Friday, February 29, 2008

"Lord, when did we see you?"

Noam Chomsky, recently:

One of the most dedicated and informed journalists who has been immersed in the ongoing tragedy, Nir Rosen, has just written an epitaph entitled “The Death of Iraq” in the very mainstream and quite important journal Current History. He writes that “Iraq has been killed, never to rise again. The American occupation has been more disastrous than that of the Mongols, who sacked Baghdad in the thirteenth century,” which has been the perception of many Iraqis, as well. “Only fools talk of ‘solutions’ now,” he went on. “There is no solution. The only hope is that perhaps the damage can be contained.”

But Iraq is, in fact, the marginal issue, and the reasons are the traditional ones, the traditional reasoning and attitudes of the liberal doves who all pray now, as they did forty years ago, that the hawks will be right and that the US will win a victory in this land of wreck and ruin. And they’re either encouraged or silenced by the good news about Iraq.

And there is good news. The US occupying army in Iraq—euphemistically it’s called the Multi-National Force–Iraq, because they have, I think, three polls there somewhere—that the occupying army carries out extensive studies of popular attitudes. It’s an important part of counterinsurgency or any form of domination. You want to know what your subjects are thinking. And it released a report last December. It was a study of focus groups, and it was uncharacteristically upbeat. The report concluded—I’ll quote it—that the survey of focus groups “provides very strong evidence” that national reconciliation is possible and anticipated, contrary to what’s being claimed. The survey found that a sense of “optimistic possibility permeated all focus groups…and far more commonalities than differences are found among these seemingly diverse groups of Iraqis” from all over the country and all walks of life. This discovery of “shared beliefs” among Iraqis throughout the country is “good news, according to a military analysis of the results," Karen de Young reported in the Washington Post a couple of weeks ago.

Well, the “shared beliefs” are identified in the report. I’ll quote de Young: "Iraqis of all sectarian and ethnic groups believe that the US military invasion is the primary root of the violent differences among them, and see the departure of [what they call] ‘occupying forces’ as the key to national reconciliation.” So those are the “shared beliefs.” According to the Iraqis then, there’s hope of national reconciliation if the invaders, who are responsible for the internal violence and the other atrocities, if they withdraw and leave Iraq to Iraqis. That’s pretty much the same as what’s been found in earlier polls, so it’s not all that surprising. Well, that’s the good news: “shared beliefs.”

The report didn’t mention some other good news, so I’ll add it. Iraqis, it appears, accept the highest values of Americans. That ought to be good news. Specifically, they accept the principles of the Nuremberg Tribunal that sentenced Nazi war criminals to hanging for such crimes as supporting aggression and preemptive war. It was the main charge against von Ribbentrop, for example, whose position was—in the Nazi regime was that of Colin Powell and Condoleezza Rice. The Tribunal defined aggression very straightforwardly: aggression, in its words, is the “invasion of its armed forces” by one state “of the territory of another state.” That’s simple. Obviously, the invasion of Iraq and Afghanistan are textbook examples of aggression. And the Tribunal, as I’m sure you know, went on to characterize aggression as “the supreme international crime differing only from other war crimes in that it contains within itself all the accumulated evil of the whole.” So everything that follows from the aggression is part of the evil of the aggression.

Well, the good news from the US military survey of focus groups is that Iraqis do accept the Nuremberg principles. They understand that sectarian violence and the other postwar horrors are contained within the supreme international crime committed by the invaders. I think they were not asked whether their acceptance of American values extends to the conclusion of Justice Robert Jackson, chief prosecutor for the United States at Nuremberg. He forcefully insisted that the Tribunal would be mere farce if we do not apply the principles to ourselves.

Well, needless to say, US opinion, shared with the West generally, flatly rejects the lofty American values that were professed at Nuremberg, indeed regards them as bordering on obscene, as you could quickly discover if you try experimenting by suggesting that these values should be observed, as Iraqis insist. It’s an interesting illustration of the reality, some of the reality, that lies behind the famous “clash of civilizations.” Maybe not exactly the way we like to look at it.

There was a poll a few days ago, a really major poll, just released, which found that 75 percent of Americans believe that US foreign policy is driving the dissatisfaction with America abroad, and more than 60 percent believe that dislike of American values and of the American people are also to blame. Dissatisfaction is a kind of an understatement. The United States has become increasingly the most feared and often hated country in the world. Well, that perception is in fact incorrect. It’s fed by propaganda. There’s very little dislike of Americans in the world, shown by repeated polls, and the dissatisfaction—that is, the hatred and the anger—they come from acceptance of American values, not a rejection of them, and recognition that they’re rejected by the US government and by US elites, which does lead to hatred and anger.

There’s other “good news” that’s been reported by General Petraeus and Ambassador Ryan Crocker that was during the extravaganza that was staged last September 11th. September 11th, you might ask why the timing? Well, a cynic might imagine that the timing was intended to insinuate the Bush-Cheney claims of links between Saddam Hussein and Osama bin Laden. They can’t come out and say it straight out, so therefore you sort of insinuate it by devices like this. It’s intended to indicate, as they used to say outright but are now too embarrassed to say, except maybe Cheney, that by committing the supreme international crime, they were defending the world against terror, which, in fact, increased sevenfold as a result of the invasion, according to a recent analysis by terrorism specialists Peter Bergen and Paul Cruickshank.

Petraeus and Crocker provided figures to explain the good news. The figures they provided on September 11th showed that the Iraqi government was greatly accelerating spending on reconstruction, which is good news indeed and remained so until it was investigated by the Government Accountability Office, which found that the actual figure was one-sixth of what Petraeus and Crocker reported and, in fact, a 50 percent decline from the previous year.

Well, more good news is the decline in sectarian violence, that’s attributable in part to the murderous ethnic cleansing that Iraqis blame on the invasion. The result of it is there are simply fewer people to kill, so sectarian violence declines. It’s also attributable to the new counterinsurgency doctrine, Washington’s decision to support the tribal groups that had already organized to drive out Iraqi al-Qaeda, to an increase in US troops, and to the decision of the Sadr’s Mahdi army to consolidate its gains to stop direct fighting. And politically, that’s what the press calls “halting aggression” by the Mahdi army. Notice that only Iraqis can commit aggression in Iraq, or Iranians, of course, but no one else.

Well, it’s possible that Petraeus’s strategy may approach the success of the Russians in Chechnya, where—I’ll quote the New York Times a couple of weeks ago—Chechnya, the fighting is now “limited and sporadic, and Grozny is in the midst of a building boom” after having been reduced to rubble by the Russian attack. Well, maybe some day Baghdad and Fallujah also will enjoy, to continue the quote, “electricity restored in many neighborhoods, new businesses opening and the city’s main streets repaved,” as in booming Grozny. Possible, but dubious, in the light of the likely consequence of creating warlord armies that may be the seeds of even greater sectarian violence, adding to the “accumulated evil” of the aggression. Well, if Russians share the beliefs and attitudes of elite liberal intellectuals in the West, then they must be praising Putin’s “wisdom and statesmanship” for his achievements in Chechnya, formerly that they had turned into a land of wreck and ruin and are now rebuilding. Great achievement.

A few days ago, the New York Times—the military and Iraq expert of the New York Times, Michael Gordon, wrote a comprehensive review, first-page comprehensive review, of the options for Iraq that are being faced by the candidates. And he went through them in detail, described the pluses and minuses and so on, interviewing political leaders, the candidates, experts, etc. There was one voice missing: Iraqis. Their preference is not rejected; rather, it’s not mentioned. And it seems that there was no notice of that fact, which makes sense, because it’s typical. It makes sense on the tacit assumption that underlies almost all discourse on international affairs. The tacit assumption, without which none of it makes any sense, is that we own the world. So, what does it matter what others think? They’re “unpeople,” nice term invented by British diplomatic historian [Mark] Curtis, based on a series of outstanding volumes on Britain’s crimes of empire—outstanding work, therefore deeply hidden. So there are the “unpeople” out there, and then there are the owners—that’s us—and we don’t have to listen to the “unpeople.”
It's easy to read this from a religious perspective. The fruit of the evil of aggression is: aggression. The very failure to apply the rules to ourselves is the evil Jesus denounced:

You load people down with crushing burdens, but you yourselves won't lift a finger to help carry them. Damn you!--Luke 11:46-47a, SV.
That was Jesus' comment on the powerful over the "unpeople." He said more, of course, and it applies to us as well:

Damn you, Pharisees! You pay tithes on mint and rue and every herb, but neglect justice and the love of God. You should have attended to the last without neglecting the first.

Damn you, Pharisees! You're so fond of the prominent seat in the synagogues and respectful greetings in marketplaces. Damn you! You are like unmarked graves which people walk on without realizing it!--Luke 11:42-44, SV
I don't quote these passages to oppress anyone, but to remind us of our need for humility. These are harsh words, but not so harsh we cannot recognize the truth in them and our responsibility for correcting our actions.

One could quibble with Chomsky's assertion in that last paragraph. It isn't a necessary conclusion to the valid observation that the Iraqis are never considered when we discuss the future of "their" country. It was widely reported recently that the Iraqi Parliament had rejected a political benchmark that was supposed to be one of the results of the "surge." This rejection, of course, changed nothing in D.C., or in the calculus of: "What do we do about Iraq?" It is just as easy to be less sweeping in one's conclusion by noting that Iraq still doesn't have a government, even though our government continues to say it does. If so, there is one question: what does it govern? Surely the fundamental purpose of government is to govern. So, what does the Iraqi Parliament govern? What, indeed, does the US military govern in Iraq? Anything at all? And by popular support of the people, or by sheer force of arms? And if the latter, isn't that the generally accepted definition of a military dictator? So if the Iraqi government doesn't provide governance in Iraq, and the only governance provided is, as John McCain and George Bush assure us, is by the US military, doesn't that make the US...a military dictator in Iraq? Aren't we now the "Strong man" we deposed?

If we aren't then, pray tell: what are we?

One last bit because this, too, touches on religious questions:

Well, of course, these four proposals—again, Iran should have nuclear energy, but not nuclear weapons; there should be a weapons-free zone throughout the region; the US should accept the Non-Proliferation Treaty; there should be a turn to diplomacy and an end to threats—these are almost unmentionable in the United States. Not a single candidate would endorse any part of them, and they’re never discussed, and so on.

However, the proposals are not original. They happen to be the position of the overwhelming majority of the American population. And interestingly, that’s also true in Iran; roughly the same overwhelming majority accepts all of these proposals. But that’s—the results come from the world’s most prestigious polling agency, but not reported, as far as I could discover, and certainly not considered. If they were ever mentioned, they would be dismissed with the phrase “politically impossible,” which is probably correct. It’s only the position of the large majority of the population, kind of like national healthcare, but not of the people that count. So there are plenty of “unpeople” here, too—in fact, the large majority. Americans share this property of being “unpeople” with most of the rest of the world. In fact, if the United States and Iran were functioning, not merely formal, democracies, then this dangerous crisis might be readily resolved by a functioning democracy—I mean, one in which public opinion plays some role in determining policy, rather than being excluded—in fact, unmentioned, because, after all, they’re “unpeople.”
Religious questions? Yes. When Jesus stopped to talk to beggars, his disciples usually tried to shoo them away. When Jesus turned to the woman in Simon's house, everyone else in the room was trying desperately to ignore her. Much of Jesus' ministry was to the "unpeople" of Palestine: the beggars, the prostitutes, the fishermen and carpenters who eked out a living at the bottom of the social/economic ladder. When he said "Blessed are the ptochoi, he was speaking precisely of the "unpeople" Chomsky means.

Except, of course, Chomsky means people made "unpeople" by government action and American neglect. Precisely the people Jesus was born to, lived among, wandered among, and was taken from, by the Roman Empire under whose shadow he lived, in a society created as much by human traditions as by Roman ambitions.

The only difference is whether or not we recognize them today; and recognize the Christ who is in them.

Thursday, February 28, 2008

Speaking of the UCC

Just to clarify a couple of points about the UCC-Obama speech flap:

1) The IRS letter doesn't mention the content of Obama's speech; merely the fact that it was made. Some people are focussing on the content, and noting it was non-political, but the IRS guidelines don't restrict what can be said so much as who can say it, and what they do around saying it. So the IRS is concerned that Obama was there at all, and that his campaign workers set up tables on the public street outside the building where the General Synod was meeting. The 1st Amendment still applies in these cases, but it is not, as constitutional law has noted on more than one occassion, an absolute proscription on who can speak. It is, however, an almost absolute proscription on controlling what is said, and the exceptions to the ban on 501(c)3 organizations being "involved" (a term of art in this matter) in politics recognize this.

2) John Wilson understands this, and puts the entire matter in the appropriate context: these kinds of investigations have a chilling effect on other 501(c)3 organizations (it's not just churches!). He cites the Art Institute of Chicago which decided not to present a documentary on Obama, for fear of recieving just this kind of IRS challenge to their status. These things are very expensive, as I said, and charitable organizations don't have lawyers on retainer to protect them from such investigations. This is not, in other words, just a "cost of doing business" for such charities.

3) So, is this investigation "political"? Barry Lynn said "no" on NPR yesterday; but I agree with Pastor Dan: if it's walking like a duck, and quacking like a duck, it's hard to say it's not a duck. I still expect this to end as the All Saints investigation did; but I still think it stinks, you should pardon the expression, to high heaven.

Third Sunday of Lent-2008

Cowboy Diva's meditation on these verses is at the homepage link in this comment.

17:1 From the wilderness of Sin the whole congregation of the Israelites journeyed by stages, as the LORD commanded. They camped at Rephidim, but there was no water for the people to drink.

17:2 The people quarreled with Moses, and said, "Give us water to drink." Moses said to them, "Why do you quarrel with me? Why do you test the LORD?"

17:3 But the people thirsted there for water; and the people complained against Moses and said, "Why did you bring us out of Egypt, to kill us and our children and livestock with thirst?"

17:4 So Moses cried out to the LORD, "What shall I do with this people? They are almost ready to stone me."

17:5 The LORD said to Moses, "Go on ahead of the people, and take some of the elders of Israel with you; take in your hand the staff with which you struck the Nile, and go.

17:6 I will be standing there in front of you on the rock at Horeb. Strike the rock, and water will come out of it, so that the people may drink." Moses did so, in the sight of the elders of Israel.

17:7 He called the place Massah and Meribah, because the Israelites quarreled and tested the LORD, saying, "Is the LORD among us or not?"

Psalm 95
95:1 O come, let us sing to the LORD; let us make a joyful noise to the rock of our salvation!

95:2 Let us come into his presence with thanksgiving; let us make a joyful noise to him with songs of praise!

95:3 For the LORD is a great God, and a great King above all gods.

95:4 In his hand are the depths of the earth; the heights of the mountains are his also.

95:5 The sea is his, for he made it, and the dry land, which his hands have formed.

95:6 O come, let us worship and bow down, let us kneel before the LORD, our Maker!

95:7 For he is our God, and we are the people of his pasture, and the sheep of his hand. O that today you would listen to his voice!

95:8 Do not harden your hearts, as at Meribah, as on the day at Massah in the wilderness,

95:9 when your ancestors tested me, and put me to the proof, though they had seen my work.

95:10 For forty years I loathed that generation and said, "They are a people whose hearts go astray, and they do not regard my ways."

95:11 Therefore in my anger I swore, "They shall not enter my rest."

Romans 5:1-11
5:1 Therefore, since we are justified by faith, we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ,

5:2 through whom we have obtained access to this grace in which we stand; and we boast in our hope of sharing the glory of God.

5:3 And not only that, but we also boast in our sufferings, knowing that suffering produces endurance,

5:4 and endurance produces character, and character produces hope,

5:5 and hope does not disappoint us, because God's love has been poured into our hearts through the Holy Spirit that has been given to us.

5:6 For while we were still weak, at the right time Christ died for the ungodly.

5:7 Indeed, rarely will anyone die for a righteous person--though perhaps for a good person someone might actually dare to die.

5:8 But God proves his love for us in that while we still were sinners Christ died for us.

5:9 Much more surely then, now that we have been justified by his blood, will we be saved through him from the wrath of God.

5:10 For if while we were enemies, we were reconciled to God through the death of his Son, much more surely, having been reconciled, will we be saved by his life.

5:11 But more than that, we even boast in God through our Lord Jesus Christ, through whom we have now received reconciliation.

John 4:5-42
4:5 So he came to a Samaritan city called Sychar, near the plot of ground that Jacob had given to his son Joseph.

4:6 Jacob's well was there, and Jesus, tired out by his journey, was sitting by the well. It was about noon.

4:7 A Samaritan woman came to draw water, and Jesus said to her, "Give me a drink."

4:8 (His disciples had gone to the city to buy food.)

4:9 The Samaritan woman said to him, "How is it that you, a Jew, ask a drink of me, a woman of Samaria?" (Jews do not share things in common with Samaritans.)

4:10 Jesus answered her, "If you knew the gift of God, and who it is that is saying to you, 'Give me a drink,' you would have asked him, and he would have given you living water."

4:11 The woman said to him, "Sir, you have no bucket, and the well is deep. Where do you get that living water?

4:12 Are you greater than our ancestor Jacob, who gave us the well, and with his sons and his flocks drank from it?"

4:13 Jesus said to her, "Everyone who drinks of this water will be thirsty again,

4:14 but those who drink of the water that I will give them will never be thirsty. The water that I will give will become in them a spring of water gushing up to eternal life."

4:15 The woman said to him, "Sir, give me this water, so that I may never be thirsty or have to keep coming here to draw water."

4:16 Jesus said to her, "Go, call your husband, and come back."

4:17 The woman answered him, "I have no husband." Jesus said to her, "You are right in saying, 'I have no husband';

4:18 for you have had five husbands, and the one you have now is not your husband. What you have said is true!"

4:19 The woman said to him, "Sir, I see that you are a prophet.

4:20 Our ancestors worshiped on this mountain, but you say that the place where people must worship is in Jerusalem."

4:21 Jesus said to her, "Woman, believe me, the hour is coming when you will worship the Father neither on this mountain nor in Jerusalem.

4:22 You worship what you do not know; we worship what we know, for salvation is from the Jews.

4:23 But the hour is coming, and is now here, when the true worshipers will worship the Father in spirit and truth, for the Father seeks such as these to worship him.

4:24 God is spirit, and those who worship him must worship in spirit and truth."

4:25 The woman said to him, "I know that Messiah is coming" (who is called Christ). "When he comes, he will proclaim all things to us."

4:26 Jesus said to her, "I am he, the one who is speaking to you."

4:27 Just then his disciples came. They were astonished that he was speaking with a woman, but no one said, "What do you want?" or, "Why are you speaking with her?"

4:28 Then the woman left her water jar and went back to the city. She said to the people,

4:29 "Come and see a man who told me everything I have ever done! He cannot be the Messiah, can he?"

4:30 They left the city and were on their way to him.

4:31 Meanwhile the disciples were urging him, "Rabbi, eat something."

4:32 But he said to them, "I have food to eat that you do not know about."

4:33 So the disciples said to one another, "Surely no one has brought him something to eat?"

4:34 Jesus said to them, "My food is to do the will of him who sent me and to complete his work.

4:35 Do you not say, 'Four months more, then comes the harvest'? But I tell you, look around you, and see how the fields are ripe for harvesting.

4:36 The reaper is already receiving wages and is gathering fruit for eternal life, so that sower and reaper may rejoice together.

4:37 For here the saying holds true, 'One sows and another reaps.'

4:38 I sent you to reap that for which you did not labor. Others have labored, and you have entered into their labor."

4:39 Many Samaritans from that city believed in him because of the woman's testimony, "He told me everything I have ever done."

4:40 So when the Samaritans came to him, they asked him to stay with them; and he stayed there two days.

4:41 And many more believed because of his word.

4:42 They said to the woman, "It is no longer because of what you said that we believe, for we have heard for ourselves, and we know that this is truly the Savior of the world."

You know, people used to "read" stained glass images like this one, the way you read this post. They were illiterate, by our standards, which means they were ignorant, dull, backward, and superstitious. They were, of course, nothing of the sort. Paul, by our standards, was illiterate. He could read, but he could write no more than his name, and that crudely. He paid someone to take dictation from him. Listen to a letter like the letter to the Church in Rome sometime, a long section of it, and you'll realize he's talking to someone who is writing down what he says. Would you call such a person "illiterate"? We who do all our writing with aids that playback for us immediately what we have just said, and allow us to erase and correct and redraft even before we've finished thinking to the end of a sentence....we can't imagine dictating something as complex as the letter to the Romans. Small wonder we consider Jesus godly when he talks off the cuff, as he does in John's gospel. But to the people of Jesus' day, this was a sign of wisdom, of great knowledge. It wasn't necessarily the sign of absolute wisdom, and divine knowledge. On the other hand, it was considered much closer to it than we are willing to accept today. If Barack Obama is a gifted public speaker, we soon easily imagine he is "too gifted," that perhaps he is even hypnotic or persuasive in ways that must be derided, belittled, reduced to more common experience. He's a little too much better at public speaking than the rest of us, than almost any of us. Such skill is as frightening as it is attractive. It has always been so.

We raise Jesus up; we say he could do it because he was God! We raise Paul up, we say Paul could do it because he was inspired by God! But that's an oddly pagan answer; it's Hellenistic. It's Homer asking the Muses to inspire him to poetry, so that Homer doesn't speak, but the gods of the arts and history do. No, better to preserve the mystery, the sense of awe it brings us. Paul is led by the spirit of God; but it is Paul dictating that letter to the Romans; it is Jesus, the man who will die on a cross as any mortal would, speaking to that woman at the well. They are, even at the moments they write or speak words we still remember, as human as we are; and just as close to the divine.

When, then, are we close to the divine? When we are alone? Or when we are with others? Paul is almost never alone; when he writes a letter, he imagines the church he is writing to, the people there. And he writes with someone listening, someone scratching out the words as rapidly as he can speak them. Jesus, too, is almost never alone; and this time, when his disciples have gone elsewhere, he speaks to a woman, a stranger. And he tells her the truth: which encompasses the truth about herself, and the truth about him; and both truths are equally strange and wondrous. Why strange and wondrous? In part because they are so real.

Step back a moment, and consider this passage from a letter by Albert Einstein to Sigmund Freud, concerning the tendency of nations to go to war. Einstein lays out three nested questions, one arising from the other:

But recognition of this obvious fact is merely the first step toward an appreciation of the actual state of affairs. Another question follows hard upon it: How is it possible for this small clique to bend the will of the majority, who stand to lose and suffer by a state of war, to the service of their ambitions. An obvious answer to this question would seem to be that the minority, the ruling class at present, has the schools and press, usually the Church as well, under its thumb. This enables it to organize and sway the emotions of the masses, and makes its tool of them.

Yet even this answer does not provide a complete solution. Another question arises from it: How is it that these devices succeed so well in rousing men to such wild enthusiasm, even to sacrifice their lives? Only one answer is possible. Because man has within him a lust for hatred and destruction. In normal times this passion exists in a latent state, it emerges only in unusual circumstances; but it is a comparatively easy task to call it into play and raise it to the power of a collective psychosis. Here lies, perhaps, the crux of all the complex factors we are considering, an enigma that only the expert in the lore of human instincts can resolve.

And so we come to our last question. Is it possible to control man's mental evolution so as to make him proof against the psychosis of hate and destructiveness? Here I am thinking by no means only of the so-called uncultured masses. Experience proves that it is rather the so-called "intelligentsia" that is most apt to yield to these disastrous collective suggestions, since the intellectual has no direct contact with life in the raw but encounters it in its easiest, synthetic form--upon the printed page.
We are, like it or not, stuck by history among Einstein's "intelligentstia" when we read the scriptures. Not because we read it and desire to send people to war, but because we inevitably read it as life in its synthetic form. Scripture has certainly been used by the church, which is in turn used by the minority Einstein identifies, to drive people to do things they otherwise would prefer not to. There is only a difference of degree between the situation Einstein describes, and the situation of the Samaritan woman at the well. In modern parlance we might understand Jesus and this woman as Sunni and Shi'ite, or perhaps as adherents to the same faith when at least one side is not religiously tolerant, and thinks God wants it that way. As Moses said of the law he was given, it is not far away nor over the sea, but near to you, even in your heart. But how many of us want to look in the raw nature of our hearts? Better to stick to synthetic forms, and leave the pain of reality to others.

So the woman, knowing how Jews treat Samaritans, and more importantly how men treat women (it is practically a scandal for Jesus to speak to a woman not his wife or sister. The scandal of the anointing in Luke (7:36-50) is that a woman is in the room full of men at all. Even the host's wife would not be permitted to join them.), is amazed that Jesus speaks to her, but she stands her ground. Indeed, she is almost defiant. But then Jesus quickly leads her away from a discussion about literal things, into a discussion about spiritual things. It is worth noting that Nicodemus, the famous scholar and Pharisee who came to Jesus in the dark, and left in the dark, never makes sense of what Jesus means in the most quoted passage in the New Testament. This Samaritan woman, however, first misunderstands, but soon accepts what she is told, even if she never understands the metaphors Jesus is using. She understands that Messiah will "proclaim all things to us," and when Jesus proclaims her life, down to the number of men she has married and what the law of Moses says about that, it is enough for her. Jesus doesn't have to explain the nature of the universe, or time, or expound a theory of salvation, or even tell her that her sins are forgiven. Indeed, he never speaks of her faith at all. But still, she tells everyone she meets: "He told me everything I have ever done." This may be one of the most personal encounters with Jesus in all of the gospels; and yet, as a theological teaching, it's one of the least satisfactory.

Like Nicodemus, the Samaritan woman doesn't understand what Jesus means about "living water." Unlike Nicodemus, though, she doesn't try to. Understanding, in the hands of the author of John's gospel, is a two edged sword; it is a thing of power. Those who understand have an obligation to convey their understanding to others, to share it, not to hoard it. Nicodemus comes to Jesus at night, afraid he will be recognized; he has no intention of sharing the rabbi's teachings. The Samaritan woman, by contrast, tells everyone she knows, and her message is a simple one; it is even followed by a question: "'Come and see a man who told me everything I have ever done! He cannot be the Messiah, can he?'" That is all she has to say, but it is enough. Even the disciples, echoing their confusion in Mark and Matthew, are perplexed by Jesus talking to this woman, and then talking about food. Their response to his teaching is: "Surely no one has brought him something to eat?" Like Nicodemus, they just don't get it. But who are we to presume that we do?

Jesus is living water, and the will of God is to go into the fields and labor? After what? If Jesus is water, how should we drink him? If the labor is in the fields, what labor must we do? We approach this word in synthetic form, in the words preserved in Greek by John, and translated and conveyed to us millenia later. The line is already broken by the time John writes them down; he is already trying to share artificially what is meant to be alive. The "living word" is as paradoxical and metaphorical as "living water," or as making one's food the will of God. How are we to understand such things? More importantly, how are we to encounter the reality of such things, if they are to be real to us?

In human encounters; in struggles in worship. "How is it that you, a Jew, ask a drink of me, a woman of Samaria?," would be a question asked by any one of us if, on any given Sunday, or every given Sunday, worship simply doesn't "work" for us as we imagine it is supposed to. The living Word is living precisely because it is alive in people. It does not swim off the page and stand, vibrant tne three-dimensional before you, a wholly other which you can encounter on your own. Sigmund Freud, in his response to Einstein, speaks of the religious use of "love:"

The psychoanalyst need feel no compunction in mentioning "love" in this connection; religion uses the same language: Love thy neighbor as thyself. A pious injunction, easy to enounce, but hard to carry out!
Yes, it is, and that is precisely the point! It is hard to carry out! It is not easy, it is not simple, it is not a matter solely of the will, or the ego, or the superego. It is a matter of effort, and better it is carried out by those making the same effort, or at least attempting to.

And let no one be afraid to seek him or find him for fear of the loss of good company; faith is no sullen thing, it is not a melancholy, there is not so sociable a thing as the love of Christ Jesus.--John Donne
Love is the heart and soul of worship; worship is the heart and soul of love. "O come, let us worship and bow down, let us kneel before the LORD, our Maker!" When we do that, what do we do, except kneel before each other? "But more than that, we even boast in God through our Lord Jesus Christ, through whom we have now received reconciliation." Reconciliation to whom? To God? Yes; but how is that known, how is that lived, how is that experienced, if it is not reconciliation to each other? And what other part of our lives do we set aside, what other place do we go, to find and practice and experience that reconciliation, the real and not the synthetic form, except in worship? As Donne said:

...'They are not hid from thee, neither are they far off.' Not in heaven, that you should say, Who will go up to heaven for us to bring them down? Not beyond the seas, that you should go over the sea for them. But the word is very near you, even in your mouth and in your heart; and so near is Christ Jesus, or who shall never find him.
And where is the presence ever so near, so encouraged, so alive, except in the possibility and the reality, of worship?

What else is worship for, if not for us still, today, 2000 years later, to know the living God?


It's mighty reckless....*

Much as I appreciate the attention being paid to my home state (and Texas has always had a "larger-than-life" image), all I can say is: "What took you so long?", and: "Where were you in 2000 when you needed to pay attention to Texas?"

All this attention on Texas is due to one thing: Hillary Clinton is about to lose the Democratic Party nomination. Seeing as the conventional wisdom held all along it was hers to lose, this is, of course, big political news. Nothing succeeds in news like the narrative everyone has already agreed to write. But now we're getting noticed, and this TPM Election Central post is typical of the breed. Yes, Texas is a "perplexing and complex state," thanks for noticing. It is also "strangely large," and I have to give the NYTimes credit for getting the geographic and cultural differences about right (at least in a newspaper article). There is East Texas, which is really western Louisiana; Central Texas, which is all German/Polish/Mittel Europ, and prickly in their independence (God love 'em!); North Texas is represented by the dichotomy of uber-evangelical Dallas (once home to many of the former reigning Lords of Evangelical TeeVee) and Fort Worth (the former "cowtown" known to its natives as "Foat Wuth," as in the unofficial motto of the city: "Foat Wuth, Ah Luv Yew!"). Then there's the Pandhandle, West Texas (NOT the Panhandle), the Trans-Pecos region, the Valley, South Texas, and....well, you get the idea. "Five Texases," Babe Schwartz calls it; five at least, is about right.

It is too damned big, and too durned ornery, and overall Molly Ivins (of course) described it better than anybody. And she tried to warn you about Bush, but nobody would listen then. We were just a peckerwood state which didn't bear close examination or consideration, because after all, the DC press vets Presidential candidates, not East Texas liberal journalists who actually know how to cook French food (even by the time of her death the New York Times couldn't quite believe that). Well, we are peckerwoods no more, at least for a brief time. But allow me to enlighten you, as TMP Election Central sadly does not, as to just how complex things are in Texas.

True, as TPMEC notes, Hillary has strong support among Texas "Latinos" (or whatever gawdawful label we're going to apply to a group as disparate as any group of "whites," joined only, more or less, by a common language). But what the article doesn't mention is, that doesn't do Hillary a whole lot of good in Texas. You see, the Texas primary selects delegates for the candidates, and delegates in the Texas Democratic Party are apportioned by state Senate districts, and further, apportioned according to how many Democrats voted in that district in the last 2 general elections.

Still with me? The problem for Hillary is, the districts where the Latino vote is strong are also the districts where Democratic votes are few. Obama, as the article notes, has strong support in places like Austin, where Democratic votes are very common; which means Obama stands to win more delegates than Hillary, even if she wins more votes from South Texas (or wherever; "Latinos" are present throughout Texas). Then there's the "Texas Two-Step," as the NYT article labels it: the fact that we vote for delegates in a primary, and then get to caucus on Tuesday night for the rest of the delegates, who won't finally be selected until the state convention in June. And, of course, since Texas does everything big as well as weird, we have a handful of Texas "superdelegates" (not really, but the same idea as the national non-elected delegates) who have to be selected before the national convention in August.

The NYT article explains it rather nicely, but you get the idea. Texas is big, Texas is complex, and Texas won't settle this matter next Tuesday, no matter what happens. It may put the final nail in Hillary's coffin, at least so far as her donors are concerned; but then again, it may be months before anybody knows that, either. And by then, attention will have shifted away from Texas again.

Now, why is everybody suddenly paying attention to Texas? The same reason anyone in politics pays attention to anything: power. It may be that Texas, with its 228 delegates, will decide this thing. It may also be that Democrats will win the White House. So suddenly Texas is "interesting" again. Pity it wasn't interesting in 2000, when recent history could have told everyone a thing or two about the governance, or lack thereof, of G.W. Bush. But, so it goes.

Fact is, Texas is even weirder than you think. Tex-Mex is as regional and varietal as French wines, and probably as deserving of legal protection. I have dined in restaurants with the same menu in the same town (all three part of a local chain), and could tell the difference between the meals blindfolded (there is North Texas Tex-Mex, which the northernmost restaurant served; Central Texas Tex-Mex, and South Texas Tex-Mex, each subtly represented by the restaurants in the center of town and south side. Not to mention Gulf Coast Tex-Mex, Houston Tex-Mex, East Texas Tex-Mex, West Texas Tex-Mex, El Paso Tex-Mex, and then we get into South Texas and... you get the idea.) And then there's Southern cooking (grits, greens, and fried chicken); chicken fried steak (the Texas version of wienerschnitzel), all manner of German and polish sausages; gumbos and seafood on the Gulf Coast; and the Texas obsession with red meat. And this doesn't even touch on the varieties of pecan pie. The food alone is an international smorgasbord.

People here are crazy, ornery, ignorant, friendly, kind, and flat out crazy, and apparently plumb loco for the Democratic candidates this year. Texas has been a one-party state pretty much since Reconstruction, and while it rolled over in the middle of the night from one-party Democratic to one-party Republican a decade or so ago (even after bearing the brunt of Reagan's inattention to S&L regulation; I told you we were ornery!), the numbers and enthusiasm this year must might mean Texas is at least beginning to show shades of deep purple, if not outright blue.

Early voter turnout as of February 26 in the Democratic primary is almost 512,000. To put that in perspective, the early voting turnout for both parties in 2004 was just over 272,000. The Democratic party portion of that vote was just under 166,000 Cumulative turnout for Republicans, as of February 26, 2008: just under 173,000. Hard to believe half a million voters (or more) won't make a difference in November, and early voting isnt' finished yet. It goes on until Friday, so that number will likely only climb.

But then again, Texas is ornery; and peculiar. I just wish people wouldn't take us for granted so often; or ignore the interesting results ornery and peculiar can produce. After all, who else has given the country LBJ and GWB as well as Lyle Lovett and Tommy Lee Jones? And we made Willie Nelson a household name!

That's right, you're not from Texas....

*Calm down; it's an anti-litter campaign, not a statement of state chauvinism.

Wednesday, February 27, 2008

Haven't we met before?

Does this sound familiar?

The Internal Revenue Service has notified the United Church of Christ's national offices in Cleveland, Ohio, that the IRS has opened an investigation into U.S. Sen. Barack Obama's address at the UCC's 2007 General Synod as the church engaging in "political activities."

In the IRS letter dated Feb. 20, the IRS said it was initiating a church tax inquiry "because reasonable belief exists that the United Church of Christ has engaged in political activities that could jeopardize its tax-exempt status."

The Rev. John H. Thomas, the UCC's general minister and president, called the investigation "disturbing" but said the investigation would reveal that the church did nothing improper or illegal.

Obama, an active member of the United Church of Christ for more than 20 years, addressed the UCC's 50th anniversary General Synod in Hartford, Conn., on June 23, 2007, as one of 60 diverse speakers representing the arts, media, academia, science, technology, business and government. Each was asked to reflect on the intersection of their faith and their respective vocations or fields of expertise. The invitation to Obama was extended a year before he became a Democratic presidential candidate.

It should.

According to the Washington Post blog "The Trail," this may be the offensive language:

"I have a plan that would have already begun redeploying our troops with the goal of bringing all our combat brigades home by March 31st of next year" according to the text. He also said "our conscience cannot rest" until genocide in the Darfur region of Sudan is stopped and 12 million illegal immigrants get a chance to earn their citizenship.
But that is rankest speculation at this point, and has nothing to do with either the IRS letter to the UCC, or the laws banning political involvement by 501(c)3 organizations. The real issue is: who ordered this investigation? As we know from the All Saint's Episcopal case, almost anyone in the IRS can do that, now. So that's problem no. 1. Problem no. 2 is: what constitutes "improper speech" or, rather, "intervening in any political campaign for public office"? According to the IRS's website, it isn't clear that the General Synod violated the restrictions of its 501(c)3 status:

When a candidate is invited to speak at an organization event as a political candidate, the organization must take steps to ensure that:

It provides an equal opportunity to the political candidates seeking the same office,

It does not indicate any support of or opposition to the candidate (This should be stated explicitly when the candidate is introduced and in communications concerning the candidate’s attendance.), and

No political fundraising occurs.
According to the UCC News:

Before Obama spoke to the national gathering of 10,000 UCC members, Associate General Minister Edith A. Guffey, who serves as administrator of the biennial General Synod, admonished the crowd that Obama's appearance was not to be a campaign-related event and that electioneering would not be tolerated. No political leaflets, signs or placards were allowed, and activity by the Obama campaign was barred from inside the Hartford Civic Center venue.

In an introduction before Obama's speech, Thomas said Obama was invited as "one of ours" to provide reflections on "how personal faith can be lived out in the public square, how personal faith and piety is reflected in the life of public service."
Based on this alone, it's hard to see how this matter isn't another attempt to intimidate a "liberal" church. The only violation apparent on these facts is a failure to invite other candidates to speak. But it would be odd indeed if court rulings didn't provide grounds for distinguishing these facts, and find that the first requirement was not an absolute one upon which the determination of violation would solely rise and fall. Indeed, if it did, the UCC would never have invited Sen. Obama to speak, or would have rescinded the invitation when he announced his candidacy for President.

I have to point out that these exceptions are mentioned in the IRS letter to the UCC (pdf file, linked in the UCCNews article), although the language of the letter is a bit sloppy. After calling the prohibition on involvement in political campaigning an "absolute prohibition," it goes on to detail the exceptions to this "absolute" rule. It also notes that the investigation was prompted by information on the UCC website about Obama's speech at General Synod. There is, in other words, very likely very little "there" there. However, it is serious enough, and expensive enough, that the UCC is sending me (as a UCC member and pastor) an e-mail asking for donations to a legal fund that has been established just to respond to this investigation.

Frankly, this is money that should be used for church missions and to help people who need it; like, say, the people in Bilox, Mississippi. It's another black mark on the Bush Administration (albeit a small one) that money has to be spent for things like this.

Thoughts on War and Peace

Gleaned from reading Lapham's Quarterly:

"There is no state whose leader does not wish to secure permanent peace by conquering all the universe."--Immanuel Kant, 1795

"Sometime they'll give a war and nobody will come."--Carl Sandburg, 1936

"War hath no fury like a noncombatant."--Charles Edward Montague, 1922

"The great nations have always acted like gangsters, and the small nations like prostitutes."--Stanley Kubrick, 1963

The bitterest irony? The words of Dwight D. Eisenhower on April 16, 1953:

The way chosen by the United States was plainly marked by a few clear precepts, which govern its conduct in world affairs.

First: No people on earth can be held, as a people, to be enemy, for all humanity shares the common hunger for peace and fellowship and justice.

Second: No nation's security and well-being can be lastingly achieved in isolation but only ineffective cooperation with fellow-nations.

Third: Any nation's right to form of government and an economic system of its own choosing isinalienable.

Fourth: Any nation's attempt to dictate to other nations their form of government is indefensible.

And fifth: A nation's hope of lasting peace cannot be firmly based upon any race in armaments but rather upon just relations and honest understanding with all other nations.

In the light of these principles the citizens of the United States defined the way they proposed to follow, through the aftermath of war, toward true peace.

This way was faithful to the spirit that inspired the United Nations: to prohibit strife, to relieve tensions, to banish fears. This way was to control and to reduce armaments. This way was to allow all nations to devote their energies and resources to the great and good tasks of healing the war's wounds, of clothing and feeding and housing the needy, of perfecting a just political life, of enjoying the fruits of their own free toil.

The Soviet government held a vastly different vision of the future.

In the world of its design, security was to be found, not in mutual trust and mutual aid but in force: huge armies, subversion, rule of neighbor nations. The goal was power superiority at all costs. Security was to be sought by denying it to all others.

The result has been tragic for the world and, for the Soviet Union, it has also been ironic.

The amassing of the Soviet power alerted free nations to a new danger of aggression. It compelled them in self-defense to spend unprecedented money and energy for armaments. It forced them to develop weapons of war now capable of inflicting instant and terrible punishment upon any aggressor.

It instilled in the free nations-and let none doubt this-the unshakable conviction that, as long as there persists a threat to freedom, they must, at any cost, remain armed, strong, and ready for the risk of war.

It inspired them-and let none doubt this-to attain a unity of purpose and will beyond the power of propaganda or pressure to break, now or ever.

There remained, however, one thing essentially unchanged and unaffected by Soviet conduct: the readiness of the free nations to welcome sincerely any genuine evidence of peaceful purpose enabling all peoples again to resume their common quest of just peace.
Every gun that is made, every warship launched, every rocket fired signifies, in the final sense, a theft from those who hunger and are not fed, those who are cold and are not clothed.

This world in arms in not spending money alone.

It is spending the sweat of its laborers, the genius of its scientists, the hopes of its children.

The cost of one modern heavy bomber is this: a modern brick school in more than 30 cities.

It is two electric power plants, each serving a town of 60,000 population.

It is two fine, fully equipped hospitals.

It is some 50 miles of concrete highway.

We pay for a single fighter with a half million bushels of wheat.

We pay for a single destroyer with new homes that could have housed more than 8,000 people.

This, I repeat, is the best way of life to be found on the road the world has been taking.

This is not a way of life at all, in any true sense. Under the cloud of threatening war, it is humanity hanging from a cross of iron.

These plain and cruel truths define the peril and point the hope that come with this spring of 1953.

They still do.

Tuesday, February 26, 2008

Meister Eckhart and the great price

I have no reason to believe Derrida read Eckhart before proposing his idea of the impossibility of the gift, But in this sermon Eckhart goes a long way to explaining how Derrida's idea applies to Christianity:

Merchandising Truth

Meister Eckhart

Jesus entered the temple area and drove out all who were buying and selling there. -Matthew 21:12

We read in the Gospel how Holy Week began with Jesus entering the temple and driving out all those that bought and sold. He then rebuked the vendors of doves: "Get these things out of here!" He was so crystal clear in his command that it was if he said, "I have a right to this temple and I alone will be in it and have control of it."

What does this have to say to us? The temple God wants to be master of is the human soul, which he created and fashioned just like himself. We read that God said, "Let us make man in our own image." And he did it. He made each soul so much like himself that nothing else in heaven or on earth resembles him as much. That is why God wants the temple to be pure, so pure that nothing should dwell there except he himself. And that is the reason why he is so pleased when we really prepare our souls for him. When we do this, when he alone dwells in our hearts, he takes great comfort.

But who, exactly, are the people who buy and sell? Are they not precisely the good people? See! The merchants are those who only guard against mortal sins. They strive to be good people who do their good deeds to the glory of God, such as fasting, watching, praying and the like - all of which are good - and yet do these things so that God will give them something in exchange. Their efforts are contingent upon God doing something they ardently want to have done.

They are all merchants. They want to exchange one thing for another and to trade with our Lord. But they will be cheated out of their bargain - for what they have or have attained is actually given to them by God. Lest we forget, we do what we do only by the help of God, and so God is never obligated to us. God gives us nothing and does nothing except out of his own free will. What we are we are because of God, and whatever we have we receive from God and not by our own contriving. Therefore God is not in the least obligated to us - neither for our deeds nor for our gifts. He gives to us freely. Besides, Christ himself says, "Without me, you can do nothing."

People are very foolish when they want to trade with God. They know little or nothing of the truth. And God will strike them and drive them out of the temple. Light and darkness cannot exist side by side. God himself is the truth. When he enters the temple, he drives out ignorance and darkness and reveals himself in light and truth. Then, when the truth is known, merchants must depart - for truth wants no merchandising!

God does not seek his own benefit. In everything he acts only out of love. Thus, the person who is united with God lives the same way - he is innocent and free. He lives for love without asking why, and solely for the glory of God, never seeking his own advantage. God alone is at work in him.

As long as we look for some kind of pay for what we do, as long as we want to get something from God in some kind of exchange, we are like the merchants. If you want to be rid of the commercial spirit, then by all means do all you can in the way of good works, but do so solely for the praise of God. Live as if you did not exist. Expect and ask nothing in return. Then the merchant inside you will be driven out of the temple God has made. Then God alone dwells there. See! This is how the temple is cleared: when a person thinks only of God and honors him alone. Only such a person is free and genuine.

Jesus went into the temple and drove out those that bought and sold. His message was bold: "Take this all away!" But observe that when all was cleared, there was nobody left but Jesus. And when he is alone he is able to speak in the temple of the soul. Observe this also, for it is certain. If anyone else is speaking in the temple of the soul, Jesus keeps still, as if he were not at home. And he is not at home wherever there are strange guests - guests with whom the soul holds conversation, guests who always seek to bargain. If Jesus is to speak and be heard the soul must be alone and quiet.

And what does Jesus say when the soul has been cleared? His word is a revelation of himself and everything the Father has said to him. He reveals the Father's majesty with unmeasured power. If in your spirit you discover this power, you will possess a like power in whatever you do - a power that will enable you to live undividedly and pure. Neither joy nor sorrow, no, nor any created thing will be able to disrupt your soul. For Christ will remain and he will cast aside all that is insignificant and futile.

When Jesus is united with your soul, the soul's tide moves back again into its own, out of itself and above all things, with grace and power back to its prime origin. Then your fallen, fleshly self will become obedient to your inner, spiritual self, and you will in turn have a lasting peace in serving God without condition or demand

The very idea of the gift as outlined by Derrida:

"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.
Is stated right here:

Lest we forget, we do what we do only by the help of God, and so God is never obligated to us. God gives us nothing and does nothing except out of his own free will. What we are we are because of God, and whatever we have we receive from God and not by our own contriving. Therefore God is not in the least obligated to us - neither for our deeds nor for our gifts. He gives to us freely.
The gift of life itself interrupts the cycle of exchange, even as it creates one. It creates an obligation to God (even though, post-Enlightenment creatures that we are, we despise the idea of obligation!), but at the same time we are no more obligated to God than God is obligated to us. Were it not so, there would be no gift; there would be only an economy, an exchange. And what do we exchange with God, what contract do we reciprocate, for the extravagance of a gift like this? Indeed, we cannot even know that it is a gift, because then it comes a part of the cycle rather than an interrution of it. But life itself interrupts the economy of the universe. It disrupts the cycle of explosion and collapse and explosion again that cosmologists tell us is the "Big Bang" theory. It is the opposition to chaos which the Greeks identified, an opposition doomed to failure, as chaos, in the end, prevails. Indifference to life, science assures us, is the nature of all that exists. Life is the disruption, even as it partakes in its own cycle of creation and death and rebirth. But the unmoved mover which is the first cause of all causes in this cause and effect centered cosmos...if that is not the source of all the gifts of what is, then it is the only way we can understand it. Life is a gift. Being, is a gift. And we cannot know the giver, and we cannot repay the favor, and we cannot enter into an exchange, because the gift we are discussing maintains always a foreignness to the circle. The circle remains indifferent, but the gift itself is against indifference. What wondrous love is this?

The gift itself stands apart from doxologies and praises and prayers and worship. None of those things are an exchange for it, so that we cannot pray for our loved ones to be spared and have it happen. Does this present an indifferent creator, a truly unmoved and unmoveable mover? No. It confirms the conditions of existence, the nature of the gift. To return the gift once given, to reverse the nature of the gift and make it a part of the circle, a unit of exchange for which a bargain can be struck, something which can be merchandised, is to cancel the gift and re-create it as a commodity. The gift cannot even be acknowledged. When the Hebrews brought the first fruits to the priest and pronounced the blessing, they were not acknowledging the gift of their lives, but the circle of their existence, one tied intimately to their history: "A wandering Aramean was my father...." When God spoke to Abram for the first time, God did not promise Abram existence in exchange for worship; God proposed to show Abram the means for continuing and enriching life, for living well. There is an economy, an oikonomos, which even God recognizes and blesses. But before that, behind that, initial to that, is the gift: that gift is first given, the giver hidden and never to be seen; and that gift can never be exchanged.

But it can be wasted, abused, misused. When Jesus tells the parable of the merchant who buys the pearl of great price; of the widow who burns the oil all night to find a lost coin that will appear in the daylight; of the buried treasure which only deceit and treachery can bring to the hands of the buyer of the land; and says all of these are like the basiliea tou theou, Jesus is speaking precisely of the merchandising of God. The kingdom of God is like gain that cannot be gained; it is like joy that must be shared. The kingdom of God begins in that moment when you have obtained your heart's desire and know wonder what you will do with it. If you uncover the treasure, your treachery is known. If you don't uncover the treasure, of what worth is it to you? If you sell the pearl, you won't have it anymore. If you don't sell the pearl, how will you feed yourself tomorrow? Can we merchandise God? Or do we need, by hook or by crook, to get ourselves to the point where we have listened to all the voices of the world have to say, and now we must listen to the quiet, almost inaudible, voice of Jesus?

If we start with the premise of the gift, if we recognize this gift invokes no system of exchange, is foreign to the circle of reciept and give again, in order to receive; if we recognize that "[our] efforts are contingent upon God doing something [we] ardently want to have done," and that such a contingency is foolishness, but at the terminus of our desires the kingdom of God begins to be visible...what then?

Call it a Lenten meditation.

Friday, February 22, 2008

Banging Bricks Together

for Cowboy Diva, and hoping it is somehow helpful

"About suffering they were never wrong,
The Old Masters;..."
I can't do much more than bang bricks together on this subject, at the moment; that is, take the sources that spark my reflection and crash them against each other (my usual way of doing things, in other words). So begin with this notation from an introduction to Kant's Religion within the Limits of Reason Alone:

The Enlightenment, which began in the seventeenth century and flourished in the eighteenth, constitutes one of the great spiritual movements of modern Europe. In it we see the Renaissance working itself out through the agencies of its scientific and philosophical discoveries. Because of its influence on Kant, who was in so many essential respects a thinker of the Enlightenment, we should recall at the outset the main characteristics of this movement. It was essentially revolutionary, directed against the authority of intellectual and religious tradition. The positive force at its core was a determined assertion of the freedom of the individual--freedom in affairs social and political, intellectual and religious. This spirit expressed itself most emphatically in a new and extragavant belief in the power of reason."
--Theodore M. Green, "The Historical Context and Religious Significance of Kant's Religion," Religion within the Limits of Reason Alone, Immanuel Kant, tr. Theodore M. Green and Hoyt H. Hudson (New York, Harper Torchbooks: 1960), p. ix.

What Green says of the Enlightenment could also be said of the Romantic movement which followed and was a direct reaction to the authority, intellectual and religious, which the Enlightenment had established. While the Enlightenment gave the individual grounds for freedom within society, Romanticism took that freedom one step further, and set up the Byronic hero who defied society with his freedom. And, of course, when the individual is so very important as to merit our regard even against the disregard of society, the logical question follows: if I am so special, why must I suffer so?

And even if I don't think myself so special as a Lord Byron, the question persists: why must I suffer so? Voltaire took on that question while attacking this "best of all possible worlds" which the Enlightenment (especially Leibniz) had assured us it was:

As God must have created man good, the vitiating causes which had perverted him must be man-made, that is, contingent and removable. What was needed was to purify the race of these evil influences so that human nature might shine forth in its original purity; and reason, it was felt, was qualified to undertake this labor of purification. The long night of spiritual slavery, men believed, was nearing its end; reason, once freed from all trammels, would prove equal to every demand. Is not the world, men asked, after all a good place to live in? Nay, is it not the best of all possible worlds?
Hume, Kant, and Voltaire, each in their way, proved that optimism premature, if not entirely false. Wordsworth merely substituted "individual" for "race," replaced "memory" with "purification," and thus gave us both Romanticism, and Freudian psychology at one blow. And now if there is a main injustice in the best of all possible worlds, it is that God still hasn't seen fit to snuff out suffering; especially, of course, my suffering (which may simply be the suffering cause by my knowing that you are suffering. Thus is suffering selfish and un-selfish, at the same time.).

Now take up in another hand another brick; this time Merton, reprinted in Bread and Wine (Plough Publishing 2002):

The Christian must not only accept suffering: he must make it holy. Nothing so easily becomes unholy as suffering.

Merely accepted, suffering does nothing for our souls except, perhaps, to harden them. Endurance alone is no consecration. True asceticism is not a mer cult of fortitude. We can deny ourselves rigorously for the wrong reason and end up pleasing ourselves mightily with our self-denial.

Suffering is consecrated to God by faith--not by faith in suffering, but by faith in God. Some of us believe in the power and the value of suffering. But such a belief is an illusion. Suffering has no power and no value of its own.

It is valuable only as a test of faith. What if our faith fails the test? Is it good to suffer, then? What if we enter into suffering with a strong faith in suffering, and then discover that suffering destroys us?

To believe in suffering is pride; but to suffer, believing in God, is humility. For pride may tell us that we are strong enough to suffer, that suffering is good for us because we are good. Humility tells us that suffering is an evil which we must always expect to find in our lives because of the evil that is in ourselves. But faith also knows that the mercy of God is given to those who seek him in suffering, and that by his grace we can overcome evil with good. Suffering, then, becomes good by accident, by the good that it enables us to recieve more abundantly from the mercy of God. It does not make us good by itself; but it enables us to make ourselves better than we are. Thus, what we consecrate to God in suffering is not our suffering but our selves.
Suffering, therefore, can only be consecrated to God by one who believes that Jesus is not dead. And it is of the very essence of Christianity to face suffering and death not because they are good, not because they have meaning, but because the resurrection of Jesus has robbed them of their meaning.
I excised a bit there, to put the emphasis on that last paragraph. He goes on for a bit in the selection, ending with an argument that pain "enables Christ to suffer in us and give glory to this Father by being greater, in our hearts, than suffering would ever be," which is a conclusion I just cannot go for. Still, I want to be fair to Merton, and note that I am editing his edited words for my own purpose. The third brick is Bonhoeffer, from the same anthology:

Suffering and rejection are the summary expression of Jesus' cross. Death on the cross means to suffer and to die as someone rejected and expelled. That it is Peter the rock of the church who incurs guilt here immediately after his own confession to Jesus Christ and after his appointment by Jesus, means that from its very inception the church itself has taken offense at the suffering Christ. It neither wants such a Lord nor does it, as the Church of Christ, wants its Lord to force upon it the law of suffering.

This makes it necessary for Jesus to relate clearly and unequivocally to his own disciples the "must" of suffering. Just as Christ is Christ only in suffering and rejection, so also they are his disciples only in suffering and rejection, in being crucified along with Christ. Discipleship as commitment to the person of Jesus Christ places the disciple under the law of Christ, that is, under the cross.

"If anyone would come after me, he must deny himself." Just as Peter, in denying Christ, said "I do not know the man," so also should each disciple say this to herself or himself. Self-denial can never be defined as some profusion--be it ever so great--of individual acts of self-torment or of asceticism. It is not suicide, since there, too, a person's self-will can yet assert itself. Self-denial meanks knowing only Christ, and no longer oneself. It means seeing only Christ, who goes ahead of us, and no longer the path that is too difficult for us. Again, self-denial is saying only: He goes ahead of us; hold fast to him.

The cross is not adversity, nor the harshness of fate, but suffering coming soleley from our commitment to Jesus Christ. The suffering of the cross is not fortuitous, but necessary. The cross is not the suffering tied to natural existence, but the suffering tied to being Christians. The cross is never simply a matter of suffering, but a matter of suffering and rejection and even strictly speaking, rejection for the sake of Jesus Christ, not for the sake of some other arbitrary behavior or confession. The cross always simultaneously mean rejction, and that the disgrace of suffering is part of the cross. Being expelled, despised, and abandoned by people in one's suffering, as we find in the unending lament of the psalmist, is an essential feature of the suffering of the cross, yet one no longer comprehensible to a form of Christian life unable to distinguish between bourgeois and Christian existence.
Merton is talking about the kind of suffering we ordinarily relate to questions of theodicy; questions like: "Why does God hate me?" As Annie Dillard points out, those questions usually revolve around: Why would God permit me, personally, to suffer? This is where the Enlightenment enters in, to enlighten a dark corner of experience but, by throwing light on it, to not necessarily illumine anything. Does it really address the nature of God to wonder why God would let me suffer? When the obvious answer is: why not? Why are you so special you should not suffer, should not feel pain, should not die? Suffering, of course, is all about the intimation of death. If I have no memory of the pain, there is no suffering, and death will surely cut off at least such memories. But if I live through the pain.... Well, why would God permit that to happen, and to me? That focus on the importance of the individual, amplified by the Romantic movement which followed upon the Enlightenment, merely amplifies my misery. But what is the answer? Get my old, pre-Enligthenment mind back? Learn to distinguish between "natural suffering" and the "suffering of the Cross," and place them in a hierarchy? Offer up my suffering to God, believing it glorifies Christ in me? Perhaps that glorifies my faith, but how does it help me cope with cancer, or the suffering of a loved one with cancer?

The one issue does not answer for the other, but then there are unanswerable questions. One such question is: "Why does God let me suffer?" Merton and Bonhoeffer understand that; and would say it is an essentially selfish question. The question they are addressing, the productive question, the question that actually helps, that may actually heal, is: what can you do with your suffering? Endure it? Or can you, better, make use of it? And here I turn to Julian of Norwich, whose own true "sickness unto death" gave her visions that were not only redemptive, but reassuring:

"But I did not see sin; for I believe it has no sort of substance nor portion of being, nor could it be recognized were it not for the suffering which it causes. And this suffering seems to me to be something transient, for it purges us and makes us know ourselves and pray for mercy; for the Passion of our Lord supports us against all this, and this is his blessed will. And because of the tender love which our good Lord feels for all who shall be saved, he supports us willingly and sweetly, meaning this: 'It is true that sin is the cause of all this suffering, but all shall be well, and all shall be well, and all manner of thing shall be well.' These words were said very tenderly, with no suggestion that I or anyone who will be saved was being blamed. It would therefore be very strange to blame or wonder at God because of my sin, since he does not blame me for sinning."

"And I wondered greatly as this revelation, and considered our faith, wondering as follows: our faith is grounded in God's word, and it is part of our faith that we should believe that God's word will be kept in all things; and one point of our faith is that many shall be damned--like the angels who fell out of heaven from pride, who are now fiends, and men on earth who die outside the faith of Holy Church, that is, those who are heathens, and also any man who has received Christianity and lives an unChristian life and so dies excluded from the love of God. Holy Church teacmes me to belive that all these shall be condemned everlastingly to hell. And given all this, I thought it impossible that all manner of things should be well, as our Lord revealed at this time. And I recived no other answer in showing from our Lord God but this: 'What is impossible to you is not impossible to me. I shall keep my word in all thing and I shall make all things well.'"

"...the more anxious we are to discover [God's] secret knowledge about this or anything else, the further we shall be from knowing it...."
From chapters 27, 29, and 33, of the Shewings.

We aren't there yet, of course; we are still in the world described by Auden in "Musee des Beaux Arts." Which places us firmly in the world of the Psalmist ("My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?") and of all the Scriptures. Interesting how they are never wrong, the old masters....

About suffering they were never wrong,
The Old Masters; how well, they understood
Its human position; how it takes place
While someone else is eating or opening a window or just walking dully along;
How, when the aged are reverently, passionately waiting
For the miraculous birth, there always must be
Children who did not specially want it to happen, skating
On a pond at the edge of the wood:
They never forgot
That even the dreadful martyrdom must run its course
Anyhow in a corner, some untidy spot
Where the dogs go on with their doggy life and the torturer's horse
Scratches its innocent behind on a tree.
In Breughel's Icarus, for instance: how everything turns away
Quite leisurely from the disaster; the ploughman may
Have heard the splash, the forsaken cry,
But for him it was not an important failure; the sun shone
As it had to on the white legs disappearing into the green
Water; and the expensive delicate ship that must have seen
Something amazing, a boy falling out of the sky,
had somewhere to get to and sailed calmly on.
--W.H. Auden, 1940

Wednesday, February 20, 2008

Same as it Never Was

Woolgathering, again. Start with Bob Herbert's column from yesterday:

What’s needed is a paradigm shift. Society (and thus law enforcement) needs to view any adult who sexually exploits a child as a villain, and the exploited child as a victim of that villainy. If a 35-year-old pimp puts a 16-year-old girl on the street and a 30-year-old john pays to have sex with her, how is it reasonable that the girl is most often the point in that triangle that is targeted by law enforcement?

A measure of how far we still have to go is the fact that some enlightened officials in the state of New York tried to shift that paradigm last year and failed. The proposed Safe Harbor Act would have ended the practice of criminalizing kids too young to legally consent to sex. Under the law, authorities would have no longer been able to charge children with prostitution, but would have had to offer such youngsters emotional counseling, medical care and shelter, if necessary.

Legislative passage was thwarted in large part because prosecutors made the case that it was necessary to hold the threat of jail over the heads of these children as a way of coercing them to testify against pimps. In other words: If you don’t tell us who hurt you, little girl, we’re going to put you in jail.

It was an utterly specious case, filled to the bursting point with tragic implications and unworthy of a civilized society.
Then go here, as the Iraqi government proves it is becoming more and more like the U.S. Government, i.e., only react to a social problem when it becomes a security problem:

The Iraqi Interior Ministry has ordered police to round up beggars, vagabonds and mentally disabled people from the streets of Baghdad to prevent them from being used by insurgents as suicide bombers, a spokesman said Tuesday.

The decision came after a series of suicide attacks, including two female bombers who struck pet markets in Baghdad on Feb. 1, killing nearly 100 people. Iraqi and U.S. officials have said the women were mentally disabled and apparently unwitting bombers.

The people detained in the Baghdad sweep will be handed over to governmental institutions that can provide shelter and care for them, Interior Ministry spokesman Maj. Gen. Abdul-Karim Khalaf said.
Still, laudable, I suppose, whatever the underlying reason. Except the underlying reason may not be all that laudable. Toward the end of the article is this information, which I had not seen before:

The Iraqi claim that mentally disabled women were used in the pet market bombings was met initially with skepticism. Iraqi authorities said they based the assertion on photos of the bombers' heads that purportedly showed the women had Down syndrome, and did not offer any other proof.

The U.S. military later backed the Iraqi account of the bombings, which led U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice to call al-Qaida in Iraq "the most brutal and bankrupt of movements."

American and Iraqi troops later detained the acting director of a psychiatric hospital on suspicion of helping supply patient information to al-Qaida in Iraq.

Smith, the military spokesman, said at the time that the suspect was being questioned "in connection with the possible exploitation of mentally impaired women to al-Qaida."

The allegations fit into a wider campaign of confronting insurgents' changing tactics _ such as using women or children as suicide bombers _ as they seek to bypass stepped-up security measures and bounce back from losses in recent U.S.-led offensives.
There is nothing in those claims to prove the women used in the suicide bombings were, themselves, victims because of their mental capacities. Google "Baghdad suicide bombings down syndrome", and you'll get a lot of news reports repeating the same claims. This blog entry indicates the identification was made from the severed head of one of the bombers. This Baltimore Sun article indicates the US military showed some members of the press photographs of the bodies of the bombers:

The photographs showed the lifeless faces of two dark-haired women with oblique eye fissures, a wide gap between the eyes and a flat nose bridge - characteristics consistent with Down syndrome.
And there is this evidence, from an eyewitness to the bombing:

Ali Nassir, a 30-year-old day laborer whose hobby is raising birds, said people with disabilities often beg for food and money at the weekly al-Ghazl pet bazaar on Fridays.

"I saw the suicide bomber, and she was begging," Nassir said, adding the woman was known to the vendors. "The security guards did not search her, because she is a woman and because it is not unusual to have beggars, mainly women and children, moving around in the market."
Hardly conclusive, however, and all the military could offer was:

"There are some indications that these two women were mentally handicapped," said Army Maj. Gen. Jeffery Hammond, the commander of U.S. forces in Baghdad. "From what I see, it appears that the suicide bombers were not willing martyrs - they were used by al-Qaida [in Iraq] for these horrific attacks."
"Mentally handicapped," however, has now become "received psychiatric treatment for depression and/or schizophrenia" (as of February 20, 2008). There is no indication either woman had Down's Syndrome.

So the concern for the homeless, the poor, the beggars and vagabonds, is not based on reality, but a story meant to shape our perceptions of reality. Now one has to wonder: what are they really going to do to, or for, those people? After all:

It is not clear, however, that such people would be safe in psychiatric hospitals. American and Iraqi troops recently detained the acting director of the al-Rashad psychiatric hospital in eastern Baghdad on suspicion of helping supply patient information to al-Qaida in Iraq.
But the military admits it can't make a connection between the women and al-Qaeda, even though it still insists al-Qaeda was behind the bombings. And, of course: why did it take an imagined threat to national security to make the government of Iraq care at all?

Now make the connection through Stanley Kubrick's "A Clockwork Orange."

In the Kubrick film Alex, the protagonist, is a sociopath, a monster. In the first third of the film he commits numerous assaults and one rape. He treats other people as either objects of his violence, and women as simply recipients of his sex drive. He control his small gang of "droogs" with violence and petty flattery and when he is finally arrested and imprisoned for murder, he shows his complete understanding of social order by obseqiously obeying, without question or contradiction, every order given to him by the prison guards and the prison governor. His only act of defiance is to speak up when the Home Secretary comes to inspect the prison, as he hopes to be selected for a new treatment program which promises his release in 14 days. He is unfailingly polite to those he thinks can abuse or control him, unfailingly sneering and authoritarian to his droogs, and dismissive of other people who serve only as objects of his violence.

And by the end of the film, it is clear the state, which is to say society, thinks of him in precisely the same way.

After his "treatment," he is put on stage for the Home Secretary to prove the efficacy of this penal reform the Government has championed. First a man comes out and verbally, then physically abuses, Alex. While Alex would like to respond physically, the thought of it makes him ill and renders him helpless. When he's recovered from that, a naked woman comes onstage and stands calmly before him. Though he reaches out to touch her, even the attempt, the thought of what he considers sex, again makes him violently ill. Notably, when each of these person leaves the stage, they ignore Alex's pathetic state, and bow to the applauding audience like a Shakespearean actor accepting plaudits for a particularly fine pass at a soliloquy. At the end of the film Alex, having suffered retribution from the victims he tormented in the first third of the film, is in a hospital bed being hand-fed by the Home Secretary as the Secretary explains that the Government was misled about the treatment, and an investigation will affix blame on those responsible (who will not be the Home Secretary nor anyone else in Parliament). Alex, having become the poster child for this treatment, has tried to commit suicide, and the attempt is linked to his treatment, so what was first trumpeted as humane reform is now seen as inhumane. All is well, though, because the Home Secretary is going to give Alex a job, a house, all that he needs to reintegrate into society, and thus prove the compassion of the Government. All Alex has to do is go along with it, something he is, of course, quite happy to do.

Power is once again supreme, and everyone is gratified at its ability to bring about a happy ending. In the end, that is all governance is about: the effective use of power. Alex is a pawn in the game, a token on a board. He is not deserving of sympathy, because he is a monster. But the government is a monster, too, and which is more monstrous: the sociopath, or the society that defends itself by using the same reasoning as the sociopath? The story ends up raising a very interesting question, at least an interesting one for Christians. (There is a chaplain in the prison, and while he is introduced berating the prisoners for their crimes and assuring them of a warm place in hell if they don't repent, he is the only person to point out how inhumane the treatment has been, to reduce Alex to a creature who has no free will, no choice in how he behaves. Choice, of course, is the last thing the Government is interested in encouraging.) That interesting question:

How do you love your enemies?

It is, of course, a personal question. You cannot expect the government to love your enemies on your behalf. That is tyranny of a truly monstrous kind. But the film is an object lesson in power, and in having enemies (as I think about it, all of Kubrick's films can be seen as meditations on the use and abuse of power. Hmmm.....). At one point during his treatment, Alex screams in protest because the soundtrack to the film he's forced to watch is his beloved "Ludwig Van". It's the 9th Symphony, the same music he is tortured into a suicide attempt with. Indeed, in both cases his tormentors are gleeful at his anguish. In the latter case, it is the man Alex has beaten into a wheelchair; in the former, the doctors who are subjecting him to their correctional regimen. They are obviously delighted by Alex's screams, and remind him the treatment is for his own good, and he'll just have to accept it, like it or not. Everyone in the film, in other words, is a monster, when they are given the chance. Except for the chaplain, who only breates the prisoners, and the guards, who only enforce discipline with shouts, every character in the film is happy to use what power they have to make someone else suffer. Much easier to have enemies; it allows you to justify the violence you want to do.

I'm not unmindful that there is a violence inherent in Christianity. Indeed, Christians place the crucifix and the crucificion at the dead center of the faith narrative. But even then, we clean it up as much as we can, and try to scrub away suffering and replace it with love and compassion and softness. Still, the violence in the scriptures persists. I've read a quote from an unnamed Benedictine monk: "If you can't deal with the violence in the Psalms, you can't deal with the violence in your heart." Searching Google for the source, I found this wonderful passage:

First, these texts force us to be honest with ourselves. Once when I was teaching a class to our older sisters one of them said, "I cannot pray those violent psalms." I was edified, thinking that years of monastic life had rooted the violence out of her heart. But another older sister said, "I don't know why you can't say those things in church. You say them in the hall!" I have been pondering that ever since.
The writer goes on to use St. Benedict's comparison of the babies to be bashed against the rocks in Psalm 137 with our own cherished thoughts, the wicked thoughts we must smash against the rock of Christ, in order to destroy them. It's a bit metaphorical for me (although on another day it might not be), but the point is the same: we cannot banish violence from our hearts and our lives any more than we can banish our breathing or our hunger. The question of violence, like the question of suffering (I promise to come back to that one!), is not how do we do away with it, but what do we do with it? Bob Herbert and the government of Iraq and the vision of Stanley Kubrick's film show us how power can be abused to bend others to our desires. How can we use our tendencies, our nature, the way we are, to love our enemies? How can we turn our violence, in actions or in words, to peace?

Call it another Lenten meditation.