Friday, November 30, 2007

O Xmas Tree, O Xmas Tree!

Looking back two years, I find I mentioned this before. No matter; the myths about where Christmas trees "came from" persist.

So, follow the link to a (more or less) subtle rebuttal.

Poet, and don't know it....

What if they gave a War on Christmas and nobody came?

Best I can figure, that's what happened. I googled "War on Christmas" hoping to find some news about it; all I got were references from 2005. Of course, this could simply mean that "war on Christmas" is what the enemies of concerned citizens like Bill O'Reilly and John Gibson named the "battle," much like the mockery of "Political Correctness" (a term invented by conservatives to mock liberals, though no one seems to remember that, now).

Oh, wait: never mind.

So I don't know where it's going this year. Which is fine, of course; the last thing we need is another fight over whether Christmas trees are religious or secular symbols. O'Reilly is trying to stir the ashes by complaining about a city council effort in Colordao, but it's pretty weak tea, indeed. What is it about Colorado and Christmas decorations? But I wanted to point out, as the season approaches (or is already upon us, on the secular calendar. December and "Christmas" have become synonymous terms) that there's always been a "war on Christmas", and the real fight has never been over "paganism" v. Christianity, but a completely internecine battle. It's always been a fight, in America at least, between Protestants and Catholics. Not much of a fight, mind, as Catholics never had the political or social power they had in Europe; but the efforts to suppress or control or complain about Christmas, largely stem from our Puritan heritage. It was never secularists who hated "Christmas." It was conservatives, especially those who objected to the rowdiness of the celebrations. Of course, it was consumerism which tamed all of that, giving the wealthy an excuse to be generous and beneficent...with their "nuclear" family.

Which is what Christmas is really all about: family. Right, Charlie Brown? (By the way, where is the family in "A Charlie Brown Christmas"?) Good thing that show was never controversial, huh? I mean, it's a Christmas classic. I'm sure if CBS didn't air it, they'd hear from Bill O'Reilly....

Thursday, November 29, 2007

A day early

but still...

No, not January 12, 2007. European dating: day first, month second. What I loved was the play on "Advent." Works in an Anglican (well, nominally) country, not in a "Puritan" one. That "history of Christmas" stuff, you know...

And yes, I am a Dr. Who geek....

Tuesday, November 27, 2007

The more things change....

Cleaning up backstage before Advent starts in earnest:

I was listening to the Pacifica Radio Archives fundraiser, when they played a recording of Fannie Lou Hamer describing her treatment in a jail cell in Mississippi in 1963. This transcript is from her speech at the Democratic National Convention in Chicago in 1968; it is essentially the same story. Just a reminder that torture is as American as cherry pie, and that all we've done in 45 years is outsource the violence so native to our political and social culture.

On the 10th of September 1962, sixteen bullets was fired into the home of Mr. and Mrs. Robert Tucker for me. That same night two girls were shot in Ruleville, Mississippi. Also Mr. Joe McDonald's house was shot in.

And June the 9th, 1963, I had attended a voter registration workshop; was returning back to Mississippi. Ten of us was traveling by the Continental Trailway bus. When we got to Winona, Mississippi, which is Montgomery County, four of the people got off to use the washroom, and two of the people - to use the restaurant - two of the people wanted to use the washroom.

The four people that had gone in to use the restaurant was ordered out. During this time I was on the bus. But when I looked through the window and saw they had rushed out I got off of the bus to see what had happened. And one of the ladies said, "It was a State Highway Patrolman and a Chief of Police ordered us out."

I got back on the bus and one of the persons had used the washroom got back on the bus, too.

As soon as I was seated on the bus, I saw when they began to get the five people in a highway patrolman's car. I stepped off of the bus to see what was happening and somebody screamed from the car that the five workers was in and said, "Get that one there." When I went to get in the car, when the man told me I was under arrest, he kicked me.

I was carried to the county jail and put in the booking room. They left some of the people in the booking room and began to place us in cells. I was placed in a cell with a young woman called Miss Ivesta Simpson. After I was placed in the cell I began to hear sounds of licks and screams, I could hear the sounds of licks and horrible screams. And I could hear somebody say, "Can you say, 'yes, sir,' nigger? Can you say 'yes, sir'?"

And they would say other horrible names.

She would say, "Yes, I can say 'yes, sir.'"

"So, well, say it."

She said, "I don't know you well enough."

They beat her, I don't know how long. And after a while she began to pray, and asked God to have mercy on those people.

And it wasn't too long before three white men came to my cell. One of these men was a State Highway Patrolman and he asked me where I was from. I told him Ruleville and he said, "We are going to check this."

They left my cell and it wasn't too long before they came back. He said, "You are from Ruleville all right," and he used a curse word. And he said, "We are going to make you wish you was dead."

I was carried out of that cell into another cell where they had two Negro prisoners. The State Highway Patrolmen ordered the first Negro to take the blackjack.

The first Negro prisoner ordered me, by orders from the State Highway Patrolman, for me to lay down on a bunk bed on my face.

I laid on my face and the first Negro began to beat. I was beat by the first Negro until he was exhausted. I was holding my hands behind me at that time on my left side, because I suffered from polio when I was six years old.

After the first Negro had beat until he was exhausted, the State Highway Patrolman ordered the second Negro to take the blackjack.

The second Negro began to beat and I began to work my feet, and the State Highway Patrolman ordered the first Negro who had beat me to sit on my feet - to keep me from working my feet. I began to scream and one white man got up and began to beat me in my head and tell me to hush.

One white man - my dress had worked up high - he walked over and pulled my dress - I pulled my dress down and he pulled my dress back up.

I was in jail when Medgar Evers was murdered.

All of this is on account of we want to register, to become first-class citizens. And if the Freedom Democratic Party is not seated now, I question America. Is this America, the land of the free and the home of the brave, where we have to sleep with our telephones off the hooks because our lives be threatened daily, because we want to live as decent human beings, in America?

"Why can't you just die?"--Two-Face to Batman


Over the last eight years, the refusal of patients to die according to actuarial schedules has led the federal government to demand that hospices exceeding reimbursement limits repay hundreds of millions of dollars to Medicare.

The charges are assessed retrospectively, so in most cases the money has long since been spent on salaries, medicine and supplies. After absorbing huge assessments for several years, often by borrowing at high rates, a number of hospice providers are bracing for a new round that they fear may shut their doors.
The problem? Medical care works. No one could have foreseen that, apparently:

In the early days of the Medicare hospice benefit, which was designed for those with less than six months to live, nearly all patients were cancer victims, who tended to die relatively quickly and predictably once curative efforts were abandoned.
Medicare’s coverage of hospice, which began in 1983, has become one of the fastest growing components of the government’s fastest growing entitlement. Spending nearly tripled from 2000 to 2005, to $8.2 billion, and nearly 40 percent of Medicare recipients now use the service.

To be eligible, patients must be certified by two doctors as having six months or less to live, assuming their illness runs a normal course. They must agree not to bill Medicare for curative procedures related to their diagnosis.
Or maybe it's the idea that doctors can predict the future. Actually, it's the fact that, in 1983, most patients were cancer patients, and they didn't live long. Now it's Alzheimer's patients, who live much longer. And hospice care doesn't mean relocation to a facility; it means care for patients in their homes, palliative care to make their last years comfortable. But when they insist on stretching out those last years as long as possible, well....something has to be done.

I know! Let's demand a refund! This is the Wal-Mart model for healthcare:

In the Wall Street Journal today (subscription required), Vanessa Furhmans wraps subrogation inside a very moving human story. Deborah Shank, a Wal-Mart worker, faced $470,000 in medical bills after getting hit by a truck. Wal-Mart's health plan paid the bills without any hitches. Shank sued the truck company. But it only had limited liability insurance. The settlement Shank won ended up in a trust to care for her now that she's confined to a nursing home.

Wal-Mart, out $470,000, then sued Shank to recover the money it had spent. The retailer won and left her with nothing to pay for ongoing care, beyond what's paid for by government programs (Medicare, Medicaid). As the legal fight escalated Shank's son died in Iraq. While Wal-Mart appears to have a legal right to the money--as even Shank's husband concedes--the nasty situation does not necessarily paint a picture of a benevolent employer.
And I found that story on When even the WSJ and Forbes think you're evil, well....

And in case you're wondering: no, this isn't a matter of an evil Bush Administration. It predates Bush by 3 years:

In 1998, Congress removed limits on the number of days that an individual could receive Medicare hospice coverage, a move that encouraged physicians to refer terminal patients.

But lawmakers did not remove a cap on the aggregate amount that hospice providers could be reimbursed each year, a measure designed to contain the program’s cost. A hospice’s total annual reimbursement cannot exceed the product of the number of patients it serves and a per-patient allowance set by the government each year ($21,410 in 2007).
It's money that matters, you know....

Gimme that ol' time religion...or not

The problem with blogging is that it allows people to put their ignorance on public display which is still, even in this post-Jerry Springer, Oprah-era, embarassing.

So William Saletan writes:

If this suggestion [i.e., the genetic mental inferiority of Africans] makes you angry—if you find the idea of genetic racial advantages outrageous, socially corrosive, and unthinkable—you're not the first to feel that way. Many Christians are going through a similar struggle over evolution. Their faith in human dignity rests on a literal belief in Genesis. To them, evolution isn't just another fact; it's a threat to their whole value system. As William Jennings Bryan put it during the Scopes trial, evolution meant elevating "supposedly superior intellects," "eliminating the weak," "paralyzing the hope of reform," jeopardizing "the doctrine of brotherhood," and undermining "the sympathetic activities of a civilized society." Neither my belief (it isn't an article of faith) in human dignity, nor that of William Jennings Bryant, ever rested on a literal interpretation of any book of the Bible. First, Bryant admitted at the Scopes trial that he read Genesis allegorically, not literally. More importantly, Bryant wasn't attacking Darwin's theory of evolution, he was attacking Social Darwinism. To quote Huston Smith:

Bryan was first and foremost a passionate humanitarian. He was an irrepressible evangelist for social reform, and social Darwinism (which would soon be discredited) was then in its heyday. Bryan had seen the survival-of-the-fittest theory used to defend the robber barons in America, and in Germany to justify the brutal militarism that led to World War I. This had led him to the belief that 'the Darwinian theory represents man as reaching his present perfection by the operation of the law of hate, the merciless law by which the strong crowd out and kill off the weak." (Smith, 107)
Does Mr. Saletan really want to argue that evolution equips "the intelligent" to destroy the "unintelligent" if they are so inclined? Or return us to the days of the Robber Barons? Probably not; so he needs to reconsider his example of Mr. Bryant.

As for reading Genesis literally, well, that didn't start until after Darwin. It's a chicken or egg issue, and on this history is quite clear: "The Fundamentals" were published between 1910 and 1915 and were :

written as a response to the modernism and liberal theology of the latter part of the 19th century and the beginning of the 20th. They were written in order for ministers of the gospel, missionaries, Sunday School superintendents, etc. (see volume prefaces) to have at their disposal articles which would be useful in affirming and reaffirming the fundamental truths of Christianity in the face of ever increasing attacks against it.
19th century Biblical scholarship had already dissected the Bible as a series of texts just as philologists (like Nietszche) would examine Greek and Roman writings, finding in them remnants of folklore, multiple authors (the "JEPD" authors of Torah), formulating the "Q" hypothesis, etc. The 19th century was a rich time in Biblical scholarship, and it, not Darwin, turned the religious world upside down. The Fundamentals were an attempt, as Martin Marty would say, to establish that: "there was a moment in history when a particular book, leader and original social community was perfect...." Not when the world was perfect, or knowledge was complete, but when the interpretation of a book or the beliefs and ideas of a group of believers. The focus was not on the world and the non-believers. The world, in fact, was simply not that important. As Marty points out:

The biggest mistake the casual observer makes about fundamentalisms is that people think this is the ''old-time religion.'' In fact, no religious forces are more effective at using the technical instruments of modernity. They will preach sermons against science and technology, but they will seize these instruments, which is why we see them as very modern movements.
So the religious world didn't change because of Darwin's theory, and it didn't challenge religion all that much. What challenged religion was religious, not scientific, change. Again, quoting Dr. Marty:

The average person doesn't understand that Catholicism and most of Protestantism and Judaism are developing faiths -- development is built into the first generation. Islam has a loyalty to every word of the Koran, but its history has unfolded in different ways in different social climates.... In the period of the early Christians, Paul and Peter are fighting like mad in Acts already. But fundamentalists teach that there was that perfect moment, and in their selective retrieval they go back to that perfect moment. They say, ''We don't change at all,'' and people say, ''Yeah, while all the other people are compromising with modernity, these people really reach deep.'' But the hymnity, the songs, the scriptural base -- it's all a very particular interpretation, and the fundamentalist convinces us that it's always been there.
When, of course, it hasn't.

The fight of the fundamentalist, you see, is not against modernity; it's against co-religionists. It's a fight for identity, and identity is always defined by those who are almost like me, but enough un-like me to make me worry about my identity. It's widely reported that what upset Osama Bin Laden was neither the freedom nor the modernity of the United States; it was the placement of US, i.e. non-Muslim, bases in the "holy land" of Saudi Arabia. The offense was that his co-religionists, other Muslims, would not see this as much an affront as he did. So the "Fundamentals" were written, not to oppose science or even the march of technological change, but to rebut co-religionists who had taken the Enlightenment project seriously. Thomas Jefferson has never been seen as a threat, despite his "Jefferson Bible," because he's never been seen as a co-religionist. But Biblical Scholars, well...that's another matter. That kind of action requires a response.

Saletan proves that a little knowledge is a dangerous thing. As for the rest of his claims, Josh Marshall has links to rebuttal of those. The details of that I can't be bothered with because while science can establish what an angstrom is and how to use it to measure a light wave, it can't establish what "intelligence" is or tell me what unit of measure assesses it. Einstein, for example, is now regarded as not the smartest physicist of his day, but the most imaginative. Which is better? And how do we measure "imagination"? Do we even consider it a part of "intelligence"? Why? How? What, in fact, is "imagination"? Science can define an element. Can it define "thought" well enough to assess it and determine who has more of it, who has less? Can science really determine which thoughts are more valuable? What is the scientific measure for artistic, or even spiritual, achievement? As Wittgenstein said (following Plato, actually): "You cannot lead people to what is good; you can only lead them to some place or other. The good is outside the space of facts."


Sunday, November 25, 2007

Now that we know this

What do we do? Or: Just in time for Advent, the Archbishop of Canterbury:

In an interview with Muslim lifestyle magazine Emel, reported in The Sunday Times, the head of the Church of England said America's attempts to accumulate influence and control around the world were "not working".

America in Iraq had tried a "short burst of violent action" in an attempt to "clear the decks", he said.

He told Emel magazine: "It is one thing to take over a territory and then pour energy and resources in to administering it and normalising it.

"Rightly or wrongly, that's what the British Empire did - in India, for example.

"It is another thing to go in on the assumption that a quick burst of violent action will somehow clear the decks and that you can move on and other people will put it back together - Iraq, for example."

Of Britain's presence in Iraq, he said: "A lot of the pressure around the invasion of Iraq was 'We've got to do something! Then we'll feel better.' That's very dangerous."

He said the modern Western definition of humanity is "clearly not working very well" and said there is something about Western modernity "which really does eat away at the soul".

Point of clarification: ProfWombat asks:

But who is more representative of, more enabling of, more promoting of a Western definition of humanity than the Archbishop of Canterbury?
Too true. Kind of why I posted this. Can we escape the requirements of institutional position? But can we do without institutions, either?

Saturday, November 24, 2007

I should have studied Latin as a child....

Why isn't the plural of "paradox" "paradise"?

And shouldn't it be, anyway?

N.B.: Of course, as I'd have guessed, "Paradox" isn't Latin, but originally Greek (the final "x" should have been a tip-off).

I shoulda studied the Classics. Oy.

Friday, November 23, 2007

Things I should know better than to comment on

This sounds like a fascinating book. It made it to the NYTime Notables List of Holiday Books, so hopefully it's not just the review that intrigues. Here, for example, in a nutshell, is the problem of post-Enlightenment Christianity:

The real issue seems to be that he infused her with religiosity without providing her with a workable theology, an intellectual framework with which to understand, or at least abide, the central contradictions of Christianity. If God exists, she asks her father, why does he allow so much suffering? “Ah,” he responds unhelpfully. “The $64,000 question.”
The "he" there is

a Lutheran minister who moved from parish to parish during her childhood, working for a poverty-level wage. As a minister, he was devoted to good works, helping parishioners erect a do-it-yourself church in the dead of winter and tending to the elderly and infirm. But he was also, as her meticulous, and meticulously nonjudgmental, narrative demonstrates, an awkward man, overly abstracted about his own intimacies.
Now there are no small number of assumptions worked into that description, some of them perfectly legitimate, some of them, shall we say, overly-culturally determined. Ah, but how can we know the dancer from the dance. Just as the reviewer reminds us of the '70's:

(Remember when a politicized Christianity meant fighting poverty and war? It’s no less a touching throwback to the 1970s than Blue Nun wine, track lighting and split ends, each of which gets an amusing mention here.)
So we have to consider that any period is peculiar to itself, and it's all a matter of how you divide it up. Looking backward, for example, we might run up against the culture of medieval Europe; or, of you don't want to go quite that far back, consider the "God is Dead" movement of the '60's; which was started by theologians, not radical atheist ancestors to Hitchens and Dawkins. Surely that, too, would leave a man wondering if there was "an intellectual framework with which to understand, or at least abide, the central contradictions of Christianity." Which brings us almost immediately to the question of the "Great Separation." Because there's another book on the notable list, about that. (I'm preparing my private Christmas list, can you tell?) And we're we're back to the problem of contradiction, or, if you prefer, ambiguity. Or, if you really prefer, Kierkegaard's paradox. As Johannes de Silentio said, the "thinker without a paradox is like a lover without feeling--a paltry mediocrity." But on the other hand, too much of nothin' makes a man feel ill at ease. So:

Those unusual circumstances were provided by Christian theology — but not, as some recent religious apologists have argued, because the Judeo-Christian framework itself promotes rationality and tolerance. Rather, it is Christianity’s own fundamental ambiguities — torn between a picture of God as both present and absent from the temporal realm, an ambivalence powerfully represented by the paradoxes of the Trinity — that made it “uniquely unstable,” subject to a plurality of interpretations that became institutionalized in sectarianism, and hence to several centuries’ worth of devastating upheaval.

In some sense, Lilla is saying that Christianity is just too philosophically interesting.
I blame the Hellenes. Which is to say this is not a new argument at all. Walter Kauffman noted in his introduction to his translation of Buber's I and Thou that separating Christianity from Greek rationalism was impossible (how do you separate the tapestry from its threads?), but a large part of the modern enterpries in theology has been the continuing effort to at least try. Which is where process theology came from (and where it's going).

What's really interesting is that Lilla connects the problem to a simplistic understanding of theology and religion promoted by Hobbes, one that sounds very familiar to any browser of blogs today:

and the answer [Hobbes] gives is: because man is a frightened ignoramus. Knowing enough to be terrified of his own mortality but knowing little else about objective nature and thus understandably alarmed, man creates an omnipotent being who can be supplicated and obeyed, a conception that then ends up tormenting him with new fear. Religion, Hobbes thought, comes from a dark place in the psyche.
Not so fast, says Lilla:

The religious impulse isn’t merely a matter of man’s cringing self-protective fear; it can also be an expansive response toward the universe, morality and freedom, and a strain of post-Enlightenment thinking, featuring thinkers of the caliber of Kant, struggled to do justice to religion’s expansive aspects.
So the "stillborn God" is the product of liberal theology which wants, essentially, to make man the master over the divine. An almost Greek act of hubris. Creon in Antigone could predict what happens next. But since our lives are not ruled by the dictates of playwrights, the response is more muddled, and even less easy to anticipate:

The “stillborn God” of the title is what Lilla calls the deity of liberal theology, a post-Hegelian movement, active particularly in Germany, that “wedded romantic soulfulness with the modern conviction that man attains happiness by freely developing his capacities, not by submitting them to God’s authority.” As the christening indicates, Lilla believes this fuzzy God to have been a dud, but, paradoxically, one that helped prepare the way for a far more fiery and apocalyptic breed of political theology.
Interestingly, though the review never mentions it, this is the critique of "liberal theology" contained in Reinhold Niebuhr's Moral Man and Immoral Society. Hmmm...maybe everything old really is new again. That marriage of soulfulness and modern conviction which we now call "self-actualization" is precisely what Kierkegaard was reacting against, too, even though his aim was to fully realize the "individual." Ironically, precisely what he went for is now precisely what is used to justify self-actualization and the "It's all about ME!" trend of modern American society and even modern American Christianity. Well, Neibuhr is only remembered for a short prayer he wrote for a summer worship service and almost immediately threw away, so fame and immortality are never what you mean them to be.

What, then, do we make of this muddle? There are questions of theodicy here, and of ecclesiology; and the questions of ecclesiology are always questions of church in society. There are personal questions here, and social ones. There are questions of abstractions, and problems of concreteness, of transcendence in the quotidian. Being a pastor can indeed be a difficult calling, especially if you can't find a way to set aside your self-interests; but set those aside, and what do you have at all? Society cannot seem to say, and theology seems almost barren of comfort. Maybe it's time for a radical disconnect. Maybe it's time for Advent...again.

Of course, that's still more than a week away. Still, I suppose we can start getting ready to...get ready.

Thursday, November 22, 2007

Thanksgiving 2007

Almighty God, our Heavenly Father, from whom cometh every good and pefect gift, we call to remembrance thy loving-kindness and the tender mercies which have been ever of old, and with grateful hearts we would lift up to thee the voice of our thanksgiving,

For all the gifts which thou hast bestowed upon us; for the life thou hast given us, and the world in which we live,

For the work we are enabled to do, and the truth we are permitted to learn; for whatever of good there has been in our past lives, and for all the hopes and aspirations which lead us on toward better things,

For the order and constancy of nature; for the beauty and bounty of the world; for day and night, summer and winter, seed-time and harvest; for the varied gifts of loveliness and use which every season brings,

For all the comforts and gladness of life; for our homes and all our home-blessings; for our friends and all pure pleasure; for the love, sympathy, and good will of men,

For all the blessings of civilization, wise government and legislation; for education, and all the privileges we enjoy through literature, science, and art; for the help and counsel of those who are wiser and better than ourselves,

For all true knowledge of thee and the world in which we live, and the life of truth and righteousness and divine communion to which thou hast called us; for prophets and apostles, and all earnest seekers after truth; for all lovers and helpers of mankind, and all godly and gifted men and women,

For the gift of thy Son Jesus Christ, and all the helps and hopes which are ours as his disciples; for the presence and inspiration of thy Holy Spirit, for all the ministries of thy truth and grace,

For communion with thee, the Father of our spirits; for the light and peace that are gained through trust and obedience, and the darkness and disquietude which befall us when we disobey thy laws and follow our lower desires and selfish passions,

For the desire and power to help others; for every opportunity of serving our generation according to thy will, and manifesting the grace of Christ to men,

For all the discipline of life; for the tasks and trials by which we are trained to patience, self-knowledge and self-conquest, and brought into closer sympathy with our suffering brethren; for troubles which have lifted us nearer to thee and drawn us into deeper fellowship with Jesus Christ,

For the sacred and tender ties which bind us to the unseen world; for the faith which dispels the shadows of earth, and fills the saddest and the last moments of life with the light of an immortal hope.

God of all grace and love, we have praised thee with our lips; grant that we may praise thee also in consecrated and faithful lives. And may the words of our mouth and the meditations of our heart be acceptable in thy sight, O Lord, our Strength and our Redeemer.

Wednesday, November 21, 2007

Everything Old Is New Again--Again

In the Middle Ages, the church sold indulgences, and others did a brisk trade in relics. Now it's crucifixes from sweat shops in China.

And, on the off chance you missed it, start the War on Christmas off right with the Rev. Billy and the Church of Stop Shopping. This is one you're better off listening to. This season, ask yourself: What Would Jesus Buy?

The image, by the way, is from Chartres Cathedral. It's a labyrinth from the 13th century. Not for sale, and not made in China; so far as I know.

Sunday, November 18, 2007

Good Words for a Sunday Morning

Archbishop Desmond Tutu speaks:

"Our world is facing problems - poverty, HIV and Aids - a devastating pandemic, and conflict," said Archbishop Tutu, 76.

"God must be weeping looking at some of the atrocities that we commit against one another.

"In the face of all of that, our Church, especially the Anglican Church, at this time is almost obsessed with questions of human sexuality."

Criticising Dr Williams, he said: "Why doesn't he demonstrate a particular attribute of God's which is that God is a welcoming God."


He said the Anglican Church had seemed "extraordinarily homophobic" in its handling of the issue, and that he had felt "saddened" and "ashamed" of his church at the time.

Asked if he still felt ashamed, he said: "If we are going to not welcome or invite people because of sexual orientation, yes.

"If God, as they say, is homophobic, I wouldn't worship that God."


"It is a perversion if you say to me that a person chooses to be homosexual.

"You must be crazy to choose a way of life that exposes you to a kind of hatred.

"It's like saying you choose to be black in a race-infected society."

Friday, November 16, 2007


This will start to resemble a hall of mirrors, but Athenae's beautiful words here sounded so much like Annie Dillard's that it sent me searching for a favorite passage, and that's when I realized we've been here before.


So I'm watching an "X-Files" re-run, and they are showing pictures of burnt bodies and explaining that the fires were caused "without any apparent source of combustion." And I accept this statement, even as I ask myself: "But how do I know that isn't true?"

Well, because it isn't, of course. But why do I know that? How do I know a statement made on a TV show isn't true, while I know a statement made on a TV news show is true? What process, in other words, am I automatically going through to accept one, and suspend disbelief about the other?

Call it the "Galaxy Quest" question.

We go through a process of discernment, of suspension of disbelief, of ascertaining which statement is credible, which is not; but what is that process, exactly, and how do we automatically switch from fiction to non-fiction? How do we keep the two apart, without accepting everything or disbelieving anything? Keep that in mind; it's a question similar to what's going on at the annual meeting of the American Academy of Religion this year:

When some of the world's leading religious scholars gather in San Diego this weekend, pasta will be on the intellectual menu. They'll be talking about a satirical pseudo-deity called the Flying Spaghetti Monster, whose growing pop culture fame gets laughs but also raises serious questions about the essence of religion.
Which really isn't as absurd as it sounds. First, please note, these are religious scholars, not (necessarily) theologians. And the question of "What constitutes 'religion'" is a very live one in such circles.

The title: "Evolutionary Controversy and a Side of Pasta: The Flying Spaghetti Monster and the Subversive Function of Religious Parody."

"For a lot of people they're just sort of fun responses to religion, or fun responses to organized religion. But I think it raises real questions about how people approach religion in their lives," said Samuel Snyder, one of the three Florida graduate students who will give talks at the meeting next Monday along with Alyssa Beall of Syracuse University.
You might assume from this that AAR meetings are riotous and ribald affairs. But, per their website, they are usually concerned with topics like: "Studies of World Religions in Mainland China, Hong Kong, and Taiwan" or "Interdisciplinary, Theoretical, and Ideological Implications of the AAR and SBL Split"; or "Chinese Scholarship on the Dunhuang Manuscripts: New Perspectives on Buddhism" or even "Spectacles of Crucifixion" (yes, I'm picking the geekiest examples I can find). So to say this topic is slightly aberrant is probably not to go too far afield. You could also say it proves Ecclesiastes right: there is nothing new under the sun.

The presenters' titles seem almost a parody themselves of academic jargon. Snyder will speak about "Holy Pasta and Authentic Sauce: The Flying Spaghetti Monster's Messy Implications for Theorizing Religion," while Gavin Van Horn's presentation is titled "Noodling around with Religion: Carnival Play, Monstrous Humor, and the Noodly Master."

Using a framework developed by literary critic Mikhail Bakhtin, Van Horn promises in his abstract to explore how, "in a carnivalesque fashion, the Flying Spaghetti Monster elevates the low (the bodily, the material, the inorganic) to bring down the high (the sacred, the religiously dogmatic, the culturally authoritative)."
Today we call it scholarship; in the Middle Ages, they called it the "Feast of Fools." Much of the antics of that occassion (memorably recreated in The Hunchback of Notre Dame) were aimed precisely at elevating the low and bringing down the high. As I've said before, we could use a bit more of that in modern society.

We could also use a bit more reflection on what we know, and how we are so sure we know it. But maybe that's a dangerous question to ask....

In other news...

Scanning the reports of Site Meter obsessively, as I am wont to do (Google loves me, this I know/For Site Meter tells me so), I noticed a curious uptick in the number of visitors finding this place because they were searching for information on "Advent." Which is laudable, but also a kind of interesting statement about how we've structured our society. In brief, I blame consumerism.

Maybe it isn't that, actually. Took the Golden Child shopping for a coat she wanted, the other day. It was the last day of the sale, and I was worried there'd be nothing left. Silly me; they had plenty. Of course, it was a winter coat she wanted, and the temperatures have been flirting with 90 F all week, so why I thought people would do something as sensible as buy a winter coat when it was on sale, well....let's say I learned my lesson! Almost no one, of course, was enticed by the sale price; they weren't paying attention because they didn't need a coat. By today, however, with temperatures flirting with 70 (this is considered "cold" on the Gulf Coast), I'm sure the coats will be selling briskly; at the regular price.

We tend, in other words, to respond to stimuli, not to the calendar. But maybe that underscores my point, rather than undermines it. Because Xmas carols have been playing since the day after Hallowe'en in the stores I go into (mostly grocery stores), and Xmas goodies and decorations have been on display in every retail corner of this fair city since at least November 1, if not earlier. Consumerism depends on the anticipation of the season. Food Network (practically the only TV I watch, now that Jon Stewart is in re-runs) started getting us ready for Thanksgiving a week ago. Two days before Thanksgiving, they've already announced, they'll be getting us ready for Christmas. I guess the New Year's Dinners will be promoted around St. Nicholas Day, so we can get on to romantic Valentine's Day suppers by December 23rd.

There is a description of this kind of thing in the psychological literature, because I was "diagnosed" with it at one time. Essentially, I was advised, I was too busy living "in the future" to pay attention to the present. It was something of an escape mechanism for me, but it was also a cheat. It left the present hollow and my friends and family neglected as I busily built glass castles in the air which, of course, I could never move in to because I could never catch up with them; they were always "in the future." Hard to appreciate the present when you can't stop and look around at it.

And so I notice so many people so anxious (apparently; or just curious) to prepare for Advent before Advent has come, just as we must be ready for Thanksgiving so the meal is "perfect" and then be ready for Christmas so that day is "perfect," and then get ready for New Year's Eve so that party is "perfect," and....when do we ever just stop and enjoy the moment that is right before us? If we did that, of course, we might not buy all the things we need to make the future "perfect," though, and what would we do then?

If this is all starting to sound familiar, I suppose that is no accident. Advent itself is about preparation. I'll have more to say on that anon. And hopefully some new things to say about Advent throughout the season of same. But when we've reached the level of having to prepare for the preparation, well...that's getting a bit "meta-" even for me.

Advent is coming, but it is not yet. It is the season of what has come, and is coming, and what is not yet. A good place to start a new year. May we all be ready to begin, by then. In the meantime, let us live fully in the year that is ending, but not yet ended.

Thursday, November 15, 2007

Owner of a Lonely Heart

Isaiah 65:17-25
65:17 For I am about to create new heavens and a new earth; the former things shall not be remembered or come to mind.

65:18 But be glad and rejoice forever in what I am creating; for I am about to create Jerusalem as a joy, and its people as a delight.

65:19 I will rejoice in Jerusalem, and delight in my people; no more shall the sound of weeping be heard in it, or the cry of distress.

65:20 No more shall there be in it an infant that lives but a few days, or an old person who does not live out a lifetime; for one who dies at a hundred years will be considered a youth, and one who falls short of a hundred will be considered accursed.

65:21 They shall build houses and inhabit them; they shall plant vineyards and eat their fruit.

65:22 They shall not build and another inhabit; they shall not plant and another eat; for like the days of a tree shall the days of my people be, and my chosen shall long enjoy the work of their hands.

65:23 They shall not labor in vain, or bear children for calamity; for they shall be offspring blessed by the LORD-- and their descendants as well.

65:24 Before they call I will answer, while they are yet speaking I will hear.

65:25 The wolf and the lamb shall feed together, the lion shall eat straw like the ox; but the serpent--its food shall be dust! They shall not hurt or destroy on all my holy mountain, says the LORD.

Psalm 98
98:1 O sing to the LORD a new song, for he has done marvelous things. His right hand and his holy arm have gotten him victory.

98:2 The LORD has made known his victory; he has revealed his vindication in the sight of the nations.

98:3 He has remembered his steadfast love and faithfulness to the house of Israel. All the ends of the earth have seen the victory of our God.

98:4 Make a joyful noise to the LORD, all the earth; break forth into joyous song and sing praises.

98:5 Sing praises to the LORD with the lyre, with the lyre and the sound of melody.

98:6 With trumpets and the sound of the horn make a joyful noise before the King, the LORD.

98:7 Let the sea roar, and all that fills it; the world and those who live in it.

98:8 Let the floods clap their hands; let the hills sing together for joy

98:9 at the presence of the LORD, for he is coming to judge the earth. He will judge the world with righteousness, and the peoples with equity.

2 Thessalonians 3:6-13
3:6 Now we command you, beloved, in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, to keep away from believers who are living in idleness and not according to the tradition that they received from us.

3:7 For you yourselves know how you ought to imitate us; we were not idle when we were with you,

3:8 and we did not eat anyone's bread without paying for it; but with toil and labor we worked night and day, so that we might not burden any of you.

3:9 This was not because we do not have that right, but in order to give you an example to imitate.

3:10 For even when we were with you, we gave you this command: Anyone unwilling to work should not eat.

3:11 For we hear that some of you are living in idleness, mere busybodies, not doing any work.

3:12 Now such persons we command and exhort in the Lord Jesus Christ to do their work quietly and to earn their own living.

3:13 Brothers and sisters, do not be weary in doing what is right.

Luke 21:5-19
21:5 When some were speaking about the temple, how it was adorned with beautiful stones and gifts dedicated to God, he said,

21:6 "As for these things that you see, the days will come when not one stone will be left upon another; all will be thrown down."

21:7 They asked him, "Teacher, when will this be, and what will be the sign that this is about to take place?"

21:8 And he said, "Beware that you are not led astray; for many will come in my name and say, 'I am he!' and, 'The time is near!' Do not go after them.

21:9 "When you hear of wars and insurrections, do not be terrified; for these things must take place first, but the end will not follow immediately."

21:10 Then he said to them, "Nation will rise against nation, and kingdom against kingdom;

21:11 there will be great earthquakes, and in various places famines and plagues; and there will be dreadful portents and great signs from heaven.

21:12 "But before all this occurs, they will arrest you and persecute you; they will hand you over to synagogues and prisons, and you will be brought before kings and governors because of my name.

21:13 This will give you an opportunity to testify.

21:14 So make up your minds not to prepare your defense in advance;

21:15 for I will give you words and a wisdom that none of your opponents will be able to withstand or contradict.

21:16 You will be betrayed even by parents and brothers, by relatives and friends; and they will put some of you to death.

21:17 You will be hated by all because of my name.

21:18 But not a hair of your head will perish.

21:19 By your endurance you will gain your souls.

"In the sojourning of this carnal life each man carries his own heart and every heart is closed to every other heart."--Augustine

The story my daughter read in her class involved a young girl who was determined to follow the motto, "What Would Jesus Do?" When the high school bully mocked her, she took it mutely. When he peeled her woolen scarf off her neck outside school, she offered no resistance. When he went further and took her coat, she stood shivering the cold, but did nothing. Finally, the story ended with her luring her tormentor onto the ice of a frozen pond. She was trying to emulate Jesus' admonition to Simon, to prove she had enough faith to walk on water, even though warning signs around the pond said the ice was too thin. Not too thin for her slight frame, as it turned out, but too thin for the weight of the bully, who fell through but was able to catch himself by his elbows. Immersed in the freezing water, he couldn't get himself free without help, and his gang of hangers-on ran way rather than risk themselves, which left only his victim, standing safely in the middle of the pond, pondering what she should do. "What Would Jesus Do?" had been her motto but, after all, as she said to herself in the story's final words, "I'm only human."

Not the kind of story you ordinarily associate with these scriptures; not the kind of story you ordinarily associate with a question of faith. But then again, faith is usually a matter of what's in it for us; seldom is it a matter of what's in it for others. Perhaps that's one problem with our thinking about faith, with thinking about what faith is. But that isn't the problem in this story. The problem in this story, is about who faith is for. And here's the question that story raises: is faith for you? Or for your place in a community?

Not a question we are accustomed to asking. We prefer to think of ourselves as free agents, independent contractors, responsible only to ourselves and only responsible not to impose ourselves too much upon others. In that context "WWJD?" becomes: "How can I best acquit myself so that I will think well of myself when I think back on this moment?" That's the trap the young girl sets for herself in that story. She doesn't think of what the bully is doing, only of what it means to her. She doesn't think of what Jesus would do, only of how she can avoid the response she so obviously wants to make. And when turning the other cheek becomes too much of an effort for her, when she can't postpone her desire for a reckoning any longer, she tosses humility aside and goes straight for temptation. What would Jesus do? Remind us that the way is narrow, and the way is hard; and that none of us walk it alone.

Nowhere in the story, as my daughter recounted it, was there any indication that this young girl was a member of a believing community. She had obviously absorbed some lessons from some group, but her role in that group was to go and do likewise, all on her own. And there her troubles began.

As I mentioned earlier, nowhere in this Gospel passage when he warns of the wars and rumors of wars, of the calamities and catastrophes that are to come, nowhere in that advice does Jesus say: "So be ready then to choose sides, and to take up a position against evil." What he counsels is not struggle but passivity. "This will give you an opportunity to testify. So make up your minds not to prepare your defense in advance; for I will give you words and a wisdom that none of your opponents will be able to withstand or contradict." Which sounds fairly powerful, until you reflect that what will be given to you is words, is wisdom, something so powerful your opponent won't be able to contradict it. Of course, they may still torment you, torture you, put you in jail or even execute you; but you'll win the argument! And which one is the lesson of the Gospel: that you finally prevail, and evil is defeated? Or that your heart is open to every other heart, and that you finally know that you do not have to carry your heart alone?

The only true answer to the question "What Would Jesus Do?" is: get crucified. Jesus would be so faithful to God (as Jesus was fully human) and Jesus would be so powerless (as Jesus was fully God) as to only submit to the power of evil, never to raise power against it. Jesus would only do what Jesus had to do, to become the Crucified God. He would not be a demi-god, like Herakles, performing acts of power so important and noble even the gods had to honor him. He would not perform miracles to show God's power was supreme in Creation. Even John's gospel, beloved of conservative Christians and evangelicals, calls the miracles "signs," and constantly undercuts them by presenting them not as proof of Jesus' divinity, but as a diversion, a distraction, a false trail that will not lead to revelation. What Would Jesus Do? Call disciples, create a community, teach them by word and example his faithfulness, in hopes of sharing it with them, so they would remain faithful to God and to each other in the time of famine and plagues and earthquakes and great portents in heaven. Or even just bullies.

But you can't do that alone; just as you can't know God alone. I got into this discussion with a friend once, in seminary. A true-blue Protestant who had converted to Christianity through evangelicalism, she was quite convinced of the centrality of the relationship of God to the individual, without any mediator such as saints or the church. What I couldn't quite get her to understand was that it was the church, the body of believers, the clouds of witness, through time and across time, who had preserved the message and the gospels and the interpretations so they could be presented to her. What I tried to argue was that no one is born knowing God, that some community of believers has to bring God to us, each one of us. That isn't an exclusionary statement, simply an obvious one. If Kierkegaard was right and Christianity is conviction, a confession, then no one is born "Christian." And no one can know anything of Christianity, or of the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jesus, unless one is told; unless there is a faith community. So the lesson is simple: without a community, what faith do you have?

Faith in yourself, ultimately. Faith that you have the will to discern, on your own, what Jesus would do; and faith that you then have the will to do just as Jesus would do. But that is an impossible burden. That is the burden of a lonely heart, of a heart you carry on your own and keep closed to every other human heart. That will lead you to stand on the thin ice and lure your tormenter there, and then stand tormented about what you really want to do: save him? or watch him suffer? That is what faith outside a community leads you to.

But is faith inside a community any easier? No. No, it is not easy at all. But it is faithfulness, to carry the burden of others as well as the burden of yourself. The goal of faith, as Christians define it, is not to know God in your own thoughts, but to know God in the experience of other people. So even the Desert Fathers did not retreat to the mountains, did not abandon all human contact and disappear from human society; so even monks and nuns live in community, carry out the tasks of faith by living together. Faith, in Christian terms, is about living for others; living for others whether or not your faith is known to those others.

But that is a dry and empty exercise, if you try to do it alone. That is a fruitless and thankless task, if you try to be faithful all on your own in a world that doesn't recognize anything about your faith and what it asks of you. Faith alone soon turns either into an excuse for retribution or a private scorecard used to measure yourself against others. Faith lived by the individual alone is "too much of nothing," and it soon decays into faithlessness, no matter how faithful you think you are. Because faith that is not lived with others and in others who share your faith, is faith lived for you. It is faith in yourself, and when the time of trial comes, you are not ready to receive the words you need. For God is not known in the solitary confines of the human heart: God is known in the faces and hands and eyes and ears and mouths of people: people of faith, and people of no faith. "Christ before me, Christ beside me...Christ to comfort and restore me....Christ in hearts of all that love me, Christ in mouth of friend and stranger" is not just a prayer for protection, it is also a confession of the true nature of faith and faithfulness.

So in Isaiah God speaks of making a new people, and in Thessalonians Paul warns, not against associating with non-believers, but associating with lazy believers. The struggle of the human heart is constant, and the only comfort in the struggle is knowing that the struggle goes on in God, in the community of faith, among believers. The comfort is knowing that the struggle to open your heart to all the closed hearts around you is one shared by those in faith with you, that when you share your faithfulness you don't do it alone, and your strength doesn't come from your will alone. Will is not faith, and it will not preserve you against the challenge to what you believe. Standing alone is weakness, not strength. What would Jesus do? Find a group who shared his beliefs, and open his heart to them; and from them, in them, with them, open his heart to the world; not as an act of will, but as an act of faith. And then you will see "the floods clap their hands; let the hills sing together for joy at the presence of the LORD." Which is what you are looking for, after all; not your victory, but the victory of God.


Wednesday, November 14, 2007

Getting Our Priorities Straight

I read The Huffington Post as a matter of course, but I missed this. It's a very useful, very interesting, Q&A with the Iowa waitress who, thanks to Hillary Clinton and NPR, became the center of yet another non-controversy controversy. I still don't know what the facts are about the tipless tip, and I still don't care. What is interesting is how many sane people there are in this country, and how few of them have a voice in our public discourse.

For example:

Huffington Post: What is it like to be in the middle of a campaign-related media frenzy?
Esterday: It is nuts. Even going on the web for anything. There was a website in Cedar Rapids that said I had committed suicide. I understand that whoever wrote this meant it as a joke, but I have family in Cedar Rapids and I know people in Cedar Rapids and my mother committed suicide. So it wasn't a joke to me... It's taking it to an extreme and I guess in America now that's what people like and it's a shame that the media ran with this.
I learned this as a pastor: once you are a public figure, no matter how small the fishbowl, your entire life is up for scrutiny, examination, and wild gossip. I can't imagine what has been said about me among my last congregation in the past 6 years (diminishingly less, I know), but this points up one of the worst sins of the Intertubes, one I have complained about before. Still, there is more to this waitress than complaints about her 15 minutes of fame, viz:

Does the press have misplaced priorities?
In this country, look at how many homeless people there are. There are millions. There are people just like me. I'm not the only parent who has had to raise two kids and barely makes $20,000 a year... This is supposed to be the United States of America, the strongest nation in the world, and we can't even provide places for our homeless. The media should be focusing on that.
Studs Terkel couldn't have put it better. The said fact is, of course, we used to have politicians who talked about these things, as I mention below. But today? Even among Democrats? Fuggedaboutit! And as for mentioning her in Clinton's stump speech, too easily do politicians forget other people are not public figures, free for the taking:

Sen. Clinton talked about you - following this incident - in some of her speeches about women earning minimum wage and you seemed upset about it.
To all the politicians, if you talk to somebody and maybe their life interests you, don't just go down the road then and use them as part of your speech to get votes. I was never even asked that day if I'm a Democrat or a Republican or whatever. I was never asked whom I was behind. And then to go down and be called up that night [in a speech by Clinton], was I angry about it? Yes I was. Don't get me wrong they called me a few days later to ask if they could use me in the speech. And they sent me a release form, but they were already using me. So what the hell, I signed it.
Another lesson learned as a pastor: never mention anyone's personal story, no matter how public it actually is, from the pulpit. Everyone will know who you are talking about, and the person in question won't appreciate the attention. Of course, that's an obvious lesson in a church, a very closed community. What's disturbing is when a politician doesn't recognize that, despite the fact its 300 million people, each one is still an individual, and this is still a "village." And the waitress's conclusion?

Does this change the way you are approaching the presidential election?
I've been an independent all my life. My mom was a Democrat and my father a Republican. I just sat back and watched them argue and stayed in the middle. But I'm not going to vote for Hillary. That is a definite. No one could pay me enough money. My opinion of her has changed drastically. The more I read and find out about her it changes more and more to the negative. I don't believe she can help out the working women of this world because I don't believe she gets it.
I'm reminded of the newsreel pictures of Bobby Kennedy in the movie "Bobby," (and yes, if you follow that link, we are still honoring swagger and bluster; read that speech by RFK and try to imagine any Democrat giving the same speech today.) RFK walking among the working poor of Applachia, RFK addressing groups of people on city streets in inner-city America. It's because of his assassination, among other things, that politicians don't do that kind of thing anymore. But we are all the poorer for it.

And getting poorer by the day.

The Paradox of Boundaries and Power

Even when I try to be as clear as I can be, apparently, I am unclear:

Sometimes, in other words, you have to compromise some of your principles in order to uphold others. The alternative is to let a small group of intransigent bullies dominate the system. This, it seems to me, is the problem that advocates of transformative politics have to answer. How is it exactly that politics are going to be transformed while the goons thoroughly control the place?

Some of my friends and colleagues have decided that the sacrifice of principle simply isn't worth it. Try to gain power, and you're dancing with the devil, they warn.

Perhaps. But the flip side to that equation is that without power, nothing can be done to protect the innocent, much less redirect a predatory political system.
There was a link in the original back to the blog of yours truly. I pity the persons following that link and trying to understand what it means. Let me clarify:

Pastor Dan and I are talking about apples and oranges. Pastor Dan wants to stay in Omelas and free the child and make the city over into the basileia tou theou. And I prefer to walk away from Omelas, because I know it cannot be remade, that Omelas cannot exist as Omelas without leaving the child in the basement; that to free the child is not to re-make Omelas, nor will it improve the child. The deal with the devil has been made, and we cannot unmake it. My proclamation of the basileia of God is as an alternative, a replacement, not a corrective.

Am I right? Do I consider myself more principled? I don't know; and no, I don't. It isn't a question of principle. I do not consider myself holier than thou, or in some way superior to Pastor Dan. That is the way of power. My way is the way of powerlessness. It is the way of humility. Does this mean bullies will continue to control the political process? Yes; just as they did in Jesus' day. It was not a generation after his crucifixion (an act of savagery that beggars description as "bullying", I know) when Roman soldiers slaughtered every man, woman, and child they could find in Jerusalem. I find references to that cataclysm in the Gospels, most likely inserted after the fact, as the Gospels themselves probably post date the destruction of Jerusalem. I find nothing in those references that is a call to arms against such horror, that is a demand that it be prevented, that is a rallying cry for an alternative political vision which will remove the brutal yoke of Roman "civilization" from the necks of the people of Israel. Indeed, the gospel message for this week (which I'll be getting to in another post) is about wars and rumors of wars; but it isn't about choosing sides for the fight. What it is about is being ready, and faithful, and trusting God to preserve those who hold fast to the way of God, the way of powerlesness, the way of the executed Savior, the Crucified God.

I've actually made this point to Pastor Dan before; but I will repeat myself, and make it again:

I'm a stickler on this point: power only and ever and always serves the ends of power. If God is not about the power of powerlessness, then Paul and I are agreed that the crucifixion was pointless, and all we're really waiting for is for God to get around to making us all believers, whether we like it or not.

But if God is about the power of powerlessness, then even taking up power in God's name is contrary to God's purpose. And a basiliea tou theou where the first are always last, and the last first, is a place with no political power at all.
My "principle" is in that first sentence. The rest is theology, and my sure conviction that the basiliea tou theou is about the race to the bottom, the race to be the servant, not the master; the race to give up power, not to attain it for whatever good purpose may be intended. Because it is my firm belief and experience that power only and ever serves the ends of power, and whoever wields it, for whatever reason, is mistaken in thinking the control it. Power serves its own ends, and it uses you as it used the person before you, and will use the person after you. It uses you only to make power effective. Does this create some sort of anthropic principle for power, give it anthropomorphism it does not deserve? Perhaps; but we cannot understand the world except for the anthropic stance of how we experience it, so I consider that a small objection indeed, in light of the larger truth it reveals.

So it isn't a principled stance on my part; it's a theological one. It is my belief, my faith, my understanding of the kerygma of the Gospel. Because if the meaning of the crucifixion was that Jesus was the ultimate power, and his resurrection the sign of the awesome power of God over all creation, then, well...we knew that, didn't we? And we are just back to the voice in the whirlwind speaking to Job, answering nothing and declaring itself justified. It means the awful agonies of the cross were just a bit of stage production by a God who couldn't be crucified, who couldn't die. It it not too much to say my entire understanding of Christianity rests on this paradox. To quote myself again:

There is no power without resistance. Power needs resistance not only to be powerful, but if it is going to exist at all. Without resistance power has no force. It is a blow against empty air, a fierce punch into darkness that meets no opposition. So power manufactures its own resistance, creates its own opponent.
It may well be there is far less difference between Pastor Dan and I than appears. After all, this discussion touches on the question of responsibility, which he claims makes him responsible for others against the power of those he identifies as bullies. There, again, I would disagree. It's a point I've made before: That which you most oppose, you most come to resemble. This is the problem with identifying yourself as opposition to whatever you consider evil. You stop identifying with your core, and start setting your boundaries against what you are not; and at precisely that point what you are not starts to define you. At that point the struggle against evil is endless, because evil is whatever you are not; and you can always find something you are not, something you are sure you must eradicate. But in seeking to eradicate that, you are seeking to eradicate yourself, because what you are not is what defines you.

Paradoxes abound.

Thomas Merton, writing about the desert fathers who fled collapsing civilization to live in the Egyptian deserts in the 4th century, said that there are times when it is every man and woman for him- or her-self, when the best you can do is to grab a piece of flotsam and hold on in the flood that is coming. Sometimes, in other words, the most Christian thing you can do is to save yourself, so that you can provide a witness to the world that will arise from the destruction. It may be we are in one of those times, again.
And in such times, it is not what you oppose which should define you.

Tuesday, November 13, 2007

The Hundred Dollar Holiday

Just in time for the War on Christmas, a series of reports from Marketplace: Consumed.

I've heard a few of these; I highly recommend them. Bill McKibben, a few years ago, published a little book titled Hundred Dollar Holiday, which I would highly recommend. It isn't like this theme is new, exactly. Francis Moore Lappe published Diet for a Small Planet over three decades ago. I remember a friend of mine, even earlier, campaigning in college to get McDonald's to reduce their packaging (they did; slightly). None of this is new, but we still act as if nothing has happened, or will ever happen, except that life as we know it will extend out in to the future forever, and eventually envelop the whole world. At least the parts that aren't crazy and hate us for our freedom.

So, in preparation for the shopping season which has already started (the Xmas carols were playing in every store in my area the day Hallowe'en was over), listen to the Marketplace reports; or get a copy of McKibben's book. Or, if you're so inclined, think about what preparing for the coming of the Christchild should mean to the world in physical, not just metaphysical, terms.

It couldn't hurt.

Saturday, November 10, 2007

Deliverance; but not without a savior

I was just sent the link to this essay (yes, I have e-mail; no, I'm not telling you what it is). It's by Christoper Dickey, son of the poet and novelist James Dickey, in turn author of the book and screenplay, "Deliverance." The occasion for the essay is a new release of the film on DVD, and an examination of the war in Iraq based on the story in the film. The essay ends here:

In the fiction of "Deliverance," Ed's sanity and bravery eventually save the day when he climbs out of the gorge. What I wonder is whether in the real-world crisis of Iraq there is enough sanity and bravery in Washington to deliver us from the evil that's been created in Iraq. Unfortunately it doesn't look that way. Whether we listen to the Republicans or the Democrats, the woman candidate for president or the men, all the major contenders remain reluctant to challenge the ersatz standards of strength set by the Bush administration. Sure, they snipe at each other, but none want to appear weak on national security. So we're left with "Law, what law? Plan, what plan?" And we continue to float down the river as if without a paddle, unable and unwilling to climb out, with much more violence and in all probability worse humiliations yet to come.
Read the beginning, too. It's worth it.

Thursday, November 08, 2007

The Joy of Logic

Found this trying to teach a rhetoric class how to write an argument while avoiding fallacious reasoning. One student has already identified "ad hominem tu quoque" as "being a hypocrite."

He has a fine career ahead of him as a blogger/commenter on blogs.

Some of these I knew; some of them were new to me. Any of these sound familiar?

Genetic Fallacy

A Genetic Fallacy is a line of "reasoning" in which a perceived defect in the origin of a claim or thing is taken to be evidence that discredits the claim or thing itself. It is also a line of reasoning in which the origin of a claim or thing is taken to be evidence for the claim or thing. This sort of "reasoning" has the following form:

1. The origin of a claim or thing is presented.
2. The claim is true(or false) or the thing is supported (or discredited).
This one, of course, is a favorite across the intertubes, and beloced of "gotcha!" journalists everywhere:

Ad Hominem Tu Quoque

This fallacy is committed when it is concluded that a person's claim is false because 1) it is inconsistent with something else a person has said or 2) what a person says is inconsistent with her actions. This type of "argument" has the following form:

1. Person A makes claim X.
2. Person B asserts that A's actions or past claims are inconsistent with the truth of claim X.
3. Therefore X is false.

The fact that a person makes inconsistent claims does not make any particular claim he makes false (although of any pair of inconsistent claims only one can be true - but both can be false). Also, the fact that a person's claims are not consistent with his actions might indicate that the person is a hypocrite but this does not prove his claims are false.
There is even a fallcy for "High Broderism." Indeed there is nothing new under the sun:

The Middle Ground Fallacy:

This fallacy is committed when it is assumed that the middle position between two extremes must be correct simply because it is the middle position. this sort of "reasoning" has the following form:

1. Position A and B are two extreme positions.
2. C is a position that rests in the middle between A and B.
3. Therefore C is the correct position.

This line of "reasoning" is fallacious because it does not follow that a position is correct just because it lies in the middle of two extremes

Then, of course, there is the much abused "Begging the Question:

Begging the Question is a fallacy in which the premises include the claim that the conclusion is true or (directly or indirectly) assume that the conclusion is true. This sort of "reasoning" typically has the following form.

1. Premises in which the truth of the conclusion is claimed or the truth of the conclusion is assumed (either directly or indirectly).
2. Claim C (the conclusion) is true.

This sort of "reasoning" is fallacious because simply assuming that the conclusion is true (directly or indirectly) in the premises does not constitute evidence for that conclusion. Obviously, simply assuming a claim is true does not serve as evidence for that claim. This is especially clear in particularly blatant cases: "X is true. The evidence for this claim is that X is true."

Some cases of question begging are fairly blatant, while others can be extremely subtle.
The Gambler's Fallacy was new to me, but somehow it sounds strangely familiar, especially in political circles:

The Gambler's Fallacy is committed when a person assumes that a departure from what occurs on average or in the long term will be corrected in the short term. The form of the fallacy is as follows:

1. X has happened.
2. X departs from what is expected to occur on average or over the long term.
3. Therefore, X will come to an end soon.

There are two common ways this fallacy is committed. In both cases a person is assuming that some result must be "due" simply because what has previously happened departs from what would be expected on average or over the long term.
Of course, the favorite of this Administration is the false dilemma:

A False Dilemma is a fallacy in which a person uses the following pattern of "reasoning":

1. Either claim X is true or claim Y is true (when X and Y could both be false).
2. Claim Y is false.
3. Therefore claim X is true.

This line of "reasoning" is fallacious because if both claims could be false, then it cannot be inferred that one is true because the other is false.
False dilemma is meant to lead you to only one conclusion, because the alternative is so clearly unacceptable. So we must fight them over there, or we will fight the "terrorists" over here.

And so on.

Phila is right (no surprise)! This is a popular one:

A Circumstantial ad Hominem is a fallacy in which one attempts to attack a claim by asserting that the person making the claim is making it simply out of self interest. In some cases, this fallacy involves substituting an attack on a person's circumstances (such as the person's religion, political affiliation, ethnic background, etc.). The fallacy has the following forms:

1. Person A makes claim X.
2. Person B asserts that A makes claim X because it is in A's interest to claim X.
3. Therefore claim X is false.

1. Person A makes claim X.
2. Person B makes an attack on A's circumstances.
3. Therefore X is false.

A Circumstantial ad Hominem is a fallacy because a person's interests and circumstances have no bearing on the truth or falsity of the claim being made. While a person's interests will provide them with motives to support certain claims, the claims stand or fall on their own. It is also the case that a person's circumstances (religion, political affiliation, etc.) do not affect the truth or falsity of the claim. This is made quite clear by the following example: "Bill claims that 1+1=2. But he is a Republican, so his claim is false."
Well, obviously, the only conclusion can be that Bill is wrong....

Wednesday, November 07, 2007

It's Not a Bug, It's a Feature

I'm reading this, from TPM Muckraker:

"Our body of experience shows a friendly approach is most successful" in interrogation, Nance says. SERE's historical memory goes back to the French and Indian Wars in understanding torture methods that captured U.S. troops might face and devising strategies to resist them. He relates the story of Hans Joachim Scharff, a master Luftwaffe interrogator who spurned abusive techniques used by the Gestapo (also, interestingly, termed "enhanced interrogation") in favor of rapport-building. Scharff's legendary success is still studied by U.S. interrogators. Unfortunately, he says, "after Guantanamo, I thought, how can anyone at SERE ever teach the Geneva Conventions again?"

The "new paradigm" of the war on terrorism "renders obsolete Geneva's strict limitations on questioning of enemy prisoners and renders quaint some of its provisions."

A trove of accumulated institutional familiarity with torture led to a slide that Nance shares, from an old (and unclassified) SERE PowerPoint presentation to trainees. It asks outright, "Why Is Torture The Worst Interrogation Method?" The first answer: "Produces Unreliable Information."

Nance remarks, "Two centuries of knowledge were thrown out the window" when the administration decided after 9/11 that, to use Cofer Black's famous phrase, "the gloves come off." What administration officials mistakenly thought, Nance says, is that "these were actually gloves, not empirical data. Dude, it's not a glove. It's a fact. But they thought it was one more tool in the tool box."

The result, Nance says, is that al-Qaeda now has, essentially, its own SERE school in U.S. detention facilities, as released detainees have given numerous accounts of their interrogations. What's more, he warns that the world is about to see an uptick in the use of torture as "cops in Bogota, everyone" now believes that the U.S. has lent torture its imprimatur -- or, at least, isn't in a credible position to criticize foreign countries' human rights abuses.
And then Ahmed Raza Kasuri, senior legal adviser to Pakistan's President Pervez Musharraf, without a trace of irony, tells NPR that Musharaff, like America after 9/11, has had to destroy democratic institutions in order to save them. He cites detentions without charge, torture, and all the illegal actions of the Bush Administration as an excuse for what Musharaff has done. So I'm thinking of this:

Amos 5:18-24
5:18 Alas for you who desire the day of the LORD! Why do you want the day of the LORD? It is darkness, not light;

5:19 as if someone fled from a lion, and was met by a bear; or went into the house and rested a hand against the wall, and was bitten by a snake.

5:20 Is not the day of the LORD darkness, not light, and gloom with no brightness in it?

5:21 I hate, I despise your festivals, and I take no delight in your solemn assemblies.

5:22 Even though you offer me your burnt offerings and grain offerings, I will not accept them; and the offerings of well-being of your fatted animals I will not look upon.

5:23 Take away from me the noise of your songs; I will not listen to the melody of your harps.

5:24 But let justice roll down like waters, and righteousness like an everflowing stream.
Justice, indeed. It tends to come whether we like it or not; and it tends not to be what we like, or what we imagined it would be.

Tuesday, November 06, 2007

Can I get a Witness?

The Babylonian Exile is the decisive event of the Biblical record. The Hebrew Scriptures divide between the pre-Exilic, and post-Exilic, documents. All of the prophecies of the Messiah found in the Gospels date from the period of the Exile itself. The very concept of the Messiah, is a concept that comes out of the experience of Exile. Keep that in mind when you read this from Deuteronomy:

[God]secures justice for the fatherless and the widow, and he shows love towards the alien who lives among you, giving him food and clothing. You too must show love towards the alien, for you once lived as aliens in Egypt. (10:19)
The reminder that the Israelites were "aliens in Egypt recurs in chapter 16, chapter 24 and chapter 26. It is a solemn reminder that they were strangers once, and could be again. The echoes of the experience of the Exile are unmistakable. And the fate of the individual and the nation are undeniably bound to how the aliens among them are treated:

You must not keep back the wages of a man who is poor and needy, whether a countryman or an alien living in your country in one of your settlements. Pay him his wages on the same day before sunset, for he is poor and relies on them; otherwise he may appel to the Lord against you, and you will be guilty of sin. 24:14-15.
Not exactly an exclusionary text, either, when an alien, one who is not a son or daughter of Abraham, can appeal to the God of Abraham against one of the "chosen."

The ritual blessing in Chapter 26 drives the point home:

Then you must solemnly recite before the Lord your God: 'My father was a homeless Aramean who went down to Egypt and lived there with a small band of people, but there it became a great, powerful, and large nation. The Egyptians treates us harshly and humiliated us; the imposed cruel slavery on us. We cried to the Lord the God of our fathers for help, and he listened to us, and, when he saw our misery and hardship and oppression, the Lord led us out of Egypt with a strong hand and outstretched arm, with terrifying deeds,a nd with signs and portents." 26:5b-8
Imagine that language being recited by people who had returned to Jerusalem after life in Babylon. "Deuteronomy" is Greek, not Hebrew. The title comes from the Septuagint, the Greek translation of the Hebrew text, and literally translated yields "Twin" or "Second" law. The concept is known to American lawyers, where the English and later American common law principles are gathered together in a "Restatement" of the law of Torts, for example. That text, then, is the restatement of the law of Moses after the Exile; after the return to Jerusalem, to the process of rebuilding a country on the foundations of the word of God. The Exile was a shattering experience. It was the very reality of God seemingly abandoning the people and their covenant and the promise to Abraham. It was quite literally the loss of everything, a loss only restored by Cyrus of Persia. Keep all of that in mind, and consider this:

"I don't know much about [waterboarding], but I know we're dealing with terrorists who do some very awful things to people," [Army General Russell Honore] said after Friday morning's speech to about 900 students at Flat Rock Middle School in Tyrone. "I know enough about [waterboarding] that the intent is not to kill anybody. We know that terrorists that we deal with, they have no law that they abide by. They have no code, they kill indiscriminately, like they did on 9/11."
The first response, of course, should be: if you don't know anything about waterboarding, you should keep your mouth shut. Four retired high ranking military officers do know something about waterboarding, and they've declared it reprehensible:

Two retired generals and two retired admirals have written a letter (pdf) to Patrick Leahy, chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee, stating that “waterboarding detainees amounts to illegal torture in all circumstances. To suggest otherwise — or even to give credence to such a suggestion — represents both an affront to the law and to the core values of our nation.”
But set that aside, and consider the "ticking bomb" scenario Gen. Honore refers to. Some in the military blame the popularity of that scenario on "24," but it's an old theme in American movies. Anybody remember that scene from the first "Dirty Harry" movie, where Eastwood drives a knife into the killer's leg and tortures him until he reveals where the victim has been buried alive? Harry finds the victim, already dead; and the murderer is released, because Harry tortured him. Which brings us to the fundamental question: what's the difference between a "terrorist" and a "criminal"?

"If we picked up a prisoner that could tell us where the next 9/11 plot was, we could sit there and treat him nice, and that may not work," he said. "We could sit there and give him water and we could be politically correct.

"But if we have to use sources and methods that get information that not only save American lives, but save other people's lives or could prevent a major catastrophe from happening, I think the American people can decide [whether to allow waterboarding]."

"As long as we're responsible for hunting those SOBs down, finding them and preventing them from killing our sons and daughters," Honore said, "I think we've got an obligation to do what the hell we've got to do to make sure we get the mission done."
So far, the answer has been: criminals are "white," terrorists are foreigners. If anyone can name an individual arrested or detained since 9/11/01 as a "terrorist" who was not of non-European (i.e., "Caucasian") appearance without resorting to Google, I'd be surprised. I can only think of the Australian who was detained in Gitmo and finally released. Other than that, every alleged terrorist or detainee I know of in no way resembles Timothy McVeigh, at least in appearance. Serial killers and gang members and plain, ordinary mean and sociopathic and drunk people continue to kill other Americans at an alarming rate, and yet no one advocates going "Dirty Harry" on them for any reason. They are, even more than the "terrorists" we are told constantly to fear, killing our sons and daughters. The only difference is, we don't send our sons and daughters into their countries and knowingly put them in harm's way. But here is an Army general, one with political ambitions based on his performance in New Orleans in the aftermath of Katrina, advocating a completely lawless approach to a criminal problem. And the only distinction between criminals in the US and terrorists, is that the latter are always and uniformly assumed to be not only foreigners, but non-whites.

If that isn't racism, what is it?

When the Hebrews included the "alien" in their law, they meant something actually beyond the 19th century European concept of "race." They meant people not of their tribe, people outside the reach of family, people who could in no way be considered trustworthy or even loyal without some distinct evidence. Consider the Anglo-Saxon poem "The Wife's Lament." She laments because her husband has died and no one in the tribe will accept her; she ends her days living in a hollow tree in the forest, foraging for food, trying to survive the Northern European winters. In this context, care for the alien is not only radical, it's fundamental to the Middle Eastern notions of hospitality. But considering the fights between tribes recorded just in the Anglo-Saxon poetry, or the Greek epics, or the history of the "Middle East," exclusion of the alien would make a great deal of sense.

So where is America? Proclaiming itself a bastion of liberty, a beacon of freedom, a stronghold of Christian faith? And yet fearing the alien, the "existential threat" which only exists among a few thousand people out of the world's billions, stateless groups with nothing more than determination and suicide bombers to attack us with? Israel during the Exile faced a true "existential threat," and they understood that the only way to survive it was to not abandon their fundamental laws. Our leadership, on the other hand, seems ready to abandon it and excuse it on any percieved expediency it can come up with. Well, some of our leaders. But in this crisis, "some" continue to equate to "just enough."

On the other hand, "just enough" is never quite everybody, either. The Deuteronomists spoke to the people; which is not to say all the people of Israel always listened and agreed and obeyed. Their restatement of the law, however, still stands as witness. And that is saying something. A very strong "something," indeed.