unlike those in the Administration who are calling for limited strikes, Wurmser and others in Cheney’s office “want to end the regime,” the consultant said. “They argue that there can be no settlement of the Iraq war without regime change in Iran.”
Double down, indeed.

Friday, November 17, 2006

It is a day of darkness, not light...

"The motif of the circle will obsess us through this cycle of lectures."

Yes, yes it will:

For 11 months, Bashmilah was held in one of the CIA's most secret prisons - its so-called "black sites" - so secret that he had no idea in which country, or even on which continent, he was being held. He was flown there, in chains and wearing a blindfold, from another jail in Afghanistan; his guards wore masks; and he was held in a 10ft by 13ft cell with two video cameras that watched his every move. He was shackled to the floor with a chain of 110 links.

From the times of evening prayer given to him by the guards, the cold winter temperatures, and the number of hours spent flying to this secret jail, he suspected that he was held somewhere in eastern Europe - but he could not be sure.

When he arrived at the prison, said Bashmilah, he was greeted by an interrogator with the words: "Welcome to your new home." He implied that Bashmilah would never be released. "I had gone there without any reason, without any proof, without any accusation," he said. His mental state collapsed and he went on hunger strike for ten days - until he was force-fed food through his nostrils. Finally released after months in detention without being charged with any crime, Bashmilah was one of the first prisoners to provide an inside account of the most secret part of the CIA's detention system.

On 6 September, President George W Bush finally confirmed the existence of secret CIA jails such as the one that held Bashmilah. He added something chilling - a declaration that there were now "no terrorists in the CIA programme", that the many prisoners held with Bashmilah were all gone. It was a statement that hinted at something very dark - that the United States has "disappeared" hundreds of prisoners to an uncertain fate.

Let's examine the arithmetic of this systematic disappearance. In the first years after the attacks of 11 September, thousands of Taliban or suspected terrorist suspects were captured. Just in Afghanistan, the US admitted processing more than 6,000 prisoners. Pakistan has said it handed over around 500 captives to the US; Iran said it sent 1,000 across the border to Afghanistan. Of all these, some were released and just over 700 ended up in Guantanamo, Cuba. But the simple act of subtraction shows that thousands are missing. More than five years after 9/11, where are they all? We know that many were rendered to foreign jails, both by the CIA and directly by the US military. But how many precisely? The answer is still classified. No audit of the fate of all these souls has ever been published.
Because we've heard all this before; and we will hear it all again; and again, and again, and again.

"It will be as when someone runs from a lion,
only to be confronted by a bear,
or as when he enters a house
and leans with his hand on the wall,
only to be bitten by a snake.
The day of the Lord is indeed darkness, not light,
a day of gloom without a ray of brightness."

And what is whispered in secret will be shouted from the rooftops.

Thursday, November 16, 2006

"First, do no harm..."*

*Unless there's a War on Terror

Via Holden, we learn a bit more about the "War on Terror:"

A German-born Turk, who was held for four years in the US detention camp at Guantanamo Bay in Cuba, has alleged systematic torture in the hands of the US military, from beatings to being chained to a ceiling for days.

Murat Kurnaz, 24, who was released in August because of lack of evidence he was involved in terrorist activities, said he endured ”many types of torture -- from electric shocks to having one’s head submerged in water, (subjection to) hunger and thirst, or being shackled and suspended.”


“They tell you “you are from Al Qaed”’ and when you say “no” they give the (electric) current to your feet.... As you keep saying ‘no’ this goes on for two or three hours,” he said, adding he had several times lost consciousness.

He claimed he was once shackled to a ceiling for “four or five days”.

“They take you down in the mornings when a doctor comes to see whether you can endure more,” he said. “They let you sit when the interrogator comes.... They take you down about three times a day so you do not die.”
Obviously I don't want to let that part pass by. It's something we've known, for some time now:

Military doctors at Guantánamo Bay, Cuba, have aided interrogators in conducting and refining coercive interrogations of detainees, including providing advice on how to increase stress levels and exploit fears, according to new, detailed accounts given by former interrogators.

The accounts, in interviews with The New York Times, come as mental health professionals are debating whether psychiatrists and psychologists at the prison camp have violated professional ethics codes. The Pentagon and mental health professionals have been examining the ethical issues involved.
Although Dick Cheney insists otherwise:

Vice President Dick Cheney said on Thursday that prisoners at the detention camp in Guantánamo Bay, Cuba, had everything they could possibly want and were well fed and well treated as they lived in the "tropics."
Still, the evidence of abuse continues to mount. The early questions were of experiments, reminiscent of those conducted by the Nazis. When it became clear that was true, the next question was: is it ethical for medical professionals to aid in the torture of prisoners? And the answer, of course, is: No.

I don't think the Military Commissions Act of 2006 absolves doctors from ethical standards and practices; with any luck, it won't absolve anyone at all soon.Sen. Christopher Dodd said today: “We in Congress have our own obligation, to work in a bipartisan way to repair the damage that has been done, to protect our international reputation, to preserve our domestic traditions, and to provide a
successful mechanism to improve and enhance the tools required by the global war on terror."

That damage goes well beyond our international reputation and our domestic traditions. We have literally sold our birthright; and for what?

For those in positions of public trust, that they may serve justice, and promote the dignity and freedom of every person, we pray to you, O Lord.

Counterfeit Time

"The motif of the circle will obsess us through this cycle of lectures."


"Now the gift, if there is any, would no doubt be related to economy. One cannot treat the gift, this goes without saying, without treating this relation to economy, even to the money economy. But is not the gift, if there is any, also that which interrupts economy? That which, in suspending economic calculation, no longer gives rise to exchange? That which opens the circle so as to defy reciprocity or symmetry, the common measure, and so as to turn aside the return in view of the no-return? If there is gift, the given of the gift (that which one gives, that which is given, the gift as given thing or as act of donation) must not come back to the giving (let us not already say to the subject, to the donor). It must not circulate, it must not be exchanged, it must not in any case be exhausted, as a gift, by the process of exchange, by the movement of circulation, of the circle in the form of return to the point of departure. If the figure of the circle is essential to economics the gift must remain aneconomic. Not that it remains foreign to the circle, but it must keep a relation of foreignness to the circle, a relation without relation of familiar foreignness. It is perhaps in this sense that the gift is the impossible.

"Not impossible but the impossible. The very figure of the impossible. It announces itself, gives itself to be thought as the impossible. It is proposed that we begin by this."--Jacques Derrida, Given Time: I. Counterfeit Money, tr. Peggy Kamuf (Chicago, University of Chicago Press, 1994), 7.

But one must not think ill of the paradox, for the paradox is the passion of thought, and the thinker without the paradox is like the lover without passion: a mediocre fellow. But the ultimate potentiation of ever passion is always to will its own downfall, and so it is also the ultimate passion of the understanding to will the collision, in one way or another the collision must cause its downfall. This, then, is the ultimate paradox of thought: to want to discover something that thought itself cannot think.
Johannes Climacus, Philosophical Fragments, ed. Soren Kierkegaard, tr. Howard V. Hong and Edna H. Hong (Princeton, New Jersey: Princeton University Press, 1985), 37.

We will, as Derrida says, as Johannes Climacus says, proceed slowly. We will not hurry to a conclusion, but consider all the points carefully. The figure of the circle obesses us in time. "One of the most powerful and ineluctable representations, at least in the history of metaphysics, is the representation of time as a circle. Time would always be a process or a movement in the form of a circle or ths sphere." (Derrida, p. 8) We don't want to hurry through that, either; we want to consider that carefully. This will take some time.

Christianity is saturated with time. It is a time-bound and time-obssessed religion, seemingly relying for the claims of its kerygma on the historical evidence of the existence of the Christ. Because Christianity claims that the circle of time was broken by the incarnation of God in Jesus of Nazareth. And that claim raises issues of paradox, and of time, and of the very nature of both time, and thought, and existence. So we always start with the impossible, with what Johannes Climacus labelled the "Absolute Paradox." But the paradox is not whether or not the idea can be conceived (that is another paradox altogether); the paradox is whether it can even be thought. And if we can think it, what are we thinking?

The figure of the circle obsesses Christianity when it thinks about time. The Messiah has come to redeem time, and will come to redeem time. The Messiah has come to proclaim the kingdom of heaven, and will come to proclaim the kingdom of heaven. For Christianity, history is the already happened and the not-just-yet, the passed, and passing, and to come. It is a circle which receives and repays and always offers another chance for reward and redemption. And it is broken and healed by the intrusion and arrival of the gift, a gift which truly cannot be thought, and which truly defies reciprocity and symmetry.

Perhaps the circle as time obsesses Christianity because it is the figure of eternity, of what has no beginning and no end. But the circle is also the figure of purposelessness and futility, of chasing one's tail, of moving endlessly forward at right angles to purpose. But the figure of the circle also makes time economic; a cycle of exchange that provides the energy to keep the cycle going. Into this exchance, Christianity says, enters the gift, the gift which cannot come back to the giving, cannot circulate, cannot be exchanged, cannot return to its point of departure. This is not a new paradox; but it is a little appreciated one:

"Come for water, all who are thirsty;
though you have no money, come, buy grain and eat;
come, buy wine and milk,
not for money, not for a price.
Why spend your money for what is not food,
your earnings on what fails to satisfy?
Listen to me and you will fare well,
you will enjoy the fat of the land."--Isaish 55:1-2, REB)

The Gospel writers turned to Isaiah to find context for their Messiah, to find authority for his authority. They found Isaiah 53: "Who would believe what we have heard? To whom has the power of the Lord been revealed? He grew up before the Lord like a young plant whose roots are in dry ground; he had no beauty, no majesty in our eyes." (Isaiah 53:1-2, REB) That paradox they could grasp; they could apply it to the death of their Messiah, the paradoxical and still unthinkable crucifixion of God. But they could not see the connection to Isaiah 55, even when the Messiah made it plain for them: "Think about how the lilies grow: they don't slave and they never spin. Yet let me tell you, even Solomon at the height of his glory was never decked out like one of these. If God dresses up the grass in the field, which is here today and tomorrow is tossed into an oven, it is surely more like God cares for you, you who don't take anything for granted!" (Luke 12:27-28, SV)

The figure of the circle is very hard to break. It encircles us, "beseige[s] us all the while that we are regularly attempting to exit." (Derrida, 8) But the presence of the Messiah, the coming and to come, is the gift no one gives, that does not come back to the giving, that does not circulate and so remains aneconomic. Not quite foreign to the circle, for that would violate the other paradox, it still remains foreign to the circle, retains "a relation of foreignness to the circle, a relation without relation of familiar foreignness. It is perhaps in this sense that the gift is the impossible."

Indeed, the Absolute Paradox is the impossible. "But is a paradox such as this conceivable? We shall not be in a hurry; whenever the contention is over a replay to a question and the contending is not like that on a race track, it is not speed that wins but correctness. The understanding certainly cannot think it, cannot hit upon it on its own, and if it is proclaimed, the understanding cannot understand it and merely detects that it will likely be its downfall." (Climacus, p. 47) Part of the paradox that makes it Absolute is not merely the incarnation (which is, indeed, a paradox), but that the incarnation occurs in time. Isn't time then ruptured, torn apart? Certainly, standing on the edge of Advent, the incarnation "announces itself, gives itself to be thought as the impossible." It is proposed, then. that we begin by this.